Kevin Watson, Assistant Professor at Candler School of Theology, recently published a blog on church unity. Dr. Watson is an important voice in United Methodism, rightly praised highly for his work on the Class Meeting. As such, it is worth while looking at what he has to say, and offering some criticism.
Here let me focus on his two central claims.
First, Watson suggests that, since the Discipline represents our polity, and since it is shared polity that allows for unity, those (like me) who have advocated for a unity which includes resistance to the current stance in the Discipline are not really in favor of unity.
Watson’s view here has initial plausibility, but is ultimately overly idealistic. The world would be much more orderly if the codes of rules that our societies produce were actually the substance of our societies. But this is never really the case in any simple way. Lived societies are constantly negotiated, and rarely fully captured on the page.
This fact is clear enough to anyone who has ever taken a thorough look at the legal code in any modern state. In North Carolina it is illegal for bingo games to last more than five hours. In Rhode Island it is illegal to sell toothbrush and toothpaste to the same customer on a single Sunday. No one actually follows these rules. Does this mean that the unity of these states is compromised? No. Often times practice does not fit to de jure standard.
The above represent places where the legal standards represent modes of life that we would all agree are (at least) out of date. But that is not always the case. Often times the implementation of law differs regionally. Take, for instance, traffic laws. Anyone who has driven in multiple parts of the country will recognize that driving habits differ depending on where one is, and that what is de facto allowed by police will vary if you live in California or Kansas (for instance). In some cities if you pull into an intersection while waiting to turn left it can get you a ticket. In others the police officer behind you will honk if you have not pulled out into the intersection. This despite the fact that the de jure laws on the books are often exactly the same. And yet the unity of the United States is not threatened by this variation in de facto driving patterns.
Not only this, but the Judao-Christian tradition itself has a long history of violating its own written standards. Take for instance the Puritans in the early Americas. Today most people have a dour view of the Puritans as strict legalists. There is some justification for this, and part of it would come from reading their explicit social laws. You would be amazed what you could get killed for according to these documents! But, historians tell us that this is not a particularly good way of getting at what the Puritan societies actually did in practice. In practice, while the law calls for strict punishments, the Puritans exercised a great deal of grace. While the law represented the absoluteness of their moral resolve, when it came down to it nobody actually wanted to carry out capital punishment on the guy who lived down the street. The situation is doubtless the same for many of the laws found in the Old Testament. While critics today enjoy trotting out the relatively minor infractions for which one could be justly killed according to the Torah, history does not record the actual carrying out of these punishments on a regular basis (and with the number of capital offenses, judicial killings would doubtless have been regular occurrences).
But why stay in the distant past or in other denominations? It turns out that there are lots of rules currently in the Discipline that go unenforced and no one even takes note. See, for instance, this list of 25 ways United Methodists don’t uphold the Book of Discipline. My point here is not that we should have no enforced standards (we need enforced rules) but that we need more than a simple appeal to The Discipline as is currently stands in order to make sense of how and why we enforce. Not all difference in practice is an attack on substantial unity, and not all unity springs from our shared rules.
So, contrary to what Watson suggests, not towing the line in following the written standards of the Discipline is not necessarily an attack on Church unity. In fact, the real question for people who make this claim is what is it about the issue of homosexuality that makes it so unique in our social standards that our unity depends on strict enforcement?
Watson’s second claim is that those who advocate for moderation (something like freedom of conscience) on issues of homosexuality have provided no developed theological rational for this possibility.
I don’t believe I have seen someone from this group make a theological argument for why one church can be both for and against same sex marriage and how such a position would express the value of the Church’s unity. I can’t recall a theological argument from someone in this camp that argues that same sex marriage is a matter of indifference to God.
Apparently then Watson believes that moderates need an argument for God’s indifference on the question of homosexuality in order to justify their appeal to agree to disagree. That is a fascinating claim, and I can think of no reason why it would be true.
Let’s say that two Christians agree to disagree on for whom to vote in an election. Does that mean that they agree that God is indifferent on who gets elected? It’s possible, but not likely. Rather, they probably both believe that (all other things equal) God would prefer their candidate, but they agree to disagree because they are virtuous people who are marked by humility about their own judgments about God’s will in this case and because they recognize that there are other important things that they gain by not leaving the relationship.
But, again why make the issue abstract. Anyone who is familiar with the United Methodist Church knows that we just do agree to disagree on all sorts of things. Does that mean that we agree that God is indifferent on those issues? We disagree with each other on the ethics of war, alcohol consumption, abortion, divorce, etc. Are United Methodists therefore obligated to take the position that God is indifferent on these issues? That seems a uniquely absurd conclusion.
Again, the real question here is why, given that we do disagree about such important issues to the Christian tradition as the ethics of war, etc., can we not come to agree to disagree about homosexuality? In the midst of disagreement between United Methodists of good faith, what is it that deprives us of the humility that would allow us to find substantive unity across our disagreement?
I must admit. To that I have no answer.