Christian Ethics is not Christian Doctrine

Posted: 2019/09/06 in Bible, Christianity, Church, Ecclesiology, Ethics, Theology, UMC

Yes, it’s a very bland and almost tedious title, but I couldn’t think of anything else.

Recently I explained my problems with taking one side or the other in the UMC’s ongoing response to General Conference 2019 (GC2019).  As I described with more detail, I don’t feel that either side–conservative/traditionalist or progressive/liberal/inclusivist–has made sufficient theological arguments based on critical exegesis of the Bible, which we claim as our primary authority.  I recently bumped into an article by on William B. Lawrence that effectively makes my point and raises an issue that deserves some exploration.

Lawrence argues that the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” distorts and otherwise violates the UMC’s theology and doctrinal standards.  The “incompatible…” phrase refers to “the practice of homosexuality,” which by the letter of the current (2019) Discipline prohibits those engaged in “the practice of homosexuality” from entering the ordination process.  Moreover, same-gender marriage is prohibited.  Because Methodism never developed a single doctrinal statement, it synthesizes its doctrine from a variety of sources, which include its Articles of Religion (adapted from those of the Church of England and the Evangelical United Brethren Church), and a particularly revered collection of John Wesley’s sermons plus some of his journals and his notes on the New Testament (forgive me if I’ve forgotten one or two).  Even with this rather chaotic framework for its doctrine, Methodism has a structure for theological reflection that is called the Quadrilateral, with its four vertices being church tradition (teaching), reason, experience, and in the preeminent position, the Bible.

But that stuff isn’t what Lawrence leans on.  Instead, he argues his position for doing away with “incompatible with Christian teaching” because it violates the General Rules of Our Methodist Societies (so called by John Wesley).  The General Rules are a trinity of ethical statements:
(1)  Do no harm.
(2)  Do all the good you can.
(3)  Attend to the ordinances of God (I.E. do those things that maintain one’s relationship with God).

The problem Lawrence strays into is that, while he asserts that “incompatible with Christian teaching” has harmed LGBT persons, he maintains that this ethical violation is also a violation of our theology and doctrine, but he never substantiates this claim.  Instead, he seems to conflate ethics, theology, and doctrine.

While I accept his assertion that LGBT persons are experiencing the harm that comes from exclusion and discrimination based upon the current polity of the UMC, I am unwilling to use that ethical valuation to make claims about the UMC’s theological and doctrinal understandings.  Doing no harm is not an ethical position unique to Methodism.  Lawrence, like many (all?) of his progressive colleagues, needs to address what scripture and a few thousand years of church teaching say about homosexuality, as hostile as they may be.  They cannot simply be ignored because people are experiencing changed realities within our current societal culture.  Nor can we impose a generic ethic on the church and declare it doctrine without demonstrating how its roots dig down into scripture and church teaching.

None of this is to say that our ethical sense in these matters is invalid.  It may be that our ethics has gotten ahead of our theological and doctrinal formulations.  After all, the church has changed its doctrine and dogma over the centuries and our understanding of theology, even Biblical theology, isn’t entirely fixed.  However, acknowledging such change hardly gives license to avoiding the hard work of constructive, competent, and critical exegesis and theological reflection.

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