Two Kinds of Centrist

“Centrist” is a cynical political position but a valuable relational position.

Political centrists only find their place relative to those on either side. These kinds of centrists may be better described as relativists. The “center” that they occupy has no meaning without others’ positions. And, presumably, when those others’ positions shift, so will the centrists’.

Centrist political positioning can be good for coalition building, winning a vote, political advancement, and power. But we shouldn’t count on that kind of “centrist” to have others’ best interests in mind. So long as they identify as centrists, they identify as people whose actual positions are fluid, keyed to what others are doing not to conviction.

Relational centrists also find their place relative to those on either side, but in an entirely different manner. They put themselves at the center of various factions so they can understand them, give them a fair hearing, and help create understanding across those factions. When people who hold other positions shift, so will these centrists––not in their policy positions, but in their relational placement. They move so they can continue hearing people from wherever they are.

Centrist relational positioning is intended for peacemaking and understanding. It may not win a majority or consolidate power. Those aren’t its goals.

The political centrist may be quick to dismiss and demean people whose convictions are too far outside the center. Those people won’t be part of a “centrist” voting bloc, so they don’t serve the political centrist’s purposes.

The relational centrist, on the other hand, may be found with those people whose convictions are outside the center, not necessarily to win them to a voting bloc, but to seek peace and understanding with them and for them.

Some political centrists have firm positions and convictions. They only happen to be in the center now. If others shift, they might find themselves lumped in with one partisan group. For these folks, it would probably be better to define them by their actual, firm convictions, not by a relative and fragile “center.”

Some relational centrists have firm positions and convictions. And those positions may even align them with one partisan camp. Their “centrism” isn’t an ambivalence to the issues, it’s a desire to listen and work across divisions.

You can identify the political centrist by his focus on building voting blocs and winning strategies. His desire is to achieve the biggest possible win for his 50.1%.

You can identify the relational centrist by her focus on preventing misunderstanding and aspersions across voting blocs. Her desire is to achieve something that can be considered a “win” for the biggest possible number of people.

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How the UMC Divides

Most people now think some sort of divide in the UMC is inevitable. Tom Berlin shared this helpful illustration about our differences––attributed to Tom Lambrecht. It shows two groups who are “non-compatible” with the other’s stance on same-sex marriage. Their positions are so opposed that they cannot find any covenant both sides would agree to and keep.


Chris Ritter improved on that illustration in a recent post to show the relative size of each group.


First, let’s ask whether Ritter and Berlin are right––these groups can’t all remain united. I think they are. Mainly because I’ve interacted with non-compatibilists on both sides. I know the pastors and church members who will leave any Church communion that endorses same-sex marriage, on paper or in practice, nearby or afar (i.e. what happens in California affects Kentucky). And I know the pastors and church members who will leave any communion that prevents them from endorsing same-sex marriage.

Unless I’m wrong about this, our Commission on a Way Forward will not find a way to keep us all united. Some divide must occur.

The question: where and how do we draw the lines?

The illustration above helps us see our current crisis. However, I think it leads us to the wrong conclusions when we start talking about drawing lines. We assume that if we’re headed toward inevitable schism, the line must cut according to these divisions––we’re going to divide over same-sex marriage.

I want to suggest a different way of looking at our current situation, not according to same-sex marriage (alone) but according to covenant.

“Covenant” in the UMC may sound like a shibboleth for conservative / traditionalist right now. Especially given the name and emphasis of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). But note that there are sugar packets on both sides here.

This is where some “conservative / traditionalist” repentance is in order. I offer this as someone who tends to identify more closely with the UMC’s “conservative” crowd. I hosted Bill Arnold’s guest post about the initial WCA meeting. I teach and affirm the UMC’s current positions on human sexuality. So I offer this critique of the UMC’s more conservative wing from the inside:

  1. Traditionalists have gotten serious about human sexuality far too late, and still leave some question about whether we’re concerned about human sexuality or only gay sex.[1] Many of our churches have allowed unmarried, sexually active heterosexuals to become members, leaders and staff members while denying the same to sexually active homosexuals, or in some cases, even celibate homosexuals![2] This reveals an incomplete and incoherent (or merely homophobic) theology of human sexuality. We must develop and practice a more robust theology of human sexuality.
  2. We have gotten serious about covenant far too late, and in an incomplete way. Some progressives have asked me why covenant-keeping has become so important to conservatives now, when they’ve never seen outrage about our several churches and pastors who practice re-baptism, “remembrance of baptism” by full immersion, or infant dedications with believer’s baptism. All of these are flagrant violations of our covenant.[3] If we’re going to get upset about flagrant covenant-breaking, it has to be about all flagrant covenant-breaking.
  3. We have suggested that traditionalists “believe the Bible” and progressives don’t. That’s unfair. I’ve been on the other side of that argument with Calvinists, believer’s baptism folks, and people who won’t ordain women. (“You let women preach? Oh, my church follows the Bible…”) We have to engage in more serious conversations about exegesis, not straw man take-downs.
  4. Some of us have withheld our apportionments as a sign of protest. That’s not the way to protest.

Our tendency is to acknowledge our “small” faults, but then to point out how much more the other side is at fault. I’ve never had a conflict move toward resolution by trying to point out that the other person was 80% of the problem. I don’t know the percentages here, but there’s enough blame to go around. No need to identify who’s more at fault.

Getting serious about covenant

With all of that, I want to suggest that it’s time for us all to repent, forgive, and get serious about our UMC covenant––all of it.

We need to offer full forgiveness to all who have broken that covenant in the past.

We need to ask which churches and pastors will find it impossible to abide our covenant going forward.

We need to offer them a gracious, graceful exit. This is not far different from what Bill Arnold and David Watson were proposing a few years ago (the A&W plan, as it was called). If you must leave, take your property and your pension with you. Some of our general boards and agencies may even find a way to continue to work in partnership with you, should you choose.

The major difference between this suggestion and the A&W plan: it’s not just about same-sex marriage. It’s about the whole covenant. Can you abide, or can you not?

Some of the most likely areas we’ll need to discuss:

      • Baptism practices. Will you need to break covenant to re-baptize someone, to perform an infant dedication, or to recommend believers’ baptism?[4]
      • United Methodist doctrine. Contrary to popular opinion, we have a clear set of doctrinal beliefs. Can you affirm and teach Trinitarian faith? The historical, bodily resurrection of Christ? Free grace on offer to all people (i.e. you’re not a Calvinist)? The Bible as the true rule and guide for faith and practice?[5]
      • Women in ministry. Can you support full clergy rights for women?[6]
      • Same-sex marriage. Will you need to break covenant to perform or live in a same-sex marriage?
      • Itineracy. If you vow to go wherever the Bishop may send you, can you keep that vow?
      • General Conference. Above all, you’re agreeing to live and minister according to the decisions of our General Conference.

These questions do not ask for full agreement, only obedience.

I have friends who believe we should re-think baptism, others who believe we should re-think same-sex marriage. But they’re willing to live within our current UMC covenant. I believe we need to re-think ordination and itineracy. But I’m willing to live within our current covenant.

We need dissenters who will keep dissenting, just as we needed them in the past to advocate women’s ordination until we changed our position. I’m not convinced by the alternative positions on baptism or same-sex marriage. I don’t expect ever to be. But people have historically helped the church re-think important positions by their advocacy.

If we divide (and we almost surely will), I hope we do it based on covenant, not the single issue of same-sex marriage. I hope we give a graceful exit to those who simply can’t abide the covenant. I hope we retain many people who continue to disagree and advocate for change. And I hope we then begin to take our covenant seriously––all of it.

I write about theology, ministry and the UMC, usually about twice a week. Click here to subscribe by email.

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[1] Some people have noted that traditionalists aren’t only now trying to maintain biblical faithfulness regarding human sexuality. They talk about an effort in the 60s and 70s to maintain faithfulness regarding premarital sex, adultery, and divorce. “We capitulated to cultural pressures” on those issues, writes one person. That’s a better historical perspective, not that traditionalists are only now getting serious about sexual ethics, but that we’ve capitulated on the rest in many places, making a firm stance against same-sex marriages appear merely homophobic, since it’s no longer paired with a firm stance on the rest.

[2] To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it would be unfaithful to our UMC covenant to admit people as members to the church, even while they’re doing something that we would call wilful sin. (I don’t advocate membership in those cases, but that’s another post for another day…) All I mean to suggest here is that if we’re willing to admit anyone “living in sin” as members, we need to be ready to admit anyone “living in sin.” No way can we exclude a gay or lesbian couple while admitting others.

[3] Several people have asked me if all of these are truly “flagrant violations of covenant.” I admit that I may have gone too far here. Re-baptism is a clear flagrant violation (including by willful ignorance or by any suggestion that the first one didn’t count).

Remembrance by immersion and infant dedication are more gray area. This article from Discipleship Ministries and the sources it cites are probably most helpful regarding infant dedication. If not 100% inappropriate, it’s at least a significant deviation from our sacramental theology (baptism as an act of God; dedication as a human action). For remembrance, This Holy Mystery states, “water may be used symbolically in ways that cannot be interpreted as baptism.” That makes it hard for me to see immersion qualifying. Usually a smaller amount of water is used and it’s not administered by another person. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck… Many of these “remembrances” seem to me a clever way of getting around our baptismal theology. But this, too, is not black and white.

[4] Why the heavy emphasis on baptism? “That’s not what’s causing our divisions,” some say. But if we say that infidelity to covenant is causing our divisions, then this is a prominent area of covenant infidelity in some areas, and it must be resolved. (Also, some value our sacramental theology as much as our theology of sexuality. We have not come lightly to our positions on the sacraments.)

[5] Several people have suggested that the primary cause of our divide is theological. First, I don’t believe we have one divide, but many. Theology is certainly a cause of division, though I’d caution us not to think of that divide in simplistic “left” and “right” categories. We have many people across the spectrum (and with varying beliefs about same-sex marriage) who can say the full Nicene Creed and mean it. And we have people across the spectrum who cannot. If we attempt to solve our divisions by means of sifting out the heterodox (something that fidelity to covenant does), we will not be chopping off a “liberal” or “conservative” wing or resolving our controversy over same-sex marriage.

[6] For any who think this addition unnecessary, here’s a comment to me from a United Methodist woman: “[O]ne of the things I was worried about before the WCA was that the conservative voices in the UMC particularly here in KY would begin to question women clergy (among other things). Let’s be honest many many [of our] UMCs do not totally support women clergy and in fact if we shine a light bright enough, we find several UMC pastors and maybe even DSs that do not as well. I have also seen and been privy to conversations surrounding Communion as a Sacrament, One Baptism and Calvinistic language among lay persons in leadership and clergy whose primary background is in another denomination. Seriously, we have many Bapti-Methodist churches in [our state] and the SEJ that ignore important aspects of our doctrine and polity as egregiously as those progressive whom they criticize. As I have heard and seen WCA emerge, I’ve been pleased to see that Orthodoxy, Wesleyan theology, and abiding by the BOD in all regards is the focus.” For the record: I don’t know of any DSs who don’t support women clergy, but I found this woman’s testimony helpful for anyone who believes we’re past these concerns.

“Better to lose one part of your body than the whole body go to hell” — Church discipline, pastoral authority, and schism


One of Jesus’ most extreme instructions to his disciples was this one in the Sermon on the Mount:

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell” (Matthew 5:29-30).

That was instruction to anyone committing adultery or even looking at a woman lustfully. Most Christians have tended to take this in the same way: figurative and for our individual bodies.

We usually read this as hyperbole, intended to make a point but not to be followed. Surely Jesus wouldn’t ask us to gouge out our eyes! I still have both eyes and both hands, despite the sins that have come by them.

But even if we take this as hyperbole, we dare not miss the point: avoid sin at all costs. Because sin leads to death, eternal death, hell. What’s worse than going through life without an eye or a hand? Losing your life for all of eternity—the whole body going into hell. And if willful sin persists, that’s our trajectory.[1. Many balk at this. “We all sin. We’re human!” First—by that very statement, you deny Christ’s humanity or his perfection. Be careful. Second—passages like 1 John 3:6 say the opposite: “No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.” Third—see my article “Why I Love Wesleyan Theology” for more.]

This is usually where we stop when it comes to this passage, if we even make it this far, but I wonder if its application can be broader.

What if we read this in a different way: literal and for our corporate body—the church?[1. I’m not suggesting that Jesus intended this statement for that purpose. But I am suggesting that it properly applies, as Jesus’ and Paul’s later words demonstrate.]

It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell

The early church practiced this kind of instruction about cutting off parts. We see it from both Jesus and Paul.

Jesus’ instruction

Jesus instructed his disciples to cut people off, if necessary. For a “brother or sister” who sins, he gave a whole process for trying to turn them from their fault. The goal was restoration, not punishment! The last step: bring it before the church, “and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17).

We know from his other interactions that Jesus didn’t treat pagans and tax collectors with scorn. He treated them with love. But he also didn’t treat them as “brothers and sisters” in the faith.[1. Unless they had come to faith, at which point they would no longer be pagans and no longer keep the unscrupulous practices of other tax collectors] He treated them as sick, as sinners, as those he was calling to be healed through repentance and faith.[1. See Matt 9:12-13]

Paul’s instruction

Later, the apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth. He was apoplectic.

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this?” [1. 1 Cor 5:1-2]

His final instruction to them was a quote from Deuteronomy, “Expel the wicked person from among you.” That line occurs seven times in the book of Deuteronomy, where my version translates, “You must purge the evil from among you.” [1. Deut 13:5; 17:7; 19:19; 21:21; 22:21, 24; 24:7] Seven repetitions—that’s enough to be taken seriously.

(A note for those who ask why the church should be so obsessed about sex, the passages we’ve looked at above were both about sexual sin. Sex is not, and should not be, our only issue. But it is one of the most prominent issues of morality in Scripture, which warrants our attention.)

On church discipline

It is better for you to lose one part of your (church) body than for your whole body to go into hell. This was part of Paul’s rationale in the situation above. He asked, “Don’t you know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough?” [1. 1 Cor 5:6]

When we tolerate outright sin in the church among “brothers and sisters,” we aren’t just doing them damage because we’re unwilling to have the hard conversation. We also risk potential damage to the whole church—devastating damage. We teach the church that we don’t really believe avoid sin at all costs. We treat sin not as our menacing enemy, but as a minor nuisance—or even less, as something we shrug off and tolerate.

When we tolerate outright sin in the church, do we risk the whole body being thrown into hell because one part caused it to sin? A little yeast leavens the whole batch.

John Wesley longed for preachers who “fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God.” [1. From his letter to Alexander Mather on August 6, 1777] When we treat sin with anything less than fear, as anything less than cancer, we have treated it as too little. When we fear offense, impropriety or misperception more than we fear sin, we have treated sin as too little.

Brothers and sisters, we must flee from sin. We flee not just for ourselves, but for the sake of the whole body. A little yeast leavens the whole batch.

The Protestant Distortion

In the earliest Protestant tradition, the church was defined by three practices, as the community where (1) the Word of God is preached, (2) the sacraments are administered, and (3) church discipline is observed, all according to Christ’s institution.

We have largely abandoned the third part of that definition. This may be the logical end of Protestantism, at least in its cheapest form.

Where we have emphasized above all else the private reading and interpretation of Scripture, what place is left for church discipline? What place is left for anything but someone’s private reading and application of the Word of God? What authority does anyone else have to tell a Christian brother or sister that they’re in the wrong?

As we abandon the authority of the church and the authority of the pastor, no space is left for church discipline. Though I don’t believe my doctor is infallible—or in perfect health himself!—I generally trust him when it comes to my physical health. I give him authority to tell me where he sees problems in my health, to tell me where things look good, and even to prescribe new things for me.

Pastors today rarely hold that same kind of authority regarding people’s spiritual health. This isn’t to suggest a domineering relationship (just as our relationships with our doctors tend to avoid that extreme), but a relationship that recognizes the pastor as a spiritual authority, someone who should be expected to examine, diagnose and prescribe, as needed.

Instead, American religion today is more akin to that sad observation in the book of Judges: “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.” [1. Judg 17:6; 21:25] That line makes Phillip Tallon’s remark in my interview with him especially interesting: “We’ve leaned hard into pastor-as-teacher, but while neglecting the authoritative element. Especially in Wesleyan circles, I think we’ve emphasized the pastor-as-prophet and pastor-as-priest, but overlooked pastor-as-king.” [1. emphasis mine]

How can we flee from sin when we give no one permission to name it? How can we help the church to flee from sin when we go on tolerating it in our midst?

If the church is a body, and if it is truly better to lose one part than for the whole body to go into hell, then we must restore the practice of church discipline.

On Schism

The largest form of this “cutting off” members of the body comes in the form of schism. This is an extreme form of church discipline.

We should avoid schism at great pains. Because God loves unity. Because Jesus prayed for unity among his followers. We demonstrate that unity most specifically at a common table, at shared Eucharist. When any church comes to the point that it can no longer share at the one table, schism has already occurred. All that’s left is the crying, and perhaps the lawyers.

We avoid this schism at great pains, but we cannot avoid it at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid schism at the cost of tolerating sin. Because we must avoid sin at all costs, even at the cost of losing a member of the body.

In times of severe strife in the church, our best option is to compromise and be faithful to one another while we work for a way to reconcile. But this is a solution only if the presenting issue is anything less than sin.[1. I could also say “sin and heresy” here, but I’m allowing heresy to come under the broader umbrella of sin.] If a minority group believes they would have to sin to submit to the church’s authority, then they have no options but sin or schism. And they must not choose sin.

Similarly, if the dominant group in a church believes the other is willfully practicing or endorsing sin, they have no options but to condone the sin or expel the group[1. assuming, of course, that they have first attempted to correct and restore them] (i.e. create schism). And they must not choose sin.

If we’ve come this far, let’s be honest about what’s happening. Each side believes the other is in sin or heresy. They’ve already stopped believing the other is truly Christian. They’ve stopped treating them as “brothers and sisters” and begun to treat them as pagans or tax collectors. Schism has occurred in spirit, only institutional trappings remain. In those cases, we would be better to acknowledge that schism and treat each other as pagans or tax collectors—but this in the best possible sense: not with scorn, but with love, gently but persistently calling the other to repentance and faith.

In marital counseling, I tell people that I’m biased toward reconciliation. I will go to great pains to avoid divorce. But I won’t avoid divorce at all costs. Namely, we can’t avoid it if there has been violence in the relationship (in the form of infidelity or abuse, in any of its varieties) and there’s reason to believe that violence will continue.

In the church, schism becomes necessary at the same point. We should take great pains to reconcile, even if it means tolerating anything less than sin. But when violence has occurred (in the form of infidelity to our mutual covenants or abusive behavior toward each other) and there’s reason to believe it will continue, it’s time to separate. In fact, a relatively amicable separation may offer the greatest hope for future reconciliation.

Postscript: A note on judging “outsiders”

The church in recent times (maybe always?) has done pretty well about identifying immorality “out there” among the pagans. This is exactly the opposite of what we see in the passages above. Paul specifically said that when he wrote about not associating with sexually immoral people he was “not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral… In that case you would have to leave this world.”[1. 1 Cor 5:10] He asked, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside.”[1. 1 Cor 5:12-13]

For those who don’t claim faith, we don’t judge. We go to them as they are. We love them as they are. And we gently but persistently call them to repentance and faith.

Some people don’t like the first part of that—they prefer to keep their distance, and perhaps hurl some stones. Others don’t like the last part—calling people to repentance implies that they’re sinners, which could be offensive and seem intolerant. Jesus did both without apology. If we have the same love for others as Jesus, then we will go and do likewise.


Unity and Holiness

For churches and denominations that are wrangling over important issues, it would help to at least have some agreement about the most important questions.

For this, what if we listen to some wise people who came before us? I’m going to use an 1824 letter from the American Methodist Bishops as guide.[1. This was in their quadrennial address to the General Conference] I don’t want to bog you down in its unfamiliar grammar, so I’ll comment on some short extracts here, then provide the full paragraph at bottom.

“Who ever supposed […] that our system was designed, in any of its parts, to secure the applause and popularity of the world, or a numerical increase of worldly or impenitent men?”

Questions we can’t start with:

  • Will we lose members if we do this?
  • Will we lose giving/funding if we do this?
  • Will we lose [insert demographic segment] if we do this?
  • Will this make us out of step with cultural currents?
  • Will this be an unpopular decision?
  • Could the media have a field day with this?

“Holiness is the main cord that binds us together” “The original design of Methodism […] was to raise up and preserve a holy people.”

Questions that must take center stage:

  • What will help us be more holy?
  • What will help us raise up a holy people?
  • What will help us preserve a holy people?

We can only consider asking questions from that first list if we’ve already answered questions about holiness. And use caution. We’re quick to assume that many decisions are morally/theologically neutral. We often make a swift jump to strategy after giving ourselves a simplistic theological answer (e.g. “God wants us to reach people”). Our methods are as theologically significant as our goals.

If Methodists lose sight of this doctrine [of entire sanctification], they will fall by their own weight. Their successes, in gaining numbers, will be the cause of their dissolution.”

Oh, by the way, even if you temporarily grow in number because of your strategies, if you neglect sanctification/holiness, it will be your undoing.

For all the discussion of unity in churches and denominations today, there is no real unity without holiness. Any supposed unity that loses sight of holiness is a superficial and worldly unity.


The full paragraph: “If Methodists give up the doctrine of entire sanctification, or suffer it to become a dead letter, we are a fallen people. It is this that lays the axe to the root of the Antinomian tree, in all its forms and degrees of growth––it is this that inflames zeal, diffuses life, rouses to action, prompts to perseverance, and urges the soul forward to every holy exercise, and every useful work. If Methodists lose sight of this doctrine, they will fall by their own weight. Their successes, in gaining numbers, will be the cause of their dissolution. Holiness is the main cord that binds us together. Relax this, and you loosen the whole system. This will appear more evident, if we call to mind the original design of Methodism. It was to raise up and preserve a holy people. This was the principal object which Mr. Wesley, who, under God, was the great founder of our order, had in view. To this end all the doctrines believed and preached by Methodists tend. And the rules of our Discipline, and the peculiar usages of our Church, were all instituted with the same design. Who ever supposed, or who that is acquainted with it can suppose, that our system was designed, in any of its parts, to secure the applause and popularity of the world, or a numerical increase of worldly or impenitent men?”