Allowance is Not Affirmation: Why “A Way Forward” Might Be

theodicy cartoon
Would you want to worship a God whose “plan” involved this? Me neither.

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.

13 thoughts on “Allowance is Not Affirmation: Why “A Way Forward” Might Be”

  1. Indeed, God allows all manner of sin to take place. Then again, God that may not be true “allowance” in that in process theology, God isn’t able to prevent sin from taking place.

    1. Matt, thanks for that response. I’ll put here what I put on your post as well:

      I appreciate your engagement with my post and that we’ve been able to do this in a respectful and appreciative manner. I will allow that the analogy may not be the best one, but in your initial post you asserted with little qualification that allowance was basically affirmation. I’ll buy that this is not always the case, and we can disagree over whether what we are discussing would be allowance or affirmation. One caveat: the UMC already allows the Central Conferences authority to change the language about sexuality in the Book of Discipline, specifically in the social principles. Some Central Conferences, especially those in Europe, loosen the language, and some (such as in Africa) reaffirm the General Conference language. So why is it that the Central Conferences can have some regional variation without the General Church being implicated in “affirming” those positions, but something similar – allowing US Annual Conferences parallel authority to Central Conferences – would implicate the church in affirming that variability?

      1. Hi Drew, thanks for providing a forum for us to engage this discussion with respect and charity. With regard to your point about the Central Conferences being allowed some variation, I’m not familiar with the extent to which they alter the language. So, I’ll have to read up on that before I can say anything about it.

        Thanks again for the dialogue.

  2. Why would anyone sign on to a “new” agreement while some bishops are “rewriting” the current one with impunity? Without trust there is no point to holy conferencing.

      1. But, neither you nor Joel or even Adam Hamilton address the question of why the new would be different than the old. Making a “local option/congregationalist” change still means that bishops would have to enforce what they may disagree with. It still means that the rest of us have to subsidize the dysfunctionality of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops because the WJ doesn’t even pay for their own bishops much less their retirees like Bishop Talbert. It presumes that a majority will find gay ordination acceptable. With the African conferences and the Southeastern Jurisdiction having 51% of the votes in Portland, how do you figure that will happen? Finally, what guarantee is there that the “Ed Johnsons” in “revisionist” conferences don’t become prisoners of conscience?

  3. I’m not so sure about this. For one….I think it removes a great responsibility that your church members have been given that works to confront sin within the church and equally important….it knits a church body together in ways nothing else can.

    I sincerely believe that God is doing something within our churches today….within your church. He is about to reveal Himself and His glory in ways we have not seen up to this time in history. He will fulfill His purpose for His Church. The question is….are you going to be a part of what He is doing. A growing flock…a growing flock is characterized by movement in faith, love, and purity toward the fullness of the stature of Christ. That’s a growing church.

    That growth is impeded by the unruly and the faint-hearted and the weak and the wearisome and the wicked. And if our church is going to grow, it isn’t going to grow because somebody figures out some strategy to go around the problem. It’s going to grow because the Pastors and elders and your church members come together in intimate relationships in which you admonish the unruly, encourage the faint-hearted, hold up the weak, are long-suffering with the wearisome and render loving goodness to the wicked.

    Allowing sin….especially open sinfulness to remain in a church is giving it enough affirmation to make it impossible for the “brethren” to do what Paul said we are to do in 1Thes. I mean….just how do you propose the brethren within your church to admonish the unruly, encourage the faint-hearted, hold up the weak, are long-suffering with the wearisome and render loving goodness to the wicked.

    I realize I am merely an observer of what is taking place with in your denomination….but I am also your brother and you mine. I speak for the members of your church….not the leadership of your denomination. I’m sure consideration is being given to the members of individual churches….your church. But I can’t help but wonder, how much?

    This can’t be just about the UMC… hope is that you all realize there are numerous brothers and sisters in Christ who are watching and praying for this crossroad in your denomination. This is about all of us….all Christians everywhere. And please have the vision and wisdom to think beyond our brief time within the church on earth….and see how this will effect our children and grandchildren as well.

    My prayers are constantly with you, brother.


    1. I know….that hardly made sense to me either. I need to rest my mind a second. Let me ask this question…..Would you agree that a growing church body is characterized by movement in faith, love, and purity toward the fullness of the stature of Christ? Putting proper weight to Purity toward the fullness of the stature of Christ?

      Of course exist and is allowed to exist….so does that mean a church should no longer strive towards purity? Wouldn’t allowing for sinful behavior within the church put a pretty low ceiling to how high we are to strive?

      Where would the allowance stop? Would there be a line drawn in the sand? What if there were pastors who openly were committing adultery within your denomination and for some reason the members of their churches were okay with it…..would UMC allow it? What if a bunch of your pastors admitted to watching and even promoted pornography? Would the UMC allow it? You get where I’m going with this.

      It just doesn’t make sense to me. It appears to me like so much effort and resources are being used to find a pathway around the problem and lacks the faith and fortitude to confront it head on. I actually feel sorrow at this moment thinking about it.

  4. Hi Drew,

    I’m a relatively new (and admittedly rather progressive) member of the UMC, and I very much enjoy reading your commentary. I have a question around the analogy being used, however.

    I’m with Matt that God allowing evil is not the same regretful laissez faire as a pastor actually blessing a same sex union, given his/her implicit church authority. If we stand on the ground that gay marriage is evil, we shouldn’t bless it. We simply shouldn’t be condoning or blessing evil.

    But I think the analogy which is closer is the matter of war or abortion. Some UMC members believe war is always wrong, always evil. Some say it can be just under certain circumstances. This is a matter left to individual research and conscience, and one pastor or bishop can believe something different than another. At least, that’s what I think the situation is, I’m still new enough to have that completely wrong.

    My point though is that I think it’s a rather dangerous analogy to argue God allowing evil is a reasonable justification for the UMC allowing gay marriage. I very much prefer your other parallels and think they apply.

    Anyway, thanks for your time and insight! I appreciate the education I find reading your posts. 🙂


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