My recent post aimed at evaluating the “Way Forward” plan set forth by Adam Hamilton and others has garnered a fair bit of response, some positive and some less so. This is to be expected on any matter related to how the United Methodist Church (UMC) will proceed when it comes to our denominational stance on same sex practices. One of the more extended critiques of my view comes from Drew McIntyre. His tone is charitable and his evaluation is thoughtful. I’m grateful to Drew for taking the time to dig into what I’ve written and give some conversational pushback. Careful interaction is certainly essential if any of us really want to move forward. This post aims likewise to proceed with charity and gratefulness for this opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue
Drew argues that I have failed to account for the critical distinction between allowing some event or action, on the one hand, and affirming that event or action, on the other. To make the point, he draws an analogy which suggests the possibility that the UMC might allow but not affirm the blessing of same sex unions by our clergy and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals by our Annual Conferences is similar to what happens when God allows but does not cause evil actions or events. God is not the author of evil, but he does permit evil because he has created us with a certain amount of free will. Based on this analogy Drew claims, “allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church ‘affirming’ those choices.” The argument he makes is that I have missed the essential distinction between allowance and affirmation.
Drew certainly raises some good points, and I agree that there is a difference between allowance and affirmation in some cases. However, I find his view unpersuasive in this case because the logic by which he argues is flawed. In my view, Drew has committed the logical fallacy of false analogy. Drew’s argument depends on a perceived similarity between the UMC allowing clergy to bless same sex practices and God allowing evil events to occur. Drew concludes that if God can allow evil without causing it, then the UMC can allow the blessing of same sex practices by clergy and Conferences without affirming those practices. This argument assumes that divine causation and UMC allowance are sufficiently similar to form a reliable analogy. But are we justified in likening the mysterious manner in which God governs his creation to the UMC allowing clergy to bless same sex practices? I am not persuaded that we are.
Theologians have long struggled to find the best language to describe the manner in which God governs his creation without becoming culpable for evil. Our attempts at this are called theodicy. We wrestle with terms like sovereignty and providence seeking definitions that account for the evidence in scripture and experience. As Drew observes, Calvinists tend to see it one way while Arminians see it differently. But it’s not immediately clear that either side has given a fully satisfactory account of why God is not morally responsible for the presence of evil in his creation. Honest folks on various sides of the debate readily acknowledge aspects of their view that make them uncomfortable. We all articulate ways of thinking that help us along, but theodicy is hardly a settled matter. If it remains unclear how God can allow evil to occur without being morally culpable for it, then it is not clear that there is enough similarity between the proposal for the UMC and divine allowance of evil. The analogy from theodicy depends on a perceived similarity that is neither established nor warranted. Drew has committed the fallacy of false analogy. His manner of reasoning is flawed and his argument unpersuasive.
Discerning the Difference
Drew was not the only one to suggest that the allowance proposed in the “A Way Forward” plan does not amount to a UMC affirmation of same sex practices. Others made this claim as well. It is thus worth our time to think more carefully on the question of why, in this case, allowance is indeed affirmation.
When a couple approaches a member of the clergy seeking to be joined in marriage, they are asking the clergy person to declare God’s blessing and the Church’s blessing on their union. Remember that the minister declares and blesses the union with authority vested in him or her by the Church. The minister performing a marriage rite is an authorized representative of the Church who declares the blessing of the Church on that union. When a person seeks ordination in the UMC, he or she is asking the Annual Conference to act in accord with the authorization of General Conference to affirm and bless the call of God on their lives for a set aside ministry in the Church. For General Conference to say that the denomination allows individual clergy and Conferences to offer the Church’s blessing in such circumstances, even though the UMC itself does not offer its affirmation, is a contradiction. It’s nonsense. If the Church says it’s permissible for clergy to bless same sex unions and for Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals, then the Church is authorizing clergy and Conferences to extend the Church’s blessing to such practices. In this case, the Church is affirming the compatibility of these practices with Christian teaching. We are not simply “allowing pastors and churches more flexibility,” we are authorizing them to pronounce the blessing of God and the Church on practices that God neither condones nor blesses. In this case, allowance most certainly amounts to affirmation.
It is true that allowance does not always amount to affirmation, but sometimes it does. What matters is being able to discern the difference, and conversations like this one help us along in the discernment process. Sometimes simply allowing an action or event to take place makes us culpable for that action or event. Pilate washed his hands of Jesus’ blood, but does anyone really think him not guilty of crucifying the Lord of glory?