Proposed changes to the #UMC Book of Discipline – “Wesley Conscience Option”

keep calmThere are several, even one from the conservative side, plans on how to stay together. Most, if not all, require a great deal of legislative action — which may or may not make it through the Judicial Council. They would require a moving of heaven and earth to deal with what may — I say this by stepping back and looking at a document, and in no way do I mean to divorce the morality, justice, and emotional attachments to this issue — a simple issue.

As I covered in my initial plan, I believe one simple step may help quiet down some quarters.

The below comes from the Book of Discipline, which also contains large amounts of words dedicated to insuring ministers and agencies “do no harm” to gay Christians.

The Language as it Stands Now:

¶ 304.3 Qualifications for Ordination

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.2

¶ 341.6: Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.

These are my proposed changes:

¶ 304.3 Qualifications for Ordination

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

¶ 341.6: Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches or on property owned by the United Methodist Church. Recognizing that the call of God is an exercise of conscience, ministers may at their own discretion choose to perform homosexual unions in accordance with their state laws and regulations, provided that no such union or any event related to such ceremony shall take place at a United Methodist church.

Additional Requirements:

I would suggest adding a hefty penalty for those who violate 341.6, a penalty removed from the Bishop’s hands. For example, and only as an example, if a minister is charged with violating 341.6, they will be immediately tried before a panel of visiting Bishops and District Superintendents. The only decision to be made is if the person actually performed a gay marriage on church grounds. If they did, they will immediately be defrocked across the UMC with no hope of return to ordination status. In other words, if the person violated this rule, then no one could stop the penalty.


I am unaware of the authority of the United Methodist Church to say what is and what is not pure Christian teaching. Further, not all Christians believe the same thing about this issue. It is like saying “Christian teaching” in regards to Arminianism and Calvinism or women’s ordination. “Christian teaching” is a term used by one side to dismiss the other. Homosexuality has always been condemned, however, by the United Methodist Church and its forebearers. But, we have to recognize that we are not the only authority on Christian teaching and equally recognize that what we consider “Christian,” others do not (i.e., infant baptism, the real presence, social justice). Thus, allow ministers to conduct gay marriages if their state allows for it, outside of their appointments and away from a United Methodist church. We may also include something along “with permission from _____” with such a space filled in with either a Bishop or perhaps even the SPC.

John Wesley, in his sermon On Conscience, writes, “Whatever it directs you to do, according to the word of God, do; however grievous to flesh and blood. Whatever it forbids, if the prohibition be grounded on the word of God, see you do it not; however pleasing it may be to flesh and blood.”3 While many may disagree with the conscience of these ministers to bless same-sex marriage, if they themselves find it grounded upon Scripture, how then can we rightfully prevent them? That is our Wesleyan distinctiveness, that we have a certain amount of liberty in our conscience, but it is bound to the freedom from Scripture.4 implies liberty to follow where conscience, word, and Spirit lead.” (37).]

Further, Wesley knows that there are times we must “obey God rather than men:”

In things forbidden of God, we dare not obey them; for we are to obey God rather than man. In things enjoined of God, we do not properly obey them, but our common Father. Therefore, if we are to obey them at all, it must be in things indifferent. The sum is, it is the duty of every private Christian to obey his spiritual Pastor, by either doing or leaving undone anything of an indifferent nature; anything that is no way determined in  the Word of God.5


I believe in full inclusion because I do not think Scripture warrants exclusion; however, I also believe in order. I recognize the only thing that will actually hurt me (although I hope all injustice, heretical error, or oppression hurts each of us) is a separation because I am a straight, white male who is not in the ordained ministry of the United Methodist Church. Further, I just got here. I am not a cradle United Methodist and do not have family ties in the UMC. This does not stop me from caring for it and wanting to see it preserved, however.

I affectionately called this the “Boy Scout Option” for several reasons. One, it allows for a soft-compromise that will charge people to their conscience. Two, it requires a strict honor system. But, I think now we should call it the Wesley Conscience Option.

  1. “Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844, 984, 1020
  2. See Judicial Council Decisions 984, 985, 1027, 1028
  3. Wesley’s sermons are included in our foundational documents and as such must be consulted and used in the formation of doctrine.”
  4. Liberty of conscience “means liberty to hear and heed the voice of conscience; the freedom to study the word of Scripture which informs conscience, to engage in the hermeneutical task so that Scripture may be opened; and taught by the Spirit of truth.” – Leon O Hynson, “John Wesley’s Concept of Liberty of Conscience,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 7 (1972): 43 and “In a word, [liberty of conscience
  5. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986), 114.

Post By Joel Watts (10,072 Posts)

Joel L. Watts holds a Masters of Arts from United Theological Seminary with a focus in literary and rhetorical criticism of the New Testament. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Website: → Unsettled Christianity


25 thoughts on Proposed changes to the #UMC Book of Discipline – “Wesley Conscience Option”

  1. Hi Joel. I’ll give you this: Your proposal, unlike the others from those trying to be moderate, is actually a compromise. And I like that about it. The progressives would get freedom to perform gay unions on their own time, but not at UM churches (I would expand that to on UM property). They would get something, but not everything they are asking for. The traditionalists would get tightened accountability to church order, and a realistic way for doing church trials (although that too would need some tweaking to make sure it works). Kudos to you. You have contributed something to the conversation. Whether the plan has a realistic chance of being adopted, I don’t know. But it’s no worse off than any of the other plans out there.

    • Thanks, James!

      now if only people would notice ;)

      Yes, I would agree with the property bit. In my mind, when i read church i see property as well – but it needs to be included to campgrounds, etc…

      • The property thing bothers me. Too many issues. If a gay person is paying tithing, their tithing goes in part to the support and or acquisition of the property. It is basically saying, you are paying for the property, but you can’t use it. I still like the local solutions better. Each local congregation votes in a “super majority”, what every that is determined to be, to decide for themselves, per the previously discussed plan. But, from a practical standpoint, whatever you can get passed through the bureaucracy, more power to you.
        Although, I would think that the local option would result in conservative churches having a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach, which didn’t work for the military. I see no solution that is satisfactory.

        • The local option is appealing until the issue of not having permanent appointments, guaranteed appointments, and similar things come up. Would make a very difficult if not impossible situation.

        • The major problem with the local option is that most churches are not having this discussion right now. They aren’t because they know how damaging it would be. A few years back my own church went through a process to discern whether we would be a reconciling congregation and it just about ripped us in half (with members from both sides of the discussion leaving our church). While it may not always stay civilized while being discussed at AC or GC, it would most certainly not stay civilized in a local church situation. We would be straining the relationships inside our churches past breaking points, ones that at this point aren’t mendable.

          • Walker, I agree. Completely, which is one of the reasons I am against any of the local options out there and would rather focus on baby steps of conscience and reconciliation.

  2. Joel, you keep knockin’ ‘em out of the park on this issue, at least as far as I’m concerned. I’m picking up this post for UM Insight, because I think it’s a creative attempt to reach a genuine compromise position. I, too, think we need both full inclusion and order (but “not too much order,” as the late Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis told his former student Felix Frankfurter upon the latter’s ascension to the high court).

    You’re doing some excellent thinking, and it’s my privilege to bring your work to a broader audience.

  3. Joel, I’m not a Methodist or even a Christian. I am a lawyer. As a lawyer, I feel compelled to say that your proposed changes to the Book of Discipline strike me as odd, inappropriate, discriminatory, and ultimately unworkable.

    If the practice of homosexuality is NOT incompatible with Christian teaching, then what is the problem?

    You seem to be suggesting three broad categories of sexual activity: (1) sexual activity that is compatible with Christian teaching, (2) sexual activity that is incompatible with Christian teaching and (3) sexual activity that is neither compatible nor incompatible with Christian teaching. Your proposed change to 1 304.3 appears to move “the practice of homosexuality” out of category (2) and into category (3). That raises a number of difficult questions about “Christian teaching.” I think that Christianity arguably does place certain forms of sexual activity into category (2) – for example, adultery, and perhaps polygamy. But the only sexual practice that scripture clearly places into category (1) is celibacy. Obviously, there have been later developments leading many to conclude that even celibacy should fall into category (3), and that certain forms of consensual sexual activity between one man and one woman within a church-sanctioned marriage fall into category (1). But we would probably be hard-pressed to define exactly what falls into category (1) – for certain, a review of the legal history of the United States reveals many sexual practices that have been forbidden even within so-called “traditional marriage.”

    Your proposed change to 1 304.3 appears to express the principle that the UMC can bar any candidate from the ministry who “self-avows” a sexual practice outside of category (1). Good luck with that! But then, write your proposed change as follows: “In order for a person to be certified as a candidate, ordained as a minister or appointed to serve in the UMC, a person must either (a) refrain from openly acknowledging any personal sexual practice, or (b) openly acknowledge only those sexual practices that are sanctioned by Christian teaching.” That way, you are not singling out homosexuality for special unfavorable critical attention. You are saying that the sexual practices of your UMC candidates are something you deeply care about, but since you’re unwilling or unable to police these practices, you’ll limit your concern to what gets “self-avowed.”

    Yes, I think this is a terrible policy, and I personally would never worship at a church that adopted such a policy, but at least there is a defensible principle in the policy. (It’s not one I would care to defend, but your opinion may be different.) The principle is: “self-avow” at your own risk. It is not quite the same as the failed “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, as nothing prohibits the asking, though the asking stops if the answer is “none of your damn business.”

    I might rattle on about how the entirety of category (3) is none of any church’s business, regardless of self-avowal. But I’ve rattled on long enough.I’ll close by saying that your sincerity is evident, and your concern for church unity is admirable. But you have a stubborn problem on your hands, and it goes to the question I first asked above. So long as there are LGBTQ people in your church, and so long as some in your church believe (incorrectly in my view, and apparently, incorrectly in the view of your proposed change to 1 304.3) that these people need to be marginalized in the life of the church, you have yourself a split church.

    • Larry,

      I don’t even know where to begin answering your comment.

      In regards to “Christian teaching,” this is a term bandied about by all sorts of people. The Calvinists think Armininism is not Christian, etc… So, let’s remove it. What we are really talking about is how we as United Methodists understand our doctrine. Thus, I have changed it as such.

      You third paragraph (You seem…) isn’t accurate. I am moving the exercise of conscience for the individual into the private arena. But, in rereading your fourth paragraph, I get the since the major problem in this paragraph is the exact same issue in your fourth paragraph.

      Your fourth paragraph (Your proposed change) is likewise inaccurate. I didn’t write the language you are referring.

      What you are really challenging is existing policy.

    • Joel, not sure here how to reply to a reply. I think what we have here is a failure to communicate, as the old line goes. I’ll take some Shabbat time to mull over how I could have been clearer. FWIW, most of your reply to my post makes no sense to me either.

      Normally, my communications work out better than this. Perhaps at least one of us is having a bad day. I’ll give this a try at some other point. I hope you can find the unity you seek, on principled terms. Be well.

  4. A clarification….currently, the part you propose striking and editing from paragraph 304.3…the issue is not part of our Doctrinal statements, so cannot be Doctrinal….it is currently against our Polity.

    • Joe – thanks. I’ll make the change back to teaching.

      Some one on one of the forums suggested the change. But, I think you are correct about the polity issue v. doctrinal statements.

  5. The article touched on but did not refine the reaction to breaking this definition of the covenant. I discern the major problem in the “polity” is that reaction to broken covenant is so convoluted and complicated, that the net result is that an action becomes a confusing, expensive sideshow resulting in no action at all in many cases. As you refine proposals, I encourage a definitive “response” to broken covenant. Or this just becomes another convolution in a system choked in convolutions.

  6. Joel,

    I appreciate the thoughtfulness you have put into this. There’s still more to do, I think, assuming there is interest in both preserving the unity of the denomination AND dealing with the facts on the ground that on questions regarding our LGBT sisters and brothers we are far more divided than united.

    1) Kudos on removing the generic “Christian teaching” line. Christian teaching in simple fact is variable on this issue at this time. That’s beyond any debate. Some are more univocal, one way or the other. Some allow for local or judicatory options about how to approach this. Some leave this to these matters to individual conscience. United Methodists have been in the univocal camp on this and many other things. When in point of fact we ourselves are not of one mind about something, or, as in this case, actually have nearly polar opposite views on it, that makes our typical univocal approach harder to sustain, though we’re pretty resistant to let it go lest we be perceived (or perceive ourselves) as “devolving” into some sort of “congregationalism.”

    2) I’m not sure you want to say “doctrine of The United Methodist Church.” I don’t know that one could find specific statements in the doctrinal standards of this Church that would directly and without debate (the very debate we’re already having) address “the practice of homosexuality” (whatever that may be understood to entail). Perhaps better (if we’re going down this path) would be something like “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality.” That would be something General Conference could reasonably say, both only GC speaks for The UMC, and since it limits this judgment to GC itself rather than trying to assert that Christian teaching across the board does so. And, well, we already say that elsewhere in the Discipline (Par 161.F, middle paragraph, p. 111).

    3) I’m afraid your idea of immediate super-penalties would face a constitutional challenge by the Judicial Council and almost certainly lose. The Judicial Council has regularly interpreted the Restrictive Rule protected right of our clergy to a trial as the process specified being applicable to ALL situations in the judicial complaint paragraphs. I can’t imagine they’d affirm a “single issue” exception to that process as outlined for all Further, the process we have does not mandate or even instruct the jury about what sort of penalties they must impose. So on those counts, I don’t think that one gets us anywhere.

    4) I’m not sure your “conscience of the minister” argument will go anywhere, except to get ministers whose conscience permits seriously cross-ways with what perhaps a sufficiently significant number of influential persons whose conscience is otherwise convinced to end up seriously harming pastoral relationships and whole congregations– unless, like ELCA, we first adopt a “respect the bound consciences of one another, especially where we disagree” kind of policy and have some way to make sure we all live by it BEFORE we would adopt such a policy allowing pastors (but not necessarily congregations) to act on their bound conscience in this matter.. Those who are convinced the blessing of such unions or marriages is problematic are not simply concerned about blessings or marriages, but about the underlying premise currently affirmed in 304.3 that “homosexual practice” is “incompatible” or otherwise not condoned by The United Methodist Church. What the language we have doesn’t say directly, but for many does say euphemistically, is that The UMC (through GC) asserts that “homosexual practice” is sinful. If The UMC declares some practice sinful, it would seem problematic on the face of it to allow UMC clergy to “bless” that in any way, would it not?

    Keep working at this, Joel. Keep working to find a way forward that is a way forward for all of the people of The United Methodist Church. And thanks for what you’ve already done to promote further respectful dialog.

    • Taylor, I have updated the language per paragraph 2.

      Indeed, I concur with paragraph 3. I had questions about this which is why I did not write it into the specific language.

      To the point of paragraph 4 – that is exactly why I suggest a “free time” for a UMC minister, but never for the UMC itself. It is tricky, and maybe a bit abstract…

  7. I could not, nor would the United Methodist Church which I pastor, remain in the denomination if the changes you propose we’re made. It is that simple. If the UMC permits gay marriage ceremonies, then we separate. Our conscience can permit us to do nothing else.

    Retread your quote from Wesley. He says we should follow conscience “according to Scripture”. What you proposes violates Scripture. Wesley would be enraged! I know because he was a good friend of mine.

    • How does Joel’s proposal amount to the UMC “permitting” gay marriage ceremonies? If I read Joel right, he proposes nothing more than permitting UMC ministers to officiate at gay marriages outside of the UMC. In his comments, Joel indicates that the UMC has “always condemned” homosexuality, and if I follow Joel correctly, he proposes no modification to this condemnation. The proposal states that the UMC “does not condone” homosexuality. So, where is the “permission”?

      I think Joel is saying no more than that a UMC minister has a life outside of the church. In his comments, Joel states that UMC ministers could officiate at a gay marriage “outside of their appointments.” Don’t UMC ministers have a life of conscience outside of their appointments? Should the UMC fire a minister for attending a gay marriage? Buying the couple a waffle iron? Helping the couple find a minister outside of the UMC? If so, what about the same actions taken by lay leaders, or congregants?

      Don’t get me wrong. I think the change Joel proposes is microscopic.What I don’t understand is how a change this small could be too much change for you. Please explain.

    • Mike – but Wesley also said you cannot separate unless you were forced to do something or forced to withhold something contrary to Scripture. Allowing a pastor conscience is not the same thing as permitting it, or is it the same thing as the UMC condoning it.

      But, again – you didn’t answer my question. In the “evangelical wing,” are women allowed to be ordained?

    • I do not know you, but i do admire your passion, dedication and obvious faith. I did want to make a couple of brief comments however. John Wesley was often seen as having a maverick interpretation of Anglican policy and yet managed to continue on in the Anglican church and eventually become beloved. There are, and will continue to be, differences in theological interpretation among those within any denomination. I think that, at the heart of what Joel is proposing, is the question “what is essential unto salvation”. The underlying idea of this proposal being that homosexuality and the practice thereof is not essential unto salvation. This proposal, or something like it, would permit individual pastors to act out their conscience as they should be able, just as it would permit you to do the same by not performing a same sex union. It reiterates the stance on the church regarding homosexuality, does not allow for any property of the church etc. to be used in such ceremonies, and does not put the UMC in a position of endorsing said unions as a whole. Furthermore, it provides harsh penalties for any who would use the UMC property in such a way. Of course if you believe the practice of homosexuality to be a deal breaker for getting into heaven, then of course you must remain opposed to anything like this, but need to be able to show where there is a definitive biblical statement that would show this. Again thank you for adding to this conversation and I look forward to hearing from you more.

  8. This comment has no data to support it.
    “I could not, nor would the United Methodist Church which I pastor, remain in the denomination…”
    I would VERY much like to get actual data on what a congregation actually thinks. If you actually speak for your congregation, please take a vote of your members. Then report the data back on this site. Not a vocal vote. An actual written polling. I would think most people would be interested in the numbers. I have no doubt that the majority in your congregation feel that way. But I’d like to get a measure of your support. I think it is extremely egotistical to assume you speak for everyone in your congregation, without presenting the actual numbers.

Leave a Reply, Please!