One Church, One Organization, or Neither?

3rd wayby David Watson

 Things are moving quickly in the UMC. The latest development, of course, is the consecration of an openly gay and married bishop, Rev. Karen Oliveto. According to a story published by the United Methodist News Service, Bishop Grant Hagiya commented on Rev. Oliveto’s election, stating, “We understand there may be some political implications, but in our mind this was the best person. It was not a question of (sexual) orientation, it was a question of who was the best spiritual leader. The body spoke and said ‘Yes, this is the one.’ ”

“We understand there may be some political implications….”

Yes, that seems very likely.

According to the same article, Bishop Hagiya “added this election will not derail the General Conference 2016’s decision to support the Council of Bishops’ plan to appoint a special commission that would address all aspects of human sexuality currently covered in church law.”

Indeed, the commission will probably go forward. We will have the commission because we must, because not doing so would be an admission that there is no plausible future as a unified denomination. Yet the work of such a commission has already been rendered futile. A segment of the denomination has made up its mind how it will proceed, regardless of what any commission or conference might have to say.

We are in the midst of an identity crisis as a denomination. As my friend Bill Arnold has written, it’s time to decide who we are, and, I would add, how we will live together. I will discuss these issues in what follows.

“Third Way” Plans and Sexual Ethics

In objection to my judgment that the bishops’ commission is now pointless, one might reply that this is the perfect time for a “third way” plan. There have, after all, been prominent voices in our denomination arguing for some time that one church can live with two different positions and sets of standards regarding homosexual practice. They often quote the old dictum, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Indeed, this is good advice to live by. The question, however, is whether for United Methodists, our attitudes, teachings, and church law around homosexual practice are actually non-essential.

There are four marks of the church: she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The second of these, the holiness of the church, is what is at stake when we talk about our teachings on sexual ethics. To be holy is to be set apart. And just as in ancient Israel, which was also a holy people, there are certain ways of thinking, worshipping, and behaving that accompany our being a set-apart people. If we neglect these ways of thinking, worshipping, and behaving, we compromise our holiness, and thereby compromise our claim to be the church of Jesus Christ. Though most people would not articulate it in this way, this notion of holiness is at the root of our present impasse. What does it mean for the church to be holy around the matter of homosexual practice?

This is a matter in which there is no emerging consensus in the UMC. There is a majority voice, but no true consensus. Some in our denomination insist we are discriminating unjustly—even hatefully—against an entire group of people. They say that we are punishing people for the way in which God made them. The church’s position that homosexual practice is “incompatible with Christian teaching” is bigoted, outdated, and deeply harmful to LGBT people. We are not teaching love, they argue, but rather contributing to attitudes that result in rejection, bullying, and even murder of LGBT people. According to this line of thinking, we are acting in direct opposition to the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to accept people for who they are and forego judgment of one another. Jesus taught his followers to represent a radically inclusive community, not a community in which people condemn one another for the way they are made.

Now imagine that we passed a “third way” plan. From this perspective, such a plan would simply authorize segments of the church to stop committing such egregious acts of hatred. In other parts of the church, including the fast-growing African churches, the church’s deeply harmful–even lethal–homophobia and transphobia would continue to inhere. That will never do. From this perspective, the church that engages in such homophobic and transphobic practices cannot be holy, and thereby ceases truly to be the church.

Others within our denomination hold that same-sex intimacy is a matter of sexual sin. Endorsing it would be no different than endorsing pre-marital sex or polyamory. God’s design, they argue, is for one man and one woman to be united in a faithful, monogamous relationship until one partner in the relationship dies. The creation stories of Genesis 1 and 2 root the male-female binary in the order of creation, and romantic or sexual behavior outside of this order of creation is to act outside of God’s design. In Matthew 19:5 Jesus himself draws upon one of the creation narratives in a discussion of marriage, quoting Gen 2:24: “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Those who hold this position may also argue that, while the Bible does not often speak of homosexual behavior, in the few times it does so it speaks of it in univocally negative terms. Therefore we have far less interpretive freedom than we do with, say, women in leadership, in which the biblical witness is variegated.

From this perspective, homosexual practice is no different or worse than any other sin, but it is still sin. A “third-way” plan would authorize, if not endorse, sinful practices in certain parts of the church. Under these circumstances, the church has compromised its holiness, one of the four marks constitutive of our identity as a church.

When we scratch beneath the surface, we see that the church’s position on homosexual behavior is not what we might call a “non-essential.” Our positions and practices related to human sexuality come to bear on the holiness of the church. Proponents of “third way” plans will be at pains to explain why such serious matters as these should be relegated to the category of non-essential beliefs. In other words, in the face of the arguments for and against the holiness of same-sex intimacy, those who favor “third way” plans are going to have to explain why our beliefs about homosexual behavior simply aren’t that important.

“Third Way” Plans and the Dissolution of Governance

There is yet another difficulty with the “third way” plans: we cannot isolate our position on homosexual behavior from our other ethical positions. The General Conference either has ethical decision-making authority or it does not, and right now—practically speaking—it does not. Five annual conferences have now re-affiliated with the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, in direct opposition to the decision of the General Conference that we would withdraw entirely from this organization. The issue is now larger than “homosexual practice.” It is now about our denominational involvement with a pro-choice organization. Rather than abiding by the decisions of the General Conference, then, annual conferences are more and more commonly beginning to function independently as loci for ethical decision making.

The logic of this practice is quite easy to extend to a variety of topics. If an annual conference does not agree with the General Conference on a particular decision, the annual conference can simply act on its own. Up until recently the presenting issues have been same-sex marriage and ordination of non-celibate LGBT people. Now it has extended to affiliation with the RCRC. And next it will be… what? Perhaps annual conferences will begin to divest from companies that support Israeli policies deemed unjust. Perhaps annual conferences will begin to identify which seminaries they will support, rather than abiding by the stipulations of the General Conference and the University Senate. Perhaps conservative annual conferences will withhold all apportionment funds for the General Board of Church and Society. Now that annual conferences have begun to function as autonomous decision-making bodies the possibilities are endless.

By this same logic, churches could simply choose not to abide by the decisions of the annual conference or its bishop. If we like our pastor, our pastor likes us, and he or she wishes to stay, why should this same pastor move when reappointed? The bishop may insist, but we feel the bishop is wrong, so we will do what we like. Why should we pay any apportionment money to support any cause that we do not fully support?

This way of ordering our denominational life is exceedingly un-Wesleyan. Wesleyanism is not just a set of theological principles. It is a connectional way of being in ministry with one another. If we are not connectional, we are not properly Wesleyan.

Who Are We Now?

Most often the debates in our denomination are framed in terms of particular ethical issues, such as homosexuality and abortion. From the time Melvin Talbert performed his first high-profile same-sex wedding, I have felt that there was another issue that was just as pressing: our method of ordering our life together. I have worked with people of different theological perspectives on a variety of levels in the life of the church, from teaching Sunday school to the Board of Ordained Ministry to the University Senate. I have long valued these diverse professional relationships and friendships, but these are in danger now, particularly the professional relationships.

The United Methodist Church is currently in schism. There are a number of conferences now that have rejected the General Conference and begun to function autonomously. They have instituted separate standards for ordination, separate standards for the consecration of bishops, and separate methods of governance. They have adopted ethical teachings and practices in opposition to the teachings and practices of The United Methodist Church. At General Conference we even had separate “queer” communion stations. In the history of the church, separate communions are the very definition of schism.

Thus we have before us essentially three options, and we need to decide which we will choose: are we to be one church, one organization, or neither? If we are to be one church, it will take incredible resolve to heal our schism. We will need to reclaim what it means to confess one faith and order our lives according to common ethical teachings. We will have to restore our governance. We will have to get serious about discerning what it means to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It would require a miracle for all of this to happen, but I never rule out miracles.

There is an alternative, however. We can simply accept that the implementation of separate standards of ordination and consecration, separate methods of governance, and separate ethical teachings and practices amount to a division of our tradition. We can begin to formalize legally our de facto reality. And yet, there is no reason that we need to abandon all of our very significant work together. The denominations that will likely result from our current schism could continue to collaborate in important ways, such as through our healthcare institutions, higher education, UMCOR, a pension fund, and in other ways. There could be a United Methodist organization of some sort that continues to allow us to work together, but does not hold us within the structures necessary to claim ecclesiastical unity.

Of course, there is one other option, and that is simply to call it quits altogether. We may allow the bitterness and rancor that will accompany a division to poison any productive ways in which we might work together moving forward. I pray this does not happen, but at this point nothing would surprise me.

The United Methodist Church is presently the largest Wesleyan denomination in the world, and right now we are deeply in the midst of an identity crisis. We need to figure out who we are, not just in terms of our ethical decisions, but in terms of the way in which we will order our lives together. Will we be one church, one organization, or neither?


Dr. David Watson, UMR Columnist

Rev. Dr. David Watson is Academic Dean and Vice President for Academic Affairs and an Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary. David is an ordained elder in the West Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church. He has worked in the local church and in a United Methodist campus ministry. He currently serves on the Miami Valley District Committee on Ordained Ministry and the West Ohio Inclusive Body of Christ Ministry Team for Persons with Disabilities.

David is a regular contributor to UMR. You can also find more of his writing at : Musings and whatnot…….

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22 Comments on "One Church, One Organization, or Neither?"

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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Kelly McClendon
Good and thoughtful article as always. However, if I might add… If we remain yoked together, as close as one organization, we will never be able to move on from what are inherently irreconcilable differences (as you clearly point out). Why are we so afraid to admit that this no middle ground between these positions? (of course there is a spectrum of intensity but, as you demonstrate, the core issues are incompatible). The first option is not possible – miracle’s notwithstanding (but this would require one of Red Sea parting proportions), and the second option would lead only to protracted… Read more »
Eric Pone

But the conservatives are innocent here. They have built an entire denomination structure that only lacks a formal communion document. They are meeting in October in Chicago. Neither side is playing with ethics or Christlike love here.

Chris Terrill

Eric Prone, what are you saying? Are you just being sarcastic? What position do you take? Are you just dancing around the edges being loft and critical of all positions or do you actually stand for something? Is there anything that is invariant about our faith (beyond loving everybody which should be true regardless of which position we take) that you take seriously? Why should I take your comments seriously?

Eric Pone
I am not on a side. I think the discussion is wasting time and resources. Conservatives and Liberals have been trying to force those of us in the middle to take a side. I just refuse to do so with any of you. I choose Jesus. If Jesus gets me thrown out of the communion hey I am ok with it. I can tell you this there are a lot folks if schism happens who will be leaving silently. You will just look around one Sunday and ask where is……..? I am moderate where it comes to many things, I… Read more »
Neil Vitense
After reading this article (which was very well written), I’m wondering why I don’t just resign my membership and run as fast as I can in an opposite direction. That said, since when did God’s divine word become negotiable? It seems like we have somehow decided that the Bible has become a democratic book that we can change by a majority vote. I ask you…will this stand up at the “judgment throne”? Right now, I am very confused as to what the truth is….do we adhere to the written Word or do we vote to “celebrate sin”? It seems that… Read more »
Keith Sweat
One of the best articles so far. Hope the Bishops are actually listening. I would add that it is exactly at the General Church level we have the greatest problem cooperating. How does a GC board promote contradictory goals — support full inclusion of LGBT and assert traditional marriage as the norm of faith and practice? We have seen what GC boards did on abortion. They insisted on being a “voice at the table” with RCRC but would never consider being a voice with organizations that support the pro life parts of our polity. Even pensions are getting difficult. If… Read more »
I appreciate and sympathize with clergy that see their salaries and benefits changing (probably negatively) with either a split or mass exodus of members. However, for things to be “fair” under a third way, the BOD would need to be rewritten to become more a negative document (like the constitution of the US) meaning becoming a list of things the GC “can’t do” to the local churches. Likewise, any board that is in the least be controversial would either need to be more vanilla or removed. I won’t even begin to address the “social principles”. Individual churches/conf/Juris would be able… Read more »
Lawrence A Kreh

If a separation becomes reality, then one denomination (among others) that would be a potential home would be the Anglican Church in North America (affiliated with Anglican Churches in Africa. John Wesley never left the Anglican Church, and the ACNA is orthodox in theology, as opposed to the Episcopal Church in the US.
Regardless, I agree: No new denominations please!

Nina Wynn
“We are in the midst of an identity crisis as a denomination. As my friend Bill Arnold has written, it’s time to decide who we are, and, I would add, how we will live together.” Is the statement that I find most concerning with Rev. Watson article. In this is a deeply flawed idea of humanism. Becuse, who we are and how we live together, is dictated by God’s Holy Spirit, moving, leading, guiding, breathing into us the very life of Christ. Therefore, to state it is time for us to decide our identity and fate, rules out discernment by… Read more »
I commend the article’s clarity, and I think it is on to something in the distinction between church and organization. United Methodists already recognize, through mutual recognition of sacraments and orders, denominations that allow both ordination of LGBTQ people and same sex marriage. In other words we regard the eucharist, celebrated by an openly gay UCC (or Presbyterian) pastor, as a valid sacrament based on long ecumenical agreements. And we recognize the validity of the eucharist served by a Roman Catholic or Orthodox priest from a church that refuses to ordain women as we do. And of course baptism all… Read more »
Gary Taylor
Dear Dr. Watson, this was a well written and thoughtful article though I must disagree. I make two points. Your digression, as it seemed to me, about the RCRC decision: the GC voted to disassociate. As far as I know, and if I am wrong many will point it out, there was not a prohibition of other bodies of the church on associating with the group. Therefore, five annual conferences chose to associate. On the other hand, there are direct prohibitions on full LGBTQ inclusion. Secondly, and this is something I have not seen adequately explained, why is LGBTQ full… Read more »
Joe Tognetti

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I hate to use your comment section to plug a post I wrote…but I will do just that (haha).

In the framework of your analysis here, I wrote my article because I wonder: if we as the UMC end up being merely one organization, or worse, neither a church body nor an organization, how can we look beyond ourselves to live as one church with others? Or is that even logistically feasible in any concrete way?

Joe Payne
I appreciate you, David, as a theologian, pastor, and friend. I am also appreciative of your many writings. Even though I have landed at a different place concerning this topic, I still try to remain open to what others have to say. Concerning this particular article, I have many comments and questions, but for now I’d like to focus on one statement you made. You said that, “…while the Bible does not often speak of homosexual behavior, in the few times it does so it speaks of it in univocally negative terms. Therefore we have far less interpretive freedom than… Read more »
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