Can You be A Compatibilist & United Methodist?

It has become the standard United Methodist worldview that the denomination is made up of five major groups—traditional incompatibilists, traditional compatibilists, moderate compatibilists, progressive compatibilists, and progressive incompatibilists—and that the vast majority of United Methodists are in the middle three groups, but the incompatibilists on both ends are pulling us apart.

It is true that the composition of the denomination is complex and there are multiple positions. A color photo is often better than a black and white snapshot.  

But take a moment and question whether this standard view is in focus.

First, the panoramic description has a quasi-scientific feel to it, which gives it an authoritative glow. But the research on what United Methodists believe is limited and more complex than the label “compatibilist” suggests. Over the past few years there has been some shifting of views among North American United Methodists on the issues of sexuality. However, the majority hold “traditional” and “moderate” views on other religious beliefs.

The label “compatibilist” implies that the typical United Methodist congregation or member has a well-formed opinion. Most have not. Indeed, most of our churches have never talked about the issue. And most members see the issue solely in terms of their local church. It might be that the label “compatibilist” gives the appearance of a coherent position when, in reality, it reflects a mish-mash of ideas and a predilection for avoiding the logical consequences of one’s beliefs. So, other descriptors are just as apt: “contradictory,” “undecided,” or even “polite.”

(For more, read about a 2015 poll on sexuality and a 2019 poll on general theological perspectives among United Methodists. See also, sociologist James Wood’s analysis of General Conference delegates in his excellent but dated book Where the Spirit Leads: The Evolving Views of United Methodists on Homosexuality)

Second, the accepted view of reality implies that the denomination has been compatibilist up until St. Louis. Like it or not, our official stance has always been “traditional incompatiblism” that for 47 years has been eliminating the loopholes that allowed for a defacto compatiblism. St. Louis just exposed the ugly truth of our incompatibilism. All statements of inclusion to the contrary may unwittingly serve to mask the legal reality. In short, our system is incompatible with compatibilism.

All this raises two fundamental questions for those who claim to be “compatibilists:”

  • With what are you compatible? Progressive compatibilists must compromise their belief that LGBTQ believers should be treated equally in the church. If the shoe was on the other foot, traditional compatibilists would have to compromise their belief that biblical prohibitions on homosexual behavior must be followed. These beliefs are paramount, not things that one should compromise.
  • For what are you compatible? Those in favor of keeping the denomination intact make the argument that “we are better together.” They are willing to compromise their principles of human rights or biblical authority for something they believe is more important. What is that? Organizational loyalty? Missional effectiveness? Have these become buzzwords that have lost their integrity?

Third, the perceived reality serves a purpose for moderate leaders. It allows them to think that they are above the conflict and thus are the only ones who can lead the denomination. This can be rather patronizing and dismissive (Who wants to be called an “incompatibilist”?).  For moderates who want the denomination to stay intact, the idea of “compatibilists” is a powerful argument.

Thomas Lambrecht recently called out moderates who claim to be “compatibilists” but now advocate for inclusion of LGBTQ persons.  He accurately pointed out that they are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

All this raises a question for moderates: What exactly do you mean by inclusion?

Sometimes, I get the impression that for some moderates the only reason they want queer folk in the church is to reassure themselves that they are not bigots.

Tokenism is no substitute for true inclusion.

Published by

Notes for a New Methodism

Rev. Darren Cushman Wood is the senior minister of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana and is an elder and full member of the Indiana Annual Conference. He is a graduate of the University of Evansville and Union Theological Seminary (New York). Darren was a delegate to the 2004 & 2008 General Conferences and a delegate to the 2000 & 2016 Jurisdictional Conferences. He is the author of "The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops" and "Blue Collar Jesus: How Christianity Supports Workers' Rights."

2 thoughts on “Can You be A Compatibilist & United Methodist?”

  1. rightly said. “St. Louis just exposed the ugly truth of our incompatibilism. ” And the JC ruling confirmed for me that the UMC is officially and solidly anti GLBTQI+. Jesus talked about so much more…and calls us to ministry not more legislative double speak. I look forward to what the two gatherings in May come uo with, but also trust our Western Jurisdicition Leaders, lay and clergy, are working on a New Methodism to move into.


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