Most of my family members identify as fundamentalist Christians and political conservatives. As my own religious and political views have evolved over the years, this has made for some lively conversations, especially around the holidays. Back in my college days, it seemed like these discussions regularly ended up in raised voices and ad hominem attacks. Maybe you can relate. Doesn’t everybody have that one annoying family member who always wants to argue? But as time has gone by, I think we’ve found that some of those old arguments have become a bit tired and worn out. After all, how many times can you argue about baptism or gun control? It’s almost as if, without us really knowing it was happening, our different opinions quietly faded into the background, leaving behind the thing that’s been there all along. It’s the thing that makes us a family in the first place. The thing that never goes away: love. And the truth is, when I look around at my family at Easter or Christmas dinner, I’m not thinking about the differences between our churches or the way we vote. I’m thinking: “This is my family. I love these people.”
As a United Methodist, I have a second family – my church. Methodism is my adopted home, a family of faith that took in an argumentative, restless kid with a bunch of questions. The thing that drew me to the Methodist Church, more than anything else, was its embodiment of the quote, “in big things, unity; in small things, diversity; in all things; charity [love]).” In a denomination that counts George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton as members, Methodists know how to agree to disagree. Your typical United Methodist congregation hosts a wide variety of spiritual refugees like myself – from Southern Baptists to religious skeptics, and everything in between. At our best, Methodists leave room for different opinions and focus on the big things we share: our faith in God (summed up in the Apostles’ Creed) and our mission to spread God’s love to the world.
But like all families, we’re not perfect; we still have our fights. And like a lot of other churches over the past few decades, our biggest fights are about human sexuality. Can LGBTQ folks be members of the church? What about in leadership positions? What about as pastors? Should people in loving, monogamous, same-sex relationships be able to get married in the church? Isn’t this about equality? What about what the Bible says? These are the kind of questions that get kicked around in local church Sunday school classes as well as at the United Methodist global conference that clarifies church doctrine and policy every 4 years. Too often, though, these conversations end up in raised voices and ad hominem attacks. Too often, we rally around artificial labels like “reconciling” and “confessing” and forget that we’re talking to and about people – other members of our family. After years of debate, culminating in the rise of the so-called “biblical obedience” movement and high-profile church trials, I have to wonder: aren’t some of these old arguments becoming a bit tired and worn out? Traditional Christian: “The Bible says homosexuality is a sin!” Progressive Christian: “Jesus says to not judge and to love everybody!”
What if, instead of repeating one-liners and looking to score political victories, we actually listened to each other? What if most traditional Methodists really do love and care about their LGBTQ friends and neighbors? What if most progressive Methodists really do love and care about the Bible? Could it be that we’ve forgotten the big things that unite us? Could it be that our real differences come down, not to faithfulness and love, but to interpretation and opinion? Could it be that we’ve not only forgotten how to agree to disagree – but that we’ve also forgotten about the one thing that makes us a family in the first place?
Amid growing calls for divorce, I refuse to choose sides in a Divided Methodist Church. We are a family. Gay and straight. Traditional and progressive. Hillary and Dubya. God is our Parent and we are all sisters and brothers. We need each other. In spite of all of our arguments in the past, my prayer is that one day soon, we’ll discover that all of our differences have quietly faded into the background, leaving behind the thing that’s been there all along. Then we’ll all be able to take a look around the Table and think to ourselves, “This is my family. I love these people.”
“Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.”
– 1 John 4:7
Rev. Paul Brown is an Elder in the Western North Carolina Conference and pastor of Central UMC in Canton, NC. Hailing from New Jersey, Paul is a graduate of Grove City College and Duke Divinity School. He and his wife, Rebecca, have two children, Amelia and Henry. He blogs at http://ecumethodist.blogspot.com.