Four reasons United Methodists have to stay together

July 21st, 2016

Voices are clamoring for a split in the United Methodist Church, with an increasing urgency given many recent events, most notably an episcopal election in the West. I was myself a candidate for bishop and was not elected — and I am writing this blog to expand upon something I dreamed of working on if elected, and hopefully to persuade some folks to join me in a crusade to stay together, and not split. I can think of four compelling reasons why we cannot split, and I have just enough naivete left in me to believe conservatives and progressives might agree on all four.

We can agree, I believe, and move forward on the basis of the Great Commission, the importance of holiness in sexual relationships, the centrality of Jesus, and the inspiration of Scripture. I suspect #2 is hardest for progressives, given practice and a host of other reasons, and #4 is hardest for conservatives, given the way debates have unfolded for many years. But I'm betting we can get there on all four.

(1) The Great Commission

At my jurisdictional conference, in my brief speech explaining to delegates my sense of call to the episcopacy, I suggested that “we can’t split now.” My reason? Our country is dividing and splitting all over the place. Black are divided against whites. Police are divided against some of our citizens. Republicans are divided against Democrats. Republicans are divided against themselves. If the Church splits now, we are saying to an already cynical world, "We are just like you. We have no alternative to offer you."

There are other Great Commission questions. Where I live, it is extremely difficult to get any unchurched people to try out a church that isn’t welcoming to LGBTQ people, or at least having a robust conversation about the issue. I’ve heard some say that where they live the Church won’t grow if the church welcomes LGBTQ people. But I am absolutely sure that a church that can’t stay together will not be able to make disciples in either kind of community. Our most crucial witness in a divided world is quite simply not to divide, to show the world (as Paul introduced 1 Corinthians 13) “a better way.”

(2) Sexual Holiness

Somehow lost in all our debates within the church is any serious talk about holiness in sexuality. But in the Bible, there is such a thing as holiness; your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. It is not the case that as long as it’s male and female having sex, it’s great. And it is not the case that if it’s male and male, or female and female, it’s great. It is not the case that as long as male and female are married, sex is just great, or if male and male could marry, all would be well. Sexual relations in marriage and in any straight or gay relationship can be abusive, manipulative, and self-absorbed; such relations can idolize pleasure and have no hint of consecration to God. Once upon a time, people came to the church, in effect asking for permission to live together and have intimate relations that might even be for God and pleasing to God. Holy marriage is a sacred mystery, mirroring the wonder of Christ’s church to the world. God clearly seeks a profound commitment, not just to your partner but to God and the church. Until we can recover robust ways to talk about and engage in a holy sexuality, which is more than and different from which gender gets to have sex with which gender, we should perhaps be quiet, and relearn how to be Christian on matters of sex.

(3) The Centrality of Christ

The main thing in Christianity, the undeniable, extreme center of our faith, is Jesus Christ. It is not sexuality. Sex is the main thing in our culture. In our trivial, hedonistic society, sex is absolutely central to everything: life, self-image, advertising, TV, novels. Christians are those who declare sex is not the center, it is not the main thing. Jesus is the main thing. I’ve been preaching on Colossians, where Paul falls all over himself extolling the wonder of Jesus, who puts every other thing in the shade, the wonderful shade of his glory and mercy. I’ll repeat what I’ve said often: if the United Methodist Church declared Jesus was just a man, a wise teacher, or anything short of him being God in the flesh, with his death and resurrection achieving the redemption of all of creation, then I would walk out the door and urge you to come with me. If you split over something that isn’t in the center, perhaps we have lost sight of the center.

(4) The Inspiration of Scripture

Scripture is up for grabs right now. There are some progressives who say The Bible isn’t relevant. But if the Bible isn’t relevant now, or on this or that issue, it is never relevant. At the same time, it is false to say that only one side in the Methodist argument is devoted to the Bible or holds it up as the only and highest authority. The United Methodist Church has been and will always be a church that opens the Bible and expects nothing but God’s Word to us. I know conservatives and progressives with astonishingly high views of Scripture; and yet their interpretation on this issue differs. Every faithful reader studies the Bible and makes the best sense of it that they can. There is no un-interpreted Scripture; it interprets itself! Every preacher in history has read it and tried to solve what it is saying to contemporary people. And there have always been disagreements. But let’s put aside the idea that some cling to the Scriptures while others dispense with them. The Bible is the inspired Word of God. We've not engaged in high level reading, together, of the Bible, and we've not listened attentively to why the others interpret the way they do — or at least in my circles this hasn't happened. One thing I’m sure the Bible doesn’t say, either literally or by any theological interpretation, is “Thou shalt split up the Body of Christ.” The Bible says plenty, and clearly, about unity in Christ.

Over time, I have blogged about many ideas about what God is calling us to do. I don’t believe we’ve ever really listened to one another or tried to get inside the skin of those who disagree. We haven’t thought through the invisible, unnoticed cultural assumptions that we all carry deep inside that drive our theology more than the Holy Spirit does. But for today, I wonder if we can’t find a way to look at the Great Commission, the very tough topic of holiness in sexuality, Jesus himself and the Scriptures, and ask if we don’t have considerable common ground upon which to stand when asking where God is calling us.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. 

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