Allowance is Not Affirmation: Why “A Way Forward” Might Be
I am having difficulty keeping up with all the proposals and counter-proposals running around the UMC right now.* The one with the most steam still seems to be A Way Forward, simply because of the big names and churches behind it. The conservative reaction against this proposal has been swift and strong, which is not surprising. I have, however, been puzzled by the reasoning of some opponents. Take, for instance, this reflection from Matt O’Reilly, which reads in part:
“If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions.”
In short, the chief problem with this argument – that allowance is basically equal to affirmation – is theodicy.
Arminians like Matt and myself are not burdened by the micromanaging, puppet-master God of hyper-Calvinism. We don’t have to say that all things happen for God’s glory, for some “reason” or “purpose” that aligns with God’s mysterious will. One of the things A Way Forward gets right is this basic theodicy: God is not the author of evil, but God can and often does draw good out of evil. That is critically different from merely accepting all things that happen as God’s will and not asking tough questions.
That leaves us in a difficult spot, though. Unless one goes down some dead-end road like process theology, which compromises God’s power and/or knowledge, Arminians have to affirm that God is omnipotent. God can do anything. That means God allows things that are against His will, things that are morally horrific, even though they cause Him pain. Think, for instance, of the suffering of children, or the martyrdom of countless saints in the history of the church. Does God want these things to happen? I would find that God quite difficult to worship. But does God allow them, in at least a minimal sense that He could intervene to stop them? Yes. And we will, and should, wrestle with that.
But there is mile-wide gap between allowance and affirmation, and the distinction is important. In that sense, allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church “affirming” those choices. In the Book of Discipline we allow differences in crucial matters such as war & peace and abortion. Does this mean affirming all those possible positions? No. It means allowing a diversity of reactions to complex matters.
I’m not a signatory to A Way Forward. I have my own issues with it, which myself and others from Via Media Methodists will be discussing on an upcoming issue of the WesleyCast. But the argument that allowance must be seen as affirmation is false . In that sense, then, I would argue that A Way Forward has potential. It’s not perfect, but with work, it might just be a legitimate way forward.
At any rate, I’m excited to see that there is a great deal of energy being expended in various attempts to keep us together. Breaking up is the easy way out, but we are adults. We should be able to disagree without ceasing our fellowship.
And as for disagreeing with Matt, well, he’s going to be at my Annual Conference (speaking at a way-too-early evangelical gathering), and I look forward to discussing these differences face-to-face!
*Kudos to Joel Watts for his new proposal. His is the only one I’ve seen that suggests – in the name of order – swift and firm accountability for those who violate the possible new settlement. One of the pieces most of the proposals I have seen lack is some of assurance that the same manner of “disobedience” we are currently seeing won’t be tolerated under a new arrangement. Any compromise will not please all of the extreme elements, which is why a determination on the part of the leadership to hold strongly to any new situation is crucial. Otherwise we will not be settling a vital question in the church, we will just be moving the goal lines and welcoming the same kind of strife to continue.