Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Jesus' Prayer for Unity & the UMC: Some Things We May Not Have Considered

     As we pray for our Commission on a Way Forward, which meets this week, I'm reminded of a friend who will occasionally post a photo of a boring conference session, or a budget committee report, or a church sign advertising a big bake sale, and he adds the caption, “An unintended consequence of the resurrection.”  Surely one of the unintended consequences of the resurrection would be the United Methodist divide over homosexuality.  When Jesus rose, did he think, “I so hope that, because I am risen, those Methodists will split up one day”?
     I’ve written often in defense of unity – and am typing this as something of a final resort.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, not about Methodism, but about all sorts of things, and I want to share those reflections - on some things I worry we've missed.  For starters, the indefatigable, conservative and brilliant scholar Peter Leithart has a book that came out in October about Christian unity called The End of Protestantism: Pursuing Unity in a Fragmented Church.  His manifesto, urging the creation of a single worldwide church, exposes the absurdity of our splintered efforts for Jesus, the consumerist inclinations of our people and leaders, the laughable Americanism of so much of our religious practice, and more. 

     Most importantly, he begins his book about the unity of the Church by explaining quite clearly that this unity is God’s will.  Jesus prayed for it.  Jesus clearly wants unity.  When we divide, we grieve the heart of Jesus.  And let’s be clear: one day, we will be one.  “The Father loves the Son and will give him what he asks… The Father will give the Son a unified church, and the Son will unify the church by his Spirit.  This is what the church will be.”

     This reality, that while we argue and reckon with ways to split up, Jesus is praying for us to be one:  this moves me, and should be the starting point of any talk about possible division.  Jesus is praying for something else.  So why would we attempt anything that would violate the heart of Jesus’ own prayer for us?

     In this blog I want to explore other things I’ve read, and reflect on compelling reasons we have not to split up.  I will look at (1) our witness to the world, (2) the fact that we haven’t yet gone through what a couple should go through before they divorce, (3) the embarrassing truth that we haven’t fully acknowledged why we in fact disagree, (4) why in Christ’s Body, we need even people who are dreadfully wrong, and (5) that simple question of whether what we are splitting up over is central enough to our faith to warrant a divide.  Stay with me through all five, if you will.

     (1) Witness to the world.  Recently I reread an astonishing, short but impactful book by Francis Schaeffer, the intellectual godfather of modern evangelicalism:  The Mark of the Christian.  As Christians, we wear or display many symbols.  Schaeffer notes that when Jesus was about to leave earth, “He made clear what will be the distinguishing mark of the Christian: ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another.’”  Interestingly, he says “it is possible to be a Christian without showing the mark, but if we expect non-Christians to know that we are Christians, we must show the mark.”  He calls this “the final apologetic.”

     Expanding on Jesus’ thought that “by this shall all men know you are my disciples,” he claims something that should make us shudder:  “In the midst of our present dying culture, Jesus is giving a right to the world.  Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians.”  Amazing: we are not to judge one another; but God gives the world the right to judge us.

     The world’s verdict is often, and quite rightly, negative.  Schaeffer observes how Christians “rush in, being very, very pleased to find other men’s mistakes. We build ourselves up by tearing other men down.”  We are to exercise love in even the toughest situations – the obligation of “loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving them in a way the world can see.”

     Of course, we say, we love those guys.  But do we?  And if we split, will the world say, as even the critics of the Christians of the early centuries couldn’t help but notice, “See how they love!”  No, the world will say They are just like the rest of us – and therefore they have nothing to offer us we don’t already have. 

     Love isn’t winning and then showing the loser how he was wrong.  Ephraim Radner, in his brilliant, theologically profound A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, joins two moments in our history.  Assessing various struggles the church somehow survived during the Middle Ages, he says “What they achieve is not so much agreement as an act that allows members to be joined to the figure of Christ.”  Perhaps the goal isn’t agreement but allowing all of us to be joined to Christ? 

     Radner continues by reminding us that when the church was most intimately joined to Christ, when the church most assuredly was one, “it was when Jesus was walking around with his disciples – and yet they were confused, mistaken, and Jesus quite deliberately included Judas, and even washed his feet and ate and drank at table with him.  The thief was already thieving, and the greed was already growing, and the disappointment in Jesus’ claims was already gnawing.  This was always a part of their unity.”  Such inept, broken people managed to succeed as God’s laborers, not so much because they were right and proved others wrong.  Tertullian noted how foes of Christianity had to admit, “See how they love.” 

     (2) Marital counseling. God says “I hate divorce” (Malachi 2:16), and yet God (through Moses) permits it, although Jesus clarifies that this is “because your hearts are hard” (Matthew 19:8).  If a couple comes to a pastor and says We’ve fought for years, it’s irreconcilable, we’re divorcing, the pastor is bound to ask Have you gone through counseling?  A time of unscrambling feelings and motivations, hearing what’s gone unheard, exposing underlying wounds and fears, devising new strategies for understanding and living together:  counseling may or may not rescue a marriage, but you don’t end the marriage without doing the work.

     Our denomination is pondering a divorce, but we’ve not undergone the intensive work of figuring out why we’re where we are, and what’s in the heart of those other people.  As Atticus Finch famously said in To Kill a Mockingbird, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”  I am shellshocked when I ask proponents of one side or the other on homosexuality if they have had any long conversations with someone who disagrees – not the hurling invective at one another pseudo-conversations, but asking, listening, empathizing, the kinds of conversations Jesus had with people.

     David Wilcox, the clever singer-songwriter, does this funny and hopeful piece about a couple about to split up.  The man says “Sometimes we’re arguing and it’s taking her forever to see she’s wrong.”  But then an alternative approach presents itself:  instead of making his own case, and dismantling hers, he – for the sake of the love – makes her case for her as best he’s able, and she makes her case for him.  As he puts it, “Instead of getting an attorney, be the other person’s attorney.”  Understanding and peace happen.

     I lean progressive on homosexuality, or at least I acknowledge and embrace our disagreement.  But I have on several occasions tried to help the anti-gay side make their best possible case – which is what progressives would really want after all, right?  No one on the right, to my knowledge, has utilized the shrewdest, wisest, most compelling case against homosexuality – that offered by Ephraim Radner in his genius of a book, A Time to Keep: Theology,Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life.  And the left would be wise to turn to Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People.

     And then there’s this.  In counseling, I ask divided couples to list positives about the other person, which they are surprised to learn they actually can do.  In a letter John Wesley wrote to dozens of clergy in 1764, in his final effort to bring unity to splintering evangelicals, challenged them all to “speak respectfully, honourably, kind of each other; defend each other’s character; speak all the good we can of each others; recommend each other where we have influence, and to help each other on in his work and enlarge his influence by all the honest means he can.”

     Oneness of mind is always being joined to and enacting the humility of Jesus.  We are to “count others as better than yourselves… looking not to your own interests” (Philippians 2:3).  These are the “consistent postures” of church people toward one another, and we are to be this way not at a distance, but up close, in personal engagement.  Can we divorce without having gone through the real, arduous labor of striving for reconciliation with real people?

     (3) Why we really disagree.  I love what Frances Kissling said when interviewed by Krista Tippett recently: “The pressure of coming to agreement works against really understanding each other.”  I think we United Methodists fight for a solution or vote on whether we agree or not – but we really have never done very much to understand each other, which only happens over time and with much curiosity, hospitality, genuine questions and empathetic listening.

     We think it’s Scripture people versus Experience people, or Orthodox people versus Progressive people.  But there is so much out there now about why we are divided on politics, moral issues, public opinion and so much more.  Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, demonstrates how our political leanings are deeply implanted intuitions, gut emotional dispositions we came by mostly in early childhood.  We have our allegedly rational, factual, logical arguments.  But they are “mostly post hoc constructions made up on the fly.”  Our arguments, the cases we build and expect others to yield to, are no more than the proverbial tail wagged by the intuitive dog.  These deep emotional preferences are fossilized in us, rendering us incapable of hearing arguments from another side.  This happens to both conservatives and progressives in all political matters.  Could the same thing happen when Methodists try to talk about homosexuality?  Does the Bible, or reason, or tradition or experience really drive us?  Or is there something more subliminal we are hardly aware of?

     Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in their Own Land (and this lovely podcast about why we disagree – and why people vote against their own morals and preferences!) Robert Jones, The End of White Christian America (which documents rapid demographic changes that create nostalgia, fear or delight – and how our basic posture toward these shifts spills over into moral and religious areas), and J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy have explained why many people in our culture grieve cultural change of all sorts, and feel resentful by the new and different who seem to gain preference.  Might the church mirror this same kind of fearful wariness of what is different and unknown?  And then there are the largely urban people who giddily embrace anything that is new; but while much that is new is lovely, not everything new is of God.  Christians are by nature conservative; we hold to what is old and time-tested; so are we clinging to the core of our faith or are we, like so many in our culture, yearning for a nostalgic world that seems to be slipping away? 

     Christena Cleveland, in her terrific Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep us Apart, shows how sociology understands that we clump together with people who think like we do, only reinforcing our viewpoints.  But what we wind up buttressing isn’t holiness, morality or God, but our own insecurities.  Only with “cognitive generosity,” only by expanding our circle of friends, can we test our own thoughts, discover where we are biased more than insightful, and make peace in God’s church.

     So we are divided.  But doesn’t our division mimic the very divisions in our society that would be there if Jesus and the Bible had never come to be?  If we were holy, wouldn’t we split (if we just had to split) along very different lines from the fracture lines along which secular society is splitting?  Isn’t this a sorry admission – and yet the beginning of a turn to life, healing and hope?

     We are not divided primarily for theological reasons, although we’d like to think we are, and wish we were.  A few fascinating studies assessed people’s high or low view of Scripture, and then compared this with whether they were opposed to homosexuality or accepting of it.  The survey expected those with a high view of Scripture would be opposed, while those with a low view would be accepting.  But it turned out there was no measurable difference.  Many with a high view do oppose homosexuality, but others are accepting; and plenty of people with low views of Scripture either oppose or condone homosexuality (which isn’t surprising at all).

     Humbly realizing these things, we can resonate happily to Ephraim Radner’s reminder that division happens when we forget that we all are sinners, and that the church itself is “sinner,” plagued by “the insistence that only others fail in their duties and squander their gifts.”  No one is right and holy; and we are most bedeviled by our unacknowledged and unintentional sins, our blind spots precisely where we think we see clearly.  And yet we broken people have hope.  Jesus kept Judas as close as possible instead of banishing him.  The unity he insisted on paradoxically achieved his own betrayal and sacrifice for the sins of all of them.

     (4) What the Body needs.  The psychiatrist Scott Peck once asked a woman why she stayed in a difficult marriage.  She replied, “For the friction.”  A lovely answer: friction is hard, and sparks fly; but friction smooths rough edges, and polishes.  Church friction, if we can stay with it, might help us mirror God’s love to a cynical world.

     We have a God-given, theological need for each other.  Slogans like “Stronger together!” are easy.  But have we examined why we in fact need one another?  Hans Urs von Balthasar, toward the end of his lovely Does Jesus Know Us – Do We Know Him?, assuming we are eager for the fullest possible understanding of God, says, “We cannot find the dimensions of Christ’s love other than in the community of the church, where the vocations and charisms distributed by the Spirit are shared: each person must tell the others what special knowledge of the Lord has been shown to him.  For no one can tread simultaneously all the paths of the love given to the saints: while one explores the heights, another experiences the depths and a third the breadth.  No one is alone under the banner of the Spirit, the Son and the Father; only the whole Church is the Bride of Christ, and that only as a vessel shaped by him to receive his fullness.”

     If we split, we will forsake voices we need to hear to know the fullness of Christ.  I love what Peter Leithart, in his book about unity, predicts:  in the unified church he believes God is calling us toward, “there will be not fewer but more theological battles – which are good, not to be avoided or definitively resolved.”  Through history, the Church has been blessed by theological controversy.  The debate has pressed us to answer newer and harder questions, and so in turn we are compelled to dig deeper and understand more than we would if everyone had always said Amen.

     In thinking toward unity, Ephraim Radner invites us to think about “solidarity” movements and how they work:  “Solidarity is about giving oneself over to another across an otherwise entrenched and immovable boundary… In doing this, we confront the ‘otherness’ of God even in the otherness of” the one from whom we are separated.”  We join hands for the sake of confronting a common threat; we stand with others because God calls us to stand with them, even as they differ from us.

     And then Radner shrewdly asks, “When the greatest decision that human beings ever made was to be made, what did Jesus say?  How did he contribute?  When the truth was debated, did he speak his mind?  They led him to Pilate’s bar, and e never said a mumblin’ word; not a word, not a word, not a word.”  Indeed, “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him.  So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others.”  It is in this way, Jesus’ way, that we need each other.

     (5) The Center of our Faith.  I have said many times that there are conceivable reasons why Christians should by all means separate, and quickly and definitively.  If a General Conference declared Jesus was only a man, and wasn’t raised from the dead, if United Methodism adopted salvation by works instead of grace, if we determined never to baptize or eat and drink at the Lord’s table, I would exit, and encourage you to come with me.  Through history, Christians have sadly but quite rightly divided when the absolute core of the faith is in peril.

     But is human sexuality in this category?  My friend Talbot Davis posted a blog in October in Ministry Matters entitled “The Top 5 Hills I’ll Die On.”  His picks?  The literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus; Jesus alone, not Jesus among; authority and inspiration of the Scriptures; the reality of heaven and hell; the historic, global Christian understanding of sexuality.  In the words of the old standardized test question: which one doesn’t fit?

     It is the sexuality stance that does not fit.  Human sexuality is enormously important – obviously, which is why we’re talking about it now.  Holiness, understanding that the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, being pure and consecrating our sexual selves to God:  these are incumbent upon all Christians.  But is it a central pillar?  Is it, to use Wesley’s language, an “essential”?

     To review: in 1770, at the death of George Whitefield (sermon 53), Wesley famous said, “There are many doctrines of a less essential nature, with regard to which even the sincere children of God (such is the present weakness of human understanding) are and have been divided for many ages. In these we may think and let think; we may ‘agree to disagree.’  But, meantime, let us hold fast the essentials of ‘the faith which was once delivered to the saints’; and which this champion of God so strongly insisted on, at all times, and in all places!”  His fundamental guidance was, “In the business of salvation, set Christ as high and man as low as possible.”

     Our cardinal doctrines are about God, about Christ, and not about us.  The foundational bedrock of our faith are those things we believe about God, and are essential to salvation.  Who the triune God is, the confession of God as Creator, Jesus as God incarnate, his crucifixion and resurrection for the redemption of the world, the Holy Spirit dawning on and thus creating the church.  Our doctrines of justification and sanctification, our need for and the assurance of divine mercy, the authority of the Scriptures, the centrality of faith in God.

     The Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith and the General Rules, our constitutionally protected doctrinal standards, do not mention sexuality.  Billy Abraham and David Watson, in their excellent Key United Methodist Beliefs, spend 150 pages exploring Key United Methodist Beliefs – and homosexuality, or sexuality period, is not mentioned.  Again, this does not mean sexuality is unimportant.  It is hugely important, a focal point, especially in our pleasure-fixated boundary-less culture.  But it is not a sine qua non.  We are not saved because we think rightly about sexual orientation, or because we behave in pure and holy ways with our bodies and minds.

     We might also look to Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit,” in which he memorably said “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”  Methodists have applied this to all manner of nonsense.  Wesley himself was talking about worship – which is something we do, not something about God – and goes on to explain why we should expect “variety of practice.”  When he cuts to the chase on what we must agree upon, it’s all about God:  “Do you believe His being and His perfections? His eternity, wisdom, power, justice, mercy and truth? That He governs to His own glory? Have you a supernatural conviction of the things of God? Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?”  All that he lists on the human side are these:  “Do you love God, do you magnify the Lord and rejoice in him?  Is your heart right toward your neighbor?  Do you do good to all men?”  Only after these assertions and queries does he offer “If it be so, give me thy hand.”  This is the basis upon which we can stay hand in hand today.

     Here’s how I was trained as a United Methodist:  Tom Langford explained that “Wesleyan theology, as it advanced beyond Wesley, has exhibited characteristic qualities of his thought more than it has adhered to distinctive doctrines.”  What we have is a vital tradition, with an inclusive, living history:  “The Wesleyan tradition is most true to its character when it is open and responsive to both its past and its future… New interpretation for a new generation may be an act of faithfulness to be viewed positively.”  Langford spoke of “center and circumference,” and that our “creative center” is the grace of Jesus Christ – and it is a creative center.

     At General Conference in 2012, I spoke on the floor urging us to acknowledge that we disagree on the matter of homosexuality.  I pointed to Acts 15, when the church could not get on the same page regarding what to do with the private parts of the human body:  to circumcise or not?  For the sake of the mission, they stuck with Christ and embraced dual ways of reaching different people for Christ. 
My friend Bill Arnold of Asbury seminary wrote a brilliant, extensive exploration of Acts 15’s role in this debate, raising serious questions about whether it can be used in this way.  I learned much, and have altered my thinking, which is as it should be in the Body of Christ.  Bill and I, who think differently, are very much beloved by Jesus, Christians in good standing, and still duly ordained United Methodists.  We agree on the essentials.

     An appeal:  this unintended consequence of the resurrection, the warring couple that is the United Methodist Church find themselves in the counselor’s office.  We are thinking divorce is the only way to live on.  But the counselor asks if we’ve done the work, if we’ve understood our own private selves and why we’re the way we are, if we’ve tried to get deeply inside the other person, if we’ve made their case, if you remember how much you and the kids really need one another – and what were you splitting up over in the first place?  Something big or who cooks dinner or gets to hang the pictures?

     The homework we would be assigned would be hard, long-term, regular, daily labor.  How foolish are we, to think we can meet every four years for a few days, with translation through headphones, and engage in anything but superficial debate (even if you dare to call it “holy conferencing,” which isn’t just a misnomer, but an impossibility in such a setting)?  The church where I worship (and work) has debated the issue of homosexuality – but over many months and years, in countless one on one conversations and classroom discussions, with much prayer and a real determination to stick together – which is what we have done.  We love each other and don’t wish to divorce; and we are focused on the real essentials of our faith, the goodness of God in creation and in Christ Jesus, salvation by grace through faith, and the hope of the Spirit’s redemption of us and all of creation.

     The way to unity is what God requires of us, even if we aren’t bound and determined to have unity.  Ephraim Radner put it so wisely:  “To live is to give up and give away parts of ourselves, and to live fully is to give ourselves away fully.  To be ‘one Church’ is to be joined to the unity of the Son to the Father, who, in the Spirit, gives himself away to and for the sake of his enemies.”

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  1. Amen, James. Thanks for this powerful witness!

  2. Thank you, James. Very helpful, exemplary exploration of a way forward.

  3. James, I wrote the following in a Facebook comment. If I could have tagged you, I would have. Here's the point I want to emphasize: You haven't heard me or people on "my side" (if you want to think in those terms) if you think we're not _really_ arguing theology. Moreover, I can surely speak for people on "my side" when I say that you won't convince us about what's "essential" in the Christian faith by arguing from anything other than scripture. I wrote:

    While I appreciate Rev. Howell's irenic tone here, I would have to "die on that same hill" with Talbot Davis, in part because the apostles in Acts 15 seemed willing to. Or else why include the caveat of verse 20 against porneia? And what did porneia mean to the apostles, and does it mean something different today and why?

    But even to have that discussion involves exegesis and hermeneutics—and before long we're knee-deep in a discussion about the authority of scripture. Still, Howell says we're not _really_ arguing theology. Really? It feels like we are. As much as Howell wants us to listen to one another, I don't feel "listened to" when he says otherwise. In fact, I feel patronized. But enough about my feelings! Good arguments don't depend on feelings. (Do they?)

    He gives reasons why our disagreement isn't over an "essential" of Christian faith. But surely he knows that "my side" has a counter argument. Why does he give no evidence that he's heard it? If he has, surely he wouldn't resort, for example, to an argument over the Articles of Religion, the General Rules, or Wesley's sermons. What about the Bible? I don't think anyone on my side will be persuaded apart from a biblical argument.

    But Rev. Howell and I do agree on this: Essentials of the Christian faith are worth splitting over.

  4. but can't you feel your (and my, we all do it) selectivity? Exegesis couldn't be clearer regarding what to do with our possessions, or with whom you eat dinner, or whether to accumulate pension funds, etc. We roundly ignore these items or rationalize, don't we? But then on homosexuality we become literalists?

  5. I'm confused, James. Are you saying that you believe the church's traditional doctrine on sexuality is correct, but, since we fall short in all these other areas, we're hypocrites to try to follow it?

    By all means, the Law can only condemn us. And when it does, we fall on our knees and thank God for the cross of his Son Jesus. We don't shrug and say something like, "My greed, or my hypocrisy, or my idolatry is no big deal." It is a big deal; it will send us to hell apart from Christ's atoning sacrifice.

    So do we ignore or rationalize other ways in which we sin? I'm sure we do. We're terrible sinners, after all. But inasmuch as we become aware of our sin, we repent. And as pastors we teach our flock to do the same.

    Do you disagree? Have I misunderstood you?

  6. In some ways, I share your view, James, that this should not be a church-dividing question. But the simple fact is that a critical mass of people on the left and the right are willing to divide the church over it because they do view it as an essential of their expression of faith.

    We are not in the counselor's office because of fights over who does the dishes; we are in the counselor's office because one party to the covenant has been continually and unrepentantly unfaithful to their vows.

    I do not comprehend those who claim not to want schism, but completely overlook the baptized disobedience that has been rampant in recent years. I am happy to live in a church that settles this question on the progressive side. People I love deeply would then be able to marry and serve openly in the church of their baptism. I can live in that church.

    But I have no interest in being in a choose-your-own-adventure church, where people - including bishops - are allowed to violate the vows they took with no consequences. There is no meaningful Methodism without accountability.

    If you don't want schism, then you shouldn't ignore or cheer on disobedience. You can't have it both ways, James.

  7. This is Benjamin Hanne - I don't use WP, TP or LJ so I don't have those available to me. Apologies for what appears to be an anonymous post.

    I'm going to take you at your word here Drew, if you really mean it when you say "I am happy to live in a church that settles this question on the progressive side. People I love deeply would then be able to marry and serve openly in the church of their baptism. I can live in that church."

    Then I urge you earnestly to work for it. If I think a law is unjust it seems much more reasonable to work to change the law than to point out the (very small, proportionally) number of people who are breaking it.

    I don't believe anyone would really ignore or cheer on disobedience if they would sit down and think about it. It's not good for anyone.
    The problem is we can't predict the next clergy person whose child comes out of the closet, we can't map out the impossible and personal struggle that some of our brothers and sisters face. I don't know the name or face of the next person to find themselves in an impossible choice - to have to pick between two parts of their own identity.

    What is clear to me is that, for a certain percentage of people there may be no punishment or consequence that is sufficient to force them to stay silent. Do we just keep upping the pressure? How shall we silence those who will not be silenced? What drives them? Is it anger, or just plain vindictiveness? Is it love? What if it's the Holy Spirit?

    In the face of these two monumental tasks - predicting the unpredictable and holding back those who will not be restrained - how shall we proceed?

    I believe you when you say you'd be happy to serve with our faithful and gifted clergy brothers and sisters who have a different orientation than you or I. I'm grateful for your openness to this while you work to maintain strong doctrinal boundaries that I also cherish.

    I propose that we forgive the injuries that our sisters and brothers on the far ends of the spectrum have caused and work towards a strong, faithful, reasonable church that can move forward with a unity of Spirit that the world sorely needs.

  8. Ben, if I think a rule is unjust in a voluntary organization I'm a part of - a book club or a Rotary group, for instance - I would a) work for change through the means available to me, and b) if a) failed, I would put my time and energy into a different organization.

    The reason this is not a popular option for those seeking change in the church is because it is fiscally untenable. The most "progressive" areas of the church are dying much faster than the rest, and they need the resources of the larger church to stay afloat. They are asking people who share a vastly different vision of the church to pay their bills, and then calling them fundamentalists and bigots when they balk.

    My own belief is that we need to stop damaging each other, and let people go with their property and pensions, for whatever their reasons. I believe deeply that unity is God's will for the church, but I also believe that divorce is sometimes the best option if two people are just continually hurting each other. We need either real covenant (for which our leaders are neither equipped nor empowered), or a separation of some kind (perhaps leaving intact pension, mission, and disaster relief organizations).

    For more:

  9. it's awkward (or should be) to rely solely on the "we have a covenant, can't be violated," since so much of what has been stellar progress for humanity and the church has been by the willful rulebreakers (Paul, Luther, King, Wyclif, ten Boom, et al.). This doesn't mean the progressives are right at all; but you can't just hide behind a covenant, as human-crafted covenants are themselves fallible, obviously.

    1. Equating civil with ecclesial disobedience is a surprising move, James. You're a better theologian than that. Luther at least had the integrity to start his own gig when he lost confidence in and came into conflict with the church of his baptism, and they would not reform as he wished.

      There is no "hiding" behind a covenant. All I'm asking is for people - most especially bishops - to do what they have said they would do before God and God's people. Much like marriage, I do not believe ordination (or consecration) is a simple "human-crafted" covenant. It is a gift of God not to be triflingly torn asunder.

    2. Okay - I honestly tried to fix this "unknown" posting thing and it still doesn't seem to work. Still Ben.

      That is a very strange reading of Luther's history Drew. I suppose it is possible to argue that he remained within the Catholic faith until his excommunication hoping to see them adopt his reforms, but none of his letters that I've read support that view. He stayed catholic because there was nothing else to be, at least until there was enough political will to protect him.

      In my opinion a more historically accurate statement would be:
      Luther at least had the persistence to start his own gig after the Pope excommunicated him in 1521 and the Holy Roman Empire called for his arrest "dead or alive" (meaning that it would not be a crime to kill him), banned all of his writing, and made it a crime to give him food or shelter. His life as a political refugee ended when he returned to his home parish to reorganize the church during the chaos of anabaptist's arrival in Wittenberg and the peasant uprisings of the mid 1520s.

      Martin Luther is a fascinating product of luck, timing and an absolute, unshakable belief in his own opinion as the truth. For every reformer who survived to make their mark on the Christian faith there were 100 who were killed as heretics.

      More importantly - and more to the point - I have this question. Do you honestly believe that people will stop violating their ordination/consecration vows once everyone goes their separate ways? Once we dump off the far left/right all of us in the middle will have peace and quiet?

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  10. My question would be, if the couple underwent 40 years of counseling while one partner continued to seek an open marriage, and exhaused a huge bulk of their income in the process, would it not be long past time to urge any kind of outward unity? An entire generation has grown up in a house divideda...this is not a new occurrance. Is it not time to part ways after more than 4 decades?

    Also, was the New Testament wrong to specifically deem sexual ethics something worth dividing over? 1Cor 5-6 and Acts 15 both place sexual ethics within the category of sine qua non, do they not? Our sexual ethic is, at its core, as much about God as it is about is true of every form of idolatry (which both the OT and NT link it to quite often).

  11. I guess I keep hoping that readers will join me in the faithful posture that we don't have God 100% figured out just yet, that however much we know, we've missed something, so we have learning and growth ahead and this might be the time. Doesn't imply an outcome, just a dream of something besides defensiveness and fault-finding on both sides.

    1. It's perfectly reasonable to believe, as do I, that I don't have God in a box, while also expecting people to live up to their commitments. I too dream of something besides defensiveness and fault-finding on both sides, but the best we can do at this juncture is to find a way to divide that is less damaging to all parties than the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and Lutherans have thus far practiced.

      P.S. In practical terms, most Methodists in this debate - left, right, center, above-the-fray-institutionalists - act as if they know God's will while saying they don't. It's a copout. I love the apophatic approach too, but we still have put one foot in front of the other and do the best we can with what we have.

    2. Dr. Howell, do you mean to imply that we can't hold strong Christian convictions without simultaneously believing that we have God "100 percent figured out"? This is obviously false, since we all hold strong Christian convictions on any number of things. But you're right: none of us has God "100 percent figured out." Classic Christian teaching says that God is unknowable apart from what God has revealed. And the primary means of God's revelation to us today—indeed, the only infallible revelation—is scripture. Until around 1980, no one doubted that God's revelation concerning sexual ethics and marriage was sufficiently clear. If you believe that it no longer is—and even many "affirming" Bible scholars (like LT Johnson, Loader, Brooten) still believe that the Bible speaks clearly against homosexual practice—I wish you'd say why. What's changed? What do we know that nearly all of the saints who went before us didn't know?

      Again, you say we're not really arguing theology. How are we not?

  12. It is interesting to me that many think of homosexuality as just sex while ignoring the much broader and deeper love that bonds two people in a committed relationship in Christ.

    1. Yes, Glenn. That's something that rarely gets mentioned.

      It would be helpful to me for those who believe that God forbids all forms of homosexual behavior acknowledge that this includes the context of committed relationships of faithfulness and sacrificial love.

      Or perhaps simply stating that any relationship involving homosexual behavior is innately unloving.

      Or to put it a bit more modestly, that the sexual aspect of a same sex relationship in some basic way diminishes the the other aspects of their love for one another.

      That sort of honesty might help me move back toward a traditional position. Even more so if this could be prefaced with: what we are asking gay couples to do is surely painful in much the same way it would be painful for a heterosexual couple to be told that God wills that they love one another but God does not want you to ever express that love sexually.

      Sometimes, perhaps honestly trying to persuade others of the importance of condemning all same sex sexuality, traditionalists have portrayed gay couples as sexually obsessive.

      What would help me move more readily is to hear traditionalists speak as passionately about the sin of usury.

  13. Thank you Dr Howell for your long writing. After I read your article(really read it patiently), in my mind I would like to say, "a long writing article does not mean always right."
    I hope anyone should not confuse us with many words which are not biblical, that is, the unity without defining a specific sin (which is controversial in the society too even if , as you say, it is not essential for the salvation) on the basis of the Bible teachings, how can we teach the holiness to the people about the sexuality. The unbelievers continue to ask us what is our stance if we do not make it clear. Unity is good for Jesus asked us in Jn 17. But we have to remember 17:17, "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." The word of the Lord clearly says the homosexuality is sin(Genesis 19:1-29, Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, 1 Timothy 1:10, Romans 1:18-32).
    And John Wesley's Order of salvation emphasizes the holiness and Christian perfection. Holiness is the essential part of our salvation. Defining sin does not mean we are perfect, but we are striving to achieve that holiness through the help of the Holy Spirit.
    Surely, I think if we say and agree with the definition of sexuality, we could be one. But if we are united without agreement of this issue, it means we leave the people in their own discretion for the holiness like the confused time of Judges(everybody behaves as they are favor of), or even we condone the homosexuality which is clearly un-biblical.

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  16. Working though Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit” sermon I believe you have misrepresented it, as so many do when quoting it out of the context.

    First, Wesley acknowledges the reality of practice or opinions (apart from core doctrine) that can justify an external separation: “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union . . .”

    Secondly, he describes what he means by hearts being the same with this among others: “Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell? Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory? Upon this ground, dost thou "hate all evil ways," every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein "exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man?’” Wesley is not an antinomian!

    Thirdly, he goes on to say (italics mine): “There is scarce any expression which has been more grossly misunderstood, and more dangerously misapplied . . .” He then goes on to outline what the Catholic Spirit is not:

    • “For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

    • “Hence we may, thirdly, learn, that a catholic spirit is not indifference to all congregations. This is another sort of latitudinarianism, no less absurd and unscriptural than the former. But it is far from a man of a truly catholic spirit. He is fixed in his congregation as well as his principles. He is united to one, not only in spirit, but by all the outward ties of Christian fellowship.”

    In writing on the sermon as applied by those who would use it for what parades as “Christian Unity” within the UMC Kevin Watson states in his Blog : “Speaking of big tents. My reading of this sermon is that Wesley would find a big tent vision for Methodism a liability and not an asset. For example, when he acknowledges disagreements about the sacraments, he does not seem to me to be arguing that the folks who disagree should try to worship in the same church. On the contrary, he seems to assume that they would not be a part of the same faith community, but they could still be a part of the church catholic. It makes me wonder if Wesley might view our experiment at unity within diversity as an attempt for one church to be the whole church catholic and if he might think that attempt itself lacked both humility and sense, particularly because we are so obviously not a full expression of the church catholic. A cursory reading of Wesley’s letters, for example, will provide multiple examples of Wesley defining which beliefs are acceptable within the movement he was the leader of and which ones meant that mutual cooperation was no longer possible. Wesley regularly enforced doctrinal/dogmatic uniformity among early Methodist preachers.”

    In critiquing James’ use of the divorce analogy, I would say we have been in counseling for 45years!
    I would also note a full analogy would include the only exception for divorce Jesus states is unfaithfulness. Therefore, the spouse that is unfaithful and refuses to be faithful should be the one to leave the house.

    Finally, for most of us with an historic orthodox view, acceptance of homosexual practices are only a presenting issue. It is one of many doctrinal issues relating to core beliefs, mainly flowing from an American cultural embrace of latitudinarianism, antinomianism, and universalism.

  17. My comment will be very short.
    I don't see how we can stray from our core principals as a Church. If we change these, then we are no longer the same Church, but more like a social organization.
    1. I think the scriptures are clear that ANY sexual activity outside the sacrament of marriage (between a man and a woman) must be considered sinful. Not just homosexuality. We are all sinners, in one way or another. The key is recognizing our sins and truly repenting.
    2. We should want ALL SINNERS in our Church and help each of us to understand and overcome sin. But, to condone sin and say it is of no importance would destroy the very bedrock of our Church. We CANNOT condone and allow homosexual marriage to be performed in our Church.
    3. As far as ordination, no unrepentant sinner should be ordained. And that means the whole gamut of sin.

  18. A view from the pew: What I see is a church that I was born then baptized into that really has no clue who it is and what it needs to be doing. I now understand why, after a lifetime of "doing church" I became so lost, confused and broken I had to wander off from church to finally discover the God worth worshiping; the triune God of holy love who loves even me more than I can ever think about loving myself. I am tired of this no-win debate. We are no longer United. We are no longer truly Methodist--that went out the window when theological plurality became the "thing". That leaves the word Church without any descriptors which just about sums it up. Someone outside of the UMC once stated that the reason the church in America has become unintelligible to those that are outside of it is because the church has become unintelligible to those who are the church. Welcome to the Unintelligible Church where the schlup in the pew trying to understand their life from a Christian perspective is not even on the radar. The church is too busy trying to keep those in the fold that have plainly stated they are not willing to abide by the very processes they agreed to abide by. I am beyond tired of this mess. It is no mystery to me why the American branch of the church is approaching 50 years of uninterrupted numerical decline that has the potential to make the church disappear all together. Ya'll just keep up your insane arguing, keep trying to create unity where there is no basis for unity. More than likely it is the people in the pew who will ultimately determine whether the American branch of the UMC survives or not.

  19. from "The Good News We Almost Forgot" by Kevin DeYoung:

    "No doubt, the church in the west has many new things to learn. But for the most part, everything we need to learn is what we’ve already forgotten. The chief theological task now facing the Western church is not to reinvent or to be relevant but to remember. We must remember the old, old story. We must remember the faith once delivered to the saints. We must remember the truths that spark reformation, revival, and regeneration…In a church age confused about the essential elements of the Christian faith—and whether Christianity has any doctrinal center at all—the Heidelberg Catechism offers a relentless reminder of the one doctrine that matters most: We are great sinners and Christ is a greater Savior."