When I was little, my mother would take me to the library almost every week. My brothers and I were allowed to pick books from the children’s section of Thomas Beaver library. I loved biographies, books based on old horror movies, and choose your own adventure books. A choose your own adventure book is one with multiple endings. At the end of each page, the reader is confronted with a series of choices. Choice A might lead you to one page. Choice B another. The end of the story and how the story progressed depended on your choices.
How the story would end was always a mystery. There were multiple endings. One never really knew where you would wind up until you arrived at the ending. Choices pointed you in directions, but each path was different.
As members of the United Methodist church fight superficially over issues of sexuality, and more deeply over issues of power, I think we need to be careful how we talk to each other. At this point, we do not know how things will end. It is not clear where our choices will lead us. We cannot really control what happens in the future.
What we can control though are the choices that we make in terms of talking about the state of the church, each other, and how we will treat each other. Many of the choices being offered the church seem like false choices. Choose vindictive punishments or be in a de-facto state of schism. Choose our understanding of the bible, or face God’s wrath on the day of judgement. Choose to agree with the United Methodist BOD on this issue, or be a parasite on the church (to be be fair it was a comment on the IRD’s blog).
In order to further the conversation, in what I would argue is a better direction, let me offer a different sent of choices:
Choose Faith – Church conflict is not something new. When you read the New Testament, we see many examples of church conflict. Paul’s letters deal with conflict. In 1 Corinthians Paul writes to a church in conflict over spiritual gifts. Paul’s famous chapter on love is his suggestion on how to navigate this conflict.
In chapter 13, when Paul writes about what will ultimately matter at the end of the day, he contends that what matters are faith, love, and hope. While Paul would engage in conflicts in the church, it was over major issues of faith. If it was a minor issue like what we see in Romans 14, Paul would write “accept those whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (14:1, TNIV). Now on a major issue, like whether one needed to be circumcised to be a follower of Jesus, Paul would fight tooth and nail (read Galatians or Romans).
Issues of human sexuality are not a major issue of faith. They are not mentioned in the Nicene Creed or the Apostle’s creed. The four gospels do not record Jesus teaching on this issue. A tiny part of the Bible seems to reference issues related to gender and sexual orientation.
Obviously it is included in the Social Principles, and other parts of the BOD, but this does not inherently make its major faith issue. Many United Methodist clergy and laity disagree with particular teachings in the BOD. Some might even act against them. While we have made it a big deal in some parts of the BOD, this does not inherently make it a major issue that we need to get into all out conflict over. We can choose to focus on what we agree on, the essentials of our faith, while agreeing that this is a disputable matter of faith.
Choose Love – Paul’s introduction to his writings on love in 1 Corinthians starts with Paul writing “and yet I will show you the most excellent way” (12:31b, TNIV). Paul then writes about love. Love for Paul was a way of being in the world. In the midst of their conflict on spiritual gifts, the Corinthians could choose to act in love.
Love in this chapter is not emotional. It is not how American’s typically think of it. Paul is describing love in terms of how we act. Paul gives hall marks for love (13: 4-7) so that they could know if they were acting in love.
As a church, we can choose to act in love. In the midst of disagreement our words can be loving. Our actions towards each other can reflect the way of love Paul describes. Love could be our way in the world, even in the midst of conflict.
Choose Hope – 1 Corinthians 13 is not the only time Paul writes about faith, love, and hope. In the first letter of the New Testament, Paul writes in the first chapter, “we remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thessalonians 1:3, TNIV). I love the image of “endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Being a follower of Christ is not easy. Living out our faith in the context of the church is not a cake walk. Witnessing to our faith in a world shaped by forces that are antithetical to the gospel is often challenging. Yet, in the midst of difficulty we endure because our hope is in Jesus.
The world does not have the final say. Our challenges in the present will not last forever. Sin and death do not get the last word. Christ will come again. There will be a new heaven and a new earth. In turn, we have hope.
Many would want us to choose despair. Some would suggest that we will not be able to persevere together through this conflict. Talk of schism is not a hopeful solution. Obviously we can choose despair, but its not our only option. We can choose hope. We can believe Jesus is bigger than our differences.
Choose tension – Decisiveness is often a quality that our society values. People who can make decisions and stand behind them regardless of the costs are often valued. We like neat solutions. Many of our institutions such as our legal system, political elections, or our sports are designed around winning and losing. It drives us crazy when there is not a clear winner. Obviously there are advantages to having winners and being decisive.
In our current conflict, we could choose paths and courses that require decisions and create winners and losers. We could also choose an alternate way of being in the world. One with a different focus. Instead of looking for winners and losers, we could live with tension.
Our conflict over human sexuality will not go away. Even if there is schism in the church, it will not go away. There is no easy way to divide the church over human sexuality. No matter what happens, there will be tension. Most churches will not be of one mind on the subject. As people and our culture continue to change, as new generations enter the church, there will still be tension in a divided church.
So instead of pretending that we could somehow end tension with schism, we could just choose to live with tension. We do not have to agree on every issue, to act in love. The United Methodist church has always had diversity and diversity creates tension. Instead of framing this negatively, we could lift up positives that come from tension and do our best to minimize the negatives.
Choose the fruits of the Spirit – The premise of choose your own adventure books is that choices have consequences. We are not always sure what the end results of those choices will be. In the short-term though, we can look at the fruits of our choices. Are the fruits of our actions in line with the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5: 22-23)? If they are not, are we making choices pleasing to God?
Choose to avoid the desires of the sinful nature – We can also choose to avoid the desires of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:17-21). While evaluating fruit, we can also evaluate what desires are driving our actions. Just because we use the language of faith does not mean our desires are from God. If the fruits are not in keeping with the Spirit, and the actions are more in line with the acts of the sinful nature, we might be choosing the ways of the world over the ways of God.
Choose humility – As Paul wraps up his conversation on love being the most excellent way, he writes “for now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” He contends that we cannot see everything clearly now. A few verses earlier, he wrote “we know in part and we prophecy in part.” For Paul, we will not fully know until we see Christ face to face.
Since we cannot be fully sure who is right in our conflict (to the extent you want to frame our conflict in terms of being right or wrong), we need to choose humility. We may be in part or fully wrong in our positions. Without absolute certainty, we need to tread carefully. Overtime we may come to a consensus, but in the meantime, we to be open to being wrong.
Choose Unity – One of the hardest choices to make is to stay together. There is pain throughout the connection. Good faithful people from many different walks of life and perspectives are struggling. If we choose unity, there will be more pain, more struggle, more conflicts. Even if we make choices based on faith, love, hope tension, the fruits of the spirits, avoiding the desires of the sinful nature, humility, we cannot avoid hurting each other. Complaints will be filed. Just solutions will not be found. Trials will occur.
In the midst of our hurt, our brokenness, our pain, we will need to decide how to move forward. If we choose unity, we will have to work through all this. What matters more than any particular outcome, is how we choose to treat each other in the midst of it all. When we have to decide what ultimately matters as a church, will it be unity in Christ, or some other ambition?
Schism is not inevitable. We do not have to choose it. The end of this adventure is not set in stone. Many choices still need to be made. Choosing to frame our conversation in terms of schism is not an observation on reality, but an option chosen from many. If we let this wedge issue divide us, it will be because of the choices we have made. May God give us the grace to choose wisely.