The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy

When the United Methodist Church’s Commission on a Way Forward and Council of Bishops presented their initial proposals for the upcoming called session of the Church’s General Conference in February, the “Traditional” Plan was not slated to actually go to discussion and vote before the Conference.

Through political maneuvering through the Judicial Council of the Church (the UMC’s version of a supreme court) by certain conservative leaders within the UMC, judgment was rendered that the Traditional Plan must be presented before the GC if a petition for it to be included is made. From the perspectives of jurisprudence and polity within the UMC, that is absolutely the right call. But it ignores the reason that the Commission on a Way Forward and the Bishops did not include it as potential legislation in their report–it isn’t a way forward.

To a certain extent, I understand the conservatives’ frustration with the Commission and the Bishops: the delay claimed for the need to translate the report before making it public–and the delay in even getting that process started–seems to indicate unhelpful politicking on all sides of the issue. Uncollaborative work only hurts the Church as a whole without benefitting either side at this point.

On the other hand, I vehemently disagree with the conservative complaint that the Commission and Bishops didn’t really provide a way forward, they just gave us the same plan that’s been offered and failed many times before. The conclusion of the Commission after deliberation and prayerful investigation is itself a message–the way forward must be one of compromise, and the fact that conservative elements within the Church have remained implacable in their position does not mean that they should get their way. The “same old thing” is the “same old thing” because nothing else has changed–the conservatives’ best offering for a “way forward” is that we do everything the way we’ve always done it, we just spend more time (and congregants’ money) prosecuting those clergy who disobey the Book of Discipline on moral grounds.

The cynical side of me sees the greater strategy here: conservatives have decided that they have two ways to win: (1) get the Traditional Plan passed at the called General Conference or (2) insure that nothing else gets passed. The fight to get the Traditional Plan included at General Conference is really an effort to avoid honestly coming to the table with progressives at all, not really a matter of what is fair and just. As a lawyer, I’m well familiar with the difference between legal and just.

Conservatives understand that, if nothing happens at the called GC, many progressives will give up on the UMC and leave–which is what the conservatives have wanted all along. See Woodlands UMC senior pastor Rob Renfroe’s book, Are We Really Better Together? An Evangelical Perspective on the Division in the UMC, for a clear example of this. If it is the progressives that leave, the case for conservatives to keep the United Methodist Church name–and perhaps the greater part of collective Church assets–will be stronger.

I’ll also note that, in my observation (for what that’s worth), it has been the conservatives who have been most concerned with ensuring in advance that “graceful exit” language is included in any proposed legislation before the GC. I do not believe that this is about the conservatives’ fear that they will have to sacrifice assets and property if things don’t go their way, it’s about trying to make it easier for the progressives to leave. The progressive–and even the majority at the Texas Annual Conference in May–response has been that “we’re not there yet, and that’s not how you start the conversation when you’re trying to keep everyone together.”

Also in my experience, some of the most conservative Methodists I know are also deeply concerned with reaching the unchurched and the younger generations. They should be, as all Christians should be, but I must note some irony when they want to simultaneously be attractive to younger seekers and maintain what those seekers see as at best an unjust position and at worst a hypocrisy.

As I’ve said before, the societal belief about whether homosexuality is morally wrong or not is not determinative of the objective position established by God. On the other hand, there is legitimate theological argument in favor of not viewing homosexuality as sin, and history gives us numerous examples of Christianity being used to support systems and ideas ultimately determined to be immoral (and thus un-Christian). Since neither side can determinatively prove its position, the statement of being unwilling to see that someone else–even another Christian–might be right about something with which you disagree plays right into the hands of stereotypes of Christians that should not be true (but often are). That’s not going to be enticing to seekers of younger generations, who–despite all the talk about their “relative morality”–tend to have a strong sense of right and wrong and a significant allergy to perceived hypocrisy (real or imagined).

So the split within the UMC, even if it leaves the conservatives holding most of the cards, does not mean a resurgence of conservativism among Methodists–it means a slow death lamenting the “way it used to be.” While there will always be conservative Christians and theologians, and there always should be for us to honestly and eagerly explore theological issues, the Methodist Church is not on the more conservative side of most issues (at least not within our Social Principles), making the conservative position on homosexuality stand out more than seem to be in line with the rest of Methodist positions. This regressivism matches a certain political movement in our country largely based in privilege and the fear of sharing with others.

The Judicial Council will decide this month on the constitutionality of all three plans to be sent to the called General Conference in February. With regard to the Traditional Plan, the only real question of constitutionality falls on the modifications proposed to the status quo–enhanced enforcement and prosecution. But the Council’s decision on this doesn’t really matter. Eight UMC Annual Conferences (Baltimore-Washington, California-Nevada, California-Pacific, Desert Southwest, New England, New York, Northern Illinois and Oregon-Idaho) have already passed resolutions collectively refusing to participate in trials of homosexual clergy or clergy who perform same-sex marriage ceremonies.

The Virginia Annual Conference voted in favor of full inclusion for LGBTQ members and to allow both LGBTQ clergy and same-gender marriages, despite the Book of Discipline, the Judicial Council or the General Conference.

In purposefully electing the first openly-gay bishop in the UMC (Bishop Karen Oliveto), the Western Jurisdictional Conference opted to ignore sexual orientation as an appropriate qualification for clergy.

With this intentional civil disobedience, the Traditional Plan could not be enforced across the US UMC jurisdictions. It’s dead on arrival, a guaranteed split in the church.

To be fair, there are plenty on the progressive side of the issue who have done much to make some form of compromise and reconciliation impossible. We, too (at least corporately), are responsible for the conference-stopping protests at recent General Conferences, the demonization of conservatives, and a refusal to make any compromise in place of “total victory” (which, let’s be honest, is not a thing here at all, regardless of result).

The Methodist doctrine expressed in the Book of Discipline prefers that decisions in the governance (of the local church at the committee level, at least) be made through discernment and consensus-building rather than through purely political democratic vote.

And perhaps that’s the real problem here. While the Book of Discipline does allow us to follow a “take a vote, majority wins” approach, it also understands that that approach is not the best way for the church to operate–without some consensus-building and compromise, the only option is winner-take-all politics. Even if you don’t find that ideologically troublesome in the church-context, the history of the question of human sexuality in The United Methodist Church since 1972 is ample evidence that a tyrannical rule of the majority can’t solve this problem.

A vote for the Traditional Plan in February will not end the issue, it will only force the issue by insisting that there is no place for progressive Christians within the UMC. The same is true of the “no result” strategy, as I’ve discussed above. So why aren’t we calling the Traditional Plan what it really is–the “No Compromise Doctrine”? It’s been clearly articulated outside of the “official” channels of the church, so why not be honest about it within the polity?

 

7 thoughts on “The UMC “Traditional” Plan is a Fantasy

  1. Conservatives shouldn’t come to the table with progressives. Despite what culture things, progressive doesn’t mean you are moving in the right direction or even forward. The traditional plan is the only one of the three plans that is actually grounded in Scripture. We should never ever move past Scripture. It should be the sole authority.

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    • David, there are several problems with your statements.

      The first is what you mean by “grounded by Scripture.” What is typically meant by similar uses of phraseology is a literal and uncritical interpretation of Scripture. This is circular logic because it essentially requires you to argue that you unequivocally know the intent and truth contained within Scripture and therefore your interpretation is the only correct one. I can assure you that you do not have such a privileged understanding of Scripture. No human does. Arguments, rationales, interpretations—some of which are better than others—yes. But no one should have the arrogance to presume having all the answers.

      Worse, your approach—with Scripture as the “sole authority”—makes the text of the Bible higher in importance than the Living God incarnated in Jesus Christ. And what about the Holy Spirit? Or the compassion God has given the hearts of man? As theologian Karl Barth would argue, at that point you have made an idol of Scripture.

      Here’s a particular example to drive the point home: Leviticus 20:13 is translated as requiring the death of a (practicing) homosexual man. Jesus says that you must love your neighbor and that the greatest love one can have is to lay down your life for others. These approaches conflict on multiple levels. Should we prioritize Leviticus over Jesus?

      Your approach indicates that you believe that God is more concerned with your refusal to break what you believe to be a rule than with your compassion and love for others. I recommend you re-read the Gospels.

      When you say that the Traditional Plan is the only plan grounded in Scripture, you’re being too narrow—complete aside from the issue of differences in interpretation I mention above. The decision between plans is not just a question of sexuality. Does Scripture say nothing about the unity of the church? Does Scripture say nothing about our witness to the unchurched? Does Scripture say nothing about how we ought to treat those with whom we disagree? Is Jesus only willing to sit and break bread with those who are perfect, or those who espouse exactly the same ideals he does? I’m afraid that the position you have taken lacks grace in any sense of the term.

      You are welcome to share your thoughts on my blog any time; I certainly appreciate you taking the time to read my post and respond.

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      • There is only one correct interpretation of Scripture. Scripture will never contradict the Holy Spirit because God does not change and Scripture is the Word of God. He no longer gives us new special revelation. So no, that does not make an idol of Scripture. To say that is absurd.

        Scripture does talk about unity of the church. But it also talks about dealing with sin in the church by kicking people out.

        Loving your neighbor doesn’t mean allowing them to live in sin unchecked if they are part of the body.

        You can talk about grace, but what you are really saying is we should let people live however they wish even if it is against Scripture.

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      • David, if you’re going to make assertions, you need to provide some support for them. I’ll agree with you that there is only one correct interpretation of Scripture. What evidence do you have that it is yours? Particularly if your interpretation is simply a matter of trite assertions and refusals to be contradicted. You can call something absurd because you don’t like it, but that indicates a lack of argument and therefore an attempt to sidestep the criticism altogether.

        One of the major points I try to make on this blog is that no one should be sure that s/he has the interpretation of Scripture just right. We humans don’t have that kind of power.

        You cannot actually prove or disprove whether there is continuing revelation or not. Or are you privy to the consciousness and experience of every other human being? You can use the term “special revelation” as a linguistic trap by seeming to imply something larger than you actually mean and thus hedge your bets against future argument, but that’s not really going to accomplish much.

        For a God so about relationships that God is three-persons, you seem to believe in a god that is arbitrary, dictatorial and unconcerned with people. On of the great joys of Christianity is that an all-powerful God could be all those things but, out of love, chooses not to be.

        You are incorrect to say that the Bible talks about kicking someone out of the church. In Matthew 18, Jesus does describe a methodology for dealing with conflict in the church. But the end result (18:17) is: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

        Remind me how Jesus treated the tax collectors…

        I appreciate you helping me make my arguments by putting words in my mouth, but let me clarify: I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as right and wrong; I’m saying that you don’t get to be the arbiter of morality on something so complex as human sexuality. This is why we are warned: “Judge not, lest be judged.” Or, in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” “As” does not mean “like;” it means “to the same extent that.”

        In short, you’ve taken the position that your wisdom and God’s—at least in questions of morality—are the same. The simpler answer is often too simple to resemble the truth. Nothing is black and white.

        All of this said, I’m going to ask you to refrain from an additional comment if it is only to give brief position statements that are the equivalent of “nuh uh!” If you’d like to engage in a dialogue on these issues, I welcome it. But I get the sense that that is not your intent.

        Still, I imagine you’re going to comment again anyway, so I’m going to leave you with this: I will not respond to a comment that does not lay out a coherent argument with support for statements made. Continuing to go back and forth in any other manner would be a waste of both of our time. To those other than the two of us who have continued this far, they can read my thoughts and arguments throughout this blog. I imagine that they can do the same with yours. I wish you the best.

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      • Unfortunately the comments section of a blog is not a good place to flesh out a debate, perhaps a series of blog posts on each of our blogs where we can reference and quote the other blog post? I definitely have a response, and definitely have more than just brief position statements, and my statements were not the equivalent of nuh uh. I gave Scripture, which I contend you twisted, it does not say how Jesus would treat a Gentile or tax collector, but how they would have. Paul says in several books that if people stray from the proper teachings of the Word of God and do not come back to avoid them and have nothing to do with them. Does that sound like unity? To me it does. Unity in truth. Not unity in whatever they decide to believe.

        We know there is no longer any special revelation because Scripture tells us that in Revelation.

        What I was calling absurd is the notion that we cannot know the proper interpretation of any Scripture. If that were true, what is the point? Christians HAVE been given that kind of power through the Holy Spirit.

        Anyways, would love the debate series. Let me know if you would like to work something like this out. But a simple text input and back and forth in comments won’t accomplish much.

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