Questions pertaining to sex aren’t “core doctrine,” say UMC centrists, therefore…?

Centrist United Methodists believe that questions related to same-sex sexual behavior are not important enough to divide over. They want all sides to compromise for the sake of unity.

If I’m reading the signs correctly, however, these Methodists have settled on their best argument for convincing people like me that we’re overreacting: Regardless our personal convictions about the subject, it doesn’t rise to the level of orthodoxy or, as one writer put it this week, “core doctrine,” to which the creeds and ecumenical councils bear witness. Core doctrine relates mostly to the Trinity and the Incarnation. (I blogged about this argument in July, the last time, I think, I addressed anything pertaining to LGBT issues on this blog.)

While the main point of this blog post from “Via Media Methodists” isn’t directly related to this argument, the author, Drew McIntyre, implies that there’s something unseemly in arguing about homosexuality when we have bigger theological fish to fry. As Rev. McIntyre wrote in response to one commenter, Casey:

To answer your question, I would say that my experience with progressives and conservatives, in addition to denominational leaders, is that almost no one wants to actually talk about first things, i.e. doctrine… Progressives generally tell me that doctrine is a distraction and evangelicals regularly tell me that their arguments about sexuality are doctrinal in nature (which I reject). I’m more concerned that we have ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits than anything to do with the discussion about sexuality (where I believe there is room, unlike core doctrine, for compromise), but on that score I am a lone voice crying out in the wilderness.

On an evangelical United Methodist Facebook page, where McIntyre linked to his post, I wrote the following:

If you’ll allow a schismatic, anti-VMM [Via Media Methodist] Methodist like myself to throw a wet blanket on this discussion, I share the concerns of your commenter, Casey, who wonders why biblical arguments over sexuality are “superficial” and somehow less important than “core doctrine.”

It’s almost as if you (and some of your fellow VMM colleagues with whom I’ve disagreed) don’t grasp what conservatives believe is at stake in the argument about sexuality. And don’t misunderstand: I’m happy for you to disagree with my (or our, if I may be so bold) interpretation of scripture.

I’m not asking you to agree, only to understand why we don’t believe compromise is possible on this issue: From our perspective, nothing less than eternity potentially hangs in the balance. I don’t know how else to read and interpret Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6, for example. The man committing sexual sin (incest in this case) without remorse or repentance is on a path, Paul believes, that leads to hell. So for the sake of the man’s soul, he urges the church to expel him at least in the short run, “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”

Suppose the church at Corinth disobeyed Paul’s words and continued to tolerate the man’s behavior? Would Paul have been O.K. with that? Would he have said, “Sexual sin doesn’t relate to core doctrine, so we can agree to disagree”? It’s incomprehensible, given both the content and tone of his words there.

And I haven’t touched on his direct words about same-sex sexual behavior in chapter 6.

I hope you see the point. If “my side” is right about homosexuality, it can’t be a matter of indifference, or a secondary matter, or something about which we can compromise. The stakes are too high for us.

And you would say, “Yes, but ‘your side’ is wrong.” And I would say, “No, we’re not, and here’s why.” And then we’d both have to do what? Argue the Bible, our ultimate authority on this and any other question pertaining to Christian faith. What’s superficial about that?

Now, you say in response to Casey that we conservatives (along with progressives) just “assert” our vision of biblical interpretation (whatever that means), without arguing it. Speaking for myself I’m happy to argue in depth with anyone about why our particular church doctrine on this issue (such as it is) needs to remain unchanged.

I probably should have put “schismatic” in scare quotes above, although that’s what we traditionalists are often accused of being. It’s a strange schismatic who simply wants to preserve church doctrine!

To my comment, however, McIntyre reiterated his objection that core doctrine is defined by

the creeds and ecumenical councils (so, in particular, the Trinity and Incarnation). I believe these are definitive for Christian self-understanding in a unique way. Where the conservatives in our church lose me because of inconsistency is that they have never, to my knowledge, threatened schism over rampant divorce among UMC clergy and laity alike. Stand on the Bible if you like, but if you want to be a traditionalist about sex and relationships, at least be consistent. At least Rome and the Orthodox include their opposition to SSM within a coherent sexual ethic that takes divorce seriously and values celibacy.

In the first paragraph of my response below, I attempt to show that the argument about divorce is a red herring: good arguments don’t depend on the perceived consistency of the person making them. Then I argue that issues pertaining to divorce and remarriage aren’t in the same category as homosexual practice, anyway.

First, two wrongs don’t make a right, as you know. Even if we’re hypocrites, it doesn’t mean we’re wrong. I could be a hypocrite on marriage and divorce and yet everything I say above (and much more besides) about same-sex sexual behavior could be true. A good argument doesn’t depend on the virtue or consistency of the person making it. That’s the beauty of logic and reason.

Second, and more importantly, you know as well as I do that the New Testament, including Jesus’ own words, permits divorce (and most of us would say remarriage) in at least some cases. (Even the Catholics and Orthodox recognize this, however they define it.) And I’m unaware of Protestants arguing that even remarriage after an illicit divorce constitutes a state of continual sinning (every time, for instance, the couple has sex). Even remarriage after illicit divorce is still marriage, as Jesus himself implicitly acknowledges in his conversation with the Samaritan woman in John 4. And marriage is good.

Regardless, both of us agree that God’s grace abounds even in tragic situations in which marriages fall apart. But please notice: contrary to what progressives are saying about homosexual practice, none of us Methodists is saying that divorce is good, that it honors God, that it’s something that God blesses, that it’s something God encourages and wants to see more of! No, we recognize the tragedy of divorce; indeed, I hope, the sinfulness of it (even as we recognize that God’s grace prevails). I do. I preach against divorce. I counsel against divorce in most cases.

Finally, you say that “core doctrine” consists of creeds and ecumenical councils. I know… I’ve read you and your VMM colleagues making this argument many times. I disagree in this sense: We’re Protestants in part because we recognize that no creed or ecumenical council carries the same weight as scripture. We acknowledge creeds and councils only inasmuch as they conform to scripture and express biblical truth. Regardless, they are not our ultimate authority.

So while I share your concern about having “ordained unitarians collecting salaries in UMC pulpits,” we’re not Trinitarians because the Nicene Creed tells us to be: it’s because we believe that God-as-Trinity emerges from our best understanding of scripture, as the council itself recognized. Nicaea was, according to my (Catholic) History of Christian Thought professor, an exegetical debate, centered squarely on scripture, as it should have been.

11 thoughts on “Questions pertaining to sex aren’t “core doctrine,” say UMC centrists, therefore…?”

  1. Brent, just a couple of clarifying points. I’m not sure what a “centrist” is. There is a group calling themselves a “Centrist movement,” but they are neither centrist nor a movement. For me the “via media” moniker is more about the Anglican conviction in Wesley’s day to bring together the best of the catholic and protestant traditions. I do believe that we have a difference of opinion over what constitutes core doctrine; I would put sexual questions into the realm of ethics. That’s not the say these things aren’t important or that they aren’t worth dividing over….but again, if we didn’t divide over divorce, I don’t see why we must divide over ssm (except that, unlike divorce, ssm doesn’t effect many UMC evangelicals). I’d further note that we already allow the BOD to be altered in the Central Conferences, and that we have African pastors with multiple wives. So it seems we are always living with regional differences on these matters. Thanks for your engagement.

    1. Yes, Drew, but I would love for you to engage my words about the differences between divorce-and-remarriage questions and homosexuality questions. Doesn’t scripture permit divorce in some cases? Isn’t marriage still marriage? They’re not in the same category, unless we believe that remarried couples continually sin by virtue of its being a remarriage. I can’t square that idea with scripture and neither can you.

      The point is, there’s a crack in the door already. I agree that we’ve shoved the door wide open as a church. We’ve failed as a church on questions of sexual sin, but that doesn’t mean that sexual sin isn’t still sin—even though, by all means, God’s grace abounds. We’re all going to be judged for it.

      Also, I invite you to respond to my interpretation of 1 Corinthians 5: What would Paul have said or done if the church at Corinth disobeyed him? Would he have considered the question of their tolerating sexual sin to be a matter of indifference? If not, then, from my perspective, unrepentant sexual sin would be something worth dividing over, if necessary.

      I appreciate your clarification on the meaning of Via Media, but I disagree that there are no centrists. I think one mark of the centrist is his willingness to believe, for example, that homosexual practice isn’t important enough to divide over, which you do believe, right?

      Again, I thank you as well for the engagement, but I would like for you to go further.

  2. If Jesus and the Apostles (and other scripture writers) did not consider such matters as sexual conduct relevant to how Christians should live their lives, why did they make such pronouncements? And if they considered it relevant, who are we to say otherwise? Jesus said, to the effect, “He who has my commandments and obeys and teaches them shall be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does not obey and teach them shall be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven.” So, keep being great!

    1. I agree, Tom, but how would you respond to Drew’s assertion that sexual ethics fall below so-called “doctrinal” concerns?

      1. Well, I do think that it is more “important” to accept and follow some of the teachings of scripture rather than others. (Such as, assuming for purposes of discussion that I am correct about “stellar evolution” being false, I don’t think it is as important for someone to agree with me on that point as on the incarnation and substitutionary atonement.) However, this does not mean that “lesser” points should never be a point for “division.” Paul himself said to put out the man sleeping with his father’s wife, so he evidently felt this “ethics” command was worth “dividing” over, as you indicate.

        Where do we draw the line, then? I think one factor in whether to draw the line is when the church says that clearly wrong behavior scripturally is in fact okay to engage in. In other words, all of us sin and fall short of the glory of God, but it is if we confess our sins that God forgives us. If we deny that we are sinning, and the church body itself takes that position, then this is a ground for division.

        Second, I think common sense and the “weight of scripture” on a point bear on “where to draw the line.” In both Romans and Corinthians Paul talks about some things that are not important enough to be dividing over (such as drinking), so “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” as to such things, and us not to judge each other as to our positions on such matters. Whereas clearly there are other things which are repeatedly and vehemently forbidden, and, in the case of homosexuality and lesbianism in particular they are stated to be indicators of extreme depravity (Romans 1). Also, homosexuality and lesbianism strike at the very heart of the husband and wife relationship which is supposed to be a picture of Christ and the Church. Therefore, I have no problem with this being a proper point of “division.” “There must needs be divisions among you, that those in the right may be approved.”

      2. Again, I don’t disagree, but does that 1 Corinthians verse, which has been cited by the “unity” party, not cut the other way? In other words, “It’s ok to be divided on important matters and still be part of a single church”? “Don’t split up over it, even if you’re inwardly factious”?

      3. I don’t read the 1 Corinthians passage as possibly supportive of egregious sexual sin not being a ground to “divide” over. As I see what Paul is saying, the church was to “divide itself” from the man committing the egregious type of adultery, and only “reconcile” back to him once he repented and changed that behavior. Similarly, we are to “divide ourselves” from churches that condone, or even encourage, such egregious sexual sin as homosexuality and lesbianism, and only “reconcile” with then once they repent and change back to the scriptural norm.

  3. A view from the pew: What we believe about God and ourselves matters. What we believe about what God expects of us in this life matters. What we believe about the way church relates to society matters. What we believe about the role General Conference and the Discipline plays in the life of the church matters. Underlying the same gender argument is a lack of consensus in these key areas. But the reality is, if schism occurs, it will be because there is a new face of fundamentalism called liberal/progressive that is “coming for the institution”–and if you doubt that, then research their recent gathering in San Antonio, Tx called “Gathering at the River”. They are right, we are wrong and they are very willing to verbally “marginalize and oppress” those that do not agree with them. There is nothing Wesleyan in how they approach getting their point across. And for way too long church leadership have allowed and even encouraged what I now consider to be nothing more than their temper tantrums because they have not gotten their way. I have subscribed to an understanding of freedom that has served me well: My freedom ends where the next person’s begins. Too bad there are liberal/progressives that don’t feel the same way. The adjectives I have accumulated from listening to online conversations about the same gender question is that, as an orthodox Christian, I am an evil, blackhearted, Bible-worshiping bigot. For them, there is no middle ground.

    1. I’ve read about that recent conference. And you raise an excellent point: If the other side succeeds in changing our Discipline, it will be winner take all. There will be no happy compromise with those of us who disagree. Our side has been tolerant to a fault in a way that won’t be reciprocated. (I say this as someone who’s read a few things, at least, about how traditionalists were treated in the Episcopal Church when they sold out on the issue many years ago.)

  4. This is the judgment we protestants bear: Who determines the core?

    The Church of Jesus Christ is the “pillar and ground of truth.” For those of us still in rebellion against the church Jesus left behind, “the Church” is me, myself, and I and I will do and believe whatever I choose to believe and do.

    The “core” of Christianity is whatever I say it is. God is whoever I feel it (sic) is. Sin isn’t sin until I call it sin. It’s great being the big guy behind home plate wearing the mask: “It ain’t nothin until I call it what it is!”

    Drew’s attempt to avoid confronting the question you posed by relegating matters of sexual conduct to “ethics” is a symptom of the protestant disease: Docetic ecclesiology requires docetic axiology.

    How does one dialogue with a two year old? It’s a shell game, and the pea was lost a long time ago.

    God have mercy on us.

    Jim Lung

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