A Strange Split in the UMC

To fight over same-sex marriage while tolerating heresy on foundational doctrines is to make oneself vulnerable to the charge of being motivated less by fidelity to the Christian faith and more by homophobia.

The Christian church cannot expect its rising generation of young people to hold the line on traditional sexual ethics and marriage if that generation is not properly catechized in the basics of the faith. Same-sex marriage is not really the issue. Thorough catechesis is … if Christian marriage makes sense, it only makes sense within the framework of Christianity, on the basis of an ethics rooted in Christian doctrine. There is no point in dividing a denomination or congregation over same-sex marriage if that division is not driven by a deeper commitment to creedal Christianity.

 

The United Methodist Church has decided to divide over the issue of same-sex marriage. This is not surprising, given the longstanding disagreements on this matter that have afflicted the denomination. The UMC has arranged the separation in a remarkably civil way: The proposed solution, formulated by a committee of members drawn from both sides of the debate, will (hopefully) avoid the rancor and distress and disputes about properties and pensions that have marked other such denominational splits in recent times.

It is odd, however, that this is the issue that has produced the division. Same-sex marriage has not become plausible or imperative by virtue of its own merits. It has only become plausible as a function of much wider and deeper shifts within society’s understanding of the self. The sexual revolution was always but a symptom of the selfhood revolution whereby expressive individualism came to dominate how our culture understands the purpose of life. And that means that any church where same-sex marriage is significant enough to cause divisive debate is a church where significant parties have already absorbed the spirit of the age regarding personhood, love, sex, and sexuality—whether intentionally or by cultural osmosis. And that in turn means it is a church where significant parties have already abandoned basic Christian anthropology and an orthodox understanding of biblical authority.

The United Methodist Church has been a theater for numerous battles over basic orthodoxy. At the Juicy Ecumenism blog, Mark Tooley has pointed out the church’s failure to deal with Bishop Joseph Sprague, who denied Christ’s eternal deity and bodily resurrection. One UMC church hosted a conference where the resurrection was denied. And a pungent response to Tooley from a UMC minister indicates that exactly what constitutes orthodoxy and belief in the UMC is disputed even among United Methodists. All this, in a sense, makes a split on an issue like same-sex marriage profoundly odd. Is the definition of marriage more important than the resurrection? In fact, does not the Christian definition of marriage itself depend upon Christology, of which the resurrection is a central component?

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