What is a “Good” Witness
As we approach the 2019 specially-called General Conference of The United Methodist Church, one of the arguments being made for the One Church Plan is that staying structurally united as one church will be a good witness to the world, and that any sort of structural separation would be a bad one. The argument is made from Jesus’ prayer in John 17:20-23:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
Jesus’ desire is unquestionably that we be “brought to complete unity” by being “in us” (in the Father and in Christ). This unity that is brought about by our being united with God would indeed be a witness to the world that God loves the world and has sent Jesus into the world to bring salvation.
This unity, however, cannot be manufactured by us. Rather, it comes from our being perfectly united with Jesus Christ. As it was once explained to me, the closer we are to Jesus, the closer we are to each other.
What if we don’t have that unity? What if, due to the fact that we imperfectly perceive the things of God in our human condition, our disagreement is of a level that we are not at the same place in our understanding of discipleship and therefore not able to be in unity with one another? The apostles dealt with differences in doctrine and teaching. In some cases, they counseled separation (for example, 2 John 9-10, 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1).
We have in the church two groups that believe the other group is bringing erroneous or false teaching into the church. Traditionalists believe that to change the definition of marriage from one man and one woman would be to violate the clear teaching of Scripture, including the specific teachings of Jesus on marriage. Such teaching would be false and not true to the Gospel and therefore unacceptable in the church.
Progressives believe that the Bible does not speak about loving, monogamous same-sex relationships, and that the Holy Spirit is showing the church a new way that affirms such relationships as equivalent to marriage in every way. They believe that to discriminate (as they see it) against same-sex attracted persons is a violation of Jesus’ commandment to love one another and is therefore a false teaching that must be changed and repudiated by the church.
We should all be able to admit that these two views are mutually exclusive and cannot survive long-term in the same church. When two groups hold each other as purveyors of false teaching, even in biblical terms, separation is justified.
A Better Way
So what is a “good witness” in a situation like this?
Earlier in the same “Farewell Discourse,” Jesus says, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).
If we cannot be united in structure, we can at least witness to the world by treating one another with love and respect. This would be a dramatic departure from the way the world is doing things right now, particularly in the civil and political realm. Love doesn’t mean approval or agreement with another, but reflects the way that we treat one another in our disagreement.
So far, the tone is not encouraging. One United Methodist blogger levelled the cheap slur of “Metho-fascists” against those who believe differently than he does. The slur is not defined or explained, and no examples are given. Reconciling Ministries Network has featured an article by a progressive African pastor serving in ministry in the U.S. charging Good News with taking a “colonial” attitude toward partnership with African leaders and delegates. The article contains factual errors and spends most of its space recounting grievous instances of “cultural imperialism” committed by others decades ago, smearing Good News with guilt by association.
It is a clever and slick political ploy to attempt to drive a wedge between traditionalists in America and traditionalists in Africa. It will not work because we share the same view of the Lordship of Christ, high regard for the authority of Scripture, and a biblical vision for marriage and sexuality. One can ask the three African bishops who attended the meeting being criticized whether they felt dominated or demeaned by any American participation.
For a number of years, Good News has advocated that progressives and evangelicals come together to agree on a way forward for the church that would allow each group to go its separate way, each doing ministry as it believes God is calling, with the respect and blessing of the church. Could we not be like Paul and Barnabas, who, despite a “sharp disagreement,” parted company in a way that allowed for future reconciliation (Acts 15:36-41)? Could we not adopt the attitude of Abraham in his conflict with his nephew Lot? “Abram said to Lot, ‘Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herdsmen and mine, for we are close relatives. Is not the whole land before you? Let’s part company. If you go to the left, I’ll go to the right; if you go to the right, I’ll go to the left’” (Genesis 13:8-9).
There were glimmers of that possibility in private discussions at the 2016 General Conference. However, hopes of working toward an amicable separation were dashed in the Commission on a Way Forward process.
We are left now with adversarial choices that will bring about “winners and losers,” with the resultant pain and turmoil in the church. (Of course, no matter what decision the General Conference makes, there will be pain and turmoil in the church.)
The Traditional Plan, while firm in its accountability process, aims to be gracious toward those who cannot live with the decision of the General Conference regarding same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. Maintaining structural unity is not the only way the church can give a good witness to the world. After all, how loving is it to force people to go against their consciences and violate their deeply held beliefs, as the One Church Plan envisions?
If we must take the road of adversarial choices, can we not do it with love and grace toward one another, giving the world a witness of how we believe Christ followers should treat one another? Can we not find a way to allow those with deeply held beliefs that differ from the church’s teaching to depart with our blessing? And cannot those who deeply disagree with the church’s teaching find a more fruitful approach to ministry than to continue badgering the church to force it to change its teaching against its will? That would be a witness to celebrate.