A Matter of Perception

By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht

Lego

How one acts depends upon what one sees.

My wife and I sometimes disagree about what clothes I am able to wear. This is because we sometimes see clothes as having different colors. She will see black, while I see dark blue. She will see gray, while I will see green. No matter how hard we try, we cannot convince the other that they are wrong. We are each certain that we are seeing the correct color. And of course, that influences what clothes we believe can go together.

There is a deep difference of perception within The United Methodist Church today. (Actually, there are several differences of perception.) One group perceives that the Bible (and by extension, God) mandates that sexual relationships be maintained only within a marriage between one man and one woman. Another group perceives that the Bible is not clear about that issue and leaves room for same-sex marriages. Some even go so far as to perceive that the Bible is really outmoded when it comes to issues of sexuality and gender, and that it is perfectly acceptable for people to engage in sexual relationships whether or not they are married (and no matter which gender people are), as long as those relationships are consensual and life-affirming.

How one acts depends upon what one sees. Those in the first group believe the church must set a clear boundary prohibiting sexual relationships outside of a monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Many in this group believe that it is a matter of fundamental obedience and faithfulness to God to maintain this boundary. Those in the second group believe the church must enlarge its boundaries to encompass same-sex relationships. Many in this group believe it is a matter of fundamental human rights (and obedience and faithfulness to God) to ensure that same-sex relationships are not only allowed, but affirmed and supported. Those in the third group believe that the church shouldn’t be in the business of setting boundaries in the first place. Many in this group believe that the church’s role is to allow people the freedom to determine for themselves (in conversation with God) what is right or wrong for them.

Just as in my disagreement with my wife about what color we see, it is nearly impossible to convince people in the other groups that they are seeing incorrectly. Because each group has such a vastly different perspective, the groups are pulling the church in different (often opposite) directions. This is a recipe not only for stalemate and “gridlock,” but it is harming the church’s ability to minister in this world. Because we perceive differently, we cannot agree on what the church stands for and what ministry the church should and should not provide.

How can we decide?

The church in Laodicea (Revelation 3:14-22) had a problem of perception. “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (vs. 17). What the church perceived was different from what Jesus perceived in them. I think it would be best to agree with Jesus’ perception, don’t you? He offered the remedy of true wealth (gold refined in the fire) and white clothes to wear to “cover your shameful nakedness.” But before they could get these things, they needed “salve to put on your eyes, so you can see” (vs. 18).

Jesus alone can change our perceptions. It is essential to be in relationship with him. He knocks at the door of our lives and desires to have fellowship with us, which will transform our perceptions (vs. 20).

According to my perception, the current United Methodist teaching defining marriage as between one man and one woman and limiting sexual relationships to heterosexual marriage has many advantages. It is consistent with the univocal message of Scripture, with 2,000 years of near-unanimous Christian teaching, and is supported by the vast majority of Christians around the world. Those who perceive things differently have to fudge the teachings of Scripture and go against centuries of Christian tradition, as well as disregard the perception of the vast majority of the worldwide Body of Christ.

But all three groups maintain that they are being led by the authentic Spirit of Christ and that they are being faithful and obedient to what God wants. Since United Methodists don’t have a pope to make the final decision, we turn to General Conference. However, many who disagree with General Conference no longer feel bound to honor what the General Conference decides. Their way of perceiving things causes them to believe that they must follow a “higher law” than to submit to the church. We are not talking here about disagreements over what shirt goes with what pair of pants. We are dealing with foundational matters of the inspiration of Scripture, our theology of marriage and sexuality, and our theology of the church.

How one acts depends upon what one sees. When we see so differently, how can we act together or in concert? How long can we live in a church where some groups see other groups as unfaithful, and where some groups have determined to act according to their perception, no matter what the church says?

Comments

  1. How can we act together? I see two ways. 1. Purge those with whom we disagree and those who remain will have more unity. 2. Revise our governance model to a more Congregationalist method. Each of these has its drawbacks. Pick your poison and drink up. I can go either way. What I find tiresome is the constant fighting we are engaging in now. I want resolution.

  2. Mike Tupper says:

    Thanks Tom for putting the challenge before our church so clearly. I agree with you that our perceptions are quite different. I still hope and dream that key leaders of our church who come with different perceptions can sit down together before General Conference for a “Peace with Justice” Summit. I hope and dream they can come up with a negotiated compromise agreement. I know you have been a part of efforts to see something like this happen. Thanks. I still believe it can happen and will be praying…. I believe it is time for us to end the war in our church so we can focus on God’s mission of seeking and saving a lost world.

  3. World views may differ; however, truth is absolute, not relative.

  4. I have to disagree about this being a matter of differences of perception. Yes, there are definitely factions that see the issue differently. However, the different perceptions are merely a symptom of the root issue. The root issue is that each faction has drastically different answers to the key question, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”

    The question the UMC must answer is: How far can one go in the direction of unbelief and still claim to be Christian? The liberal theologian radically redefines the normal meaning of all the words he disagrees with (sin, salvation, resurrection, etc.) in order to convince himself that he is still a believer. Is he? How much unbelief is acceptable to Christ? How about the “progressive” who often goes even further, not bothering with redefinition of terms, simply ignoring the scriptures that he personally disagrees with. Is he a Christian? Is it a virtue to blindly accept everyone’s claim to the title “Christian” regardless of the doctrine they espouse?

    The bottom line that the UMC has been unwilling to address is that some of the factions are not Christians. Although all may choose to self-identify as Christian, clearly, they are not all being led by the Holy Spirit (particularly given that some do not even believe that the Holy Spirit literally exists!). If they aren’t Christian, then, by definition, they are unredeemed. Unredeemed men holding positions of authority within the church and leading many astray is a great sin — scripture is crystal clear on how this should be addressed. We have to stop deceiving ourselves — everyone loses when we continue to pretend that we are all brothers in Christ, when, in our hearts, we know this is a lie. When we allow apostate leaders to continue in their positions of authority and continue their work for the furtherance of the kingdom of the lord of the earth through the actions of our agencies and the apostasy taught in our seminaries, we are complicit if we do nothing.

    The sad fact is that many are still lost in sin and will die in their sins unless they repent, believe, and turn to God. Those who are Christians and do nothing will pay a very steep price for allowing apostasy and apostate leaders to continue unimpeded in their sinful agendas. Those who think we are being magnanimous by continuing the charade are, in reality, working against the cause of Christ.

  5. Ray Worsham says:

    Thanks, Tom and Paul W. for the thoughtful remarks. I appreciate the use of perception as a mode of discussing the differences. The issue is really different ways of thinking, and how one thinks about the word of God revealed through the scripture. I have long pondered article 12 of our discipline and believe it applies to many whose thinking has lead them to see scripture as something other than God’s word. I have seen many in our connection turn from belief in Christ alone to the syncretist notion of Christ as one of many ways to … whatever it is they have come to believe is best for us all. Essentially, and as Tom notes and Paul explains the minority in UMC has lost its first love and abandoned the commission to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all the lost and hurting world. That is the only purpose of the Body of Christ and the minority are being lead astray and running from that call.

    Methodism is an evangelical movement whose best history is its sharing Jesus Christ to everyone. That continues in Africa and has become second, third, or scorned in the US church (you should hear what I have heard at annual conference when that comes up!). The US UMC must return to that basic, simple task as it is the only hope for redemption of the denomination.

    I am yours in Christ

  6. Bill Fitzgerrel says:

    Thank you for this post, which articulates the current crisis well. Please forgive my negative approach, but this is probably the 15th excellent articulation of the current crisis. I think our denomination has “hit the wall” that marathon runners describe. We are burned-out and come to a point where we cannot even think about the issue anymore. Yet I think that may be a good thing. It leaves us with the only option we really have and that is to pray. I have a thousand ideas of what we should be doing, none of which will get any press. I have dozens of insights into the issue, and no one really wants to hear about them. I am a tiny cog in a huge machine. However, I serve a mighty God. I know many are praying, and I have been praying also. I shall continue to do so, as I know the author of this article is doing. Look up, for our redemption draweth nigh.

  7. Bob Meyer Sr says:

    If we accept scripture as God’s fundamental and inerrant Word revealed to us by the Holy Spirit, how do we sit and “negotiate” away these fundamental truths?

  8. John Worsham says:

    Cousin Ray,

    You speak for this Worsham as well!

    John

  9. Bob Meyer Sr says:

    If as believers in the truth and inerrancy of scripture, how can we “negotiate” on perception?

    Isn’t it time after years of debating the issue and spending our resources to no avail, to take leave and start again a new Methodist evangelical movement based on the eternal Word of God?

    • Polly Powell says:

      Thank you, Bob. Scripture teaches us that baptism is only for believers, that. Women should not take authority, to name just two truths. We can’t be too obedient to the word of God..

  10. Carlton B. says:

    I find it hard to accept that any Christian would go against what God has taught us much less one who accepted Christ and has been ordained as a pastor, that they do not know God’s Word. I believe as Kevin has said, throw them out of the church for they are polluting the minds of those in the church that are not strong and also do not know God well. Save all that can be saved and protect them with your very life.
    I am very dismayed at the General Council that they have not come to this conclusion much earlier. God is a very loving person until it comes to messing with His children, then He judges and passes judgment. I firmly believe that because we Christians are to judge those in the church that those going against God’s Word such as these pastors with liberal sympathy towards homosexuals have expressed and any pastor who is homosexual. I believe that they should first be given counseling for a period of time. Then if they willfully refuse to repent of their sins they should be put out of the church. Then pray for them to observe what Satan will do to them and hope they will change their minds and come back to the church and repent and turn from their sinful lifestyle. I have no sympathy for any Christian, pastor or not, that will drag down other brothers or sisters around them. God does not want for us to mix with them!!!!
    When will our electorate apply what God has said to do about those who are abominal sinners in the church!!!!
    I can only pray for the electorate to do what is right in God’s mind.

  11. Polly Powell says:

    We might start by returning to the old sword, the kjv, the jewel of the englsh language. Then go for what every born again Believer longs for,obedience—-baptism of only velocemente, no women in authority, no roman catholic holdovers. Sola scriptura.

    • Bill Fitzgerrel says:

      Please explain what “baptism of only velocemente” means. I could only find “velocemente” to be an Italian word meaning “quickly.” I can see a possible connection to Latin for “willing,” but I’m not sure.

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