Our Calling Amid Possible Schism

IMG_4576The decision is in.  While I was hoping for a different result from the Judicial Council, I don’t believe we can blame the messenger.  I do wonder if they grieved over this decision, knowing that it would contribute to the schism that is likely to come.

Before General Conference, I wrote about Wesley’s view on schism.  Now I find myself revisiting his advice from a different perspective.  At the end of his sermon, “On Schism,” Wesley acknowledges that leaving a church, or forming a new church, can mean multiplication rather than division. It can be good for the body of Christ, as long as this move is not motivated by condemnation or personal comfort.  Withdrawing into “like-minded camps” is generally not the best way to glorify God.

In this sermon, Wesley actually defends heresy. It is a bit shocking – and very relevant for us today. Different perspectives – even factions or heresies – serve a positive purpose within the body of Christ. A variety of perspectives teaches us how to love and how to break bread together. There is likely some level of “heresy” in all of our stances and opinions.  Acknowledging this in humility leads us into life-giving community.  On the other hand, claiming right belief, and making this the focus of what it means to be the church, only breeds self-righteousness and creates “a present hell for those involved.” That’s Wesley’s take.

So where does this leave us? We are in a strange place where those who advocated for biblical unity are in the minority. After this ruling by the Judicial Council, the green-light has been given to a plan that moves us from unity in love to uniformity by law, with strict mandatory penalties, strengthened definitions that cause harm, and accountability taken away from bishops and the annual conferences. (If you are following the process, this is all old news).  I am glad that the provision for requiring oaths to serve in certain leadership positions was ruled unconstitutional, but it was still the will of the majority at General Conference. On the issue at hand, there is no room to do ministry from a different perspective. Those who want to make this room are being asked by many to “just leave” – or be subject to the new “inquisitional court” that will be established. That is where we are.

So, what’s next?  As we work through our grief, my hope is that we will join with others and focus on the calling God has given us – to bear one another in love and seek true unity of spirit (Eph 4:1-6).  Let us increase our resolve to make room for all, including those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives, as we seek to listen and learn together, in respect and grace (that is possible and truly glorifies God), and in light of our current conversation, especially work to honor the gifts of our LGBTQ+ siblings and make room for them.  Let us promote a high(er) view of scripture where we honor the whole and seek God’s intended message in our time, using the royal law of love as our guide.  Let us affirm Wesleyan Holiness, defined through the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness, as oppose to holiness defined by judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness.  Let us promote a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values of monogamy, faithfulness, and the virtues summed up with the word love.  Let us work towards policies built on a shared ethic of calling and character, as opposed to policies that make judgments around personal identity.   In sum, let us join with others to form a church that glorifies God.

Yes, some sort of division or “branches” is likely at a denominational level.  I hope that this possibility will increase our witness to the values we share. I believe that this is the calling we are being given, in this time, as we stay open to God’s work through us.

The Ordinary Work of the Spirit and the Way Forward

IMG_4576Holy Spirit Come! That is at the heart of my prayer as General Conference approaches. To understand the meaning of this prayer, my go-to source is John Wesley.  From a big-picture perspective, Wesley’s focus was on the way the Holy Spirit works through ordinary means and basic virtues, rather than extraordinary signs and wonder. The witness of the Holy Spirit is best revealed when we come together in holiness, which Wesley consistently defined with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility, all wrapped up in the word “love.”  The Spirit is revealed, less in our opinions, and more in how we treat one another in the sharing of our opinions. In my mind, we could use a lot more of our energy being open to this witness of the Holy Spirit rather than expecting something extraordinary.

In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit,” Wesley calls us to the “middle way.”  In doing so, he is not talking about politics, party, opinion, or beliefs; he is talking about behavior.  Even with strong opinions, faithfulness calls us to “behave” in the middle.  For Wesley, the “worst kind of enthusiasm” is where we are so convinced that God is in our opinions and that our job is to come to God’s defense and actually create division.  In contrast to this kind of “enthusiasm,” the Holy Spirit leads us to “steer a middle course.” On this way, to draw upon the scriptures, we work to break down dividing walls of hostility and seek unity in the One who not only brings peace but is our peace (Eph 2:14).  This way is defined by an eagerness “to maintain unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:1-3). To draw lines in the sand, and promote division is to be “devoid of the Spirit” (Jude 1:19).

After seeing this phrase in Jude, I had to do a little research. Sodom is used as an example. (We have seen this before in this series). As is often the case in the New Testament, the word “pornia” is used as a general term, often translated as “fornication” and here as “immorality.” It can be defined as objectifying others and using them only for our pleasure.  There is no doubt that this is against God’s will for us, but it is far from Jude’s main point (and that is important for our current debate). When Jude outlines “unnatural lust” he focuses on the way we use words to harm others and to get an advantage over others. To do this is to be “devoid of the Spirit.” In contrast, those who are with the Spirit keep themselves in the love of God and focus on sharing the mercy and peace of the Lord.  These virtues work only when we meet in the middle where we can then engage in the greatest challenge we are given, and that is to learn how to love one another.

To build upon Wesley’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, it is possible that God might come and give some extraordinary sign, but we have little reason to think that God will.  The Holy Spirit is already at work in the everyday and universal call to “steer a middle course.”  This cannot happen when we are intent on using scripture as a weapon to belittle faithful interpretations that differ from what we believe is the only right way. It cannot happen when we use good words – orthodox, evangelical, Jesus-loving, traditional, progressive, inclusive, gracious — as code words to create an “us and them.” Rather, God will be glorified in the way we love one another in our difference – with patience and kindness, without arrogance or envy, and never insisting on our own way. What a word! (I Cor 13:4-8).  If we were able to practice this faith, then I guess we could say that it would be extraordinary indeed.  Come Holy Spirit!

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. 

A Way Forward: Bible Study and Holy Conversation – Session 1

Last nway forwardight we started an eight-session gathering at the Well (our Wednesday Night Program) leading up to General Conference.  Here are my notes for session one, which was intended to set the tone and give an update on where we are at this point. The big goal for this process is clarity about who we are as a congregation, regardless of what happens in St. Louis…

I want to invite all of you into a vision.  In a very real sense I want you to envision this place in 100 years.  Picture our spiritual grandchildren (and some biological grandchildren) worshiping here and gathering here to grow in a relationship with a living Lord.  In 100 years from now they may come in flying cars, or beam in, or have mini interactive screens projecting from their eyes –who knows — but they will be here – and I believe will be worshiping in the Wesleyan tradition in some way.

What does that mean? What does it mean to envision a congregation worshiping here in the Wesleyan tradition in one hundred years? Here are a few summary statements:

  • It means that they will err towards grace over judgement.
  • They will be open to people who are different.
  • They will see that our primary task on this earth is to learn how to love more fully and grow in the virtues of patience, kindness, forgiveness, humility, generosity and gracefulness. In Wesleyan language, this is called Holiness.
  • They will hold fast to the core truths of the faith (as outlined in the creeds we say every week) and beyond that they will “think and let think.” (How many of you have heard that?)
  • They will see salvation as more than a decision about the future, but a present reality connecting us to eternity. (This is from Wesley’s first sermon in the standard sermons).

Can you envision this kind of congregation here in the future?  During these next few weeks, I want to invite you into this vision. And I will be bold to say that this is a calling from God.  I do want you to trust me on that, but not totally take my word for it. I don’t have the whole answer. We’ve got to figure that out together.  And, to do so, we must stay connected to God’s inspiration and guidance, in two essential ways – through the Holy Spirit and through the Scriptures. We need to plant this vision into the scriptures, prayer, and tradition of the church and see if this vision can grow from there.

With that hope, I’ll start with a passage that we will use to frame this whole conversation.  (On screen) The Apostle Paul says, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…” (Eph 4:1-6).  We will look at this text, and several others, as we journey together these next few weeks.  Tonight, I want to focus briefly on a couple of words. The first one is “beg.”  The Apostle Paul is doing more than “inviting” us into a vision.  Inviting is a bit soft. Paul is begging, urging, pleading with us to live into the calling of God upon our lives. And here is an important thing to note.  This calling is not rooted in doctrine or policies – these are important as resources and guides – but are not at the core of this calling– this is not about defending doctrine — at the core of our calling is to a particular way of behaving; it is about how we treat one another.  Paul begs us to give a particular kind of witness to the world in how we love one another.

There is one other word that I want to highlight tonight — Unity (as a preview).  The normative function of the Spirit is to lead us into unity – with synonym like reconciliation, community, and harmony. I suppose the Spirit could lead to division and divorce in some circumstances, but that would be very rare.  I don’t think we are that special – that we are above or beyond the calling to engage in the hard work of loving one another. Therefore, we can presume that the work of the Holy Spirit in all of this is to lead us into unity.  (We will see this through many passages).

And so, if we can start with this premise, then we need to understand what this unity is and is not.  Here are a few summary statements that will guide us:

  • Biblical unity is not defined by uniformity. These are not the same thing. In fact, a great case can be made that biblical unity is actually found in the opposite of uniformity.
  • Unity is found in the body of Christ with many and diverse parts, gifts, perspectives.
  • Unity is found in a community where virtues like patience, kindness, and humility are required. These virtues are not needed in a community where everyone is the same.
  • Unity is found in love that “never insists on its own way.” That is our challenge.

We are called to give witness to this kind of unity or community.   That has always been a part of who we are as United Methodist Christians.

With that I want to get to our purpose tonight and that is to give an overview and update on the Way Forward at the denominational level.  (Go to onechurchplan.org and show the Countdown to General Conference in February and talk a little about this) At this special called session of General Conference there will be 3 proposals that have come from the Bishops and the Way Forward Commission. The charge of this commission and to the bishops was to work towards unity and help us find a way forward together.  (We have given this background before and it is available). Tonight, I want to focus on an updated versions of the plans — and my impressions.

I will start with the plan that has gotten the least attention until this week when our Bishop came out with his call for us to give this plan a new look…

 The Connectional Conference Plan. 

(for details see the Bishop’s Reflections at arumc.org or the ARUMC Facebook page)

In brief, this plan does call us to unity in a higher way than our opinions on the issues at hand, while at the same time protects convictions around these issues.  Through a series of complicated legislative moves, this plan would create one church with three branches – progressive, traditional and unity, all around one issue — and conferences, congregations, and clergy could vote to align themselves with a particular branch. This plan would require the passing of multiple constitutional amendments (elaborate a bit).  For a few impressions that might fit with other plans as well, I personally don’t like the labels.  Such labels can imprison us and lock us out of our own growth.  I don’t want to be a part of a church where everyone is expected to think the same way.  That takes away possibilities for transformation, which comes, most often in my experience, when we are free to question and seek and be challenged by others.  Withdrawing into like-minded camps may be comfortable but it is not healthy for the Body of Christ. Then I ask, “what about the next issue?” Are we going to create more branches?   And finally, I must ask why this proposal is getting renewed attention at this point.  Many are speculating that three options make it harder for anything to pass.

The Traditional Plan

This plan is built around the firm conviction that the church cannot allow or bless any covenant relationship where sex might be involved that is not between a biological male and female.  In addition, no one can serve in ordained leadership who have relationships outside of this same arrangement. Within this plan, a person’s sexuality takes precedence over calling, gifts, faithfulness, character, and fruitfulness.  This plan not only keeps all restrictive language around homosexuality within the Book of Discipline, but it also strengthens ways to enforce all prohibitions that are currently there.  In its original form, this plan sets up a structure for the bishops to enforce these restrictions.  The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church (a body like the Supreme Court) ruled that many parts of this plan were unconstitutional, including a section that said that bishops were never intended to be an “inquisitional court.”  With this ruling, the plan was modified to ask General Conference to form a separate body which would serve this function of policing and enforcing around this one issue.  This plan would possibility lead to an increase in church trials and hard decisions.  One way that this plan mitigates this possibility is by offering, what is called, a “gracious exit” for all who do not want to live by this strict standard and who believe that there are other ways to faithfully interpret scripture and live together as the Body of Christ.

The One Church Plan 

(See onechurchplan.org and my blog, connectedinchrist.net. I have written a lot on this and thus makes it hard to summary)

This plan removes language that calls the practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teachings.  It does not, however, add any language that says it is compatible. In many places, it adds language to protect convictions and religious freedoms of all in various contexts and cultures.  No conference, congregation, or clergy would ever be compelled to act contrary to their convictions.  This plan defaults to a traditional understanding of marriage, while offering congregations the opportunity to change their wedding policies to allow for same-sex unions or marriage. This is the only time a vote would be needed within this plan.  In addition, a pastor could not perform (or offer the vows) for such a union at the church without this direct consent by the congregation.  (Even now, pastors can participate in such ceremonies short of leading the vows).  This plan would also allow boards of ordained ministry to develop their own evaluation systems for who they would ordain around issues of sexuality.  With that said, it is also important to note that this plan clearly upholds biblical values of monogamy, faithfulness, and relationships where people can truly grow in the love of God. The plan even strengthens a commitment to these values.  These values would be the primary criteria for evaluating candidates for ministry, while still allowing conferences to include the same restrictions that are currently in place if that was the will of the body.  This plan provides “a generous unity that gives conferences, churches, and pastors the flexibility to uniquely reach their missional context without disbanding the connectional nature of the United Methodist Church.”  To explain this, I did write one piece where I called this the “Very Traditional One Church Plan.”

Another Option is that nothing passes.  This is a real possibility.  It is one of the reasons that I want to spend the next few weeks, not talking directly about General Conference and what might happen, but about who we are as a congregation regardless of what happens.  What do we represent?  How are we to live as a witness to the love of God?  How will we love one another and give witness to true unity in the midst of whatever happens or doesn’t happen?

Table Discussion:

We had around 70 in the room, gathering around tables.  We invited them to reflect together on this initial question: “what questions do you bring to this conversation, to become a part of our conversation the next few weeks?” Here are the questions reported back from the tables:

  • Are same-sex couples welcomed to be full participating members of our church? Depending on which plan is passed, would they feel welcomed? What can we do to encourage them to remain a part of the church?
  • What can pastors do, or not do, now? What freedom do you have now to marry or not marry couples?
  • What are the values we want to promote in covenant relationships and marriages? Monogamy, faithfulness, etc., or focus primarily on sexuality?  Are there different values for different people?
  • What happens to gay clergy who are in the closet? What about those who come out or already have in the hope of change?
  • Would the Conference be able to ordain a gay pastor?
  • If and when a vote happens at the church, with the youth get to participate in the vote?
  • How will we support one another post decision? If a majority likes the decision, how do we support the minority?  How do we stay Conway FUMC once a decision for one side or the other is made?
  • What are the financial implications? If we lose people, we lose money as well?
  • How do we draw more people into this conversation so that people aren’t just waiting for a decision to be made and then decision whether to stay or go?
  • How do any of these plans bring about unity? Why is unity important?
  • How can I “defend” my opinion, with good theological and biblical grounding, with family members who have a very different perspective?
  • What glorifies God? To hold true to traditional views?  To support marriages?  To turn people away who want to live in committed relationship that honor God and helps them to grow in God’s love? Does that glorify God?
  • What if nothing changes? Or what if we come together around a witness and nothing changes at General Conference?

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.

The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (A part of the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It is interesting to me that divorce figures so prominently in our debate on the way forward.  In our Annual Conference, for example, one pastor wrote a beautiful reflection on how his own divorce led to a change of heart. This sparked a defense of divorce by others, arguing that we have permission to be gracious to the divorced and remarried, but there is no biblical justification to extend this same permission for same-sex unions, for one example.

It is true that our statement on divorce in the Book of Discipline is redemptive and gracious. In my mind, this makes it very relevant to our current debate. In this statement, divorce is described as a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.”  Implied is the need to address the “brokenness” before we embrace the “alternative.”  If we do not engage the “regrettable,” in “grief over the devastating consequences,” we are likely to become indifferent to both divorce and remarriage. We will come to see it as an “acceptable” alternative. We will minimize the devastation and block out the pain. I have seen this happen among us. Even pastoral leaders can be divorced and remarried multiple times and it is a non-issue among us – at least in public discussions.

I wonder if our indifference to divorce and remarriage plays a role in the permission some feel to call for divorce or schism in the church.  It is even argued that we might be able to love one another better if we would go our separate ways. Perhaps this alternative, and our impatience with difference perspectives among us, will glorify God. That seems to be the claim.

In this call for divorce or schism, we also hear a lot of blaming. It is so tempting to project the cause of brokenness onto others. I love the way Wesley so eloquently described the extent of our brokenness in his sermon, “The Mystery of Iniquity.”  Building upon the Apostle Paul he says, “No one is righteous, not one.” And in this same sermon he says that the “grand objection of the infidels against Christianity” is how Christians themselves live and claim their own righteousness.  Not acknowledging our own brokenness contributes so much to the brokenness in the world.   For Wesley, in this sermon, our first calling is to watch and pray.  It is not to defend God and try to fix others on our terms.  It is God alone who transforms, and we all need to be more focused on our own need for transformation than we do on others.  In this sermon, Wesley gives this beautiful vision of a God who “will arise and maintain his own cause and the whole creation shall then be delivered from both moral and natural corruption. Sin shall be no more.  Holiness and happiness will cover creation, and the whole race of humankind shall know, love, and serve God, and reign with God forever and ever!” This is what is in store for us! What if we all did more confessing of our own brokenness, rather than trying to fix others, and together put our trust in God to bring this vision to fruition for all – even in ways beyond our human understanding?  That would lead to much healing.

From a biblical and wesleyan perspective, marriage itself is an acknowledgment of brokenness.  It is a part of our collective brokenness. In heaven, when all brokenness is healed, marriage will not be needed.  Marriage, as we have seen in the series, is an institution meant to bring healing.  Its primary purpose, beyond reproduction, is to help us grow in the virtues of holiness – humility, patience, kindness, and love. What if we found a way to honor all who want to make commitments, practice faithfulness, and bear the fruit if this holiness? What if we all were so focused on our own need of healing that we really didn’t have much time to point our finger at others. What if, instead, we worked at finding ways to honor one another?

In a culture of divorce and division, schism and polarization, why would we accommodate to this culture?  Are we not called to give witness to a higher vision? Is it not worth seeking the “mediation” called for in the BOD’s statement on divorce and to pour our energy into how we might stay united in love? I wonder.