Lifestyles, Vows, and Obedience (A response to a comment on my last post)

IMG_4576To my last post I received this anonymous comment: “…YOU want to follow culture, not the Bible. You want to have it your way, rather than work together. YOU want to promote a lifestyle that the Old and New Testaments say are abominable… YOU want to change the Bible to fit the modern world, rather than following the Bible in the modern world. Leave. No one will miss you…” The comment goes on to say that I call those who want to follow 2000 years of precedence “bigots” and those who want to enforce vows as “inquisitional.”

I would like to be wrong, but I’ll assume that this is not satire. Therefore, I want to offer some clarification, seek understanding, and invite others into a different vision, using seven points.

  1. To all who share the views of this comment I want to say, “I would miss you.” As a “centrist” (if we must label) I want to be in a church that honors different perspectives on many issues. This keeps us all humble.  It helps us learn how to love with patience and kindness and without arrogance or insisting on our own way (See I Cor 13).  Giving this witness is so much better than withdrawing into like-minded camps.  This witness, however, does not work if some insist on drawing hard lines that exclude others and don’t allow for other perspectives.
  2. I am not the one who called the traditional plan “inquisitional.” That description came from the Judicial Council. I do believe that it captures the spirit of this plan (with reasons given in the previous post). To not resist the draconian measures of this plan is to put one’s own soul in danger.
  3. I did not use the word “bigot” at all. And I have not heard others use it in this way, even though that is a common accusation. I do believe we can all learn from Wesley’s caution against bigotry. It is a part of our doctrinal standards. Bigotry is an “attachment to, or fondness for, our own party, opinion, church, and religion.” Underlying bigotry is always a form of self-righteousness, that causes us to focus on the outward sins of others while conveniently able to overlook the “subtler, but no less destructive, forms of disobedience” within us. Wesley challenges us to be attentive and open to God’s work in others, especially in those who differ from us in religious opinion or practice.  That glorifies God! (See my post – “Bigotry in the Church”)
  4. To the accusation of promoting a “lifestyle” and following culture, let me say that the only “lifestyle” we are called to promote is faithfulness in Christ. We do not promote a secular or political agenda – as some falsely accuse. As a church we ask: “How do we respond faithfully to anyone who desires to live and grow as a follower of Christ and live in relationships where they can grow in faithfulness and love?  Many of us are asking, “Is it faithful to exclude certain people based solely on the way they identify rather than on their character and calling?”  “Do we welcome some but saying they need to change in ways that we don’t ask others to change?” We want to develop a serious sexual ethic based, not on identity, but on the virtues to which we are all called – monogamy, faithfulness, commitment, and all the characteristics defined by the word love. If we want to talk about “abominations” or “giving into culture” or promoting “lifestyles” that are not of Christ, let’s start with attitudes that cause division, with sexual immorality that objectifies others for personal pleasure, and perhaps with the temptation to judge others as “incompatible” as a way to avoid dealing with our own stuff.  We have the opportunity to give a positive witness to the world, based on the things in which we could all find agreement.
  5. The Bible! In my personal quest for faithfulness I have searched the scriptures and have come to the conclusion that my old traditional perspective, on the issue before us, cannot be maintained without proof-texting, selective literalism, and totally ignoring “guiding passages” that help us interpret the whole – passages centered around what it means to love, with Jesus himself saying that is the key to all scripture. Personally, I cannot see how to affirm the perspective in this comment without abusing what I truly believe to be God’s word.  (If you want to share in this journey there is a whole series called “The Way Forward Bible Study”).  
  6. My personal nightmare! I do fear that there will not be enough voices and votes to overturn this plan that does so much harm. Keeping my vows (in baptism, in marriage, in ordination) demands that I speak. Within these vows there is room for principled disobedience. I am reminded that the word “obedience” comes from the Latin, “to listen.” Obedience is not slavery or compliance.  It means to listen in respect and allow this to influence us. Sometimes listening deeply to some vows challenges others. Right now, there is a movement calling us to reflect more deeply on our baptismal vow to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” That vow has gotten my attention of late.
  7. I invite all who hold to positions found in this comment to open your heart to a new movement of the Holy Spirit. It is spreading as sacred fire. This movement is characterized by hearts expanding to make room for all and by the desire to promote unity in love rather than uniformity by law – by judgment and inquisition. In the light of this calling, perspectives are changing by the minute. You are invited to be a part of it. “Holy Spirit, may this post be an instrument of this light.”

Reclaiming Tradition (from the traditional plan)

IMG_4577I must say, at Conway FUMC (and this is true of much of Methodism), we are so traditional! In fact, we are more traditional than many who accuse us of violating tradition. I believe we need to reclaim this word and, to do so, we must understand more deeply what it really means.  At Annual Conference, we heard Dr. Greg Jones, the Dean of Duke Divinity School, define tradition as “the living faith of those who have gone before us rather than the dead faith of the living.” That’s a good place to start if we are to reclaim the word “tradition” from recent abuse.  We can either use tradition to protect what is comfortable to us or we can add our witness to the living tradition and give creative expression to God’s continuing work in our lives, building upon the blessings that have been passed on to us.     

First, our worship is rooted in tradition. We honor the living tradition of the holy and catholic Church through liturgical seasons, historic prayers, hymns, and creeds – even in our contemporary services. We firmly believe that planting ourselves in the living tradition of the church is key to both faithfulness and fruitfulness. Without this rootedness faith becomes shallow and small.

Secondly, we have a very traditional view of scripture.  Our view is so traditional that we acknowledge that the church formed the Holy Bible, selecting the “standard texts” from many options. In other words, tradition gave us the Bible as we know it.  We are blessed that our tradition did not give one uniformed perspective.  We have four gospels and multiple forms of writings, all with diverse theological perspectives, and written in different contexts.  Taking the scripture seriously, we avoid the immature practices of proof-texting and selective literalism that are so popular among those who focus on using tradition to protect what is comfortable to us. We honor the whole while giving weight to key text that help us interpret the whole – even as Jesus used this method when he summarized all the law and the prophets with the word “love.” Led by the Holy Spirit, we are called to struggle together with the tensions found even within the scriptures themselves.  In this struggle we discern God’s will for our time and, most importantly, learn how to love.  That’s what it means to be part of the living tradition of the body of Christ.

Next, we make the important distinction between the living tradition of the church and our human traditions, which can easily become idols or false gods.  The living tradition of the church leads us into God’s truth.  In the scriptures, this truth is defined relationally.  Truth “reveals” or “discloses” what is good and life-giving (That’s what the original Greek word means).  Biblical truth is found in virtue more than opinion. It is revealed, or hidden, in how we treat one another.  In the Wesleyan tradition, truth is truth only when it is united to “humble, gentle, patient love for all.” Lies, on the other hand, hide goodness and conceal love.  Spiritual lies cultivate division, judgment, self-protection, and fear, and can be made to sound holy.  That’s what happens when we substitute the living tradition with our little traditions designed to actually hide us from God’s truth. 

A great irony about truth and lies occurs when some are accepted in the church only when they are willing to keep parts of their identity hidden. There are those among us who want them to lie about or “hide,” for example, who they love when the living tradition calls us to “bring to light” how we are all called to love – with faithfulness, forgiveness, patience, humility, and kindness.  There are those who want to focus on outward manifestations rather than illuminating the deeper truths of the gospel to which we are all called.  Jesus had a lot to say about this kind of white-washed righteousness. 

The plan passed at the last General Conference is called the “traditional plan.”  With mandates to exclude, punish, and strengthen rules that harm, I do not believe this plan honors the living tradition of the church.  Drawing upon a description from the Judicial Council, I would suggest that we call it the “inquisitional plan.”  That is much more fitting.  I’ve also heard it called the “mean plan.” The unintended blessing of this plan is how it has caused the truths of the gospel to come to life in the hearts of so many.  May this enlightening continue.  May we honor the living tradition of the church.

A Way Forward Bible Study and Holy Conversation – Session 2, Interpreting Scripture

Here are notes from our second session where we focused less on General Conference and more on who we are called to be as a congregation as we look beyond General Conference.

How many of you have had an experience like this, where you wanted to know God’s will for your life, or to be inspired in some way, so you opened the Bible and tried to find something, but ended up more frustrated than inspired?  Or you made a commitment to read through the Bible, but had trouble understanding what you were reading or found yourself stuck in some way? That’s because this book is complex and difficult to understand as a whole without understanding certain rules for interpretation.  This book is a collection of  history, poetry, prophecy, song , letters, laws, arguments over laws, differing opinions, parables, stories, with some passages that are straightforward, and many that are highly symbolic, all taking place in a culture that is ancient and foreign to us…AND, on the other side, it is experienced as the Word of God, as divinely inspired, as transformative and so we find it extremely and even eternally valuable.  It is so worth the effort and the internal struggle that it creates.  And so, we keep coming back.

Before we look at some key scriptures, I want to talk some about methods for interpreting the scriptures.  The big, seminary-level, word for this is hermeneutics (on screen).  This word describes the systems we use to interpret scripture and draw our conclusions. When we do not have some clarity about what we are reading and how to read it, that’s when we get lost or come to decisions that may not be the most faithful and fruitful.  Here are a couple of popular hermeneutical methods.

Proof-Texting.” Have you heard this term?  This is a very common method for interpreting scripture.  Proof-texting is when we search for scriptures to prove an opinion.

The next one is a more positive variation of this method. I call it a focus on Devotional Verses.  This is where we focus on key verses for inspiration and guidance.  Employing this method, we focus on parts not the whole – key verses that speak to us.  This method can be very helpful.  At the same time, some caution is in order. Concerning our topic, a version of this method can be used to say that something is right or wrong.   Someone might say, “The Bible says,” and then quote a verse as if that settles it.  Then, perhaps, they can walk away feeling righteous without noticing how hurt others might be, or without dealing with all the other verses that might lead to a different or transformed perspective.  We might think that we are glorifying God by upholding some ideal, and in reality, cause deep hurt to individuals and to the body of Christ.

To avoid this kind of harm, and to open ourselves up to true inspiration, we need a deeper hermeneutic or method of interpretation.  Here are some key principles of what I call a Wesleyan Hermeneutic:

  1. All Scriptures are Inspired. We proclaim that all scriptures are inspired and contain all that is necessary for growth in salvation. The Bible is our primary source for understanding who we are called to be.
  2. There are Scriptural Keys to Help us to Interpret the Whole. There are key scriptures that help us interpret all other scriptures. We can call these “Master Texts” or Hermeneutical “Keys” that open up meaning within the scripture – and help us make determinations about what might be historically conditioned, or how to discern deeper truths beyond the words, or how to make decisions between different perspectives within the scriptures themselves (and yes, the scriptures are full of different perspectives). It is worth noting that Jesus used this principle when he summarized all of the law and prophets with the Great Commandment – Love God and Love your neighbor as a part of yourself.  Wesley, following Jesus’ lead, called this love the “royal law.”  So, for example, Jesus could fulfill the law, even as he broke the law or rebelled against the way the law had been applied around issues related to the Sabbath, to diet, to healing, to who could or could not be touched, to who to include.  His guiding light was the “royal law of love.” And we could list other passages that serve as keys for us.  Last week we looked, for example, at Ephesians 4:1-6 and I Corinthians 13: 1-8. (See Authority of Scripture, A Wesleyan Hermeneutic, and the Way Forward, for a deeper explanation).
  3. Read with Resources. Resources are needed and helpful — commentaries, language studies, interpretations from the tradition. As Methodists we “believe that the living core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture, illuminated by Tradition, vivified in personal Experience, and confirmed by Reason.”  We call this the Wesleyan Quadrilateral.  To make a connection with our topic, we might use this principle to ponder a distinction between marriage and unions/covenants. Would it be possible to honor and bless unions of anyone who desires to practice faithfulness and grow in the virtues of love, while also honoring the historic meaning of the term marriage?  How might we apply scriptures to honor the diverse perspective within the body of Christ and actually grow in our ability to love one another?  There are so many resources to help us.
  4. Behavior over Beliefs. Beliefs are so important, but the Holy Spirit is more concerned with behavior and using scriptures as a guide for how we treat one another. In the midst of our denominational struggle, I have heard many say that they have not made a decision because they are hoping for the Holy Spirit to show up and guide us into the right policy or plan.  I see this a bit differently.  As a Wesleyan, I am not focused on the Holy Spirit showing up with some extraordinary sign (Wesley talked a lot about this).  I am interested in the ordinary everyday calling to represent God with patience, gentleness, humility, bearing one another in love, and being eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  I might say that the Holy Spirit enjoys our variety of perspectives and is likely to not give us a uniformed perspective, because the point of it all is how we love one another.  The Spirit is always revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions.  Even in the scriptures we see so much diversity of perspective.  The scriptures do not give us uniform opinions but does give us a common calling.  We need to be the church that focuses on that.  Applying this principle, we could focus on behaviors around issues of human sexuality and give priority to the 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. This level of consideration gets lost in the debate because the focus is on the physical dimension of sexual practice.
  5. Here are a couple of other principles, (briefly): “Discernment happens best in Community.” We engage in life together, not to come to agreement but to learn how to live as the body of Christ with all its blessed diversity. And for one more, “Our Calling is to Self-Examination over Judgement of Others.”  Often when we engage the scriptures and truly practice holy conversation with others, we learn a lot more about our own prejudices and need for transformation than we do about what others might need or about how they should live.

At our tables, I want us to have some conversation around these principles using three passages that are not directly connected to the issue but speak to who we are called to be.  I will read them with some commentary and then we will discuss them at tables and as a larger group, asking: Why is this in the Bible? What are some different ways to interpret this passage? How can we apply it today?  What does this passage say about who we are?”

Genesis 11:1-9 – The Tower of Babel

  • This passage is given the context of God calling the people to scatter and fill the earth…
  • They want uniformity and safety, and it leads them to do some stupid things…
  • Note their use of inadequate resources – baked mud and tar, instead of stone and mortar.
  • Note their arrogance, believing that they made it to heaven and how God has to come down to see this tower.

Luke 4: 16-30 – Jesus in his Home Town

  • Highlight dimensions of purpose he is given.
  • The people are pleased, until he mentions God’s work through foreigners. With this they are enraged…

Ephesians 2: 14-22 – Christ is our Peace

  • The word peace or shalom is about coming together and practicing faith together.
  • Here God’s people are called back together, to give witness to God in a new way…

As a report, the conversation of the 80 people in the room was lively and inspiring.  When we came back together, one of our youth acknowledged the diversity of views within the room, even on the issues at hand, and called us to stay united around something bigger. Another highlighted how stupid we can act when there isn’t someone to say, “Hey, maybe there’s another way to do this.”  One pointed out how diversity is healthy in all ecosystems.  One reflected on how hard it is to change – to “scatter,” to appreciate new “languages” — and yet that is what we are called to do.  One reflected on how Jesus walked away and how he might do that with us if we fail to listen or become enraged by his challenge.  In our current political climate, the need to break down walls and build diverse communities of peace did not go unnoticed, although when I picked the scriptures I was narrowly focused on issues within the church and did not make this connection.  Maybe that was the Holy Spirit at work.

Next week we will apply these methods to some of the texts that are used in the debate before us, with emphasis on Romans 1.