My dad told me once, that “God works with our decisions.” What an interesting concept, but an important one. In this one statement my dad expressed both the pain and the hope that comes with our choices. I bring this up because as a pastor in the United Methodist Church (UMC) I must consider the hard choices that are tearing the church apart.
These past 10 day I have watched online the General Conference of the UMC. General Conference is the main body of representatives from around the world that meet every four years to discuss the business of the UMC as a whole. Most of the discussions center on the Book of Discipline (BoD) and the Book of Resolutions (BoR). The BoD is the main book where the UMC states their doctrine and polity. The BoR is a book that holds our resolutions we make about issues we face in the world. Both books are important for how we function as a global church.
Growing up in the UMC I have become used to the fact that there are differences of theology and understandings of what we believe about God and the church. However, lately as now I am a minister in the UMC, it is hard to be used to the discussion over our understanding on human sexuality.
Growing up I was taught that the church was not supposed to reflect the culture, but reflect the love, grace, and justice of God. Watching General Conference these past 10 days reminded me too much of our divided political nation, too much of our culture. Name calling, ridiculing, posturing, mud slinging, condemning, and various heated debates shows just how much our culture has affected the church. This is seen most when regarding human sexuality.
In the UMC BoD our stance on human sexuality is stated this way, “We affirm that sexuality is God’s good gift to all persons. We call everyone to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift. Although all persons are sexual being s whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only with the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage…We affirm that all person are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God. All persons need the ministry of the Church in their struggles for human fulfillment, as well as the spiritual and emotional care of a fellowship that enables reconciling relationships with God, with others, and with self. The UMC does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching. We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving on another, as Christ has loved and accepted us. We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.”
There are and has been for a considerable amount of time an argument to change the BoD stance on LGBTQ issues. It is a deeply divided argument. No matter what stance you take on human sexuality the problem is an ever present elephant in the room. When discussing this topic I heard from people who were there in Portland, Oregon “You can cut the tension with a knife.” Of course as a church that is deeply divided on this particular issue as we are it is no wonder that some in the church are calling for a split. Contrary to some people’s opinion on this matter, the talk of split is on both sides of this argument. The main symbol when talking about this split was “divorce.”
I am not a huge fan of this term, nor would I use this term to describe our situation if talking about splitting. First, I would like to say that I do not want a split. Of course there are times I feel it would be easiest, but I know the destruction that splits can have. On the other hand I also do not believe that splitting the UMC because of this issue is the end of the church. The reason I feel this way is because I know, “God works with our decisions.”
Think about big splits in scripture that have happened; Paul and Barnabus, Israel and Judah, Joseph and his brothers, Jacob and Esau, Abraham and Lot, and most important, God and humanity. As you can see, splits happen often in scripture. Are they wanted, No. Do they happen, Yes. As you read these stories a common denominator presents its self; God is still at work. No matter our decisions or choices, God is going to work through them to bring about His glory. As Romans 8 testifies, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Because of this I would like to give a better symbol if we split; the parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. I like this symbol for many reasons. First, we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Even if we have different understandings of what that means, it does not negate the truth that God has called all of us His children. Second, both of the sons in this parable had to learn the Fathers will and it took splitting to do it. If the youngest son had not left (exposing his own distance from the Father) then the oldest son would not have recognized his distance from the Father. Third, the Father is going to be the Father to both children in their decisions. “God works with our decisions.”
John Wesley the founder of the Methodist movement, along with his brother Charles, did not like the idea of separation or schism. In fact John Wesley wrote a sermon, “On Schism” where he declares, “And as such a separation is evil in itself, being a breach of brotherly love, so it brings forth evil fruit; it is naturally productive of the most mischievous consequences. It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmising, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethren; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to hell eternal.” Really strong words. I agree schism is evil and should not happen.
If we leave John Wesley’s sermon their we might think it has zero relevance to our present situation. So lets not leave the sermon their. Later in the sermon Wesley does give reason why schism or splitting is a good and required thing to do. “To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to others doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation, by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.” Sometimes splitting needs to happen to expose OUR sin and the sin of OTHERS. Just as the younger son in the parable recognized his sin by leaving the Father and the older son was shown his sin by the younger leaving. But, as stated above, even if we do split God will work His good purposes. “God works with our decisions.”
I don’t know if the UMC will split. I don’t know if splitting would be a good thing. But what I do know is that in our present state, we are hindering the Gospel of Jesus Christ more than promoting it. We are calling each other vile names and holding onto a resentment that is sinful. We are not treating each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Our church is not being seen as a beacon of light, but a pit of despair. In our distance from each other we are exposing our distance from God. We need to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about those who do not know Christ. We need to think about those who need the Gospel of Jesus Christ to transform their lives.
When we start to consider those outside the faith I believe the Holy Spirit will show us the best way possible. If we are to stay united then the Holy Spirit will unite us. If we are to split then the Holy Spirit will still work in our split. No matter what our decision in the future will be, God will reveal our sin. God will still run to us and embrace us. God will still invite us all to the party. God will be God in all His love, compassion, mercy, and justice. “God will work with our decisions…”
For more of John Wesley’s Sermons click on the link!!!