United Methodist Church Way Forward Part 5: Theologian Critiques 'One Church Plan'

When I was in seminary, my first year Greek class was taught by David Watson, who was at that time writing a doctoral dissertation on the Gospel of Mark, and was easily one of my best teachers in my time at Perkins.  Today Dr. Watson is the dean of United Theological Seminary, one of our official United Methodist schools of theology, which has seen a renaissance under his leadership.  Dr. Watson is a clear thinking scholar who loves the Lord, the Church, and the Word of God.

Dr. Watson has also recently published a critical piece pointing out some major problems with the "One Church Plan" that many of our bishops hope (see previous post) will be adopted by General Conference in February as a way for the United Methodist Church to preserve its institutional unity in the midst of our disagreements over how to apply Biblical and traditional authority in the church, in particular as it relates to the issues of sexuality and the meaning of Christian marriage.

I heartily encourage you to read his full post: The One Church Plan: Problems of Governance and Theology.
As I let the bishops "speak for themselves" in the last post, I'll be making generous use of quotations in this one, so that Dr. Watson can speak for himself, with some comments of my own, of course.

As the title makes clear, Dr. Watson sees two major types of problems with the One Church Plan (OCP).  The first is a problem of governance.  In any large and diverse denomination, there will be some disagreement among the members about almost every issue.  The imperative thing for maintaining institutional unity, then, is to have a clear system for addressing these disagreements.  For United Methodists, that is the General Conference.  We have a clear system of authority in the UMC, but because the General Conference has consistently re-affirmed that classical teachings on sexual morality and the definition of marriage (and is likely to continue to do so under the current way of doing things), the authority that holds us together in the midst of our diversity is itself now being rejected by many Progressives and Liberals who have grown impatient with what they see as injustice in the system:

Yes, United Methodists disagree about homosexuality, but we have ways of dealing with disagreement. The threat of division is not the result of disagreement. Rather, the threat of division comes from the rejection of our processes for resolving disagreement by some segments of the church, including some of our bishops. I understand that those who have rejected our processes for the resolution of disagreement have done so out of a deep sense of moral obligation. We should be clear, however, that what we are facing is not simply a clash of ideologies, but a crisis of governance.

I believe that the Bishops, as a group, have greatly contributed to this crisis by continuously affirming as a group that they will uphold church teachings and church law, but then being apparently unwilling or unable to follow through when clergy (or even other bishops) choose to ignore church teachings as affirmed by the General Conference.
If General Conference itself can be discounted, how then can the diverse institution be held together?

The OCP's 'Local Option' offers a new approach to this problem.  I wonder, after reading Watson's assessment, if he believes we are moving toward a congregationalist polity (moving us closer to how Baptists operate), and away from the connectionalism that has historically been a defining feature of Methodism:

The solution they offer changes our governance, moving some decision-making authority to local churches, individuals, and annual conferences....Noteworthy is the move toward a polity based on individual conscience, rather than on the collective decisions of the church. One might object that the OCP shifts decision-making power only with regard to matters related to homosexuality, but its basic principle, clearly spelled out in its “Theological and Biblical Foundations,” is that our deep disagreement necessitates this shift. Were we to follow this same principle moving forward, whenever there is deep disagreement at the level of the General Conference, we should simply move decision-making power to local levels.

The One Church Plan involves moving decision making authority to a more local level in the church as a way of moving forward and helping to resolve our denomination-wide conflicts over human sexuality and theological authority.  I have long argued that I believe this will simply move us from an ugly fight that happens once every four years at General Conference to an ugly fight that happens every year at Annual Conference, and potentially even more frequently in the local Church.  Watson agrees:

I have particular concerns about the OCP at the local church level. It specifically states, “Local churches are not required to vote. Most would likely make no changes in practice at the local level” (15). It also affirms: “This plan minimizes disruption in the local church (in most cases) and gives freedom to churches to adapt in order to minister to the LGBTQ community in context” (15). This picture of the effects of the OCP on local churches is optimistic, to put it kindly. It would only take a very small vocal minority to push for a vote in any church. Most United Methodist churches represent a diverse array of opinions about matters related to LGBTQ persons. In time, most will likely vote if the OCP passes. This plan avers that it is merciful to allow churches to debate and decide issues related to LGBTQ people internally, rather than relying on the duly elected representatives to the General Conference. I would argue that this is not mercy, but cruelty. The church I attend, like so many others in United Methodism, would be torn apart were it forced into such a decision. Shifting the locus of authority from the General Conference to the Annual Conference, local church, and individual would not resolve our disagreements or bring peace, but rather metastasize the rancor and division that so characterizes our quadrennial gatherings.

Beyond issues of governance (church polity), the One Church Plan, says Dr. Watson, raises significant issues of theology.

There are also numerous theological problems. For example, a proposed amendment to ¶105 reads, “As we continue to faithfully explore issues of sexuality, we will honor the theological guidelines of Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, acknowledging that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ (John 1:14) may cause person of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently” (20, italics mine). By this rationale, our disagreement results from God’s revelation of truth and grace. How God’s revelation and grace have led us into this confusion is unclear, as is God’s rationale for doing so. Apparently, God is in fact the author of confusion (contra 1 Cor 14:33). 

This is an interesting point.  In the italicized sentence "God's revelation" is what "may cause persons of good conscience" to disagree.  How can the Church officially affirm such a thing?  Surely it is our finitude or limitations or sins that "cause" our disagreements, and not God's own revelation?

So too Watson then suggests:
Perhaps a better rationale would be, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12, NRSV). In other words, in our human brokenness and finitude, we may not be able always to perceive God’s truth with clarity. This would mean, however, that some people in our denominational debate have perceived God’s will more clearly than others, which the OCP is loathe to concede.

That some people are right and others are wrong is a concession that the OCP is not willing to make, but logic demands that it is clearly true in this case:
If there is a God who did indeed create marriage for his own purposes,
Then it cannot follow logically that our mutually-contradictory interpretations of what marriage means are both correct and both equally in harmony with the one Divine Will.  Such an assertion runs contrary to Reason.

Watson then goes on to note that the OCP document does not offer a theological rationale for its new revised definition of marriage, which means it could be an unstable definition resting (potentially) shifting sands.  What if, for instance, advocates of "open marriage" begin to assail the revised definition, if there is not a theological and Biblical rationale for why marriage must be monogamous?

While the promoters of the One Church Plan have described it as "generous" in allowing people with differing interpretations to stand together in unity, Watson does not believe that the OCP actually creates the "Neutral Ground" that it claims to make:

It is important to note that the OCP implicitly affirms same-sex marriage. By eliminating the stipulation that marriage is between one man and one woman, we are not simply creating space for a broad range of positions. We are implicitly stating that we recognize the validity of gay marriage as a denomination, even if some members of our denomination do not agree with our doing so. In other words, we have a case of addition by subtraction. Crucial to this point is that there is no local option attending the redefinition of marriage. It is a redefinition for the entire denomination. Committed traditionalists should not be happy with this.
Yet the OCP also allows clergy, local churches, and Annual Conferences to reject and even prohibit same-sex marriage and the ordination of self-avowed, practicing homosexual people. Following the line of argument that progressives have made since the earliest days of our denomination, this is simply the continuation of a longstanding pattern of discrimination. It will allow United Methodists in some areas to act in ways that progressives have long claimed to be unjust, bigoted, hateful, and harmful.
All this is to say, the OCP does not create a neutral ground where all can stand in unity. Rather, it offers us a picture of the church in which the way we understand and practice marriage just is not all that important. Those who do think our understanding of marriage is a crucial part of our life together – those who hold deep theological and ethical convictions about marriage – will never be satisfied with this proposal.
Finally, Watson criticizes the way the One Church Plan document deploys the language of 'religious liberty'.  Long time readers of this blog will note that I have, along with many Libertarians, long been an advocate of addressing some hot-button culture war issues in the United States at the State and Local levels whenever possible, instead of forcing upon us a one-size fits all approach from the Federal Government which inevitably does not take into account the very real differences in cultures among the states.
Some may find it odd, then, that I oppose moving decision making about how the church will handle some of the same theological issues to a more local level.  But the difference is rooted in the vast difference between a nation (into which you are born, and which has the power to compel you to obey its laws - even by using physical violence) on the one hand, and a Christian Church on the other, which one freely joins on the other.  Watson explores this same issue in the final section of his piece:

Religious liberty is a notion at home in the sphere of civil government. It protects religious groups and individuals from restrictions and interference by the government in the expression of their beliefs and practices. As an ecclesiological concept, religious liberty is as out of place as a pig in a rose garden. Churches are communities of faith and practice. In the United States, joining a church is, in and of itself, an expression of religious liberty. The decision to order one’s life in keeping with the teachings of the church is also an expression of religious liberty. Such liberty is necessary so that people of faith can live out their convictions in a society that does not always share those convictions. But should people of faith be protected from the convictions of the communities of faith they have freely chosen? The use of “religious liberty” in the OCP betrays a deep confusion about the difference between a church and a civil society. This confusion, moreover, runs through the entire plan like a foundational crack that will eventually result in the collapse of the entire structure.
To be honest, I am not entirely sure what the best way forward is for our denomination. I do believe, however, that the OCP is too deeply flawed on too many levels to move us forward in faithfulness and integrity. 
I appreciate Dr. Watson's tireless work to revitalize the church and its theological education (much-needed work that has borne some fruit already), as well as is less-well-known work to make the church more accessible to individuals with disabilities and learning disorders.  I hope people will consider well what he has written.  Again, the FULL Article is HERE.

In my next article, I will offer my own concerns about the One Church Plan and my assessment of the other two plans as well.

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