Guest column by Rev. Katy Shedlock
“Woah- hold on, let me see if I understand this,” said my friend, who is not Methodist. “Your denomination is having this big controversy over whether or not LGBTQ people can get married in the church or be pastors.”
“Correct,” I said.
“But you all are NOT fighting about things like whether or not Jesus is the Son of God, or whether the resurrection happened, or who can receive Communion, or if the Trinity exists. No one on either side is trying to argue for changing the church’s position on that stuff.”
“So why can’t you just agree to disagree on gay pastors and gay weddings? It seems like a secondary, non-essential thing compared to everything else you agree on.”
My friend is invoking a classic compromise in church fights, one that goes back to the Protestant Reformation. Basically, she suggests that we Methodists consider the questions of LGBTQ marriage and ordination to be adiaphora, or non-essential to salvation. As protestant reformers gained power throughout the 1500’s in western Europe, their desire for Scripturally-based Christian practices sometimes led them to reject everything not explicitly sanctioned in the Bible. As a result of this enthusiasm, they destroyed things like statues, organs, and stained glass, for which there is no biblical precedent. Eventually in 1577 the Formula of Concord allowed that for the sake of unity, practices that were neither commanded, nor forbidden in Scripture were permitted. Examples of adiaphora include things like whether or not pastors wear robes, if people are baptized as babies or adults, or what kind of bread to use in Communion.
In some ways, the adiaphora approach has real possibility with contemporary Methodists. Our membership vows are very simple: we ask people to reject evil, trust Christ, to profess the Apostle’s Creed, and to support their local church. That’s it. In my previous church, I actually had a woman refuse to become a member because she was uncomfortable with the fact that we did NOT have a long list of official church positions that we would ask her to uphold. She wanted to be presented with a detailed confession on everything from abortion to climate change to sex education. I explained that keeping the list of essential commitments short enables us to have a big tent, with a wide variety of faithful expressions, rooted in the needs and experiences of local communities.
Where the adiaphora approach breaks down, of course, is when people cannot come to an agreement about what is really essential. Traditionalist Methodists who oppose LGBTQ weddings and ordinations might say “Scripture prohibits that, and therefore it is not adiaphora.” (For clarity’s sake, Scripture does not directly address either LGBTQ weddings or ordinations. Nor does it directly address stained glass windows or using organ music.) I have been blessed to know many LGBTQ Christians, and their calling into ordained ministry, as well as the ability to have their churches bless their marriages and families, is absolutely essential to their lives and their faith, and therefore, not adiaphora. For many progressive Methodists, any kind of discrimination and harm in the church is a violation of God’s love, and therefore, not adiaphora.
So where does that leave my denomination and the possibility of agreeing to disagree? Personally, I hoped for the passage of the One Church Plan, which would have allowed for pastors to individually discern their comfort with officiating weddings and for our annual conferences (our version of a diocese) to discern whom to ordain. It grieved me to know that had that plan passed, there would have been pastors and conferences that chose not to include or affirm LGBTQ people, but at the same time I would have had greater freedom to practice inclusive ministry. The One Church Plan would have required serious humility on everyone’s part; real agreement to disagree always does. But I believe that in that humility, there is freedom and dignity for me to be me and for you to be you, without coercive attempts at controlling others. In agreeing to disagree with true humility, we leave open the possibility that we might learn from and be changed by each other, in ways we might barely imagine. After all, God loves nothing more than to use the most unlikely people – good Samaritans, faithful tax collectors, outcasts, women, and children – to bring us new understandings of love and grace. Seriously, agreeing to disagree means saying “You might be wrong, but I love you too much to end our relationship.”
For both traditionalist and progressive Methodists, LGBTQ weddings and ordinations are not adiaphora. But regardless of how our denominational structures may change, I am hopeful that God will keep challenging us to learn how to agree to disagree, for that is truly essential to our growth in love as Christians.
Join us for a Coffee Talk forum on “Agreeing to Disagree” on April 6 at 10 a.m. at Origin Church, 5115 S. Shedlock is a panelist.
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Co-pastor of Creators’ Table, Katy Shedlock was born and raised in Spokane and loves the power of a good story, building community, and connecting across cultures.