By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
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?