May 3, 2018

United Methodist Choices

Currently the United Methodist bishops are discussing proposals for the February 2019 General Conference about the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality. Last week, United Methodism’s Wesley Theological Seminary hosted a conversation about modeling “respectful disagreement in community” around “conflicts of conscience.” Assistant Professor of History of Christianity and Methodist Studies Ryan Danker offered this reflection:

The debate that has roiled the United Methodist Church is a conflict not only about truth telling and covenant, which would entail the topic of “conscience,” but something fundamental to Methodism, something that constitutes its DNA.

We have within the UMC competing and contradictory visions of holiness of heart and life.

Yet holiness is the fundamental organizing principle, the trajectory, and the goal of Methodism, even in its modern forms. Wesley founded a movement to “spread scriptural holiness across the land,” and that same drive was retained by both the EUB and the Methodist Church. Holiness is at the heart of Methodism. It is our DNA. In fact, it’s the reason we exist at all.

So because of this, the basic question of what a Christian life looks like is fundamental to Methodism.

As Methodism matured into a church this core DNA remained, and ordained persons were held to standards of behavior and truth-telling based upon it. Before one is ordained they have to swear before God and the conference that they will abide by the covenant that binds United Methodists.

Within the last few decades a newer vision of holiness (and I do think that there are Wesleyan emphases within the progressive wing of the UMC, even if they have reinterpreted the language of Wesley) has arisen and within that vision is calling for the ordination of persons in same-sex relationships and marriage services for persons of the same gender. This is done in the name of inclusivity, embrace, and a concept of the Church as a place of radical welcome. It is, however, a departure from traditional Wesleyan norms as it has redefined key Wesleyan understandings of basic biblical terms such as love, welcome, sin, conversion, and salvation.

Redefining shared core terms, however, is the end of unity. Professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson, has written that, “shared belief systems [make] people intelligible to one another.” We have become unintelligible to one another while talking about what makes Methodism Methodist.

As I have told progressive friends, I get it. I see their argument. And, I can see that it also stems from Wesley’s radical call for any and every sinner to “come to the Gospel feast.” One key difference is that it does not call for the transformation of persons away from sin as traditionally understood, but rather toward a community of radical welcome (which is itself a form of transformation).

Much of this stems from radically different approaches to the scripture, if not entirely divergent approaches to the ordering of authority. In a non-Wesleyan fashion, many have made experience the primary source of doctrine, rather than scripture.

What has happened, however, is that the Church does not agree with this newer concept of holiness.

But what do we do about conscience? Persons who oppose the Discipline do so because of deeply-grounded conviction, just as those who support it do so out of a profound desire to be faithful and to “hold fast to that which we have received.” Both visions seek to love everyone.

To a Wesleyan believer, whether left or right, holy living is not optional. Perfect love casts out sin, but if we don’t know how to define sin, what is being cast out? What are we being saved from? And what is the empowering grace of God healing?

In the name of this newer vision of holiness, some have decided that they are no longer bound by the Discipline or the Judicial Council. This is schism. Let’s not mince words.

Some have turned away from their ordination vows. They’re tired of the battle. I get it. So am I. But they have undermined the truth-telling ability of the Church, torn our common covenant, and brought into question their own ability to tell the truth.

Some are calling for a “local option.” This is a denial of Methodism itself, not only structurally as a connectional body, but a denial of holiness, that relativizes the Christian life based on geography or local interests.

Wesley flatly denied this approach in his sermon “Catholic Spirit.” Leeway was to be given for opinions and manner of worship, but not to basic questions of how a Christian is to live. He writes against those who “are for jumbling all opinions together,” and writes, “you have quite missed your way: you know not where you are.” He describes an indifference to opinions as “a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism.”


With competing visions of holiness based on a departure from shared core language and values, together with the church’s mandate to speak to the truth, we are in a quandary.


23 Responses to United Methodist Choices

  1. Pudentiana says:

    As he so often does, Mr. Tooley sees the situation, the inconsistencies and the integrity of the issue very clearly. Thank you for such a simple expression of what we all in our heart of hearts, especially those strangely warmed, know to be true.

  2. Marie L. says:

    I deeply wish my own judicatory had exercised this grace and respect when our polity and practice changed in 2009.

  3. Dave Nuckols says:

    Or we can simply realize that “gracious exit” is a pathway to schism, and that when we search our hearts and examine our beliefs with an eye towards consistency… then we can indeed resolve to live together with different opinions and different practice in areas where same sex marriage is legal.

    The One Church Model is the best way to do that, and GC2019 can decide how much of that relies on local church voting (so called “local option”) or alternatively on clergy discretion (i.e. our traditional means of contextualizing ordination and our traditional locus of decisions for who is married by our clergy).

    The fact is that the commission heard time and again that local churches don’t want to vote. And yet plans of division or or sorting or even gracious exit call for some process voted into the BoD which allows a minority to trigger a local church vote. In my estimation, the One Church Model can be implemented so as to minimize such voting and the conflict that goes with it as compared to other plans that invite such voting.

    Setting aside the charged character of “local option” language, for moment, many think some amount of local church voting is unavoidable. I wish to minimize that. But I’m heartened to know this great example of local option being used by Methodists in England at the General Conference of 1795 described in this paper by Professor Kendall Soulen (pp.4-10).

    In that day, the controversy was not over the rite of marriage (as today) but the very sacrament of Holy Communion. And it allowed the Methodists to take an adaptive contexualized approach to a vexing controversy that threatened to divide the movement at that time.

    • William says:


      The local option would signify that the UMC has established two, diametrically opposite views of the Bible. How would the church write that into the BOD? How would the church communicate that to the world? How would the church preach repentance on the one hand with relation to sexual immorality and adultery while celebrating sexual immorality on the other? How would the church travel both east and west simultaneously?

      One thought, the BOD could be revised by building its statements on sexual ethics off the understanding of Christian marriage as that of a man and a woman —- defined by Jesus, and declaring all sexual relations outside that of Christian marriage as either sexual immorality or adultery. Thus drop the term homosexuality, and the connotation that it is being singled out, from the BOD and replace it with sexual immorality. Therefore, the practice of sexual immorality and adultery are incompatible with Christian teaching, while fidelity in Christian marriage and celibacy in singleness would be required of clergy as they could perform only Christian marriages in their churches.

    • theenemyhatesclarity says:

      Option 1, enhanced enforcement of the current Book of Discipline, would eliminate the need for voting entirely. If the Commission of a Way Forward was really interested in minimizing local voting, this would not have been taken off the table (and I am prayerfully hopeful someone will put it back on the table).

      In Christ,

      The enemy hates clarity

    • John Smith says:

      The one church model is also a pathway to schism. Then its the traditionalist leaving. All of these are merely papering over the real problem (if you prefer, rearranging the chairs on the Titanic). The CoB is desperate to maintain status, assets and numbers. Its a bureaucracy trying to preserve itself. To take a clear look, make a hard decision and stick to it is not in their nature. Until they choose between the two viewpoints its all just sound and fury.

    • betsy says:

      The one church model would leave the church in perpetual schism about a core belief of Christianity of the Methodist persuasion: What does it mean to reach for/pursue holiness of heart and life? And let’s get real and admit that the differences in views as to what that means are no longer confined just to sexuality. And then there is the reality that the question re holiness in our sexuality is no longer confined to same gender relationships including people who no longer wish to be identified as he or she but rather “they”. Check out the pronoun used to refer to who will be speaking at the MFSA luncheon during the Rio Texas Annual Conference:

      “At the 2016 General Conference, it became apparent that issues relating to human sexuality in The United Methodist Church needed more study and reflection. The Commission on a Way Forward was established to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the Book of Discipline concerning human sexuality, and to explore options to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. That Commission will present its report to a special called session of General Conference in 2019. To shed more light on this issue, Rio Texas MFSA is pleased to host Reverend M Barclay as keynote speaker for the 2018 Peace & Justice Luncheon. Reverend Barclay is a deacon in the Northern Illinois Conference of The United Methodist Church and currently serves as Director of enfleshed (, providing spiritual resources and faith education. Originally from the Alabama-West Florida Conference, M received their M.Div. from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. They have worked as a hospital chaplain, youth director, justice associate, and faith coordinator for reproductive justice in Texas prior to moving to Chicago in 2013. M formerly served as Director of Communications at Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) where they advocated for queer and trans inclusion in The United Methodist Church. As a life-long United Methodist, an openly queer and trans clergy person, and an advocate for God’s expansive love, they are in a unique position to speak to the challenges before us in The UMC at this critical time in its history.”

      The link to this announcement is on the Rio Texas website

  4. Why should the heretics have buildings and assets put together by both living and deceased saints that would never countenance such a thing as they do?

  5. Scott says:

    Sorry Dave, but the majority are not interested in the one church model. To us it is by definition schismatic. The only non-schismatic option is to keep the current BOD and have everyone agree to live by it. “One Church” will guarantee two churches. We will all lose members if there is a vote, but one church will cause more to vote with their feet.

  6. Joshua says:

    My only problem is that the gracious exit plan is not on the table at all from what I can tell. Yes, the GC will have the final say, but things look rough going in.

  7. Bradley Pope says:

    Local option is surrendering the church regardless of which side you are on…a gracious exit cannot happen soon enough.

  8. Chad says:

    One of the things that I’m really curious to see is the exit ramp provisions that the Bishops have discussed, but not defined. My understanding of the UMC is limited to really just two churches. But based on what I know, I can’t imagine getting 51% of any group of Methodists to vote for exit ramps. In addition, I find it wishful thinking that Methodists would pass anything that provides an opportunity for either the progressives or the conservatives to have an organizing structure upon which to build. It’s totally counter to Methodist “DNA”.

    My critique of our progressive wing isn’t a lack of holiness, but rather that they don’t lean into “love your enemy”. IMO, that’s how you create social change. In addition, they seem to have this idea that they want to show the hypocrisy in everyone else. Yesterday, I read a “this isn’t a love letter” letter. The young lady made a really good argument that she wasn’t loved and has experienced “violence and abuse” within the Methodist church. Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t ask his followers to beg the Roman Centurion to love them. He asked for them to love the Roman Centurion. The call is to give love, not to receive it. This attitude is really counter to Christian “DNA” as I understand it.

  9. Olin B. Isenhour says:

    Is the United Methodist Church ready to throw out Bible as we seek to win the approval of those who want their own say? I think it is time to go back to the way of John Wesley and Francis Asbury.

    • John Smith says:

      The UMC tossed the bible a long time ago. At best they give it lip service as one of the 4 points of the Wesley Quad, of course, Wesleys been moved on as well.

  10. When will the UMC decide that the Bible is still our guiding force. We need to return to the ideals of John Wesley and Francis Asbury.

  11. Mike Childs says:

    Schism, Wesley says, is not separation from any church or organization. Rather schism is separation and divisions within a church or organization. (Read his sermon “On Schism”.). By Wesley’s definition, Schism has already taken place in the UMC. It is time we recognize that and separate amicably.

  12. Campus padre says:

    If HOLINESS is the primary goal of our denomination, we will find ourselves in the defensive, fearful, Pharasaic stance into which IRD, Good News and Confessing Movement has led us. However, if AGAPE LOVE is our primary goal, we will see beyond the Pharasaism, the fear, the defensiveness, and enter the wider world God has given us and into which Jesus came and is redeeming us.

    • John Smith says:

      Ahh, the joy of false dilemmas. First, you have just said that holiness and love are mutually incompatible. Second, the primary goal of the denomination is to survive. Third, what is wrong with being on the defense. Are not some things worth defending? Is holiness now bad? Fourth, to be holy is to be fearful? I must ask your definition of holiness? Was Wesley fearful after his conversion and embrace of holiness? Fifth, I’m running out of fingers counting all the errors and holes in this short paragraph of inane, attempted, aphorisms.

    • betsy says:

      Problem with your response is that Methodism is all about holiness of heart and life.

      • John Smith says:

        Most of the holiness part of Methodism left with the splintering that occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century. What little holiness is left now is arguing about who sets the standard for holiness, God or man.

  13. Mac Wigfield says:

    Thanks for your clear thinking, Mark. I, a Baptist, have no part in any Methodist decisions but the issue is coming our way as well and has already reached some of what I would call our denominational fringe elements. Set Scripture aside and you have no ground rules for anything in life. Cling to the Word and everything else will find its place (or realize it has no place, short of repentance).

  14. Kathy Fitzgerald says:

    As a member of a congregation in Yellowstone Conference I feel so sad for those who are discarding the Bible as a way of instruction in life from our LORD. Our congregation is very scripture based and many of us feel we should be able to split from the conference with our building and contents since we have been doing all the payments, repairs and keeping our church solvent. We do not recognize Karen Oliveto as our Bishop and she needs to go!

  15. Jerry Napier says:

    The real issue is that God and His Holy Scriptures identify Men with Men and Women with Women and any marriage other than Man with Woman is a “SIN”! Just believe and follow the Scripture not “Culture”. Refusing to name Homosexuality as SIN is the problem of the day. Loving sinners is where Jesus is but He hates “SIN” and was never guilty of it since he lived and “sinless” life. He asks us to obey Him if we love him!

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