We have choices to make. We make important choices in how we honor God, follow Jesus, live together, work for justice, love mercy, and treat each other. We make choices when we search for, live out, and bear witness to the truth.

Of late we see an increasing preference for polarizing declarations about what is and is not consistent with Christian teaching. We hear competing appeals to strictly follow or completely abandon some dictates of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. In these and other ways people are drawing lines in the sand and demanding that folks choose a side on which they will stand.

For more than forty years, deep conflict and struggle have marked our dialogue and governance about the church’s teaching on same-gender relationships and the celebration of marriage. The application of the church’s teaching affects the qualifications for the ordained ministry. And now some say the time for holy conversation is over and it is time to rally around various viewpoints and stand their ground.

Where might this intensifying battle of words and wills lead us? We see the raw emotions, angry characterizations, polarizing rhetoric, the fracturing of relationships, and a growing sense of alienation from God and each other born by decades of debate. Do we expect that choosing to do more of the same or increasing the level of confrontation will lead to a result that is better than our current turmoil? Will exacerbating the current mêlée move us much closer to God’s kingdom that beckons? Some say yes.

As a retired bishop (Rueben) and the United Methodist Church’s publisher (Neil), we observe the denomination we love grappling with issues of importance that not only confound but also threaten to divide us. We hunger for our church to wrestle with hard questions and decisions in a spirit of humble commitment to passionately follow Jesus, as we engage each other with generosity, gracefulness, and mutual respect.

Perhaps the result of the current turbulence will be schism. If so, this would not be the first or last case in which a parting of the ways is the upshot of church struggles over belief and practice. Perhaps the result will be no change or partial change in the current language in the Book of Discipline. Perhaps the outcome will be something none of us yet imagine. We hope, pray, and work toward a respectful, rigorous, genuine, and prayerful dialogue that could lead in time to a consensus that is Christ affirming, life giving, and makes plain to all the abundance of God’s extravagant love.

We offer these “letters” to the church from some of the bishops who have been set apart for a ministry of servant leadership, which includes “an enquiring mind and a commitment to the teaching office” as well as leading “the whole Church in claiming its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” (Book of Discipline ¶¶403.1.b & 403.1.c). We respectfully acknowledge that persons we love take issue with the propriety of bishops weighing-in on such matters by offering contrary perspectives, saying that in fostering this dialogue we emphasize the wrong disciplinary assignments or draw mistaken conclusions about the proper role of bishops. Such is the state of our human condition, that almost every idea, plan, and action is subject to multiple interpretations and disputed claims of relevance or accuracy.

We submit that the thoughtful, honest, and respectful airing of views and claims about authority are in the very best tradition of the Methodist and the Evangelical United Brethren founders whose heirs have come together to form the people called United Methodist.

Engaging the “other” to discover and occupy common ground is part of the DNA of United Methodism. We look first to William Otterbein who in the second half of the eighteenth century was a part of the lively ferment of religious life in North America. He was an emphatic, theologically precise, and most particular preacher who led churches at a time when spirited debates over doctrine and ecclesiology flourished.

At a gathering around 1767, Church of the Brethren, Mennonite, and other preachers were vying for the attention of those in attendance. Preachers sharing the same farm setting offered competing sermons simultaneously to as large a crowd as each could attract and to whom their unamplified voice would carry. “Otterbein listened intently to (Mennonite) Martin Boehm’s preaching . . . (and) was greatly moved. At the end of Boehm’s sermon, Otterbein went forward, embraced Boehm and exclaimed, ‘Wir Sind Bruder!’ which means ‘We are Brethren!’ ” (J. Bruce Behney and Paul H. Eller, The History of the Evangelical United Brethren Church). Therein a bridge was established that spanned the doctrinal and ecclesiological boundaries of the day and led to the formation of the United Brethren Church.

We see a similar reach across the chasms that divide us in John Wesley’s “The Marks of a Methodist.”

By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labour to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world, from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the gospel of Christ. But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained. No: “Whosoever doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven, the same is my brother, and sister and mother.” And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand. For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship (cited by Thomas Langford in Wesleyan Theology).

We do not present the essays in this volume as if they are either the beginning or end of what has and will be an ongoing and spirited struggle for clarity about beliefs, teachings, practices, warmed and cold hearts, faithful obedience, and accountability. This collection is one contribution in the midst of a continuing search for clear vision and faithful living.

A number of bishops from regions across the world-wide United Methodist connection were invited to contribute. Our timing and other priorities made it difficult for some to participate. For that reason, and because we are fully committed to the value of continuing this holy conversation, Ministry Matters will receive and post additional input and responses by more bishops on this page as they choose to participate.

Providing a setting for ongoing participation is important. Disparate contexts in various regions of Africa, Europe, the Philippines, and the U.S.A. require and deserve attention that one volume cannot accomplish. In the preamble of the Social Principles we read, “We affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the gospel” (2012 Book of Discipline, preamble to the Social Principles, p. 104). Unity is not a static state but the ever renewing, dynamic quintessence of varied expressions as in joyful obedience we offer our lives to God. We need more light and clarity about the challenges and choices facing our diverse denomination as together we strive to find our way forward.

The bishops in this conversation draw from deep wells of insight, experience, conviction, and the gift of helping us read our landscape. They draw wisdom from scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. The generous response of those taking part plus others who provided expert counsel is greatly appreciated. All involved have enthusiastically agreed that any royalties that accrue will be donated to the Imagine No Malaria Fund.

As they worked, we encouraged the writers to stay intently focused on their assigned theme and avoid blurring the lines between their content and that of the other contributors. Our aim is to present a thoughtful and distinct perspective in each chapter for study and reflection. We asked each writer to articulate the best case for a distinct perspective on finding our way, while not softening the edges of differing points of view. Their contributions make apparent the core values and essential choices that alternate paths represent.

Yet we encourage readers to discover points of intersection among the contributions and to entertain ways to mix and blend perspectives. It is likely readers will see merit and insight in several or even all of the ways forward discussed in these pages. Indeed, we expect the conversation may uncover more ways to frame these matters and prescriptions for how United Methodists might respond.

We see this discussion as a part of a process, not as the summation or conclusion of a debate. We don’t intend to advance one view over another. We seek together to remember who we are, to renew our solemn promises, and to fully claim our identity as followers of Jesus Christ.

By reflecting on the ties that connect as well as on the issues and words that divide us, we find hope in our common baptism as the central covenant that ultimately defines and binds us. Through baptism “we are initiated into Christ’s holy church. We are incorporated into God’s mighty acts of salvation and given new birth through water and the Spirit. All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price” (United Methodist Hymnal, p. 33).

In the Baptismal Covenant “we renew the covenant declared at our baptism, acknowledge what God is doing for us, and affirm our commitment to Christ’s holy church.”

We have choices to make. The word choice is a pivotal term in the controversy over homosexual practices and same-gender marriage. For some advocates in our church, gays and lesbians make sinful choices. For some other advocates in our church, human beings do not have a choice about how God created our bodies. We choose how to affirm or withhold affirmation; to celebrate or abhor a holy union; to enforce the letter of the law or the spirit of the gospel. The word choice is a deep sign of a latent conflict between freedom and obligation.

We make important choices in how we honor God, follow Jesus, live together, work for justice, love mercy, and treat each other. We make life-affirming choices in how we search for, live out, and bear witness to the truth. And because of whom we are and what we believe, those choices must always take us along paths characterized by love, light, and hope.

There may always be contrary interpretations of the meaning of sacred texts, varied conclusions about the appropriate lessons to be drawn from life experience, and conflicting assessments about how best to advance the teachings of the church and the ordering of its ministries. The resulting discord will challenge us and might prove to be both agitating and a gift. In whatever ways we engage and respond, we are called to choose at all times to walk humbly, embrace faithful love, and do justice along the way.

Seemingly incompatible views about church law concerning same-gender relationships and what it means to love God and neighbor are tearing at the fabric of our United Methodist connection. We implore you to invest all of your heart, mind, and being in a rigorous and fulsome exploration of differing perspectives about how to move forward. We pray in that journey together we will make room for hearing the thin, quiet voice of God as we rely on experience, reason, and tradition, all understood in the light of scripture. And we pray that our response to each other will be loving, thoughtful, respectful, and honest as “we affirm our unity in Jesus Christ while acknowledging differences in applying our faith . . . as we live out the gospel” (2012 Book of Discipline, preamble to the Social Principles, p. 104). 

Finding Our Way is available through Cokesbury, Ministry Matters, and other retailers.

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