Addressing Human Sexuality in The Discipline: A Missional Imperative

The United Methodist Church is currently embroiled in a significant crisis regarding the definition of marriage within its doctrine. The looming conflict arises from the potential attempt by the general conference of the United Methodist Church to change the definition of marriage, a move that could lead to serious repercussions across its global connections.

One of the primary reasons for the potential conflict is the disparity in the legal and cultural context of marriage across different regions, particularly in relation to same-sex marriage. In the United States, same-sex marriage has been legally recognized since the landmark Supreme Court decision in 2015. However, this legal framework is not universally applicable, especially in other parts of the world, such as Africa and certain other regions.

In many African countries, laws criminalize same-sex marriage, reflecting deeply ingrained cultural and religious beliefs. As a result, any attempt by the United Methodist Church to change its definition of marriage to include same-sex unions would clash with the legal and cultural norms prevalent in these regions, potentially causing significant discord within the global church community.

Furthermore, United Methodists in the United States and other Western countries may find themselves in a constant state of conflict with the Book of Discipline of the UMC if they were to adhere to their national laws, which permit same-sex marriage, while other countries, particularly in Africa, maintain laws that explicitly criminalize such unions. This stark contrast in legal frameworks creates a complex and challenging situation for the church, with divergent interpretations of the Book of Discipline causing tension between different regions and members. This situation has led to the formation of the Global Methodist Church, a US-based denomination that broke away from the United Methodist Church, and has also led to the disaffiliation of churches from the UMC, mainly in the United States.

In light of these challenges, it is evident that the United Methodist Church must seek a solution that respects the diverse legal, cultural,  theological, biblical and regional contexts within which it operates. One potential path forward could involve defining marriage within the Book of Discipline based on regional contexts wherever applicable.

By acknowledging the legal and cultural differences across its global connections, the United Methodist Church can strive to define marriage in a manner that respects the varying perspectives and realities of its members. This approach would entail recognizing and respecting the legal frameworks and cultural norms related to marriage in different regions, thereby allowing for a more inclusive and harmonious coexistence within the church.

Moreover, establishing a framework that respects regional variations in the definition of marriage would help mitigate potential conflicts and foster a spirit of unity and understanding within the United Methodist Church. By embracing diversity and adapting its doctrine to reflect the complex realities of its global membership, the church can navigate the current crisis and emerge with a strengthened sense of inclusivity and community.

However, it is essential to recognize that the missional context of the church extends far beyond the confines of any single issue, including human sexuality. The UMC’s global reach necessitates an approach that acknowledges and respects the diverse cultural, social, and theological perspectives of its members across different regions. The proposal to regionalize the church as proposed by the Christmas Covenant underscores the recognition of these differences and the need for a more localized understanding of faith and practice.

The idea of regionalization, holds significant potential for addressing the complexities surrounding human sexuality within the UMC. Rather than attempting to impose a singular stance on this issue that may be incongruent with the beliefs of certain regions, a regionalized approach allows for the accommodation of diverse perspectives in accordance with the unique cultural and contextual factors at play.

In conclusion, the crisis facing the United Methodist Church in relation to the definition of marriage underscores the need for a thoughtful and inclusive approach that respects the diverse legal, cultural, and regional contexts within the church’s global connections. By defining marriage in the Book of Discipline based on regional context wherever applicable, the church can pave the way for a more harmonious and respectful coexistence, ensuring that all members feel valued and heard within the broader church community.

Written by Jefferson B. Knight, A Delegate of the Liberia Annual Conference, United Methodist Church, to the 2024 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.