The Myth of Neutrality (#OneChurchPlanMyths #UMC)

The people called Methodists are feeling the pressure right now. We are just over a month away from a special session of General Conference called to settle our decades-long conflict over the matter of human sexuality. Folks familiar with this conflict likely already know that a proposal known as the “One Church Plan” is being promoted with vigor by a number of bishops and a group known as the “Uniting Methodists.” In fact, the so-called One Church Plan is said to have the support of a majority of bishops, which is unsurprising, though the exact number of that majority is unclear.

Among other things, this plan would remove the current restrictions on UMC clergy and churches from blessing same-sex unions. It would change the definition of marriage from the union of one man and one woman to the union of two persons. It also provides protections for clergy who choose not to solemnize same-sex unions. The plan is supposed to be a compromise because it removes restrictive language without adding an  explicit affirmation of same-sex unions. By neither condemning nor approving same-sex unions, this plan gives the appearance of neutrality and offers freedom to clergy to follow their convictions. In this post, I will argue that such neutrality is a myth. If the so-called One Church Plan passes, it would constitute a full-affirmation by the United Methodist Church of same-sex practices.

Is Neutrality Possible?

The notion of neutrality in the so-called One Church Plan comes with the newly proposed definition of marriage. The imprecise “union of two persons” allegedly steers the narrow way between condemning same-sex unions and affirming them.  When inquisitive souls ask what the UMC stance on marriage is, proponents of the so-called One Church Plan want to be able to say that we’re not taking sides. You know, like Switzerland. The truth is that neutrality – like so much else –  is easier said than done.

Ecclesial Sleight of Hand

There is a simple reason United Methodist neutrality with regard to sexuality  will be impossible (despite the definitions in the so-called One Church Plan). The reason is that neutrality isn’t real. It’s a myth. There’s no such thing. “Why is that?” you ask. Because the proposed and allegedly neutral definition of marriage invites us to put all our attention on one question without considering another. Consider an analogy. The so-called One Church Plan is like a magician asking school children to look at his left hand while his right hand drops a rabbit in a hat. What I mean is this. While it is important, the key question is not how the UMC defines marriage (the magician’s left hand). The key question is what General Conference authorizes clergy to do (his right hand). What pastoral authority does General Conference authoritatively grant?

Remember that line you used to hear near the end of a wedding ceremony: “…by the power vested in me by the United Methodist Church…” It isn’t said as often anymore, but you’ll understand the point. When a United Methodist clergy person performs a wedding, she or he is acting as an instrument and on behalf of the United Methodist Church. Clergy do not have the inherent authority to solemnize a marriage covenant. That authority is delegated. The body that delegates that authority is responsible for defining how it is used. And if the General Conference authorizes United Methodist clergy to solemnize same-sex unions, the the General Conference is giving it’s blessing to those unions. And it is giving that blessing on behalf of the global United Methodist Church for which it speaks. To summarize the point, if General Conference authorizes clergy to perform same-sex unions, then General Conference is offering positive affirmation to those unions. There is no neutrality there.

Don’t Believe the Myth

Whether you like the so-called One Church Plan or not, you need to understand what it is and what it isn’t. Don’t believe the myth. The plan is not neutral. Rather, it constitutes an affirmation by the United Methodist Church of same-sex unions as good, holy, and right in the eyes of God and the Church. If you have difficulty understanding why traditional folks refuse to abide the so-called One Church Plan. This is why. We see through the myth of neutrality.

If you’d like to read more, consider Matt’s chapter “What Makes Sex Beautiful? Marriage, Aesthetics, and the Image of God in Genesis 1-2 and Revelation 21-22,” in Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Sexuality (IVP Academic).

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Book Notice: Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (@cenpastheo, @IVPAcademic)

When it comes to sex, evangelical Christians tend to be known for what we’re against rather than what we’re for. That’s why we need this new book and why I’m grateful to have had opportunity to contribute a chapter. The book is Beauty, Order, and Mystery: A Christian Vision of Human Sexuality (IVP Academic), and it’s a collection of essays from the 2016 Center for Pastor Theologians Conference. Contributors consider the topic in light of scripture, history, theology, aesthetics, and culture. One recurring theme is the need for those who take a traditional view of marriage and sexuality to spend more time working on a positive theology of marriage. This book makes a significant contribution to that endeavor. You can read the contents at the IVP Academic site. Here are the endorsements:

“Pastors minister; theologians seek-and minister-understanding. Ministering understanding of how the Bible addresses real-world issues is the great privilege and responsibility of the pastor theologian. Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson have put together a whole ministry team that ministers understanding worth its weight in gold on one of the most socially complicated, politically fraught, yet existentially unavoidable issues of our day or any: human sexuality. In an age where the male/female duality is in danger of becoming extinct, these essays serve as salient reminders of the beauty and mystery of God’s created order: ‘Male and female he created them’ (Gen 1:27).

-Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL

For Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, the ideal of the pastor-scholar is not merely theoretical but intensely practical. The example they set through their Center for Pastor Theologians is an invitation to practice ecclesial theology. So is their new volume of thoughtful essays on God’s beautiful, well-ordered, and yet mysterious purposes for human sexuality-a book that demonstrates the value and relevance of having a community of wise scholars ‘do’ theology in the service of the church.

-Philip Ryken, President, Wheaton College

There’s a public conversation about human sexuality happening nearly everywhere today, but this book helpfully locates it right at the intersection of the pastoral and the theological. Beauty, Order, and Mystery provides a remarkably easy introduction to a vexed set of issues because the chapters are approachable and accessible even as they display deep reflection and up-to-date learning. In this particular multitude of counselors there is much wisdom.

-Fred Sanders, Torrey Honors Institute, Biola University

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.