“May any fruit that grows on or from us throughout this painful debate always signify that we are followers of Christ.”
-Professor Douglas Campbell
One of my convictions as an ordained Elder is that the United Methodist Church is not mine. Yes, I have a vested (literally, haha) interest in seeing her flourish. Yes, I am tied to her by the ecclesiological equivalent of a marriage through ordination. I’m with the UMC “for better or for worse.” I did not ordain the Church, but rather the Triune God has called the church into being as the Bride of Christ and continues to love the Bride, even when she resembles the whore of Babylon. In short, the UMC – like all of the Body of Christ (for we are just one, admittedly lovely, part) – is God’s church, not mine or yours.
Contrast that with the view of the progressive and evangelical caucuses. A group of 80 evangelicals (I maintain the best name for this group is the UM College of Cardinals) has titled a press release naming their own concerns, “Regarding The Future of the United Methodist Church,” indicating that they feel entitled to determine that future on their own – and anonymously. At least when the Roman Catholics are in conclave we know the names attached to those little red hats. In a recently released video, Good News’ President Rob Renfroe even mentioned the group’s desire not to see churches harmed that “we love and that we have built.” (Whoa!) Whose church is it, again?
As for the progressives, a group of about 6-10 people who fancy themselves “Love Prevails” have recently released a “Manifesto” which, depending on your point of view, either reads like Luther’s 95 Theses or a freshman political science major’s rantings. Under the third of their three “D’s”, the small but merry band – who likes to claim outrage and then jovially paint lipstick on statues of John Wesley – wrote this:
“The time for polite persuasion has passed. To ensure discrimination no longer flows uninterrupted, we will protest and disrupt local, national, and global events. We will undermine all policies that limit or deny the full participation of LGBTQ United Methodists in the life of the church.”
It concludes with a promise to disrupt General Conference 2016 if necessary and – given the nature of Robert’s Rules – it seems pretty clear that they plan do that regardless. Ten or less people will attempt to hold General Conference hostage. Whose church is it, again?
I do not believe the UMC is my church. Yes, I have a voice, and as an Elder I have a calling to seek the best for the church even as I live out my vows to be faithful to this community, to obey my spiritual leaders, and to build up the people and community I serve to the best of my ability. But she’s not mine, she’s God’s, and should be treated as such.
Part of recognizing that the church is God’s, and the future of the church thus belongs to God, is recognizing that the good of the whole is more important than my own particular views. Thus, while I may not agree with all my sisters and brothers, I am called to love them. I have been greatly helped on the importance of this by one of my professors, NT scholar Douglas Campbell. Describing the basic perspective of the Apostle Paul, Campbell argues:
“He proclaims a qualitatively higher relational capacity in Christians, which is a complicated way of saying that he thinks Christians should behave in a markedly better fashion towards people, and he attempts to link this to existence in Christ.”
“Hence, the process as well as the end-point is critical, because if the process is betrayed in Christianity then the end is also betrayed automatically: for a relational entity whose end-point is perfect relationality, an aggressive journey to that end point is an absurdity.”
Both the left and the right in the UMC are making a mad dash towards this absurdity: the right threatens to withhold funds (divest?), or perhaps break away all together and take who-knows with them. The left is determined to dig their heels in and has taken a “renovate or destroy” strategy. Most of the moderate evangelicals and progressives, who may agree with the goals of their ideological partners but not their means, are all too silent.
If we wouldn’t allow it in the local church, it shouldn’t be allowed in denominational advocacy.
Simple, isn’t it? Here’s how I look at it: I wouldn’t allow a group demanding entrance to a Church Council meeting or closed SPRC meeting to have the floor, no matter how how much I sympathized with their grievances. Nor, on the conservative side, is it advisable to negotiate with hostage-takers; one of the oldest tricks in the local church is for a power player to threaten to leave or withdraw their tithe in order to get their way. All of these aggressive tactics deserve to be condemned, not taken seriously. To give in out of empathy, fear, or misplaced charity is to encourage that behavior to continue. In Edwin Friedman’s systems terminology, it is to continue to “adapt to immaturity.”
“Moreover, the very resolution of this issue must, as far as is possible, reflect the relational integrity of the Trinity. Unnecessarily divisive and/or coercive approaches to resolving this problem – on both sides – must be emphatically rejected.”
Because He lives, I can face tomorrow
Because He lives, all fear is gone
Because I know He holds the future
And life is worth the living, just because He lives
God holds the future, and we should start acting like it. Jesus is Lord, not us. As United Methodists, we honor the procedure of decision and discernment that we have all agreed upon, not because of “institutionalism” or “business as usual,” but because we seek to honor Christ. If we need more love in our process of discernment, this will come by prayerfully infusing it with God’s Spirit, not by a power-play to circumvent it. Moreover, our Bishops should be held accountable to what they have been consecrated to do, but even this must be done in love. It isn’t their church either, after all.
And it’s not mine. I’m no one important. I haven’t built – or rather, God has not used me to build – a megachurch. I am not a leader of any consequence in these discussions. I don’t go back generations in the UMC and I’ll never have a seminary wing named after me. I just happen to love the church that baptized and ordained me, and I want us to do and be better.
May we seek methods and ends that both please God, and may we be satisfied with nothing less. And have hope, dear friends: neither we, nor any caucus or region or “leading pastor[s]” hold the future of the church. God does, and God alone.