A “Fixed and Free” Romans 14 Church

by Scott Gilliland

This past week, the local church I serve, Lovers Lane UMC, hosted a gathering of area clergy and lay leaders interested in learning more about a movement called “Uniting Methodists.” Leading the presentation and ensuing discussion were Rev. Rachel Baughman of Oak Lawn UMC in Dallas, and Rev. Dr. Stan Copeland of Lovers Lane.

I respect both of these leaders immensely; Rachel was actually my children’s pastor when I was in the 6th grade at W.C. Martin UMC in Bedford, TX, and Stan has been my boss and mentor for the better part of the last decade. That respect was shared by the room as far as I could tell, and it was their presence together on stage that likely sparked more than a little curiosity amongst those who came.

The sight of them sitting together on stage perhaps sums up Uniting Methodists in one image. On the left (literally and figuratively), a young, progressive, woman with clerical collar, black plastic glasses, and dreads pulled neatly into a bun. On the right, an *ahem* experienced, traditionalist, man with suit and sweater vest, a haircut that hasn’t changed in 25 years, and an east Texas accent that hasn’t changed for far longer. (Stan would like to point out that I obviously have hair jealousy. I won’t deny it.)

The two of them shared from the heart, both speaking of their great love for The United Methodist Church and the ways in which it has shaped them in their personal and professional lives. Rachel spoke of being a 6th generation Methodist pastor, and the tension she now felt between living into both the unity and justice we are called to in scripture. Stan spoke of his journey from learning the ropes of ministry under Dr. Bill Hinson – a flag-bearer for evangelical Methodists who first called for “amicable separation” in the 2004 General Conference – to now being pastor of Lovers Lane UMC for the past 20 years, a church that has strengthened what he calls his “true evangelicalism” in loving ALL people into relationship with Christ. Both pastors spoke with heartfelt hope for a future that allows the two of them to remain in connectional covenant.

We watched the now famous “sugar packet” video explaining the four basic categories of United Methodists on the subject of full inclusion: Progressive Non-Compatibilists (will not accept anything but full inclusion throughout the global denomination), Traditionalist Non-Compatibilists (will not accept any changes to our current stance), and Progressive and Traditionalist Compatibilists (those who hold differing views on inclusion, but are willing to remain in covenant with the “other side”).

We also shared in a time of discussion over lunch, where we talked at tables about why we are United Methodists, what we believe is the greatest strength of United Methodism, and why or why not we believe the denomination should seek to stay together. I found the day, on the whole, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually moving, and I’m excited to see the movement progress.

Like the Wesleyan Covenant Association, the Uniting Methodists are forming to accomplish two things, as far as I can tell: 1) Address the very real and present issues surrounding full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people in The United Methodist Church, and 2) Establish a new culture and framework for understanding ourselves as a denomination with pluralistic tendencies. To the second point, I see this expressed in their vision and mission statements as well as in the intriguing “Fixed and Free” statements found in the Uniting Methodists vision. Jesus Christ, The Holy Spirit, The Church, and Unity are all described as “Fixed and Free” – borrowing the image of the tabernacle and the temple in the Old Testament – and something inside me immediately identifies with their naming the tensions we so often find at the core of the Christian faith.

To be honest, the hermeneutics surrounding homosexuality in the Bible have been researched/discussed/written about/preached to death. We’ve parsed, we’ve contextualized, we’ve cherry-picked, we’ve exegeted, we’ve isogeted, and we’ve gotten nowhere. It’s one of the reasons we all wait with bated breath for the Bishop’s Commission to save us from ourselves in 2019. Today, I’m left wondering if we’re discussing the right thing.

A Church Divided

Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome is frequently cited in the inclusion debate, specifically his litany of “sins of the flesh” found in Chapter 1, where a word or phrase appears that may or may not reference homosexuality depending on which Methodist you ask.

I find it interesting that Romans is lifted up so often in this discussion, because I actually do believe the letter could be prescriptive for us as a church not unlike the one Paul wrote to in Rome. Deeply divided. Progressivist Gentiles vs. Traditionalist Jews. A struggle to find vision, direction, and leadership. Stuck.

Sound familiar?

For the first 13 chapters, Paul takes his time developing what is widely considered to be his masterpiece of theological writing, bridging the gap between the camps of Jews and Gentiles. “Yes,” he says, the Jewish tradition and the promise of Abraham and the Law as we knew it are important and should be remembered and respected. “And yes,” he says, Christ is available to all, and the promise has been extended, and Christ is the living Law whom we now are under. Both are true, and must be true, or else the Church would suffer as a result.

Then we get to Chapter 14, where Paul’s attention shifts, and he no longer preaches about lofty, doctrinal issues, but instead brings his focus to where division has been felt most practically in the Roman Church: pork. A whole chapter of one of the most important books of the Bible dedicated to whether or not a good Christian eats pork! So much for a masterpiece.

It’s Not About Pork

Romans 14 is not about pork, not really. In fact, Paul also references another practical division present in the church: whether one set day should be recognized as the Sabbath or not. Do we eat pork, do we celebrate sabbath… what he’s really talking about is this:

“What do we do when we disagree about faithful Christian practice?”

His answer is simple and straight-forward:

The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (Romans 14:22-23, NRSV)

As a denomination, we’ve been arguing over the subject of homosexuality, but it’s not about homosexuality, not really. I think at the core of this debate, and certainly debates we will encounter in the years and decades to come, what we’re really arguing about is what constitutes faithful Christian practice, the same thing Paul’s church in Rome argued about 2000 years ago.

Before I’m accused of trivializing the conversation by trying to relate this to eating pork, understand that a) eating pork was a grave concern for first century Jews, far from a trivial matter, but more importantly b) our own Discipline would suggest that this really is an argument about practice. And I quote: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (emphasis mine)

It seems that for many in our country and throughout our world, there is a deeply held belief that homosexual acts could not, for them, be an act of faith. And yet, for so many others in our country–and yes, around the world–monogamous, covenantal, same-sex relationships are seen to be faithful and good. I would suggest that Paul has already spoken to this precise issue, the issue of division, not in the use of one word that may or may not mean what we want it to mean, but in a whole chapter of his most celebrated text. A chapter that is devoted to a theology of Church.

What we have in The UMC is a faith issue, and it has nothing to do with homosexuality. We don’t have faith in each other. We’ve lost trust along the way. As Paul says, if we truly have faith that our brothers and sisters in our pews and churches around the world are walking faithfully with God, then “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?” (Romans 14:4) Paul is calling on us to release our grip just a bit and allow there to be dynamism in the way we live out our faith, person to person, community to community, church to church.

A Romans 14 Church

The Uniting Methodists, to me, represent a Romans 14 church. A church that defines clearly the essential doctrines upon which our faith is built, and a church that encourages trust in the individual’s relationship with God, open to wherever that might lead us in practice. A church that is both fixed and free.

There will be some who cannot envision a church like this, or believe fervently that progressive or traditionalist views on LGBT inclusion are simply incompatible, but for those of us somewhere in the middle, rooted in our beliefs and yet committed to remaining in relationship with one another… I believe Romans 14 offers us hope.

Arguing is easy. Building trust is hard. Maybe that’s why arguing has been our default for so long now. I look forward to future conversations with colleagues and congregants surrounding the future of our denomination we all love, and for those attending the Uniting Methodists conference in Atlanta in a couple weeks, I’ll see you there.


This article originally appeared on the Scott and Raegan Gilliland blog. View the original post.