Overcoming Cynicism

In recent weeks I have read numerous opinions by various theologians whom I respect regarding contemporary issues that challenge us as Christians and as the church.  Each strives to bring sound reasoning and passion to bear on subjects like same-sex marriage, ordination for homosexuals, abortion, defining hospitality and tolerance, and more.  One after another call for reasoned discussions of the issues.  Dr. Riley Case, writing for The Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church, offer this observation:


                                                                   by Dr. Riley Case  

A United Methodist clergy friend greeted me the other day with the words: “What’s going on?”  The answer should have been: “Lots.  Two more kids came to Christ in the youth group.  We have had some remarkable answers to prayer in our church.  There are reports of revival in China and Liberia and Brazil.”

But, unfortunately, that was not the answer that my friend was interested in.  He wanted to know what were the latest developments in The United Methodist Church on issues around the practice of homosexuality, on church trials, and on the growing controversy over whether church law should be observed.


It is tragic that the present upheaval in The United Methodist Church is distracting us from the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, from caring for the least and the lost and the last in our midst, and from  concentrating on the spiritual life of our congregations.  The official church press puts on a good front, acting as if the present church controversies are only a small blip on the screen, minor skirmishes in far off places, but the progressive caucuses, the blogs and the many and extended comments in response to news stories suggest otherwise.  The upheavals over church trials and non-trials, acts of ecclesiastical disobedience and what is and what is not taking place because of it, are all-consuming    

Some comments:  

1.  We should not assume that most United Methodists know, or perhaps even care, about the actions of bishops and caucus groups and special interest groups.  Most of our church members, whether this is commendable or not, are focused on personal issues.  Many persons when they find out about progressive activism in the church, shake their heads in disbelief; others don’t want to be bothered about things happening in far off places; others become sad, or angry. 
At the same time more and more local congregations are now themselves being caught up in controversy, over comments (from whatever perspective) made from the pulpit or in the Sunday school classes, over the beliefs of pastors appointed to churches, and over how gays and lesbians in our churches are being treated.

Unfortunately, if we cannot agree on anything else, let us agree that the church is in for rough days ahead.  Issues around human sexuality are not being resolved.  The church is heading not toward healing and reconciliation but toward fracture.

We ignore this reality to our own detriment. 

2.  In the latest incident (next week may bring still a another new incident) the bishop of the New York Annual Conference, Bishop Martin McLee, dismissed charges against Rev. Dr. Thomas Ogletree for performing a same-sex “marriage” (for The Confessing Movement statement regarding this case go to:  confessingumc.org).  A complaint had been filed, leading to formal charges and the possibility of a church trial.  The presiding bishop of New York, Bishop Martin McLee, instead of proceeding with the trial, declared publicly, “Church trials produce no winners. Rather they result in harmful polarization and continue the harm brought to our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters,” and then dismissed the suit.  To be technically correct the bishop claimed the case was “resolved” but it is difficult to interpret the action in any way other than a de factodismissal of the case.

3.  But there is more to the New York and Bishop Martin McLee action.  Bishop McLee, as part of what he claimed was “resolution” made this announcement:  “I call us to a cessation of all trials and instead offer a process of theological, spiritual and ecclesiastical conversation.” 

For a large part of the church the statement should have been turned around to say: “I call us to a cessation of the processes of theological, spiritual, and ecclesiastical conversations, and propose to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church.”

In case the good bishop has not been keeping up on things, the church has been calling for and conducting conversations, dialogues, studies, forums, debates, discussions, and holy conferencing, with nothing to show for it all, ever since 1972.  We were seeking to hear each other, and understand each other, and feel each other’s pain, and find common ground, and be sensitive to one another, and to examine our various perspectives in 1974, in 1975, in 1979, in 1980, in 1983, in 1986, in 1989, in 1991, in 1993, in 1996, in 1997, in 2000, in 2002, in 2003, in 2006, in 2009, in 2010, and in 2013, and in the years in-between.  And we have nothing to show for all of this except empty hands. There are times to do holy conferencing, but there are times when holy conferencing has reached its limits and decisive action must be taken.

A good example of this was the time set aside at the General Conference of 2012 for “holy conferencing.”  If time at General Conference is money, then the holy conferencing cost several hundreds of thousands of dollars of church money in an exercise that was generally assessed as unproductive.  On the one hand, a delegate reported on the floor of the conference that “bullying” was taking place during the holy conferencing; on the other hand, a number of persons indicated that their time was spent enduring rants.  Others said the “conferencing” was respectful and challenging, but nothing was resolved. 

Time to go back and pick up some history.  In the 1830s and 1840s the church also faced a moral crisis: slavery.  The Methodist Episcopal Church was fairly young in terms of years but it had a strong tradition and position that slavery was wrong.  One attending issue was whether slaveholders could be church members (like in, Open Doors and Open Hearts).  The bishops were divided among themselves and took no action even after one of their own, Bishop Andrews, had himself become a slaveholder.  The radical evangelicals were considered trouble-makers because they agitated for the bishops to take leadership (eventually the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Free Methodist Church were formed out of this).  In 1842 the bishops urged “conversations” instead of action.  The General Conference passed a resolution asking Bishop Andrews to resign, and the church divided. 

4. Perhaps we do need theological, spiritual, and ecclesiastical conversations, but let the focus of the conversations be on dealing with the real crisis in the church.  Let it be over the following areas:

   a) What is the future of The United Methodist Church if, as some wish, there is a cessation of all trials and accountability for violations of the Discipline in issues around human sexuality?

   b) Should the demonstrations, the willful defiance of church discipline and language describing the church as “hateful,” “homophobic,” and “sinful” on the part of progressives be labeled “bullying?”  If not, what is it?

   c) Do we understand that there will be a sense of abandonment and probable fracturing of the global structure of our denomination, if we abandon the church’s historic stance on human sexuality?  At the moment there is an imperialistic disregard for the convictions and sensitivities of overseas conferences.  Is this the price we want to pay for succumbing to progressive agitation?

   d) How can we talk about a connectional church when the regional, moral and theological differences are breaking down the connection?  

    e) Several churches have asked whether deliberate defying of the Disciplinein regard to officiating in same-sex marriages would be in the same category as the deliberate withholding of apportionments to protest the failure of the church to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church.  Is this a matter for discussion?

   f) How shall we who love the church respond to an increasing number of persons who say it is time for amiable separation?  

I encourage you to read this and other articles about these issues at the Confessing Movement website
My personal reflection:

Now, let me add my marginally-educated theological two cents worth to the cacophony of voices. In 1997, striving to work through some of these issues in my own mind- scripturally, rationally, with an eye to the apostolic church’s longstanding tradition on such matters, and in tune with my own experience with people who are personally affected by the issues, I reflected and wrote about what I felt the Lord was instructing me to do:

We take great pride in the way in which we encourage discussions of God. We reason together among ourselves in a way that allows a wide range of views. In the Methodist church, where we “think and let think”, our methodology for exploring truth is often defined by the quadrilateral- scripture, reason, tradition, and experience. Not all of us have the same experiences, however, so that alone is not a reliable arbiter of truth and of little use if one is seeking agreement on matters. Similarly, not all of us have the same understanding of tradition, depending upon denominational differences and our interpretation of history and the sources we choose to cite. So unless we spend a lot of time in the study of our respective traditions, and comprehensively so, not just calling forth the parts we like, then tradition will be unreliable and subject to debate, too. That brings us to reason. Most would agree that we are not uniform in our intellect or education.

In Isaiah 1:18 the Lord invites us to “Come, let us reason together”. .

1.) “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall become like wool
2.) “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land;
3.) “But if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured by the sword.

For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

So, we are to reason together regarding the issues of sin and salvation ( as described in statement 1), obedience (statement 2) and rebellion (statement 3), and the consequences of each (statements 2&3).

That brings us to the fourth part of the quadrilateral, scripture. In my experience, this seems to be the part of the process most frequently ignored or abused by lay people like myself. Trying to get two Christians to agree about Scripture can be tricky. On the whole we don’t spend a lot of time in the Scripture. We generally don’t encourage committing it to memory or citing it as the basis of our beliefs in everyday conversation. Having already referred to the difficulty in trying to use experience, tradition, or reason to agree upon anything, can we try to find agreement in the Scripture?
Along that line, I’d like to offer just one verse and suggest that if we agree upon just that one verse, we then have a paradigm shift that will enable us to agree upon everything else in the entire world! The verse is this:

“And he said to him, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” Luke 10:27

You will recognize this as Jesus’ response to the Pharisees, who came together after they heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadduccees, to develop an intellectual strategy to trip Jesus up theologically.
Do you agree that this is the first and great commandment? Do you care? Does it matter in the big picture of your life? If so, then the next part may be of interest to you. If we can agree just on this verse, and we care, and it matters in our life that we do, what does it say we have to do?

1.) ”Love the Lord your God with all your heart.” What is the character of those who love with their heart, who have given their hearts to the Lord? Thinking of God makes them feel good. They are touched by tender testimonies and kind, reassuring words of God’s love for them. They have received the gift of grace. They are grateful for Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. They know God as the sacrificing Savior Jesus Christ and as the loving Father.

2.) “With all your soul” What is the character of those who have also given their soul to the Lord? Jesus is the most important thing in the world to them, more than family, friends, or worldly possessions. They know they are owned by Him. They know Him as the Lord and Master of their lives.

3.) “With all your strength” What is the character of those who have given their strength to the Lord in addition to their hearts and souls? They are willing to be His disciples, to work on behalf of His kingdom. They know that in order to do His work they have to submit to His instruction regarding what to do and how to do it. They submit to God’s power over them and relinquish their desire to control others, God, even themselves. They know Him as Teacher and Counselor.

4.) “And with all your mind” What is the character of those who have given all their mind? They have ceased to demand their own way. They’re committed to being transformed, changed by the renewal of their minds, not just once but forever as they grow and learn and are brought ever more closely into line with the image of Christ. They are brought into a personal, intimate fellowship with the Lord. They see, hear, and think as He does, but even so, they know that they are not God. They hunger and thirst for righteousness and pursue relationship with Jesus vigorously through the Word. They call Him both Friend and Lord God Almighty.

If we can agree upon just this one scripture and seek to attain the level of love that it requires, then it alone may bring us to agreement on all other matters, scriptural or secular. The agreement, however, will not be one with another, but all of us in agreement with God!

If we give all four aspects of ourselves to Him, He then is revealed to us more completely. What a beautiful and wonderful thing it is when we see more and more of Him and not just one part!

May we seek all of Him and His wisdom in our continued discussions.

Fundamentally, all of the critical social issues we face in our churches today boil down to one thing…..the role of the authority of Scripture in our lives and in our church polity. This was clearly evident in the decision this week as World Vision,…a large parachurch organization, first allowed homosexual couples to be a part of their ministry, then their board’s reversal of the same position the next day after this fact, the violation of the authority of Scripture, was pointed out by many of their partners and sponsors. We need to address this fundamental underlying issue, not the symptomatic emotional issues that arise from failing to address the real issue.



From missionary evangelist Stanley Jones, Song of Ascents, Nashville: Abingdon, 1968, p. 189:
Swami Shivananda, a famous swami in India, used to tell his disciples: “Kill the mind and then, and then only, can you meditate.” The Christian position is
“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy mind” – the intellectual nature; “with all thy heart” – the emotional nature; “with all thy soul” – the willing nature and “with all thy strength”- the physical nature. The total person is to love him – mind, emotion, will, strength. But the “strength” might mean the strength of all three. Some love him with the strength of the mind and the weakness of the emotion – the intellectualist in religion; some love him with the strength of emotion and the weakness of the mind – the sentimentalist in religion; some love him with the strength of the will and the weakness of emotion – the man of iron who is not very approachable. But loving God with the strength of the mind, the strength of the emotion, and the strength of the will – that makes the truly Christian and the truly balanced and the truly strong character.