One of the phrases being bandied about by Progressive United Methodists, especially in the wake of the outcome of the specially called General Conference session last month, which they trot out to scold traditionalists with is— ‘When are you going to learn the lesson about not being on the wrong side of history?’ with lurid and frankly inappropriate analogies drawn with the issue of slavery etc.
Of course, with even a minute’s deep reflection this whole rhetorical question proves to be problematic in the extreme. For one thing, what counts as the right side of history? When Christians increasingly became anti-Semitic as the church became increasingly Gentile in character in the 2nd-5th centuries, even to the point of some of our greatest church fathers like Chrysostom reflecting this ‘cultural trend’, was he on the right side of history? My point is this— history is not our barometer as to what is morally right or wrong, God’s Word is, and God is!
We should be far more concerned to be on the right side of God and his Word, than to be ‘on the right side of history’. History has its ups and downs. It does not reflect an easy evolutionary spiral upwards to a more enlightened society. Indeed, one could say history’s trends often reflect more ethical devolution that evolution.Take for example 20th century Germany, certainly one of the most well educated, and technologically advanced countries in the 1930-40s. With growing success their leaders such as Hitler promoted a doctrine of cultural cleansing, of race purity, of Aryan superiority. Judged from within that cultural bubble and at that point in time, people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth were on the wrong side of history, and they paid for it, including Bonhoeffer being martyred. Cultural trends come and go. Ideologies come and go. The Bible however does not change, and it calls us all to account on matters of both theology and ethics.
While it is true that equally sincere Christians can interpret difficult issues that the Bible addresses differently, when it comes to the danger zone of trying to redefine the very meaning of Christian marriage or the meaning of what counts as sexual morality, we should all take and breath and ask—- Why should we change things that have been the ethical standards of the Christian church for 2,000 years through all sorts of cultural changes and historical ups and downs? The burden of proof must lie with those insisting we must change, despite what our Discipline, our founders (like Wesley, Asbury, Richard Watson) and yes, any fair reading of our Bible says. And that is why the recent decision of our General Conference, despite some flaws in the plan that must be corrected, was the right one.