by Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey (Retired), Lake Junaluska, NC
One of the primary issues at stake in the upcoming United Methodist General Conference is our nature as a “connectional” church. Careful exploration of the nature and practice of connectionalism in our history makes it clear that the One Church Plan is grounded in a Wesleyan understanding of connectionalism. A bit of history begins the exploration.
It is common knowledge that the almost 50-year-old debate around homosexuality in The United Methodist Church began, in a formal sense, with an amendment from the floor to a report on the Social Principles at the 1972 General Conference. The statement proposed by the Social Principles Study Commission contained this language at the conclusion of the section on homosexuality: “Homosexuals no less than heterosexuals are persons of sacred worth, who need the ministry and guidance of the church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship which enables reconciling relationships with God, with others and with self. Further, we insist that all persons are entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.” When this report came before the plenary session of the General Conference, a debate ensued when a delegate asked for explanation of the meaning of the words, “entitled to have their human and civil rights ensured.” The debate concluded when the Study Commission’s report was amended by changing the period at the end of this final sentence in this section to a comma, and adding these words: “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Since 1972, subsequent General Conferences have made changes in the wording of this section of the Social Principles, but the statement that the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching” has remained. However, there is one important fact about this phrase that generally escapes notice: the original amendment that was proposed did not contain the word “teaching.” It read: “though we do not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider this practice incompatible with Christian doctrine.” In an online article recounting this decision, the maker of the motion to amend the report noted: “A friendly amendment altering the word ‘doctrine’ to ‘teaching’ was offered, and I accepted it.”
This “friendly amendment” is critically important! It tells us that someone understood, when this language was first inserted into the Book of Discipline, that the issue of homosexuality is not a doctrinal issue! It is a matter of theological interpretation and ethical concern, but it is not a matter of Christian doctrine. Our understanding of Baptism, for instance, is a doctrinal issue that puts the emphasis on God, not humans, as the primary actor in this sacrament. Thus we prohibit the practice of rebaptism. But our understanding of sexuality is theological, ethical, and cultural—not doctrinal. In this action by the 1972 General Conference, this statement of perspective was added to the Social Principles, a document that by definition is not doctrinal and not legally binding on the church. As the Book of Discipline states, “The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions. They are…a call to all members of The United Methodist Church to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.” The Social Principles are important position and teaching statements on how the General Conference views the issues addressed, but they are not doctrinal in the sense of the identity of the church being dependent on them. Originally, then, the “incompatibility” language was placed in a non-legal, non-binding, instructive but not mandatory part of the Book of Discipline. In subsequent years, this “incompatibility” language has been added to legally binding sections of the Book of Discipline, but that has not happened with other issues that are addressed in the Social Principles. To remove the “incompatibility” language from the Book of Discipline would not diminish our doctrinal statements. And such a step would be in keeping with our understanding and experience of connectionalism.
That point is reinforced with references to just a few of the many issues addressed in the Social Principles. The Preamble to the Social Principles states: “We affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the gospel.”
- In ¶ 160 we find these words: “All creation is the Lord’s, and we are responsible for the ways in which we use and abuse it.” There are United Methodists who believe creation is an ever-evolving process, and there are United Methodists who believe creation was accomplished once in seven days—evolutionists and creationists. But I have never heard this disagreement cited as a reason for church schism.
- In ¶ 160.D we read that “‘greenhouse gas’ emissions threaten to alter dramatically the earth’s climate for generations to come…” There are United Methodists who believe climate change is a scientifically verifiable phenomenon, and there are United Methodists who believe that climate change is a hoax. But I have never heard this disagreement cited as a reason for church schism.
- In ¶ 161.K we find these words: “We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures…” In these painful and difficult dilemmas, there are United Methodists who are “pro-choice,” and there are United Methodists who are “pro-life.” But I have never heard this disagreement cited as a reason for church schism.
- In ¶ 162.H we read, “We urge the Church and society to recognize the gifts, contributions, and struggles of those who are immigrants and to advocate for justice for all. We oppose immigration policies that separate family members from each other or that include detention of families with children, and we call on local churches to be in ministry with immigrant families.” There are United Methodists who believe in paths to citizenship for DACA children, and there are United Methodists who believe that such action is a form of undesirable “amnesty” for illegal immigrants. But I have never heard this disagreement cited as a reason for church schism.
- In ¶ 162.V we find these words: “Right to Health Care—…Providing the care needed to maintain health, prevent disease, and restore health after injury or illness is a responsibility each person owes others and government owes to all, a responsibility government ignores at its peril…. We believe it is a governmental responsibility to provide all citizens with health care.” There are United Methodists who believe in universal health care provided by government, and there are United Methodists who do not believe this is the government’s responsibility. But I have never heard this disagreement cited as a reason for church schism.
- In ¶ 163.G we read that “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling…” There are United Methodists who buy state-run lottery tickets virtually every pay day, and there are United Methodists who believe state-run lotteries are huge threats to the well-being of the poor. But I have never heard this disagreement cited as a reason for church schism.
- In ¶ 164.G we find these words: “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings…. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.” There are United Methodists who support capital punishment as a just means of criminal justice, and there are United Methodists who believe capital punishment violates the commandment not to kill. But I have never heard this disagreement cited as a reason for church schism.
- In ¶ 165.C we read, “We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy…. We endorse general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” There are United Methodists who support the “just war” theory of armed conflict, and there are United Methodists who are pacifists. But I have never heard this disagreement cited as a reason for church schism.
Connectionalism has never been defined, understood, or experienced as agreement, except on the sacred and historic documents that comprise our Doctrinal Standards: Scripture, The Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church, The Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church, The Standard Sermons of Wesley, Wesley’s Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, and The General Rules of The Methodist Church. And even these sacred and historic documents have always been subject to interpretation. Wesley himself made clear that our connectionalism is based on a shared and common faith in Christ, but he understood that common faith to be characterized by diversity of understanding and interpretation. We find that understanding of connectionalism in ¶103 of the Book of Discipline, in a section called “Our Doctrinal History.”
“While it is true that United Methodists are fixed upon certain religious affirmations, grounded in the gospel and confirmed in their experience, they also recognize the right of Christians to disagree on matters such as forms of worship, structures of church government, modes of baptism, or theological explorations. They believe such differences do not break the bond of fellowship that ties Christians together in Jesus Christ. Wesley’s familiar dictum was, ‘As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.’”Book of Discipline, 56, emphasis added.
Further in that same section are these words:
“They [i.e. early Wesleyans] were also prepared, as a matter of course, to reaffirm the ancient creeds and confessions as valid summaries of Christian truth. But they were careful not to set them apart as absolute standards for doctrinal truth and error.
Beyond the essentials of vital religion, United Methodists respect the diversity of opinions held by conscientious persons of faith. Wesley followed a time-tested approach: ‘In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.’”Ibid., 57.
In his 2002 book United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center, Bishop Scott Jones discusses at length this distinction between essentials and non-essentials in Wesley’s writings.
“It is thus important to distinguish between what are essential doctrines and what are matters of opinion. That Wesley employs such a distinction is clear in his writings…. However, the lists of essential doctrines he gives vary from each other in substantive ways, and he occasionally refers to a doctrine as essential which never shows up in any of his summaries of the essentials. The doctrines that appear most frequently in such summaries are three: original sin, justification by faith, and holiness of heart and life…. For Wesley all of the doctrines he mentions as essential or ‘fundamental’ relate to the way of salvation or the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation…. The crucial distinction is between those teachings that are essential to being a Christian, and those on which good Christian persons can disagree.”Scott J. Jones, United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 90-93.
In my understanding of this distinction, then, the issues of marriage and ordination, though important, do not rise to the level of importance of either the creeds or the doctrinal standards as essentials on which the identity of the church depends. They are matters of theological and ethical interpretation, subject to varieties of experiences and understandings, and thus among the myriad issues on which Christians may honestly and legitimately disagree while nevertheless maintaining relationships with one another. In other words, they are issues about which there may be strong disagreements among a connectional people, without those disagreements being the cause of schism.
This approach to these issues and this distinction arises, further, from our Wesleyan approach to Scripture. Our differences in understandings of homosexuality, marriage, and ordination in United Methodism are rooted in our different understandings of the authority of Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture. That this distinction is a valid one in our tradition is supported by Wesley’s own approach to Scripture, helpfully characterized by a section in Jones’ book titled “Scripture Alone…Yet Never Alone.” As he notes, “There is one sense in which United Methodist doctrine teaches that Scripture alone is the authority for the theological task, and thus for the reformulation of doctrine. Yet, there is another sense in which United Methodist doctrine teaches that Scripture is never alone; it is always interpreted with tradition, reason, and experience.” This observation is representative of the theological statement in the Book of Discipline: “While we acknowledge the primacy of Scripture in theological reflection, our attempts to grasp its meaning always involve tradition, experience, and reason. Like Scripture, these may become creative vehicles of the Holy Spirit as they function within the Church. They quicken our faith, open our eyes to the wonder of God’s love, and clarify our understanding.”
It is for these reasons that the
One Church Plan is grounded in and exemplifies connectionalism. It allows
United Methodists to hold fast to the essentials at the root of Christianity,
and to remain bound to one another in a unity grounded in those essentials,
grounded in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, while also living in love
with a diversity of theological interpretation and cultural norms. It allows
United Methodist clergy to hold fast to their covenantal relationships with
each other while being free to exercise their consciences on matters related to
same gender marriage. It allows United Methodist conferences, bishops, and
congregations to hold fast to their shared commitment to make disciples of
Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world—ordaining, appointing, and
receiving persons for clergy leadership in that ministry based on their calls
from God, their gifts and grace for ordained ministry, and their commitment to
be placed in the most appropriate places of ministry possible for both clergy
and congregation. And it recognizes another reality stated in the Book of Discipline: “The spirit of
charity takes into consideration the limits of human understanding. ‘To be
ignorant of many things and to be mistaken in some,’ Wesley observed, ‘is the
necessary condition of humanity.’ The crucial matter in religion is steadfast
love for God and neighbor, empowered by the redeeming and sanctifying work of
the Holy Spirit.”
Connectionalism is grounded in that common commitment to “steadfast love for
God and neighbor.” The One Church Plan is built on that foundation!
 Kathy L. Gilbert, “GC 2016 tackling 44-year stance on homosexuality,” United Methodist News Service, April 27, 2016. https://www.umnews.org/en/news/gc2016-tackling-44-year-stance-on-homosexuality
 Don Hand, “Homosexuality and the 1972 Social Principles – Did the Conflict Begin with ‘the language’?” Juicy Ecumenism, July 4, 2014. https://juicyecumenism.com/2014/07/04/don-hand-homosexuality-and-the-1972-social-principles-did-the-conflict-begin-with-the-language/
 The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016 (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House), 105-106.
 The paragraph numbers cited in these references are from the Book of Discipline, 2016.
 Book of Discipline, 56, emphasis added.
 Ibid., 57.
 Scott J. Jones, United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002), 90-93.
 Ibid., 127.
 Ibid., 136.
 Book of Discipline, p. 84.
 Ibid., 57.