Appeal to Scripture as the Ultimate Authority Leads to Schism

Appeal to Scripture as the Ultimate Authority Leads to Schism May 21, 2015

I sat in a giant, rich Baptist church on Sunday, and heard the pastor say, “Just trust me on this one,” as he pronounced with authority the demise of the US and the rise of the Antichrist over the issue of same-sex marriages.

Baptist churches are all independent–none has to answer to another. They can and do teach anything they want and all make their appeal to the Bible as their ultimate authority.

I spent about 25 years in the independent church world.  There the Bible is the ultimate authority. Disagreements are rampant; cult-like churches common. Indoctrination serves as the main form of instruction.

Why? Because it holds them together while keeping them generally ignorant and dependent upon one strong leader.

Truly, the Bible is nearly impossible to read, understand and interpret with confident accuracy for today. I have spent my life trying. I studied, learned to read Greek and Hebrew, and brought in my anthropology background to help with cultural awareness. The more I know, the less I pronounce, “Thus says the Lord.” I am at a point where I no longer engage with people who say, “Just read your Bible. Then you will know what God wants you to do [read: ‘and you will agree with me‘].”

Bible verses have been used to justify every immoral, unjust action known to humanity. They can be read and interpreted to say and/or mean anything we want them to say or mean. We all discern their meaning through our educational and cultural grids and with our educational and cultural blinders functioning well.

But The United Methodist Church, of which I am a part, is a connectional church. We affirm the authority of the Scriptures and also have a much-lamented and multi-amended Book of Discipline as the ultimate authority. We do not trust just one person. We trust a larger connection, seeking to discern the will of God together.

Elders are ordained to Word, Sacrament, Order and Service. The “Order” part of that is our responsibility to keep our various charges operating in line with the Book of Discipline. Without adhering to it, there is no way a connectional system with an itinerant clergy, sent from church to church as needs arise, can possibly work.

The BOD: Our Connectional Glue

In order to avoid the types of divisions endemic to the independent churches, the Roman Catholic Church has the Pope and the Curia and all the apparatus surrounding that. The Mormons have their President and his henchmen who regularly receive new revelations applicable to all Mormons. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have a group of seven men who periodically meet in Brooklyn who make their decisions that every Witness has to abide by.

We United Methodists have our Book of Discipline.

Again, those who have clergy orders within the UMC have vowed to uphold it and members of the UMC have promised loyalty to it.

Why? Not because it is inherently inerrant. It gets modified every four years, after all. Not because it reads smoothly and with ease of interpretation. We have our own highly trained Judicial Council to do that for us.

Why? Because it is our Constitution, our glue, our base from which all operate with some sense of internal consistency and outward coherence. Without it, we descend into anarchy. Which pretty well describes the current state of the UMC.

I personally identify with the so-called “progressive” movement. I have grown in horror that we permit the kind of language in the BOD against the “practice of homosexuality” without adding comparable language against such things as the “practice of grumbling” or the “practice of inciting divisions among people” or the “practice of gluttony” or the “practice of greed” or the “practice of heterosexual lust.”

I believe we need to leave behind our voyeuristic obsession with what goes on between the sheets and focus on what it means to love God and our neighbors in our given cultural contexts.

From what I can tell, there are two primary groups of clergy, all of whom have vowed to uphold the BOD, that are essentially saying to the UMC, “either I get my way or I won’t play by the rules.”

  • One group are those who pastor wealthy conservative congregations now gleefully withholding apportionments, our connectional giving.
  • The other are the clergy who now gleefully perform same-sex weddings.

Both actions are egregiously wrong. Both violate serious vows. Both break connectional bonds and hope. Both accelerate the peril of ultimate destruction to the UMC.

Freeing the UMC to pursue our mission isn’t complicated. It’s a simple removal of language, supplemented with the understanding that all Christians, clergy and lay alike, are called to the highest standards of conduct and moral integrity. That includes faithfulness of our vows. It also includes a willingness to love our enemies and lay down our lives for them. Enemies include those on the opposite side of theological and structural debates.

However, a simple language change probably won’t happen at General Conference 2016. Trenches are too deep now. Much ammunition hides in storehouses, ready to launch. We’re preparing for war.

May God have mercy.

Time to Leave?

I have left two marriages. For reasons that shall stay private to me, it became tragically necessary to do so. I possess no vocabulary words sufficiently adequate to describe both my personal pain and the pain to others.

Because of that personal history, I have written numerous times calling us to stay as one body.

Now, for the first time since I became aware of the real possibility of a split within the UMC, I say this: those who choose not to honor their vows to uphold the Book of Discipline and thus honor the historic connection need to gracefully leave.

Leave in a way that honors God.

Leave without claim.

Leave without position, appointment, buildings, and all the other things that go with being part of a connectional church.

Leave peacefully, wishing blessing and goodness on those who stay.

It must be a freely chosen leaving, not one forced by someone who claims to have “won.” The whole idea that there would be winners and losers here is anathema to the witness of true Christian faith, to which we are indeed called to oneness.

I have a small idea of the sacrifice involved here. I am retired with limited funds. Should I lose my pension, it will be an additional financial challenge. Even so, my pension is small compared to many others, as I am a second career clergy person and did not have years to build it up. I am no longer dependent on a monthly paycheck from a local charge. Others will suffer much more should it be necessary to relinquish such means of support.

The Way of Jesus

But I am continually asking myself: what is the way of Jesus here? What is the way of life and truth here?

Is it to grasp and fight and maim others in our push to victory?

Is it to hold positions at all costs, including deep damage to the witness of the Gospel?

Or is it to live with the words found in our Service of Holy Communion, “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. That proves God’s love for us.”

We’re all sinners here. Every single one of us. No matter how right or righteous we think our positions and decisions are, we are all sinners, all seeing through a mirror dimly, all in need of redemption and all needing to learn to go to the cross for our enemies.

Let us lay down our swords. Let us seek the kingdom of heaven and have those swords pounded instead into plowshares. Let us stop killing and start tilling so there will be fertile, prepared ground for the church that will spring forth again out of the dead of winter into the hope of spring.

Let us be Christ-followers. All the way to the cross. Only then will we see the resurrection to new life.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Richard Owens

    Something to think about with the Methodist church.

  • Pas

    It saddens me when being “right” seems more important than being in relationship.

    • Stuart

      It would frighten me to be involved in a church that held a book outside the bible as the ultimate authority. A book that can be changed every four years based on man’s wisdom and not God’s wisdom. The Bible is the innerant, infallible, and sufficient word of God. Certainly there are parts that are open to interpretation but the basic fundamentals of the faith or not.

  • It is my understanding that it is a federal law that what you have already earned in your pension can not be revoked or taken away, even if you leave the United Methodist Church. Is that not correct?

    • I don’t know, Kerry. I am trying to work though worst case possibilities. I think the part where we ourselves did the contributions has to stay with us, but the part where the contributions were made by the church may not. I just honestly don’t know. I know I get my pension in two distributions: the UM part, which is for as long as I live; the personal part with is for as long as it lasts.

      • According to the General Board of Pensions, all aspects of a pastor’s pension account, whether personally contributed or contributed by the church, belong to the pastor and cannot be lost if one were to leave the UMC.

        • Wahoo Lon

          True. But those pension amounts are guaranteed by the church. If the market acts adversely such that the amounts used to fund pensions fall below the ability to pay them the UMC must make an additional contribution to be at a “fully funded level”. If there’s no UMC, there’s no ability to pay on the guarantee.

          • One of the questions I keep asking, “In the case of a UM splint, who will assume responsibility for the unfunded pension liabilities?”

          • If a separation were negotiated, provision could be made for an equitable division of any unfunded liability. Unfortunately, most leaders seem unwilling to consider separation and so are unwilling to negotiate it. What may then result is the chaotic withdrawal of congregations in groups or individually, perhaps having to resort to secular courts. That would be an undesirable situation, to say the least!

  • Robin Jansen

    Amen!

    I try to be very careful on FB NOT to put anything about religion or politics. However, I broke that rule when a Republican governor, overturned the ban on Fracking in Denton in favor of the big oil companies. I made a statement, along with a newspaper article backing my decision, that I was no longer referring to myself as a Republican.

    A horrified Christian commented: “How can you be a democrat with their stand on abortion and gay marriage?” I was stunned. Her statement makes no sense to me. After I thought about it for a bit, I replied: “Who said I am now a Democrat? Not me. And in all the years of Republicans being in office, who has overturned abortion?” (I must state here that I am against it, but I don’t want to go into a tangent about it).

    And I have no problems about people being gay because I am not a judge. I shouldn’t have a problem with it.

    Also, Jesus did a new thing in the New Testament, and as you so nicely put it, the Bible is hard to understand. People seem to build complete hateful or silly doctrines over a single statement, esp if it is from the Old Testament (heaven help me when I was a Pentecostal for a short while and my anointing was dependent on how long my shirt sleeves were).

    To be angry, I had no idea that I had to draw straight party lines with Fracking. Christian or not? Republican or Democrat? I grew up in a staunch Republican family. But lately, I am more of a Democrat than anything else for many reasons. I just know that my faith and stand on social issues is one of compassion, mercy, love, charity, and help. I think Jesus’ is too.

    When I stand before Him, I will cry out MERCY for myself. I will only be granted that if I show mercy to everyone who is different than me (or is it, I?)

    And I read this, which is worth passing along…why is it we are more concerned with people before birth (which I am) and do not want to help them after birth with social programs which will help them? I am for people, prebirth, during birth and post birth.

    I am rambling but perhaps someone can make sense out of this.

    Robin J

    • Thank you, Robin, for your passionate reply here. I wrote this out of deep, deep pain and I think it touches on the pain of division and judgmentalism on many levels. Appreciate your reading it, commenting and passing it on.

      • Robin Jansen

        Yes, am passing it on. Its beautiful and everyone needs to read. I come from that same place of pain. And I believe Jesus grieves even deeper.

  • Ken

    Christy, please believe me when I say I hear the pain you’re feeling, but I couldn’t disagree more with your conclusion. I have known too many of my Christian brothers and sisters who grew up in the UMC, learned about God’s love through Jesus, shared in Holy Communion, and committed themselves in their confirmations only to realize as teenagers or adults that, since they are gay, they are actually second class citizens in their own community. This is not about disagreements on the scriptures and the BOD; this is about basic human rights.

    Throughout our church’s history we have had to decide from time to time if we will remain partners in a system that is unequal and unjust towards minorities or women, or decide to go through the necessary pain of separating into those who want the status quo and those who will move forward in history. Like your analogy with marriage, sometimes it is NOT better to stay together for unity’s sake if the relationship is abusive and hostile. I apologize if that strikes a nerve, as I have also had to go through the pain of leaving an abusive and unhealthy marriage, but I also know the freedom and growth that can come with moving away from a bad place.

    In my opinion, too many of us in the church are willing to put up with the abuse and degradation of LGBT persons for the sake of church unity. No LGBT person in our church should be told to either accept how it is or get out.

    • I don’t want anyone to leave. I spent years in the exclusive conservative church where I fought mightily to have a voice as a woman, to be recognized as one with full humanity. It didn’t happen. I had to leave. I think the UMC should indeed change the BOD for full inclusion and have stated so in many places. But personally, I think that there is an evangelical takeover taking place and that will make it impossible. That being the case, clergy and churches unwilling to abide by the restrictions set there need to live with integrity. That means that vows must be honored. If they can’t, and since everyone has been done that can be done to change the BOD (or will be done by 2016, which I expect to be a major conflagration), then it is time to say, “I have to leave.” The whole thing is totally breaking my heart.

  • I wish I had written these words, well said. I will speak them though, thanks Christy.

  • Carolyn Allbritton

    Thank you, Christy, for again, saying the hard things eloquently and passionately. My own position is much like yours, but I applaud those who stand up for the civil rights of all individuals. It is a difficult, complicated issue that we have been called to navigate with the guidance of God. A Christian woman told me a couple of years ago “You just need to choose” when I admitted I was on the fence because I believe in upholding our connectional vows and the unity of the denomination, while admitting I do not have all the answers when it comes to our brothers and sisters who have a differing lifestyle from mine. I trust that God has given us through Christ what we need to navigate these stormy waters. It comes down to faith in what we cling to…faith in our own humility and willingness to “listen” to scripture, the Spirit of the Gospel and of our experience, as well as accepting the authority over us and given to us. None of the choices I see unfolding are easy, but if we truly “listen” to the Spirit, we will be guided safely through this storm. I am praying for all of us.

    • Such good words from you! Thank you for taking the time to express these here.

  • Jeff Mayhugh

    Christy Thomas wrote: >>I personally identify with the so-called “progressive” movement. I have grown in horror that we permit the kind of language in the BOD against the “practice of homosexuality” without adding comparable language against such things as the “practice of grumbling” or the “practice of inciting divisions among people” or the “practice of gluttony” or the “practice of greed” or the “practice of heterosexual lust.”<>They can and do teach anything they want and all make their appeal to the Bible as their ultimate authority.<<

    It was once said that there are as many Protestant denominations as there are Protestants. Each is free to appeal to the Bible as the ultimate authority and understand the Scriptures in any way they choose. It was seeing this evidenced in my local church that finally led me to join my wife's Catholic parish. What convinced me was to learn that in the centuries before a bunch of Catholic bishops voted in a council exactly what books were to be included in the Bible and what books were not to be included that the Catholic Church already had several centuries of moral teaching.

    As far as social teaching, I read articles and listen to sermons exhorting me to volunteer to help the poor, to welcome homosexuals and teach them the difference between the desire (which is disordered and not sinful much like the desire to drink alcohol) but to discourage acting out on that desire. There is so much there that is good and holy that I could not stay away.

  • Lyle

    Hi Christy,

    An alternative for those who disagree with the BOD (I suggest their disagreement is rather with Scriptural authority – isn’t the BOD based on it?) on this issue is to stay and submit to an authority besides their own. If all of us did submit to Scripture – all of it – including the parts about greed, glutony, etc. that you rightly point out are often conveniently overlooked, we would find it often very uncomfortable – even offensive – to our personal predilections, habits, and “cultural contexts”. But we would be changed more and more into the “Christ followers” you speak of.

    Thanks for your post. God bless you.

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