Beyond the Left-Right Continuum

There must have been a time when life was simpler.

There must have been a time when there were conservatives, moderates, and liberals, and these categories were largely unconfused. And in this time of categorical clarity, it must have been possible to identify conservatives with the right side of the spectrum, moderates with the middle, and liberals with the left. What’s more, these categories must have commanded such allegiance as to generate a great deal of conformity within them, so that a liberal would not share certain ideas in common with a conservative or vice-versa, and a moderate might find sensible ideas from both conservatives and liberals, but would not hold these ideas as rigidly as either group.

What a beautiful world of clarity and simplicity…. Back in the good old days, you knew where you stood. You knew where your opponents stood. You could measure the extent to which you fulfilled the requirements of these categories on an ideological yardstick. There were, essentially, packages of ideas, one on the far right and one on the far left. And the extent of your commitment to one of these packages of ideas determined whether you should be deemed a conservative, liberal, or moderate.

If this world ever existed, however, it has gone the way of the flip phone. The categories of conservative and liberal are no longer hermetically sealed. They have been broken open and distributed piecemeal among Christians who have come to realize that these categories were not necessarily internally coherent.


“AGK-pentacube” by AndrewKepert at the English language Wikipedia.

Granted, there are Christian groups that differ vastly from one another with regard to their systems of belief and ethics, and it is helpful at times for us to have some shorthand terms to describe ourselves and others. So, for example, terms like “orthodox,” “progressive,” and “evangelical” can be useful and generally call to mind a range of positions that those who self-identify in these ways are likely to hold. But when we speak in these terms, we are speaking of tendencies. The categories are more porous now, so that one might speak of “progressive evangelicals” or, a more recent group, the “orthodox and affirming.” The spectrum of religion and ideology no longer looks like a measuring rod. It looks more like a three-dimensional puzzle. Yes, some people and some groups fit nicely into the traditional categories of “conservative” and “liberal,” but a great many do not.

I call attention to the complexity of these matters because of a recent proposal by the United Methodist Centrist Movement. I have never thought that the name “Centrist” was an accurate designation for this group, though they of course can call themselves whatever they like. But when we get down to material positions in their proposals, one wonders how the term “centrist” describes their platform. Their affirmations of fiscal responsibility, connectional realignment, itineracy reform, and mutual respect don’t necessarily relate directly to the platforms of evangelical or progressive caucus groups in the UMC. In other words, these positions don’t stand between two extremes. They stand off the to the side. We’re no longer in a two-dimensional landscape. This is denominational politics in 3-D.

Additional difficulties emerge with the term “centrist” when we look at what they identify as the core of our United Methodist tradition: “The main connective links of our Wesleyan Christian heritage are Works of Piety and Works of Mercy.” What holds us together as Wesleyan Christians, then, are actions, not beliefs. By taking belief out of the picture altogether, they have located their movement outside of the doctrinal and ethical pinch points that are causing such consternation in our denomination. Again, this is not a centrist position between two extremes. It is an altogether different discussion, standing off to one side.

It would be more accurate to call this group the United Methodist Organizational Unity Movement, because their main goal seems to be to prevent a split in the church. I applaud this goal. But what does unity mean under the conditions that they propose? Their most recent proposal is as follows:

Title: Resolution Petitioning the 2016 General Conference to Form a Task Force to Consider All Middle-Way Plans to Keep our Church United Despite Differences on Same Gender Marriage and Ordination Eligibility.

Whereas Jesus Christ has made clear his intention that His Church live and witness as a united body (John 17:20-21).

Whereas when the Church was deeply divided on the question of to what degree were gentile Christians expected to adhere to the law, the early Church followed the leading of the Holy Spirit in crafting a compromise measure at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-29).

Whereas the United Methodist Church is deeply divided on questions of same gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

Whereas committed, Spirit-filled, fruit-bearing disciples of Jesus Christ reside on all points of conscience in regard to these questions.
Whereas there is an undercurrent within our blessed church believing “schism” or “amicable separation” is an option in response to our differences on these questions.

Whereas there are persons who have or are in the process of crafting “middle-way” plans which will result in United Methodist Christians and congregations to continue together in shared ministry within one denomination while making space for both progressives and traditionalists to live out their convictions on these questions.

Whereas the monumental work of considering all of the middle-way plans, choosing one and perfecting it for consideration by the 2016 General Conference over the course of just ten days is both virtually impossible and unwise considering the size of our denomination and all the resources at stake.

Therefore, (insert your annual conference) calls for the 2016 General Conference to create a theologically balanced task force charged with prayerfully considering all middle-way plans to keep our beloved church united in Jesus Christ. The task force will choose one middle-way plan and work to perfect it over the course of a quadrennium (2016-2020). The plan will be considered by the 2020 General Conference.

Recognizing that new possibilities may emerge via the Holy Spirit’s leading, the task force will also be given wide latitude to create a new middle-way plan not yet conceived with the purpose of allowing the United Methodist Church to remain united despite our differences on the questions of same gender marriage and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals.

The United Methodist Centrist Movement (West Ohio)
(Feel free to insert your name or group if you have not yet organized a UMCM group in your conference).

The problems with this proposal are quite serious. The Centrist Movement’s call for “middle way” plans doesn’t indicate what the characteristics of the “middle way” are. Is A Way Forward a “middle way” plan? Is the recent proposal coming from the connectional table? Is Chris Ritter’s Jurisdictional Solution, or his “Restore and Release” plan?  Instead of providing content regarding what might constitute a “middle way” plan, this proposal lays out a false dichotomy of two extremes: “‘progressive’ plans (full inclusion),” and  “‘hard right conservative plans’ (strengthening the Discipline language with automatic expulsion of those who violate).” If we look at the material content of the positions put forward by those who identify as “progressive” or “traditionalist” on matters of LGBT inclusion, however, it is hard to see them on a continuum in which one can identify less extreme versions that constitute a middle ground. These positions are rooted in sharply contrasting notions of the interpretation of scripture, theological anthropology, and the Christian life, as evidenced by the passion and emotion that attend the current debate in the UMC. For those who support full inclusion, partial inclusion of some sort would violate some of their most basic underlying convictions. The same could also be said for those who support the current language of the Discipline. What would a true middle ground look like? What would a position look like in which neither group would feel that the church was engaging in ethically unacceptable practices? 

Additionally, while there are plans for full  inclusion that will make their way to General Conference, I’m not aware of any plans that match the description of “hard right conservative” put forward in this proposal. Are they perhaps thinking of the proposal that Bill Arnold and I put forward? In this proposal, we never suggested strengthening the language of the Discipline around human sexuality, nor have we argued for “automatic expulsion of those who violate.” Rather, we simply suggested that ordained clergy who violate the Discipline as it currently stands on this issue should be held accountable. This, in and of itself, is no more conservative than our current Discipline. The “hard right conservative” position described by the Centrist Movement appears to be a straw man they have set up to create boundaries around the “middle” position for which they advocate. I acknowledge, however, that there may be plans out there of which I am unaware.

The main problem with this proposal, as I see it, is that it lacks content. There’s just no “there” there. It rests on the fictive construct of left-right continuum with a viable middle position.

I don’t like writing this post. I don’t like arguing with my friends or being in tension with my brothers and sisters in Christ. Nevertheless I’ve become increasingly concerned with the positions of the United Methodist Centrist Movement. I offer these thoughts only to move our denominational conversation forward. I hope they will be taken in that way.

10 thoughts on “Beyond the Left-Right Continuum

  1. David, centrists ask conservative/evangelical/orthodox UM’s to compromise on what the Bible says. Either the Bible says homosexuality is a sin, or it doesn’t. But it does. There is no centrist way or middle ground. Centrists are “progressive”, or what I prefer to call Bible revisionist, by default.

    Yes, I tend to see things in black and white, not a lot of gray areas or shadow. The shadows are largely of our own creation. God is not unclear about what He does and doesn’t want for us, and He is certainly not unclear about homosexuality.

    Homosexuality is not given “most favored sin” status by God; it must be repented of just like every other sin. And it is our responsibility to tell people the truth in love, not lie to them in the name of “love”.

  2. I don’t normally do this, but having read and enjoyed the Dean’s comments and positions for some months now, I feel sure he is struggling and has considerable discomfort regarding especially these particular issues. And as much as I respect and love him as a scholar, teacher and leader; he seems to “waffle” on this subject?
    I do not believe I know the above writer… but I think he has put it exceedingly well. It is either wrong… or! it isn’t !!!
    Mr. Galipi has wonderfully in three paragraphs, spelled it out very nicely. I agree. JLM

  3. I’m glad you wrote this post. It put my thoughts into words exactly. The first time I encountered this group that calls themselves “Centrist” I was actually offended. I felt like their self-appointed name put forth the idea that they were better than everyone else – both left and right.
    Left, right, and center are marks on the spectrum. In order to be in the center then you have to identify what is on the left and on the right. Like you said, their stated position does not fall into a place that would be center of what is left and right in the UMC. I have rarely encountered far right people in the UMC. I just don’t think those kind of folks could take it here. But I have encountered far left people. Whatever the case, the “centrist” position does not fall into a central place. It’s all over the board and not that coherent. That’s why it’s not going to go anywhere.

    I wish we would do away with all the labels anyways. Calling themselves “centrists” is surely a propaganda move. And Lord knows that there has been enough propaganda flying around the church) As a Millenial/Gen-xer, I value honesty, transparency, and authenticity. I am a seeing very little of that in the UMC right now and if it wasn’t for God telling me to stay, I would be gone. My plea to everyone is just drop the labels, drop the BS, drop the propaganda and be real about the current situation. If the progressives/liberals get their way, then there will be a split. I know that myself and many other orthodox pastors and laity that I know would have to walk away because of conscience. If the progressives/libs (whatever freakin’ label they want) want to stay, then they are going to have to abide by the discipline. And honestly, we all know that there has to be more accountability across the board.

    And also, it ticks me off that the “centrists” would reduce Methodism to “vital faith and works.” Jeez, like no other Christians do that, huh? Reducing the missional Anglicanism of the Wesleys down that makes me sick. Reductionism in doctrine is one of the main reasons we are where we are in American Methodism: decline. Get that junk out of here. Give me a full, robust faith founded in scripture, tradition, reason, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

  4. I really appreciate your commentary David as a friend and a friend who initially wrote a pretty positive review when we emerged on the scene less than six months ago. Our standing outside the paradigm you would like to see us placed on is intentional. Since our inception people have wanted us to clearly articulate our views on homosexuality so they can put us on the paradigm (or relegate us into one of the two trenches). Though three of our four planks have nothing to do with the questions of same gender marriage or ordination eligibility, this is the plank that has the most buzz we understand considering the state of the church today and frankly it was the most important driver for our formation. When it comes to these questions, we are literally a collection of individuals that are not monolithic. Some in our group would self describe as moderates who lean left and others moderates who lean right on these questions.

    We gathered assuming a shared faith in Jesus Christ and a shared passion for the mission of the UMC to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We have given ourselves completely to this mission as you know. Time was not on our side when we formed the UMCM. Part of it is our fault certainly, focused on little more than our local congregations, districts, and conference responsibilities, none of our original signers (other than Mike Slaughter) have ever been involved in church politics above our local concerns. This is a new arena for sure.

    Secondly, what added great urgency to our work was the gathering of 80 plus pastors last summer to talk about the possibility of schism. There gathering, of course, was in response to some on the left stepping out of bounds of the BOD. The spirit was “it is time” for centrists who don’t feel complete affinity with the current caucus menu available to forge a different path. You did acknowledge this was an attractive point about our group in your original blog post about the UMCM back in October. We wanted to stand as distinct from IRD, RMN, Good News, Confessing Movement and MFSA. Moderates by nature politically or religiously are not ideologues. This may part of the reason for the less than warm reception we have received from the caucus establishment. Also makes you wonder why now a small start up from West Ohio who had its first meeting in September and originally thought everyone would walk out by lunch (true story) is now suddenly garnering the attention of a well-funded Washington DC based group like IRD? Let’s continue that conversation over a beverage.

    As local church pastors and lay leaders we have identified two main threats to the mission of the UMC. First, the current entrenchment on homosexuality that has now risen to the point where the possibility of schism has been discussed by leading pastors, congregations and caucuses. The second is a church that is not nimble enough missionally for effective ministry in this century. Our four planks pragmatically deal with these challenges. We could have been more clear here.

    Our assessment is derived from the perspective of the local church which you also sense is our passion. This is our vision–streamline the denomination so the local church has more breathing room for creative ministry believing this is where the heavy lifting of discipleship happens, fix a closed system of clergy deployment that we know doesn’t operate as advertised and will not attract or retain the type of pastoral leaders which are so important for vital congregations, restructure the church’s centers of decision making acknowledging pragmatically that the mission field of the US is a whole lot different than the mission field of the Baltics and finally restructure the denomination in such a way that progressives and left leaning moderates and traditionalists and right leaning moderates can live out their convictions on same gender marriage and ordination eligibility in one church. Stop the campaign of trying to change the mind of other Christ-followers by restructuring the church in such a way that it treats both sides as equal partners and gives them space to live out their convictions on just two questions, same gender marriage and ordination eligibility.

    So, in the end we are more than just a movement to keep our church united, we seek to transform the church to better enable it to fulfill our stated mission. We also desperately want to change the conversation that has been on-going for 40 years.

    Love us or despise us for this but what we can say as middle-American, Methodist Moderates. In the end we can live and continue in ministry in one denomination where in one town in Ohio there are two UM churches. Two churches that possess two very different wedding policies but more importantly , two churches that are one in their professing the faith passed on from the Apostles….One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials charity.” No hidden agenda, no Trojan horses currently under construction, it is really that simple.

    • So, this basically the same as the Hamilton-Slaughter proposal? Let every congregation choose what to believe on the matter of homosexuality?
      For many of us, blessing homosexual behavior is crossing the line. Also, why remain together? If we cannot come together on such an important issue as sexual ethics (and that is a matter of doctrine. The Western dichotomy between doctrine and behavior/belief and praxis is a false dichotomy – Paul refers to “healthy” doctrine; doctrine that, if a person lives by it, makes a person healthy) then we there is no sense pretending that we are a body of Christ.
      Any sort of plan that allows for this sort of two ways of believing will result in a split. It might not happen overnight but it will happen. The best course of action is to allow those who will not abide by the discipline to take their property/credentials/pension and go do what they want to do. Continuing on will only bankrupt the denomination. We are about to get hit really hard when the older generation goes on to be with the Lord and even more churches close their doors, taking with them the apportionments that were being funneled through the denomination. I don’t know why people are not acknowledging this reality that we are now in the midst of it but it is coming.
      I do agree that it is time to do many things different in regards to ministry but our doctrine is right on point. I became a UM because of the doctrine, like many. If it is changed, I and many others will find another place to live out the Wesleyan way of life. We just don’t believe that God will bless a church without conviction and a firm grasp on what it believes.

  5. Josh, let me encourage you to read our platform. Our proposal is not the same as Hamilton-Slaughter. We are not backing any one plan at this moment, instead we are calling for a theologically balanced task force to be created and commissioned by the GC 2016 to dive into the details of these plans. The task force is charged with prayerfully examining all the “third way plans” such as the Hamilton-Slaughter, the Jurisdictional plan, etc. After carefully considering the pros and cons of each plan, hopefully in direct conversation with their author (s), they pick up one and begin the work of perfecting. All of the third way plans have problems and with the exception of the connectional table legislation to some degree, none of them have been vetted by a committee comprised by an intentionally balanced team of traditionalists, progressives, and centrists/moderates. The task force would then present their work to the 2020 GC for consideration.

    So, to be clear, our platform advocates a process at this point, not a specific plan. Our hoped for outcome is one church restructured allowing traditionalists and progressives to co-exist on two questions, same gender marriage and ordination eligibility. Each side is free to live out their convictions on these two questions. Simple concept, difficult work to arrive at the best workable solution.

    David did mention his plan in his commentary the “Arnold-Watson Plan” which allows pastors and congregations to exit the church if they can’t abide by the BOD. He wondered if this would qualify in our estimation as a middle-way plan. Our platform does address this question. The A and W plan which provides the least litigious way to separate would be supported by our group only if the 2020 GC fails to support the compromise plan of the task force. Some of our critics contend we are the “Trojan horse” with a secret agenda to keep talking until enough traditionalists die and the remaining UM’s capitulate to the progressive view of these questions. Nothing could be further from the truth. We know these questions needs to be settled. We are “on the clock” because the church is coming apart. We are in an untenable situation. That is why we are calling all UM’s left, right, and center, to back this transparent process to see if we can come to terms. If our church rejects the compromise plan in 2020, we would regrettably be open to consider two churches by shifting our support to the A and W plan. So, A and W is not for us one of the middle way plans. It is the nuclear option that results in schism.

    Acknowledging that traditionalist have their view of the Scripture and progressives have theirs (part of the current entrenchment), we are raising up reason to help us find a third way forward so that soon this amount of energy expended fighting over these questions decade after decade can be channeled into a more important conversation, how do we cooperate with a redeeming God in changing the world for Jesus Christ together.

    To learn more please check out our platform at

    • I actually did read the proposal when David first posted about it. I found some things I agreed with about ministry but the thing that really turned me off was the suspension of trials over performance of homosexual marriage. I understand the purpose of that temporary suspension but for many, it is only going to come off as a stall tactic. As they have made known time and time again, many of the liberals/progressives believe that if they wait long enough that the changing culture in the U.S. will change the culture in the UMC. So, no matter what your intentions are the proposal is going to come off as a stall tactic. Also, allowing clergy and others to openly officiate gay marriages – even though it is only temporary – will still go against the conscience of many.

      And also, I think you are misjudging just how out of hand this situation has gotten. It’s hard to gauge by internet comments but I can tell you that there are many faithful UMC’ers who are getting angrier and angrier as the days go buy. The recent issue of the Circuit Writer that presents 9 pro-homosexual arguments and only one weak defense of the traditional position ticked a lot of people off. And there was also the Connectional Table proposal and all of the silliness that surrounded it. People know propaganda when they see it. And when propaganda flows out of denominational agencies, all it does is create anger, frustration, and distrust.

      And this is not going to get any better before General Conference. I just received an e-mail the other day from my DS stating that there was going to be a gay wedding officiated by a person in our conference and that we were to report any sort of contact from any media group. Apparently this is going to be some well orchestrated propaganda event. I expect more of these things to happen this year and the next which will make our situation more toxic. Liberals and progressive have lost control of some of the Far Lefties and they are going to continue to rub people the wrong way and cause entrenchment. And so, that’s why I have a lot of doubt that your proposal will find much support.

      As an orthodox/evangelical, I just want to remind everyone something: We didn’t do this; we didn’t want this. I know that I do not speak for all but I do know that many of my generation and persuasion in the church only want to live in orthodoxy and recover Wesleyan practice. We want to see Holy Spirit renewal, people participating in forms of shared community life such as classes, bands, and prayer meetings. We want to plant churches and do away with all the cumbersome bureaucracy that often times prevents us from mission. We want to become a leaner, flatter, more Gospel-centered community of Christians.

      We have wanted that for a long time but it keeps getting derailed because of the homosexual agenda. For many of us, this is 2016 conference is going to be it. It’s time to halt the death spiral or let it die.

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