A few years ago I wrote a piece called “The Return of the Local Option.” I wrote this in response to a plan proposing that we decide ethical matters of human sexuality at the level of the local church and the annual conference. Since that time, the local option has not gained much traction at the general conference level.
Guess what? It’s back again, and the push to support it will be stronger than ever. Some of my friends–really good folks–are fully in favor of this idea. This vision of the church appeals to them and they believe it will lead us into a new day of ministry. As for me, I just can’t get on board. Here are some of the reasons why.
Deja Vu All Over Again
The UM News Service recently reported that Commission on a Way Forward presented three sketches:
- One sketch of a model affirms the current Book of Discipline language and places a high value on accountability.
- Another sketch of a model removes restrictive language and places a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
- A third sketch of a model is grounded in a unified core that includes shared doctrine and services and one COB, while also creating different branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice.
- Each sketch represents values that are within the COB and across the church.
- Each sketch includes [a] gracious way of exit for those who feel called to exit from the denomination.
Having now received the recommendations from the commission, the Council of Bishops has taken option number one off the table. The reasons for this are unclear, though many who would support this plan in principle now believe it to be unenforceable. Option two–the local option–seems to be gaining steam within the Council of Bishops. A crucial question is whether option 3, some version of a multi-branch plan, will see the light of day. Personally, I hope that multi-branch plans receive due consideration. Our deep disagreements notwithstanding, there are several areas in which many United Methodists could still find common ground for collaboration.
Option 2, then, is the only one that is clearly in play, which is vexing considering the history of this type of proposal. One form of the local option was rejected in 2008. In fact, it never made it out of committee. A similar proposal also failed in committee in 2012. Despite support from no less an august group than the United Methodist Connectional Table and some of our most influential and respected leaders, the local option was rejected in various legislative committees once more in 2016.
In other words, this proposal has failed to find adequate support during the last three general conferences, with the most significant push coming in 2016. Now, after two years, seven meetings of the Commission on a Way Forward (with two more scheduled), and plans to call a general conference that will cost millions of dollars the year before a scheduled general conference that will cost millions more dollars, we will be presented with the “One Church Model.” It is described in a UMNS article as follows:
The One Church Model gives churches the room they need to maximize the presence of United Methodist witness in as many places in the world as possible. The One Church Model provides a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context in relation to human sexuality without changing the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church.
Whatever we call it, it sure sounds like another variation of the local option. And this time there are likely to be strong elements within the Council of Bishops trying to move the ball across the goal line.
To be honest, I’ve been surprised by the resiliency of this vision of the church, though I suppose I shouldn’t be. It is perfectly suited to the spirit of our times.
Where We Were: Modernity
We have just come through the era of modernity. Throughout much of the twentieth century we were told that enlightened people could not believe in the direct divine action of God. The miracles of the Bible, such as the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, were simply the products of a pre-modern worldview. Ancient people thought of things differently than we do, we were told, and there is no sense in believing those old stories anymore. We know now that the world doesn’t work like that. It’s best to reinterpret these stories as metaphors that help us to understand our own existence. Sure, we can believe in God… but not in a God of miracles, not in a God who truly became incarnate in a human being, died a sacrificial death for our sins, and after three days rose from the dead. That is the God of myth….
Today the modernist project is all but over. I polled my class the other day, and not a single student had heard of Marcus Borg. At first I thought maybe they weren’t listening when I asked the question. Everyone has heard of Marcus Borg, right? Just a couple of decades ago reading Borg was practically de rigueur in mainline churches. Times have certainly changed.
I personally found the modernist understanding of Christian faith quite appealing for a time when I was in seminary. I found it convincing, in fact. But ultimately I came to reject it. I simply found the orthodox, Nicene-Chalcedonian expression of Christian faith too compelling, both intellectually and spiritually. I could no longer deny its truth. And when I came to believe it was true, I came to believe that it was so not simply for me or those who agreed with me. I came to understand Christian orthodoxy as an expression of something pervasively true. It is a truth woven into the very fabric of creation. It is a story about Jesus, who is the Truth, and who has come to redeem all creation. It is a cosmic narrative about the way in which creation has been broken, and the way in which it is being restored. The modernist revisions of Christian faith I had been taught seemed lifeless compared to this great narrative of salvation passed on to us by the fathers and mothers of the church.
Where We Are: Postmodernity
And now, as the modernist project makes its way out of the sanctuary, postmodernity has taken a seat in the front pew. Its challenge to us is different than its predecessor. Modernist forms of Christianity presented a counternarrative to the narrative of Christian orthodoxy. Modernity presented an alternative vision of truth. Postmodernity, on the other hand, insists that one narrative is as good as another. You have your truth and I have mine, and woe be unto the person who attempts to challenge my truth. Perhaps there is a grand Truth out there somewhere, but because we always access the world through the lens of our experiences, none of us can truly apprehend it.
Modernity was skeptical of miracles, of what we often call the “supernatural.” Postmodernity is skeptical of far-reaching truth claims. Truth is both contextual and personal. Hence the local option, which is simply a postmodern vision of the church’s moral life. It rejects the idea that the church is capable of making global truth claims about right and wrong. It therefore envisions a church where we make no clear decisions about human sexuality, but allow local variations based on cultural context.
Adopting the local option–or to use the language of the Council of Bishops, a “contextual” model–will result in a tectonic shift in United Methodism. The refusal to make a church-wide decision regarding sexual ethics will itself be a church-wide decision about the nature of our church. It will mean that we have given up on the idea that we are a moral community. It will mean we have adopted a more congregationalist ecclesiology. It will mean we believe we are incapable of discerning God’s will as a church. The resources of Scripture, prayer, and tradition cannot bring us consensus, we will say. The best we can hope for are small communities of agreement, determined in large part by their ambient cultures.
What Is Truth?
I don’t believe that the postmodern vision of truth is sustainable within Christianity. That is a primary reason I cannot support the local option. If I may speak in professor-ese for a moment, I reject postmodern epistemological skepticism. I believe in truth, and I believe that through intellect, rigor, and prayer, we can apprehend God’s truth–not in its fullness, of course, but sufficiently to make theological and ethical decisions about our life together.
As Christians, we believe that God has come to us in Jesus Christ–the Way, the Truth, and the Life. There is great irony in John’s gospel when Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” as Truth stands before him, enfleshed in a person. God has revealed Truth to us in Christ and in the Scriptures of our faith, which we regard as divine revelation. God is not the author of confusion. Rather, God has given us divine revelation so that we might understand, and so that we may have peace. The fact that we do not agree with one another does not change this. It simply means we have not all apprehended what God wishes us to know.
It is imperative that we recognize the historical moment in which we live. Otherwise, we soak in the values of the world around us and uncritically adopt these as self-evident, common-sense ideas. The Bible speaks of the sons of Issachar as those who were able to read the signs of the times. May God give us that same wisdom today.