For 45 years, The United Methodist Church has been in conflict over how the church should be in ministry with lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) persons. From the very beginning of this conflict, evangelicals have maintained that the conflict represented deeper issues where the church is divided. One of those deeper issues is our view of the authority and inspiration of Scripture.
This deeper division is brought to the fore in a resolution that will be considered at the upcoming annual conference session in Upper New York. The resolution (see page 94), submitted by Kevin M. Nelson on behalf of Schenectady First UM Church, is entitled “Rebuke and Repudiation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association.” Although in this brief blog I cannot address all the nuances of the theological issues raised by the resolution, I would like to take a look at how the resolution outlines the theological differences over Scripture in our denomination.
The resolution characterizes “one group in this crisis, evangelicals/orthodox/far right” as using “a faith paradigm that emphasizes Biblical literalism, seeing Jesus through a doctrinal lens and upholding a set of core beliefs.”
- Tagging evangelicals and orthodox United Methodists as “far right” squashes legitimate discussion and dialogue. That kind of toxic labelling is especially unhelpful within our global denomination, since orthodox UMs uphold the beliefs enshrined in our denomination’s doctrinal standards. Identifying worldwide United Methodism as “far right” is irresponsible and incorrect. Instead, traditionalists hold to what Bishop Scott Jones calls the “radical center” of Christian faith.
- The resolution says we “see Jesus through a doctrinal lens.” In actuality, both liberals and conservatives see Jesus through a “doctrinal lens.” We all do. Evangelicals would clarify that we see Jesus through the lens of Scripture, since the Bible is the most true and comprehensive revelation of who Jesus is and what he said and did.
- Unapologetically, we do “uphold a set of core beliefs.” That is the purpose of the Nicene Creed and our own United Methodist doctrinal standards (the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, Wesley’s Sermons, and his Notes on the New Testament). These are the things that Methodists believe. Contrary to the protests of some within the UM Church, it is not wrong to defend them. In fact, ordained clergy promise to “preach and maintain” the doctrines of The United Methodist Church (Discipline, ¶ 336.10). Ordained elders vow to accept the church’s “order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word” (Book of Worship, p. 676).
- Phrases like “Biblical literalism” are not very helpful without specific verses in mind. A Scriptural-minded disciple reads the Bible searching for its intended meaning in its historical context and seeking to then apply that meaning in our lives today. As John Wesley said, we look for the “plain meaning” of Scripture. In other words, it is possible to look for the literal meaning of Scripture without being literalistic. If it is poetry, it should be understood as poetry. If it is metaphor or parable, it should be understood in those ways. But we cannot stretch the Bible to mean something it does not say, nor may we disregard the plain and consistent teaching of Scripture.
- Evangelicals believe the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit, who worked through the human authors to create a unique and authoritative revelation of God. We believe the Bible is to be interpreted through the Holy Spirit, as well, using our reason and the guidance of Church tradition, with the embodiment of scriptural teaching in our human experience.
By contrast, the resolution characterizes “another group, progressives/liberals/reconciling United Methodists” as using “a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate.”
- If one is going to stick with using unhelpful characterizations, this perspective would logically be known as “far left.”
- We are told that this second group views the Bible “as human products that are the result of historical processes.” Absent is any mention here of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit or the uniquely authoritative place of Scripture. If the Bible is merely a human book, it can be read and analyzed like any other human book, accepting whatever parts of it one agrees with while rejecting the rest. This view in fact contradicts the Bible’s own view of itself: “All Scripture is God-breathed [or inspired by God] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (II Timothy 3:16-17, NIV).
- The “historical-critical analysis” that many progressives use to understand Scripture flows from their understanding of the Bible as a human book, put together by human authors and compilers over centuries of time. They attempt to dissect the scriptures and analyze them as to their sources and forms, even to the point of deciding what in the Bible is true or authentic and what is not. While evangelicals believe in using scholarly tools to aid our understanding of Scripture, we believe it is more important to look at the Bible as it is, as we have received it, and in the form in which the Church recognized it as inspired and authoritative.
- According to the resolution, the progressive approach “views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning.” In fact, the metaphorical meaning can sometimes trump the literal meaning for those who take this approach. There are metaphors in Scripture, but it would be a mistake to take “much of the Bible” as metaphor. Such a view can often become a way to simply disregard the plain teaching of Scripture.
- The resolution claims progressives “look to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate.” That is all well and good, but it is not enough. The Bible points us to Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world and the Author and Perfecter of our faith. We are called not simply to emulate the character of God, but to surrender ourselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and live as his disciples, seeking to obey all that he has commanded us (Matthew 28:20). The emulation of godly character comes about not through our efforts alone, but by the power of the Holy Spirit transforming us from the inside out.
Admittedly, the Upper New York resolution does not claim to be a detailed or comprehensive exposition of the two different perspectives on Scripture it addresses. But just from the brief statements that are outlined in the resolution, one can see that we hold very different views about the inspiration and authority of Scripture. The orthodox view is that we are under the Scripture’s authority, while many progressives view themselves as authorities over Scripture, qualified to determine which parts of Scripture are the inspired Word of God and which are not, free to discard biblical teachings that no longer seem relevant or in step with a modern world.
Of course, those who read Scripture from an evangelical/orthodox perspective do not believe that every verse of Scripture is to be applied to our lives today as a literal commandment. (Common examples include observing the food laws of the Old Testament or wearing clothes with mixed fibers.) Our “doctrinal lens” and “core beliefs” give us guidance here. Our Articles of Religion state, “Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth, yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral” (Article VI). There are objective principles of interpretation that guide us in how to apply the teachings of Scripture. And importantly, we do not have the same authority that Jesus and the apostles had to reinterpret Scripture or introduce new revelations from God, particularly if those revelations contradict the clear teaching of Scripture.
Can two such divergent theological approaches live together in one church? I would argue they cannot. There is no common ground to build on between them. One group appeals to Scripture, while the other group appeals to human reason and experience over Scripture. The two groups end up talking past each other. They sometimes use the same words, but usually with totally different meanings.
It is these two divergent theological approaches that have led to the two divergent understandings of human sexuality and marriage. One cannot divorce the one issue from the other. As we seek a way forward for our church, it is important to take into account the underlying theological approaches that drive us apart.