Recently, I prayerfully considered joining a movement within the United Methodist Church called “Uniting Methodists.” The Uniting Methodists are a middle-way, moderate group seeking to unite a divided denomination. The United Methodist Church is on the verge of a schism due in large part to differences in Biblical interpretation around same-sex relationships and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy. Without getting into all nuances and depth (and some dysfunction) of our denominational ecclesiology, in 2019, our denomination will come to a decision on whether to stay together as we are, divide, or restructure ourselves in a way that makes room for theological differences.
You can find the Uniting Methodist’s statement here: http://unitingmethodists.com/
While I wish the Uniting Methodists would have included language and plans to address other things that need attention in our denomination like apportionment restructuring, the reduction of the organization of the institutional church, changes in guaranteed appointments (specifically exit plans for ineffective clergy), the role of itinerancy in today’s culture, clergy health, and the growing financial burden of seminary education on young clergy, I recognize that the pressing issue of division is paramount. I maintain that whatever plan is adopted for moving forward, even including a schism, this is an opportunity for the church to restructure itself in a way that it is more effective and conducive for the 21st Century.
After much prayer, and having been a part of local conversations about a middle-way, I decided to sign the document and join the denomination-wide movement. Here are some reasons why.
- I am a product of both the progressive and conservative branches of our church.
At my ordination, I asked one of our more progressive and one of our more conservative pastors to be my sponsors. They stood with me and laid their hands on me when the Bishop told me to “take thou authority.” Both were equally formative in my life as a disciple and pastoral leader. The thought of one or both pastors belonging to a different denomination breaks my heart and stifles our denomination’s ability to reach a broad spectrum of people for Christ.
- We need all voices at the table—longer.
I know that there is some listening fatigue over the debate. The problem is, it has been a debate and not a conversation. We have very few models of listening in and outside the church. We must model that all voices matter and that no position has a hold on truth. I believe we have failed to discern our voice (our opinions) from the voice of the Spirit. Every leader must practice discernment carefully and continually. I think discernment is best done in community, or lest we repeat the failure of our ancient ancestors who, “did what they thought was right in their own eyes.”
- Every generation of faithful Christians have had to figure out how to live under the authority of scripture and how to apply scripture for their time.
We must remember that scripture (and our doctrinal creeds, for that matter) did not fall out of the sky as they are today. They took years to formulate and years to figure out the practical application of texts. The church has a long history of contextual exegesis. If we didn’t, women would still be sitting silently in church and growing out their hair. We also would still have slaves. We need scholars, pastors, and lay people to wrestle with our sacred texts and to discern the voice of the Spirit, today.
- I refuse to leave my LGBTQ brothers and sisters behind.
Much like point one, I have been shaped by the stories and experiences of LGBTQ Christians in my own congregation, and in my own sphere of relationships. We must remember that when we talk about LGBTQ persons as “an issue” we dehumanize them. People’s lived experiences matter to God and they should matter to us. Stories have power. To split the church would isolate a whole demographic of people whose stories need to be heard and who need Jesus as much as I do.
- The right and the left really do need each other.
Contrary to what those who belong to the theological right and left would say, both have valid points that need to heard. The right reminds us of our need for personal holiness. They remind us that sin is real and pervasive, and that only through our participation with the Holy Spirit can we grow in Christlikeness. The right reminds us that we must grow in a deep, transformational love of God. The left reminds us that our personal holiness should never isolate us from our neighbors. They remind us that to love God is to grow in love toward our neighbor. We need both voices to center us toward the great command to love God and others with our whole being. It is too easy to close ourselves off into ideological and theological cloisters. It simply affirms what we already believe to be true. While it’s easy, it’s also extremely dangerous. Theological isolation has led to the sinful act of treating others with contempt. Dallas Willard reminds us in his seminal work, The Divine Conspiracy, that the entrenched right and left are no different from the Pharisees of Jesus’ day (Chapter 2 kicks my butt every time I read it). Both are dogmatic about their positions, and neither represent the fullness of the Gospel. But together? Wow! Now we are starting to see the Kingdom of God in a fuller sense.
- The church should model an alternative way of living, loving, and growing together that is in total contrast to the way of the world.
The world knows divisions. The world knows partisanship and dissension. The world knows disunity and divorce. What the world doesn’t know is unity despite, and in the midst of, differences. What the world doesn’t know is the mutuality of agape expressed between two differing people/sides. We can’t lament the dysfunction of institutions like the US Congress, and advocate for the same dysfunction within the church. The world is watching not only where we fall on a particular topic, but how we treat each other as sisters and brothers in Christ.
- My need to be right on any matter should never isolate me from relationships.
This is an important message for us all to hear. If we learned anything during this last political cycle, it is that people believe their beliefs and “rightness” is greater than their need to be in relationship (or in our language community) with others. We cried out against this in the church, reminding Democrats and Republicans to put Jesus first before politics. I know good, faithful clergy who reminded their people how dangerous this attitude was—how counter-Kingdom it was. And yet, I hear those same pastors preaching, teaching, and presenting a narrative that mirrors political rhetoric couched in theological terms like orthodoxy, tradition, and justice. Our infatuation of being right, on either side, has resulted in a dismantling of community.
- I think diversity in theology is an asset not a hindrance.
Being in a theological big tent is hard. It’s messy. It’s complicated. It can be disruptive. It doesn’t always tie up all loose ends, and sometimes leaves more ambiguity than resolution. And yet, I see God at work in it all. It’s a strength. Strong beliefs are important, but theological protectionism and rigidity results in legalism. It becomes oppressive and suffocating. I grew up in a protectionist tradition. The wounds for many who have come out of such a tradition are deep. Our United Methodist Church has strong theological beliefs and practices, and for the most part there is unity around these beliefs and practices. Certainly, we have had some ecclesiastical outliers that have sought to push the church in a particular direction that is outside of our theological center. But they have been outliers. The community for the most part has pulled us back to the places in which we agree—make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Having trusted friends and colleagues on both sides of the theological aisle, I am convinced we all agree on far more than we disagree.
- I may have little impact denominationally, but I have personal integrity and values that I hold dear.
I know that I am one voice among millions of United Methodists. I am not going to pretend that any Bishop or denominational leader is asking me for my guidance. However, I pastor a church that in large part has modeled what I have just spelled out. Just today, my staff and I had a lengthy conversation about our value to be a church where all people are welcome—conservatives, moderates, and progressives. I hold this value as a bedrock to my own leadership, and as long as I am a pastor, I intend on preaching, teaching, and embodying this truth.
So, I have signed on to the Uniting Methodists. They are not perfect. I am not perfect. But I trust that we are better together, and I refuse to give up on unity. Whatever variation of Methodism that will come in 2019, I plan on continuing to preach the Good News to all people. I plan to continue to tell people how much Jesus loves them. I plan to be a beacon of hope in a divided world and church.
This, of course, can only come through Spirit. So, come Holy Spirit. Come.