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 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.