“Finding Our Way”

Earlier this year, United Methodist leaders published Finding Our Way: Love and Law in The United Methodist Church, edited by Bishop Rueben P. Job and Neil M. Alexander. Several bishops each contributed a chapter, including …

  • Enforce (Gregory V. Palmer)
  • Emend (Hope Morgan Ward)
  • Disobey (Melvin G. Talbert)
  • Disarm (Kenneth H. Carter, Jr.)
  • Order (J. Michael Lowery)
  • Unity (John K. Yambasu)
  • Diversity (Rosemarie Wenner)
  • Trust God (Rueben P. Job)

Overall, I thought the book was well-written. It’s certainly diverse as it represents perspectives from all across the theological spectrum.

The book is written in light of the increasing polarization in the United Methodist Church and the growing concern about where the denomination may be headed, particularly as we near the 2016 General Conference. The editors note that it’s possible that “the result of the current turbulence will be schism.” Or, “Perhaps the result will be no change or partial change in the current language of the Book of Discipline” (2). Either way, Job and Alexander state, “In whatever ways we engage and respond, we are called to choose at all times to walk humbly, embrace faithful love, and do justice along the way” (6).

My purpose in this post is not to summarize each section or state my position. I will simply post some of the statements I highlighted.

In the first chapter on Enforce, Bishop Palmer proposes an alternative word, “Uphold,” which he believes is less harsh. He states that …

a failure or unwillingness to live within our agreed covenant potentially undermines all the work of the General Conference. It seeks to substitute my wisdom or that of my tribe for the work and wisdom of a larger, deliberative body. It makes me and my viewpoints the center of the church’s wisdom. (13)

Palmer adds …

In refusing to uphold our promises, we make a mockery of the process and the promise. We could well be unreliable partners for future covenant-making and promise-keeping. We depend on each other to have a truly hopeful future. (17)

The most controversial chapter in the book is the one on Disobey, written by Bishop Melvin Talbert. Talbert argues that in 1972, “we acted to construct another wall. We voted to identify homosexual practice as ‘incompatible with Christian teachings'” (37).

Talbert believes that “including same-gender married couples and single persons with a homosexual identity will renew and revitalize churches for faith, witness, and service” (42). Therefore, Talbert calls for “biblical disobedience,” which he calls “doing the right thing, no matter what” (48).

Talbert argues …

Wherever injustice and oppression appear, we solemnly promise to disobey unjust church laws because we give priority to Jesus’s commandment to love each other as much as we love ourselves. (51)

Bishop Kenneth Carter suggests, “The recovery of a coherent theology of grace and holiness and a rejection of the partisan political captivity of the church could lead us to a coherent social teaching” (56). In order for this to happen, “we begin with an intention of seeing the best in each other” (64).

Carter reflects on the consequences of status quo or schism. He acknowledges, “There is a growing energy in the polarities at the edges of our denomination … There is a weakening of the impulse toward unity” (66). Carter also notes, “The dismantling of our connection would involve casualties and would in all likelihood, if previous General Conferences are a witness, be a violent process” (69).

In his chapter on Order, Bishop Lowery writes …

Presently, the position of biblical obedience, which evokes action by some of civil disobedience against church law, is corrupted by the lack of meaningful penalties applied to those engaging in disobeying church law. It is now acceptable for some advocates, some church juries, and some bishops to settle for a twenty-four-hour suspension of the guilty clergyperson. Such a meaningless level of accountability has the effect of giving a person an extra day off for violating church law established by General Conference. Such actions offend the very integrity of the advocated biblical obedience. (75-76)

Lowery sounds a call to “re-order our life together.” He notes …

The painful reality is that we lack coherence in doctrine. We don’t have deep clarity on mission. (We agree to ‘make disciples,’ but we don’t agree on what it means to ‘make a disciple.’) And we are locked in a struggle over discipline. We do not have unity. (79)

Picking up with the idea of Unity, Bishop Yambasu says, “We need to stop this fight” (87). Bishop Yambasu, who is from Sierra Leone, offers a personal perspective from Africa …

I believe that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. The Bible provides direction for all those who proclaim Christ as their Lord and Savior. I believe, therefore, that sexual promiscuity, homosexuality, and adultery are inconsistent with the teachings of scripture. I think this is the prevailing view of our denomination. This is what missionaries from the United States and England taught us when they took Christianity to Africa. They built churches, schools, and colleges, and we learned what the Bible teaches. We believed and internalized it. It became part of our social and spiritual makeup. … For us now to be told by the church in the United States that what we were taught in the Bible is not true could be traumatizing for the African Christian. (87)

In the closing chapter, Bishop Job states, “This is no ordinary time in the life of our church, and this is no ordinary conflict” (106). He calls for a way of discernment, “a call to radical, risky, and complete trust in God rather than in our own ingenuity or rhetoric” (106). Job suggests three basic steps …

  1. “Immediately stop the propaganda.”
  2. “Declare a moratorium on celebrations and trials regarding same-gender unions.”
  3. “Begin a practice of prayer and discernment that leaves our preferences outside as we enter this extended period of seeking only God’s direction.” (108-109)

As I said, the book is written from a broad theological spectrum. Depending on your position, there will parts that inspire and encourage you as well as parts that trouble and anger you. Such is the nature of the battle in which we find ourselves. Please join me in praying for the United Methodist Church and for the upcoming General Conference in 2016!

This Saturday (Nov 1), the authors of Finding Our Way will participate in a two-hour webcast on the topic. Also, visit ministrymatters.com/findingourway for responses by other bishops and for information on how you can join the discussion.