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Why We Don’t Change Our Minds: Confirmation Bias

Why We Don’t Change Our Minds: Confirmation Bias

 

…I proclaimed first to those in Damascus and Jerusalem, then to the whole region of Judea and to the Gentiles. My message was that they should change their hearts and lives and turn to God, and that they should demonstrate this change in their behavior.

Acts 26:20

 

After he washed the disciples’ feet, he put on his robes and returned to his place at the table. He said to them, “Do you know what I’ve done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you speak correctly, because I am. If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you too must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example: Just as I have done, you also must do. I assure you, servants aren’t greater than their master, nor are those who are sent greater than the one who sent them. Since you know these things, you will be happy if you do them. I’m not speaking about all of you. I know those whom I’ve chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture, The one who eats my bread has turned against me.

“I’m telling you this now, before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I Am. I assure you that whoever receives someone I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

John 13:12-20

 

Confirmation Bias is tough for every person, because the things that we care the most about are the things in which we are least able to see all sides of or be able to change our minds about if we are wrong. This is a part of our nature that makes it harder for us to follow God, and, in the case of the human sexuality debates in the United Methodist Church, harder for people to come to agreement on when they disagree vehemently.

 

I know some of you will not like the CEB translation here – “change your hearts and lives.” Repent! It just has such a ring to it. But defining repentance is very helpful for us. It is much more than being sorry or feeling bad. It is a commitment to change, to be a new person in Christ. Repentance is lived out by one’s new and different action. Our minds need to be changed before we can become followers of Christ, and our lives as Wesleyan disciples are of a people who are constantly being transformed more and more into the image of Christ (2 Cor 3:18).

 

But this is really, really hard to do, and we are hardwired against transformational change of mind. There have been countless studies on this, but my favorite is by Kahan, Peters, Dawson, and Slovic, and can be found here. In this study they took hundreds of people and gave them 4 tests. The first was easy – how much do you like math? The second test was to see how good at math they actually were. The third test asked people to self-identify themselves on a political spectrum. The fourth was a test to see where they actually landed on the political spectrum.

 

They then took half the people to one side and asked them a question about a skin cream. Did applying the cream help or hurt? The math looked like this:

 

 

It was not an obvious answer – one had to figure out the percentages, which are:

 

 

Not surprisingly, those who were good at math did better at figuring out the question regardless of where they fell on the political spectrum.

 

 

As you can see, the blue lines are liberals and the red lines conservatives. Just a side note, the liberals and conservatives did slightly better on this math problem than those in the political middle.

 

Then the researchers kept the same numbers but made up a different problem. They took the other half of the research group and told them that a city was looking into a gun control measure. That city took a survey of other cities with the same policy they were looking into and asked if crime had gone up or down. Remember – this was a made-up problem. There was no policy and no true data, but the research subjects did not know this. Again, the numbers were the same – the researchers were trying to see if the subjects could still figure out the percentages and answer the question correctly if it dealt with a subject about which people cared deeply. The numbers looked like this:

 

 

 

This time, however, how successful people were figuring out the problem changed dramatically:

 

 

The top two lines are the results when the math confirmed their political bias – for liberals, that crime would decrease after the new, more stringent gun control, and for conservatives, that crime would increase. The bottom two lines are what happened when the result went against the person’s expectation depending on one’s political viewpoint on gun control.

 

The long and the short of it – when we are talking about, thinking about, and discussing things we really care about, we can’t even do math anymore.

 

Our brains find a way to discard information that goes against our established beliefs. We agree with what we already agree with and we disregard that which doesn’t confirm our already established ideas.

 

Understanding confirmation bias helps us begin to grasp how useless many of our previous discussions and debates about human sexuality have been. We have gathered small groups of people who care deeply about this issue from one side or the other, have them speak briefly to each other, and then are shocked when they become more entrenched in their views. That is how our brains work. We must change how we discuss, and stop debating the issue of human sexuality, Biblical interpretation, etc.

 

Instead, we need to enter these conversations with the utmost humility. We must know that we ourselves are sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We have to go into a conversation with an openness to the work of the Holy Spirit possibly being different from our present position. And we have to spend enough time in the conversation so the Truth can appear.

 

I know some of you have had physical reactions to the last paragraph. You believe your position is Right. The hard truth about humanity is that the person who is closest to Right, the closest to what God is, is still not exactly where God is, or thinking exactly what God thinks. We are all wrong about some aspect of human sexuality, and we need to gather with that kind of humility.

 

We enter conversations of this type not to defeat the other, but instead to live into being the body of Christ. That requires knowing Christ is our head and that we need the others who are there, even if we hate them or believe they hate us, or if we believe they are completely wrong.

 

We are commanded by our Lord to wash each other’s feet. Jesus washed Judas’ feet and served him communion. We are commanded to live that kind of life with each other – even those we feel have betrayed us and hurt people. This is the life of a Christian. Jesus washed the feet of, and served communion to, the man who sold him out to die. A man, who in the gospel of John, is not shown to have remorse for his actions. Following Jesus in this matter, though difficult, is not impossible, for Christ is with us. Let us follow the example of our Savior.

 

By now some of you are seeing just how different a conversation I am calling people to participate in and why the schism in our church at this time would be a great sin. Before we can split we need to have this kind of humble, open, lengthy conversation. To split before we do this would be to abandon our repentance. It would be to refuse the offer of the Holy Spirit for a changed heart and mind. We are invited by Christ to be transformed, to be changed, to have some of our fundamental understandings and actions transformed to be more Christlike. Let’s build a church where this conversation can occur. Join those of us who are willing to take the more difficult way – the way that leads to transformation.

Fundamental Attribution Error, or You Are a Terrible Person

Fundamental Attribution Error, or You Are a Terrible Person

The snake was the most intelligent of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say that you shouldn’t eat from any tree in the garden?”

The woman said to the snake, “We may eat the fruit of the garden’s trees but not the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden. God said, ‘Don’t eat from it, and don’t touch it, or you will die.’”

The snake said to the woman, “You won’t die! God knows that on the day you eat from it, you will see clearly and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was beautiful with delicious food and that the tree would provide wisdom, so she took some of its fruit and ate it, and also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then they both saw clearly and knew that they were naked. So they sewed fig leaves together and made garments for themselves.

During that day’s cool evening breeze, they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden; and the man and his wife hid themselves from the Lord God in the middle of the garden’s trees. The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”

The man replied, “I heard your sound in the garden; I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the tree, which I commanded you not to eat?”

The man said, “The woman you gave me, she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the woman, “What have you done?!”

And the woman said, “The snake tricked me, and I ate.”

Genesis 3:1-13

 

We in the United Methodist Church tend to have a high anthropology, or view of the human condition. I, for good or ill, fall on the other side. A former District Superintendent once told me he believes I have the lowest anthropology in the Iowa Conference. I do believe my low anthropology can be used for the benefit of the church at this point in time, because when we speak to each other now we do not seem to come from the position of a sinner who does not know all the truth. We instead speak from positions of intense righteousness. We must remember that we are sinners, and we have faults, and those faults arise in our fights and talks about human sexuality. In this post and in the next we will discuss two ways our sin arises when we disagree with each other – the Fundamental Attribution Error and Confirmation Bias.

 

Fundamental Attribution Error is a high dollar phrase but it basically means that we tend to give ourselves a pass when something bad happens and blame it on the world around us (such as Adam blaming Eve, and Eve blaming the snake, and neither taking any personal responsibility), yet when someone else does something bad or hurtful we blame his or her innate character (he or she did this because he or she is a bad person who cannot help but be hurtful and bad). Just think for a little bit and see just how often this error has arisen in our discussions at Annual or General Conferences, in blogs, magazines, and much, much more. If you cannot remember seeing it, I am sorry, but it is because you are caught in the Fundamental Attribution Error.

 

Fundamental Attribution Error is easy to find in the Bible. In Joshua 22 the rest of Israel misinterprets why Ruben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh built an altar and come within a hairs breadth of war. David sends people to give condolences to the new King of Ammonites upon the death of his father, but the new king misreads the purpose of David’s people and makes very, very bad decisions (1 Chronicles 19). The disciples have issues with each other. We misinterpret motives, and we misinterpret the place those motives come from. If we don’t admit this fault we create more and more contention.

 

It is rare, even in our most volatile debates, that someone is intentionally trying to wound someone else. We sometimes believe there is a need to speak the truth of justice or declare the correct interpretation of Scripture, to which others take offense. We have negative histories with each other and take speeches or posts as personal insults. We feel so strongly someone is wrong we get really mad at him or her and fall into interpretive hostility instead of interpretive charity (see my previous post). But in none of the instances described above was there a deliberate effort to hurt another person.

 

We engage in the Fundamental Attribution Error in other ways as well. A lack of understanding of the other person’s theology causing us to come to worst case conclusions. Sometimes we get caught up and want to “win”, and in the process lose our objectivity. Past hurts cause us to believe what has happened is related to past hurts when it is not. Also, any time we fall into believing someone did x simply because they are inherently this way, we have fallen into the Fundamental Attribution Error.

 

When we believe the other is irredeemably bad and you can’t even talk with them we have fallen away from being Christ in the world. When we believe the other person is inherently bad so we get to be terrible to them, instead of loving our enemy, we have fallen away from being Christ in the world. Jesus does not believe this or act like this, thank God. We should work hard figuring out what is Right, but when we do so we cannot fall into the trap of dismissing others, and the Fundamental Attribution Error makes us fall into that trap.

 

We need to acknowledge with humility that we are sinful people who struggle with this issue. It is not just about the other person being wrong, it is about us misinterpreting what he or she says and his or her reason for saying it. Recognizing and admitting our issues with the Fundamental Attribution Error will help us forgive, reconcile, and speak well with each other. Then we can look to the logs in our own eye, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry.

Transforming Our Conversation, or We’ve Been Doing this Wrong

Transforming Our Conversation, or We’ve Been Doing this Wrong

You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only don’t let this freedom be an opportunity to indulge your selfish impulses, but serve each other through love. All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!

I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other.

Galatians 5:13-26

 

Ah, the question of sexual immorality. Is same-sex sex this immorality? Or is it immoral to not correct the oppression of those who have been created LGBTQ+ by God and placed in the body of Christ to live together in fully loving relationships? As people who follow and try to live like Jesus Christ this is a conversation we should be having well.

 

But, we don’t. Notice the other actions produced by selfish motives: hate, fighting, losing your temper, conflict, group rivalry, and my favorite in our present circumstance, competitive opposition (I really do like the CEB translation here). We are in, and have been for some time, competitive opposition. We as United Methodists have dug ourselves into quite a hole. I know many on both sides say how much they have talked to each other, but in all my experience that is exactly what has happened: people have talked to each other, not with each other. We have talked to, and in talking to have created camps, and groups, and country clubs, and competitive opposition.

 

So how do we start digging out of this hole? I think we need to start where Paul asks us to start – by living out the fruits of the spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and gentleness have not been a frequent aspect of General Conference, or many Annual Conferences that are not monolithic in their thought and practice. And frankly, the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness practiced in those Annual Conferences is often a false one, created by not realizing those in their midst who do not agree as opposed to being the Church in agreement.

So how do we live into this different, odd looking world where we don’t competitively oppose one another? Dr. Douglas Campbell, Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, talks about the love commandment in the Johannine writings and how those writings compare the world of Christ in contrast to the world outside of Christ. In talking about how we love one another, John points toward using interpretive charity toward one another – the goal is to hear one another in the best possible light. The world, on the other hand, lives through interpretive hostility – trying to find the worst possible intention and meaning of what a person has said. In my experience, we in the United Methodist Church tend toward interpretive hostility in our debates with one another. I have seen interpretive hostility rear its head in nearly any kind of discussion as we look for the opposition to try to sneak something by us on the issue of human sexuality.

 

It is natural to fall into interpretive opposition when people have been hurt as much as they have. Susan Pennock gives an incredible poverty workshop where she talks about the differences between people who have been raised with a middle-class mindset and those raised in generational poverty. Often the decisions made by those in poverty seem foolish to those raised with a middle-class mindset. Mrs. Pennock points out over and over that “you only know what you know.” We do not always know what others think we should know. People say and do incredibly hurtful things more often than not because they just don’t know better. Scathing replies never help. It is difficult, but this is something we must confront.

 

This story will not approach the level of hurt and frustration experienced by many in the debates about human sexuality, but I think it underscores a valuable lesson. My grandparents farmed until they could no longer physically do so. In the late 1940’s my grandfather had just put up a new hog shed. It had an enclosed shelter for bad weather and a concrete, fenced in, outdoor area for nice weather and feeding (concrete to keep the hogs from digging out). This concrete slab was slanted downhill so when it rained everything would flow away from the shelter. This, as with all hog buildings of the time, created a pool of what we will call ‘slurry’ on the outside of the fence opposite the shelter.

 

Grandpa was going to clean out the hog building for the first time. The hogs, as always, were not cooperating. He could not even start to get on the tractor after opening the gate before the hogs would start to escape, so he went to get Grandma to help him out. Grandma was about to go to town, and this was when going to town meant something. She was dressed up in her town clothes (she had one town outfit, which ranked just below her one Sunday outfit. Everything else she wore were what we called ‘everyday clothes’ that could get dirty). Grandpa told her it would be fine. She would drive the tractor onto the concrete pad and he would carry her out over the fence, so Grandma agreed to help.

 

Grandma got up on the Farmall H with a loader on it. Here is where the problems started. The gate was opposite the shelter where all the slurry was. The big puddle there had created a lip between the ground and the concrete slab. The front tires of the tractor would hit the slab and not move. The back wheels would start to spin, and that was bad because it would start to send slurry toward Grandma and her good clothes. Grandpa told her to back up and come in full throttle. She could hang on as the tractor bounced up onto the concrete slab and all would be fine.

 

So, Grandma did what Grandpa suggested and came in full throttle. Only, instead of the front tires bouncing up onto the slab, they both blew out with a bunch of slurry around them. This shot the slurry up in the air and into the fan, which was also running as fast as possible. The fan then shot the slurry right into my Grandma sitting on the seat. It literally hit the fan.

 

Grandpa tried to ask if she was OK, but he was laughing so hard he couldn’t get the words out. Grandma just got off the tractor and walked through the slurry to the house. Grandpa slept on the couch for two weeks.

 

My grandparents lived together happily for 71 years until Grandpa died last December. Grandma still gets mad if that story comes up, and until his death Grandpa would still try to keep from laughing. They were able to get through it, but one of the biggest lessons is they were both doing their best. Grandpa was trying to support his family. For every one dollar’s worth of corn he fed the hogs he got three dollars back when he sold them. He was doing his best to expand the hog operation and keep the farm on solid footing. Grandma was doing what she could to help. She could drive tractors and do as much work as anyone else and was helping her husband and the farm. In doing their best, Grandma ended up washing manure out of herself and her good clothes, upset at Grandpa’s reaction, while Grandpa was sleeping on the couch with his tractor with two flat tires sitting in a foot of runny manure. This is where doing their best got them.

 

The vast majority of people on all sides of our fight over LGBTQ+ issues have been doing their best. In the process of doing their best, people have been hurt, have left the denomination, and have seen it hit the fan so many times we are covered in metaphorical manure and looking for ways to escape and clean up.

 

We can clean up without having to leave each other, however. We can talk about LGBTQ+ issues without shoveling slurry into fans. This is not our end. We are washed in the blood, and that is more powerful than even my Grandma’s ability to clean clothes.

 

So let us follow the Spirit! Let us go with each other to be washed clean and keep from going down the path toward schism. This is the first of several posts where I detail what we can do. I invite you to both get dirty with me as we take this difficult journey, and try to live out the fruit of the spirit with me, as we figure out how to move forward together.

 

This post if by Eric Schubert, an elder in the Iowa Annual Conference and pastor of Greenfield UMC.

 

 

The Instruments of Perfection

The Instruments of Perfection

 

In my previous post I ended a detailed critique with a note of optimism.  While many in our denomination do not believe that further division would indeed be tragic in the full sense, Uniting Methodists and others have an opportunity to offer a vision which shows us real tragedy in the embrace of schism.  This vision would show how further division does not need to happen and ought not happen.  The first element of what I take to be Uniting Methodists’ vision is spirituality and the second, a way of reading scripture.  In this post I will address the movement’s statements on spirituality.

This emphasis on spirituality is most plainly evident in the vision statement’s repeated invocation of holiness.  Contrary to the protestations of some, this emphasis on holiness is a new element in appeals for unity.  Previous centrist rhetoric has focused on the desire to be unified in mission and purpose so that our churches could continue to do good in the world and win adherents to the Christian faith (the transformation and disciples of our mission statement).  The people of the Uniting Methodists movement are to be applauded for moving beyond these appeals.  In joining others in our denomination who have long demanded a real theological and ethical weight in the governing statements and conversations of United Methodism the Uniting Methodists movement has done us all a service.

In analyzing the Uniting Methodists’ statements on spirituality I will draw on a framework used by the ancient spiritual master John Cassian.  In the first dialogue of his Conferences, Cassian distinguishes between perfection or holiness and the “instruments of perfection” through which we strive after that goal.  Perfection, for Cassian, is to attain a heart of peace and tranquility.  However, we can only attain this goal through certain practices.  These are the “instruments of perfection”, such as the mortification of the flesh, fasting, self-denial, and all the other labors of the spiritual disciplines.  Through our obedience to the commandments in these works the grace of God works within us also so that we may receive from God the peace which passes all understanding.

The Uniting Methodists’ statement offers suggestions as to their view of both the nature of perfection or holiness and the “instruments of perfection” whereby we might attain it.   The most important of these “instruments of perfection” appears to be maintaining a covenant of unity with our diverse brothers and sisters in Christ, although other aspects such as following where God leads and returning to the commandments and traditions are also mentioned.  Through these practices the grace of God brings us to holiness, which is defined as the love of God and neighbor.  The question we must ask here is whether this is a sufficient account of the spiritual life.  We will begin with the account of holiness or perfection and then move to the account of the “instruments of perfection.”

Holiness

The chief problem with Uniting Methodists’ account of holiness is that it is difficult to discern what exactly it is.  In settling on love of God and neighbor I have followed this passage from the “Mission Statement”:

“We urge holiness as the rule for our relationships. We affirm the Wesleyan commitment to personal and social holiness. We recognize that we sometimes disagree on how best to pursue holiness, and those differences can lead to conflict. Though we may differ in understanding, we are committed to loving God and neighbor alike.”

This statement, part of which was discussed in my previous post, suggests that the meaning of holiness lies in “loving God and neighbor alike,” even as it also acknowledges, without offering further clarification, that there is disagreement on what exactly this means.

I will obviously not say that Uniting Methodists are wrong in making “love of God and neighbor” the meaning of holiness.  There could be no better definition of holiness than the summary of the whole Law.  But here once again Uniting Methodists offer no account of what they take the phrase to mean.  In this, I find the document’s description of holiness insufficient.  It does not offer a vision, but an empty vessel:  many different drinks can be poured into it but it can pour nothing into us.

On the one hand, it has no mystical side.  It says nothing of our union with God.  It says nothing of receiving the Holy Spirit.  It says nothing of the reign of Christ in our hearts.  On the other, it has no practical side:  it says nothing of praying for enemies or loving them or forgiveness or bearing one another’s burdens or anything else that shows what it means to love our neighbor.  In leaving these aspects of our sanctification unmentioned it risks making the goal of all our striving a mere change in our disposition, an all-too insubstantial shifting of attitudes.

This lack of depth and clarity can also lead to statements which are not just insufficient, but simply theologically incorrect.  Take for example the third conviction of Uniting Methodists that “centering on Jesus Christ is God’s way of reconciling division.”  Is it a reorientation of our mental attention which reconciles division or something more divine?  Whether that division is within ourselves, between the flesh and the spirit or between competing desires; whether that division is within our churches between brother and brother, sister and sister; whether that division is within a nation between parties, ideologies, races, classes, creeds; whether that division is within the human race between male and female; whether that division is between heaven and earth, between God and his creation; whatever the division is, God’s way of reconciling that division is not “centering on Jesus Christ” but rather Jesus Christ himself.  In his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall (Ephesians 2:14), it is in him that there is “no longer Jew nor Greek, , slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).

This is no mere theological quibble.  Statements like this throughout the document represent a confusion of the instruments of perfection for perfection itself.  They confuse our works with God’s work.  There are works which we must accomplish in order to be healed and attain to wholeness, peace, and love, but it is God’s work alone which actually heals us and actually brings about that peace and that love.  There is no fault in emphasizing the instruments, in insisting on what we must do.  Such exhortation is necessary to the Church’s proclamation and reminds us that we must work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).  But there is fault when these instruments are confused with perfection itself.  Then we begin to think that we, through sheer force of will and determination, can accomplish the transformation of our souls and our communities.  When we do this we forget that it is God who is at work within us (Philippians 2:13).  We forget that we must be clothed with power from in high.  We forget that without Christ we can do nothing.  We forget that the goal of our lives is not the accomplishing of deeds or the change of dispositions but union with the living God.

The Instruments of Perfection

How then does Uniting Methodists portray these “instruments of perfection?”  Here the document is somewhat clearer.  We are to “keep our hearts and minds centered on Jesus, so we are open to wherever the catholic spirit of God’s love might lead us.”  We are to practice “humble conversation.”  The Holy Spirit “uses diversity to advance God’s mission.” “Returning to God and keeping God’s instructions” is important.  From these and other statements it is fair to characterize the heart of Uniting Methodists’ definition of the instruments of perfection as remaining in fellowship with the diversity of God’s people.

Now, all traditions of Christian spirituality would agree that we must work out our salvation in community and that we learn to love God through loving our brothers and sisters.  Nevertheless here too there is a certain insufficiency in the Uniting Methodists’ statement and an unhelpful vagueness.  If the Uniting Methodists would provide a vision, it must show us something.  What are the ways that we grow in love and grace through the difficult work of remaining in unity with our brothers and sisters?  What concretely must be done?  That is what the “instruments” of Christian life are all about.

Chief among these deeds to be done must surely be the work of forgiveness.  Forgiving and being forgiven, being reconciled to one another, is one of the most fundamental ways we grow in love and grace by living in fellowship with others.  The word forgiveness does not appear in the Uniting Methodists’ statement and yet what is more needed in our present schism as forgiveness?  Wounds cry out unreconciled from all sides.  The lesbian seminarian cries out:  she knew she could not be ordained in the home conference which nurtured her and so she had to seek out a new home and a new region of the church.  And so too the evangelical pastor cries out from a career of belittlement and contempt at the hands of the very clergy colleagues who ought to have been his support and stay.  Most of all our queer brothers and sisters cry out and show their scars from every time Christian teaching was applied without charity or understanding, patience or love, to the wounding of their souls.  These things cannot go unnamed by any group that urges us to unity.  Repentance must be sought and, when offered, accepted.  Mercy must reach out from the wounded and earnest contrition from those who did the wrong so that both may meet in the embrace of reconciliation.  Humility must reign over all, so that all might lower themselves for one another.  And yet how many sacrifices are being offered at our altars when we know that a brother has something against us?

These are no easy acts; hiding them under the pleasant vagueness of “staying together leads us to love” makes them harder still.  It is because they are difficult that they are essential.  We would not be so deep in schism as we are and moving still further and further apart if the work required for reconciliation were easy.  Without these difficult acts of forgiveness there can be no peace in the church.  Any vision for a way forward must recognize that and yet few do.  The promise of some voices on the conservative end, that a wondrous unanimity will be appear once the troublesome parties are ejected from the church or the true faithful depart themselves, does not recognize this.  The strident provocations and inflexible demands of the progressive wing likewise do not acknowledge it.  And despite its hopes, neither does this Uniting Methodists statement.   A path forward undertaken in the diversity they envision can only be traveled by these acts of difficult, almost impossible (but with God all things are possible!) forgiveness.  We cannot pretend it is simple.  We cannot afford to shy away from the frightening, sublime clarity of what it would mean.  If we are to go to war against the sin and hatred which divides us, we must be unafraid of counting the cost (Luke 14:31-32).

 

In this and other posts I have offered a strong criticism of the Uniting Methodists’ statement and I will continue to do so in posts to come.  This is not out of any malicious desire to tear apart a document that has so clearly been the product of assiduous labor and the best intentions for the Church.  On the contrary, I offer these criticisms for the same reason that I was excited for the appearance of the Uniting Methodists’ statement in the first place:  if there is a way forward for the United Methodist Church it must be informed by deeper and clearer theological reflection than has hitherto been the case.  As in our relations with one another we must strive after the genuine love which is the bond of the Spirit, so also in our proclamation and admonitions to one another we must press unhesitatingly forward toward the truth in whose light we shall see light.  If we are willing to settle for less than love we shall not have the perseverance to attain the truth.  If we settle for a murky sort of truth we shall never see the way to love.  Let us rest in neither of these but rather continue doggedly in the works which are ours, so that from the abundance of the grace of God we might share in the love and the truth which are his.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.  You can email him at charles.rivera@yale.edu or tweet @MarEphremsVoice.

Image:  Icon of John Cassian.

Real Disagreement

Real Disagreement

Last week I began a series of posts which will be engaging with the vision statement of the Uniting Methodists movement.  There is much that could be said about this group but my engagement in this and subsequent pieces will be limited to examining their theology.  For these next few posts I am going to be focusing on the sections entitled “Mission Statement” and “Shared Commitment.”  In this post, I want to focus on some of the ways in which the Uniting Methodists statement obscures the reality of our disagreements.  I will do this by posing three questions, each one tied to a specific statement in these sections of the document.  In my next few posts I intend to analyze the kind of spirituality proposed in these sections as well as their way of reading the Bible.

Question 1:  Different ways of pursuing holiness or different ideas of holiness?

In the mission statement, Uniting Methodists asserts “We recognize that we sometimes disagree on how best to pursue holiness, and those differences can lead to conflict.”  On the one hand this statement is unproblematic:  there is great disagreement in United Methodism on how best to pursue holiness.  On the other hand, however, it is a very insufficient description of the present state of the denomination.  We are not just in disagreement about how to pursue holiness.  We are in disagreement about what holiness is.

Take a few examples.  Can you be holy if you do not advocate justice for the oppressed?  Some United Methodists would assert that this misses the point about holiness, that the heart of holiness is a personal relationship with Christ.  The transformation flowing from this relationship might take the shape of advocating for justice, but on the other hand it might not.  Other United Methodists would assert that advocating for justice is the very heart of what it means to be biblically holy.  Any personal relationship or other piety, in the absence of justice, is hypocritical and false.

Consider another question:  can what we do in the body make us unholy?  Some United Methodists would say no, that holiness is a purely spiritual affair and that what matters is whether your heart is right.  Others would say (although rarely in exactly these words) that bodily actions can indeed defile you and make you unholy.  For some United Methodists an example might be participating in kinds of commerce which are economically or environmentally exploitative:  if you are destroying the earth as a petroleum engineer, you cannot be living a life of righteousness even if your intentions are pure.  Some United Methodists might think of sexual sin in a similar way:  there is no morally acceptable way to commit adultery or for a man to have sex with another man.  The mere bodily fact of these actions (pillaging oil from the earth, illicit sex) means you are not righteous.  This is one of many places where the fault line in our denomination does not lie between “progressives” and “conservatives.”

Finally, consider perhaps the most elemental disagreement:  is our holiness affected by the way we live our lives or are we holy through God’s love and grace regardless of how we live?  Many Methodists would tend toward the latter more Lutheran or Calvinist position.  None of us are or can become actually holy.  We are all so broken and sinful that in this life we cannot be actually holy or righteousness.  Nevertheless God calls us beloved in spite of our faults and only in this sense are we holy.  Others would hold the more traditionally Wesleyan position (which is the majority position in Christianity down through the ages).  This position holds that, although sin indeed besets us all, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we can become actually holy in this life, even to the point of being utterly without sin.  This holiness is not achieved solely by God’s action:  we must receive the gift he offers us and work out our salvation in cooperation with Christ who works in us.

All of these disagreements are not merely over how to pursue holiness.  United Methodists who agree that that advocating justice for the oppressed is an indispensable part of holiness might still disagree about how to pursue that holiness.  They might disagree, for example, on the importance of traditional piety such as prayer and Bible study for pursuing justice or whether the Church should work within or outside of government structures (and if outside, whether the work should be conducted as a mild-mannered charity or a radical agitator).  Furthermore, that not insignificant body of United Methodists who do not believe we can actually become holy in this life would likely take issue with the whole idea of “pursuing” holiness in the first place.

Question 2:  In what sense “biblical”?  In what sense “faithful”?

The first of Uniting Methodists’ four convictions states that “the current divide is based on differing perspectives that are biblical and faithful.”  The sense in which these words are intended seems rather clear.  All perspectives in the current debate are biblical, in that all parties will refer to the Bible as an authority and all parties have come to their current convictions through study of the scriptures.  Likewise people of different views have come to these perspectives faithfully in the sense that they have come to them through earnestly seeking the will of God.

These, however, are not the only senses in which a given perspective may be said to be “biblical” or “faithful.”  For many, to say that a perspective is biblical does not mean only that it was arrived at through study of the Bible, but that it is also in accord with the will and way of the God who inspires the Bible.  Thus the antebellum embrace of slavery is “biblical” in the first sense, since it was arrived at through study of the Bible, but no United Methodists today would say that it is “biblical” in the second sense.  Similarly, “faithfulness” might describe not a purity of intentions but a fidelity to the traditions we have received, as in the hymn:  “Faith of our fathers! holy faith!  We will be true to thee till death!”

These differing senses of “biblical” and “faithful” can be illustrated by a brief tour through the writing of Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the great theologians of the early Church.  Irenaeus’ most substantial work was the Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called, which is more often referred to by the shorter title it was given in Latin translation:  Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies.  Irenaeus was writing at a time when congregations all over the Mediterranean were riven with dissension and strife.  The source of this strife was a dispute over a group of movements which scholars refer to as Gnosticism.  You can read elsewhere about the various different beliefs which were held by the different kinds of Gnostics, but for our purposes the point is this:  the Gnostics spent a lot of time reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible.  In fact, so far as we can tell, the first person to write a commentary on one of the gospels was a man named Heracleon, a Valentinian Gnostic who wrote a commentary on the gospel of John.

In his attempt to bring peace to the churches by refuting the false teachings of the Gnostics Irenaeus acknowledged that they were energetic in interpreting the Bible.  But he did not stop with that sense of “biblical.”  He continued on to show the problems with Gnostic interpretation of scripture and offer superior alternatives.  In doing so he employed several methods.  Often he would appeal to the plain meaning of the text, since the Gnostics were fond of insisting that the text said something other than what it seemed to say.  So, for example, when John the Baptist declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Gnostics like Heracleon would say that “the world” means only God’s chosen elect (this heretical view, known as “limited atonement,” was taken up again centuries later by Calvinism).  But Irenaeus and other orthodox Christians would say “No, the world actually means the world.  That’s the plain sense of the text.”

At other times, however, Irenaeus would appeal to the tradition of the Church and the gospel as it had been proclaimed by the apostles and their successors.  The apostles and their successors taught and handed down the “big picture” story of scripture, which Irenaeus called the “rule of faith.”  So when Gnostics taught (based on their reading of the Bible) that there were two Gods, an evil, lower one who created the material world, and a good, higher one who was the Father of Jesus and sent him to save us, Irenaeus could appeal to the “rule of faith” and reply that there was only one God, who was both the creator of the world and the Father of Jesus Christ.  Because the Gnostics did not hold to this received apostolic faith, their interpretation of the Bible went astray.

Irenaeus uses the example of a tile mosaic to illustrate his point.  Suppose a mosaic of a king had become all jumbled up.  Unless you knew what the king looked like, you could not put the mosaic back in order and, since the tiles could be put in any number of configurations, you might mistakenly create a picture very far from the truth.  Like the mosaic, scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways but only through the teaching of the apostolic faith can it be interpreted correctly.  Only those who have seen the face of the king and hold it continually before their mind’s eye can correctly assemble the jumbled picture.

That is a long digression but the point here is a simple one:  earnest interpretation of the Bible is not necessarily correct interpretation of the Bible.   Something which is “biblical” or “faithful” in the first sense is not necessarily “biblical” or “faithful” in the second sense.  And this is where it is important to attend to the rhetoric of a statement like “our differing perspectives are biblical and faithful.”  If you say that without clarifying what you mean, it serves to prevent people from objecting based on other definitions of the word.  Someone holding to the second sense of “biblical” might say “I don’t think it’s biblical to exclude people based on who they love.  The overarching, big picture story of the whole Bible is about God extending his grace to all people.”  But then Uniting Methodists could say “But wouldn’t you agree that they have come to that conviction through wrestling with the scriptures?  How can you say their view isn’t biblical?”  In this way the use of the same words obscures a fundamental disagreement.

In this section I have assumed that Uniting Methodists intends to say our differing perspectives are “biblical” in the first sense and shown how this obscures real disagreement among those in our denomination who are interested in what is “biblical” in the second sense.  Since our perspectives do differ in real ways (as we have seen above in the example of holiness), I have felt it safe to assume that Uniting Methodists does not intend to say they are all biblical in the second sense:  this would amount to saying that God’s will is not one or consistent.  There is, however, a third option:  it could be that the framers of the document do not think there is a “biblical” perspective, in the second sense, on the matters that divide us.  In other words, this would mean that they are matters on which God’s will and the teaching of the Church are not clear.  Thus those who insist on “biblical” perspectives in the second sense are all in error, for they have gone beyond the limits of what scripture teaches.  This brings us to our final point.

Question 3:  Is division always tragic?

The second conviction of Uniting Methodists is this:  “Sole adherence to one’s perspective leads to tragic division.”  Here again I must parse words because there are several senses in which a division may be “tragic.”  “Tragic” might suggest that is senseless and there is no reason for it to happen.  It would thus suggest that it did not have to happen or even that it ought not to have happened. But “tragic” might also be meant in a less pregnant sense.  It might simply mean that something is heartwrenching.

Even many of those who are currently advocating for further and more formal schism would agree that the division would be tragic in that second sense.  Indeed, everyone, in their better moments would agree to this.  It would truly be a heartless Christian, unkissed by the tender mildness of the Holy Spirit, who would greet the sundering of fellowship with stony apathy and feel no pain of remorse.  And yet many would disagree that it would be tragic in the first sense, in the sense that it does not have to happen.  Some would say “It makes me sad that people are turning away from God’s will for marriage and sexuality, but if they are going to turn away then they must depart.”  And others will say “Is the suffering of our queer brothers and sisters really cause for indifference?  Are their lives really not worth change in the church?”

Here again we are faced with a same obscuring of disagreement with the word “tragic,” as we noted with “biblical” above.  But we are also faced with an opportunity:  shall Uniting Methodists give a compelling account of why division ought not to happen?  In my previous post I expressed excitement that this movement had taken a stab a providing such a theological vision, since previous efforts have been rather baldly pragmatic.  As we delve deeper into their statement we will see what that account amounts to and ask how it might be compelling.  But for now I have written more than enough.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.  You can email him at charles.rivera@yale.edu or tweet @MarEphremsVoice.

Image:  August Noack, The Marburg Colloquy 1529, depicting an important debate on the Eucharist between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli during the Reformation.

Vision and Revision

Vision and Revision

Engaging the Uniting Methodists Vision Statement

Last week in this space I put forward a critique and a challenge to the Uniting Methodist movement.  In response to their initial public appearance and the unveiling of their website I offered a simple criticism:  there is no way forward without new theological vision.  I noted the absence of scholars in the makeup of Uniting Methodists’ leadership team and observed that their platform constitutes a reiteration of the status quo.  To my eyes they seemed like so many other centrist movements in our denomination:  doomed to failure because of their pragmatic orientation, helpless to engage the passionate feelings and profound theological disagreements within United Methodism.

Then, sometime later in the week, the theological statement of Uniting Methodists was unveiled.  Suddenly, it seemed as though my exact criticisms had already been anticipated by the leadership of the movement.  As I read through the document I was continually surprised by its seriousness, scope, and depth.  Here was a heartfelt, thoughtful, and serious engagement with scripture and a faithful effort to bring the teaching of the Church to bear upon the struggles in our denomination.  In my initial article I held up the Wesleyan Covenant Association as an example of a group offering a clear and new theological vision for the future of the church, but the WCA has produced no official theological statements comparable to the vision statement of Uniting Methodists.  This vision statement shows that Uniting Methodists is serious about shaping a future for the United Methodist Church and not just “holding the denomination together” or keeping things like they’ve always been.

Over the next few weeks, as I have time, I will be posting a detailed theological engagement with the vision statement of Uniting Methodists.  This is not because I have signed on to their statement or committed myself to deconstruct it.  I will be engaging with this statement because no other group proposing a vision for the future of United Methodism has offered such a rich and ambitious theological statement.  The statement itself calls for conversation and is worthy of it.  And anyway, if you write a blog post demanding acts of theological imagination you can’t just retreat back into your corner when they somehow actually materialize!

Furthermore, HolyConferencing.org was conceived with a vision of bringing deeper and sharper theological analysis to the current affairs of United Methodism (you can read our Statement of Purpose here).  Those of us who came together to form the site felt as though the usual level of discourse about our intra-denominational struggles was not only acrimonious (as is often bemoaned and acknowledged) but also absolutely lacking in theological rigor.  In a spirit of charity, we set ourselves to doing what we could to address this deficiency and offer our denomination another sort of conversation.  It is exciting to see others, more prominently positioned, who are concerned with a similar structural problem in our debates.  We would be remiss in failing to offer both our praises and our criticisms for their venture.

Because my focus will be theological, I will not take time to address the political practicalities of a movement like Uniting Methodists.  Commentators from the traditional wing of the church are right to point out that it is unlikely to have the votes, judging by past precedent of similar measures, such as the “agree-to-disagree” amendment to the Social Principles at the 2012 General Conference.  One may note in this connection that there are no Africans on their leadership team, even though all regions of the United States are represented.  Because such questions are not my forte I will not address them in my engagement with the vision statement, even though they are of vital importance for the future of our denomination in general and the particular place of Uniting Methodists in that future.

 

A First Impression

My engagement with the theological statement will unfold mainly in two modes.  In these posts I will offer critique on the one hand and constructive explorations on the other.  That is, some posts will consist in a minute working out of problems that I see in the contentions or wording of the document, while others will take the document as a springboard for further theological reflections.  Both of these modes of engagement are necessary for fostering the new theological vision which is needed if there is to be a way forward for our denomination.  If the reasoning of a theological statement is undermined by flaws or its wording marred by infelicities, then it cannot bear the weight which it must carry.  And yet if it cannot spur both intuition and intellect to new epiphanies, further reflections, and deeper thought, then it will fail in the potency which true vision must offer.  Is it sound?  Does it inspire?  These are my questions.

Because many of my later posts will focus on details of the statement, I want to take some time now to offer a few general remarks and impressions.  The first is this:  Uniting Methodists’ statement is Biblical and it is Trinitarian.  It is thoroughly orthodox—unless the only shibboleth of orthodoxy is a strict and exclusive adherence to the traditional teaching on homosexuality.  It demonstrates a persistent claim of many who take a progressive stance on homosexuality: they embrace the catholic faith and are orthodox in their doctrine, departing from the tradition of the church only on this contested point.  It shows no sign of the more radically progressive theology which traditionalist commentators are swift to associate with rejection of the inherited teaching on homosexuality.

In particular the statement is eloquent in pleading for unity in itself.  It sounds the old orthodox note (as old the apostle Paul and Ignatius of Antioch and Jesus himself) that unity in the church is a good in and of itself and schism in and of itself is an evil.  While the church holds together institutionally, a space is created for us to love one another, forgive one another, and by the Spirit’s heart-transforming grace come to the true spiritual unity which binds our hearts in Christian love.  Too often another note has been sounded, that there are some things beyond the sufferance of Christian brotherhood which demand a separation and delineation of the false Christians from the true.  Although that other note has its place, Uniting Methodists is to be applauded for sounding clearly and distinctly the traditional plea for unity.

Despite this persistent orthodoxy, however, the Uniting Methodists statement also displays certain unfortunate conceptual frames which are all too much of our moment.  The statement relies heavily on the idea that there are two streams or two poles universal throughout the Christian tradition which must always be held in tension.  This is a dangerous and inaccurate way of thinking.  There are not two streams in the Old Testament, Christian history, or contemporary United Methodism.  Rather, there is one stream—and there are far, far more than two.  The body of Christ is a single loaf—and a cohesion of innumerable precious grains of wheat.  It is eaten by a single mouth—and by a multitude which no one could number (Revelation 7:9).

This is a point, perhaps, where the solely American makeup of the leadership team shows through.  Ours is a nation which now more than ever can only imagine contentious issues in opposed pairs and where unity can only be conceived as a sort of truce or tension between two irreconcilable combatants.  To use Adam Hamilton’s framing, we can only imagine black or white, and if we don’t like either of those, we have to live in the gray in between.  But the world overseen by God’s good providence is far more of an opulent Oz than a dusty Kansas and the Church which he has gathered from all nations stewards joyfully a kaleidoscopic grace (1 Peter 4:10) [1].  Part of the vision which renews our denomination and carries us forward must be to move beyond this world of paired alternatives not by synthesizing them or holding them in tension but by rejecting their imperious dualism altogether.  In its place we must embrace the God who is one and the dazzling multiplicity of the creatures he calls good.

In the end, however, what is most notable about the Uniting Methodists statement was the way it genuinely made me stop and think.  My experience with our denominational affairs is not exhaustive, but I have not been led to expect a statement of this sort to offer anything more than worn clichés and ready nostrums.  Such statements tend either to avoid solid theological argument altogether or rely on slogans calculated to either to congratulate or enrage their given partisans.  In the Uniting Methodists vision statement there is real meat.  I look forward to dining on it.

 

[1] Because I am a scholar, I have to note that the adjective describing grace here in the original Greek (poikilos) is a far more visual word than the usual translation “manifold” suggests.  It is used for all sorts of multi-colored articles of clothing or variegated animal coats, like a leopard’s.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.

Image:  Domenico Ghirlandaio, Saint Jerome in His Study.

 

 

Is Uniting Methodists a Way Forward?

Is Uniting Methodists a Way Forward?

A new voice appeared this week on the landscape of United Methodism.  Or, at least, a new configuration of old voices.  Uniting Methodists hopes “to be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.”  Asserting that we can live together despite our differences on issues of sexuality, Uniting Methodists seeks to “forge a pathway through the current impasse” by allowing space for that disagreement within our denomination.  Prominent United Methodists listed as part of their “team” include Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, and Barbara Boigegrain, General Secretary of Wespath (formerly the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits).

In many ways a movement like Uniting Methodists would seem to be just the place for someone like me.  Although I espouse traditional positions on the subject of sexuality I have never been entirely at home in the circles of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and have in fact spent much of my adult life worshiping in Reconciling congregations.  I count among my mentors, friends, and confidants United Methodists on all sides of the present schism.  Furthermore, I do not think sexual ethics is the deciding issue of our time, when the basic doctrines of the Church—the Trinity, the person of Christ, sanctification—are almost unknown to most United Methodists.

Despite this natural affinity, I am skeptical of Uniting Methodists for two related reasons.  The first is the absence of intellectuals on their leadership team.  Although I myself have serious reservations about the theological emphases which have made their way into the WCA’s materials, there are professional scholars in their leadership (David Watson of United Seminary, Bill Arnold of Asbury, Billy Abraham of SMU).  There are no such scholars on the leadership team of Uniting Methodists.  David McAllister-Wilson, although the president of one of our seminaries, does not hold a Ph.D. and is not a scholar.  Similarly, James Howell holds a Ph.D. but is a pastor more than a scholar.  This omission is puzzling.  As someone in the world of United Methodist scholarship, I can assure you there are a great many of us who would be sympathetic to the intentions of this group.

In many ways, this is a nitpicky sort of objection—the kind of thing you would expect from an intellectual, especially when his tribe is the one left out.  However, the absence of scholars and intellectuals from the leadership of Uniting Methodists points to a second, more serious problem:  simply put, this group advocates no meaningful change.  It seems fair to say that this group wishes to see the current status quo continued.  Nothing makes this so clear as their name, only a few letters different from the name of the denomination itself.  But it is also clear in the theological positions advocated on their website.  Three of these positions amount to restatements of official denominational positions (these are Disciples, Evangelism, and Standards).  Two advocate for making de jure the current de facto condition of American United Methodism (these are Officiation and Ordination).  Only one (Interpretation) might be seen as an actual constructive claim pointing to a way forward, but even that is largely a quarrel of semantics.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, by contrast, advocates in its written beliefs certain principles which, while not alien to the received faith of our denomination, have never been before elevated to the status of official teaching.  For example, the phrase “classical Wesleyan doctrine and the historic faith” expresses the traditionalist ecumenical theology which has become an increasingly important stream in our intellectual life in the years since the formation of the United Methodist Church.  One might associate it generally with the heritage of Albert Outler, but more specifically with theologians like Geoffrey Wainwright and the late Thomas Oden.  While this has been an important stream, it is by no means a received consensus.  The WCA’s embrace of this traditionalist ecumenism is part and parcel of its rejection of theological liberalism, which, in all its varieties, forms another major but non-consensus stream in our received theology.  But elevating this one sort of theology as a new standard, the WCA suggests a new way forward which jettisons a major part of our current received theology.

Uniting Methodists offers no such suggestion of a new theological paradigm (or a new paradigm of any sort) to guide our way forward.  I am skeptical of the success of anything which offers so little substantive change.  If there is to be a way forward for the United Methodist Church which does not simply involve a hardened schism along the lines already laid down it must be accompanied by serious and rigorous theological imagination.  It cannot afford to be untheorized, because we do not need a technical tweak, but a new way of conceiving of our denomination.  There must be a new framework within which the Church can articulate herself anew.  Traditionalists aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association have proposed one and there is likewise a clear theological vision on the far progressive side.  If unity groups like Uniting Methodists truly want to offer the denomination a way forward, they too must paint a compelling picture of who we are, how we shall think, and what we shall believe.

Now there is of course a popular strain in Methodism which eschews doctrine itself as inherently divisive.  No doubt many who are drawn to something like Uniting Methodists would say that the lack of theological specificity is itself part of the vision.  This is certainly a Wesleyan virtue, one which John learned from the deep riches of the monastic spiritual tradition and its suspicion of dogmatic zeal.  Nevertheless, if a non-theological centrism could hold the denomination together, we would not be currently in the midst of schism.  There is not a way forward from our current impasse without new theological vision.

Perhaps an illustration from church history will make this clear.  In the late 350s controversy raged over the doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Christ.  A generation earlier a coalition of bishops referred to by historians as the Eusebians (after their leaders Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea) had been able to forge a consensus which rejected the excesses of both Arius of Alexandria (who separated the Son and the Father to such a degree that the Son was not wholly divine) and Marcellus of Ancyra (who united the Son and the Father to such a degree that there was no real distinction between them).  By the 350s, however, the old wounds were open again and the arguments about the relationship between the Son and the Father raged across the Roman Empire and beyond.  In an attempt to resolve this conflict and permit the Church (and the Empire) to move forward, the Emperor Constantius called a series of councils which forbade bishops and theologians from arguing about the disputed points and banned some of the technical terminology at issue (including the infamous term homoousios or “consubstantial”).  But the conflict ran too deep for compromise unaccompanied by new vision to move the Church forward.  It was not until a generation later when a new theological paradigm was able to unite both the heirs of the Eusebians and the followers of Athanasius of Alexandria (who had been an ally of Marcellus of Ancyra) that the conflict is said to have come to an end.

The Emperor Constantius’ aim was laudable:  he wanted something analogous to “getting the Church back to just making disciples and doing kingdom work.”  Nevertheless, his desire to just bring the conflict to an end caused him to act without boldness.  As such his solution ended up being barely a bandage.  To my eye, Uniting Methodists offers just such a Constantian solution.  Our denomination is too broken for that to suffice.  It was not an Emperor, for all his administrative and political prowess, who was able to bring the Church to a new consensus.  Rather it was a group of theologians whom Church history remembers as some of the most eloquent and profound in all her heritage:  the Cappadocian Fathers.  It is not another Constantius that United Methodism needs.  It is another Gregory of Nazianzus and another Basil the Great.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.

Image:  Depiction of the Emperor Constantius from the Chronography of 354.

Schism and Ecclesial Authority

Schism and Ecclesial Authority

United Methodism is in schism. It’s not that schism is coming; it’s already here. It’s not something for us to work to avoid, it’s an evil that we must address.

Andrew Thompson did an excellent job illuminating this distinction in his post about covenant and schism last week. In “Sermon 75: On Schism,” John Wesley exegetes 1 Corinthians 12 in the following way: “Can anything be more plain than that the schisms here spoken of, were not separations from, but divisions in, the Church of Corinth (I.2, emphasis original)?”

Schism, according to father John’s reading of Paul is, “a disunion in mind and judgment, (perhaps also affection) among those who, notwithstanding this, continued outwardly united as before.”[1] What we have seen in recent years is not only a deeper rift of mind and judgment in our beloved church, but also an erosion of affection.

We are deeply in schism, and this is “evil,” a “grievous breach of the law of love.” 

If we do not take time in prayer and conversation to grieve the schism in our connection, then we are participating and perpetuating our failure to love.

We must not stop with lament, and diagnosis.  We must press further into Sermon 75 to find even more fertile ground to know what we ought to do.

In II.7 of “On Schism,” Wesley permits only one reason for breaking fellowship: that the fellowship is forcing one to sin by omission or commission. In all other cases, he offers this judgment: “Suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate from it without any such necessity, I am just chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evils consequent upon that separation.”

This is not an abstract question for Mr. Wesley. He chose, throughout his life, to continue in fellowship in the church of his birth, despite his questions of its faithfulness because there remained space for him to be faithful.

For traditionalists who would like to depart, this is a hard word.  If they are not themselves being compelled to sin disapproves, they are to stay.[2] It leaves traditionalists with an exhortation to keep their vow to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries.”

If we are to follow the logic of “On Schism,” it is the prerogative of the progressives (from their own perspective) and not the traditionalists to break fellowship, due to their sense of the injustice of our current position. This, in fact, is the position espoused clearly by William Abraham in both Atlanta and Memphis. He says that “those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting The United Methodist Church.”

The problem for traditionalists is that progressives aren’t sliding out the back door and joining different denominations that share their understanding of same-sex marriage. Rather than quietly departing from the UMC, they are breaking the rules set by General Conference. In most cases, they do so fully prepared to face the consequences. And traditionalists are frustrated with the paucity of suitable consequences.  The issue is not simply progressives are blessing same-sex practice, it’s that progressives are blessing same-sex practice as United Methodists.

Progressives’ decision to defy the rules rather than recant their faith and relinquish their membership,  is no new thing in the church catholic. There are manifold examples of dissenters in the church who did not leave willingly, but were instead excommunicated from the church for their incompatible views, leaving future theologians and traditions to judge the church’s decision.

Our current crisis is not primarily about Biblical authority or the movement of the spirit. Those things are a significant (but not the only) component of the theological argument for the question: “Is same-sex marriage in keeping with Christian/United Methodist teaching?” But that’s not the primary question in this moment.

At this point, the primary point of tension relates to the authority of the institutional church.

 

It’s not that covenants should be kept, it’s that the church should be able to offer correction when they are not.

 

Authority (i.e. the possibility of providing accountability to members) is essential to ecclesial coherence. If the church can do nothing to ensure that it is Methodism, and not something else, being proclaimed we have no raison d’être, we have no identity.  About this, traditionalists are right.  Authority is, in fact, the intent of the Trust Clause, to ensure that Methodist Churches have faithful pastors leading them.  About this, traditionalists are right.

Therefore, if we want a healthy institution with an established identity, we must ask: (a) Can the church determine that some beliefs/actions are wrong, and (b) how, if at all, should the church respond when its standards are violated? Furthermore, where should that authority be held?  Furthermore, is the church capable of distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials, and if so, where does fit among those categories?

In summary, the crisis that we are facing is not about the authority of the Bible or about covenant, it’s about who gets to determine what is authoritative for the people called Methodists, and who can enforce the lines once they are drawn. To say it more firmly, it’s about who has the power to discipline (up to excommunication) and who gets to discern what demands such an action. It’s about establishing the essentials of our faith and then abiding in the connection formed by our shared faith.

Such statements are questions of polity that may not be able to be addressed in our current quagmire.  That’s why the #NextMethodism conversation is very important, even if traditionalists upset about Karen Oliveto can’t quote Wesley to justify their departure.

 

This post is by Chad Bowen, an elder in the Tupelo District of the Mississippi Conference.  

 

[1] This is a topic for another day, but “disunion of mind” hearkens back to the 2012 General Conference proposal GC2012 acknowledge that we “are not of one mind” about sexuality.  That proposal, combined with the outcry that emerged when it failed to pass, exposed not only the explicit frustration with the UMC’s schism over sexuality, but was also a (likely unconscious attempt) to subvert our polity. Per our constitution, he majority of General Conference delegates as the legislative authority of the connection. One needs only to consult the voting history of General Conference resolutions to know that we are not entirely of one mind on nearly anything.

[2] This criteria is simply not being met with something like the election of Karen Oliveto. One could attempt an argument that asserts complicity through mission shares, but it would be a stretch. One would have to make an argument that it is sin to give to the church if one penny of your tithe is going support what one deems to be a sin. This would make it nearly impossible for anyone to give to a global church.

Life Saving Stations

Life Saving Stations

 

Romans 12

People in the United Methodist Church, especially people who have been very involved in the debates and battles over sexuality, are frustrated, tired, hurt, and mad. Open Facebook or read a few blogs and you will find a yearning on both sides for “the split” to finally happen so folks can be done with pain and in a place where everybody thinks like them, they don’t have to argue, and they feel comfortable. Two churches in Mississippi just took this route.

I understand this yearning to be done, to feel free, to be with those with whom you have a lot in common, speak the same language, around whom you feel comfortable and welcome. You get to be in a place where people are no longer either disregarding The Book of Discipline or are no longer using the same book to try to kick people you love and respect out of the church. Where we don’t wait on pins and needles for Judicial Council decisions. To stop the arguments, the pain, the constant explanations and dealing with people who are so wrong.

The problem is, to follow through on this yearning is to leave the Church and create a country club. A country club is a place that exists for the comfort and good feelings of its members. But the Church is all about following Jesus Christ, which according to Scripture is not about being comfortable (Jesus says take up your cross (Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23), Jesus predicts pain and problems for his followers (Matt 10:34-39; Luke 9:57-62; John 15:18-25), Paul’s list of degradations in 2 Corinthians 11:22-28, and many more examples). Following Jesus, instead of promising peace and tranquility, is something to which we give our lives for God’s purpose.

A place where we are comfortable is a place that is all about us. Rather, God has created us to be part of the Body of Christ – a bunch of different people working together with Christ as our head. When we are living together as the body what holds us together is not feeling comfortable around other people, not having the same experiences or having gone to the same seminary. What holds us together is the One, the Head, Jesus Christ. When we go to other bonds we turn to idols. What seems like comfort, even in the face of our pain, hurt, and anger, can be such an idol.

Living as the body of Christ is a challenge because we are so very different, and therefore we really, really need Jesus. We come from disparate parts of the world (even, or especially, within the United States). A person who was raised in Boston is going to be different than a person from West Texas, who will be different than someone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Korea. These differences are to be expected, not surprising.

There is an immense, yet very understandable, misunderstanding that the church is a place where everyone becomes the same. The opposite is the case. We are a body, with different gifts and different functions. Only in one place in the book of Acts does the church have peace. The rest of the New Testament is people figuring out how to deal with each other.

These differences are God given. We have been created to have different gifts as a part of Christ which we bring together as the body. As Paul has said, the eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21). God made us all to be a We. We, as United Methodists, are Arminian. We believe God did not create anyone for the purpose of being rejected. Instead, we are all created to be a part of the Kingdom of God (The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made, Psalm 145:9). Our purpose (which we are free to reject) is to be with Christ and each other. None of us are exactly like Jesus, but God made us with parts necessary for the Body. We need each other to function as the Body. We need each other’s personalities, each other’s experiences, each other as a part of Christ, so that we can function as the life-saving community of Jesus Christ. When we reject each other for the comfort and stability of the country club we are rejecting the Body of Christ.

Some of our differences are theological. There are people in the United Methodist Church who have very different understandings of Scripture. The easiest thing would be to create different country clubs where we can comfortably be with those who think the same as ourselves. However, as the body, we are called to come together and figure out our differences. This is difficult, but we are following Jesus Christ, not a call to comfort.

There is an old story some of you know about a Life Saving Station. A community bands together to save those on ships who have wrecked nearby. However, as the Life Saving Station expands and gets better at what it does, the drive for comfort shifts the focus of the station from the people needing to be saved to the comfort of those called to do the work. The Life Saving Station is then transformed into a country club. I know both sides feel that if they do not win the life-saving work of the Church will not be done. However, if we split so each side can finally get around to doing the work only with those with whom they are comfortable, we have created two country clubs, rejecting the body.

Instead, God calls us to figure out how to be the body. To figure out how to be reconciled to each other as Christ has reconciled us to God. To figure out how to work with each other even when the other drives us nuts or causes us pain. Jesus never gave up on us, even when we crucified him. He came back after his torture and death to continue the work of reconciliation and building the body. Let us continue that work in our present circumstance, instead of opting for the broad road and becoming comfortable country clubs.

This post is by Eric Schubert, an elder in the Iowa Annual Conference and pastor of Greenfield UMC.  

The Order of Elders

The Order of Elders

cornelius

“The disciple of the Spirit is bidden to announce what he has learned to the elders of the Church of Christ, that is, to those who, owing to their capacity to receive spiritual doctrine, possess a ripe endowment of wisdom.”  -Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles IV.11

What is it that ails us?  And how may we amend?  There are as many answers to these questions, it seems, as there are United Methodists.  Each partisan theology, each new trend from the pop sociologists, each “national conversation,” each personal biography furnishes another.  For myself, I favor those which eschew managerial technique for spiritual discipline (as from their different regions of the Church in their different ways Trey Hall and Timothy Tennent both recommend).  How can it be, after all, that the Church, which is the body of the Son of God, formed by his Spirit, can be healed apart from a spiritual healing?  We are not what we are because we were born flesh and blood.  We are what we are because we were born from above, through the One who came down from heaven, and the heavenly Holy Spirit, and the Holy One who is in heaven.

“The health of an annual conference corresponds to the health of its order of elders.”  These are words I heard often spoken by Bishop Scott Jones, now of the Texas Conference, when he served my own Great Plains conference.  He meant them in reference to the order of elders whose shape and character is outlined in our Book of Discipline, the order from whom so many of our pastors are drawn and which holds the place of leadership and primacy among our clergy, the visible order of elders.  In this essay I would like to apply them to the invisible order of elders, the one which is marked off not by stoles and ordinations but by the witness of the Spirit and the holiness of heart and life.  This is the true order of elders, as the Church Father Origen points out in the epigraph above, and I propose that our current situation of discord within our denomination proves Bishop Jones’ words even truer with respect to them.

But what is this business of a visible order of elders and an invisible one?  Well, let’s go over some history.

As the Church grew in the early centuries it recognized the need for a stable institution of leadership which could be passed down in an orderly fashion and command respect regardless of the person who occupied it.  In the second century, authors such as Irenaeus of Lyons appealed to this institutionalized leadership of bishops and elders as an important check on the esoteric spiritual elitism of Gnostic groups like the Valentinians.  The existence of a solid, recognized order of elders preserved the unity and catholicity of the church, whereas a reliance on charismatic spiritual leaders had the potential to fragment the body of Christ in a thousand directions.

However, even as the Church acknowledged and committed to the importance of this visible, institutional clergy, it was recognized by many that the true authority and true leadership in their communities rested with the spiritually mature, whether ordained or not.  While the visible orders of bishops and elders came to be necessary for the good functioning of the Church in this world, authors like Origen reminded the early Christians that this world was not their home:  the true nature of the Church is spiritual and heavenly, not earthly and institutional.  As such, it was those who lived spiritually already in this life, suffused with the divine love of the Holy Spirit and truly walking in the way of Christ, who were the true elders and the true bishops.  Sometimes these true elders also served in the positions of institutional authority, but sometimes, although true priests in the spirit, they were laypeople in the visible flesh.

This wisdom of the early Church, acknowledging the need for visible, institutional elders and bishops while pressing the truth that the real elders and bishops of the church are the spiritually mature, was recognized by John Wesley, a student of the early Church and, in time, a spiritually mature man himself.  This was one of the reasons why he put lay Christians, men and women, in charge of classes and bands and even gave them the authority to preach.  It is why he felt the Methodist movement was necessary for the Church of England in his day, where there were visible elders and bishops aplenty but all too few of the invisible, true, and spiritual ones.

And indeed the Church in certain times and places has gone through dry spells where the true elders and the true bishops are absent, even as she never goes without the visible, institutional ones.  These are the times which Amos calls famines of the Word of God, for it is in the lives of the true elders, the spiritually mature, that the Word of Christ dwells richly.  It is through their lives, their witness, and their prayers,  that we are fed with the spiritual Bread who has come down from heaven, Christ himself, just as it was by the disciples’ hands that the 5000 tasted of the five miraculous loaves.  Without their spiritual pastorate the flock of Christ is led astray and wanders into all the thorns and thickets of worldly delusion, just as when they are present to shepherd us even the corruption or fecklessness of the visible clergy cannot quench the life of the faithful.  They are the leaven without which we cannot rise; it is they who have received the mind of Christ and where the mind is gone the body possesses no direction.

Can our present straits then be anything other than a sign that in United Methodism this true order of elders is not strong?  As the fleshly and visible health of an annual conference or a denomination corresponds to the health of its fleshly and visible order of elders, so its spiritual and true health is tied to the health of the spiritual and true order.  Without this true health of the spirit, even a healthy body would amount to nothing, a lump of institutional flesh, an agglomeration of buildings and books and bonds with no life to animate and move.

And how would our efforts change if we acknowledged this?  We would acknowledge once and for all that an end to what ails us does not lie in reorganization of our visible institutions.  We would acknowledge that it does not lie in doctrinal formulae and legal enforcements.  Indeed, we would humbly confess what we ought to have known, that the Kingdom of God is within us.  We would pray not so much for bishops and pastors who hold to our preferred school of theology, but rather in whom the Spirit of God is pleased to dwell.  Indeed a step further, if we became converted on this score it would demand that we stop putting all our faith in visible leaders and visible efforts, period.  It would demand that we start praying rather to God for spiritual elders, saints all among us, whom the Spirit of Holiness has molded into vessels of honor.

And those of us who are ordained and called pastors and bishops (or any for that matter who are named, we might say, to commissions) might learn to distrust the vain glimmer of our authority, having learned that it is poor and impotent because it is visible and fleshly.  In its place we might seek that true authority, whether for ourselves or acknowledged in others, which is spiritual and therefore mighty.  Let us see our Peters running to the house of Cornelius, that righteous man whose alms were remembered by God, whose prayer went up like sacrifice, who was visited by angels!  And let us see our Peters giving their own hours to prayer and the dreaming of dreams which the Spirit promises.  Let us seek the Lord while he may be found, the kingdom which is the Spirit (and the Spirit’s to give) and its righteousness, which is Christ himself, and with him God will also give us all things.

Charles “Austin” Rivera is a provisional elder in the Great Plains conference and PhD student at Yale University studying Patristics.

Image: The Angel Appearing to Cornelius the Centurion, by Jacob Backer (1608-1651)