A Response to Bishop Sano’s ‘Call to Biblical Obedience’– Part Four

A Response to Bishop Sano’s ‘Call to Biblical Obedience’– Part Four March 20, 2014

I am a life long Methodist. I was a cradle Methodist and some day I shall be a grave Methodist. I have lived through the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and now the nascent 21rst century and I have preached and taught all over this church, and in Methodist contexts around the world. Divisions, factions, schisms upset me, as they result from fundamental failures in the church, sometimes even caused by a failure of the chief Christian virtue— love. Furthermore, I’m a Christian pacifist. I don’t like fighting, or words that are shots fired in anger. I have thought a lot and prayed about what I am saying in these posts, and I say them with a heavy heart. I do not say them lightly or merely as the retort of a person who is upset.

We have been debating homosexuality for the last half century and at almost every General Conference since I have been paying attention in the 60s and we have actually resolved this matter repeatedly— by once again affirming the traditional stance on fidelity in heterosexual marriage and celibacy in singleness. It’s not like the church hasn’t spoken clearly on this heated issue. It has. It’s just that a vocal minority has not liked the outcome.

But now, since we have ministers and even bishops increasingly unwilling to obey either what the Bible says about sexual behavior and marriage or what the UM Discipline says, or even what John Wesley himself says about celibacy in singleness, it is time for a change. It is time for those folks who insist that it’s a conscience issue for them in endorsing gay and lesbian behavior and marriage to move on.

Some of these folks I have known for a long time and I consider them not only friends, but more importantly my brothers and sisters in Christ. I love them, even though we fundamentally disagree on this issue. It is however time, before the 2016 General Conference is turned into a blood bath, to make plans for a new Methodist Church, call it perhaps the Progressive Methodist Church, which leaves behind, and stops troubling our United Methodist Church.

It is time for those who cannot obey our threefold sources of authority (the Bible, the Methodist tradition of holiness, and in particular Wesley’s teaching, and the UM Discipline) at least on this issue to move on. I agree with Bishop Sano that we need a call to Biblical Obedience, it just doesn’t amount to what he seems to think that phrase ought to mean.

The warning signs were there at the last General Conference where it required dirty politics to prevent various resolutions coming to the floor of the conference which would have strengthened our traditional standards on marriage and appropriate sexual behavior. When ‘holy’ conferencing degenerates into gridlock and dirty politics, its time to move on while we can still be a bit civil at least towards each other.

My suggestion, and it is only my suggestion, would be that we allow Methodist ministers (including bishops) and members who cannot abide by the three authorities that should be guiding our church polity and praxis to leave our church in good standing, and with continuing pension benefits. If there are whole churches, or seminary faculty members that want to leave, they too should be allowed to go in peace, and as a peace offering, churches should be allowed to take the property with them. I suspect there are already quiet negotiations in this direction, and with regret I think they are necessary.

Why are they necessary? Because we are like a marriage with irreconcilable differences, no matter how much we talk these issues to death. They are also necessary because those who are agitating for changing our views of marriage, and sexuality and even our view of ordination surely must realize that they are in a minority in our church, and our church decides these issues once every four years by majority vote. With the inclusion of the Central Conferences in voting, and with most UM Churches today being of a moderate to conservative orientation on such issues, and with proportional representation at General Conference, the radicals cannot prevail by any normal or legitimate or democratic means. I am only stating here the facts.
So, sadly it is time to move on. Time for a change. My hope is that this divorce will not involve pure polemics, name-calling, propaganda and the like. I would hope that we could finally resolve this matter with at least some love and respect for each other. I realize that something will be lost if we negotiate such a parting of the ways. I have valued in many ways the diversity and spectrum of opinion on various issues that we have had in our church.

John Wesley himself distinguished between theological and ethical issues about which we could think and let think on, and those issues which are so fundamental to our faith that either we must be in basic agreement or we cannot carry on as one community. One of those fundamental issues is the sanctity of Christian marriage as Biblically defined and the standards of holy conduct when it comes to sexual behavior.

While supporting gay and lesbian behavior and marriage and ordination is an issue of conscience for a minority of us, supporting traditional marriage and sexual behavior is a non-negotiable issue of conscience for the majority of us, and I do not expect either side to change their minds now.

So let us find a way to help those who need to leave and start a Progressive Methodist Church do so without losing our sanctification or our willingness to go on loving one another, no matter how strongly we may disagree on this fundamental issue. The dictum for the UMC should always be ‘in fundamentals, unity, in non-fundamentals diversity, in all things charity’. But make no mistake, the sanctity of marriage as Biblically defined, and the need for personal holiness when it comes to sexual conduct are indeed fundamentals of the Christian faith.

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