What Does Unity Look Like after General Conference 2019?

Last blog I wrote asking for prayers for the Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church that was being held in St. Louis, MO. This Conference was held to determine the United Methodist Church’s stance on homosexuality.  The General Conference is the international body of representatives of the global United Methodist Church, and it is the Church’s highest authoritative body. It sets the official positions and rules of the United Methodist Church, which are then published every four years in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. In 1972, the General Conference added the exclusion of homosexuality, stating that homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and forbidding clergy from performing homosexual unions or marriages, and forbidding people who are self-avowed, practicing homosexuals from serving as clergy. A special General Conference was called in St. Louis last month to hear proposals to change this position. What was called “The One Church Plan” proposed the elimination of any prohibition on homosexuality and allowed each church body, congregation, and clergy to have their own position based on their own conscience. To the surprise and frustration of many North American and European United Methodists, this One Church Plan was not adopted. Instead, the General Conference adopted what was called The Traditionalist Plan. This left the prohibitions against homosexuality and called for stronger enforcement of those prohibitions. This Traditionalist Plan was adopted by 54%. Geographic “blocks,” however, were apparent in the vote. North American and European delegates were much more in favor of the One Church Plan, whereas African, Asian and the Filipino voters favored the Traditionalist Plan. Since the vote, there has been much discussion, controversy, and reaction. I think it is accurate to say that on the issue of human sexuality, the United Methodist Church has never been united! Further, I believe what our own Bishop Bruce Ough said awhile back, which was something like, “We are at an impasse. There can be no resolution to this conversation among people of faith.” For me, regardless of the outcome, I am watching how Christians react. I want to know what unity looks like. I want to know how people of faith respond to outcomes they either favor or disagree with. I want to see Jesus in how we United Methodists treat each other. I am disappointed that those who feel they “lost” are grieving too loudly. As I’ve watched my fellow United Methodists grieve this decision, I’ve seen so much unchristlike behavior. People have shared with me and at gatherings I’ve been at that they are angry at this decision, that they “cannot stand” with this outcome, and that they are questioning if they can continue in the United Methodist Church. All this I grant people. Yet my eye is on how they treat those who think differently, and how they treat the Church as a whole. Progressive United Methodists repeatedly have said that our church has “chosen hate,” has “decided to push people away,” “adopted hate speech,” and “chosen not to love certain people.”  I must protest. This is unfair and untrue. I have not heard this from any conservative. Further, holding the belief that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” is not hating. It is a legitimate moral and faith-filled position. Conservatives I’ve spoken with have repeatedly told me, “We’re being vilified!” We strive to love all people. We all agree that all people are of sacred worth. We never tell homosexuals that they are not loved by God. We include them in worship and invite them to the Holy Communion Table. We tell everyone that they are a part of God’s family. But we also say that we are all sinners, and that God has a plan and path for people that leads to life. We have prayed and read the Scriptures and have come to believe that we are trying to hold to a godly view. Please, Church, do not grieve too loudly! Progressives, please continue to make room for those who are more conservative, even when you think they are wrong! Do not “beat up” your sisters and brothers who think differently. Be true progressives: allow room and acceptance for those who think conservatively, just like you allow room and acceptance for those who are self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. In your grief, do not make a hostile environment for others. I know this is such a very important discussion. Progressives feel that they are fighting for the justice of God’s children. Yet, please understand, so are conservatives. In their understanding, they are fighting against the injustice of letting precious sisters and brothers languish in a sinful lifestyle. Regardless of your understanding, please see those who think differently as wanting the best for all of God’s precious children! Secondly, I am disappointed that those who feel they “won” are celebrating too loudly. Even if you feel that the United Methodist Church rightfully stood its ground and proclaimed what is godly, remember that there are faithful sisters and brothers who are feeling defeated and betrayed. They do not understand how you can be so closed to people who are hurting. Beware the self-righteousness of standing firm on a conviction and not seeing the individual people who are struggling. A friend in England once told me about driving on the “right” side of the road, “If you drive on the right here in England, you will be dead right!” This can be true in how fast we hold to our convictions, too. We can be so rigid in being right, that we “kill” the relationships we have with people who think differently. If you maintain a conservative position, remember that when Jesus told us to offer water to those excluded out on the margins, we are offering it to Jesus Himself. Be sure to always see the people behind the issues! Please love radically! Please be quick to tell people who understand themselves to be LGBTQ+ that they are loved by God and United Methodists, and they are firmly considered to be people of sacred worth to God. Please do not celebrate too loudly. Thirdly, I am disappointed that we are fracturing along our positions on human sexuality. Last month I wrote about the unity in Jesus that Christians must fight hard to uphold. It is not easy. Unity is easy when we agree. Yet, it is when we disagree that we can see what our unity really looks like. And that is what I’m looking to see.  Arguing, fighting, talking down to others, not listening deeply, disrespecting the other side, wanting to punish, wishing the other side would just leave, these are the behaviors I’m seeing as I look at the United Methodist Church as we respond to this General Conference. People on all sides are saying, “This is not my church.” What? As if your church is only your church when it agrees with you! Beware that selfish tendency! Our unity is in Jesus, not our understanding of human sexuality. In Jesus’ “inner twelve” were radical extremes: Judas the thief and betrayer, Matthew the Roman sympathizer and tax collector, and Simon the extreme patriotic radical. Jesus held them together knowing exactly who they were. They were not unified on their views about anything! I am disappointed to hear so many condescending tones to those in the non-Western world. People are blaming the Africans and Asians for this vote. And, as one clergy who spoke to the UM pastors of MN said, we have to be patient with the Africans. They are still struggling with so many unjust cultural realities. Well, this person may be right. Yet it is not right to use that to frame them as “backwards.” I believe that the Holy Spirit is moving as mightily among the Africans and Asians as the Holy Spirit moves among the Americans and Europeans. It is privilege to assume that my culture is more right than yours. It is power to think that you must catch up with me. Instead, let’s accept that the voting block of Africans and Asians is a God-filled witness, that their voices are speaking to us from God’s heart, and that they have an authentic witness that we must hear. Do not write them off as wrong! That is a form of bigotry. I am disappointed to hear so many people say that this was an old person vote. The General Conference had mostly older-than millennials delegates, and that this shows an ageism on this issue, they claim. I would argue that this is actually an ageist comment! There is an underlying assumption that certain age demographics have more value than others. Younger people tend to be more open to sexual variety. Older people are less open. Therefore, it is important to give younger people more voice. This is faulty on two accounts. One is the assumption that older people’s perspectives have less value than younger people’s. They need more voice simply because they are young. Now, I see value in having a variety of ages represented. But I also see value in tipping the balance in controversial discussions to people who have longer life experience. I value the wisdom of Christians who have been walking with God for many years. I see value in listening to our elders to provide guidance. Younger people have great passion and often much wisdom, but there is a heavier value in the collected wisdom of those who have walked with Jesus and have been led by the Holy Spirit a longer time. They have lived the cultural changes and have had the tenderizing of God correcting their own youthful zeal into prolonged deeper understanding. There is wisdom in the Church being slow to make big changes, as sometimes the Church may need to “outride” the cultural winds. Now, those who are progressives also point to the value of the Church standing up and making a pathway for the oppressed. The Church needs to actively change culture. Being slow to change prolongs injustice when the Church is on the side of the oppressor. Examples from history are given: racism, slavery, equality for women, child labor, divorce, even the Protestant Reformation, changing the Sabbath day, and Jewish kosher laws. This I accept.  Yet I also think of the painful mistakes the Church has made as it adopted too quickly, including all the countless theological heresies, the wide-spread patriotic theism, the aligning with various groups and factions, the inability to speak against cultural power, and the constant danger of justifying the selfish nature we all have as people. There is value in listening to the wisdom of those who have journeyed with Jesus longer than I have. I am disappointed in so many United Methodists who have publicly declared that they will simply not abide by the decision made by the General Conference. Now, I understand objecting because of conscience. Christians have done this throughout history. But their objecting must be within the constraints of obedience to the decisions of authority. If Christians choose to disobey an established authority, they also fully expect to be held accountable to that established authority. The danger here is that it is too easy to object! Noble conscious objection has crumbled into simply demanding things be my way. What is the value of being a part of a greater church if we can each, individually, pick and choose which parts we will abide by and which parts we won’t? This is simply a better-wrapped version of selfishness. I get my way in all things: if the wider church agrees, then I am in alignment; if the wider church doesn’t, then I have full right to not abide by it. Where is the allowance for the correcting by God through the voice of the greater body of Christ? Where is the humility that I may be wrong and that the wider church’s vote may reflect God’s correction of my view? One of the great values of being a part of a wider church is that it offers correctives to the limits of my own too-narrow view. This is true on the local church level, for churches within a conference, and for the global view of Christ’s Church. I am disappointed with the cry that the United Methodist Church has failed me. No, the church has not failed you. It may have disappointed you. It may not have agreed with you. It may have made, in your mind, a bad decision. But it has not failed you. It has shown you Jesus. It has proclaimed the Gospel to you. It has loved you and nurtured you. It has been wrong in the past, and it will be wrong in the future. But Jesus has led the United Methodist Church. The Holy Spirit has empowered the United Methodist Church. It remains a witness for God. Nearly everyone who is currently a part of the United Methodist Church came into the church after the 1972 language was in the United Methodist Book of Discipline. This is the church that has raised us and nurtured us. The church has not radically changed its position. All clergy have been asked, before being ordained, “Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity? Do you approve our church government and polity? Will you support and maintain them?” (¶336) All active clergy have said “yes” to these questions. The church has not left us. The church has not failed us. In our views, it may be wrong in certain points. But it deserves the respect of us treating the church well. I am disappointed to see so many United Methodists speak so badly about our church, so badly about so many other United Methodists, and this is damaging the witness of our church more than any stance on human sexuality. Jesus says that it is the way that we treat one another that is a core part of our witness. “By this, others will know if you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). Now, progressives, of course, use this to call the church to be more inclusive. Yet remember, conservatives also claim that they are loving all people while they maintain that biblically, expressions of human sexuality are reserved for heterosexual marriage. I know this is long, but one more thing. I am disappointed in those who are saying that we must agree not to hold each other accountable for expressions of human sexuality. There is a way emerging that seems to suggest that we will all just get along if no one points other people out as not conforming with our church’s teaching. We should not point out when clergy perform gay marriages and unions. We should not point out which others are self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. We should simply not talk about it! On one hand, I appreciate the calling to not become a bunch of cut-throats that seek to find flaws and faults with others. We don’t want to turn into a “head-hunting” culture. I affirm that we must always think the best of others, and that we must allow others grace.  Yet, I also am concerned that this stance also calls us to not treat one another well. For starters, it is simply acknowledging at the front that we are not going to take seriously a position of our church. That is so incredulous! Also, it calls the body to not hold each other accountable, even though that is a core part of who we are as we are in covenant together. Further, it uses shame and peer pressure to regulate and control those who think differently. Those who feel a moral conviction to hold others to the agreed-upon standard are seen as the problem, and there is pressure for the whole to make them conform. This is a misuse of power! This is the majority wielding undue influence over the minority. Progressives should never allow this! I’ve shared a lot about what has disappointed me about our church this past month. So, I guess as a disappointed United Methodist, this makes me a part of the majority! I hope you have been able to hear, however, that the disappointment I’ve shared is not about the decisions around human sexuality. I leave that to each person. My disappointment is about how we have lived this decision as Jesus-followers in the United Methodist Church. I want us to be able to not have to think alike. I want us to be able to disagree. Christians have always disagreed! What is crucial, however, is HOW we disagree. This makes all the difference. This makes our witness to the world. I want us to be very careful to treat each other well, especially as we wrestle with difficult conversations like this. If people just care about a certain outcome, then all that matters is that outcome. But this is not loving others. The church’s purpose is not to stand by a decision. It is to stand by Jesus and stand by all of God’s beloved children. I commit to standing by my personal position, but only as I truly love all those around me. I commit to standing by Jesus, but only when I take Him as my personal Lord and Savior and listen to His correcting Spirit. I commit to standing by all of God’s children, but only if I realize that means that I disagree with everyone about something.  My commitment is not to my stance, but to my stand. And I ask you to stand with me!