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.