Thinking about the middle way solutions offered by some for the current crisis over sexuality that we face in the United Methodist Church, I can’t help but wonder and ask, how wide is this middle path?
The middle way solutions seem to have as the common ground that this current debate is an indifferent matter on the level of clerical dress and modes of baptism. That is that we are still walking in the same direction and should continue to walk hand in hand while we “agree to disagree” over this particular issue. As if sex, the very thing that connects us to the continuation of God’s good creation like no other, is not really that big a deal. This may be somewhat of a simplistic caricature, but this seems to be the practical implication. On the other hand, it may not be too simplistic because we do have leaders and others who compare this disagreement to disagreements over vestments and modes of worship. Some actually do seem to find more ire for Methodists with different views and practices of baptism and holy communion than those who refuse to abide by our covenant and the Bible with regards to sexuality and marriage. A few months ago someone posted a blog to which many of my colleagues said, “amen” that listed a whole slew of things that we United Methodists ignore in the Book of Discipline, including things like not having a UMW group. Any honest person would have to admit though, that none of those other issues have quite the same powerful caucus groups and well-financed political forces behind them to encourage open defiance, subversion, or legislative change. If it’s not really that big a deal, then why is it so obviously such a big deal?
It seems to me that the middle path solutions should really be the worst of solutions from the perspective of the right or the left. Simply claiming the middle doesn’t automatically place one in the center of God’s will.
At the Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis earlier this week, Dr. Craig Barnes, President of Princeton Theological seminary, said that everyone claims the middle path. That is no one is saying they are representing the lunatic fringe position. I think a better way to say it might be that everyone in this debate believes they are representing the faithful and reasonable position. He also said that no one is arguing that Scripture is just wrong, but each contingency is reading Scripture differently. It is he said, simply a matter of hermeneutics. This is not true, however, because there are some who have argued that Scripture just got this thing about homosexuality wrong. The way Tex Sample put it, for example, was that Paul can’t be expected to be right on everything, while he got a lot right, he missed it on a couple of things, namely homosexuality and women. Tex would go onto to argue, “graciously”, that we should give Paul a break because “he wasn’t Jesus after all.” Of course he would then, as is the custom of some, go on to make an argument from Jesus’ silence on the subject for his tacit approval of homosexual unions and ordination. Barnes also neglects Phyllis Tickle whom I heard argue in a lecture, basically that it’s a fool’s errand to try to argue that the Bible doesn’t condemn all forms of homosexual behavior. She too argues that Paul, and Leviticus for that matter, just got it wrong.
In the Cokesbury store at the Festival of Homiletics I skimmed Adam Hamilton’s new book on Scripture. While I haven’t thoroughly perused it yet, from what I gathered in my skimming and from what Adam has blogged about it previously is that Adam is now throwing his hat into the same ring. He seems to be arguing that the Bible was inspired in the same way that God continues to inspire sermons today, especially his I guess, and that it wasn’t inspired infallibly in all respects. Hence his bucket three for those passages that he says don’t reflect the heart and character of God, which claim seems to assume that that is the only purpose of truly inspired Scripture.
So there are some and more and more who seem to be arguing that Scripture just got this wrong. That is basically the view presented by Dan O. Via, in the book he did with Robert Gagnon entitled, “Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views”. But I digress.
The point is that whether you are a traditionalist or a revisionist of the persuasion that we have just misinterpreted Scripture for 2000 years on this topic or that Scripture just got it wrong, it doesn’t make any sense to throw this into the category of “indifferent matters.” If you believe the traditional position and that Paul was writing by the Spirit when he argued that homosexual sex or sexual immorality in general among other things could exclude one from the Kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10), then you can’t in good conscious accept the idea that this issue is not really that big a deal. On the other hand, if you believe that homosexuals were created by God just “to be who they are” and should not be condemned for just being who they were created to be in the same way as you wouldn’t agree to disagree over the condemnation of people with green eyes for having green eyes, then it doesn’t seem to me that one in the progressive camp could really be comfortable at all with rendering this a matter of opinion on the same level as modes of worship or baptism. I think it is quite obvious that such a person would vigorously continue to stand against what they clearly see as unjust oppression, and rightfully so IF their premise is correct. How could such a person abide in an agreement that allowed such supposed oppression to continue without trying to stop it and condemn it? On the other hand, how could a traditionalist who believes that the real cruelty would be to allow people to find their identity in behavior that they believe could exclude them from God’s kingdom abide in a covenant without trying to call all people to find a new identity in Christ and become a new creation in him by living a traditionally chaste Christian life sexually? These are two competing directions and compromise is not only impossible, but for both should be seen as irresponsible, at least it would seem to me.
So how wide is the path that says, none of this really matters anyway, any more than robes or mode of baptism? I believe it’s probably the widest path of all. Is this indifference not what John Wesley called “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.” Wesley also says, “this unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism” (See Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” III:1).
So what is the path to unity? Well, I don’t believe we have to guess. It’s already been laid out for us in our own Book of Discipline and certainly in the Bible.
Be faithful to the covenant that we have already established and settled upon with regards to sex and marriage even after over four decades of debate. If you disagree with that covenant then you may continue to work to change it through legislation, but otherwise abide by it. Bishops and Annual Conferences should seriously enforce it, as vigorously as I’m sure they would if the tables were turned. After two or three admonitions, if a person or group continues to openly defy the covenant then they should be removed from leadership but still welcomed to receive the ministries of the church and to receive the gospel. If a person cannot abide by the covenant and the teachings of the church then they should seriously consider joining churches that teach differently.
In the current situation, however, this no longer seems to be feasible because some annual conference have already created schism by refusing to seriously enforce and hold clergy accountable to our covenant. In effect by a fiat of sorts they have for all practical purposes created a covenant of their own. Because of this schism is no longer a theoretical possibility but a practical reality. We cannot honestly say that we “with one voice glorify God” (Romans 15:6 ESV). At the Festival of Homiletics, which was clearly dominated by progressives, people who think like me, who aren’t eager to dance in the progressive parade, were called “wet blankets” (by Brian McLaren) and identified with the legalism of the Pharisees (by Mike Slaughter ). We do not with one voice glorify God, instead we bite and devour one another (Galatians 5:15).
Of course there are people who are truly confused and conflicted over this whole issue, but there is no doubt that there are two strong and very entrenched camps that are not. The later I don’t believe is the case because they have not listened to each other deeply enough or dialogued long enough. It’s been over forty years! Indeed, I think these two camps have listened to one another and have understood one another, and in reality they both know that they are marching in different directions to the beat of two different drummers.
Sure we could stay together in name only, but rest assured that we will continue to bite and devour one another and how much more of this can we take before we are all consumed. For me unity for unity’s sake is idolatry, because the same Bible that encourages us to unity also commands us to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness” and not to associate with those who promote sinful things and refuse to repent (Read all of Ephesians 4 and 5 not to mention Matthew 18). There are times when a separation is the necessary and healthy thing to do for all involved.
There is plenty of sin in both of these competing camps. I don’t believe we are in the current mess we are in only because of one side. We all need to repent! But with regards to this particular issue, which is not an indifferent matter, these two camps or sides or whatever you want to call them are diametrically opposed to each other with regards to some pretty major core issues when it comes right down to it. Both sides could be wrong but both can’t be right. If we continue as we are, competing with one another, biting and devouring one another, pretty soon we will all be consumed by one another (Gal 5:15). It seems to me that the only two viable possibilities is that we agree to abide by and promote what the official denominational stance sees as Christ’s call to chastity for his disciples, that is celibacy in singleness or faithfulness in marriage traditionally understood; or we seriously consider a gracious and merciful amicable separation. Ideally this would happen through the biblical process of accountable discipleship, but it looks like that can’t be expected to happen in some quarters where a different practical and unofficial covenant is being forged through disobedience and intentional neglect. Honestly, this seems to be such a unique mess that I don’t know what the answer should be. Whatever the right answer is though, its discovery will mostly likely come at the end of much repentance, fasting, and prayer.
Nevertheless, many of the so called middle paths don’t seem to me to be biblical, in keeping with our Wesleyan tradition, reasonable, gracious, or merciful. Sure, it may keep the denomination together in name only, but the biting and devouring will continue until it is all consumed. The middle path plans may seem to be the easiest, although obviously with inherent difficulties of their own. They may allow us to avoid the really difficult issues, to kick the proverbial can down the road again, and pretend like this really isn’t all that big a deal. Yet the reality is that there are two strong sides that are diametrically opposed who from each of their perspectives should responsibly seek to call the other side to repentance. To repent means to turn around and go in an altogether different direction. Both of these alternative paths could be the wide path, but both can’t be the narrow path. The widest path of all, however, may be the so called middle one.
Matthew 7:13-14 (NIV)
13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.