By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
The study guide produced by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, entitled Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness, is designed to help congregations discuss the divisive and sensitive controversy over the church’s teachings on marriage and sexuality. It is drawn from an academic colloquy on this topic held at Candler Seminary in Atlanta in March of this year. It really does not engage substantively with the 24 papers that were presented at the colloquy, but does quote a few comments from the discussion times. The bulk of the substantive material from the colloquy is drawn from a paper by Dr. Charles M. Wood, who analyzes the churchwide study document Wonder, Love, and Praise: Sharing a Vision for the Church that was approved for study by the 2016 General Conference. For convenience, Wood’s paper is printed in the study guide as an appendix.
Chapter 1 describes the colloquy and why it was convened. It emphasizes our desire to bring to bear the intellectual resources of the Christian faith on our current dilemma. It describes the academic community as our “brain trust” that can help us think through the theological, biblical, and practical issues we face in our church. It invites us into a holy conversation, as we seek to understand the way that God has for our church to move forward.
Chapter 2 invites us to engage one another with our minds, not believing that persons who disagree with us are ignorant, stupid, or evil, but that we have different perspectives that need to be explored and understood. (However, this study guide gives only very limited opportunities to explore and understand the different perspectives on ministry with LGBTQ persons.) The chapter surveys what we mean by “church” and understands it as the sign and servant of the new reality that: 1) the saving love of God is meant for all people, 2) the saving love of God transforms, and 3) the love of God creates community. The church is visible and invisible, a mixture of faithful and faithless, striving to incarnate the love of Christ and be a faithful witness to God and God’s purposes.
Chapter 3 shows how the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church matters. As a church, we are able to touch the lives of hurting people and bring the love of God in concrete ways. We do this best in connection with each other. It touches on the history of denominationalism in America and why a denomination might be important. Hints are given about possible different ways of structuring our denomination that might give greater freedom or space for people to serve according to their consciences.
Chapter 4 attempts to set out parameters for a way forward for the church. Five principles from Wood’s paper are outlined:
- Subsidiarity – the idea that decisions ought to be made in the most significant context allowable or the lowest “level” of organization. (This is the basis for the “local option” approach to resolving our impasse.)
- Reconciled diversity – recognizing the legitimacy of Christian brothers and sisters despite disagreement. Persons are reconciled to one another in relationship despite disagreement. (Can’t we just all get along?)
- Reception – the idea that decisions by a governing body are not fully authoritative until they are “received” by the constituency. (This can be used to argue that because a portion of the UM Church does not receive the decisions of General Conference, those provisions are not fully authoritative.)
- Conciliar fellowship model – a “council of churches” way of organizing United Methodism, with general agreement around confession of the apostolic faith, recognition of each other’s members and ministries, shared celebration of the Eucharist, and appropriate levels of decision-making around common concerns. Each church would be semi-autonomous.
- Pre-conciliar fellowship – for groups where there are irreconcilable differences in Word, Sacrament, or Order. The “council of churches” would be for fellowship only and not decision-making. Each church would be fully autonomous.
The discussion questions are stimulating and well-written, although there are way too many questions for each chapter. A group leader would need to pick and choose which questions to use or lengthen the session beyond an hour.
The thrust of the book in terms of most of the questions and illustrations is toward the unity of the church. Several illustrations portray acceptance of same-sex behavior and persons. Negative consequences of a “split” are surfaced. The positive aspects of the United Methodist connection are emphasized. The subliminal message is that we ought to be able to find a way to stay together despite our differences over marriage and sexual ethics.
Conversely, there are no illustrations or advocacy for our current church position. There is no defense of the church’s teaching. There is no exposition about how the church might be in ministry with LGBTQ persons in line with our current teaching. It does not place the various understandings of same-sex behavior in the larger context of our beliefs about human sexuality in general. In fact, the “rightness” or “wrongness” of same-sex behavior is never addressed. The resource does not wrestle with the deep theological concerns that motivate evangelicals to contend for the current teaching of the church. Only a few Bible verses are referenced, relating to God’s love and focusing on the positive unity of the church. It simply assumes that we have these differences of opinion (without exploring why) and attempts to move forward from there.
Chapter 1 is basically an introduction. Chapters 2 and 3 develop a limited (rather than comprehensive) understanding of the church that is rooted in Wesleyan theology, rather than in Scripture. Chapter 4 is the most helpful, as it gets down to some concrete principles as to how we might resolve the church’s impasse and move forward.
If I were using this resource with a congregation, I would find it necessary to add material to provide balance and tailor some of the questions in a more neutral direction. This resource does provide a “toe-in-the-water” approach to discussing the controversies around LGBTQ persons. It makes no attempt to explore the differences of opinion, however, and it puts forward a very limited theological understanding of the church. It is biased toward a certain desired outcome. And it makes only limited use of Scripture. I had hoped for better from our church’s leaders who are advocating that we “love God with our mind.”