Splitting the Church is Just “Tacky”

© Ivan Grlic, Dreamstime

 

Thoughts of splitting The United Methodist Church trouble me for a host of reasons Some theological and missional.

This polarized and violent world desperately needs the witness of a community that grapples with disputes and differences with humility, mutual respect, and compassion. While divisions have been part of our heritage since the beginning, they never bode well for our commitment to oneness in Christ Jesus.

We need one another, whatever our labels. God has already reconciled us! We have been made one, whether we like it or not. So, I don’t quite understand why we can’t live the reconciliation already accomplished in Christ. If Christ has made us one, should we not live that oneness?

But I’m also troubled for personal reasons.

I’ll always remember that fateful Sunday morning almost 65 years ago when this son of Appalachian tenant farmers and textile workers walked shyly into a Sunday school class at McKinley Methodist Church.

Mrs. Mahoney greeted me at the doorway with a warm hug. I remember the Bible story she told that day. It changed my image of God and set me on a life-long quest to love, trust, and serve God. It was the story of the Good Shepherd. I can still hear her say, “God is like that shepherd.”

That was radically different from the messages I had been hearing in the church of my early childhood. I had the notion that God was like that cruel landlord who once dangled me over a rain barrel to “teach me to respect” him. God was the strict judge who expected, above all else, our respect and obedience. Eternal damnation awaited those who lacked such deference and compliance.

Mrs. Mahoney introduced me to a God who delights in rescuing little lost lambs, a God who invites us to share in the search and saving of the least, the lost, and the wayward. She invited me into friendship with Jesus, a friendship rooted in love not fear.

McKinley Methodist Church became my spiritual home as an adolescent. There I was baptized and received into membership. It was there that I:

• Received a new identity (beloved child of God)
• Learned I didn’t have to take the Bible literally to take it seriously
• Was elected to my first church office (president of the MYF)
• First spoke publicly before a group
• Had my first for-pay job (janitor)
• Taught my first class (Vacation Bible School)
• Was called into ordained ministry
• Introduced to the church as connectional (we were on a circuit)
•Selected to attend the National Youth Conference where I heard an African    American preacher for the first time (James Thomas)
• Approved for candidacy and granted a local preacher’s license

At a conference youth assembly, I met my beloved wife, Linda. We were married in the Methodist Church. She was educated in a Methodist college. We attended a Methodist seminary and spent 42 years living in homes provided by the church. Our daughters and grandchildren have been baptized in United Methodist Churches.

I’ve been privileged to serve eight wonderful congregations and two strong episcopal areas. Additionally, I have taught in a United Methodist seminary, sat on the governing boards of numerous United Methodist related institutions and agencies, experienced the world-wide mission of the church while visiting in Africa, Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

All of this is to say, it’s impossible for me to sever my life from that of the denomination in which I have been and continue to be formed.

To me the reasons being advanced for splitting the denomination seem extraneous to the core Christian gospel and the church’s mission in this polarized and violent world filling up with lost lambs.

When I entered McKinley Methodist Church as a child of poverty, I wasn’t looking for dogmatic pronouncements. I was longing for a community in which I was accepted, valued, and loved. I wanted a place to grow in my understanding of and friendship with God. And, I needed a purpose worth my life.

The church I joined gave me room to grow, and I’m still growing. It moved me beyond provincialism, challenged my racial prejudices and patriarchal practices, gave me a theological lens through which to view every aspect of life, anchored me in sound doctrine while encouraging continuing theological exploration, extended the horizons of God’s salvation to include the healing and transformation of human hearts, communities, nations, and the entire cosmos.

I’m not worried about the survival of the Church. The Body of Christ has been raised from the dead and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. And, I know the institutional form which the body of Christ takes is always changing.

But dividing The United Methodist Church into “Progressives” and “Traditionalists” is just plain wrong. As the late Will Campbell said about the death penalty, “I just think it’s tacky!”

Splitting Asunder What God Joins Together—Truth and Love!

Aside

 

A battle rages within The United Methodist Church! It’s ostensibly between “Traditionalists” and “Progressives” over homosexuality, authority of Scripture, and adherence of doctrine. But I propose that the conflict may expose an underlying, festering heresy: the severing of truth and love.

“Traditionalists” seek to preserve the truth of the Bible and doctrine as contained in historic creeds and the Articles of Religion, and they call for enforced adherence to established norms.

“Progressives” advocate for continuing divine revelation and the prioritizing of love as the core of Christian doctrine, and they call for expanding the circle of inclusion.

The stage is set for the apocalyptic showdown at General Conference in February 2019. The weapons of inflammatory rhetoric, proof-texting, political strategizing, and either/or dichotomies have been mobilized.

It’s either truth OR love, doctrinal faithfulness OR cultural accommodation, biblical authority OR philosophical relativism, traditional marriage OR sexual sin, my way OR the highway!

Let’s be reminded that dialects are integral to the gospel as viewed through the Wesleyan tradition

  • faith AND works
  • knowledge AND piety
  • personal AND socialtruth-and-love
  • justification AND sanctification
  • doing no harm AND doing good
  • sin as person AND systemic
  • church as local AND Universal
  • doctrinal standards AND theological exploration
  • sound doctrine AND holy living
  • discipleship as belief AND practice
  • truth AND love

In the Bible and Christian tradition, truth and love are inseparable, integral to one another. They are conjoined twins, each giving life to the other. Either without the other is neither authentic truth nor Christian love. When they are severed, the gospel is truncated with calamitous consequences.

In the name of defending truth, people have been persecuted, jailed, banished, and killed; and countless people have been demonized, demeaned, marginalized, and ostracized.

In the name of love, people have engaged in all kinds of exploitative, degrading, dehumanizing behaviors and activities; and devastating personal and social evils have gone unchallenged.

Methodists have long struggled with the tension between maintaining sound doctrine and living Christlike love. John Wesley’s sermons, “On Schism” and “Catholic Spirit” document his own internal battle. He holds fast to the church’s doctrines grounded in Scripture and Tradition while giving priority to holiness as “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”

For Wesley, the truth of doctrine lies in the character produced in its adherents. Lives filled with the love of God and neighbor are the evidence of doctrinal truth, not biblical prooftexts or scholastic arguments. And the truthfulness of one’s love is how closely it resembles the self-emptying love (agape) of Christ.

“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is an often-used mantra in the academic world. The statement from John’s Gospel, however, has a condition attached to knowing the truth.

Here is the statement in context: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciple; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’”(8:31-32).

The truth that sets us free is not abstract formulation about Jesus. It is relationship with Jesus. In Jesus Christ, truth and love are perfectly and inextricably joined. Truth and love flow from relationship with the One in whom the two are one.

What does this mean for United Methodists searching for a way forward as a denomination. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer as to the best institutional configuration for the future.

But I am convinced that splitting into “traditional” and “progressive”, “conservative” and “liberal” is NOT the way to bear witness to the unity of truth and love. The dichotomy implied in those labels is false, a betrayal of the One who is Truth and Love. To form denominations around those labels would be to institutionalize heresy.

Truth and love are woefully lacking in our polarized, deceitful, and violent world. Untruth and hate are being normalized in the prevailing culture. Our social fabric is being ripped asunder. The common good is being trampled underfoot.

The witness of a community that embodies truth AND love is sorely needed. The church can’t be that witness by splitting asunder what God joined together in Jesus the Christ.

We need “a come to Jesus” meeting and declare to the world that Truth and Love are inseparable in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we can together find our way to truthfully love and love truthfully.

Advice from a Long-time Champion for Justice

Gil Caldwell is a friend with a life-time commitment to justice and compassion. He knows firsthand the pain and suffering inflicted by hate, prejudice, and exclusion. He also knows from experience the power of the Christian gospel to transform human hearts and communities. Below is a reflection on the current challenges within The United Methodist Church.

“African United Methodists and African American United Methodists; Important To The Future of a United – Not Divided United Methodist Church”

Years ago these words have guided me as a now 84 year old Black United Methodist; “We have no permanent friends-no permanent enemies-just permanent interests”.

The separation of immigrant children from their parents in today’s immigrant struggle in the USA reminded me of another time of parent-child separation: the selling and separating of the children of African slaves in the USA.  And during racial segregation in the American south black children were separated in school buildings and classrooms that Grace and I attended; inferior to those of white children.

Black children in the USA and Africa have suffered in negative ways because they are black. The United Methodist Church many of us believe should be the world’s “Racial Justice Church”.

If we go back as James Baldwin suggested; “Go back to where you started from and tell the truth about it”. (From “Go Tell It From the Mountain”) We who are black Christians remember how a son of Ham- Simon the Cyrenian carried the cross of Jesus to the crucifixion. Countee Cullen the poet son of a Pastor of Salem Methodist Church in Harlem wrote this;

“They twisted tortured then hung from a tree
Swarth victim of a newer Calvary.

Yea-who helped Christ up Golgotha’s track
That Simon who did not deny-was Black”

My bonding as a black American with my black African brothers and sisters started early. When I was a student at all black North Carolina A. & T. College in Greensboro North Carolina 1952-55 I with other students made a class trip to Washington DC. While there we met the brilliant and gifted young Kenyan politician-Tom Mboya. Years after that he was assassinated in Kenya. It was said of him-“He was the best President Kenya never had”. Mboya’s intellect and character made an impression on me as a college student I have never forgotten.

In the summer of 1971, I with United Methodists Cornish Rogers and his family and Thelma Barnes traveled with others to Dar Es Salaam Tanzania for a Consultation of African and America American Church and Government leaders. The late Dr. James Cone was with us. We who were black from the USA were deeply impressed by how President Nyerere and his government had established Umoja Villages where persons as the Bible states; “Shared all things in common”. We from the USA said why not do the same thing in the USA?

And then the month Grace and I spent at Africa University with Dean Yemba-now Bishop Yemba and the students and faculty at Africa University was a beautiful reminder of our student days at our black colleges in the American south. Grace at Bennett College and I at NC A. & T. How sad it would be for the black United Methodist educational institutions in America and in Africa if the United Methodist Church weakened its mission and ministry by dividing!

The February 1988 Circuit Rider magazine published my article; “Courage-Confession-Creativity; Essentials for an Inclusive UMC”. At the time I was Pastor of St Daniel’s United Methodist Church in Chester Pennsylvania. The article was focused on racial inclusion; “Recognize our God-given uniqueness-and embrace our Christ-given oneness!” But the article is timely for this God-given moment in the history of our denomination.

COURAGE: We who are black United Methodists are present as members of all of the Groups that are being described by some as being traditionalist or moderate or progressive. But our experiences as black United Methodists in America-Africa or anywhere else in the world have helped us realize that in each of these groups there is recognized/unrecognized racial insensitivity-at times anti-black racial prejudice; even racism. We therefore in all of these groups pray and work for deeper understandings of the importance or racial justice. Often it takes courage for our sisters and brothers who are not black to resist racism-but many of them do. It will take a United Methodist Church to confront the racism that tragically still exists all over the world. A Divided UMC cannot do that. Only a Church that is United can.

CONFESSION: Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his “Life Together” reminds us of James 5: 16- “Confess your faults one to another” My preacher father used to say; “The Church is not a Rest Home for saints. It is a Hospital for sinners”. We can be so focused on what we deem are the sins of others that we ignore our own sins. We separate/segregate those whom we view as “incompatible with Christian teaching”. Martin Luther King in his Letter From Birmingham Jail” writes this about segregation; “It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority”. A Church that would be authentically “United” understands that “The ground at the foot of the cross is level”. Bonhoeffer reminds us “The message of liberation is through truth. You can hide nothing from God”.

CREATIVITY: James Russell Lowell reminds us “New occasions teach new duties. Time makes ancient good uncouth”. A United Methodist Church for the 21st century stands on the shoulders of the Church of the past. It could not had there been no Church on whose shoulders we could stand. But we will cease to be if we seek to become the Church of the past rather than the Church for the present and the future.

Black Liberation Theology enabled me to remain in a predominantly white Methodist/United Methodist Church. It transcended the theologies that were abstract rather than concrete. It allowed me to affirm a God who through Jesus understood the particularity of Black History and Experience with its tribulations and triumphs. I spoke at both the North Carolina and Virginia Conferences in June about the need for a “Southern Liberation Theology” that addresses God’s presence amidst the tragedies of slavery-segregation-lynching and the triumphs that transcended those atrocities. Black and white southern United Methodists have a “God Story” that all of United Methodism ought embrace.

I end these words with a quotation from Janes Cone’s “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”. What he writes about blacks and whites applies as well to United Methodist “traditionalists” and “progressives”.

“No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome-for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God joined together-no one can tear apart”. Amen and Amen!

Gilbert H. Caldwell

A retired member of the Mountain Sky Conference
He retired from the active ministry as Senior Pastor of Park Hill UMC
in Denver in 2001. He retired because of physical disabilities resulting from two operations to remove a non-malignant brain tumor. He says of himself: “Although I now walk with a cane sometimes a walker and drive with a left foot accelerator-I as the old folk say-each morning I “wake up in my rightful mind’ and “Write On And Write On!” We must be United Methodists rather than divided Methodists if our “permanent interest” is to “Make disciples for the transformation of the world”. Amen and Amen!