Friday, October 30, 2015

Can the Center Hold? Can We Muddle Through?

Do not remember the former things,
   or consider the things of old. 
 I am about to do a new thing;
   now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Isaiah 43:18-19a

Adam Hamilton is the Senior Pastor of the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, the largest United Methodist Church in the world, with over 20,000 members. He founded the church twenty-five years ago when he gathered a small group and rented space in a funeral home. Adam is deeply committed to biblical Christianity, Wesleyan theology, evangelism, spiritual development, and the mission of the church in the world.

He also embodies one of the most basic Methodist characteristics: pragmatism. He believes in getting things done. And he favors what will work over ideological or even doctrinal purity.

Last spring Adam wrote a blog post called, “Same Sex Marriage and the Future of the UMC.” It is more pragmatic than prophetic, but it suggests a practical way forward that avoids schism. It will not please everyone. In some ways, it will not please anyone.

But as a person who wants to avoid schism, who believes that our denominational diversity and pluralism are strengths, I think it deserves serious consideration.

In many ways he is the perfect person to bring such a proposal. His position has evolved over the years. He has impeccable evangelical credentials. And it should be noted that he has taken no small risk in going public with his thinking on this issue.

His concern is that at our next General Conference in 2016 we need to come up with a plan that will allow us to live with our differences.

Living with our differences would require sacrifices on both sides, but the sacrifices would not be equal. It would mean that traditionalists would have to live with the knowledge that in other parts of the denomination pastors were celebrating same sex weddings and conferences were ordaining gay and lesbian clergy. Those advocating for the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church would have to live with the knowledge that full inclusion did not exist across the whole denomination. Most significantly, LGBTQ folks, those most directly affected, would have to live with a situation in which a portion of the church still excluded them and considered them to be uniquely sinful human beings, “less than” others.

He begins with three assumptions:
1. The more complicated the change, the less likely it will pass.
2. The more places in the Discipline that must be changed, the less likely it will pass.
3. The more radical the change, the less likely that it will pass.

He then suggests a three part solution:
1.  Pastors would decide whether or not to officiate at a same sex wedding.
2.  Churches would decide whether or not their buildings could be used for same sex weddings.
3.  Conferences would decide whether or not they would ordain LGBTQ persons.

Under this plan the current condemnatory language about “the practice of homosexuality” being “incompatible with Christian teaching” would remain. But the Discipline would allow local churches and pastors to adopt a more inclusive stance.

He wisely observes that, “We are a denomination divided over how we interpret the scriptures regarding same-sex relationships; most of our congregations are also divided. Any possible solution must allow room for differences of opinion.  What seems clear to me is that a viable long-term strategy cannot be found in a one-sized-fits-all policy imposed upon every church in every region and nation by the 800 delegates to the next General Conference.”

We might note that there are really two sticking points in the current position of the church. The first is that it is painful to be told that one’s life is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” And that is no small thing. But those against inclusion were not content with condemnation and they compounded that first problem with a second one. The second problem is that unlike the Disciplinary positions on gun control, war, the death penalty, abortion, labor unions, or a host of other issues, we have chosen to make this the one social issue on which we impose penalties. If we didn’t have the penalties, then many churches and pastors would choose to be inclusive in spite of the Disciplinary language, and most of our church members wouldn't even know it existed.

Adam Hamilton gives us a way forward. And I continue to believe that maintaining our very imperfect union is important. But we also need to be clear. It is not really a middle road. It requires that some LGBTQ persons continue to be excluded and it continues to enshrine words of condemnation. The traditionalists might feel bad about not being able to prevent every same sex couple from being married in a United Methodist Church, but it is hard to see that as a great sacrifice.


  1. Hamilton did not attend Asbury. He is a graduate of Perkins.

    1. Thank you, Pastor Larry, for the correction. I have edited the text to eliminate that sentence.

  2. Why is maintaining the union so important? I am a United Methodist, but I hear that being played as the "trump card" without backing. I do understand the "unity" verses in Scripture, but seeing as how *all* of the denominations are not "one" - what do we really demonstrate? Is it a marriage that "stays together for the kids" while seething with hatred for the "other" that is within the denomination?

  3. "The second problem is that unlike the Disciplinary positions on gun control, war... or a host of other issues, we have chosen to make this the one social issue on which we impose penalties."

    And we have made it the sin of all sins. Witness the response of conservatives to the disclosure that Kim Davis was married and divorced multiple times. Forgivable! But loving gay people seeking to be married? Not only unforgivable but unthinkable!

    Hamilton's suggestions seem better than they are. At a pragmatic level, what ensues when Pastor A is serving Church Z and wants to do same-sex weddings and is told "Not in our building"? Human nature being what it is (on all sides) I suspect that rather than everyone involved just moving on from there in Christian Love, blood would start appearing on the floor... In my own experience, that would include whispering campaigns, gossip about the pastoral family and subterranean efforts to get the pastor removed "to some better-suited place" than dear old Church Z... and, in honesty about human nature, the rise of resentment and disaffection on the part of Pastor A at being so treated in a "Christian" community.

  4. Unraveling the Gordian Knot:
    Like many others, I have agonized over the issue of Homosexuality and the United Methodist Church (UMC) for a long time. I believe we can unravel, not cut, this Gordian knot.

    Is it possible for the 2016 General Conference next Spring to consider two completely unconsidered initiatives that are based on the reality that “Sex" does not equal “Love.”

    One side talks about “love" as being inclusive of all sexual behavior. The other side seeks to uphold the biblical mandate that some sexual behaviors are “incompatible with the Christian lifestyle” yet paints it with such a broad brush that leaves many hurting in it’s wake.

    Unless we make the above distinction of “sex" not being equated with “love" we shall always be talking past one another. (I’ve noticed that Eros love - physical love, and even Storge love - family, protective, are not mentioned in the New Testament, only Phileo love - Friendship and Agapé love - Godly love.)

    Initiative #1:

    2016 General Conf. Recognition of Covenanted Families

    …Blessing the formation of families comprised of spiritual people who deeply love each other, but without intimate sexual activity.

    In other words, is a “21st Century Monastic 'Small Group' Family Possible?”

    Can we study ways to affirm “Covenant Families” of same sex families who choose to live in a close, caring, Christ-centered and nurturing relationship that refrain from certain sexual behavior?

    Were not the classic Monastic orders basically same sex families?

    Can we recognize the deep need we all have for family without being overwhelmed by our completely sexualized culture?

    In other words, is this a way to recognize the “same sex love”

    that faithful people are feeling and choosing for each other without compromising a clear standard of behavior and our Book of Discipline?

    Initiative #2:

    Initiate a Gen. Conf. comprehensive study of the Theology of Recreational Sex in the 21st Century over the next four years.

    What are the biblical, theological, traditional and experiential threads that could be woven together to provide wise and faithful guidance concerning sexual behavior in our turbulent and over-sexualized society?

    What do we as a church have to say about

    Adultery, the Divorce Rate and Multiple Remarriages,
    Pornography and Soft Porn in TV/Movies/Entertainment
    Non-married living/sexual arrangements,
    Sexual abuse of children and adults,
    Sex Trafficking and casual sex among strangers,
    Teen and younger sex,
    (and other related topics)

    ...that can bring healing and wholeness in Jesus Christ to those caught up in these tragedies?

    Perhaps these two initiatives can steer us away from the rocky shoals of division and estrangement of the "peculiar people" of the UMC who love so.

  5. I continue to find it interesting that the Quadrilateral is not the basis for this discussion. Although Hamilton is identified as " deeply committed to biblical Christianity" I have not seen the Biblical exegesis to overrule our Tradition. Is Isaiah 43:18 meant to be interpreted in this way? Are we take this verse from its context about deliverance from Egypt and the power for their redemption and return from the Babylonian captivity and apply it to this "new thing?"

  6. Another excellent post, Bill. Picking up for UM Insight, with your permission.