by Chris Ritter

“Christ… makes the marriage union to be between one man and one woman only.” -John Wesley, Explanatory Notes on the Old Testament, Genesis 16

Hundreds of pages of briefs are being generated in preparation for the October Judicial Council hearings on the three official Way Forward Plans.   Most of the ink is spilling over the constitutionality of the One Church Plan (OCP).  Impressive legal minds, some otherwise supportive of same-sex marriage, are finding places where the OCP conflicts with our Constitution.  Dr. Bill Lawrence, past president of the Judicial Council, identifies no less than five areas of conflict.  (A summary of the constitutional issues raised by the One Church Plan are provided here.)

Most of the potential constitutional violations surface around provisions aiming to put United Methodists under different ordination standards.  If these measures are struck down, the OCP’s already-questionable assurances of a workable, stable solution to the human sexuality impasse will be even further degraded.  But another interesting line of critique focuses on whether the One Church Plan is inherently in conflict with United Methodist doctrine and liturgy.

Write Your Own Ritual

Question: Does the One Church Plan unconstitutionally delegate to others the exclusive power of General Conference to “provide and revise the hymnal and ritual of the Church?”  It is argued by multiple petitioners that same-sex marriage is in conflict with the wedding rituals established in our 1988 hymnal and our 1992 Book of Worship.  These declare that God “made us male and female for each other.” Our rituals provides no language compatible with a wedding celebrating the union of two people of the same gender.

If Judicial Council agrees that the One Church Plan inappropriately delegates revision of our rituals, the only fix would be for GC to provide an approved ritual for same-sex weddings.  This is two or three steps beyond what supporters of the One Church Plan said would be necessary for passage of the plan.  Instead of General Conference acknowledging disagreement on human sexuality, it would be offering theological justification and support for same-sex marriage through our official worship resources.

Doctrinal Standards

A further question is whether United Methodist Doctrine forbids same-sex marriage.  The phrase “United Methodist Doctrine” is used so seldom that some may wonder if we have any.  We do.  It is contained in the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church, the Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, the General Rules of the United SocietiesWesley’s Notes on the New Testament, Wesley’s Standard Sermons, and the General Rules of the United Societies.  These Doctrinal Standards are protected in our Constitution by Restrictive Rules that forbid General Conference from establishing any “standards or rules of doctrine contrary” to these.  If the Judicial Council ruled that same-sex marriage is in conflict with our doctrinal standards, it would significantly change the landscape of our human sexuality debate.

Briefs in support of OCP caution the Judicial Council away from becoming the arbiters of doctrine and theology.  But Judicial Council is the only referee available when it comes to General Conference legislation.  When a pastor or bishop is charged with disseminating doctrines contrary to our church, there are judicial means for addressing this.  Our Judicial Council,  as interpreters of our Restrictive Rules, are the only check on the legislative branch violating these protected standards.  Our constitution seems to invite Judicial Council’s intervention when necessary to preserve our doctrine.

As it turns out, our Doctrinal Standards have little to say about same-sex marriage as such.  They were written before a marriage between two people of the same gender would have ever been within the realm of consideration.  Wesley did comment in several places on polygamy in ways that illumine the nature of marriage.  In his Explanatory Notes of Genesis 16, Wesley notes, “Christ has reduced this matter (polygamy) to the first institution (Genesis 2), and makes the marriage union to be between one man and one woman only.”  This is a strong statement declaring Jesus has definitely and authoritatively ruled on the nature of marriage.  Wesley is borrowing language here from an earlier commentary by Matthew Henry and referring to Matthew 19 and Mark 10 where Jesus addressed marriage questions using God’s design in Creation.

But Wesley’s notes on the Old Testament are not part of our doctrinal standards, only his notes on the New (this Old Testament note, however, happens to be a note on the New Testament.)  Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament pre-dated his Old Testament notes by several years.  In the Model Deed (the original “Trust Clause”), Wesley made trustees for each preaching house responsible for ensuring that the preachers in their pulpits “preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes Upon the New Testament and four volumes of Sermons.”*  Thus his notes on the New Testament became a Methodist doctrinal standard before his later Old Testament notes came along.

Wesley’s New Testament explanatory notes do support a rejection of homosexual practice as he comments on key passages like Romans 1.  Article of Religion XXII  requires that “nothing be ordained against God’s Word.”  Is it possible that the UM Judicial Council would venture into these theological waters in order to rule the One Church Plan unconstitutional by means of doctrinal conflict?

We’ll See

Quite a layer of dust has grown on our Doctrinal Standards over the years.  It might be a healthy corrective for Judicial Council to trigger a fresh engagement with our doctrinal heritage. The One Church Plan certainly leaves itself open to the charge that it inappropriately delegates out General Conference’s authority for revising the rituals of our church.   If the Judicial Council went the further step of declaring same-sex marriage in inherent conflict with our doctrinal standards, the hope of overturning our teachings on human sexuality would be stalled for the foreseeable future.  But this would still leave us with the difficult issue of achieving the theological alignment necessary for genuine unity.  This type of unity, Wesley argued, is only achieved through discipline exercised in love, grace… and Truth.


*I conjecture that making his own sermons and notes the only doctrinal standard was a check against Whitfield’s Calvinistic Methodists taking over a Methodist preaching house for which Wesley’s part of the movement incurred the debt.  So this was primarily a filter between one type of Methodist and another.  Wesley did not need a more systematic statement of belief because he operated under the theology of the Church of England.  It was only after the American Revolution that Wesley undertook an abridgment of the Anglican Articles of Religion for use by the new Methodist Church in America.


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