The Playing Field: Scripture and the Traditional Faith of the Church

August 15th, 2018

During my first mission trip, I left the US for the mountains of Costa Rica. We were there to build houses with an international chapter of Habitat for Humanity, but my best work was building relationships with the children, who laughed at my toddler-level Spanish and taught me games on the rocky hillside. One day a group of them shyly pulled me by the hand and told me they were going to show me the most beautiful place on their mountain, a claim that piqued my interest since this was already the most beautiful place I had ever seen.

After a long, breathless hike, we turned a corner where I saw, in the middle of all the rugged mountainous glory . . . a lawn. A simple, flat lawn, rockless and sprawling, just like thousands of suburban landscapes back home. To put it bluntly, I was underwhelmed. Just then, one of the boys pulled out a ball, and they began running and kicking it with glee. This space, while it looked ordinary to me, was their soccer field—the only one for miles. To them it was holy ground. As they began to run and play (many of them barefoot), I recognized that they were right. In the freedom and joy of these children of God, I found the most beautiful sight I would encounter on that mountain.

G. K. Chesterton’s assessment of the discipline and order found in the Christian scriptures was that “the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”[i]

The playing field God provides for us in scripture exists not to constrain God’s creation or cramp our style but to provide the “room” Chesterton celebrates: a clear and free space for human flourishing, the restoration of God’s image in us and God’s glory in creation, and a place for goodness to run wild in our communion together.

Unfortunately, The United Methodist Church has been overtaken by chaos that continues to grow and envelop our life together, muting our hopes for world-changing ministry and damaging our witness. While the headlines and arguments center around the church’s stance on same-sex practice, our core disagreements have their roots in differing views of scripture.

We read and understand scripture very differently.[ii] We should not be surprised that this leads to opposing goals for the doctrine and discipline of the church that we share.

As a member of the Commission on a Way Forward, I spent eighteen months having hard conversations with people who love our church deeply, many of whom are now dear friends. We discussed the church’s deep division and our best hopes for her future. As we talked about our differing views on sexuality, it was clear that they were rooted in the different ways we read scripture. We were repeatedly asked to find ways to express what unites us as United Methodist Christians, but even when we articulated our rich heritage and common goals, we encountered roadblocks over the simplest words because of our reading of God’s word.

What does unity look like when we can’t agree on the goal of God’s work in human hearts or the nature and pursuit of holiness? How can we press on to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world when we can’t agree on the nature of disciples, how they are to live differently from the world around them, and what kind of transformation we are hoping to effect?

With each of our nine meetings, we as a Commission grew deeper in relationship with each other, but we didn’t mistake our growing love for each other as a concession that our opposing views on scripture, holiness, and sexuality mattered any less. In fact, some who most vehemently disagreed on scriptural interpretation and theology could find common ground in the fact that we would never be in agreement on core beliefs, and that we wanted to stop fighting so that the work of the church could continue unfettered.

As we approach the called 2019 General Conference, the divisions in the church have only deepened. Bishops, annual conferences, boards of ordained ministry, and jurisdictional conferences have not only committed acts of ecclesial disobedience but called publicly for others to do so as well. Decisions of the judicial council have been ignored outright. Rather than anticipating schism, these actions signal we are already in schism. We are not just bending the rules. We are playing on entirely different fields.

Those who have been paying attention during decades of General Conferences should not be surprised that delegates who have supported the language concerning sexuality in the Book of Discipline will continue to do so. It seems almost surreal when those who support the paragraphs of the Discipline we most argue over are considered divisive or schismatic. The UMC’s position on marriage has been a matter of public record since 1972, and those of us who vowed to uphold its doctrine were well aware of the nature of the covenant to which we were committing.

A plan will certainly be submitted to the 2019 General Conference that will affirm our current ordination standards and language defining Christian marriage. This plan will likely also add measures of accountability and strengthen enforcement of that language. Critics will characterize this plan as punitive and severe, but it simply strengthens the position supported by every General Conference since the language was introduced. Indeed, those who hold to a traditional reading of scripture around the ethics of sexuality seem to be a growing majority in General Conference, though they are consistently underrepresented in bodies like the Commission on a Way Forward and publications like this one.

Those who support a plan that would push decisions on marriage and ordination to a local level significantly miss the importance of the connectional church and conciliar discernment at the heart of historic Methodism over and against a congregational polity. To say that our beliefs on sexuality are not important enough to decide on corporately, or that what we do with our bodies is nobody’s business but our own, is contrary to scripture and Wesley’s understanding of holiness as worked out together in community. To play with different rules from one context to the next will not increase our unity as “one church” or expand our ministry but will only intensify our chaos and division.

On a soccer field, it’s not much fun to quibble over the boundaries of the field or debate the rules of the game. All of us would much rather play. This, of course, is a light metaphor for a very heavy subject. This is no game. This is Christ’s church. There are souls to be saved and incredible needs in the world for justice and mercy to be offered freely, unfettered by internal conflict, and with the wild abandon of grace.

[i] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Norwood, MA: Plimpion Press, 1908), 175–76.

[ii] For an excellent treatment of the Wesleyan reading of scripture that goes deeper than the space available here, see Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever by David F. Watson.

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