On Uniting Methodists: Is Scripture Authoritative?

by Scott Gilliland

I had the pleasure of being on the host team for the Uniting Methodists “Room for All” Conference held at Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas in July. We were incredibly thankful to have such an inspiring and important event on our campus. Attendees would have seen the following words printed in large black letters on a wall in our Watson Hall: “Our Vision: To be one diverse community, passionately engaging the Bible, uplifting Jesus in worship and loving service, and challenging in love that which divides.” We’re proud of that vision statement at Lovers Lane; it sums up who we feel God has called us to be as a community of faith, and we hope it inspires those who walk through our doors.

During the past few weeks, as tensions have continued to rise with the release of the One Church Plan put forth by the Commission on a Way Forward and recommended by the Council of Bishops, I have noticed a common criticism from some who oppose this plan due to their traditionalist convictions. The criticism sounds something like, “Those who support this plan do not believe in the authority of Scripture!”

“The authority of Scripture” is a phrase I imagine we will be hearing often in the near future, as my most traditionalist sisters and brothers frame the decision at General Conference 2019 as one of Scripture versus culture. Those of us who support the One Church Plan will likely be told we don’t view Scripture as the final authority, that we bend to the pressures of culture and that we conveniently interpret the Bible to suit our needs.

These are not new arguments. We’ve heard “the authority of Scripture” used in arguments against multiethnic marriage, racial inclusion, desegregation, and women in leadership. It causes me to wonder what we mean by “the authority of Scripture” or, more specifically, “authority.”

Sound bites and slippery slopes

One of the loudest critiques that came out of the “Room for All” Conference was in response to a panel of millennials moderated by the Rev. Mike Baughman of the Union Coffee mission in North Texas. One sound bite that has received attention was by panelist Lauren, a young, lesbian woman who is a self-identified outsider of the institutional church.

She spoke of reading passages in the Bible that lead some to say, “This is the reason … we are not going to hold same-sex marriages in the church.”  And then she noted, “I believe if I sat down with Paul today, Paul would say, ‘I’m not down for [same-sex marriage].’” For emphasis, Lauren added, “I think the Bible is wrong.”

A fear of many conservatives is that at the core of the One Church Plan is a belief that the Bible is simply wrong when it comes to the matter of same-sex attraction. And if the moderates and liberals believe the Bible is wrong about that they ask, “What else don’t they believe?” The slope begins to feel very slippery for our conservative brothers and sisters.

But let’s consider why Lauren saying what she did—in her open search to know God ‘s love—is not so scary after all.

Mike Baughman intentionally invited folks to join the panel whose perspectives are not often heard in the company of Christian believers, and the panelists did not disappoint!  Mike is my friend and colleague and an opinionated Yankee who has a love-hate relationship with Texas. He has views on God and the church that I sometimes think are odd or even dead-wrong, but he is probably the most successful person I know when it comes to cultivating relevant conversations with young people who do not know Jesus and say they want nothing to do with church. What I heard in that millennial panel was not rejection of the Bible or dismissal of its authority. I heard young people willing to be in conversation with each other, with God, with the church, and, yes, with Scripture.

Under whose authority?

Christ is our Lord. I believe that, announce it with conviction, and will continue to do so. We are to serve Christ as a servant serves a master, with humility and a heart that trusts in his will. When we say God is our authority, we mean God is the ultimate benevolent master, who should be seen and served in that way. But the Bible is not God, unless I have misread the core teaching of the Gospel of John and John Wesley’s works.

Scripture, I believe, is authoritative, but not in the same way that God is. We have different models of authority in the world, and I believe we can allow for the nuance of differing models of authority in the life of faith. Could we embrace Scripture in ways that allow for more voices and more conversation? Is that such a dangerous idea? Are we not Wesleyans who affirm a quadrilateral, where Scripture, reason, tradition and experience serve together as valuable means of discerning God’s will, just as they did for John Wesley?

I’m not suggesting that we level the playing field. Of the four, Scripture is primary in my own theological development. Perhaps, though, when we talk of the authority of Scripture, we could understand that term, not in an autocratic, fundamentalist fashion, but rather in a more democratic way that invites conversation. Could we trust that Scripture’s authority is not threatened when we put it in dialogue with the experiences of the historical church and our modern-day hearts, minds and souls? Surely, Scripture is strong enough.

Like members of the local church I serve, I believe Scripture is authoritative. Scripture challenges me to love the unlovable, to extend God’s grace to all, and to listen intently for new movements of the Holy Spirit. Those messages are certainly authoritative in my life, but not every word on every page is literally, perfectly right for my life or for the people I serve. I think the desire to make an example of Lauren as being heretical is actually hypocritical. When Jesus said, “You have heard, ‘An eye for an eye,’ but I tell you, ‘turn the other cheek,’” he could have just as easily made the same point by saying, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye,’ but the Bible is wrong.”

The second we stop allowing conversation with Scripture in our churches, I fear our congregations will become much quieter, and not because they’ll be full of folks praying. We serve a Savior who savored conversation, challenged the status quo, and looked past the words on the page to instead preach the heart of the message. I pray we can be a Bible-believing church that follows in our master’s footsteps.