The Incompatibility Clause

posted on January 01

by Rev. Fred Jordan

This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of the First UMC (Salisbury) newsletter, Ecclesia. It is offered here, as will follow up articles, for the edification of others across the Uwharrie District. Rev. Jordan is a retired Elder, former District Superintendent, and adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, regarded the Bible as the foundation of his faith. The Methodist Articles of Religion state that the Bible contains everything we need to know for our salvation. Wesley believed in the Bible but not in Biblical inerrancy. He felt the Bible needed to be interpreted by reason, church tradition, and by our experience of God’s presence. Methodists still hold to that understanding.

We usually think of John Wesley as a powerful preacher. He was he also an Oxford University don or lecturer. A good teacher like Wesley challenges students to think. Thanks to him, Methodists do not fear the truth. We can freely ask searching theological questions as we explore God’s word.

Early in the last century, Methodists felt the need for a social creed that applied the ancient Christian faith to our modern lives. Several versions emerged in the four denominations that in 1968 became The United Methodist Church. At that unifying General Conference, delegates decided the new church needed its own statement of social principles.

Methodists often disagree. It is one of our distinctive characteristics. We don’t see eye to eye on abortion, capital punishment, military service, climate change, and universal medical care. We respect that diversity. That is why the social principles are not considered church law. They are: “a prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation (BOD Part V Preface).”

In good Methodist tradition, the 1968 General Conference appointed a committee to write a new social creed. This committee brought to the 1972 General Conference a draft document. Much of the new statement reflected earlier creeds. But, the 1972 social principles advocated for the first time a statement about homosexuality. Prior to 1972, Methodists publicly argued about contraceptives, sex education, and divorce, but not homosexuality.

The draft creed was progressive. It recognized homosexuals as persons of sacred worth who need the ministry and guidance of the church. That statement received approval. However, the delegates were deeply divided over parts of the proposal. Final adoption came only after inserting an amendment that read: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teachings (¶161.G).”

That incompatibility sentence was controversial. It still is. A proposal to delete it has come before every General Conference since then with the vote margin inching ever closer to deletion. However, those deletion attempts have always failed, and the “incompatible sentence” remains in our Book of Discipline.

Continuing debate over homosexuality now threatens to divide The United Methodist Church. Some church members have even elevated this social principle to the status of a core church doctrine. I will say more about that disagreement in a future Ecclesia article.

The Bible has not changed. Its message of loving God and neighbor will never change. Yet, using Wesley’s interpretative tools of reason, tradition, and spiritual experience, individual Methodists have reached very different conclusions about homosexuality. It remains to be seen if the church can lovingly tolerate that diversity and remain The United Methodist Church.