Why I Am Committed to the Unity of the UMC (Part 2)

by David N. Field

Unity, Centrism, and the Incarnation

After some delay I now come to my second of what was intended as a four-part series. (The series will probably be longer.)

People committed to a renewed form of institutional unity for the UMC in the context of the debate on LGBTQ inclusion and affirmation have described themselves and have been described by others as being centrist or the broad middle of the church. While I appreciate why the terminology of a center has been used, I personally do not find the terminology helpful and suggest an alternative approach.

When we were nominated to serve on the Commission on the Way forward, we were required to complete a questionnaire as part of the process for ensuring the diversity of the commission members. One of the tasks was to locate ourselves on the theological spectrum. In the UMC this refers to a spectrum on the right of which are views variously identified as conservative, traditional, orthodox, or evangelical (which incorrectly assumes that these are in some sense synonymous) and on the left of the spectrum are views described as liberal or progressive (again incorrectly assuming that these are synonymous). Then between these two extremes you have a center.

In the present context the defining issue for one’s placement on the spectrum is one’s views on same sex relationships. I have five difficulties with this way of analyzing the present conflicts within the UMC.

  1. There are many different theological spectrums and, depending on the issues you choose, you may come out in different positions. In parts of Eastern Europe, for example, the main points of contention are between traditionalist Eastern Orthodoxy and traditionalist Roman Catholicism, both of which view conservative evangelicalism as a sect or sect-like movement.
  2. It over simplifies the complexity of different theological positions which have their own integrity but do not fit on such a spectrum. Two examples illustrate this point. The first is the difficulty that many US commentators have in interpreting the theology of Pope Francis. On the one hand he is a traditional Catholic with respect to his views on Mary, the saints, abortion, and issues of gender and sexuality. On the other he is deeply influenced by liberation theology (wrongly interpreted as a form of liberalism), and his views on the economy, the environment, and war are often more radical than most US progressives. A second example is the German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg who critiqued the virgin birth (liberal?) affirmed the resurrection (conservative?), affirmed and used historical critical methods for interpreting the bible (liberal?) and rejected attempts to theologically affirm same sex relationships (conservative?). Both Pannenberg and Pope Francis cannot be plotted on a conservative-progressive theological spectrum.
  3. I am a South African and the primary context of my theological formation was the theological struggle against apartheid. Here there could be no center or middle ground. You either justified or rejected the injustices of apartheid. This leads me to be deeply suspicious of ideas of a middle way. Yet in this context there were remarkable people, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who maintained a high view of the unity of the church and an equally strong rejection of the injustice of apartheid.
  4. The notion of a theological spectrum from conservative to progressive becomes even more problematic when it is identified with an ideological commitment to progress, conservatism or centrism. An ideology of progress values the present and the future over the past, viewing history as inevitably moving toward greater justice – such a view does not do justice to the confession that God’s ultimate revelation in history has occurred in Jesus Christ. Nor does it recognize the effects of human fallibility, error, and sin that distort even our best approximations to justice now and in the future. An ideological conservatism, while affirming the ultimacy of God’s revelation in Christ, fails to recognize that its significance needs to be related to new and different contexts. It also fails to recognize the distorting effects of human fallibility, error, and sin on past interpretations of God’s revelation. An ideology of the center wrongly interprets the tension between God’s revelation in the past and the calling to reinterpret its significance in such a way that it fails to address the urgent challenges of the present instead speaking of comfort and peace where there is no comfort and peace.
  5. A final difficulty with the image of the center in theological spectrum is well expressed by a comment made by a friend many years ago in the context of another discussion. “The problem with being in the middle of the road is that you get run over by cars traveling in both directions.” When you define your position as the center, you define yourself in relation to what you identify as the extremes; either by distancing yourself from them or by arguing that your position includes aspects of both. The result is that one is subject to critique from both sides. For conservatives, centrists are progressive light, and for progressives, centrists have deeply compromised themselves by trying to appease conservatives.

Particularly in the light of the last point I think it is important for those who are committed to the unity of the UMC to develop a positive statement of their identity that is not dependent upon a contrast with alternatives. I propose that center of such a statement is a strong affirmation of the historic orthodox confession that Jesus of Nazareth is God incarnate. He is the ultimate revelation of God in history yet he points to a fuller more complete eschatological revelation when “we will know as we are fully known”. Jesus is the “image of the invisible God”. He is the revelation of who God is and what God requires of us.

In what follows I will highlight some key implications of this and then note its significance for affirming the significance for the unity of the church.

  • Incarnation – to affirm that God became human in Jesus is to affirm that God’s revelation comes to us in the particularity of a specific life lived in first century Judea and Galilee; in the messiness and complexity of human history, and in context of the history and scriptures of the people of Israel.
  • Birth – God becomes human in the morally scandalous pregnancy of an unmarried teenager; in the birth of a baby in the midst of the chaos caused by arbitrary political decisions; in an animal feeding trough surrounded by shepherds with a reputation for ignoring their religious obligations, and as a refugee fleeing the ruling tyrant. God became incarnate in the unexpected, the wrong, and the disreputable contexts in order to start something new and to inaugurate a new community of transforming love that brings hope to the rejected, the despised and the poor.
  • Life and ministry – Jesus rejected the culturally assigned role of marrying and heading a family to become a wondering homeless preacher, identifying with the vulnerable, the poor, the disempowered, the despised and the excluded. In deep compassion he healed the sick, fed the hungry and raised the dead. He calls a diverse and contradictory group of followers to become the pioneers of God’s new community, a group that included not only the victims of Roman occupation but also its beneficiaries. He enacted God’s coming reign by celebrating meals with the outcasts of religion and society. He ignored traditions and laws of purity and in some cases brought healing and life by deliberately violating these laws. He summed up his teaching with the commandments to love God and neighbor. But he radically redefined “neighbor” to include enemies, strangers, the despised and all who need our compassionate help. His teaching and example subverted hierarchies based on honor and shame; on power and wealth; and on ritual purity. He rejected domination and called for a life of costly self-sacrificial service. God in Christ is thus revealed as the one who identifies with the poor, the vulnerable, the disempowered, the voiceless and the excluded; who overturns cultural and social hierarchies; who creates a community which includes the marginalized and the rejected, and brings reconciliation to those at enmity with each other. He commissions this community to be the embodiment and agent of divine love in the world.
  • Crucifixion – the life of the incarnate God culminates in his being rejected by the religio-political leadership, handed over to the foreign rulers, and crucified outside the city, thus symbolically excluded from his people. For the Romans, crucifixion was the ultimate act of rejection, shame and degradation. For the Jews, it was a sign of God’s rejection. In the Old Testament ritual laws, death was ultimate impurity, yet in Jesus God enters into death, the ultimate impurity. In this death, God takes upon God’s very self human sin and its consequences. The crucifixion opens way for all to enter into a new community with God and in Christ and with each other.
  • Resurrection – The bodily raising of Jesus from the dead inaugurates a new creation in which the divisions of the old creation are of no significance, in which the divisions created by Old Testament purity laws are overcome, and which there is reconciliation of those divided by human sin and evil. God is revealed as the one who does new and surprising things creating something different which transcends the old.
  • Ascension – Jesus announces the coming of the Spirit; ascends to the Father; and promises to return. Through the presence and work of the Spirit, God’s new community is present in the midst of the complexities of human history as people respond in faith and obedience to the message of the gospel. This community is called to be a sign of the coming reign of God, yet it is a historical sign and hence a sign that is still subject to the ambiguities, brokenness and limitations of human history. It is an earthen jar in which the treasure of God’s transforming work is present.

The early church was confronted with a new set of issues as it sought to relate God’s revelation in Jesus Christ to the issue of the inclusion of Gentiles in the church. A careful reading of the New Testament suggests that in Jerusalem and Judea there were Jewish Christian communities that continued to practice all the ritual laws of the Old Testament. In the rest of the Roman Empire Christian communities comprising Jews and Gentiles struggled to deal with how live as communities of the new creation which comprised Jews and Gentiles.

The difficulty was most intense in the common meals which were the center of the life of these communities. Paul insisted that the members of the community, as members of one body, should accept one another as Christ had accepted them. To do this he encouraged them to live in such a way as to respect the consciences and convictions of others. These early Christian communities embodied the new creation community of reconciliation in the context of the complexities and brokenness of the present creation. They were incomplete and limited signs pointing to the final coming of the new creation.

One of Wesley’s favorite ways of describing Christian holiness was to have the mind of Christ that we might walk as he did. This is not a call to a simplistic “what would Jesus do” ethic, but rather deeply imbibing Jesus’ teaching and way of life and then creatively re-embodying it in our very different contexts. Wesley related this to individuals it can also be applied to the churches and denominations.

The challenge before us is how the UMC can have the mind of Christ and walk as he did. Or in other concepts how it can be an embodiment of the community of the new creation revealed in the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ in the context of the severe disagreement over LGBTQ inclusion. Drawing on the above I would suggest the following guidelines.

  • The church is called to locate itself in the unexpected and disreputable places, amongst the poor, the rejected, the disempowered, the despised, the exploited, the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the suffering to be a source of God’s healing and transformation. There are many such places and a great diversity of groups. As a large transnational denomination the UMC has a unique opportunity and responsibility to be present in diverse locations amongst different groups.
  • The church is called to be a community of hospitality and reconciliation as the one body of Christ. It is to be open to all those who God welcomes and to engage in the hard work of struggling to become the community of the new creation in which the boundaries, divisions and conflicts of the present creation are overcome. Our struggle in the UMC is precisely over what does it mean to be community of hospitality and reconciliation which includes LGBTQ people even though we cannot agree on what  inclusion means.
    • Becoming a community of hospitality and reconciliation is a complex and costly process – it took Jesus to the cross. As such it needs to include places of safety and healing where the vulnerable, the abused and the rejected can find refuge and restoration.
    • Becoming a community of hospitality and reconciliation means bearing with each other, and seeking to find ways to structure the community that respects the consciences of others and which causes the least harm. The challenge before us, is how to do this in a manner that reconciliation is liberatory for the oppressed and excluded.
    • Becoming a community of hospitality and reconciliation entails the rejection of all forms of denigration and shaming of others. Concretely if the UMC is to be a community of reconciliation then people who disagree on LGBTQ inclusion will have to recognize that many of those who disagree with them are genuinely seeking to have the mind of Christ and to walk as he did. It will mean that while arguing for a particular position the integrity the authenticity of the faith of those who disagree is recognized. Yet we recognize the limitations of human knowledge and the reality of human self-deception.
    • Becoming a community of hospitality and reconciliation means providing a safe space in which the differences can be honestly confronted in a spirit of deep love for each other.
    • Being part of a community of reconciliation requires that members of the community mutually recognize each other as siblings in Christ, as loved and forgiven children of God, and people indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The refusal to accept the others excludes one from the community.
  • The church as a community that derives its identity from God’s revelation in the incarnation will be a community that expresses the new creation within the limitations, ambiguities, complexities and brokenness of the present creation. Hence within the UMC context different congregations and conferences are addressing diverse particular situations of suffering, exclusion, oppression and vulnerability. What is a priority for one congregation or conference is not and cannot be a priority for all others. It further needs to be recognized that limitations and brokenness of our bodily existence shapes the way we interpret both God’s revelation and our world. This means that we will come to different conclusions both as to what is exclusive and discriminatory and what is just and reconciling. It is for this reason that we need each other to constantly challenge each other as to our faithfulness to God’s revelation in Christ and to teach each other and to learn from each other what it means to be in healing solidarity with the excluded, the suffering, the vulnerable, the discriminated, the exploited and the oppressed.
  • The church is the community of the new creation that manifests the new humanity in Christ in which the divisions of a fallen and broken creation are overcome in the midst of the realities of the present creation. As such its communal life must always point beyond the limitations and failures of the present to the ultimate reconciliation of all things in the new creation. Hence the UMC needs to confess that the present conflict over LGBTQ inclusion is a consequence of our participation in the old broken creation. However the UMC restructures itself it needs to do so in a way that is a sign of ultimate reconciliation and justice.

Seeking the institutional unity of the UMC will be a complex and costly process but I am convinced that it is mandated by the call to have the mind of Christ and to walk as he did. It will have to bear witness to God’s solidarity with the excluded, the oppressed, the suffering, and the exploited; it will have to take account of the realities of our embodied existence; and at the same time point to the ultimate reconciliation in the new creation.

In affirming this I recognize the limitations of my own reality as a straight white male living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. My perspective might be very different if any of these factors were different.