In the United Methodist Book of Discipline is a section called the Social Principles, which contains our denomination’s stance on seventy-six different issues. From abortion to bullying to sustainable agriculture to collective bargaining…you name it, we have some thoughts.
But the Social Principles are not church law. When you come forward to join our church, we don’t ask if you agree with our stance on any or all of these issues. We ask if you repent of your sin and confess Jesus Christ as your Savior. And we also ask if you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
So you can be a United Methodist (or a United Methodist pastor) and disagree with any portion of any number of our stances. With 76 items on the list, everyone does. This is one of the primary ingredients for the incredible diversity that can exist within our church.
This week, a survey of American Methodists revealed a colorful picture: in matters of theology, 44% self-identified as conservative or traditional, 28% as moderate or centrist, 20% as progressive or liberal (plus the wisest among us: eight percent self-identified as “unsure”). It remains true that while the United Methodist Church typically falls outside of the evangelical label, we are its closest, largest cousin. Traditional voices are still the leading representative, but a 44/28/20 split? That’s pretty good. And it creates a wide space for all kinds of people to encounter not only the divine, but each other.
In a couple of weeks, the decision-making body of our denomination will meet to discuss our language on human sexuality. The Social Principles currently read as follows:
We affirm that all persons 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 United Methodist Church 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 one 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.
Again, this is not church law, so there is freedom to agree or disagree with some or all of it. Across the global spectrum of Methodism, from the most progressive parts of the western world to nations in Africa where homosexuality is still illegal, all of the above is present in our pews.
However, weddings and ordination are church law. Currently no United Methodist pastor is authorized to perform a same-sex wedding, no church is allowed to hold the ceremony, and no local boards of ordained ministry are permitted to ordain self-avowed practicing LGBT persons.
There are four proposals on the table:
- The One Church Plan gives freedom to each local church, pastor, and board of ordained ministry to decide if they will perform weddings and ordain LGBT clergy. This plan has the support of our Council of Bishops.
- The Traditional Plan reaffirms the current language and strengthens accountability to existing church law.
- The Simple Plan removes all language from the Book of Discipline that excludes LGBT persons from full participation in the life of the church.
- The Connectional Conference Plan essentially creates three branches of United Methodism (traditional/centrist/progressive).
If you’re looking for what’s going to happen, you’ll need someone smarter than me. The denomination has some good resources on its website.
What I do know is what it’s like to be the pastor of a group of people who don’t all think, speak, or love alike. And far more often than not, this has been a gift.
Last fall our church in Pulaski walked through a study on all of this on Wednesday nights. And at the same time, we walked through a series on the Apostles’ Creed on Sunday mornings. It’s the same thing we did at our church in Athens (using the Nicene Creed) in 2016, the last time the denomination’s decision-making body met. I find it good, in such a time as this, to be reminded of the larger truths that hold us together; these creeds hold together not just Methodism, but Christianity.
But belief has to offer more than hollow unity. The lines in the creed must be more than just statements we intellectually affirm. What difference does believing in the forgiveness of sins make in my life?
The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Not just believers, but disciples. Not just salvation, but transformation. And not just me, but the world.
This work happens best through relationships, a model Jesus embraced with a dozen guys two thousand years ago. And relationships have made a significant impact on my own faith, especially when it comes to matters such as this. Getting to know and love and be challenged by those who believe differently than me on all sorts of things has strengthened my own faith. And I believe it strengthens our churches when we both worship and work together.
There are days I know our diversity is not a gift to those in the minority. But they remain a gift to us. And I believe we are at our best when those who interpret scripture differently sit at the same table, wrestling with God and learning from each other.
It’s a dangerous thing to ask what kind of church you want; most of the worst church meetings I’ve sat through have been the ones with the most sentences starting with, “I want.” But almost all of us would at least say we want a church, our church, to be a place that loves people. No matter how things go on the denominational level in a couple of weeks, I assume all sides will still want this to be true for their church.
But I also think we have to ask ourselves if it’s already true. If our churches aren’t already places where those who think and live differently are welcome – and welcome enough to be in the life of the church, not just a casual attendee – then we have bigger problems than whatever happens at these meetings.
(photo from the sanctuary of First United Methodist Church in Pulaski, VA)