This final installment in this series will sound harsh to some. But forgiveness is not real until truth is acknowledged. The first truth is that schism is couched in the language of orthodoxy when it is merely selfish ambition. The second truth is moral evil appears good to selfish people. The third truth is the desire is to cause harm. And now there is another truth we must recognize.
Christ is Proclaimed
“Some proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love…the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (Philippians 1:16-18)
I have a silver chalice from a congregation where my great grandfather served as a leader. The chalice sits on my shelf. My ancestor is in the grave with all the other members of the church he once served. They are part of the Church Triumphant which is the only truly perfect church. There never was a time in Church History there was not a struggle among teachers. Most disputes were amicable. Others, as Paul describes, were not. We tend to know those times better than others due to the big consequences.
Consider for instance the division of the Methodist Episcopal Church over whether clergy could own slaves in 1844. The controversy was settled by the secular power 21 years later. The ME Church, South was devastated along with the rest of the South. Many of ME South properties were forcibly turned over the Northern denomination. The generation that led the southern denomination were younger clergy at the time of the split. They spent two decades justifying evil. They could not immediately turn around and say they were wrong. Why? A lot of time was wasted on proving to themselves slavery was divinely sanctioned.
This self-justification persisted until the Methodist denominations were reconciled in 1939 into The Methodist Church. In the meantime, Christ was proclaimed. St. Paul took the actions of people who preached Christ from selfish ambition personally. But he looks away from his own feelings and understands Christ was still proclaimed.
Progressive Christians see many flaws in the way American Evangelicals present the gospel. Our criticisms include focusing on individual salvation, the collective (often sexual) sins in society, and ignoring social justice. Conversely, we are criticized for down playing personal salvation and having a “liberal agenda.”
Personally, I know the accusations come from Biblical illiteracy. They are basically talking points from the Institute for Religion and Democracy (IRD). The name is a misnomer. They neither support true religion or democracy. I have sat through many printed-off proposed resolutions in my Annual Conference from them. The IRD appeals to fear and the basest of motives for people. They claim to reform. The result is destructive. Why offer forgiveness?
Reform or Ruin
Paul’s hope is Christ being proclaimed allows truth to prevail eventually. He is aware of the criticisms leveled against him. He knows his own experience is limited. His claim to apostolic authority is tenuous. He did not follow Jesus with the Twelve. He admits Christ is proclaimed without him. Paul does not speak of forgiving those who preach Christ with corrupt motives.
The Methodist Episcopal Church, South proclaimed Christ while defending the most unchristian of practices. We look back today asking why they could not see the contradiction. And yet, someone reads this blog wondering about my blind spots. I need grace. Forgiveness is necessary for me even when I don’t realize it. Future generations need guidance. It will come if Christ is proclaimed.
Motives, like facts, do matter. Results, though, matter more. Christ proclaimed is the basis of our progressive beliefs. Flawed people proclaim Jesus Christ. Yet, the more we study Jesus of the gospels and the Christ of Paul’s letters the more we see the judgment on our own time. This is positive for us. My home church was led by Southern racists. A desire to know the Christ of the Scriptures helped bring me to my political and social views. My task was to find Christ and discard the nonsense. Reform overcomes ruin in this way.
Forgiveness The Way Forward
We do not find it easy to forgive. Let me make one point. We forgive people. The IRD is unforgivable. It is not a person. It is a way of throwing money to people who have little real conscience. People are subjects for forgiveness. The new Global Methodist Church will be just as unforgivable as the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. But the people who comprised those institutions are a different matter.
People often say some action is “unforgivable.” Many of these actions are relatively minor in nature. Big problems that challenge forgiveness are what I wonder about. John Cleese asked if prisoners of war who were tortured could forgive their torturers? The stories Unbroken and The Sunflowers ask those questions from the point of view of those who suffered. Their conclusions differ. Kurt Vonnegut reflected on the problem in his novel Slaughterhouse Five and a visit to Dresden. I can only imagine the difficulty.
The comparison is legitimate. My concerns are relatively small. The schism will be difficult for congregations and families. We can forgive some of the destroyers quickly. The leaders will take more time. One day the evil of exclusion will rank with the evil of slavery. People will ask why. Their most divisive issue will cause them to look back to us. What will they see we did? Will our wounds fester? Or will we apply the medicine of forgiveness?