February 20th 2019
What do a margarita, an electric chair, solar panels and the upcoming general conference have in common?
They are all things that United Methodists have a variety of opinions on, even though our Book of Discipline has made a clear preference. From the early days of Methodism, our movement has had a preference toward abstinence in regards to use of alcohol, (one of the reasons we use grape juice instead of fermented wine), yet many of our members choose to drink with moderation. Our Church has taken a firm stand against the death penalty, and sees global climate change as an environmental crisis that all members need to take seriously and respond to. Yet, in talks with members at the churches I’ve served, I know that most congregations have folks who strongly believe that capital punishment should remain in place, and I’ve had quite a few congregants inform me that they think the idea of humans having an impact on climate change is a liberal hoax. The fact is that our Church’s binding documents take a stand on these and many other issues, but still our congregations and members have mixed opinions and practices regarding them.
The called general conference that will be taking place beginning this weekend, February 23-26, is a similar situation. We will have delegates from around the world elected by our local annual conferences trying to chart a path or way forward for our denomination regarding not just the question of homosexuality, but the deeper challenge, of how we as members of this Church, work out our disagreements theologically.
This past Sunday night we had a second open conversation and informational meeting at Somerville FUMC surrounding the upcoming conference and the decisions coming to our churches in the connection. One of the major insights we explored at this meeting is the fact that our church has a stance theologically on many issues, and still we disagree. We explored the nature of dialogue and named some tools that can help us navigate these challenging waters.
One of the tools we explored was the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, a framework that Albert Outler developed to help articulate a uniquely Methodist approach to theological and biblical interpretation. The approach involves bringing together Scripture, tradition, reason, and our experience as lenses helping us see our theological task. No question can be solved with one of these alone. Take the example we practiced with on Sunday night on alcohol use. There are plenty of passages in the Bible against drunkenness, some calling wine a mocker and beer a brawler. But there is also Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine, (the best wine at that), as well as the fact that the central symbol and sacrament of the church's unity and mission is the Eucharist: which takes us back to the Lord’s supper; his farewell address where he blessed his followers with bread and wine.
There is Scripture that could lead us to different conclusions on proper use of alcohol. So we need other lenses to help us. We bring our experience, the traditions of the church, and our reasoning into play, and from that our church has made its call: it promotes abstinence, but even still, within the discipline there is room to disagree, and each has to follow the Spirit in their own decisions.
This work, of wrestling with the Scriptures and what God is saying to us today, is the good, exciting, and scary work of biblical interpretation. This is the work our church has done from the beginning, always trying to make as much room as possible for folks to work out the non-essentials in their own lives and contexts.
It is the hard and important work of biblical interpretation that has allowed our church to grow as it has and to make decisions in the past that have challenged previous assumptions. It’s the theological task of interpretation that has led the church to allow families who have gone through a divorce to still remain members, and even pursue ordination. It is our theological task that has made room for women to answer the call to preach and lead our churches, even though there was a time when this was not so.
The Church’s task is to engage theologically and wrestle with where God is calling us today, with the tools of scripture, tradition, reason and experience. A part of what it means to follow Jesus is to earnestly seek where we are being called today. Our denomination has made calls on many issues, some of which many in our local church disagree with. And yet we are still united in our mission to make disciples. Our church members disagree about alcohol use, the state laws concerning capital punishment, climate change, and the matter of LGBTQ inclusion.
The questions before our local churches and the task of our delegates in St. Louis is painful and difficult, but it is a holy task of continuing to wrestle with God’s call on our lives. We disagree about many issues, and yet remain united in mission. Is the question of homosexuality one such issue? We will see.
My prayer is for patience.
For unity in the Spirit.
That God would lead us and we would follow.
That agree or disagree, when the world sees us they would see love.
Because that’s all that really matters.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." John 13:35