Connectional Table

Something better

Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist News Service.
Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist News Service.

A dear friend died recently. My late wife and I were fond of her, but I was surprised by the depth of anger in my grieving. The Bible helped me understand why. After celebrating the towering heroes of the faith, the author of Hebrews says, “All these people didn’t receive what was promised, though they were given approval for their faith. God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us” (Heb 11:39; unless noted otherwise, scripture references are from the Common English Bible). Some of us promised “open hearts, open minds, open doors” to welcome everyone, and, in biblical words, we said: “All of you who are thirsty, come to the water!” (Isa 55:1; Rev 22:17b). And yet, some of us in the UMC didn’t fully welcome our friend because she was a lesbian. The broken promises between us anger me because she served admirably in prominent positions, made significant contributions to her local church and the worldwide public well being through our ministries, and had blessed us with her partner for over 65 years.

My disturbance is a tiny fragment in the shattered remains of The United Methodist Church (UMC) left by 2019 Special Session of the General Conference (SS/GC).

I. Shattered Remains of United Methodism

The evidence for the shattered remains of United Methodism left by the 2019 SS/GC continues to grow. The SS/GC further wounded LGBTQIA+ persons with tighter exclusionary provisions and mandated punitive measures against those who unite them in marriage. Bishops and Annual Conferences who support LGBTQIA+ persons have pledged to violate the exclusionary church laws and defy the punitive measures. Congregations and annual conferences in the U.S. and Europe are threatening to leave the UMC. The decisions also deeply troubled United Methodists internationally and even spread dis-ease among the advocates who got their way at the SS/GC but had not anticipated the turbulence that followed. And now, a Protocol1 that is going to the 2021 General Conferences allows those who got their way at the SS/GC to separate from those who disagree with them, with $25 million proposed to help them start a new Methodist denomination—thus further shattering the remains of the UMC.

So long as the pleas for humility and gentleness, patience and love (Eph 4:2-3) fail to diminish the partisan spirit and hostility, successive General Conferences will turn the shattered remains of the UMC into the skeletal remains in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones (Ezek 37:1-2). This should not surprise us. John Wesley warned that the Methodist movement without the power of the good news in Jesus Christ, could become a “dead sect,” having the form of religion but denying its power.2 Something more is needed beyond moral appeals and legislation.

II. Hopeful Signs

In the face of daunting realities, however, Hebrews offers hope: “God provided something better for us so they wouldn’t be made perfect without us” (Heb 11:40). To move toward “something better,” Hebrews calls us to “throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter” (Heb 12:1).

One hopeful sign appears to be the formation of class meetings in which participants can tell their stories and process hurts and anger, puzzlement and anxiety. Class meetings offer hopeful signs, an alternative to scrambling for legislation.

Class meetings as small groups can also nurture a persistent spirituality to “run the race that is laid out in front of us” (Heb 12:2). The “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (Book of Discipline, ¶ 105, pp. 80-91) provides a helpful format for these hope-filled settings of experiences shared by telling stories related to different aspects of the turmoil engulfing us. In the resulting safe spaces of trust, participants can reflect critically with reason (Isa 1:18; “let us reason together” KJV; “argue it out” NRSV; “let’s settle this” CEB) to understand what is happening in and around them. For deepening understanding, participants will benefit from specialists, for example, in medicine and psychology, the social sciences and ethics, as well as Bible study and theology. Participants can further search the scriptures (Acts 17:11, “they accepted the word and examined the scriptures each day to see whether Paul and Silas’ teaching was true”) to see who God is and what God is saying and doing in what is happening in and around them, and then covenant to join in what God already has underway. They can eventually turn their covenants into new traditions of faith and practice in the Book of Discipline. With these guidelines, classes offer hopeful possibilities for a new faith community. With a fresh anointing of the Holy Spirit, the faith community will fulfill the Great Commission by making disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations (Matt 28:18-20) for the transformation of the world.

Rather than scrambling for further legislative action, or creating another church-wide study group, leaders in annual conferences will be more effective if they proactively gather laity and clergy into small groups. Otherwise the turmoil will make United Methodism less attractive to new people, especially younger generations. Whether for the shorter or longer term, returning to our roots in the class meeting will demonstrate hopeful signs amid the shattered remains of United Methodism.

III. Constructive Steps

In the Quadrilateral, we examine the scriptures together, opening to new ideas, to understand what is happening as well as to clarify who God is and what God is saying and doing. As the author of our faith, Jesus interpreted the Hebrew scriptures in surprising ways.

A. Jesus violated human traditions to obey God’s word

Jesus’ violating of religious regulations is comparable to defying church laws today. When Jesus did so, the Pharisees plotted to destroy him (Matt 12:14); after Jesus cured a demoniac, they claimed, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, that this fellow [Jesus] casts out the demons” (Matt 12:24; Mark 3:22; Luke 11:15). In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus answered the charges with a passage from Isaiah. He was not moved by “the ruler of demons,” but was anointed by the spirit of God, which means Jesus is the Christ, the long-awaited Messiah (Isa 42:1-4, in Matt 12:18-21). In Isaiah, the Anointed One is the “beloved” of God and is “chosen” not only to advocate justice, but to bring “justice to victory” (Matt 12:20). Issues of justice arise when moral norms for individuals become public policy or religious regulations against particular persons without valid grounds. Although Jesus violated sacrosanct religious regulations, Isaiah says God is “well pleased” with this “servant” because He “will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory” (Isa 42:3, in Matt 12:20). “A bruised reed” aptly describes those wounded by the UMC; “a smoldering wick” describes those who are joining God to bring justice to victory over exclusionary and punitive church laws.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus read additional passages from Isaiah in the synagogue (Is 61:1-2, with 58:6, in Luke 4:18-19). His neighbors were appalled when Jesus claimed that he was the Anointed One mentioned in ancient prophecy; they were enraged when Jesus said he would fulfill his calling as Elijah and Elisha did. Elijah went abroad and fed a Gentile widow during a famine, although his own people also suffered hunger (1 Kgs 17:8-16). Elisha cured a commander of a menacing army of his leprosy, although there were lepers in Israel (2 Kgs 5:1-19). Favoring those strangers and others who are different outraged the neighbors, just as happens now. They attempted to hurl Jesus over a cliff, but he managed to escape (Luke 4:16-30).

The Gospels are therefore clear who Jesus is and what he does. Although he violated religious regulations and challenged the biases of his townspeople, Jesus is the Messiah anointed by the Spirit of God to practice his ministries, even if those ministries disturbed his contemporaries.

Jesus violated religious traditions that had been established for many centuries, because he saw the difference between human traditions and the word of God. Jesus named the difference when the Pharisees complained that the disciples did not observe dietary regulations. Jesus answered, “So you do away with God’s Law for the sake of the rules that have been handed down to you” (Matt 15:6; cf. Mark 7:13).

In Mark’s version, Jesus said, “Their worship of me is empty since they teach instructions that are human words” (Mark 7:7 NRSV). The debate over the Sabbath vividly illustrates the difference between the word of God and human traditions. Jesus violated the human traditions that “make void” or lead people to “forget about the more important matters of the Law: justice, peace, and faith” in God’s word (Matt 23:23; cf. Mic 6:8). By doing so, Jesus kept the Sabbath holy.

Claims of faithfulness to the Bible must always be tested further in collaborative small groups, especially when we have deep disagreements with each other. We can do so by examining further what Jesus did.

B. Jesus shifts the focus in God’s word

In addition to disobeying human traditions in order to follow the word of God, Jesus also shifted his focus to another part of God’s word and work as issues changed. We see this in Matthew 19. In this case, Jesus is interacting with the Pharisees and the disciples on the permissibility of divorce. Without going into the subtle connections in the succinct exchange, Jesus supported his stand with a biblical passage that United Methodists regularly cite on the issue of human sexuality: “At the beginning, [God] made male and female” (Matt 19:4 from Gen 1:27). However, when the ensuing interactions changed the issue from permissibility of divorce to the possibility of adhering to the command (Matt 19:9), Jesus spoke of another way God is ordering creation: “For there are eunuchs who have been eunuchs from birth. And there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by other people. And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven. Those who can accept it should accept it” (Matt 19:12). Jesus is saying that eunuchs represent another way that God orders creation beyond male and female. When Jesus said there are eunuchs “from birth,” he bore witness to God’s creative activity through divine providence in a fallen world in the birth of eunuchs, and implicitly so in other ways eunuchs are “made.” In all the cases he cited, however, Jesus does not say eunuchs are unnatural or their behavior an abomination. Jesus could be suggesting eunuchs are at least morally neutral, if not “very good,” as God says after completing creation (Gen 1:31) and as we read in Isaiah’s dramatic witness to God:

Do not let the eunuch say,
“I am just a dry tree.”
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbath,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name,
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name.
that shall not be cut off.3

Those who defy the exclusionary and punitive church laws today seek to follow God in affirming another ordering in creation beyond the dual ordering with male and female.

C. The early church follows Jesus

Jesus was not alone. The early church also followed Jesus by shifting the focus in the Bible. After the disciples were anointed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, they launched the first congregation with three thousand converts (Acts 2:10, 41). The apostles then went into Judea, Samaria, and elsewhere (Acts 1:8) converting many more. But a question arose after so many more came to believe in Jesus Christ (Acts 3–14). Since circumcision was the sign of the covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah and their heirs (Gen 17:9-14), shouldn’t the Gentile converts also be circumcised? The apostles gathered in Jerusalem to debate the matter (Acts 15). After they heard about the amazing conversions (Acts 15:9-15), the apostles searched the scriptures. They found promises to Gentiles and “all other people” who will call on God’s name, without requiring circumcision (Acts 15:16-18). They, therefore, decided circumcision would not be required of Gentile converts. The early church shifted from the command requiring circumcision in Genesis 17, to another more appropriate witness to God in Isaiah 54:1-5 and Amos 9:11 which they cited and decided not to require circumcision of the Gentiles. In doing so, the apostles were following Jesus when he shifted from Matthew 19:4 to 19:12 as the circumstances changed.

There is a further implication for what troubled me in my beloved friend’s death. Based on the witness to who God is and what God says and does about another ordering of creation through eunuchs (Matt 19:12), homosexual persons need not become heterosexual persons before they are fully accepted in the household of faith. Because an exclusive reliance on a single verse looks like proof texting scriptures, I call attention in the next section to longer strands of the witnesses about God ordering creation (Matt 19:4 and 19:12) to what the early church did with the two strands. 

D. Two strands in God's creation

The first witness about God creating male and female in Matthew 19:4 stands in line with a strand in the Bible that appears in Genesis 1. God created by fiat distinct creatures out of nothing, separated each creature from other creatures, and said they are good—light from darkness, water from land, species of every kind distinguishable from others, and male and female (Gen 1:27). When creation was completed, God said the distinct creatures are “very good” (Gen 1:31). The emphasis on distinguishing and separating creatures in Genesis 1 occurs in Genesis 10, the proliferation of different people with different languages.

Because God said distinct creatures are good, mixing or blending them seemed to violate the goodness God created. An extension of the perspective in Genesis 1, therefore led persons to say God excluded the breeding of different kinds of animals and planting different kinds of seeds in the same field, weaving different textiles in the clothing we wear (Lev 19:19) and males crossing over their distinctive behaviors (Lev 18:22; 20:13; and women in Rom 1:26-27). Ezra and Nehemiah extended this perspective even further in the postexilic period and demanded that Jews who had married Gentiles “send away all their wives and their children” (Ezra 10:2-3, 10-11; Neh 13:23-30). Because this extension raised a lower level of ethnic bias to an ostensibly divine sanction, the command violated the weightier command to love God and neighbor as ourselves (Matt 22:37-39; Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18) and the often-repeated command to love the stranger (Deut 10:19; Lev 19:34; Ezek 47:22; Heb 13:1-3). I will address problems about the contradictions and authority in the Bible after I track the second strand of the witness appearing in Matthew 19.

Second, consider the witness in Matthew 19:12 to God’s providential care that leads to another ordering of creation illustrated in eunuchs. That pattern in God’s creative activity appears in Genesis 2. In this second story of creation, God does not separate but gathers different creatures or blends their ingredients, and makes them a distinct part of a new creation. Water and the earth are brought together, as are a host of different plants and animals, to create the Garden of Eden. Woman as a distinct creature may have come from man in this account, but in the culmination of this story, two distinct creatures “become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Humans are encouraged to eat the food in the garden (Gen 2:16, an ingesting or blending also in Gen 1:29-30). This strand became crucial for Christians when Boaz, a Jew, married Ruth, who was a descendant of Moabites, Gentiles the Israelites despised (Ruth 4:10-12; Deut 23:3-4; Neh 13:1). The descendants of Boaz and Ruth included the towering figure in King David (Ruth 4:17, 21), who blended ingredients from Jews and Gentiles. Later, Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus heightened the blending further. We see three Gentiles in the predominantly Jewish ancestry of Jesus, namely Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, who was counted by the Jews as a Gentile because her first husband, Uriah, was a Gentile (Matt 1:1-17). Thus, our Lord, Jesus Christ, came from an ancestry of mixed marriages between Jews and Gentiles, clearly contradicting the misleading
extension of Genesis 1 in Ezra and Nehemiah, noted earlier. We therefore see a second strand of biblical witnesses to another way God orders creatures by blending and mixing creatures. The reference Jesus made to eunuchs is not an isolated instance, but part of a strand of witnesses to God’s creative activities that will be further cited elsewhere in the Bible.

A review of these two strands in the biblical witnesses to God’s actions in creation raised issues about contradictions cited above, and the authority of the Bible. The problem arises because we think that, “all things in the Bible are necessary for our salvation” means that we are expected to obey everything literally. We overlook the wisdom in The UMC Articles of Religion, originally from the 16th century: “The Scriptures containeth all things necessary for our salvation” (Book of Discipline, Article V, p. 66). We in essence made the same point early in the 20th century, “The Bible contains the Word of God.” What we meant was that the Bible contains some passages that bear faithful witness to God’s utterances and are necessary for our salvation, but there are also other passages in the Bible overwhelmed by human bias, flaws, and errors that are clearly not God’s Word, nor are they necessary for our salvation. For those reasons, it is appropriate to contradict, disregard, or disobey those passages.

What prevents us from choosing what suits our preference and disregarding others that do not? There is fundamental guide to distinguishing God’s word from human biases and misleading distortions of God’s word in the Bible, as well as deciding which witnesses are most appropriate for our situation at hand. There are guides because God does not favor ignorance or expect mindless obedience. Again, we look to Jesus. Jesus said that the command to love God and our neighbors as ourselves is the most basic guide for our choices because “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matt 22:37-39; Mark 12:29-31; Luke 10:27; Deut 6:5; Lev 19:18). Lest loving becomes wishy washy in sentimentality, Jesus added tangible ways to love in the “weightier matters of the law”—promoting justice, practicing kindness, and walking humbly with God in faith (Matt 23:23; cf. Mic 6:8). The Bible contains commands with “relative weights,” as it were. Notice how practicing law with the “weightier matters of the law” explains why clergy and laity are disobeying some biblical commands and church laws and defying the church’s punishments today in order to fulfill God’s command to love and adhere to the “weightier matters of the law.”

E. Two strands become two states in God's mission

The two stories we saw in Jesus become two stages in the mission of the early church. Critical study of the Bible has projected a tension between the two stories of creation in the Hebrew scriptures (Gen 1 and 2:4ff). The early church, however, followed the wisdom of the Hebrew scriptures that retained the two stories and combined the positive elements from the two stories to become two stages in God’s mission. In the birth of the church in Acts 2, we are first reminded that God created people with distinct cultures evident in a variety of languages (Gen 10, in line with Gen 1 and Matt 19:4); second, we see the apostles, anointed by the Holy Spirit, gathering a variety of people by using their distinctive languages and blending the people as distinguishable parts into a new creation (Gen 2, as in Matt 19:12)—the first multi-lingual, multi-cultural mega-church (Acts 2:5-11; 2:44).

The same stages are evident in selected converts themselves during the early spread of the church through Philip the evangelist. Samaritans, treated as those who had blended distinct ethnicities and faiths (Acts 8:4-25), and a eunuch who blended distinguishable elements of human behavior and identities (Acts 8:26-39; cf Lev 20:13) were converted to Christ. In the paradigmatic moment when the church decided at the Council in Jerusalem not to circumcise Gentiles, as noted earlier, it meant Gentiles were not required to become Jews before they became Christians. The distinct goodness in the behavior and identities of Gentiles, including the Samaritans and the eunuch, were retained in their conversion; why else were they identified the same way after conversion? And, together with other Jewish converts, Gentiles were brought together as distinguishable parts of a larger whole in the new household of faith (Acts 15:1-21; Eph 2:13-15; 3:15-16; Book of Discipline, ¶140).

Such are a sampling of biblical passages for small groups to examine in “our theological task.” Others will appropriately want to offer additional biblical passages, and still others will vigorously challenge this line of thinking.

IV. Conclusions

Amid the tensions and turbulence in the shattered United Methodist church, it is urgent to strengthen earlier points. Shattered remains will not be healed by appealing to Christian kindness (Eph 4:2-3), scrambling for legislation at the 2021 General Conference, or a full day of prayer like the one before the 2019 Special Session. Legislation to create a new church is primarily defined by divisive and exclusionary laws and not the gospel. John Wesley warned at that point the Methodist movement will become a “dead sect.” Rather, Wesley sought something better to re-form the church by gathering individuals into small groups because the Body of Christ does not grow by plunking down fully formed congregations but grows cell by cell. It is therefore crucial for the Conference leaders to gather laity and clergy into cells, or classes, where they can share with each other “how it is with their souls.” As they become transparent to each other, participants will walk in the light and be cleansed of their sins of distrust, resentment, and anger (1 John 1:7). Classes can then grow into vulnerable but resolute groups pursuing rigorously "our theological task" for a new faith by using the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” and assistance from specialists. By dying to truncated faith and misguided hopes, classes will rise with Jesus Christ to newness of life (Rom 6:3-4) with the vitality of the gospel coursing through them with faith active in love (Gal 5:6). They will fulfill the Great Commission (Matt 18:18-20) for the transformation of the world. Finally, classes will not be discouraged by beginning with small numbers because we are promised that a small leavening of faith can raise up a new faith community under the reign and into the realm of God! (Matt 13:33).

Come, Lord Jesus (Rev 22:20). Amen.


Bishop Roy I. Sano is a retired bishop of The United Methodist Church. He is also former director of the Pacific and Asian American Center for Theology and
Strategies in Berkeley and former professor of theology and Pacific and Asian American Ministries at the Pacific School of Religion.

Content originally published July 6, 2020 by Emerging: God Is Doing a New Thing in United Methodism, an online forum sponsored by the Connectional Table.

References

1 The full title is “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.” It was proposed by an international team of representatives from various perspectives on the UMC stand concerning LGBTQIA+ person. The Protocol was supported by the Council of Bishops as a petition to the General Conference.

2John Wesley, elaborating on 2 Timothy 3:5, in “Thoughts upon Methodism,” The Methodism Societies: History, Nature, and Design, Vol 9, The Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon, 1989), p. 527.

3 I am deeply indebted to The Rev. Dr. Samuel Chetti who called my attention in correspondences to Matthew 19:12 and Isaiah 56:3-5. His careful reading of the Bible and his familiarity with other scientific and cultural developments are indispensable for this paper. Dr. Chetti’s insights prompted my exploration into the meaning of those passages for our faith and practice summarized here. The summary of the exploration explains my disappointment with Robert A. J. Gagnon’s highly significant and extensive but flawed study, The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001). Gagnon is only occupied with God creating male and female in Genesis 1:27 and Matthew 19:4, and does not consider what Jesus said in Matthew 19:12 about eunuchs indicating another ordering of creation nor God’s weighty affirmation of eunuchs in Isaiah 56:3-5.