Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Four Compelling Reasons Conservative and Progressive United Methodists Have to Stay Together

     Voices are clamoring for a split in the United Methodist Church, with an increasing urgency given many recent events, most notably an episcopal election in the West.  I was myself a candidate for bishop and was not elected – and I am writing this blog to expand upon something I dreamed of working on if elected, and hopefully to persuade some folks to join me in a crusade to stay together, and not split. I can think of four compelling reasons why we cannot split, and I have just enough naivete left in me to believe conservatives and progressives might agree on all four. We can agree, I believe, and move forward on the basis of the great commission, the importance of holiness in sexual relationships, the centrality of Jesus, and the inspiration of Scripture.  I suspect #2 is hardest for progressives, given practice and a host of other reasons, and #4 is hardest for conservatives, given the way debates have unfolded for many years.  But I'm betting we can get there on all 4.
 
    (1) At my jurisdictional conference, in my brief speech explaining to delegates my sense of call to the episcopacy, I suggested that “we can’t split now.”  My reason?  Our country is dividing and splitting all over the place.  Black are divided against whites.  Police are divided against some of our citizens.  Republicans are divided against Democrats.  Republicans are divided against themselves.  If the Church splits now, we are saying to an already cynical world, We are just like you.  We have no alternative to offer you.  There are other Great Commission questions.  Where I live, it is extremely difficult to get any unchurched people to try out a church that isn’t welcoming to LGBTQ people, or at least having a robust conversation about the issue.  I’ve heard some say that where they live the Church won’t grow if the church welcomes LGBTQ people.  But I am absolutely sure that a church that can’t stay together will not be able to make disciples in either kind of community.  Our most crucial witness in a divided world is quite simply not to divide, to show the world (as Paul introduced 1 Corinthians 13) “a better way.”

     (2) Somehow lost in all our debates within the church is any serious talk about holiness in sexuality.  But in the Bible, there is such a thing as holiness; your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  It is not the case that as long as it’s male and female having sex, it’s great.  And it is not the case that if it’s male and male, or female and female, it’s great.  It is not the case that as long as male and female are married, sex is just great, or if male and male could marry, all would be well.  Sexual relations in marriage and in any straight or gay relationship can be abusive, manipulative, and self-absorbed; such relations can idolize pleasure and have no hint of consecration to God.  Once upon a time, people came to the church, in effect asking for permission to live together and have intimate relations that might even be for God and pleasing to God.  Holy marriage is a sacred mystery, mirroring the wonder of Christ’s church to the world.  God clearly seeks a profound commitment, not just to your partner but to God and the church.  Until we can recover robust ways to talk about and engage in a holy sexuality, which is more than and different from which gender gets to have sex with which gender, we should perhaps be quiet, and relearn how to be Christian on matters of sex.

     (3) The main thing in Christianity, the undeniable, extreme center of our faith, is Jesus Christ.  It is not sexuality.  Sex is the main thing in our culture.  In our trivial, hedonistic society, sex is absolutely central to everything, life, self-image, advertising, TV, novels.  Christians are those who declare sex is not the center, it is not the main thing.  Jesus is the main thing.  I’ve been preaching on Colossians, where Paul falls all over himself extolling the wonder of Jesus, who puts every other thing in the shade, the wonderful shade of his glory and mercy.  I’ll repeat what I’ve said often: if the United Methodist Church declared Jesus was just a man, a wise teacher, or anything short of him being God in the flesh, with his death and resurrection achieving the redemption of all of creation, then I would walk out the door and urge you to come with me.  If you split over something that isn’t in the center, perhaps we have lost sight of the center.

     (4) Scripture is up for grabs right now.  There are some
progressives who say The Bible isn’t relevant.  But if the Bible isn’t relevant now, or on this or that issue, it is never relevant.  At the same time, it is false to say that only one side in the Methodist argument is devoted to the Bible or holds it up as the only and highest authority.  The United Methodist Church has been and will always be a church that opens the Bible and expects nothing but God’s Word to us.  I know conservatives and progressives with astonishingly high views of Scripture; and yet their interpretation on this issue differs.  Every faithful reader studies the Bible and makes the best sense of it that they can.  There is no un-interpreted Scripture; it interprets itself! And every preacher in history has read it and tried to solve what it is saying to contemporary people.  And there have always been disagreements.  But let’s put aside the idea that some cling to the Scriptures while others dispense with them.  The Bible is the inspired Word of God.  We've not engaged in high level reading, together, of the Bible, and we've not listened attentively to why the others interpret the way they do - or at least in my circles this hasn't happened.  One thing I’m sure the Bible doesn’t say, either literally, or by any theological interpretation, is “Thou shalt split up the Body of Christ.”  The Bible says plenty, and clearly, about unity in Christ.

     Over time, I have blogged about many ideas about what God is calling us to do.  I don’t believe we’ve ever really listened to one another or tried to get inside the skin of those who disagree.  We haven’t thought through the invisible, unnoticed cultural assumptions that we all carry deep inside that drive our theology more than the Holy Spirit does.  But for today, I wonder if we can’t find a way to look at the Great Commission, the very tough topic of holiness in sexuality, Jesus himself, and the Scriptures, and ask if we don’t have considerable common ground upon which to stand when asking where God is calling us.

21 comments:

  1. James: This is the clearest, most compelling and concise word I've read. Thank you for leading us in a better way!

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  2. James, this is a gift to the church. Thank you

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  3. Excellent and balanced words.

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  4. Your strongest reason is #1, if we split, we become like the rest of society, but we must acknowledge that the Church has been splitting formally since 1054 and fracturing for the last 499 years. Still I agree that the UMC should not now over sexuality.

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  5. Thank you James. Excellent words of wisdom in a truly divided world.

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  6. Love how God sends me the same message in different ways at the same time, like he's trying to make sure I get it. Not 5 minutes ago, I read Thomas Merton "and since no man is an island, since we all depend on one another, I cannot work out God's will in my own life unless I also consciously help others not work out His will in theirs." We liberals and conservatives (I have been both) need each other to inform each other, to balance each other, to love each other. John Fonda

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  7. If you want to be bishop get someone help you get speaking engagements at Jurisdiction Conference and Junaluska this summer..

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  8. You've said what's been on my heart. We have an opportunity as the church to model to our culture how to disagree about issues and yet make room for one another. Come, Holy Spirit.

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  9. I think the Conservatives have been trying to hold things together but the progressives say that either they get their way and approval of their lifestyle or they'll burn the church down on their way out. Which doesn't sound to me like that want to talk about anything but total approval of whatever they want to do - their disruptions of General Conference and other events show no respect for the UMC itself nor others in the church at all.

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  10. Thank you so much for words of wisdom.

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  11. Actually, I disagree. Sexuality is not trivial or secondary or even hedonistic. It is at the core of a spirituality that does not go along with the The too common secular/ holy split. We are incarnate. We claim we have a God who is incarnate. That urge for complete union with God is to be channeled through our bodies as well as our spirit. We do not need to have a sexual relationship with another person to be fully human, but to dismiss sexuality as something other or separate in my mind misses the full scope and extent of divine and human love. When I can merge with someone intimately -- spiritually, emotionally, openly, sexually, nakedly, in all understandings of the word, I am participating in God's holy acts of creation and recreation. In that way I live out my sexual/spiritual self most fully with another woman.

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    1. I hear you. Didn't mean to indicate it's irrelevant or subsidiary - I guess the past week I've heard from multiple people in counseling how their sex is kind of anything but a participation in God....

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  12. Thank you! Your first point is one I've been hammering away at in my context: we are called to do something more difficult than split...we are called to offer what I call a "Gospel alternative" to our culture of radical polarization. Anything else is truly a capitulation to the culture of division. This post is a gift to the church.

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  13. While I like the sentiment I have a problem with the execution. Staying together for the sake of staying together is both hypocritical and a violation of Scripture. Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? And is you take offence with my characterization of people as non believers it is by fruit we shall be known and if your theology leads you to a place that is demonstrably non-scriptural then that is the measure. Why have a discipline of we accept gross violations?

    As to sex not being central, I agree. Scripture is central. If we violate the Word of God consistently and deny what it says about our actions in any area we separate ourselves from God. Scripture does make one distinction about sexual sins and that is that they are sins against our body.

    As to Jesus being the center I agree, but what would Jesus say? Would he say that you can sin all you want and still remain in fellowship? Who was he hardest on, sinners or the religious that kept the law but violated the spirit? Jesus' call was to leave behind all that hinders you from full fellowship and you cannot be in fellowship while advocating an position that violates scripture.

    As to Scripture being up for grabs right now it is not. We try to make Scripture say what we want it to say but went it says "Thou shalt not..." there is no room for interpretation. Truly in the last days men shall search for teachings that tickle their ear.

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  14. While I like the sentiment I have a problem with the execution. Staying together for the sake of staying together is both hypocritical and a violation of Scripture. Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? And is you take offence with my characterization of people as non believers it is by fruit we shall be known and if your theology leads you to a place that is demonstrably non-scriptural then that is the measure. Why have a discipline of we accept gross violations?

    As to sex not being central, I agree. Scripture is central. If we violate the Word of God consistently and deny what it says about our actions in any area we separate ourselves from God. Scripture does make one distinction about sexual sins and that is that they are sins against our body.

    As to Jesus being the center I agree, but what would Jesus say? Would he say that you can sin all you want and still remain in fellowship? Who was he hardest on, sinners or the religious that kept the law but violated the spirit? Jesus' call was to leave behind all that hinders you from full fellowship and you cannot be in fellowship while advocating an position that violates scripture.

    As to Scripture being up for grabs right now it is not. We try to make Scripture say what we want it to say but went it says "Thou shalt not..." there is no room for interpretation. Truly in the last days men shall search for teachings that tickle their ear.

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  15. Dear James, let me begin by stating my admiration for you as a pastor and gifted communicator. I know you value others and their viewpoints so please let me share mine. Most of your Traditional/Evangelical family have long fought for unity these past 44 years, and still DO NOT want a split. We totally affirm our current statements of doctrine and polity in the BOD! So let me take your four reasons (they will be in italics), following will by my response to each in bold, and then give the main reason why this covenant/marriage is nearly impossible unless genuine repentance takes place. You write, "We can agree, I believe, and move forward on the basis of the (1) great commission, yes we agree every human being has sin and is in need of God's redemption found in Jesus Christ. However, there is NO conclusive evidence that the UMC will reach unchurched X, Y and Z generations by doing same sex unions at our altars! This is a flawed argument. If we follow your argument the Western and Northeastern Jurisdictions of the UMC should be exploding with growth but they are in fact hemorrhaging members and worshippers for twenty years when the population of their cities and states have exploded with growth. Churches like New Spring and Elevation are primarily attracting X, Y, and Z generation and they do not do same sex unions. Our average age at Christ UMC is 34 years of age. Yes, we must first love and offer ministry to all people but the clear majority of Christendom, 92% in the world, believes marriage is between a man and a woman. 2) the importance of holiness in sexual relationships. Holiness is not to be limited to one's sexuality but the Holy Spirit wants to make pure every part of our lives! Holiness is impossible without genuine repentance of sin and acceptance of the grace of God, and allowing the Holy Spirit to convict us of all sin especially that of pride which C.S. Lewis states is the most anti-God state of mind. Pride leads to spiritual adultery and we will get to this in a moment 3) The centrality of Jesus. No argument here except what is not pointed out by my progressive brothers and sisters is that Jesus is explicitly clear in Matthew 19 that marriage is between a man and a woman. There is no exception. 4) And the inspiration of Scripture. Here is the real dividing line--not sexuality, but how the Living Word of God is interpreted and then applied. Article IX of our Articles of Religion in the UMC states that worship is where "The pure Word of God is preached." Wesley commented on homosexuality in his Notes on the New Testament in Romans 1 and I Cor.6 in contrast to the Greco-Roman culture, calling forninication, adultery and homosexuality sin. Scripture shaped Christians who shaped culture—not the way progressives lead today where experience and culture trumps scripture.
    Now to the reason why Traditionalist/Evangelicals are finding it hard to stay together... to read the entire response to James Howell go to https://www.facebook.com/groups/WNCCEM/

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  16. James, I give thanks for you and your ministry and commend your most successful evangelism in leading people to the church and Jesus Christ. You provide many thoughtful and insightful blogs. I would like to respond to this one.
    (1) You say, “If the Church splits now, we are saying to an already cynical world, We are just like you. We have no alternative to offer you.” Split is the wrong question. The UMC has one official voice – the General Conference. It has spoken loud and clear for the past 40 years. Elements within the church, prodded on by elements in the culture, have started a rebellion that in 2016 has turned into anarchy. The COB has refused to take leadership to enforce the will of the church. By enforcing the BOD and standing for the doctrine and policy enacted and affirmed by the General Conference, the UMC will clearly say, “We have something different to offer than contemporary secular wisdom.” We offer a way of life leading to salvation based on the Holy Scriptures inspired by the Eternal God.

    (2) You make very solid points about human sexuality. Let us expand on that and focus on what Jesus did. He approached and accepted all types of sexual sinners. But, he did not accept their sexual activity outside of marriage and he only affirmed marriage between one man and one woman. He confronted and challenged those who would condemn the adulterous woman but advised and warned her to go and sin no more. He blessed no sexual activity outside of marriage and no homosexuality.

    (3) You say, “Jesus is the main thing.” Right on! See above.

    (4) Scripture is at the heart of our belief in and promises of God. It is the Word of God. We would not know of Jesus without it. We would not know any more than the General Relation of God without it. It is not equal with experience, tradition or reason. Those sources can help us use our God given capacities to understand Scripture and God’s will but our basis of understanding God and His will for us found in the Scriptures. As the BOD states, “The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation.”

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  17. The Methodist Church is not a progressive's church nor a conservative's church. It should be God's church. I'm sure, if we stopped thinking of our personal wants and agendas and began praying earnestly for God's direction, He will give it to us all and we would be united in His Spirit. I can't help but think that something is seriously wrong if we can't be united. We should not be breaking rules or the very Word of God in order to get our way in His church or to legitimize our lifestyles. Scripture that helped me in this matter are: Leviticus 18 and 1 Corinthians 5. Personally, I think God set up the laws so that we all understand just how badly we need Jesus. Our war isn't with each other, it's with sin itself.

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