From the outset this is not about blame. There is a time and a place for that, but this is not it. This is not about one tribe or another because in Methodism, we have all done some of the same things. This is about my personal observations and reflections on what we can learn from what we have all done. So, with that in mind, please join me on some observations, in no particular order of importance, and what we can all learn from them.
- We need a common tongue. Communication relies on two or more parties being able to use the same words meaning the same things. We have not done that. Now I know that my initial temptation has been to immediately blame those more theologically liberal than I am, but my tribe has done this as well, and just as often. As one example, I give you “social justice”. Now any objective reading of Wesley and historic Methodism will show that matters of equal justice under the law is very much a part of our shared heritage. It is not only predictable, but normal and healthy, that we will have differing ideas of how that is best accomplish both in civil society and as a church, but that idea is a part of our Wesleyan tradition. There have been two rather large mistakes made with this part of our tradition however. On one hand there has been an elevation of social justice to being equal with, or in some cases supplanting, social holiness, which is an entirely different thing. On the other hand there has been a push for a forced social holiness that supersedes social justice. We have lost the reality that these two things must exist in tension.
So we must then ask what does that look like practically. After all, practical Christianity is also very much a part of our shared Wesleyan tradition. The first thing is that we can not, and really, if you think about it should not, expect those who are not Christian to act as if they are Christians. More than that, we should not seek to force them to, especially with temporal power. Trying to force those who are not Christian to act as if they are, has done an enormous amount of harm in the way of everything from Prohibition, to the social gospel of the early 1900s, to modern day examples such as the war on drugs and the so called culture wars. So while some things, such as murder for example, cross both a moral line but also prevent the proper functioning of society, thus should be matters of law, others things do not. It gets messy of course because there are areas that we will disagree on, the idea is what is key. For me, this means that while I do not believe that marriage of those of the same gender is proper in a church, nor do I find it to be holy, I simultaneously believe that it should be legal in civil society as it is not the place of a Christian to tell someone they are not allowed to change their tax status, receive health care from their partner, etc. That is one example of many.Now while the social justice example is one of the most easily pointed out, there are other examples that strike to the core of the Christian faith, at least according to the Apostle Paul. Some say The Resurrection is a literal bodily resurrection of both Jesus, and of all who have died, on the last day. others see it as a metaphor and say it does not matter if it was a physical resurrection or not. So, when someone is speaking about the Resurrection in the UMC, we did not know for certain what they were referring to. This extends to the Trinity, the virgin birth, and any number of other Christian topics. We were using the same words, but we did not mean the same thing. That is simply untenable. We would all do well to make certain that we have a shared language.
- We need to know how to use sharpened iron. “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.” Proverbs 27:17 NLT. We were really good at the sharpening iron part, but we forgot that the purpose of the sharpening wasn’t to stab each other. The biggest problem was less that we disagreed on any number of things, but that we wielded our disagreements as weapons. It’s the anti LGBTQ+ bigots verses the unholy apostate antichrists. In most cases neither of those things is true, but that really doesn’t matter because that is the point to which our iron was sharpened. If you happen to be a lucky sort like me, depending on the theological matter being discussed, you can be called all these things and more. By the way, my iron had just as sharp a point, so I am not excusing myself. While there is certainly a time and a place for strong language, it is very rarely, if ever, with us plebeians in conversations with each other. Strong polemics have a place to be sure, and to be honest, I am a fan of writing them, but such things are about ideas and beliefs, not about individuals. Yes, we need to sharpen our iron, but not to stab each other, but rather to grow in and stay strong in our faith.
- We need to understand that soundbites and slogans are not unity nor unifying. It doesn’t matter if the hash tag is “open heart, open minds, open doors”, “Be UMC”, :Give UMC”, or “worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly”, it is not unity or unifying. We are Christians, so the only thing that unifies us is Jesus the Christ and what we believe about Him(God the Son), God the Holy Spirit, and God the Father. If those beliefs differ in any significant way, then there can not be Christian unity. It is as simple as that.
- We need a faith that is deep. In all of the theological mudslinging, there have been entirely to many statements that sound great, but have little to them. Allow me an example. I can not tell you how many times I have heard the two great commandments spoken as if they were some sort of new statement from Jesus rather than old statements from Deuteronomy and Leviticus. Just as often I have heard elements of the Levitical sexual purity laws brought up without any cogent explanation of why we shouldn’t be stoning people. The worst, and most misused by seemingly everyone is “the Bible clearly says…”. The moment that phrase is used, I am 97.3% certain that what follows is something that there is widespread disagreement on. This is where a faith that is deep comes into play.
With a deep faith, we can know what the two great commandments meant in the Old Testament so as to understand Jesus using them in the new. We can properly understand what Jesus fulfilling the law means. We can wrestle with the tradition of the tripartite division of the law in the Old Testament as it relates to the New Testament, or what other tool you use to understand the continuity of scripture. With a deep faith we do not need cute quips and can actually approach matters from a holistic examination of the Scriptures.
- We need to have a compatible hermeneutic of examining scripture. This is similar to speaking the same language really. I seek to understand scripture from the four fold approach, or the ‘quadriga’ favored by many early fathers such as Origen. While it was much maligned during the reformation, leading to the rise of the historical-grammatical method, I still find it to be the most useful when used under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. That said, it works well with the previously mentioned method and most pre-enlightenment ways of interpreting scripture. More modern ways of interpreting scripture, which treat it as a human document, often called ‘higher criticism’, will indeed clash with my understandings of a great many parts of scripture. It becomes more than a differing understanding of what the scriptures are saying, it becomes n entirely different view of what Scripture actually is. That will, inevitably, lead to problems that quickly escalate. Whatever methods that are going to be used, they must be compatible, or the same issues we are all facing now will simply repeat.
- The last one I will address here is that we all need to listen, and believe, more. Not to long ago, I was talking to someone who I used to have a great deal of respect for. They happened to be more theologically liberal than I am. They asked me why I felt the UMC need to split. I explained, in great detail, my reasons for thinking so. He responded by saying, “No, you just hate gay people.”. The thing is that I never once mentioned anything even remotely relating to anything LGBTQ+. It didn’t matter what I said my reasons were, because he had already decided them. Likewise I have heard others talk about why they were going to stay to be told, in essence, no, you just want to be an apostate. Neither of these things is true, but in all reality, we have decided the motives of others without consulting them and/or believing what they say. Had we actually been listening to each other and believing what each other said, maybe we do not get to this point, or at the very least we get to this point much more civilly.
What is done is done. I dare say that the pain of all of this will echo for a long time to come. Hopefully friendships will heal and we can be in ministry together is some areas where there is common cause, but with all that has happened, I think that is far from a guarantee. We can do better moving forward and my hope is that we will, but there is no erasing the pain and distrust that has resulted from all of this. My hope is that both the GMC and UMC thrive and can finally be about making disciples of Jesus Christ. My fear is that even once separated, we will have learned little and continue on in the same patterns that got us here. Only time will tell, and only the grace and mercy of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit can save us from ourselves and keep us all faithful moving forward.