Our Unified Witness and the Way Forward

IMG_4577Another popular argument against the One Church Plan involves the fact that different churches would have different policies on gay marriages or unions.  A pastor might have to say to a visitor that some churches have voted to change the default policy of the church (which according to the plan is the traditional view). The concern is that we would not have a unified witness as a denomination.

This argument would carry more weight for me if we were uniform in other ways.  I could go to the five United Methodist Churches in our city and would probably experience communion is five different ways. The liturgy and style of worship would be different.  Some would say a creed, for example, and in others some may have never heard a creed. Different versions of the bible would be read.  The Sunday School curriculum would be different – some of it not United Methodist.  And, there would be wide theological and political differences on many issues.

This does beg the question, “so how are we united?”  This is a question worthy of our coming to the table together.  At this table I suspect we would find much common ground in key doctrines. We could point, for example, to Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons where he outlines salvation by grace through faith.  Here we learn that salvation for us is more than a decision and more than a future reality for us; it is a present reality and involves our growing into all that God has created us to be. At this table, we would find unity in the word love, which is the concept Wesley used to point to a higher unity than any theological opinion.  We would find unity in our calling to “steer a middle course,” to use Wesley’s language, and to grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, and never in terms of judgement and self-righteousness. I do believe that we would be able to affirm a theological spirit that binds us together.  We would find our unity under the “canopy of cosmic grace” (to build upon a phrase from both John and Charles Wesley).

Perhaps this conversation with a hypothetical visitor would lead to an opportunity to share Wesley’s timely work, “The Character of a Methodist.”  Here Wesley repeats a theological position that he shares consistently, where he affirms core affirmations of faith such as our belief that Christ is the eternal love of God incarnate in the world, but beyond these core affirmations (“as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity”) “we think and let think.”  To paraphrase, “The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not found in any theological opinion or style of worship or system of religion. All of this is ‘quite wide of the point.’”  Our unity is found in the love of God that fills our hearts (Romans 5:5) and in our desire to share this love with one another.

With this “character,” we accept people wherever they are on their faith-journey and believe that a variety of perspectives helps all of us to grow. We come together, not to agree on everything, but to learn how to forgive, bless, and honor one another.  In this way we practice for our place as citizens of God’s expansive kingdom which is always bigger than our finite perspectives.  While we proclaim the core doctrines of the Christian faith as given to us through the scriptures and historic creeds, we are also willing to ask questions of interpretation, to struggle with difficult issues, and to engage one another with respect and compassion.  It is the kind of “character” and “unity” that this world needs.

In sum, our unity is beyond uniformity.  It is a harmonious unity.  As Paul exhorts, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:14). By having churches with different programs, personalities, and perspectives we only expand our witness and extend God’s love to a world in need.  This kind of diversity can be seen as a great blessing.

Authority of Scripture, a Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward

pic- bible and communion“It’s really about the authority of scripture.” “Your interpretation undermines a high view of scripture.”  These talking points are at the core of many arguments around the Way Forward.  In light of this rhetoric, I want to think through the issue of hermeneutics (the system we use for interpreting the scriptures) and reflect upon how we might do this in a Wesleyan way. (It is a longer than usual post).

As Wesleyans, we must start by affirming that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation.   At the same time, Wesley makes it clear that some passages take “hold of our conscience” in a special way and serve as “master text” (my language) to help us interpret all revelatory claims, even those in scripture (See Sermon 91, “On Charity” and Sermon 132 “On Laying the Foundation”).  In his notes on the New Testament, Wesley gives us this rule – to interpret every doubtful scripture through the grand truths that run through the whole (Note on Roman 12:6). On several occasions he calls us to assess all scriptures through key passages built around the word “love,” starting with what Jesus calls the summary of it all — Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley also turns frequently to I Corinthians 13, calling the love defined here as the ““chief of all graces” and the “royal law.” This love is patient and kind and never insist on its own way.  In terms of hermeneutics, we are called to filter all scriptures through these and other passages that serve as lenses to provide clarity to the whole.  For you, what would some of the other key passages be?

In one hermeneutical approach that is often criticized, the suggestion has been made that we divide the scriptures into categories, with one category for passages that express the timeless values of God, another for passages that express culturally conditioned values, and a third for texts that do not fit with the will of God as we have come to know it through the lens of Christ. This framework can be helpful for discerning core truths and navigating difficult passages.  Nevertheless, with this method, it is tempting to simply throw out passages that do not fit with our sensibilities.  To provide some perspective, I would say that inspiration is found in the fact that our predecessors did not “clean up” the scriptures. They gave us the gift of struggling with all texts to help us discern how we might live faithfully and fruitfully in the context we are given. The method of interpreting through the lens of key passages is very helpful in this struggle.  We might call it a hermeneutic of struggle in community to discern God’s will for us in our time and place.

As Wesleyans, we honor the whole of scripture by noticing the context, exploring the history, understanding the words, and seeking God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  We believe that the scriptures come to life as we engage them in relationship, using tradition, reason, and experience as resources. We seek common ground in key values that illuminate the whole beyond the sometimes culturally-conditioned realities — and here the list is long – slavery, women, children, diet, dress, war and peace, wealth and poverty, property, inclusion of others, the kind of leadership that is needed, and yes understandings of marriage and divorce, just to get started. When we apply one hermeneutical to an issue that might affect us and then draw a hard line on another issue for others, it perhaps says more about our own prejudices than it does about our desire to live faithfully and practice love.   Wesley consistently call is to self-examination rather than judgment.  This would be another hallmark of a Wesleyan hermeneutic.

When it comes to issues around covenant relationships, this method allows us to give priority to virtues that we want to promote – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, treating others with honor without objectifying them or using them only for our pleasure, and all the virtues of love. Often, this level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice. This surface focus can actually foster justifications and excuses for more harmful and self-serving behaviors.

Through this hermeneutic, we avoid “proof-texting,” or the picking of verses to prove an opinion.  And yet this practice continues.  When opinions run strong, it is tempting to select certain texts while ignoring others. Doing this, however, is not unlike the use of the “slippery slope” fallacy (as challenged in a previous post) where negative consequences are assumed while ignoring other possibilities.  Here we can add another official fallacy – the fallacy of misusing an authoritative source to affirm one interpretation on one issue without acknowledging other possibilities. A faithful way forward cannot be built on such sand.

And now a drum roll please.  The most important dimension of a Wesleyan hermeneutic is our trust that the Holy Spirit is at work…and that God is big enough to work uniquely with all of us through our incarnate realities of cultural circumstances, personalities, gifts, interests, and identities this side of heaven.  In God we trust! We do not have to judge.  Our job is to learn how to love one another. This is the way we participate in making the path straight for “all flesh to see the salvation of God.”

Examples from Wesley to support this understanding could fill volumes.  For one example, in his sermon on “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or even beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  The truths of scripture are actually hidden, rather than revealed, when we use the Word to prove something to others and thus cause division.  Wesley likened this to the “worst kind of enthusiasm,” where we are convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense.  When one is “drunk from this spirit of error,” it is almost impossible to see that we may be fighting against God rather than for God.  Scriptures come to life when we engage them together and “steer a middle course.”   As Wesleyans, the witness of the Spirit is revealed when we come together to practice faith and grow in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.” The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  That is to be our witness to the world.

Through this hermeneutical lens, I have written a series on Scripture, Wesley and the Way Forward. After an overview (found in Feb of 2018), I dealt with Wesley’s teaching on effeminacy, sodomy, marriage, divorce, and more. Believe me, it is not all one-sided. Room is given for more than one interpretation.  In my opinion, to use the argument that there is only one perspective on the issues before us actually belittles a high view of the authority of scripture. It makes it more about power over others. It might make a good sound bite, but it does not honor the high calling that we have been given to be the Body of Christ in the world.

A Way Forward through Psalm 85:10

IMG_4577To build upon a Jewish Midrash (an art form that Jesus regularly used through parables) there is a story that tries to make sense of the verse saying, “Mercy and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.” (Psalm 85:10). In the story, the angels of heaven are debating about whether or not humans should ever have been created. This debate quickly broke into two general camps.  Those on the side of righteousness, justice, and faithfulness to the law argued that humans should never have been created because all they do is pervert God’s law, engaged in self-justification, and turn God’s truth into lies.  In contrast, those on the side of mercy and peace said, “But they are so beautiful. They sing lullabies to their children; they care for one another with such compassion. We are glad they were created because we want to see how the stories they tell are going to end.”  Both sides were adamant, so God got involved. God tells them that one of the reasons for the creation of humans was to bring them together.  Since both sides truly loved God and wanted to do God’s will, they met in the middle, embraced, and kissed.

Maybe that’s a parable for us today.   God’s desire is for righteousness and peace to kiss, and mercy and faithfulness to embrace, but nobody – especially God – discounts the tension that comes with this uniting.  Israel was born in this struggle.  The name Israel means to wrestle and struggle and this carries over to the church as well.  It is only in the struggle, and in the commitment to work together, that we are able to find a faithful way forward.  These two sides, joined together, provide the energy needed to light the way.  And if this is true then withdrawing into like-minded camps only produces spiritual darkness.

In our church today, leaders from multiple perspectives are looking for a solution.  The options are not really new.  One option is schism – to leave and form a new denomination.  In my opinion, this option will not make the issues go away but will only multiply the pain. This is not a viable option in the 21st century.  Another option from the past is to “play nice” at church, to stay together but keep our interactions (and maybe our faith) at a nominal and surface level.  There is evidence of this old option going back to Constantine.  Another option, perhaps, is found in this verse.  In the midst of our struggle, could God be calling us to meet in the middle and embraced, to work together to forge a higher sense of unity, to cultivate a community where we can truly learn how to love one another and practice the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility (virtues not really needed in likeminded camps),  where righteousness and peace kiss one another, or in Wesleyan language where grace and holiness meet, where we honor knowledge and vital piety, head and heart, evangelism and social justice, traditional and progressive perspectives…where unity is not rooted in uniformity of opinions but in the call to love in the midst of diversity of opinions, in discerning core doctrines together rather than dividing over things that do not “strike at the root of Christianity.”  Who is up for this kind of embrace, this wholeness?  What if this were our witness to the world?

 

Stopping the Slippery Slope (and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It was a shocking realization while sitting at a district gathering to discuss the various plans for the Way Forward.   I purposely set next to one of our youth who had recently come out and was now invested in the discussion in a new way.  At the table, a man launched into prepared talking points.  At the heart of his argument was the popular “slippery slope.”  “If we allow this,” he said, “what’s next? – polygamy, bestiality? Sex with animals, is that where this is leading?” He did not seem to be aware of the pain caused around the common table. Since then I have heard this talking point many times and have tried to think through it more deeply.

To start with, it is good to realize that actions have consequences; it is wise to think through possible outcomes.  This, however, is very different from the “slippery slope” argument, where harmful consequences are assumed.   In thinking through outcomes, it is helpful to reflect on the lens through which the issue is framed.  If seen through a “libertarian” agenda, promoting individual freedom with no interference from any outside entity, then a case can be made for the slippery slope.  If we give one freedom, then that might slip to giving another.  There are those who are promoting an agenda through the lens of individualism, but that is not the lens of the church.  It is an act of deception to lump me, and a multitude within the church, into this perspective.  The faithful church does not frame this issue through the lens of individual freedom but through the lens of wanting to cultivate life-giving relationships with God and others, relationship built upon the values we all hold dear – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, and opportunities to grow in the biblical virtues of patience, gentleness, and forgiveness, among others. This is the biblical language, by the way, that supports the one plan that would make it possible for some in the church to focus on these virtues over base sexuality.  Through the lens of promoting life-giving relationships, the concern becomes what we say to anyone who says, “I want to give my life to Christ and live in a relationship where I can grow in the love of Christ.”  In working with anyone, wherever they are, to respond to this desire, the “slip” is more likely to be into something that will truly glorify God.  If we focused our energy here, there might be a lot more people wanting to know more about the love we preach.

Because of sin in the world, harm may come within relationships — there is no doubt — but this harm is not a direct result of people wanting to be treated with respect and to be able to love others with the blessing of the church.  Granted, this blessing cannot be cheapened.  The blessing includes the cultivation of the virtues meant to under-gird all life-giving relationships.   When we fail to cultivate these virtues then we indeed water down the gospel – but perhaps not as much as those who are using this harmful argument.

This slippery slope argument is an official fallacy.  In other words, it promotes falsehood. It causes harm.  It vilifies others to create fear and doubt. It assumes negative outcomes without any thought to other possibilities. That’s where the argument itself “slips.” I do wonder – are the spiritual consequences worth the desired end?  What if we came together to discern a higher “end” or “purpose” and worked together from there?  That, I trust, would truly glorify God.

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