I was glued to my phone all day yesterday, refreshing the Twitter feed of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference. I followed dramatic swings and heated debates 140 characters at a time, through the eyes of those living through it. This is not necessarily a great way to experience church, but it was a powerful way to be a part of the experience, with a lot of immediacy to it, considering the small size of my phone’s screen. I watched as people prayed, fought, argued, maneuvered, pleaded, and plotted, one tweet at a time, about the future of their church.
I am not a United Methodist, so in a sense the debates going on at General Conference do not concern me. They don’t have much direct bearing upon my life–not in the way the deliberations have an impact on the lives of some of my friends and colleagues. But I’m also an interested party. My first ministry job was with a congregation of the United Methodist Church, and that church is the reason that I am who I am today. And my current work is at one of the thirteen seminaries of the United Methodist Church, and many of my students and colleagues are United Methodists. So I have a stake in the proceedings, even though my call and belonging are to a different expression of God’s church. I’ve struggled to hold my tongue in social media, since, like most people involved in the church at any level, I have opinions about a lot of the things the UMC is debating. But I’ve worked hard to keep myself out of other people’s business.
But in looking at the lectionary texts for the second Sunday after Pentecost (May 29th), one jumps out at me. The lectionary works this way sometimes; it has a way of speaking to things going on in the news and in the culture that it couldn’t have meant to speak to. General Conference is one of those things; there is no way that the folks who selected the lectionary texts could have known that the UMC’s General Conference would be going on, with all its tension and discord, in the second and third weeks of May. There is no way, therefore, that they could have planned to put Galatians 1:1-12 in the lectionary for that week, to speak to that tension. But Galatians does speak to the tension, I think. It speaks to the pain and the distrust and the conflict that has been laid bare at General Conference, and at the denominational meetings of many, many other fellowships of Christians. So instead of following my usual format (what is it about, what is it really about, what is it not about, what you should think about), and instead of looking at all of the texts, this week I want to focus on Galatians, and think about it as a text that speaks to the kind of thing we’re seeing at General Conference. But this isn’t just a post for Methodists; Galatians has something to say to all of us, if we let it.
The first thing to notice about Galatians 1 is that it’s very, very different than the openings of Paul’s other letters. Paul writes in a pattern, and he’s pretty predictable about what he is going to say and when he is going to say it. But in Galatians, Paul breaks most of his own patterns, and he does so as early as the fourth word of the letter (the third word of the letter in Greek). As early as the fourth word, Paul is on the warpath. “Paul an apostle,” he writes, like he so often does. But then he breaks his own pattern to insist on the nature of his apostleship, and in so doing he telegraphs the central concern of the letter. “Paul an apostle–sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” Paul wants his readers to know, right up front, that he was sent by God.
Why is this? Verses 6-12 let us know. Here is where Paul’s usual pattern would have a thanksgiving–a celebration of the people to whom he is writing the letter. “I give thanks for you always because of your amazingness” is how this section would normally go. But here, Paul launches into a tirade. “I am astonished,” he writes, instead of “I give thanks.” He is angry, and hurt, and offended at the wrongness of others’ religion.
Watching the #UMCGC Twitter feed, I saw a lot of reactions that looked exactly like Paul’s. Truth be told, the Twitter feed was nasty. It was full of hurt, pain, aggression, threats, character assassination, accusations of heresy, calls for schism, and insults. It was not a space of dialogue, understanding, or charity. It was rather like a circular firing squad.
I want to point out that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was very much like a 1st-century version of the #UMCGC Twitter feed. Here’s probably what had happened. Paul had gone to Galatia and preached the gospel. He started a church (or more; “to the churches in Galatia” is plural in the Greek), and went on his way, as was his practice. Later, others came to Galatia, preaching a different gospel. The Galatians listened and maybe even adopted some of this new gospel, Paul got word of it, and this letter is the result. Paul’s reaction was one of fury. Galatians 1 is Paul at his angriest; he is livid at the Galatians and those who had, in his view, led them astray. Why? It probably boiled down to questions of what it meant to be a Christian. Did one become Jewish first, and then become a Christian? Did Christians need to keep the Jewish law? Paul answered no to both of these questions, and it seemed like his opponents answered yes.
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” Paul simply does not allow for the possibility of another version of Christianity. He thinks–he KNOWS–that he has the right belief, the right practice, the right orthodoxy and orthopraxy of Christianity, and anyone who disagrees with him is categorically wrong. When faced with a different form of Christianity, Paul simply cannot countenance the difference.
This is exactly what is happening at the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, and it is exactly what has happened in denominations across the spectrum of Christianity. This has happened as long as there have been Christians; this is nothing new. But it seems, from our perspective, as if these debates have become especially acute in recent years. Many denominations are in conflict over a number of questions, including the role of scripture, the status and role of women, the use of resources, and most visible recently, the role and status of GLBTQI persons. My sense of those debates, borne out in the General Conference Twitter feed but certainly not confined to it, is that positions on these questions have hardened into two polarities, liberal and conservative, which have little regard or understanding for each other. These two positions, for and against, are understood by those who hold them to be incommensurable, incompatible, and not subject to compromise. Those who hold the opposite position must be, in the words of Paul, accursed.
It may be little comfort to know that these difficult discussions do not belong only to our time. It may not make us feel better to know that Paul and countless other early Christians encountered the same feeling: that their theological opponents were absolutely wrong, completely unorthodox, and not even worthy of dialogue. But it is perhaps a good thing that Paul did not have a Twitter account, because he probably would have tweeted out things that he would have regretted. (Paul is not renowned for his restraint or his humility).
I don’t have a satisfactory conclusion to this blog post, or a satisfactory solution to this problem, and I’m not sure one exists. We don’t know how the conflict in Galatia ended–whether the Galatians went with Paul in the end or not. And we don’t yet know how General Conference will end, or whether the United Methodist Church will survive this time of conflict intact. Many people hope that it will not survive; many hope for schism, where everyone will be freer to enact their own ideologies. It is none of my business, but I hope for a united United Methodist Church, but selfishly, I hope for one that does justice as I understand it. That may be impossible; I don’t know. But as we preach Galatians 1, whether from a pulpit of the United Methodist Church or not, we would do well to remember that this is not the first time we have argued over what it means to be Christian, or what the limits are of Christian practice, or whether we can tolerate difference. It is not the first time we have accused our sisters and brothers of being enemies, or declared them accursed, or written them off as heretics. Even Paul of Tarsus did all of this, and his opponents did it to him, more than once.
And yet the church survived it, and it will survive us too. In my opinion, Christians often overestimate the fragility of Christianity. Or, perhaps, we overestimate our own importance in maintaining the existence of the church. We have this sense that the whole enterprise hangs on orthodoxy as we understand it, the myriad multiple other understandings be damned. We have a sense that the only way to strengthen the church is to purify it; that only by casting out or separating from those with whom we disagree can we help the church be the church. Paul certainly thought that way; he was an absolutist when faced with what he saw as wrong belief and wrong practice.
But–and this is a subtle and controversial point–the church survived and flourished not because of Paul’s absolutist position, but in spite of it. The church exists today because countless variations of Christianity, innumerable understandings of God’s calling and God’s truth, flourished alongside each other, sprung up within and outside of each other, and merged and divided over the years. Paul’s vision of orthodox purity did not win the day. Paul’s vision was an ecclesiastical dead end; we are here today in part because of our diversity. Monocultures are vulnerable; ecosystems are robust, and Christianity is and has been an ecosystem, with intertwining, interdependent parts.
And so I will end with an argument for unity and strength through inclusion. Inclusion, not exclusion, is the path to strength and survival. Understanding, or at least living-alongside, is the way to a robust and effective church. Ecosystems teach us that, but so does the history of the church, which has thrived not in spite of difference but because of it. Diversity strengthens unity, and it always has, and it always will. It’s only natural to react like Paul, and curse everything that’s different from us. It’s natural, but it’s not helpful, and if we do it, the church will survive in spite of us, and not because of us. That’s my take on Galatians 1 in the contentious, divided context of 21st century Christianity. And that’s my word to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Not that it’s any of my business.