A Higher Unity: Why I Support the One-Church Plan

IMG_4576I WANT TO SUPPORT OUR EPISCOPAL LEADERSHIP  

After prayerful deliberation, our bishops have voted overwhelmingly to share the work done by the Way Forward Commission on three different plans and to recommend the One-Church Plan.  In the last few days I have heard some strong criticism of this recommendation, including characterizations that our Bishops were motivated by pride, ignorance, contempt, and willful disrespect of others.  I do not believe such attacks are helpful.  I believe that working for unity is a primary charge for our episcopal leaders, and I thus want to honor them for their sincere and prayerful efforts.  I also want to open my heart to the possibility that the Holy Spirit is involved in this proposal.

I WANT A CHURCH THAT OFFERS A PLACE TO ALL

At our impasse, I seek a plan that respects those who approach this issue wanting to uphold traditional views of family and marriage, and that allows us to acknowledge the scriptural support for this perspective.  At the same time, I seek a plan that has empathy for those who struggle, often in deeply personal and painful ways, and have come to understand that they do not fit within the traditional definition of “normal,” and yet they love God, want to live in community within the congregation, and want to have relationships where they can make commitments, practice faithfulness, and grow in the virtues of faith.  The challenge for those on the ‘progressive side’ is to respect those who value traditional views of family and marriage, and in a spirit of humility and love, to not support any position where this perspective was deemed unacceptable. The challenge to those on the more ‘traditional’ side is to acknowledge that there is room for faithful and biblical interpretations that would open the way for inclusion in the church for those who claim a part of their identity with the letters LGBTQ, and at the same time, want to make commitments that will lead them into increasing faithfulness and fruitfulness to God.  In support of this plan, there are those on both sides who are willing to find unity in a higher calling and deeper biblical values.  Personally, in the hope of truly honoring these positions, I would want to include a discussion about using alternative terms for marriage, such as unions.  The One-Church Plan would allow for such conversations.

I WANT TO WORK TOWARDS A SEXUAL ETHIC WORTHY OF SHARING AND PROCLAIMING

While I support the notion of unity not uniformity, faithfulness does demand some agreement and a unified vision. It cannot be “anything goes.”  If we are willing to do the work, I believe we could find much agreement for a strong sexual ethic rooted in support for monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, not using others as objects for our pleasure but seeing them as persons worthy of honor, and heavy doses of grace and forgiveness.  Concerning marriage, Wesley focused on the purpose of this institution.  The first purpose is to “repair the species,” or reproduction.  The second is to “further holiness.”  Marriage is intended to tame, rather than enflame, our passions.  When Wesley defines holiness he almost always uses the virtues of patience, humility, gentleness, and above all, love.  What if we worked together to promote relationships where these values could grow?  The One Church Plan makes this challenging and potentially fruitful conversation possible.

I WANT TO PROMOTE UNITY AT A HIGHER LEVEL

In this struggle, much is made about one side accommodating to culture or to the “prevailing winds of doctrine,” as Paul says in Ephesians 4.  With this critique, I believe we all need to notice the board in our own eye.  Such accommodating to the world could be described in terms of divisiveness, polarization, blaming others, name-calling, an us-them mentality, building up by putting down, seeing lies as truth, and claiming righteousness for ourselves. We see a lot of this kind of accommodating and our witness suffers greatly.  In Ephesians 4, Paul calls us to unity at a higher level – into one church with one Lord who is above all, in all, and through all.  In this passage, we are called to grow up in every way into Christ, to be equipped for the work of ministry through a variety of gifts, and to build up the whole body in love.  Paul starts this passage by begging us to do this by living a certain way – with humility, patience, gentleness, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  Such virtues would not be necessary if there were not always going to be different perspectives among us.  On many things, we will not agree, but we can always learn how to practice this kind of faithfulness with one another.  The hope is that our multitude of perspectives will be “joined and knit together” in love.  That glorifies God.

I WANT TO PROMOTE A HIGH VIEW OF SCRIPTURE

I believe the scriptures reveal the inspired word of God.  I believe the scriptures come to life as people engage them in relationship and sacred conversation.  We often do not get clear and easy answers but must struggle with the tensions, ambiguities, and different perspectives within the scriptures themselves.  This is an honest assessment, beyond the catch phrases used to stir emotions. Faithfulness moves us beyond proof-texting and using scripture to affirm our prejudices and opinions.  While this deserves more explanation, I believe we are called to continuously engage in a “hermeneutic of struggle” – building upon the meaning of the name “Israel” – where we honor the whole, notice the context, explore the history, and see God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them in community and as we seek to be faithful in our time and place. I believe we must look to “master text” to guide us and help us interpret scripture – text like the summary of all the law and the prophets offered by Jesus.  In this light, I would say that there are faithful interpretations of scripture on the issues at hand that do not agree.  This truth beckons us to sit at the table together and struggle through, as we learn how to love one another.  It is not the easy way, but it is God’s calling upon us.  I believe that the saints of heaven rejoice when we commit to this holy work of opening the bible together and discerning God’s higher calling upon us.

I WANT TO BE ON THE ‘RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY’ AND THE ‘RIGHT SIDE OF ETERNITY’

Another popular buzz-phrase in this tension is “right side of history” vs. “right side of heaven.”  I do not believe these are mutually exclusive.  I believe in the incarnation and in the Holy Spirit and thus believe that God is involved in history and in our lives. So, as a Christian, I do want to be on the right side of history.  I also believe “pleasing God” involves “pleasing” others, at the deepest level of their souls. These are not mutually exclusive.  We are called to cultivate communities and relationships where we can come to know Christ and Christ’s love, not on our terms, but where each can grow in their relationship with God – often requiring us to be humble enough to refrain from judgment and opening our own souls to how God is at work in ways that we don’t understand.   That leads to transformation and to our hearts expanding with God’s love.  The One-Church Plan gives us the best possibility of working incarnationally and to be attentive to the Holy Spirit at work in all of us to unite us and our many gifts as a witness to a world in need.

I WANT TO CONTEND FOR GRACE AND TRUTH

This phrase is often used to suggest that some want grace without truth. I do not know anyone who makes this case, so I’m not sure it is a fair characterization.  From the scriptures we can make a case that truth runs deeper than rules, external conditions, or hard lines in the sands.  Truth is “revealed” or “disclosed” (which is what the Greek work literally means) in actions that are life-giving and bear good fruit.  When we talk about truth, we can talk about behavior as true or deceptive. John Wesley says that the essence of holiness is truth and love united together.  To paraphrase, he says that the truth of God’s love is first planted in our hearts and then this truth is revealed through our “humble, gentle, patient love for all.”  Biblical truth is about what God does for us and wants for us. This truth then transforms the way we treat one another.  At one point, Wesley used Nathanael as an example of this holiness – as one who does not operate with guile, cunning, deceit, or selfish desire.  Conversely, he is an example of one who is honest, transparent, open, or in a word, true. At one point in the Gospel of John, Jesus calls the evil one “the father of lies.”  Evil and deception go together.  Lies destroy and divide. Truth unites and brings life to relationships.  In this sense, truth is revealed as we find ways to love even those with whom we disagree.  This is hard, if not impossible, without the Holy Spirit.  The One-Church Plan gives us the opportunity to grow in grace and truth.

I WANT TO PROMOTE WESLEYAN HOLINESS  

It has been said that this is a debate between competing views of holiness.  This is puzzling to me because Wesley offers such clarity about what holiness is and is not. In defining holiness, Wesley consistently uses the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness, and lists the opposite of holiness with words like pride and haughtiness, passion, judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness.  Holiness is not found in anything “external to the heart” (an important phrase) but in what God plants in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. In describing holiness, we can imagine a series of concentric circles. At the core is the truth of God’s love which fills the “whole heart,” and “reigns without rival.”  In the next circle, “nearest the throne,” are all holy tempers “comprised in the mind of Christ” – patience, gentleness, humility, faithfulness, temperance, to name a few. In the next circle are “works of mercy,” and then, one step out, are “works of piety.”  After we have attended to these levels, we move outward in mission to “effectually provoke” one another to love, to the holy virtues, to good works, and to unity as the body of Christ.  Holiness, for Wesley, is faith working for love.  God’s love comes first and then we are able to give our lives to growing in this love and sharing this love in the world. I believe the One-Church Plan offers us the best opportunity, at this point, to embrace this understanding of holiness.  We need each other, in our diversity of faithful perspectives, to practice holiness of heart and life.  By focusing on the judgment of things “external to the heart,” and by dividing the church into “us and them,” we nullify true holiness.

I WANT US TO CLAIM THE VIRTUE OF PATIENCE

“We’ve been patient long enough.”  “It is time to make a decision.”  These statements echo throughout our denomination.  Yet, into this kind of environment, John Wesley lifts up the word “patience.”  If we are to truly find a way forward, it may be very important that we let this virtue get through to our anxious hearts. Wesley makes it clear that patience is so much more than “waiting.”  It is certainly more than fear-ridden fretfulness, where we bury our heads in the sand, hoping a problem will go away.  Patience is a “gracious temper,” a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience holds the “middle way,” he says, staying between the extremes. Even as we advocate for opinions and positions, Christians behave in the middle, staying connected to all with respect, humility, and compassion.  Standing on the solid rock of God’s love, we avoid “impatience with contradictions,” to use a phrase from Wesley.  We honor diversity of opinion as those who see in a “mirror dimly.”  We listen and learn. We can embrace our differences as opportunity to learn how to love more fully and truly glorify God.  In this way Wesley characterizes patience as the “manifestation of the perfect love of God.”  This is our witness to the world.  The One-Church Plan provides us the opportunity to continue in holy patience, a practice that will be needed as long as we are bound to the world.

I WANT PASTORS WHOSE CALL HAS BEEN CONFIRMED BY THE CHURCH

Concerning ordination, there is nothing in this plan to keep Conferences from setting standards beyond the standards set by the Discipline.  The plan allows us to trust the Holy Spirit and the process.  Personally, I believe the first priority is to discern God’s calling and signs of fruitfulness in ministry. Secondly, I would not want to ordain someone who made their own sexuality an agenda or their personal lives the focus on their ministry.  Pastors submit their personal lives to a higher calling.  Thirdly, issues of appointability are not new. Boards of Ordained Ministry, Bishops and Cabinets already deal with this at many levels – divorce, multiple-marriages, violations of covenant and repentance, and to be totally honest, questions still arise about ethnicity, gender, language, theological orientation, and basic supply and demand with the Conference. The messiness of relationships and ordination is already there.  May the Holy Spirit be involved and may hearts be open to what God can do through those who have the treasure of God’s grace within these flawed, fragile, and finite “earthen vessels,” to use a phrase from the Apostle Paul.

FINALLY, I WANT TO SAY THAT I MAY BE WRONG

It is very possible that some or all of this perspective is flawed.  Behind it is a desire to err on the side of grace, even as I hope God will do the same for me.  It may be that some actions are just wrong, even in the context of a desire to grow in faithfulness and fruitfulness. Maybe we should draw hard lines in the sand and make such judgments.  Or, maybe that is wrong and leads to much harm.  The plan proposed by our Bishops, as I see it, gives the possibility for all of us to embrace the gift of humility, where we can continue to share communion with one another, and to invite the Holy Spirit to work through us as we engage in the on-going struggle to live faithfully and fruitfully, all to the glory of God.   That’s my hope as I invite others to give support as we develop this together – hopefully for years to come.

Wesley and the Effeminate (Part two in a Series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576In the previous post, I looked at key scriptures used to inform our current debate over same-sex relationships in the church. As a part of that post, another question surfaced for me: Did John Wesley have anything to say about this?  Are there any direct references in this in the Standard Sermons or Notes on the Scriptures (which are part of our doctrine)?  I did discover help here – and shared some of that in the previous post.  With the next few posts, I will focus in more detail on some key words and concepts.  First, I will explore the use of the word “effeminacy.” In following posts, I will explore his understanding of sodomy, marriage/divorce/singleness, the “vilest abominations,” holiness, and we’ll see from there.  First up – the “effeminate.”

On several occasions, Wesley uses the word “effeminate.” He is not above using this word in a culturally-conditioned derogatory way.  He often combines this word with the word “soft” or “weak.” He talks, for example, about how great confusion comes from “weak and effeminate” rulers.  He compares effeminacy in a man to arrogance in a woman. He speaks against wearing clothes that might “confound those sexes which God hath distinguished,” except if one needs to do this to “escape for one’s life.”  In these passages, Wesley is mostly addressing men. He does not appear to have the same concern for women. While ahead of his time, he was still part of a radically paternalistic culture.

The most relevant passage for this topic is his commentary on I Corinthian 6:9. Here the Apostle Paul gives a list of sins. The word translated “effeminate,” by the King James and by Wesley, is one that has caused wide debate among biblical scholars, with little consensus across various languages.  The word literally means “soft” and is used, even in scripture, to describe the weak, luxurious, or self-indulgent (See Matt 11:8, for example).  In Wesley’s day, it might have been used as a euphemism for the “soft” or submissive partner in a same-sex relationship, as oppose to the aggressor or abuser (which is the next word). In this light, it has also been translated as “male prostitution.” (In the NRSV, for example).  Many scholars, however, point to evidence (even in scripture) of it being used more broadly, beyond a sexual context.

In his commentary of this passage from First Corinthians, Wesley seems to have a particular type of person in mind.  He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  He concludes that we are never secure from the greatest sins when we do not guard against those which are thought to be the least.  That’s his assessment of this word in this context.

Looking beyond this usage, Wesley uses the same word to point to sin beyond sexuality. Frequently, he uses this word to speak of those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross.”  He uses this word to denote spiritual softness or weakness. He calls us to be aware of our temptation “to sloth, indolence, love of ease, softness, delicacy; to hatred of self-denial, and taking up our cross.”  Wesley’s default is to first call us to self-examination.   He clearly sees this word in a broader context, calling all of us to look in the mirror.

In this analysis we are faced with a stereotypical view of women and men that does not match with our modern sensibilities. Wesley’s general attitude towards all thing s“effeminate” was colored by the times in which he lives.  At the same time, there is evident for some struggle with these views, especially when it comes to women being able to provide ministry and even preach.  For example, Wesley notices that women can exhibit “strong faith,” and he see this as evidence for the transforming power of Christ, enabling women to “overcome their natural fearfulness” and “great disadvantage, as having less courage than men.” This illustration would be offensive today, if it were not put in historical and cultural context.

At the same time, we must note the positive way in which Wesley uses the word “soft.” He was a strong advocate of “softness of the right kind” – softness that yields compassion, mercy, and kindness. He calls for a “softening of the heart” and for a “soft, yielding spirit.”  In his commentary of the phrase “Love is kind,” he describes “kindness” with the word “soft.” He also says that peacemakers are those able to “quiet turbulent passions” and “soften the minds of contending parties.”  This kind of softness is a sign of true religion, and we see this word used over and over again in this way.

In our current debate, I wonder what it would mean if we were more committed to “holy softness.”  In a great line, Wesley reminds us that “Love (and only love) can soften and melt and pierce and break an adamantine heart.” I had to look up the word “adamantine.”  It means to be adamant (duh)– inflexible, unyielding, rigid. In contrast to the negative use of the “effeminate,” we might use the word “masculine” here.  What would our witness be if we spent less time on securing our place and power within “contending parties,” and more time being peacemakers in the most holy of senses?  What if we focused first on giving witness to the softer virtues of patience, kindness, gentleness, bearing one another in love and being eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace? (Eph 4:1-3). In the midst of our disagreements, which we will always have, what if our first desire was to learn how to love one another better in the midst of community?  Is this not at the very heart of Christian holiness? A strong case can be made for Wesley shouting “yes.”

Personally, I’m just not willing to throw in the towel and give up on the spiritual strength it would take for us to meet in the middle where true love is possible, where we could truly give witness to the kin-dom of God, where we could hold up the cross together.  Anything other than this is weakness and softness that will never glorify God.

Photo by Julius Silver on Pexels.com

Patience As the Way Forward

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“We’ve been patient long enough.”  “It is time to make a decision.”  These statements echo through our denomination.  Yet, into this kind of environment, John Wesley lifts up the word “patience.”  If we are to truly find a way forward, it may be very important that we let this virtue get through to our anxious hearts.

Wesley makes it clear that patience is so more than “waiting.”  It is certainly more than fear-ridden fretfulness, where we bury our heads in the sand, hoping a problem will go away.  Patience is a “gracious temper,” a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience holds the “middle way,” he says, staying in between the extremes. Even as we advocate for opinions and positions, Christians behave in the middle, staying connected to all with respect, humility, and compassion.  Standing on the solid rock of God’s love, we avoid “impatience with contradictions,” to use a phrase from Wesley.  We honor diversity of opinion as those who see in a “mirror dimly.”  We listen and learn. We embrace our differences as opportunity to learn how to love more fully and truly glorify God.  In this way Wesley characterizes patience as the “manifestation of the perfect love of God.”  That’s how important this virtue is. It is our witness to the world.

And now for the deep theological reason for placing patience at the heart of how we engage one another – instantaneous entire sanctification!  It’s not a phrase we hear every day, but it was key for Wesley.

Why be patient with ourselves and others? Because we are new creations in Christ.  From the moment our hearts were first opened to the saving love of Christ, a transformation happened and is happening.  Deep within, we have already been transformed “from inward sinfulness to inward holiness.”  Deep within, our “pride and haughtiness” have been transformed into virtue of true holiness – “calmness, meekness, and gentleness.”  With deep theological insight, Wesley warns against undervaluing what happens in justification.  Justification is so much more than a forensic pardon or act of blind grace — as in “oh yeah, you’re forgiven or “You have a ticket to heaven” — but with no real expectation of change.  In Christ, we are sanctified! And yet, from our vantage point, this sanctification comes in degrees, much like the growth of a child into maturity.  The key insight for Wesley is that we grow “into” this sanctification, not “towards” it. Our life becomes a journey of living into our new identity as “born again” children of God.

And so, we can truly be patient, with ourselves and others, because of what God has already done and will do.   We honor that! With holy patience, we learn to “not be angry at those who differ from [our] opinion, nor entertain hard thoughts concerning them.” We can give thanks for the way God is working in them, even if it is different from our desired timeframe or perspective. Our focus is ONLY this:  to see that this transformation “is wrought in our own soul, if we desire to dwell with God in glory.”

Wesley builds his sermon “On Patience” upon the words, “Count it as a joy knowing that the trails of your faith teach patience.”  (James 1:4). He points out that we are not saved from temptation.  In fact, we can count temptation as a gift. God works through patience to bring us to maturity in faith, where we learn that we cannot return evil for evil, barrier for barrier, or attempts to divide with more division.  In Christ, we find ways to bless even in the midst of such tension.

Impatience with others, or with the church, is a sure sign that we are off track in our journey. It is possibly a sign that we have reverted back to spiritual childhood, often accompanied with spiritual temper tantrums. We must be patient with even this, yet when we are in this state it is probably wise of the church to not give us a gavel.

“On Schism” A Devotional Paraphrase of Wesley’s Sermon

IMG_4576As promised in the previous post, here is a devotional paraphrase of John Wesley’s sermon, “On Schism.”  This version is long for a blog post, but, believe me, much shorter than Wesley’s original work.  The key verse is I Corinthians 12:25, “That there might be no dissension in the body.” 

Schism.  At one time, this was a much used and scary word.  While it is not at the forefront of most of our minds today, its underlying meaning still sparks anxiety within us. Schism is the “churchy” word for divorce on a community scale.  Thinking of schism only as a “separation from” does not do justice to the term. More to the heart of the matter, schism is a separation “within” the church.  There is no way it can happen without someone being hurt. This deeper understanding is made clear in the three passages of scripture where this word is used.

In the first chapter of first Corinthians, Paul pleads with his sisters and brothers to not be divided (schismata) but to be united under a common purpose.  Rather than working together under the banner of a common mission, it seems that the Corinthian Church had instead become divided by preferences and personal agendas.  Rather than following Christ they had formed alliances around personalities, with some saying “I belong to Paul” and with others giving their allegiance to Apollos or Cephas.  The separation in this instance was not from the Church but took place within the Church.  In this environment, says Paul, Christ is divided and his witness is damaged.

The second place where this word is used is in the eleventh chapter of the same letter.  Again there is division within the body, this time over the nature of the Lord’s Supper.  It seems that they were dividing into little parties, eating on their own, and creating a situation where some were left out and hungry.  They had created an environment that fostered resentment and turf protecting rather than an environment that promoted forgiveness and reconciliation.   That is not appropriate for the Lord’s Supper. When we eat and drink without discerning what it means to be a part of the body of Christ we eat and drink judgment upon ourselves, says Paul.

In this same chapter, Paul uses the word “heresy” to make his point, translated in verse nineteen as “fractions.”  This word has been distorted for many centuries.  By common definition, a heresy is an erroneous opinions or a wrong belief.  Naming heresies has been the pretense for many terrible acts, including the destruction of cities and the shedding seas of innocent blood.   But note the horrific irony.  While some have killed others in order to wipe out heresy or wrong views, Paul makes it clear that heresies or factions should never lead to schism or war. He says that there must be “factions” among us, various views within the body. Factions or heresies serve a positive purpose.  It is amid various perspectives within the community of faith that we learn how to live in love and how to break bread together.  This unity might be imaged as a beautiful piece of art with multiple colors coming together.  Schisms happen when the goal is uniformity, with the desire that everyone look the same.

There is great danger in linking heresy and schism together in a cause, where heresy is defined in terms of “wrong belief” and schism is justified by claiming “right belief” or “orthodoxy.”  It is this kind of thinking that does great harm to the witness of the church.  As finite and limited human beings, we just can’t get that hung up on beliefs.  If we do, we will miss the opportunity to learn how to love.  Relationship matter more than opinions about doctrine. When this connection is made between heresy and schism, we are likely to find ourselves fighting with shadows of our own raising and combating, perhaps with violence, a sin which has no existence but in our own imagination.  We find ourselves lost in a house of mirrors, unable to see others as children of God.

The only other instance of this word is in the twelfth chapter of the same letter where Paul uses the image of the body with many parts to describe the church.  He calls us to give honor to all parts, and the greater honor to the seemingly more insignificant parts.  Following this principle will help ensure that there is no “dissension” (schism) within the body but rather an environment of mutual care and concern.  For, as in the body, if one part suffers, all suffer; if one part is honored, all rejoice together. This is the goal and hope of the church.  Schism, in this instance, point to a shortage of love that manifests a division of heart and fragmentation within the body.  When we break with the body we bring spiritual harm to ourselves.

So what are the implications of all this?  Well, we must conclude that the act of causing a split within a body of living Christians is a grievous breach of love.  It is the nature of love to unite us together.  It is only when our love grows cold that we can think of separating from the community in this way.  The pretenses for separation may be innumerable, but lack of love is always the real cause; otherwise, those wanting to separate would work hard to hold the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Take a good look at the effects of schism.  It opens the door to many destructive emotions and harmful dispositions — anger, resentment, sadness, depression, bitterness, malice, and hatred, creating a present hell for those involved.   Sadly and ironically, the arrogance of schism can manifest itself in the name of loyalty to God and to the true way.

But some will make the case that they had to leave because they could not continue with a clear conscience. The former community was causing them to sin or not allowing them to use their gifts.  Well, if this is truly the case, then they cannot be blamed for leaving. There are situations where one must make this choice. Leaving the church can be seen as multiplication rather than division, and can be a good thing.  But even here, make sure the motivation is calling and conscience and not condemnation. We must ask ourselves: Is this desire to leave and form a new church born in our ego or in God? Is it worth the risk of the potential harm?

To conclude, if your faith is not yet deeply rooted in a community, then you have freedom to explore. Find a place where you can plant yourself more deeply and begin to grow and bear good fruit.  But for those who are already so planted, then take care how you tend the body of Christ.  Do not get caught up in wars over opinions.  Shun the very beginning of strife. Be a peace-maker.  Do not lay more stumbling blocks in the way of these others for whom Christ died.  Realize that this is what happens when we give energy to schisms within the body.  Above all else, let love be your rule, knowing that love always unites rather than divides; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.