They Will Know Us By

Jack Jackson offers the United Methodist church four options on how to deal with our “debate over progressive views lesiban and gay ordination and marriage.”  He advocates that we pursue disunion.  I strongly disagree.  When you frame the issue the way Mr. Jackson frames it, and give us only four options, then that may indeed be the best option.  The problem is though that we have more options and the issue is more complicated than Mr. Jackson suggests.  I contend that another option is that we reframe the conversation.

Mr. Jackson frames the conversation as if there are two sides and that this is a debate.  I would contend that both of these are fales premises.  Onto his first point, there are many perspectives on the issues of lesbian and gay ordination and marriage.  Some might be labeled progressive.  We might be able to identify a “traditional” group that stands in opposition to progressives. The trouble is that its not simply two groups, there is a spectrum.  There is not one united group that represents all “progressives.”  Not every supporter of the status quo, supports the status quo for the same reasons.  There are many sides with many perspectives that may or may not align with the two perceived sides Mr. Jackson offers.

Framing this as a debate is also problematic   There are not two sides.  No one has offered a clear premise to debate.  No one has won and no one will win.  Issues related to human sexuality are not for the winning or losing.  The issues raise questions that we live with.  As a denomination we have felt a need to answer these questions every four years, but the questions do not go away.  Our answers given at General Conference are not the last word on the subject.  We will continue to live with the issues, ask questions, and disagree on certain aspects of how best to live with the issues.  Four years later, we will probably try to answer these questions again at General Conference.

What is rarely talked about in terms of these issues is power.  Is the real issue human sexuality or is it power?  Why do we need to frame this as a debate?  Why is this a wedge issue?  Should we be talking about human sexuality or the unhealthy power dynamics at work in the church?  We do not talk about power, but it is at the heart of trying to end of guaranteed appointments, the Call To Action, Vital Congregations, and framing issues over human sexuality as something to debate.

The title of the article invokes the idea of marriage.  As if we are a couple that could break up.  I have not seen in the Bible a metaphor of the church where members of the church are married to each other.  The prevailing metaphor is that the church is married to Christ.  We are not married to each other, we are married to Christ.

What would our partner ask us to do?  As far as I can tell, Jesus does not call for disunity.  Even a cursory reading of the Gospel of John would show that.  Jesus tells his followers “by this everyone will know you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35, TNIV).  Breaking up would not be showing that we love each other.  It would should that we cannot even figure out how to love each other in the midst of disagreement.

Jesus prays that his followers “may be one” (John 17:21, TNIV).  How do we honor Jesus, who prays for our unity, by calling for disunity?  Is the church about us?  I believe that when we start framing issues in ways that fly in the face of Jesus prayer for his followers, we need to step back and prayerfully reflect on the situation.

I realize that there is no one catholic church that all Christians are part of in an institutional sense.  Today is celebrated by some as Reformation day.  Sometimes as brothers and sisters in Christ we have decided to split institutionally (even before the Reformation).  Splits in the institutional church usually involve a mix of power, political, and theological motives.  I acknowledge that sometimes we can no longer be in relationship with each other institutionally for our power, political, and theological reasons.  It has to be acknowledged though that this should not be a first response to problems and leaves a poor witness to Christ’s ideals for his followers.

We say as United Methodists that our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Talk of “break up” flies in the face of our mission.  I don’t see how spending the energy and time of splitting up the church will make more disciples.  After the heartbreak, the emotional stress, and the energy expended creating new denominations, how will any new denomination be in a healthy place to be a church that disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

If I was a professor at a seminary, or a pastor in a congregation that stood squarely in the progressive camp, or traditional camp, I might welcome the chance to have a clean split, and end what I construe as an all encompassing issue that has to be decided immediately.  As a pastor of a local church that has members all over the spectrum though, it will not be a clean split.  I have worshipped at churches that would call themselves reconciling.  My home church labeled itself as a confessing church.  In all of these local congregations, different people had different stances on the “debate over progressive views lesiban and gay ordination and marriage.”  In the churches I have served as a pastor, my parishioners were not all on the same page.

Forcing these congregations to wrestle with which of the two or more denominations that form from the division process they would join would be catastrophic.  No one joined these churches hoping they would get to spend their time and energy debating each other about this sort of thing.  Our purpose as congregations is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  We are constantly trying to discern how God is calling us to do this in our context.  There are issues we do not agree on.  Our focus is not on these issues.  If our focus is forced on these issues, I am not sure the congregations I have served could survive the wrestling match.  Many will be hurt and angry.  What was a non-issue will become the overriding issue.

I realize many people are hurt by the status quo.  I do not want to minimize the problems with the status quo.  I do think though that there will be even more hurt, pain, and suffering if we try to divide the denomination.  I do not think any side will win or be al that much better off by the division process.  Part of the problem with the status quo though is how we are framing the issues?  Why do we need to frame the issue in terms of winners and losers?  Why do we frame it in ways that are so decisive and ultimately divisive?  Is it about the “debate over progressive views lesiban and gay ordination and marriage?”  Or are there other forces at work that use this as a wedge issue?

A question I keep wrestling with is “in fifty years will we thank God that we ended the United Methodist Church?”  Our understanding of human sexuality and identity has changed significantly in the last fifty year.  I believe it will continue to change.  Fifty years from now this may be a non-issue.  Will all the pain and hurt from the division process lead to healthier churches fifty years from now?  Or will it exacerbate our present trends of decline?

Church is messy.  We hurt each other.  Often we are torn between conflicting values.  We try to be a witness in the world of God’s love and truth without being shaped by the world, but when you put yourself in a position to shape the world, you always run the risk of being shaped.  As long as we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world, we’re going to get dirty and hurt.

Division in the church is not inevitable.  While there are some who welcome it, we do not have to adopt their framing of the issue.  We are not forced to accept the four options that Jack Jackson offers.  We can prayerfully discern others ways to live with these issues and converse about these issues.  There are other ways to frame the “debate over progressive views lesiban and gay ordination and marriage.”  It is not a debate, there will be no winners.  The pain and hurt we are inflicting on each other is, in part, because of how we are framing the issues.  Ultimately, how do we want the world to know us?

 “The Last Supper” ©2007 Copyright Lawrence OP.  Licensed Under Creative Commons.

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