The Western Jurisdiction has released a Theological Declaration. I, for one, appreciate this as it gives us the ability to examine the declared beliefs of the Western Jurisdiction with the declared beliefs of the United Methodist Church. In doing so, it will become clear, yet again, that while human sexual ethics might be the topic that people are obsessing over, the reality is that we have very real, and very serious, theological differences, and that, at the very least, The Western Jurisdiction, is at odds with United Methodist Beliefs. As is often he case, the explanation of why the simplistic plattitudes are wrong will end up being longer than the original statement, so I will make every attempt to be as brief as I think prudent, while recognizing that this will take more than one writing.
Let’s start with the preamble. “In view of the decades-long discrimination of our LGBTQIA+ siblings and in light of the Special General Conference 2019, which approved—by a narrow margin—a plan that was not only largely unconstitutional but also has pushed The United Methodist Church off of its theological foundation,” Parts of this are simply false and misleading. The United Methodist Church has not been pushed of it’s theological foundation in any way by the decisions made at General Conference. The UMC has always maintained, as has the church catholic until the 1950s or so, and as the vast majority of the church catholic still, that sex between two of the same gender is inherently sinful. Affirming what the United Methodist Church has always affirmed is not going off your theological foundations, it is being true to them.
“we refuse to yield to a plan that replaces grace with punishment and that abandons robust engagement of scripture to biblical literalism.” The modern notions of biblical literalism, and just that, modern. I do not know why it is that those more progressive in their faith refuse to listen to the chorus of voices that continually say that modern biblical literalism is not the proper way to understand scripture. I am not certain why there is an insistence on saying that literalism is the only way to find that sex between two of the same gender is inherently sinful when that has been the understanding fo the church since long before modern notions of literalism existed. Wesley, in both sermons and letters affirmed that sodomy (his word, not mine) was sinful. In the 18th century, sodomy was a word understood to refer to several sexual practices that included, but was not limited to, sex between those of the same gender. Wesley was not a literalist. The Catholic Church, who hold a traditional sexual ethic as well, instructs those reading scripture in this manner: “Catholics are taught that the first step in interpretation of the Bible is the same as for other literature, to identify the literary form in the original context. In the newspaper that means: is it a report or an editorial, a straight commentary or a satire? For the Bible it might mean: is it a history or a parable, a Gospel or a psalm, is it spiritual or biological (which affects, for example, the interpretation of “born again”)? This applies also to phrases: are they literal or metaphorical (“She laughed her head off”)?” (From “Basis of Catholic interpretation of Bile differs from Protestants”) That is hardly a literal perspective. The quadriga, which has it’s origins in Rabbinical schools of Judaism and and also Greek thought, and was used well into the middle ages, and is in use still today by many, including myself, is not a literal understanding, and yet the sexual ethic remains the same. At best this is a tone deaf statement made from inside a bubble of assumptions and at worst it is an attempt to willingly mislead and sow division. Either way, it is a false statement and only demonstrates that there is a severe lack of understanding.
“We refuse to limit the movement of God’s Holy Spirit in the lives of all God’s beloved children. We stand firm in grace and love.” The implication here seems to be that those who maintain a traditional sexual ethic do not stand firm in grace and love which is really just the same tired slander that many of us have become used to. It is unfortunate. Standing in grace and love does not mean endorsing actions that one believes to be sinful. We stand in grace and love, yet I believe that we can all agree that cold blooded murder is a sin. It is very possible and we all do so in many ways in which we agree. It is sad that when there is a disagreement on what constitutes holy living that the immediate assumption is that there is no grace or love in those whom you disagree with.
On to the first section. In this section, the example of communion in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 is used to demonstrate that we are one body. “As one body in Christ, we affirm and pledge to proclaim- The new church as a vibrant loving community in which differences of any kind—race, ethnicity, language, culture, sexual identity, gender, ability, nationality—are affirmed as manifestations of God’s abundant and holy creation;” Here we get to see the first significant fundamental difference that we have in theology that does not revolve around Christian sexual ethics. We are now dealing with Creation theology and God’s original intent in creation. God’s original intent did not include nationalities. I am not even certain where that idea comes from. It did not really include race either. It did not include different languages. It did not include ability in the sense of being differently-abled which I assume is being referenced here. It did not include sexual identity because, to be perfectly frank, scripture does not talk about it in the least because it is not the issue. God’s intent at creation was paradise, and a paradise that we all hope to return to when the world is finally restored. While God’s creation was perfect, sin entered into the world, and thus corrupted creation, including humanity. While God’s work of restoration is ongoing, and will be completed by Him, God’s creation was holy before the fall, and will be holy again upon the return of Christ, but it is not holy currently.
On the traditional sexual ethic end of things, most of us point to Matthew 19 where Jesus speaks to divorce and expresses what God intended from the beginning. “And He answered and said to them, Have you not read that He who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, For this cause a man shall leave father and mother and shall cling to his wife, and the two of them shall be one flesh? Therefore they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” We believe that this expresses God’s intent for marriage. We turn to comments such as those by John Wesley (who still isn’t a literalist) when he says in his New Testament notes “He said, Have ye not read – So instead of contradicting him, our Lord confutes them by the very words of Moses. He who made them, made them male and female from the beginning – At least from the beginning of the Mosaic creation. And where do we read of any other? Does it not follow, that God’s making Eve was part of his original design, and not a consequence of Adam’s beginning to fall? By making them one man and one woman, he condemned polygamy: by making them one flesh, he condemned divorce.” We look to the condemnation of polygamy that Wesley finds here and apply it not only to that, but to all forms of relationships that do not conform to God’s original intent in the garden.
Arguments over which is right and wrong aside (I have no desire to rehash them here), what is clear is that we have a different theology of creation, a different understanding of the fall from grace and it’s results, and a fundamentally different understanding of that which is holy, and intended by God at creation, beyond matters of sexual ethics. These are large theological differences massively affect our understandings of God. The Western Jurisdiction says that differences of any kind are manifestations of God’s holy creation. Is a child born with a crippling genetic disorder really a manifestation of God’s holy creation? Of course not, God is no monster. The world is, just like us, in need of restoration to God’s original intent. No expression that is outside God’s original intent can rightly be called holy. We know God’s original intent through the creation narrative, through the scriptures, and especially through Christ who gives us the example of what life in The Kingdom of Heaven is supposed to look like upon His return, and also what it looks like in the present Kingdom of Heaven, His church. We have a fundamentally different understanding of this.
“A faithful church in which the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion, as well as confirmation, ordination, marriage, servant ministries, mission work, and leadership at every level, are open to all who are called by God and affirmed by the church, as witnessed by our Risen Savior and Lord;” I am going to make a couple of assumptions here. The first one is that this is simply poor sentence structure and that they have not added confirmation, etc. as sacraments. The second is that what they mean is that it is affirmed by their church, whatever that church may be. I am left to believe that they intend to separate, thus mean their church here because this is exactly what they have with the current UMC save for they don’t agree with some of the people that the church says can not be affirmed. Just so that we are clear, the UMC does not forbid ordination of LGBTQ individuals, but it does say that some chosen actions do disqualify you from ordination. That is pretty reasonable all in all.
“The historic doctrine and Wesleyan ecclesiology of The United Methodist Church, rooted and grounded in the Trinity, in which accountability is marked by covenant and grace;” Here, again, we see some fairly large theological differences. Their understanding of the connexion, which would be a part of their ecclesiology, is fundamentally different than more traditional United Methodists. Their connexion says we are connected so long as we can do what we want. They currently have at least one individual acting as a Bishop that the church says should not be a Bishop. They refuse to follow through. That is not the connexion that Wesley understood, nor is it the connexion that our polity spells out. I also have a difficult time believing that they understand accountability as they blatantly refuse to have any sort of accountability other than to themselves. I also find it difficult to believe that they value covenant, other than to say that they value a covenant that they agree with. More progressive pastors will often say that they are honoring their baptismal vows to resist evil and injustice, and I can respect that. The problem is that our system is such that those things can be resisted, and changes made, without breaking the covenant made at ordination. When it did not work, they chose disobedience. That is not covenant, it is hubris. We have a fundamental difference in understanding what a covenant is, what the conexion is, and in our understandings of ecclesiology.
I am going to end this here for the time being. This is about the maximum length that I care to write in one setting. I will pick up with the rest soon. I want to say this in ending. Their statement demonstrates that we have serious differences in creation theology, in our understanding of God’s original intent, our understanding of connexion, of covenant, and of ecclessiology, not to mention what is holy or not. Any one of those would cause difficulties on their own, but all of those paint a picture of two very different expressions of the Christian faith that are divergent enough so as to be separate expressions. I appreciate that the Western Jurisdiction is finally giving us the statements that prove this to be true.