Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Around 15 years ago, I attended a workshop led by the late Dr. Stanley Grenz. He wrote the textbook we used a few years later for theology and doctrine in seminary, but that first impression remains the most memorable. Dr. Grenz wrote three words on an old-school white-paper easel:

Believe. Belong. Behave.

And then he asked which order was best when it comes to being part of a church.

If your church is like mine, it often goes in the order listed above. If you want to join our church, we ask if you believe the things we believe. If you do, we’ll let you belong. And once you belong…we hope you’ll behave. It’s not in the official liturgy, but, “Please don’t rob any banks or otherwise embarrass us publicly,” is often implied.

Is this the best way for people to enter into a relationship with a church?

All three of these words are at the heart of the conversation happening right now in the United Methodist Church. In February, the decision-making body of our denomination will meet to discuss our stance on human sexuality. One potential change, on the recommendation of our Council of Bishops, would give United Methodist churches and pastors the freedom to host and officiate same-sex weddings, if they so desired. This plan would also give the freedom to ordain LGBT clergy to each local board of ordained ministry. (The full 231-page report became public last month, which also includes a traditionalist option and a proposal to create multiple branches within the denomination.)

As you can imagine, there are many who have much to say on this. A few weeks ago, Rev. Keith Boyette – president of the Wesley Covenant Association, a group in opposition to this potential change – wrote a piece entitled, “Who Do You Say That I Am?” In it he referenced an article by Rev. Roger Wolsey, who argues for a more progressive Christianity.

Here’s the quote Rev. Boyette pulled from Rev. Wolsey:

“Jesus isn’t God.  Jesus didn’t die for our sins. . . . Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one. . . Christianity isn’t the only way for humans to experience salvation.”

So, Rev. Wolsey’s beliefs fall outside not only United Methodist doctrine but the Apostles’ and Nicene Creed. This quote in particular would not represent what the vast majority of Christians consider to be orthodox belief.

But, that being the case, I do have a question as to why Rev. Boyette chose to use it as an example.

Rev. Boyette’s piece suggests a false dichotomy: if we don’t maintain our current stance on human sexuality, we will be embracing Rev. Wolsey’s unorthodox interpretation of faith. Not only do I find this to be untrue, it does a disservice to the conversation itself.

This way of having debate – one end of the spectrum holds up an extreme example from the opposite end, and suggests these are the only two choices – has already done an excessive amount of damage in our political climate. Regardless of the degree of intent, it has a way of manipulating the conversation with fear.

I find it to be not just unhelpful, but harmful, especially when it manifests itself in the church.

So too is the notion that if you don’t conform to one way of thinking about human sexuality, Jesus must not be Lord. Rev. Boyette ends his article this way:

…don’t lose sight of the real issue being decided. We are not deciding whether the UM Church will continue as an institution. We are not deciding whether we will redefine the church’s sexual ethics, definition of marriage and ordination standards to depart from the Judaic and Christian teaching derived from God’s revealed word which has been lived out as revealed truth for thousands of years. We are answering Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asks the disciples this question in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It’s Peter who answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This is the answer Jesus was looking for, and the one our churches are looking for when we ask if you believe what we believe.

But it’s important to note when Jesus asks this question. This conversation comes in Matthew 16, Mark 8, and Luke 9. It’s in the middle of the story, not the beginning. For Jesus, this question is not an entrance exam.

And Peter, who gives the right answer, immediately gets in trouble. Jesus responds to his profession of faith by, for the first time, telling the disciples that he must suffer, die, and be raised again. And Peter does not like that answer: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” This is not the Messiah he signed up for. In response, Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan!”

We cannot hold up Peter’s confession without also noting his immediate failure to grasp the fullness of its reality. And he will continue to misunderstand, in big and small ways, even as what Jesus foretold happens right in front of his eyes. He’s still figuring it out.

So are we. One can correctly identify and believe in Jesus as Lord, and spend the rest of their lives living into that truth. We can and will misunderstand or disagree on aspects of something so mysterious. That one can only believe a certain way on an issue to affirm Jesus as Lord is not true, in theory or practice.

What’s a better introduction to a church than believe->belong->behave? When Jesus shows up on the scene, what he actually leads with is far more simple: “Follow me.”

Consistently in the gospels, Jesus’ first steps are to announce the kingdom of God is at hand, and invite people to follow. The good news begins not with a theology test, but an invitation. Jesus does not introduce himself by asking if you’ve accepted him as your Lord and Savior. He simply invites you to follow.

To be sure, you’ll find what seems like a greater sense of urgency from Paul and the early church in Acts. But there’s also a difference between spreading the gospel on-the-go to a world that’s never heard it, and the way we communicate “Jesus is Lord!” to a Western culture saturated in Christianity for its entire existence.

The truth is, all three of these words – believe, belong, behave – are always happening simultaneously. For Jesus, the belief we want (and want to validate) comes, in part, through behave. Follow me. Walk in this Jesus way. See if it’s true. But he leads with an invitation to belong. It’s an invitation we could use more of.

When we reduce the conversation on human sexuality to biblical literalism vs. heretical universalism, all three of these words suffer. Suggesting those are our only two options is both incorrect and irresponsible. In an effort to promote what some will think to be right belief, it promotes the wrong behavior. And it does not encourage the belonging I find Jesus leading with.

I don’t know where all of this is headed for the United Methodist Church; there is certainly much we disagree on. But none of us have cornered the market on following Jesus Christ. And when we are tempted to not only be afraid, but then use fear to our advantage, may faith instead be at the heart of our conversation, and our decision-making.

May we hold up Peter’s confession at the heart of our belief. May we see in Peter’s immediate failure to grasp its fullness that we all still have much to learn. And may we still have ears to hear, above all else, the invitation.

Follow me.”

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6 thoughts on “Believing, Belonging, and Behaving in the United Methodist Church

  1. Will, I respect where you are coming from – and I can understand the dangers of reducing any single issue as the litmus test for real faith and surrender to Jesus as Lord. But I think that is really Rev. Boyette’s point – that this is not just an issue of human sexuality. The debate on human sexuality flows from many serious theological differences, not the least of which is the authority of Scripture, that threaten to lead the UMC out of alignment with orthodox Christianity. Sure, none of us have it all figured out — but are we willing to surrender to the authority of Jesus as Lord – and the Scriptures which He, himself, said point to Him – in face of societal and cultural values and mores that go against it? That is what will be decided, in some part, in February. I don’t believe it is irresponsible to point that out. It would be irresponsible to allow people to choose “unity” at the expense of our Wesleyan identity, not to mention our commitment to the Lordship of Jesus.

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    1. Hey Rowland, thanks for the read and the response. I absolutely believe there are healthy ways to lift up authority of scripture, I just don’t think this is one of them. Rev. Boyette’s article doesn’t mention the authority of scripture at all. It certainly argues for the authority of Jesus as Lord, but does so by using an extreme example as the alternative and suggesting one must fall in line on this issue to call Jesus as Lord. I think that’s an irresponsible way of communicating on an issue that deserves better.

      I’m in complete agreement that we are called to more than a token “unity”, and will always have great respect for solid exegesis! But I’m not sure that’s what’s happening here. I do really appreciate the way you communicate where you’re coming from, and have read what you’ve shared on all this in the past few months with the same respect. Anyone putting their fingers to the keyboard in such a time as this has my prayers.

      (Go Braves.)

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  2. Thanks, Will. It is a tenuous time. Much of mainline Protestantism in North America is in free fall decline- including United Methodism. I can see how you might read Keith’s remarks as unhealthy, but in light of that decline and the rise of “heretical universalism”, he is reminding us that what we are invited to belong to is the same thing as we are called to behave as- conformity to Jesus Christ. We are called and invited to believe something in particular, not whatever we want; we are called to belong to a community defined by those beliefs; and we are empowered to behave in a particular, even peculiar way. And we are in grave danger of leaving that behind. Rev. Boyette is sounding an alarm for the church at large that we are close embracing unorthodoxy more than he intends to provide a litmus test for individual faith. Granted, you cannot sound an alarm with out alarming people or sounding like you are cutting some people out.

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