Friday, May 4, 2012

We're One, But We're Not The Same

Normally this is a place for me to write (hopefully) humorously about whatever tickles my fancy. This is not one of those times. It won’t hurt my feelings if you choose to skip it. However, you’ve already clicked, on here, so you might as well stick around.

 Every four years, delegates from the United Methodist Church gather for their quadrennial convention to reexamine the church’s Book of Discipline which contains the laws and doctrines of the worldwide denomination totaling roughly 9.5 million people. Proposals are submitted, debated and voted on, because if a popular vote is good enough for American Idol to pick its winner by, it’s certainly good enough for a church seeking to interpret the word of God.

This year, a couple of votes were particularly disheartening to me. First was the statement “We stand united in declaring our faith that God’s grace is available to all –– that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” which sought to be added to the preamble Social Principles section of the aforementioned Book of Discipline. This is essentially restating Romans 8:38-39 in which Paul writes ““For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This didn’t seem all that controversial to me. While I subscribe to the belief that the Bible, Paul’s letters included, need to be interpreted through the prism of the time, culture and intended recipients of the writings, nothing in this statement seems to be specific to a certain culture that would prevent it from being a larger truth applied to humanity. And yet the motion only carried by a 532 to 414 vote. Assuming the General Conference delegates are a representative sample of the larger church as a whole (something I haven’t tried to verify), when I’m in church on Sunday and look at the five people to my right and five to my left, there’s a good chance four of them will believe there is something that can separate those in the service from God’s love.

I have no problem if that’s someone’s belief. I’ll freely admit I don’t have all or even most of the answers. There are times I’m not even sure I have any answers. But I find it strange that someone who professes to be a Christian and a United Methodist would be opposed to including one of the prevailing belief’s of the founder of the Methodist movement into the Book of Discipline. I find it even more disturbing that 40 percent of the church believes this. If I had to guess, I’d say that 40 percent were thinking of one issue when they voted.
The second issue arising from the General Conference I’m struggling with is the church’s inconsistency when it comes to implementing biblical teaching in regards to homosexuality and divorce. As I mentioned earlier, I believe the bible should be read through the lenses of the time, place and culture it was written. Even more so with the writings of Paul, who believed Jesus would return in his lifetime. When Paul said “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,” in Ephesians 1:2, I think he was just giving a greeting to the church. I’m not sure he expected it to be studied 2,000 years later. Sometimes a greeting is just a greeting.

The Rev. Adam Hamilton co-sponsored an amendment to the Book of Discipline that essentially says “hey, the United Methodist Church is struggling with this issue. Some feel strongly homosexuality is a sin while others see the biblical statements about homosexuality in the same way they view statements about polygamy, slavery, ect . We’re going to agree to disagree on this issue in love.” While you can argue the statement goes too far in accepting homosexuals or, in my case, it doesn’t go far enough; it resonated with me as an accurate description of the current state of the view of homosexuality in the United Methodist Church.

Shortly after settling on a church in North Carolina, this issue came to the forefront as a gay couple was accepted as members of the church. People left the church, stopped donating money and did all they could to force the pastor out. Even if you accept that homosexuality is a sin, to leave a church because sinners were accepted as members seems like you’re missing the point of what a church is for.

So the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality is that it’s a sin and incompatible with Christian teaching. Jesus was silent on the issue, but for the sake of moving forward, we’ll go with that, acknowledging that some may disagree with the church’s stance. Jesus, however, was not silent on divorce. In fact, he was pretty clear on it. From Matthew 19:3-9

 3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

I’m not a biblical scholar and despite being an ordained minister (thank you internet), I don’t have a background in theology. But that seems like a pretty clear teaching of Jesus. So let’s go look at what the United Methodist Church says on divorce.

God's plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital and postmarital counseling in order to create and preserve strong marriages. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved and are concerned about high divorce rates.

It’s possible to view the scripture’s messages on homosexuality as timeless law while Jesus’ teaching as simply a teaching  for those in that time, culture and custom, much like the church views Jesus’ teaching on slavery today. It doesn’t make much sense to me to view these two issues in that light, but apparently to the United Methodist Church, it does.  
As I mentioned earlier, I’m far from a biblical scholar or theologian. However, I do think I have a decent grasp on what the whole Christianity thing is supposed to be about. I’m pretty sure we’re just supposed to be excellent to each other and love God. Instead, the church I grew up in is voting on if we can be separated from the love of an all-loving God or how certain acts don’t line up with our incomplete understanding of who God is. As U2’s Bono wrote, “We're one, but we're not the same. We get to carry each other.” If the church is willing to do that, it’ll be fine. If not, the church is in trouble.


Rachel said...

Well, I am a (budding) theologian and biblical scholar, and I say you're right. Thank you for writing this.

Luke said...

Thanks Rachel. As I said, not something I wanted or particularly enjoyed writing, but something that'd been bothering me.