Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Middle and the Margins in Methodism

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

American United Methodists seem to have generally come to accept that the proposal of the Commission on a Way Forward will include some sort of “loosening” of the connection that involves separate structures for different groups of American United Methodists under a common umbrella. This being seen as fait accompli, the debate among American United Methodists has shifted to one between conservative incompatibilists (i.e., those opposed to gay marriage and ordination and are unwilling to live in the same structure as those in favor) and compatibilists (i.e., those of whatever opinion on homosexuality who are willing to live in the same structure with those of different opinions).

This debate has progressed along two main lines – one structural and one rhetorical.

The structural question is whether the US should be split into two or three sub-denominations. Many conservative incompatibilists would like the denomination to split into two – a “progressive” denomination for those unwilling to live with the current Book of Discipline restrictions, which is expected to be small, and an “orthodox” denomination that continues current Book of Discipline restrictions, which is expected to contain the majority of the current US church. Conservative compatibilists assume that they would be positioned to control this orthodox-majority church.

Many compatibilists, however, would like the US church to split into three – an “orthodox” denomination for those seeking hardline prohibitions against homosexuality, a “progressive” denomination for those seeking immediate full inclusion of gays and lesbians, and the rest of the denomination, presumed to be the majority, which would tolerate a diversity of opinions, perhaps through some sort of local option. Compatibilists assume both orthodox and progressive churches would be small and they would be positioned to control the tolerant majority church. Thus, the fight between conservative incompatibilists and moderate compatibilists is over who will have control over the majority of the US church.

Along with this basic fight for control through structural arrangements has been a rhetorical fight over which group is the “middle” in United Methodism. American moderate compatibilists claim that, by willing to engage people of all opinions, they are in the middle of American Methodist views on sexuality. American conservative incompatibilists claim that they actually are a majority of American Methodists and, if not, they are certainly in the middle of United Methodist views on homosexuality globally.

Thus, this debate is, at heart, a debate about being in the center and therefore having the power to determine the rules for those on the periphery. Moreover, it is clear that for both sides of the debate, United Methodists in the central conferences and progressive American United Methodists are not at the center and therefore should not have the power to determine the rules for the rest of the denomination or even, in some cases, themselves.* Thus, center/periphery functions as both a geographic and a theological distinction.

There are, however, two good, theological reasons to question both sides’ framing of this debate and their objectives within it.

First, one may take issue with the central objective of being at the center and wielding power. Jesus cautions, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is not an invitation to seek the center. Paul adds, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” because we follow “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Seeking the center is not seeking to be like the crucified Christ.

This rush to the center and avoidance of the margins also goes against the best in contemporary theological reflection on mission. The margins are often where we best encounter God and where God does some of God’s best work. As Together Towards Life states, “We affirm that marginalized people are agents of mission and exercise a prophetic role which emphasizes that fullness of life is for all. The marginalized in society are the main partners in God’s mission.” Seeking the center can take us away from participating in God’s mission.

Second, one may take issue with how the wielding of power is conceived. In Mark 10, Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” For Jesus, being a ruler, being great, being at the center, is not about “lording it over” those at the margins; it’s about serving them.

Cast in secular political terms, several commentators have expressed sentiments to the effect that the true moral test of a democracy is how it treats its minorities. The United Methodist Church is a democracy and moreover one that is not set up well to impose the will of the majority upon a substantial minority; hence the large amount of local disregard for General Conference directives.

This is not to say a church can’t set boundaries to its teaching or membership, but does mean that those who would see themselves at the center, whether conservative or moderate on issues of sexuality, should ask themselves what they are willing to do to support the mission, ministry, and spiritual development of those at the margins, whether that’s Filipinos, racial minorities in the US, Africans, American progressives, or Europeans. Last weekend's events in Charlottesville dramatically demonstrate how threatened those at the margins can be from systems of sin and oppression. How can those in the Methodist middle, as John Wesley would say, first do no harm to minority groups and second do good to minority groups’ ministries so that all may stay (and grow) in love with God?

Both sides in the current UMC debate accuse each other of accommodating to the world while proudly proclaiming the counter-cultural witness of their own side. More than anything, the world seeks power and privilege. True Christian witness that goes against the ways of the world seeks humility and gives power away.

*Conservative American incompatibilists say that Africans should be allowed to determine the rules on the issue of homosexuality, where they agree with conservative Americans, but by and large conservative American United Methodists do not argue that we should follow Africans’ lead in other regards, expect perhaps an emphasis on revivalism, which is already a value for conservative Americans and thus not something that they support because they were led to it by Africans. American compatibilists largely do not talk about non-American United Methodists.


  1. Thank you, David, for a bold, theologically-grounded truth-telling. Even this critique of the framing, though, seems to accept the idea that differing views on homosexuality are at the core of division in the UMC (the entire "compatibilist" framing is based on views on homosexuality). If instead, views on homosexuality were considered symptomatic of underlying issues, what might those issues be? Power and control, yes. But what is motivating and animating these struggles over power and control?

    1. Darryl,
      Thanks. I'm entirely willing to believe that debates over homosexuality are the presenting issue and not the entirety of the divide. There are certainly correlated issues of Christology, biblical hermeneutics, race, gender, culture, secular politics, etc. I don't think these additional categories change my basic analysis, but they would certainly add understanding as to why we have these two blocs struggling for control.

  2. Darryl, I'm interested to know what you take to be these "underlying issues." I believe you're right, and so would like to hear more.

  3. David, thanks for this astute analysis. I've used the center-periphery metaphor myself often enough. What I have come to appreciate--and what your piece recounts vividly--is that simplistic uses of the metaphor more often than not serve to flatten out or sublimate the complex ways in which centers and peripheries function. As you show, "center" and "periphery" are dynamic modes, operating on many levels and in different ways in systems and toward different rhetorical and structural ends. There are centers and peripheries--levels of inclusion and exclusion--within centers, so to speak. Your piece illuminates such dynamics very well in regard to the sexuality issue. There is never just one center and one margin. Your analysis helpfully exposes the poverty of such thinking and its deleterious effects on fruitful theological dialogue and denominational change.

  4. Henk, thanks for your comments. In a previous post, http://www.umglobal.org/2017/07/darryl-stephens-on-what-really-divides.html, I offered the beginnings of my thoughts on identifying these underlying issues.
    ". . . the roots of division reside in human power and authority. To understand “our greatest divide,” we must ask: What existing forms of authority are threatened? Who stands to lose power? Who stands to gain power? What ideologies and which material interests are being threatened?"