At our board meeting last week, Good News president Rob Renfroe used the metaphor of “wilderness” to describe where we often are, both personally and as a church. This metaphor struck me as a perfect way to depict our “wandering” denominationally over the past 40+ years.
We are experiencing hardship, longing for “the good old days” (like the Israelites wanting to go back to Egypt), uncertainty about where we are headed (where is the church’s Promised Land, anyway?), and fear about whether we would have enough provisions for the journey (surely God is not able to feed this multitude — are we going to run out of money?). We’ve had leadership struggles (just as Aaron and Miriam challenged Moses), and we’ve had outright rebellions (like Nadab and Abihu).
What we don’t have is a Moses, who speaks with God face-to-face. And we don’t have the cloud by day or the pillar of fire by night to lead us on our journey through the wilderness. There is fundamental disagreement about where we, The United Methodist Church, ought to be heading. Some see the Promised Land as a land of liberation from what they consider to be sexual discrimination. Others see the Promised Land as a recovery and strengthening of the foundational doctrines of the church regarding marriage and sexuality.
What helps in the wilderness is to travel together, so that people are safe from the wild animals and are able to find food and water. But if we disagree about which way to go, we are in trouble. Every step we take on the journey to one destination is a step away from the opposite destination. The farther we go, the more heated the disagreement becomes about which is the right direction to travel. One group is committed to go to Destination A, while another group is committed to Destination B. And then there are a bunch of people in the middle who don’t know which way would be best, but just want to make sure we travel together so they are safe.
What makes the situation even more difficult is that Group A believes they have heard a word from the Lord about the new truths and interpretations that God is revealing to them. At the same time, Group B believes the Lord’s word is clear in Scripture and the tradition of the church to guide their journey. Group A thinks Group B is being stubborn (like the Israelites) in failing to acknowledge that God is doing a new thing. Group B thinks that Group A is being unfaithful to God’s revelation, even to the point of embracing false teaching (like the Israelites making the golden calf). And all the while, the grumbling, complaining, and bickering continues to escalate, tearing apart the people of God.
What is a church to do? There is no referee to settle the dispute. The bishops, who could provide the clear leadership of a Moses, are themselves divided into Group A and Group B. The way that our church is set up, determining questions like this through majority vote, has broken down. Those in the minority are failing to honor the decisions of the majority. There seems to be no way available to us to determine with any clarity a universal direction for the church.
Haven’t we been in the wilderness long enough? Even the Israelites only had to endure it for forty years! In the absence of any agreed-upon method of resolving the conflict, isn’t it time to simply acknowledge that we can no longer travel together? Both groups are saying they can no longer travel toward the other group’s destination. Both groups are digging in their heels and saying, “We can go no farther.” So the church is stuck in place, prevented from moving forward in any direction.
Abraham and Lot experienced this situation in Genesis 13. It says that “the land could not support them while they stayed together, for their possessions were so great that they were not able to stay together.” Furthermore, “quarreling arose between” Abraham’s and Lot’s herdsmen. “So Abraham said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are brothers.’” So they determined to separate from each other, with Lot going one way and Abraham the other.
As brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, is it not time to end our quarreling and disagreements? Would it not be healthier for all if we separated from one another? Each group can go its own way, following the mission and vision as they feel led to do, so that no one’s conscience is violated. There would be no more coercion, but each person and congregation could freely choose the destination they want to travel toward.
Under that scenario, all current United Methodists would not end up at the same destination. We would no longer be traveling together. But at least we would have a chance to reach some destination, being freed from our immobilizing “stuckness.” Both groups would have the opportunity to build ministry based on their beliefs, and they would have a chance to thrive, rather than continuing to engage in our current debilitating conflict.
Traveling through the wilderness doesn’t have to last forever.