Unpacking “Incompatibilists”


Berlin Pic
Diagram courtesy of Rev. Tom Berlin

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht


The Rev. Tom Berlin is the pastor of Floris United Methodist Church in Herndon, Virginia, and the head of the General Conference delegation from the Virginia Annual Conference, the second largest conference in the U.S. I was privileged to participate with Tom in a series of conversations held at General Conference convened by Bishop Warner Brown to consider how we can move forward as a denomination in the midst of deep division and conflict. As was acknowledged by all of the participants in that confidential dialogue, no one can conceive of a way to bridge the church’s legitimate divides in a manner that would avoid some form of separation or restructure.

I am grateful to Tom for his cogent and compassionate analysis of the current dispute in our church over marriage and human sexuality. He shared this analysis with the Virginia Annual Conference on June 19 and then put it in written form (link found below). He draws upon a framework of analysis that I shared in the conversations—a framework that I learned from Bishop Judith Craig and the dialog group that met to discuss the church’s stance on homosexuality way back in the 1990’s. Tom’s point was to describe the members of our church based on their position regarding same-sex attracted persons (progressive vs. traditionalist) and their willingness to live together (compatibilists vs. incompatibilists), as I outline below. The views of each of four perspectives have significant implications for whether and how we might be able to resolve the divide that exists in our church today.

While I am in general agreement with Tom on his definitions of the four groups, I want to sharpen and deepen the understanding of where each group is coming from. It is often thought that our church faces a two-way divide between progressives and traditionalists. But in reality, our church faces multiple divides between progressives and traditionalists and between compatibilists and incompatibilists. Ignoring the nuances of those divides leads to inaccurate conclusions and ineffective remedies for the divides.

Traditionalist Incompatibilists believe that the Bible is correct when it teaches that marriage is a God-created relationship between one man and one woman, ideally for life, and that sexual relationships are to be reserved for that marriage relationship. They believe that to affirm or even allow same-sex marriage or other non-marital sexual relationships would put the church in the position of contradicting the clear teaching of Scripture and abandoning biblical authority “as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). To do so would be to violate our Doctrinal Standards (see Articles of Religion, Articles V and VI; Confession of Faith, Article IV). For these people, the church’s stance is an essential issue of faith because it directly relates to biblical authority, as well as the doctrines of creation, justification, and sanctification. That is why traditionalist incompatibilists would be unable to continue in a church that allows same-sex marriage or the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

Traditionalist compatibilists share the belief that the Bible is correct when it teaches that marriage is a God-created relationship between one man and one woman, and that sexual relationships are to be reserved for marriage. However, some would allow that other interpretations of Scripture might be correct. In any case, they do not see the church’s stance on this issue as an essential matter of faith, and/or they believe that the good things that the church can do together outweigh the different practices regarding homosexuality. As long as they themselves are not forced to violate their consciences by performing same-sex marriages or receiving a practicing homosexual as pastor, they are willing to allow others in the church to do so.

Progressive incompatibilists believe that the traditional interpretation of Scripture is incorrect, that God creates people with same-sex desires, and that God wants same-sex attracted people to experience marriage in the same way that heterosexual people may. They believe that the church has incorrectly and unfairly excluded persons in same-sex relationships from full participation in the church, including ordination as clergy. For them, such “full inclusion” is the civil rights crusade of our time. The only faithful course for Christians is to abandon the traditional view and work for fair and equal treatment of all persons, gay or straight. Most would hold that homosexual relationships ought to be held to the same standards as heterosexual relationships in terms of fidelity and chastity, while some believe those standards are overly restrictive and need to be changed or abandoned. For progressive incompatibilists, “full inclusion” is so essential a matter of Christian faith and witness that they are unable to continue long-term in a church that denies same-sex marriage and ordination to anyone. They will not rest until every part of the church adopts their view and is affirmatively inclusive of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons.

Progressive compatibilists share the belief that same-sex relationships are good in God’s eyes, and that people ought to be able to experience same-sex marriage on the same basis as heterosexual marriage, and that practicing homosexuals ought to be able to be ordained on the same basis as heterosexual people. However, they acknowledge that not everyone in the church agrees with them, and they are willing to allow room for differing consciences on this issue. As long as same-sex marriage is permitted (but not necessarily mandated) in all parts of the church and the ordination of practicing homosexuals is permitted in at least some parts of the church, they are willing to live and work together with those who disagree with them. Most progressive compatibilists believe that it is only a matter of time until nearly everyone in the church adopts their view, and the conflict will eventually go away.

It is important to note here, in contrast to Tom Berlin’s perspective, what is at stake is not the ability or inability to live with disagreement over marriage and human sexuality. Traditionalists of all stripes have been able to live with this disagreement for over 40 years. What is at stake is the inability to live with practices that run contrary to Scripture. For traditionalists, it is the inability to live with church-condoned same-sex marriage and ordination. For progressives, it is the inability to live with the church’s denial of same-sex marriage and ordination. What has precipitated the crisis point for our denomination is the move toward wholesale performing of same-sex marriages and the increasing ordination and appointment of practicing homosexuals as clergy.

One can see how progressive compatibilists and traditionalist compatibilists can live and work together in the same church, at least for a time. If the traditionalist view does not fade over time, the progressives might become impatient and try to push things along by instituting stricter requirements for “inclusion.” Progressive compatibilist impatience could create a new round of tensions and conflict with traditionalist compatibilists who are unwilling to adopt the progressive view, perhaps leading to an increasing number of incompatibilists on both sides.

One can see how progressive incompatibilists would not be able to live and work together in the same church with traditionalist incompatibilists, since their theological commitments are diametrically opposed. For each group, to accept the other group’s perspective would be to violate their own consciences.

However, there is a difference in the way that progressive incompatibilists approach the larger church. Far from wanting to leave the church and start their own denomination, progressive incompatibilists want to stay in the church as long as possible in order to change the church to adopt their view. They are on a civil rights crusade on behalf of all LGBTQ persons, and they will not easily give up until the whole church offers “full inclusion” to all LGBTQ persons, by force if necessary. That is the ideology behind recent resolutions passed by the New England, Desert Southwest, and California-Pacific Annual Conferences declaring they would no longer abide by the provisions of the Book of Discipline regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, (both incompatibilists and compatibilists) for the most part want to be left alone to engage in disciple-making ministry. Most are reluctant warriors in the issues that divide our church. Their main reason for being involved in the struggle is to resist what they believe to be the erosion, if not the violation, of biblical authority, as well as to offer what they consider biblically-based ministries of transformation and redemption for those affected by sexual brokenness. They are not on a crusade to change the church, but are committed to upholding the church’s teachings and values. If the church’s teachings and values were to change, many traditionalists would not feel bound to stay in the denomination and fight to change it back. It would be much easier for them to leave than for progressive incompatibilists.

There are differences of opinion among traditionalist incompatibilists on whether and when to disengage from a church that they believe would be unfaithful. Nearly all would say that a formal change in the Discipline to allow same-sex marriage and/or the ordination of practicing homosexuals would necessitate their withdrawal from The United Methodist Church. Some would say that the increasingly widespread performing of same-sex marriages without consequence and the newly public policies of some annual conferences to approve practicing homosexuals for ordination has created a situation in which the church has de facto approved of same-sex marriage and ordination, even though the policies on paper remain unchanged. This de facto situation has caused some congregations to leave already, and others are contemplating that move.

This analysis raises some important questions that the bishops’ commission will have to consider:

  • Is it possible or realistic to attempt to regain compliance by progressive clergy and annual conferences with the current requirements in the Discipline on same-sex marriage and ordination?
  • If so, can a way be found to allow those who cannot live in a church that denies same-sex marriage and ordination to leave The United Methodist Church with property and pension in a fair and respectful manner?
  • If not, can a way be found to allow those who cannot live in a church that allows same-sex marriage and ordination to leave The United Methodist Church with property and pension in a fair and respectful manner?
  • If changes are to be made to the Discipline allowing same-sex marriage and ordination, what provision can be made for those who disagree with those policies but who desire to remain within The United Methodist Church? Would progressive incompatibilists accept those accommodations, or would they feel obligated to continue fighting for mandatory equality? Or would progressive incompatibilists believe they must also exit from a United Methodist Church that is willing to tolerate some who will not perform same-sex marriages or receive a practicing homosexual pastor?
  • If a restructuring of the church is proposed that allows for the formation of three new entities (traditionalist, centrist/compatibilist, and progressive), would the progressive incompatibilists be willing to form the progressive alternative, or would they seek to remain with the compatibilists in hopes of continuing the struggle and eventually achieving mandatory approval for same-sex marriage and ordination?
  • If the church changes its policies on same-sex marriage and ordination, either through a change in the Discipline or a restructuring of the church, how will the central conference members in Africa, Asia, and Europe relate to the church in a new way? In some ways, whatever path we take, we will be imposing a U.S. solution for a U.S. problem on a global church.

What seems clear is that The United Methodist Church cannot continue the way it is. The demands of the progressive incompatibilists and the responses of the traditionalist incompatibilists can no longer be ignored. If the bishops’ commission does not give us an orderly way to resolve our differences once and for all, the church is likely to begin disintegrating in a chaotic fashion. However bad amicable separation might be for the cause of Christ, adversarial disintegration would be even worse.


To read Rev. Tom Berlin’s analysis, click HERE


12 thoughts on “Unpacking “Incompatibilists”

  1. I would have absolutely no issue with having a pastor who was LBGT. If he, or she was married to the person whom they loved, I would rejoice with them. There is a fabulous UCC minister, who is a second career woman serving a church in Massachusetts. She is married to her long time partner and they have a baby girl, who is only a few months old. They are a wonderful couple. The pastor was an pastoral intern at the UCC Chruch where we occasionally attend. Aside from her degree in theology she has a PhD in psychology, and had a thirteen year career as a successful psychologist.
    I, further, rejoiced that the New England Annual Conference decided, along with, either five or seven other annual conferences to break from the 40 or more year ruling of the BoD. It is coming sooner than we think that most of the northern and western annual conferences will leave the southern annual conferences.
    The Methodist Church always was progressive. In the 1960s we marched for Civil Rights, Fair Housing for minorities, and we marched against the Viet Nam War. What happened to my progressive church?
    While I was thrilled to see our church become more diverse, I am glad that our nation is becoming darker. I really thought that we would pull the Asian, African,, and Latino churches to the progressive views that we always held. I am saddened to see the UMC being pulled back into the 19th Century.

    1. Carla, please define “progressive” as you see it. It means different things to different people. I believe that if John Wesley were defining it, he would say that anything that moves the world toward “scriptural holiness” would be progressive. To him, anything that promotes behavior that conflicts with scripture would be considered regressive and/or oppressive.
      So to your point of “what happened to my progressive church? – many of the things you mentioned that the UMC stood for in the past, John Wesley very likely would have stood for also. But to change the biblical stance on human sexuality – sorry, this he would not have agreed with. It doesn’t pass the “scriptural holiness” test.

      1. To be a progressive church means an Open and Affirming Church, as they say in the UCC tradition, or a Reconciling Church, to use the UMC terminology.
        One’s sexual orientation in no way compromises their competence. You may have had an LBGTQAI teacher who was a wonderful mentor when you needed to have a kind, compassionate mentor. Your doctor, lawyer, nurse, or hair stylist may have been LBGTQAI. How do you know unless they tell you? You may have had a compassionate cleric who was LBGTQAI, but never divulged his/her sexual orientation due to the fact that some in the UMC would have them “defrocked.” These fine individuals may or may not have had a long term partners but felt that they had to be quiet about their same gender relationship.
        The number Reconciling UMCs is increasing and will continue to do so.
        Even if we vehemently disagree, I wish you peace. We can disagree and I hope, refrain from being disagreeable.

  2. Thank you for your excellent analysis. Given the outcome of the 2016 General Conference, I see no reason to believe that the current Book of Discipline stance will change due to the large & ever-increasing percentage of Central Conference delegates in the worldwide UMC. So regardless of which of the four camps a UMC pastor, local church, and/or member is currently in, don’t expect the stance to change, no matter what is said or done. The current stance is here to stay. And for those who militantly expect to force changes to happen, things will happen, but it won’t be in their favor. It is highly likely that in the General Conferences to come, those who seek change in the current stance will find themselves facing ever-increasing penalties toward those who choose to break and/or refuse to enforce the Book of Discipline, including bishops. Considering that a vote to put in place term limits on bishops narrowly failed to pass the two-thirds needed, is an indication of the future direction for those who choose to violate and/or fail to enforce the Book of Discipline.

    1. I agree with you. I also believe that our lord will bless,those that stand firm on the bod. To change it we could face the wrath of God.so l think those who would want homosexuals let them go and we will recover from their leaving. Do not be shameful of the lord

      1. Please remember that God did not write the BoD, men wrote the BoD.
        Our nation now allows marriage equality, and it is illegal to discriminate, in hiring, against someone sexual orientation or gender identity.
        This is the 21st century. People are leaving the UMC for denominations that accept, in full inclusion, their loved ones and friends who are LBGTQAI.
        One by one, annual conferences and jurisdictions are voting to be in non conformity. In time those who insist that homosexuality is a “sin” will be in the minority.
        Slavery was once accepted, in the nation and in the church due to it being accepted in the BIble, and now has been abolished, in churches and in the nation, although, sadly racism has not been obliterated. Yes, some will treat our LBGT sisters and brothers as sinners, but you will find that younger people feel that one’s sexual orientation, and gender identity are non issues. The church, especially the UMC, needs young people and they will not be a part of a discriminatory church.

  3. Progressive Incompatibilists will continue to fight, protest and call traditionalists all kinds of names until they have full inclusion. You are so right it is a civil rights issue for them.They will continue to use a shaming campaign and civil protest at our conferences. Amicable separation is the only solution.
    This is not a interpretation of scripture problem, This is the progressive’s denial of Biblical authority, a denial of our Methodist doctrinal practice and beliefs that the Bible is the inspired word of God. It is a breaking of our UMC Covenant. 90% of churches in the world hold to our belief in scripture and on this issue. Our African UMC churches, members and Bishops hold to our position. Other Methodist Churches in US hold to this Biblical view; Free Methodists, African Methodist Episcopal, Christian Methodist Episcopal, and Wesleyan Churches.
    United Methodist Church’s position is historically and Biblically accurate as well as in the majority within our denomination and throughout the world. To not honor and follow our Discipline and practice is to break covenant of one’s ordination and membership vows at Baptism in the United Methodist Church. A broken promise before God and before your brothers and sisters. Different Beliefs = Different Denomination !
    I vote for amicable separation. Traditionalists keep the United Methodist name and structure and Progressives be allowed to leave with property and pensions intact and under a new name.

  4. This sounds a lot like what is happening in the European Union these past couple of days. Irreconcilable differences leads to divorce. Without disciplines, there is no unity. The Bible teaches us this. Progressives seem not to care for the Disciplines, unless they are the ones to impose disciplines on those who don’t agree with them. This part of your conversation strikes to the heart of the matter – “Traditionalists, on the other hand, (both incompatibilists and compatibilists) for the most part want to be left alone to engage in disciple-making ministry. Most are reluctant warriors in the issues that divide our church.” This we call apathy. The destructor of societies. Part of the house is burning and they don’t want to put the fire out. And they don’t want to evacuate. The parasite or cancer is spreading and they don’t want to treat it or excise it. They just want to live with it while the body dies. Jesus tells John to tell the 7 churches in Revelation, as good and noble is the work they are doing, their reluctance to deal with the sexual immorality and idolatry invading their churches could result in being spat out into the outer darkness. John Wesley said this goes for all Christ’s churches, then and on into the future.

  5. The compatibilists are not going to drive the church over the edge, but neither will they stop bishops and annual conferences from colluding to engage in acts of “conformity to unconformity,” a gloss for organized disobedience.

    But why should orthodox, traditional Methodists keep listening to rationalizations for disobedience from the Left? Really, I’m not asking this rhetorically. Saturating one’s mind with indoctrination (which has become even more brazen and sanctimonious and subtle and pervasive) seems foolish and patently contrary to scriptural admonition. There are numerous warnings about false teachers and unsound doctrine. Isn’t it time to stop listening to these false teachers?

  6. The problem as I see it, the Progressive InC and Progressive C is they want their way and want to change the church and society to accept their way. They are not content to start their own church and leave the rest of us alone. They want full acceptance from the church and world that they are right. The reason is that they feel like the church and society is condemning them unless we accept their lifestyle. That is why they keep fighting. That is why they go to a Christian bakery and demand a wedding cake instead of going to one of many who have no problem making a wedding cake for them. The very worst thing the church can do is say their lifretyle is right in God’s eyes! That would make it harder for them to ever accept the truth and change before they stand before Jesus and give an account for their lives. That is not loving then, We love them, but not their lifestyle. To really love them is to keep standing for the truth.

    Our current Administration, President Obama, has given them the law supporting them, and our Congress has allowed it. They have not stopped and will not give up until they get what they want, full acceptance of their lifestyle. What are we who accept the inspiration of the Scripture to do?

    Our only alternative, since annual conferences, board of ordained ministries, clergy and some bishops have declared they will not abide by our discipline, is to put teeth into our discipline. i.e. Any clergy, bishop, board of ordained ministry or conference that acts contrary to our UMC Discipline shall lose their credentials and therefore, their jobs.

    This will not keep them from interrupting our General Conferences, but they will have no votes. This will not silence them, and they will not stop fighting until either we give into them or Jesus comes. But because we love them, we must not give in. I am aware that will physically divide our Denomination. But I believe that is going to happen anyway.

  7. What you do not address is, even if the church is restructured in an attempt to “make everybody happy”, what happens when the next crusade arises? When and where does this end? John Wesley feared that Methodism would become the form of religion without the power–this mess is way beyond that prediction. Another way to view this is to acknowledge that Big Tent Methodism has proven to be a stunning failure not only for the institution as a whole but for individuals like me who simply wanted a clear understanding of who God is and who I am. No wonder people have been walking away for going on 50 years.

  8. This analysis is very helpful and clarifying. I consider myself an incompatibilist (Inc), but I don’t want to be hostile toward people in that position, but I do believe that we need to be hostile toward the progressive teaching. I believe that there are sound theological reasons for taking the Inc position. Not only do the standard arguments that homosexual behavior is a sin hold up, but also we must consider what this debate implies about the spiritual welfare of the church. Ultimately, the progressive stance on homosexuality is teaching or doctrine that does harm to the entire body of Christ. The New Testament is adamant that such false teaching and behavior should be expelled. The case that Paul addressed in I Corinthians 5 is pertinent. Paul’s concern was the spiritual welfare of the sinning individual (5:5) but also with the welfare of the entire church (5:6). We need to recognize that the sexual revolution of the 1960’s has assaulted us–not just through this one issue, but also through cohabitation and rampant divorce. This calls for humility and much prayer, but also for strong determination to resist the antinomian spirits against which we war. The Wesleyan/Methodist tradition has always resisted antinomianism. So did John in I John 1:6, 2:1, 2:3, 3:4, 5:5, 5:18, as did also Paul in Romans 6 (whole chapter), 8:12-13, 12:1-2, etc. We could go on to cite from James as well as sayings of Jesus. Antinomianism comes out of a Gnostic-like spirit that tries to separate “spiritual” from what is done in our bodies. It is also related to a hyper-grace and hyper-liberty spirit that fails to acknowledge the need to experience God’s redeeming victory in our behavior. Of course, these tendencies are combined with the pseudo-rationalistic/scientific arguments that justify homosexual behavior. I believe it would be disastrous to redesign the UMC into some sort of parallel universe so that everybody who wants can be a United Methodist without regard to whether he or she is or is not open to the delivering, transforming power of God in Jesus Christ. Such a state of things would not be a church: it would be a monstrosity that sends mixed messages to a world of hurting people who need salvation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *