Unity is Difficult, Not Impossible (Part 4)

by Dan Johnson

I’ve been to four of the past six General Conferences. All were ferociously contentious over the issue of sexuality. Our “every-four-years-pain-inflicting session,” has been going on since 1972. That’s when the ill-conceived wording was first added to the Book of Discipline. Like most legal attempts to address relational issues, this attempt has brought nothing but pain, a disastrous distraction from our primary calling of making disciples, and a division within the Body of Christ that appears unbridgeable.

Many attempts have been made to address the divide. Six years ago I participated with Adam Hamilton and others in formulating the “Way Forward” that was defeated in Tampa in 2012. Recently I was a part of gathering folks in Nashville that led to “The Uniting Methodist” proposal, all in an attempt to keep our beloved Church United. For the past 40 years every attempt to bridge our divide has been unsuccessful, not because the attempts have been flawed, but because they failed to state the obvious: the 1972 additions were a mistake, and rather than tweak them we should just remove them – all of them.

In my three previous posts I have tried to help us understand (a) the progressive position that centers on human, civil rights of individuals and sees full inclusion as a matter of justice, (b) the traditional position that centers on a traditional reading of Scripture and believes Biblical authority and personal integrity are at stake, and (c) an appeal to the different and unique nature of the Body of Christ, that it is not a civil institution, though we treat the church that way every four years, and way too much in the intervening years.

The Body of Christ is the gathering of flawed and forgiven followers of Jesus, who, in the Spirit of Christ, genuinely love one another and are bound together in a bond of deep spiritual fellowship. That bond of unity is far deeper than rational thought can imagine; it is a Divine Unity. Our truncated legislative actions nurture division rather than unity at every turn, in large part because we are trying to do what we were never intended by Christ Jesus to do. Legislation is a worldly function, and does not belong to the Body of Christ. The result is painfully obvious.

An Historical Parallel

Over time, the scribes and Pharisees took Ten Commandments and morphed them into over 600 – it was not a good idea then, and our similar attempts to legislate our communal life together are not a good idea now. Doing so strangles the spiritual life out of a community – as Jesus knew and as our life since 1972 has demonstrated.

Jesus summarized the law in the two great commandments: Love God and Love others. Pretty simple. Beautiful. Oh how Jesus must weep over His Church as He once did over Jerusalem because of the way we treat each other. Jesus also said, “You’ve heard it said of old, but I say to you….” The implication is clear: My followers are not intended to legislate what is spiritual. It may have been appropriate for Moses, but his successors have succeeded only in keeping the letter of the law but have missed the spirit of the law.

It’s in this same spirit of Jesus that I offer what I believe is the best solution to our entrenched wrangling over the matter of sexuality. This solution is so obvious and so simple, one wonders why it has eluded us all these years? I believe it’s because once an unfortunate “law” has been introduced, as it was in 1972, everyone becomes obsessed with the law, elevating it to almost sacred scriptural authority.

Instead of stepping back and seeing it for the mistake it was, everyone tries to nuance it or persuade others of the rightness or wrongness of the misguided insertion. I fear that the “Commission on a Way Forward” – with all good intentions, might be falling into this very same trap by putting most or all their energies into focusing on wording that should never have been introduced in the first place. We, long ago, should have done what I’m suggesting now: Remove it – all of it.

My suggestion is that “we omit all language about, and related to, homosexuality from the Book of Discipline.” Either omit all language about homosexuality or include all the prohibitions listed in the primary passage of Romans 1:29,30: gossipers, slanderers, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, persons who disobey their parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless; anyone who practices any of these will likewise be excluded from ordination and full inclusion.

There are only two commandments for the followers of Jesus. You’ve heard it said of old, back in 1972 and every year since, but I say to you… Let’s trust our churches, let’s trust our fellow believers, let’s trust the Holy Spirit to move in hearts and minds. Let’s stop trying to dictate to others in ways that are ineffective, off putting, counterproductive, and keep us from doing what Jesus has clearly called us to do: “A new command I give you: Love one another.”

This suggestion allows the developing world to be unhampered by what many perceive as western arrogance. The developing world can and will work this out in their own way and time. This allows traditionalists and progressives to continue making disciples the way they feel led to do it. To the progressives who say, “Doing this will be tantamount to abdicating our call to justice,” I say, “Look, you’re not changing other people’s minds on this anyway.” Go and make disciples.

And to the traditionalists who say, “This will violate my conscience because I can’t be in a church that condones this type of behavior,” I say, “It didn’t bother your conscience before 1972; trust the Spirit, and go and make disciples. And realize and own how unbiblical it is to highlight only one of Paul’s terms over the 20 others.

In short, it lives into the reality that God is God and we are not. Humility is a lost commodity in the world; let’s not let it be so in the Church. We are all persons who are attempting to follow Jesus. We are all a part of the beautiful Body of Christ, United in bonds of love. Let’s stop bickering and start trusting the Holy Spirit to guide the Church.

Only when those outside the Church hear from us what we are for instead of the blaring announcements of what we are against will their hearts and minds consider hearing the Good News of Jesus Christ who came from the God of Love above to bring us life and life abundant.