The Problem with Via Media

I wanted to offer a critique of the via media especially in regards to the current state of affairs in the United Methodist Church.

On some issues in the United Methodist Church, we feel free to agree to disagree and still be in covenant with one another. I call these things nonessentials. Think about the issue of Abortion. I am pro-life, but I know many of my colleagues are pro-choice. I do not feel threatened by their pro-choice stance. I don’t think that they are threatened by my pro-life stance. We can agree to disagree and still be in the same church together. It doesn’t affect our ability to be in the same denomination because the United Methodist Church’s stance on abortion can be viewed as a pro-life position with minor exceptions or as a pro-choice position with minor exceptions depending on who you talk to. It is a great example of a via media thought process. The issue of abortion is not something we are going to split over.

War is another nonessential issue in regards to unity in the United Methodist Church. We have people who have a variety of views on war from pacifism to just war theorists. The United Methodist Church has clergy who are military chaplains and clergy who are peace protestors. Again this is not something that the church is going to split over. We are committed to staying together and continuing to discuss these things together.

Now some things in the church are what I call essential things for us to be a united denomination. Most Methodists would agree on these essentials to define what it means to be a United Methodist. Think an emphasis on God’s grace(Prevenient Grace), repentance and transformation(Sanctifying Grace), a movement toward holiness(Perfecting Grace), and Wesley’s Rules. I would call these things essentials. These things define us as a people called Methodist.

Over the past year, I have examined the issue of human sexuality with my colleagues on this blog and in the church. I have talked to people who are progressive and I have talked to people who are traditionalists. It has become increasingly clear to me that we have come to understand the issue of human sexuality as an essential issue. People on both sides of this issue see human sexuality this way. It is an essential issue to progressives. It won’t work for some churches to be open while some churches remain closed. It is an essential issue to traditionalists.

Some moderates or centrists might argue that Adam Hamilton’s A Way Forward  seems to be a compromise, but does either side really want a compromise? If this is a justice issue for progressives this compromise of some churches can be inclusive while others are not should be a slap in the face. It fails to radically change the denomination in any real meaningful way. Annual Conferences can still ban practicing LGBTQ people from being ordained. It creates more division between traditionalists churches and reconciling churches. Traditionalists see these plans as future fights with congregations and annual conferences becoming battlegrounds for the foreseeable future. Every year votes would have to be taken to see if the church or the annual conference decides it wants to be on the other side of the issue. They can imagine heated charge conferences every year or Annual Conferences where there are winners and losers.

Christopher Ritter’s plan makes the division even more apparent with a two-tier system that would have churches grouped by this one issue. Does separate but equal ever work? Is there confusion over the divisions? So now you would wind up with even more segregation in church on Sunday morning. A progressive Methodist Church, a conservative Methodist Church, and an African American Methodist Church all within three blocks of one another?

The problem with the via media is that we cannot make something nonessential that has already been deemed essential. As a person who tries to think via media, I am at a loss on this one. I would love your thoughts about how human sexuality could be a nonessential issue.


  1. Hi Stephen,

    I have strong feelings about the UMC becoming fully inclusive, yet at the same time, I also believe that our current controversies over sexuality should be considered a non-essential as to church membership and leadership. Since you’ve asked, let me explain how that can be.

    It would help if we could speak more plainly. “Human sexuality” is a big topic and, having read the ADCA, we are not arguing in Portland about “human sexuality” but rather “homosexuality.” And we aren’t, or shouldn’t be, arguing whether homosexuality exists or whether it is changeable through some combination of prayer and shame. So what we are debating comes down to whether or not same sex marriage should be allowed or at lease tolerated in the church.

    It was harder to be so clear 20 years ago when General Conference wrote the prohibition on same sex marriages and civil unions into our Book of Discipline. At that time, same sex marriage was not legal in America and civil unions were poorly understood and little supported in society. But now same sex marriage is legal, very broadly supported by people in our pews and non-Christians in our mission field who we need to reach with the Gospel. In America today, marriage equality is a constitutionally protected right.

    Remember too that 20 years ago, the burning controversy was gay ordination instead of marriage. And without the ability to solemnize a relationship in matrimony, that made gay ordination very hard to accept.

    So now, because of legal same sex marriage, it is easy to see that gay marriages are like straight marriage and we can accept the possibility of gay ordination because we can do so without changing the Christian sexual ethic of “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage,” So, now, keeping that ethic in place and treating gay and straight alike is a concept that all can understand.

    Just because all can understand it, however, does not mean all will agree. And that brings us back to deciding whether or not we must all agree or disagree. Surely at this point the question is should not so weighty as abortion or war.

    If I may, let me quibble with your contention that, for those who are gay-affirming, this is a matter of justice and that that justice must be absolute. I would urge you not to buy into that conservative talking point. First, I’d ask where is justice absolute or black-and-white? Maybe conceptually it should be, but in our human reality, it never is. Second, it is for many of us, the question more foundationally one of Biblical faithfulness (n.b., tradition has been reconsidered and corrected previously regarding slavery and sexism, so too it will be on heterosexism). Thirdly, and more importantly for the “unity-for-mission” crowd, it is a question of evangelism and discipleship. But whether one’s gay-affirming value is justice or faithfulness, there is no reason to lift this up as uniquely division-worthy when, as you say, abortion and war have not been so for the UMC. There is lots of gray in each of these areas in which we must live.

    As for those who insist on purity-of-principle, I have two messages. For the affirming folks, I remind them that nearly all of us over age 40 were once non-affirming, so what right do we have to insist everyone agree with us now? And for non-affirming folks, I remind them that church tradition has gotten important questions wrong before, and from personal experience, I suggest they may be one child or grandchild away from wanting to critically reexamine the traditional view. So let’s all give each other some grace and some space.

    It’s worth remembering that these set-in-stone prohibitions are relatively recent vintage — 1972 for the “incompatibility” language, 1984 for gay ordination , and 1996 for same sex marriage. Even the standard “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage” was written into the BoD only in 1996. Not that morality was not a criteria before that and surely clergy could not be dismissed for immorality before these new rules. Rather the historic approach we have taken is simply to leave it to annual conferences to decide which called persons are suitable for ordination locally and, similarly, for pastors to decide which requesting couples are suitable for a church wedding. So if General Conference backs off the global prohibitions, it could do without transgressing our historic ecclesiology, and it could do so without actually affirming gay marriage explicitly. It could simply return to the historic approach of trusting annual conferences and pastors.

    Remember we are called by Christ to love our neighbors and even our enemies while of course neighbors disagree and enemies disagree. We, as church, are called to unity. We are bound through the sacrament of baptism as members of the body of Christ. Even though we may not all think alike, surely we can all love each other.

  2. I’d be interested in hearing what, besides sexuality, has been deemed essential. I have a sneaking suspicion that the results of that inquiry would be revealing.

  3. A view from the UMC pew: Based on my lifetime experience, the essential issue that I believe has led to this impasse is the lack of clear, consistent teaching about who God is and who we are and what God really expects of us in this life. It was not until I distanced myself from all things church–something I never expected to do–that I finally found myself in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace because I finally had a clear understanding of who God is and who I am; I also finally understood that Christianity starts with me and my individual life. Christianity went from feeling like rocket science–which it had felt like because of non-specific, ambiguous teaching–to being simply unfathomable. The UMC has become so focused on social justice issues, it has lost sight that connecting individuals to God and then to each other is the very important first step. Methodism did not come into existence because the Wesley brothers focused on social justice issues to change the world; they focused on creating a space where God could transform individuals. Without a single clear and consistent message that gives everybody the same understanding of the unfathomable love of our triune God for us, many other understandings have been allowed to develop.

    From a more pragmatic viewpoint, the same gender question has become essential for conservatives because of the liberal/progressives who insist on foisting their understanding on all of us. Having monitored the issue for several years, I find that the liberal/progressives are fundamentalists in the sense that they are right and everybody else is wrong so the church must bend to their will. I grew up at a time when individual freedom was viewed as my freedom stops where the next person’s begins. I absolutely do not fault the liberal/progressives for their view point; I just wish they extended the same courtesy towards me. As far as I am concerned, the issue has been decided multiple times and I am very comfortable with the answer General Conference has produced multiple times. What I take exception to is the liberal/progressives who see themselves as enlightened persons who are “above the law”; that is what is destroying the church. I see the liberal/progressives as a radical group who have driven the agenda of the church for way too long. I see them as pitching temper tantrums because they did not get their way. I see them as practicing a form of Christianity I do not recognize nor want to be part of. I am also convinced that the question of sexuality will not stop with same gender relationships; before the liberal/progressives are done it will be anything goes as long as it is between two consenting adults. Based on the description of LGBTQI….XYZ persons in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, their primary goal in life will be to determine what gender they are on any given day. In an article posted on the United Methodist Reporter website, the pastor of FUMC in Portland Oregon identified why liberal/progressives needed to stay with the church: so that the cause for LGBTQI…XYZ persons could be advanced world wide–absolutely no reference to spiritual development/discipleship. I see their cause as an unholy alliance of two things out of the 1960’s–the period I grew up in–the Civil Rights movement and the sexual revolution. The church was very vocal and involved in the first and had absolutely nothing to say about the second. So it is probably no wonder they see this as a “holy cause”. For the record, I borrowed the LGBTQI…XYZ designation from another frustrated person. In the same article referenced above, the” I “no longer stands for “inquiring”, it also stands for “intersex”. How are we supposed to keep up with this insanity????????????????????????? Where is the “middle way” through that????????????????

  4. I disagree that the division is over homosexuality but assert it is over foundational hermeneutics. If it were about sexuality many of us could have made concessions early on.
    As I perceive the progressive argument, they start from the presumption that homosexuality is a good and through reason and experience draw considerable evidence from the world around us. All Scripture and tradition is then judged by what it has to say about that good. If there is anything contrary then it is invalidated due to the cultural deficiency or lack of enlightenment of the source. The language of this hermeneutic gives preference to consequentialist over deontological thought. Accepting this process (more so than accepting homosexuality) transforms the Christian faith into a new religion. I reject the hermeneutic and the language (as does four thousand years of the faith).
    There is an orthodox hermeneutic and a deontological path that would produce most of the same results but the progressives seem to reject that precisely because it is orthodox and deontological.
    So our argument is not over sexuality but fundamental processes that forms all doctrine.

  5. For the Apostolic Council in Acts 15, as well as Jesus in Matthew 15, and Paul in 1Cor 5-6, human sexuality was an essential issue. Essential enough to break fellowship over, according to 1Cor and Jesus’ words to the churches in Revelation, in fact.

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