Guest Post: The “Middle Way” is Not the Milquetoast Way by David F. Watson

Believe it or not, there are people in our United Methodist tradition who self-identify as “centrist” or “moderate.” Often, this is taken to mean that they are wishy-washy, have few if any strong convictions, and are rather lukewarm about matters of the faith. In many cases, though, nothing could be further from the truth.

The notion of the Via Media has it roots in an Anglican Church that had to figure out how to maintain its doctrinal identity in the face of a politically motivated separation from the Roman Catholic Church. Remember, unlike other forms of Protestantism, the Anglican Church did not separate itself from the Roman Catholic Church over theological matters, but over matters of authority within the Church. Richard Hooker, an Anglican “divine” (theologian) of the sixteenth century, was instrumental in marking out the specifically Anglican way of theological reflection. Hooker was dissatisfied with the Protestant notion of sola scriptura, according to which Scripture alone was the source and norm of theological reflection. He claimed that there were two ways in which the Holy Spirit led human beings into truth: (1) through divine revelation, which comprised Scripture and tradition, and (2) through reason. This Anglican approach to theology—which has been called the Anglican Trilateral— represented a “middle way” between Roman Catholicism and Continental Protestantism (see William M. Greathouse, “What are the Wesleyan Distinctives that Shape Higher Education Today?”, 1998).

Note that Hooker didn’t simply say something like, “Aren’t all beliefs basically the same? Can’t we all just get along? I’m ok, you’re ok. Think and let think, etc.” Belief mattered to Hooker and his fellow Anglican theologians, and they developed a highly nuanced way of preserving and reflecting upon doctrine in the face of an ecclesial amputation. By the same token, neither did these Anglican theologians attempt simply to recreate Catholicism or jump on board entirely with the Continental Protestants. Rather, they drew on elements of both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, utilizing valuable insights of each, while remaining beholden to neither. This is the “middle way” that they charted, and there is much that we can learn from them today.

Like the Anglicans of the sixteenth century, we live in a highly polarized religious environment. We are polarized for different reasons and in different ways, but polarized nonetheless. Faced with this problem, what are our options? We can check out of the church entirely, an option that sixteenth-century Brits did not have, but which many people today are choosing. We can join in one of the polar extremes, choosing to slug it out in the trenches until the bitter end, which will surely be exceedingly bitter. We can attend church but largely “check out” of the more important denominational conversations. Or, we can follow Hooker and company and choose a middle way, drawing upon insights from the right, the left, and all of the points along the way between them.

Now, we might end up looking much more like a “conservative” or “evangelical” than a “liberal” or “progressive,” or vice versa. The point, however, is to give honest, rigorous, meaningful consideration to the variety of viewpoints that we encounter. We give ourselves the freedom to consider ideas that may even seem repugnant to us. When we do this, we will be changed. Learning is the unavoidable consequence of intellectual virtue. And after we’re changed, we’ll likely be changed again.

To anticipate an obvious objection, I am not advocating for a “do-it-yourself” religion. I believe there is a doctrinal core to our Wesleyan tradition, a set of essential beliefs that is crucial for the life of faith. I believe in this so strongly that I wrote a Wesleyan catechesis with my friend Billy Abraham (Key United Methodist Beliefs, Abingdon, 2013). The idea that Methodism should be defined primarily by free inquiry and a “think and let think” mentality is a pernicious myth. It is my opinion that our failure to identify and teach our core doctrinal beliefs is the single greatest cause of our decline over the last 45 years.

Yet within the parameters of our doctrinal core, there is room for a great deal of discussion. Doctrines are not like statues etched out of stone, completed works that allow no further expression. Rather, doctrines are like rooms filled with magnificent art from across the centuries, and within these rooms we can have conversations, explore the theological artwork of others, take a deep breath, and breathe in what God may have to teach us. The doctrine of the Trinity, for example, leaves an amazing amount of space for theological reflection upon its meaning and implications.

The “Middle Way” is not the “Milquetoast Way.” Christ calls us to be people of strong conviction. The command to “take up the cross” is not for the faint of heart. Yet Christ’s command to love our enemies may also mean that we learn from our enemies, and when this happens, they may no longer be enemies at all.

David F. Watson is Academic Dean and Associate Professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. He is the author of Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret, co-author of Key United Methodist Beliefs (with William J. Abraham), and co-editor of Wesley, Wesleyans, and Reading Bible as Scripture (with Joel B. Green). You can find his blog at http://www.churchcoffee.blogspot.com and can find him on Twitter @utsdoc.

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17 thoughts on “Guest Post: The “Middle Way” is Not the Milquetoast Way by David F. Watson

  1. This sounds nice.
    I wish it were true.
    I applaud the heart & efforts of your writing and the founders of this site. All involved have a marvelous blend of intelligence and sincerity.
    I can’t get away from three things: 1) the current assault on two millenia of Christian teaching around sexuality . . . the implicit assumption that we are now smarter than those who wrote the Scriptures; 2) the separation of the sexual from the theological . . . the desire to unite around “heavenly” doctrine such as the divinity of Christ & the nature of the Trinity while agreeing to disagree about more “earthy” matters such as when & where sexual intercourse is blessed by God. No, as I’ve written at http://www.talbotdavis.blogspot.com, the sexual IS the theological. Any attempted division makes our faith more Hellenized than Hebraic and don’t we already have enough of that? 3) the tenacity with which Jude battles for doctrine. Would that we were as protective of our theological inheritance as he is of his.

    1. Rev. Talbot,

      First of all thanks for taking time to leave a comment. We sincerely welcome dialogue around these issues. I think what you are saying is exactly what Dr. Watson is arguing for: Shouldn’t we work out or doctrines first? I have talked with you a lot about sexuality and I like you believe our bodies matter and God’s creation matters and human sexuality matters. Sexuality is not an “earthy” matter. I like you want a much more Hebraic understanding of sexuality than the Hellenized view that is so pervasive in the church and culture today. But we have to look deeper than 2000 years of Hellenized Christianity to find a Hebraic understanding.

      In fact at SMU I took a NT Ethics class where we looked at sexuality in the scripture. More often than not the bible is filled with places where sexuality was not used to honor God including slavery, oppression, submission, perversion, incest, and concubines. All of which we would agree are horrible expressions our of God given gift of sexuality. Even David, the man after God’s own heart, used sex in terrible ways. What we began to do was to look at these things and then look at ways our own human sexuality honors God.

      What I am asking is this: how can we reflect on these things in the scriptures and formulate discussion around a sexuality that is pleasing to God? A sexuality that honors God and how we are created?

      1. Hey Stephen,

        I answered Dr. Watson before I saw you had written also. Sorry!

        Yes, I always appreciate what you say about our bodies when it comes to sexuality.

        I love your last paragraph. I so wish it was true. In my experience as a long-timer on the UM right, dialog/holy conferencing/ further conversation has been code for “we’ll keep talking until they (the conservatives) change their minds.”

        I guess I wonder when the time for conversing is over and the time for acting is upon us?

        And I’m not being flip and I do appreciate what the three of you are doing. I don’t want my comments to be adversarial to your cause (though I’ll admit “amicable separation = mutual liberation” is sort of adversarial. But it rhymes well.).

        Having watched this since an ’88 GC Study Committee, I don’t want to be manipulated into thinking more talking will lead to more solutions.

        Have the three of you ever met in person? That would be a fun gathering; I’d join in as an elder . . . something.

  2. Talbot, thank you for your comment. I for one am not suggesting that we should ignore matters related to human sexuality. The church should teach on these issues, and our bishops and clergy who vow to uphold the Discipline should abide by these teachings. I strongly object to the ecclesial disobedience taking place in our denomination. Further, it is certainly the case the for Christians, all ethical claims are theological (or should be).

    I think what I and other writers on this site are getting at is that we want to keep the main thing the main thing. (The founders of this site should correct me if I’m wrong.) And the main thing, for us, is the love for, devotion to, and transformation by the Triune God. Sexuality is important, but it’s not the main thing. It is problematic when sexuality become the centerpiece of our collective dialogue.

    Can we imagine a church unified in doctrine, but unsettled on matters of sexuality? After all, as I read Church history, while ethics has always been important, the Church’s central identity has always been around the nature of God and God’s saving action through Christ.

    1. Good questions, and thank you for your kind tone.

      I for one cannot imagine a church “unified in doctrine but unsettled on matters of sexuality.” I think it is a distinction without a difference.

      And — of course this will not be news to you — but the UMC hasn’t been unified in doctrine in over 100 years. UMs at Claremont rarely agree with UMs at Asbury over the inspiration of Scripture, the Virgin conception, the existence of hell, the truthfulness of other religions, and the return of Christ, just to name a few.

      Our current impasse over sexuality is the result (and not cause of) our longstanding dis-union over doctrine.

      Amicable separation = mutual liberation.

      1. I certainly agree that we haven’t been united in doctrine for some time. I think that existentialist and process theology have done a great deal to erode the core of Wesleyan doctrine in the UMC.

        You may be right: amicable separation may end up being the only course of action that will bring peace. I’m not ready to go there yet, but I recognize that this may become inevitable.

        Talbot, I appreciate the honest difference of opinion, and I’d love to meet in person sometime. I’d really like to meet in person the folks who put this blog together, too. God bless.

      2. Talbot,

        Thank you for your thoughtful responses. As far as when is the time to act, and when is the time to continue dialogue: it seems to me the church took its time – and spill considerable blood, sweat, and tears – hammering out our major points of doctrine like the Trinity and the Incarnation. If I grant your assertion – which I think is a stretch – that “the sexual is the theological,” then shouldn’t we take our time on this as we have other matters of doctrine?

        As for seminaries, there is a lot of space between Asbury and Claremont. Most other seminaries fall somewhere in there, I think.

        Thanks be to God. 🙂

        And yes, I think a gathering would be quite enjoyable. Something to ponder for the future, perhaps?

        Drew

    2. David, thank you for your reply. Yes, you represent the three of us (Drew, Stephen, and me) accurately. We do desire “to keep the main thing the main thing” – the worship and adoration of the transforming Triune God. In another post, Stephen made an excellent point when he said that jumping immediately to sexuality is “putting the cart before the horse.” Without a robust discussion of our theological heritage as United Methodist Christians, we engage in a discussion without a foundation. David, thanks again for your post here. The three of us appreciate your voice.

  3. If you are suggesting that Methodists follow the Anglican ecclesiology as well as theology, then it would seem to me that there would be plenty of room for diversity. The essentials for Anglicans are: Scripture, Creeds, Sacraments and the historic episcopacy. That leaves plenty of room for differences of opinion and practice. Indeed, the attempt to move to a more Roman model of hierarchial control via the Windsor Covenant has failed with even the CofE nfot approving it. Roman ecclesiology insists on universal conformity to Roman authority. Anglicanism identifies a few essentials and leaves the rest to local dioceses and or national churches. It would make sense to follow Anglicanism and allow for local diversity in nonessentials to unity. They have done that in TEC where conservatives are a minority but in some dioceses a majority. See the Diocese of Albany for example. If General Conference insists on uniformity what it will get is disobedience and if it tightens up the penalties it will see sctihism. If you want unity then work for unity in the essentials that all Methodists can support, liberty in nonessentials, and charity in all things (St. Augustine).

    1. Sarah,
      I think something like the Anglican Communion would not be a terrible idea. I would only nuance your own analysis with concerns of my own as to how much to doctrinal essentials have been kept in the Episcopal Church, USA – and here I have in mind a vexing personal question: how is Spong still able to call himself a bishop?

      Thanks for your good words.

      Drew

  4. The “Middle Way” definitely works in areas where Christians have differed for millennia in terms of both practice and doctrine (i.e. Baptism, role of women, soteriology, eschatology, pacifism, etc.). But delineating those areas is the challenge and one that I don’t believe the progressive faction within our Denomination have successfully demonstrated in the current debates over sexuality…which is really a debate over theological/ethical authority at its core.

    When you have unanimous historical and canonical prohibition of a particular behavior (and that’s what we’re talking about, rather than “orientation” or “proclivity toward”) for two millennia, the idea that now such behavior has become permissable or to be celebrated is categorically different than issues in which certain behaviors or beliefs have always had a mixed acceptance among the Body of Christ.

    The movement to condone and celebrate same-sex sexual relationships has come from cultural pressures which have made their way into the Church. It did not begin within the Body of Christ, nor did it begin as a result of new exegetical/hermeneutic data–though within the past 40 years theologians and scholars who began with an assumption of its validity have sought to make arguments in favor of it from the texts (though largely unsuccessfully in the eyes of the greater Biblical scholarship community, however). This is very different from, say, the controversies over Baptism during the Reformation or the push for abolition of the slave trade in the 18th-19th centuries. Both of these arose from a reading of Scripture and often against the tide of the surrounding culture.

    The Middle Way is a wonderful expression of faith…but only if, as Wesley said, “your heart be as mine.” The current battles over sexual ethics within the UMC are between people whose sources of authority and concepts of Inspiration are worlds apart. Thus, an amicable separation at the very least is LONG overdue. A house divided cannot stand…even when those in the middle of it are trying their best to prop up the splintering support beams.

    1. JM,

      I concur that authority is a big issue – for all sides. Modernity was marked by the search for certain foundations. In the church this played out in the fundamentalist/modernist divide, in which both sides claimed perfect authority for their side (unaware with how fundamentally modern they each were acting). I think a similar dynamic has continued to play out in the UMC ever since..

      I think much of the “amicable separation” talk presumes far too much. It has been suggested that the UMC would not so much split as shatter (I forget who has recently blogged about this, but it was quite good). Think here of the Presbyterians or Lutherans (the Baptists have always multiplied by division).

      In the Godhead we have a God whose very being is diversity-in-unity, who acts as One but yet includes difference.

      Maybe this same God would call us, instead of doing what every other major denomination has done, to figure out how to be the church together?

      A house divide cannot stand…but a cord of three strands is strongest.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Drew

  5. My family has been part of the Methodist Church since the mid 1800’s. After 25 years of ordained ministry gave up my orders and left the denomination. This was not an easy decision for me and there are lots of strong reasons to support the things that Methodism does right. For all the talking heads on theology….the mark of the church has always been the pragmatism which has allowed it to face doctrinal differences in a way that put first things first. Without trying to re create the challenges of the past, I would say that the immediate experience of a relationship with G-d through Jesus Christ plus a central belief that G-d’s grace lived out in tangiable ways is what gave Methodists of the past the ability to live out their faith and have others drawn to that faith. But we live in 2014, not 1850. The world we live in does not demand that we give up on the essentials I have named above, but to live them out in our time, not another time. Why did I give up on church that was central to shaping me and my family for generations? I came to understand through a life time of trying to be what others expected of me was killing my soul. When I claimed my sexual identity as a gay man I could no longer give support nor take financial support from an organization that vicitimized me…requiring that I cut myself off from whom I am as a sexual being in order to follow the rules. I am no longer a part of the UMC…but my hope and prayers is that one day your church will do the same thing it did about Africian Americans, Native Amercians, women, etc. by sincerely apologizing for the harm you continue to do to GLBT persons with your hate filled positions cloaked in pious theological words and start sharing the experience of knowing personally the G-d revealed through Jesus and showing the tangiable grace of G-d that comes from that experience with GLBT persons. I have found my peace but I think of other little boys and girls who are GLBT, not by choice, but by the Creator of us all, who continue to grow up in your community which teaches them a self hate that I am sure wounds the heart of G-d.

    1. Tim,
      There are a fair number of Reconciling and otherwise LGBTQ-hospitable UMC churches at present, with more being added regularly. Though I regret that you feel you were harmed, I suspect there are many LGBTQ youth and adults in various UMC churches which are not learning any kind of “self-hate.” Likewise, I don’t think it is fair to name the traditionalists in the church as having “hate-filled” or hate-driven positions. While I’m sure there are elements of that (what church, sadly, is free of all prejudice?), painting in such broad strokes makes it difficult to actually name hate and expunge it when we see it.

      Peace,
      Drew

      1. Drew,
        I have no need to argue my experience and that of all LGBT persons who are/have grown up in the UMC with you. My only reason for posing on this blog is to be a voice for those who are at the center of this debate. Even though what I am about to state may come across as self righteous I will state it and then leave this discussion up to others. G-d’s Kingdom continues to reveal itself from one generation to the next. I believe within my life time that I will see a time when this issue of GLBT persons will be viewed similarly to the issue of Afro-Americans and women and that the wounds that I have honestly expressed will have many tradionalists (your words) seeking forgiveness from G–d and from GLBT persons.

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