Christian Unity and the New Moralism

The United Methodist Church was engineered to hold disparate streams of the broad Christian tradition together. Born amidst the fervor of the modern ecumenical movement, it joined liberals, evangelicals, and pietists under one denominational roof. This commitment to theological diversity was the very reason for the first instantiation (problematic as it was) of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” in 1972. The revision of the Quadrilateral in 1988 provided more specific guidelines for structuring our theological conversations. It stipulated particular functions for Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience, and specified the primacy of Scripture. It remained, however, a theological statement meant to accommodate a considerable level of diversity within this “big tent,” as our denomination has often been called. There are other ways in which we could have framed a theological statement that would allow for doctrinal diversity, but we chose the Quadrilateral.

 

Many things have changed in the UMC over the years, but what has not changed is the great diversity of perspectives in our denomination. If anything, the diversity of our denomination has increased over time. The theology taught in many seminaries has adopted postmodern approaches to the faith, rooting discussions not first in divine revelation as traditionalists do, or experience as liberals do, but in the life circumstances of particular communities. For better or worse, we have remained a diverse community, despite significant tensions and occasional efforts to divide.

 

Some might say that the only reason we have held together is that churches that left the denomination would lose their property. While I once held this opinion, I now think the matter is more complex than this. Certainly the “trust clause” has been a deterrent to churches that might wish to leave. What has prevented a large-scale split, however, is twofold: (1) a theological statement that can accommodate diverse perspectives, and (2) a commitment to a way of ordering the life of the church in the midst of our theological diversity. These two aspects of our life together are related to one another. Diverse theological commitments will create disagreement, and disagreement will at times create considerable tension. The ordering of the church allows us a way to navigate that tension while remaining in community with one another and engaging in the common work of ministry.

 

The present state of affairs, however, is that the theological and ethical diversity of United Methodism has reached a breaking point. I attribute this to what Jonathan Merritt has called America’s “new moral code.” Whereas conservatives have long bemoaned the rise of moral relativism, before our eyes there is occurring a sea change. Relativism is becoming a thing of the past. Absolutism is coming quickly upon us, and it is no less fraught with problems than the relativism it is replacing. From the perspective of our diverse denomination, the arrival of the new moral code presents the greatest danger to unity we have yet faced. Moral absolutism has exposed the holes in our polity that have allowed for an unauthorized regionalization of ethical decision making in the UMC.

 

Our denomination’s way of ordering its life assumes disagreement, a push and pull worked out through political processes, such as the legislative sessions of our various conferences. This is, as David Brooks has written, the very essence of politics, and our system is inherently political. No one gets everything they want, but the result is that we are able to live, worship, and work together. We resist the old Protestant impulse to part ways when we disagree, and we thereby avoid further fracturing the body of Christ. While the system is not perfect, it does in theory compel us to recognize the perspectives and interests of others. For diversity of thought to inhere within one community, the various factions of that community must abide by the recognized processes for dealing with disagreement.

 

In recent years, however, the rejection of the church’s way of ordering its life, and hence the theological diversity protected by that order, has undermined our unity with devastating effectiveness. Note that while conservative groups in the UMC have called for division before, they have never had as realistic a chance of accomplishing this as they do today. This desire for division itself was perhaps an early indicator of the trend toward moral absolutism. We might say the same thing about churches that for one reason or another refused to pay apportionments. Yet the primary rationale for division is not now, as it once was, rooted in a call for a more doctrinally and ethically conservative church. It is based on the breakdown of denominational governance that has become increasingly prevalent since 2013.

 

It was 2013 when When Bishop Melvin Talbert performed a high-profile same-sex wedding. It was not the first same-sex wedding performed by UM clergy, nor was it the first time such an act had taken place without any significant accountability to the larger church. It was, however, the first time a UM bishop had so flagrantly infringed upon the episcopal authority of the the presiding bishop of an annual conference (Bishop Wallace-Padgett), and so publicly acted in disobedience to the teaching of the Discipline he had vowed to uphold. It was also clearly a moral declaration: the imperative for UMC clergy to perform same-sex weddings outweighs the imperative to abide by the decisions of the General Conference. Because bishops are held accountable by the college of bishops in their jurisdictions, and the Western Jurisdiction bishops were basically sympathetic to Bishop Talbert’s actions, no serious disciplinary action took place. The lack of consequential action toward Talbert reinforced his moral declaration.

 

On the one hand, Talbert’s action and the lack of consequences had very significant implications for the governance of our denomination. It showed that while the General Conference could legislate certain positions, the college of bishops in a particular jurisdiction would determine whether or not the decisions of the General Conference would be effectively binding upon clergy in that jurisdiction. In the Western Jurisdiction, the college of bishops has enacted a de facto jurisdictional decision around these issues. Put differently, because these bishops feel that the denomination’s position on same-sex marriage is immoral, they have used what power they have to undermine that position. The moral decisions of the college of bishops now supersede the moral decisions of the General Conference.

 

On the other hand, Talbert’s action and lack of consequences had very significant philosophical implications for the UMC. It showed that the “big tent” concept of United Methodism, this denomination designed to hold theologically diverse constituencies together, was in danger of collapsing. The “big tent” assumes that various groups of United Methodists will have to live with some moral and theological decisions that they don’t like.

 

Recently, the New York and Baltimore-Washington annual conferences have begun openly to set aside the statements in the Discipline which prohibit the ordination of non-celibate LGBT people. Effectively, this creates a “regional option” for ordination standards. Yes, the General Conference may legislate certain positions, but that legislation is irrelevant if annual conferences, and particularly their bishops, choose not to abide by the Discipline. In actual practice, annual conferences now set ordination standards. The standards of the General Conference are purely optional. Perhaps the hope here is that an appeal to the Judicial Council will change church law on this matter and officially hand over all ordination criteria to the annual conferences.

 

We could walk through other examples as well, but these will suffice. What has happened in these cases is that some progressives feel a moral imperative to authorize same-sex marriage and LGBT ordination that supersedes the imperative to abide by our denominational standards on these issues. They have therefore acted in ways that clearly cut against the grain of our denominational polity, and therefore have undermined the ordering of the life of the church. They are living out the new moralism that has begun to inhere within the broader culture.

 

Our church was not set up to work this way. It was never meant to accommodate moral absolutism. Whether you think that is good or bad, it is nevertheless the case. Moral absolutism is breaking the back of our theological diversity, and our way of ordering the life of the church is falling apart. If the processes don’t produce the outcome we believe is right, the result is that we will simply do as we wish. This way of doing things, of course, cuts both ways. Because we now have in practice a regionalized form of polity, annual conferences in which there is a majority of conservatives on boards of ordained ministry could enact any number of measures to ensure that candidates they see as ideologically wrongheaded do not get through the process. If this way of thinking persists, It will not be long before the differences in morals, theology, and practices are formalized in a denominational division.

 

Let me assure you that I am no moral relativist. I am a person of very strong convictions, and I admire other people of strong convictions. While most of my convictions tend toward the more conservative end of the theological spectrum, I have experienced great enjoyment and success working with people who think much differently than I do. It is possible to believe you are right–really believe it–and leave open the possibility that you might be mistaken. In fact, this perspective is necessary in order for us to make intellectual progress. The abandonment of this perspective is a sign of intellectual regress both in our nation and our denomination. There is a word for people who cannot be wrong: they are said to be incorrigible. In other words, they are not open to correction, which is, of course, a massive barrier to the process of learning.

 

The United Methodist Church has weathered many storms because it has developed an elastic and resilient system of decision-making. Theological diversity can inhere in a denomination, but only if there are agreed-upon processes for dealing with that diversity and the resolution of disagreements. In theory, we have those. In practice, we are setting them aside with more and more regularity. Consequently, the backbone of this denomination that was meant to hold together diverse constituencies is breaking. America’s new moral absolutism is staring us in the face, and we are withering under its gaze.

 

David Watson

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Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
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33 Comments on "Christian Unity and the New Moralism"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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Scott
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There are many theological points upon which Methodists may disagree. But the idea of same-sex marriages in our churches is insane. It is the elevation of the popular culture over Holy Scripture. It is the profaning of the sacrament of marriage. And practicing homosexuals as clergy — can anyone in their right mind ever imagine John Wesley condoning such? When you have a church considering the adoption of such things as permissible and celebrated behavior, you have a church on shifting sand. It won’t stand the test of time.

John S.
Guest

If jurisdiction wish to set themselves up as independent fiefdoms they should be isolated and they should be required to be self financing. Strip them of their votes at the GC, Boards & Societies, send no more funds there to include salaries, benefits, etc. If they do not feel bound by the UMC then the UMC should not feel bound to them.

Kevin
Guest
He does a pretty good job of describing the problem although I think he used way too many words. We live in a covenant organization where we assume everyone will live by the guidelines and when they don’t either depart or accept correction. Those who choose to break the rules and are enabled by those who are supposed to enforce the rules can create unbelievable damage to the organization. I think we have all figured that out by now. The solutions seem to be either make the system more punitive to the rule breakers or loosen the rules and make… Read more »
Tom
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Are churches even revelant in our age? Seems to me we have no place to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ.. Who is King who is Lord… The way is Narrow and few there are that find it…what seems right to man leads to death… What does God really say on the matter? We either believe HIM or not…we cannot and should not put words into his mouth to save church buildings because that is really what this is about.. Church politics.. All this energy on same sex relationships..dressing like a man or woman..mutating ones body…just because WE believe it… Read more »
Richard F Hicks
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I don’t care much for UMC Inc. As a wealth mgr I look at an organization’s growth record for the last rolling 15 years. I would not invest in UMC Inc. Although my tithe on the gross (My discipline since 1979.) this year of $27-25K did go to UMC programs that appear to be healthy. There are three groups of former UMC folk. The died-offs we know about. The “mad”-offs screamed into leaders’ faces then stomped off. But I’ll bet that 98% of those missing are the wandered-offs. And leadership has no idea where they went or why they left… Read more »
Bill Dye
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Both. And.

Milton
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How ironic – to ascribe to moral absolutism the perhaps impending formal break up of the UMC to the actions of the moral relativists in its midst. Look to the Episcopal Church USA, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church. There lies your future – believers being forced out of or leaving their buildings en masse to form new churches in other buildings in confessional alliances, expensive lawsuits over buildings, church buildings left empty or with too few people left to sustain their use and then sold for other uses. Or you could choose this day to… Read more »
Richard F Hicks
Guest

Christian unity has always existed. But it has always existed outside the corporate structure. UMC Inc and its need for centralized command and control reeks of sickness. Get outta of the corporate prison folks come and see Christian unity at work. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

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Mike Thomas
Guest
I was in total agreement with David Watson that the problem today is not “moral relativism,” but a new “moral absolutism.” But then he turned the argument on its head and pinned the blame for this “absolutism” on the victims rather than the perpetrators. The thing that is driving this effort to split the church is this insistence by one group that their moral absolutism based on their interpretation of a handful of scriptures should be enforced on another group. It does not have to come to that. If we would all drop the condemnation based on moral absolutism and… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
I believe what this passage shows is that Jesus was most certainly not a bible-thumping fundamentalist or literalist. He did not refer back to Numbers 5:12 which allowed a man to divorce his wife at any time by simply accusing her of adultery and then forcing her to drink poison with the understanding that if it made her sick it would thus confirm her guilt. No, Jesus rightfully condemned divorce because it was being used by men to cast off their spouses at whim and because the consequences for women at the time were dire. It was tantamount to a… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
Jesus was not limiting who could get married nor was he commenting about the acceptability of different kinds of sexual relations. That is all just an overreaching attempt by church leaders to enforce their own moral disciplines. Instead, he was rejecting a practice which had clear, documented support in the Bible – something he did frequently which is why he was constantly in trouble with the religious authorities of his day. I also believe the reference to eunuchs was his acknowledgement that there are exceptions to every rule, not that only people who are fertile should be allowed to marry.… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
The “stringent rule” to which I referred was about divorce, not marriage. Jesus was not making or confirming some hard, fast rule about who can get married based on some simplistic and biologically ignorant view of human gender. People need to quit taking everything in the Bible so literally. I’m sure God is well versed on the complexities of human gender – since he is the one who made it that way – and is not going to arbitrarily punish people because of how they were made. How do you suppose hermaphrodites are supposed to fit into your simplistic notion… Read more »
Mike Thomas
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Jesus didn’t need to establish any new rules about marriage. Marriage wasn’t the problem. The problem was divorce and that is what he was addressing. It’s not incongruent or absurd. It’s quite simple, really.
And no, I don’t think Paul rejected anyone. He was intent on spreading the gospel message to everyone and he was willing to bend every rule and break old traditions to do it.

Milton
Guest
The NT shows clearly that Paul was willing to exempt the Gentile converts (Acts 15), and even himself (1 Cor. 9:20), from adherence to the ritual purity requirements of the Mosaic Law, that law having been fulfilled and superseded by Jesus’ life, atoning death and resurrection. But Romans 1 and other passages show just as clearly that all Christians were and are to obey the moral law, including refraining from fornication and homosexual relations. Paul most certainly did “reject” professing Christians who violated moral law unrepentingly, just as he welcomed them back into fellowship after confession and repentance. The two… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
You asked me about my interpretation of the passage in Matthew 19 and I gave it to you so I am not going to repeat myself. Admittedly, I misspoke when I referred to a “stringent rule on marriage” because I was still referring to his rule on divorce. I don’t think he had a rule on marriage, so I apologize for that confusion. There are not two rules that are inseparable. You are reading things into the text that are not there. Jesus did NOT say that marriage is for a man and a woman ONLY. You are the one… Read more »
Mike Thomas
Guest
1. The verse is set up like a syllogism where Jesus makes several statements of fact and then draws a conclusion (A and B and C therefore D). But the list of facts are not exhaustive and the conclusion he draws is not exclusive of same sex marriages. And if you want to get real literal, I guess we can assume that divorces initiated by women are just fine since it says “let man not separate.” And when he says “the Creator made them male and female” was he just referring to Adam and Eve or was he acknowledging that… Read more »
Milton
Guest

“2. Oh, I don’t know… good reading comprehension?”
Or an argument from silence, which goes against the gist of the passage as a whole and the Mosaic Law which Jesus said He came to fulfill?

Mike Thomas
Guest
“Secularism interposed onto Scripture”? You mean like when the church was forced to accept that the earth is not the center of the universe? People have been using the “authority of scripture” for thousands of years as an excuse to deny science, support slavery and segregation, to prevent women from voting and serving in the church, and to turn a blind eye on wars, genocides and all manner of atrocities. That is not to say that the scriptures have no authority. But to find it requires one to engage their mind and heart and actually take the Bible seriously rather… Read more »
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