When I was moving out of the cult of fundamentalism to a more robust and liberating faith, an Australian pastor, Mark Stevens, advised to me to refrain from being as liberal as I was once fundamentalist. I am eternally grateful for that piece of insight. Of course, the reverse is true as well. I know of a pastor who was once an extreme liberal but now is as conservative as he was once liberal, even to the point of fundamentalism.
I am equally happy that I found the particular United Methodist Church I did. I detail some of this in a recent Sunday morning sermon:
There are plenty of UMC churches that are not so familiar with the middle. Rather, there are many on the far right and many on the far left. Hal Taussig is a United Methodist minister who has created a “New New Testament.” He preaches a Gospel far, far removed from even mainline Christianity. Then there are those churches who believe the Gospel requires a fundamentalistic lockstep into legalism, with no room for disagreement. In fact, some of these pastors have taken to forums to suggest any who disagree with their interpretation of Scripture must repent.
Between the two extremes of sheer human arrogance lies a middle that is refusing to conform to unlikely expectations. On the issue of gay clergy and gay marriage, for instance, many feel that it is acceptable and within Scriptural limits — yet, because of the covenant-ing nature of the connection they feel likewise that the Book of Discipline must be followed for those clergy who break with the covenant. You can imagine the position this puts the middle in. We are the loyal opposition because we do not believe in schism.
Let me stress this point. Many of us believe that Scripture is primary and as such, our authority in guiding the Church and the Christian. We just disagree, given new facts (via Reason), with the previous interpretation that homosexuality is a sin.
One of the things I’ve thought about since engaging with the vileness on some of these forums is the Catholic Church and their sense of unity. Rome has core doctrines and views. Yet, there are plenty of Catholic groups proposing change. However, they are all still Catholic. I do not want to paint a rosy picture of how these groups worship together while seemingly working a part; however, I believe that the focus on the Eucharist helps to shield many of these groups from the desire to rip each other to shreds. I am not sure we have such a thing. The views of the Eucharist in the UMC are pretty far ranging, from Zwingli to Hahn. Further, we have different views on a variety of issues. But, our central view is that God’s Grace is free to all. Perhaps we should focus on that.
There have been calls for schism within the United Methodist Church. This has happened before in American Methodism. In the days before the War Between the States, the southern Methodists went their own way in order to protect slavery. Let’s not kid ourselves. Even after the union in 1939, the old Methodist Episcopal South still remains as the bastion of conservative evangelicalism within the UMC. The resistance to challenging slavery, the resistance to women ordination, and the resistance to progress in Civil Rights generally hails from one specific area. Further, it was this area that gave rise to the Evangelical Methodist Church. And it is this same area that today has a resistance to full inclusion. Schism only allows extremes to develop. Schism is not viable and I still maintain, unbiblical.
Please do not get me wrong. I do not think that all pastors who believe homosexuality is a sin are against women ordination or are for slavery. Rather, there is a same intellectual tendency to hold tightly to the past. Liberals have an intellectual tendency to fling away anything that smacks of the past.
I further do not believe separation is the key either. Rather, what I do believe is that we need to teach the power in covenant and the responsibility to uphold that covenant. The Book of Discipline is not simply document from a bygone era, but that which makes us Methodist. Yes, it has changed and will change, but to discard it is to create extremes. We need discussion. Separation and Schism will prevent discussion because it provides for us a way to isolate ourselves from being challenged. In teaching the duty and obligation to the covenant, we are in a real sense teaching the duty and obligation to the local church, to the family, and even to God.
I cannot help but call attention to the fact that the so-called bible belt has the highest rates of divorce. Perhaps it is because there is no obligation any more to the covenant. The use of “covenant” has lost all meaning. Thus, when changes occur, people react selfishly and rush to leave, forgetting that a covenant is not merely about uniting in agreements but uniting even in disagreements.
And thus I return to Mark Stevens and his advice. He demanded that in my liberalism I remain challenged unlike I was in my fundamentalism. If we isolate ourselves from discussion, we will become the extreme. If I had isolated myself from conservative elements in Christianity because I was coming from a far right sect, I would have done great damage to myself and my faith. I did not. I, instead, found a rather uncomfortable middle. From there, from the notion that iron sharpens iron, my faith has grown. I want to be challenged by conservatism and liberalism. As such, I do not believe separation or schism offers any positive notion, but instead will help to further stifle American Christianity.