I am responding to Dr. Maxie Dunnam’s “Open Letter” from the Confessing Movement newsletter. I greatly respected Maxie from a distance before I quickly grew to love him through being introduced by my mentor Dr. Bill Hinson. Maxie’s letter reminded me of their close friendship and caused me to remember the two of them working with others from the Houston and Memphis declarations, and the Confessing Movement, while I was Bill’s Associate Pastor at First United Methodist Church, Houston. Particularly striking is the dapper, white beard that Maxie dons these days, as I saw him on a video supporting the Traditional Plan. In my mind’s eye, he looks like one of my favorite biblical characters, Nicodemus. Or maybe that is my hope, that Maxie can be a voice of reason, like Nicodemus.
I remember Bill’s initiative at the 2004 General Conference in Pittsburgh for an “amicable separation.” For him and others who supported his call to the church, it was understood that it would be the “progressive” sisters and brothers, who were thought to be perhaps 5% of the denomination, who would leave. It was a flawed plan to think that these matters would then be “fixed” and our sisters and brothers would leave our denomination.
Today, fifteen years later, Bill has outrun us to heaven, the Supreme Court in the United States has deemed same-sex marriage legal, and there has continued to be defiance of the Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality matters and church practices. Meanwhile the sexuality conflict continues, and the support for a more moderate way of allowing local churches and Annual Conferences to make decisions regarding their mission fields is on the rise. This sentiment has become more popular among more centrist UMC clergy and laity alike. There are also those of us who lean more theologically traditional who see the evangelistic power of embracing pastor Paul’s brand of unity in Christ, which he espoused in letter after letter in the New Testament. He wrote in light of, or especially because of, the diversity and lack of uniformity in the churches, and encouraged the understanding of ALL being important to one another.
I dare say that clear and strong majorities of informed United Methodists in the United States have no desire for us to adopt the Traditional Plan, in any form. And they rightly see it:
- turning up the volume of discontent;
- making us appear to desire to be more punitive regarding those who cannot support our current language and practices;
- being totally unenforceable, which is part of the present problem; and
- continuing to be the dominant force that leads us to be “off mission” and thus, declining in number and witness.
Personally, as a Wesleyan Evangelical I am much more concerned about our declining witness and the seeming disregard for where the vast numbers of millennials, and clearly the generations following them, are on deeply held views on matters of human sexuality and church irrelevance. Others keep pointing to our beloved Holy Bible to justify a traditional stance and obviously obsess over issues regarding homosexuality, while selectively overlooking other biblical mandates that they easily contextualize.
Whether we admit it or not, our praxis is that parts of the Bible are meant for contextual understanding and obedience is deemed optional. This is bigger than the Levitical law interpretations regarding what we eat and wear, for we know that Christians view many of these laws as irrelevant today and do not obey them. We mix the clothing that we wear, sometimes in the same garment. We eat shrimp and pork without guilt. Many see the 600+ laws related to holy practice as having a purpose and meaning at one time, but not now. Even the early first-century church was moved to change its views on “who was in” and “who was out” through a vision given to Peter and a word from God, “Never consider unclean what God has made pure.”
It’s as big as the Holy Spirit starting to fill people whom it was easy to say were not godly, because they were not “circumcised” believers. Decisions had to be made. Peter’s observations of Spirit-filled Gentiles and deciding to accept them opened the door to the Church Universal. The Apostle Paul witnessed these once “outcasts” not only being filled with the Spirit, but answering “calls to preach” and to be leaders in Christ’s Church—men and women. Thankfully, “women in ministry” is another biblical matter that we have contextualized.
I have witnessed the Holy Spirit filling people who are gay and lesbian just as I can testify to seeing people Spirit-filled who are divorced and remarried—about whom Jesus said they would be committing adultery, unless the divorce was a result of infidelity (Matthew 19). I know that this is a touchy subject for Bible-believing Christians, for the Bible and Jesus say one thing and the vast majority of protestant Christians have moved beyond such strict adherence to the words in Scripture on matters of divorce.
Let me pose a scenario. What if United Methodists for the past 47 years had been living with a statement like this in our Book of Discipline and supported it with strong biblical underpinnings: “A divorced person remarrying is incompatible with Christian teaching”? Or what if we said: “No divorced person can remarry on United Methodist Church property”? Here’s one that hits many of our colleagues close to home: “No divorced and remarried person can be ordained in the United Methodist Church.” How large would the United Methodist Church be today? We could probably fit in the proverbial phone booth if we had phone booths as we did when the discussion was started in 1972. How many clergy would we have in our denomination? It would be much fewer than we have now; we would even have to disqualify some of our bishops.
The point is this: United Methodists have always been encouraged to base our beliefs on the Bible as our foundation and primary source that is dynamic and not frozen in time, and we also engage our reason, producing thoughtful rationale, and understand the impact of Church tradition and our own experiences, all to inform our belief. We believe in loving God with our heart, MIND, soul, and strength and our neighbors as we love ourselves. Or as Jesus encouraged, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other” (John 13:34). Yes, this kind of love caused Jesus to lay down His life for ALL of us. We chose long ago to embrace those who were going through the pain of divorce and love them with Christ’s love.
Regarding divorce, and divorced and remarried persons, we have made allowances that do not dismiss the Bible and hold to hope for marriage “until death parts us.” At the same time, we realize that death can come to a marriage and can cause a parting that is regrettable and demands loving care for all of those involved. As a Wesleyan Evangelical, lover of the Bible, and believer in the Holy Spirit’s power to bring conversion to the heart, I recognize that we must name the double standard of deeming some Scripture contextualized while accentuating Scripture concerning the “sin” of those whose behavior we are uncomfortable with, or worse, repulsed by. We must own that the Church has always valued tradition while evolving to be inclusive of Gentiles (whoever they are). Let us reason together and honor the rational conclusions of faithful sister and brother United Methodists who may see things differently. Most of us have experiences that also inform us. For me, I have experienced the Holy Spirit filling LGBTQ persons, and decisions had to be made.
With my whole heart, mind, soul, and strength, I believe we are much more capable of making prayerful, faithful decisions on these weighty matters in our local churches and Annual Conferences as the One Church Plan proposes. I still long for a day that I believe is coming, when United Methodists can become laser-focused on our mission and have a vision together of loving people into relationship with Jesus Christ. What a message we could share with a divided, squabbling, judgmental, hate-filled world concerning a Spirit-filling that bolsters the love of Jesus and casts out fear. Or we can act like the world and confess that we have been transformed by it. We need the spirit of Nicodemus to consume General Conference, bearded or not, female and male, in all hues and cultural expressions, in multiple languages and distinctive dialects. May the Holy Spirit move our delegates in a powerful way to reason together and come out of this conferencing still “united” though not of one mind—we never have been anyway. Let us take up these matters in the way that we are most impactful as United Methodists—in our local mission fields.
Stan Copeland is co-author with Scott Gilliland of Together, United Methodist of the Temple, Tabernacle and Table, published in 2018 available in English from Cokesbury.com and also translated into French. The French version has been shared with all French speaking African delegates to the 2019 Special Session of General Conference.