The celebration of Christmas reminds us what is at stake in the debates over the future of The United Methodist Church. Christmas marks the beginning of God’s “on the ground” mission to save humanity and restore the world to what he created it to be.
As we look at the world around us, as well as within our own hearts and lives, there should be no question whether humanity in general-and each of us in particular-needs a savior. This world, while often beautiful and awe-inspiring, is not functioning the way God designed it to function. And people are not living their lives the way God planned for us to live. The result is brokenness and pain everywhere we look, mingled with beauty, faith, and joy.
God came into this messed-up world in human form, as one of us. He came not only to share our lot, but to provide a better way. Jesus’ teaching and example demonstrate how God created people to live. But we are powerless to do so consistently. So in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God provided the power for us. We experience that power today through the presence of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives. Just as God was birthed into human form on Christmas, God came into human lives through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Just as Christmas reverberates in our lives today 2,000 years later, Pentecost influences us individually as we open ourselves to the personal presence of the Holy Spirit (our own particular Pentecost).
What is at stake in our church’s debates and decisions is whether The United Methodist Church will continue to be a vehicle God uses to bring salvation, redemption, and transformation into the lives of broken people like us. Or will our church slowly blend into the society to the point that there is no difference?
The decision we need to make in St. Louis next February is really quite a simple one. Will our church remain faithful to the clear biblical teaching that God designed marriage for one man and one woman, and that sexual relations are to be reserved for marriage? Or will our church find a way to accommodate its teaching to the growing cultural perspective that marriage is merely a human-created institution that can be changed according to evolving human ideas?
The Traditional Plan upholds biblical teaching as historically understood and as understood by the vast majority of Christians around the world. Both the One Church Plan and the Connectional Conference Plan provide officially endorsed places in our denomination for those who would reinterpret Scripture to allow for same-sex relationships and redefine marriage as between any two adults. The Simple Plan goes even farther by removing the church’s teaching advocating that sexual relations be reserved for marriage.
If our church chooses to accommodate its teaching to the growing cultural understandings around marriage and sexuality, we will lose our ability to be an agent of God’s transformation. Instead, the church would begin to fulfill a chaplain’s role to comfort a society bent on departing from God’s creation intention. The situation would begin to resemble the critique of Jeremiah:
They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.
Are they ashamed of their loathsome conduct?
No, they have no shame at all;
They do not even know how to blush.
Jesus didn’t come into the world to affirm our brokenness, but to expose it to grace. He didn’t give his life on the cross to excuse our sin, but to forgive it. He didn’t rise from the dead to preserve the status quo, but to break open the way to a new heaven and a new earth. He didn’t send us the Holy Spirit to assuage our guilt, but to transform our very way of life.
God’s mission to redeem and transform the world is at stake. To cater to a worldly view is to deny God’s ability to transform our lives and enable us to live in holiness and righteousness. “Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear” (Isaiah 59:1).
Jesus reminds us, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). Compromising with the world’s moral standards will cause us to lose our saltiness. It will cause our church to lose its effectiveness in ministry. (Effectiveness measured not only in the number of people attending a church, but in the number of lives transformed by God.) We see that lost effectiveness in the dramatic membership losses of other mainline Protestant churches that have adopted a “One Church Plan” approach to resolving their conflicts over marriage and sexuality.
The whole point of Christmas is God becoming human, so that we can be transformed to become like God. Adopting a worldly moral perspective defeats that purpose by choosing to remain in our brokenness, rather than embracing the possibility of healing, redemption, and transformation.
Before we can become agents of transformation in our world, we need to be at least somewhat transformed ourselves, acknowledging that we will never be completely transformed into Christ’s likeness until we get to heaven. Choosing not to be transformed in this one area (sexuality) jeopardizes our mission to incarnate Jesus Christ in our lives, inviting others to experience Christ’s transforming love. If we live no differently than the world, why would they want what we have?
The Good News of Christmas is that Christ was born into the world as God’s missionary of love and transformation. Christ comes into our lives by faith and surrender to bring God’s love and transformation to us on a personal level. We can and will respond to God’s mission to our lives as individuals responsible directly to God. We pray and work for our beloved United Methodist Church to likewise respond in faithfulness, that we might together continue to carry out the mission of Christmas in our neighborhood, community, and across the globe.