A strange argument against UMC schism: sexual behavior has no bearing on orthodoxy

July 27, 2015

In this post by United Methodist blogger Joel Watts, he describes a Twitter argument that he had with someone who framed the debate about same-sex marriage and homosexual practice in terms of Christian orthodoxy. It would be unorthodox, his dialogue partner said, to embrace any form of sexual activity outside the bounds of marriage, which by definition is between a man and woman.

Watts disagrees that the question pertains to orthodoxy since homosexual practice (or any other ethical question) isn’t mentioned in the Nicene Creed. Only the Creed, he says, identifies what is or isn’t orthodox.

While I disagree with Watts on his overly technical definition of orthodoxy (although I have absolutely zero desire to argue over it), as I asked in his comments section, What does it matter? “Even if everything you say about orthodoxy is spot on,” I said, “how does this pertain to the UMC’s position on homosexuality? Whether ‘orthodoxy’ is or isn’t at stake in the question is beside the point.”

In reply, Watts said that if we only focused on “rebuilding our orthodox doctrinal foundations, beginning with Christ, how easy would it then be to look at the essentials and non-essentials and understand what matters.” He continued:

Let us restore orthodoxy, that of our faith in Christ as has stood for 2000 years, and then begin to speak about the ethical issues that divide us. It may be that in reaching back to orthodoxy and coming to terms with it — as Wesley would have suggested — we find the answer to our other points of division.

Or, to sum up with a question: What is the better reason for schism — the denial of the Creed or a differing believe on an ethical/moral issue?

At this point, I could only conclude that Watts failed to appreciate what United Methodists like me believe is at stake in the question of homosexuality. So I put it out there:



Naturally, Watts, as an “affirming” United Methodist, disagrees with my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and other scriptures. But please notice that we’re still disagreeing over the meaning of scripture, not “orthodoxy.” We may agree completely on what counts as orthodoxy, yet we still need to figure out what these scriptures mean. And our task couldn’t be more urgent, since people’s eternal destiny (if I’m right) hangs in the balance!

Therefore, contrary to his argument, figuring out what is or isn’t “orthodox” solves nothing at all, which was the point of my original comment.

But what about Watts’s second point—that Paul would disagree that the question is worth dividing over?

He was unimpressed with my bringing up Paul’s response to the incestuous man in 1 Corinthians 5, which I believe is exactly on point when it comes to the current controversy. Watts writes, “Paul doesn’t say split when it comes to immorality but to remove the person. Try reading 1 Co 5.1-13 again.”

Well, yes… Paul doesn’t say “split when it comes to immorality,” but only because Paul expects the church to do what he says! “Purge the evil person from among you.”

Hypothetically, suppose the Corinthian church disobeyed Paul. Suppose they let the man continue to participate fully in the life of the church. Are we to believe that Paul, given the harsh tone of verses 1-13, would shrug his shoulders and say, “Well, it’s better for the church to stay united, even if if this ‘unity’ comes at the expense of disobeying my clear teaching and continuing to condone or overlook sexual immorality.”

Does this seem as incomprehensible to you as it does to me? What am I missing? Because if Watts is right, this is what Paul would do. Read Watts’s post and comments, and let me know.

4 Responses to “A strange argument against UMC schism: sexual behavior has no bearing on orthodoxy”

  1. Perry Says:

    I’m not a theology scholar by any means. As a layperson, I see the creeds as a correct (but limited) summary of our core beliefs. It’s my understanding that they came about largely in response to theological controversies. Like a Supreme Court case, the creeds may accurately settle the theological controversy by establishing what is orthodox in light of the questions presented/dealt with, but by no means would I characterize the creeds as the sum total of what constitutes “orthodoxy” – no more than Brown v. Board sums up the entire U.S. Constitution.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I agree. The Nicene Creed was drafted specifically to articulate the meaning of the Trinity and the full divinity of Christ in light of the Arian controversy of the fourth century. We face a new crisis today that relates to our understanding of Creation and the authority of God’s written word. These things relate to orthodoxy, too.

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    This comes a bit late due to “too much work”! I agree with your position that the ultimate authority for any Christian is “God’s Word,” as opposed to any “council’s” interpretation of it. Indeed, if you could “poll” the Council members, I bet they would all agree with that. They were just doing their best to address scripture to whatever circumstance they were dealing with at the time. To say that anything they did not address does not have a “Christian answer” or is unimportant is silly. They did not address myriads of things that the Christian faith has a position on. And that position has to always go back to what God says, not what man says. If Watts think’s scripture does not control, he is implicitly saying scripture is not inspired by God–unless, indeed, he has “graduated” from what God says, to … his own opinion.

    • brentwhite Says:

      But, Tom, Watts does think scripture controls. And he thinks the Creed controls. And he thinks sexual immorality is a big deal. And he doesn’t think sexual immorality is a big deal at all.

      Sorry for the sarcasm. It was very frustrating trying to pin him down. Maybe he’s just not a very good writer?

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