By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
What does it mean to be a church? I have often heard that Methodism (dating back to Wesley’s time) has an underdeveloped or confused ecclesiology (a fancy word for a theology of church). We don’t know whether we are a church or a movement. We are uncomfortable with church discipline and canon law, which go along with what it means to be a church. At the same time, we are more than a movement, since we offer the full range of experiences that a church would offer, including the sacraments.
One of the places where this confusion costs us is in understanding how we are to function as a church in deciding controversial questions. Since our church is structured like a democratic political entity—complete with legislative, executive, and judicial branches—we tend to make decisions and handle controversies like a political entity. This is true across the theological spectrum—left, right, and center.
Some point to Acts 15 as a model based on how the early church handled a controversial issue. There was theological reasoning, the testimony of leaders, and biblical study. The leaders reached an agreement that honored the tradition of the church (the teachings of Moses in every city), while making room for the new revelation of God (that Gentiles need not be circumcised or keep the whole law of Moses).
The bottom line for the church in Acts 15 was to understand what God’s will was and live in obedience to it. It is striking that their letter to the church states, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us …”
Some progressives see the Acts 15 approach as a model for how the church today can change its position on same-sex marriage and homosexuality. But it is important to note not only the similarities, but the differences in the two situations.
1. We are not the apostles, nor do we have apostolic authority. The New Testament is full of new revelations from God: the nature of Jesus as God’s Son and fully human, Jesus’ death and resurrection for our salvation, the suspension of the kosher food laws, and many more. These new revelations were accepted by the early church based on the authority of Jesus and the first apostles. It is worth noting that one of the qualifications for a book to be received as part of the New Testament was that it evidenced the authority, if not the authorship, of one of the apostles.
We do not have this same authority today. The closing of the canon (“measuring stick”) of Scripture means that we cannot receive a new revelation today that contradicts or changes the teachings found in Scripture. (We state this in our doctrinal standards: Articles of Religion, Art. V and VI; Confession of Faith, Art. IV.) When some say that we can have a “new understanding” or a “new revelation” of moral standards related to sexuality and marriage that contradict the teaching of Scripture, that new teaching is not to be accepted. We are not the apostles.
2. There was one Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, not ten. When the leaders had considered the question of the place of Gentiles in the church, they made a decision that everyone then accepted. “Then the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with … the following letter” (Acts 15:22-23). The whole church embraced the decision and lived by it. True, there remained dissenters, probably for another forty years, but this controversy was never again considered by the leaders of the church in council.
By contrast, those who disagreed with The United Methodist Church’s decision in 1972 to reiterate the biblical principle that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” have never stopped trying to change that decision. Every four years—for ten General Conferences—that question has vexed the body. And every four years, the General Conference has reiterated its original finding that the biblical principle still stands. By refusing to accept the church’s decision and continually agitating for change, proponents of same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior are treating the church like a political entity that is strictly subject to majority rule, rather than a spiritual entity through which the will of God is discerned.
3. Finally, we treat the church as a political entity when we believe we ought to change the church’s teaching through demonstrations and pressure tactics. Particularly illuminating was a keynote speech at the recent “Gathering at the River Conference,” sponsored in San Antonio by the Reconciling Ministries Network and Methodist Federation for Social Action. As reported by Katy Kiser, the Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy, a prominent lesbian activist who nevertheless continues to serve as a United Methodist pastor, stated, “The Civil Rights movement taught us to put pressure on the institution until it had no choice but to change.” She went on to threaten, “We are coming for the Institution, and like a mighty river, we will sweep it away with the might of our love.”
This resort to pressure tactics went over the top with a recent call for more “martyrs” to push for approval of same-sex marriage. The Rev. Michael Tupper believes that if ten pastors were willing to perform same-sex marriages, go through a trial, and lose their credentials, the church would be forced to change.
When the Jerusalem Council met, they trusted the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles and elders to the right decision. They would not be able to fathom a situation like ours today, where church teaching is determined by who can apply the most political pressure to the body. There are those who would rather see the church torn apart than allow it to continue in what they consider to be “error” or false teaching on sexuality.
Our confused understanding of what it means to be a church is allowing us to destroy our church today. By treating it like a political entity, we succumb to the temptations of secular politics and engage each other with tactics borrowed from our polarized culture.
Instead, we are called to implement the words of Paul, or we will suffer the consequences he warned about. “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (Galatians 5:13-15).
How can we practically change our approach to this controversial question?
First, submit to the will of the body. Yes, we should be free to continue making our case on either side of the question. But in the meantime, we are called to abide by the decision of General Conference on this matter. The refusal to submit to the will of the body puts the unity of the body in grave jeopardy. Acting intentionally contrary to the will of the body is to introduce schism into the church. Those who cannot in good conscience submit to the will of the body ought to be graciously released with our blessing.
Second, renounce coercion. It is ironic that many who take a more pacifist approach to questions of war and conflict at the same time favor the use of non-violent coercion. Force is force, whether at the point of a gun or at the mercy of mob disruption. The church leaders should not be making decisions based on pressure or coercion on the part of a subgroup of the church. That is the antithesis of “holy conferencing” and seeking the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Our denomination is nearing the point of self-destruction. Because we increasingly engage the controversy via secular political tactics, we wander farther and farther from the pathway of spiritual unity. It’s time to reclaim what it means to be a church. And the only way to do that might be to start over.