The U.S. Church is going through whitewater.
The most obvious rapid today is the issue of homosexuality.
This month the United Methodist Church has defrocked a pastor for leading a wedding ceremony of his son to another man. This is against church law, a law large numbers of UM pastors and leaders want changed. The General Conference (made up of democratically elected representatives) creates church law, and it continues to say a resounding “no” to the idea of changing the law. Those who demand change are no longer willing to abide by the legislative process and through “ecclesiastical disobedience” are pushing the church to a breaking point.
Also this month, the A&E network has suspended Phil Robertson, a cast member of the hit show Duck Dynasty, for remarks about homosexuality as being sinful. (His less-discussed comments on race are a different matter.) Many Christians share Phil’s sentiments and are up in arms about this suspension, while others side with A&E and feel the suspension is appropriate.
I suppose there has always been tumult in the Church. Any image of a “golden age” of the Church in which there was perfect unity, purity and effectiveness is a figment of the imagination. From the book of Acts until now the Church has wrestled with heresy, corrupt leaders, spiritual deadness, institutionalism, loss of vision and more.
But through the centuries the Lord has continually renewed His bride, the Church. Even in the darkest of ages, when it appeared that she has completely lost the Light, God has raised up agents of renewal who run with a freshly-lit torch. St. Francis rebuilds, Wesley ignites a new warmth and an unlikely band spreads the flame of Pentecost around the world again.
So I am not concerned about the Church’s long term future. I know the gates of hell cannot prevail against her and that the Lord will be renewing and empowering his Church until that day he gathers her to himself.
But I am troubled about the immediate future, particularly the future of the UM Church. How can it hold together? What will happen?
As I prayed about this I got the sense that the Church in the U.S. (not just the UMC) is passing through white water. The ride may be rough, and things will get messy, but this time of shaking will serve the purposes of God and result in a new vital, mission-focused Church.
The white water through which the U.S. Church is passing is the inevitable result of our society passing over the tipping point of becoming a post-Christian nation. The previous cultural norms, which emerged out of a shared Christian worldview, no longer make sense to those who do not share that worldview and legally rejected it decades ago. Our nation’s laws and cultural standards are now catching up with that reality, and this is resulting whitewater for the Church. Large segments of the Church now must navigate realities it is not equipped to handle, such as how to live in the world without being of the world and how to engage those with a post-Christian mindset.
Some parts of the Church are flowing with society’s evolving norms. This is not due solely to the human tendency to be influenced by those around us, it is because certain parts of the Church have cut the ropes which keep the Church anchored to the historic Christian faith. Thus, it is inevitable that it will float with the currents of society. Among those steadying ropes are the authority of scripture, a theology of sin and an understanding of redemption. There is little chance that an unanchored Church will stand fast against the tidal wave of societal pressure to embrace homosexuality as a new justice and civil right issue.
However, other segments of the Church have not been flowing with this tide.
Some parts of the Church have maintained the orthodox view out of unhealthy motives such as fear of the unknown, unexamined tradition or even hatred of the “other”.
But much of the Church that is holding to the orthodox 2,000 year-old view is doing so out of fresh conviction. Their understanding of biblical authority is far deeper and more nuanced than, “Leviticus said it, that settles it.” They admit that the Church has in the past acted unlovingly toward GLTB people, and yet their understanding of the nature of sin makes it very natural to love all people (including themselves) without stamping everything they they do as “good”. They understand that to say the Church must stand on the “right side of history” comes perilously close to marrying ourselves to the spirit of the age (at which point it becomes inevitable that we become widows). Instead they see the reasons behind our 2,000 year old history of monogamous heterosexual marriage as transcending fluctuating human desires.
Yes, I believe the UM Church’s stance today is correct and should not change.
To be clear, I am not implying that those who want the Church to accept homosexual marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals are not Christians. And I am not saying that those in gay unions do not have a meaningful faith. I agree with our church’s current position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, but then again, each of us has parts of our lives that are incompatible with Christian teaching and for which the Lord died and from which he wants to transform us.
I have no trouble seeing those who want to change our church’s stance as brothers and sisters in Christ, even if I disagree with their approach to the scriptures, sin and redemption. We have Jesus in common, which is all it takes to make us part of God’s family.
The question is, differing as we do in many substantive issues of the faith, will there be enough to keep us part of the same denominational tribe? What essential distinctives do United Methodists share? This is what provokes the tumult.
Will the UMC survive this looming crisis in a recognizable form? I don’t know. I hope so.
But I am convinced that the Western Church will pass through this white water, and somewhere down stream there will emerge a Church which is even stronger and more powerful in the Spirit because she has come to peace with her resident alien status in the land. She will have ceased expecting TV land and the society it represents to act in Christian ways. It will march to the beat of heaven’s drum, and exude heaven’s power and love in surprisingly counter-cultural ways.
We need to cease expecting the culture around us to uphold or even understand our values. That’s OK. The first Christians were in the same boat and it worked out pretty well.