What Do You Mean… Time to Split?

“As we were sitting in the back of the truck at the end of the day, I wondered why I wasn’t feeling a sense of joy. We had worked hard all day helping many people, but it didn’t seem as if we were making any difference. The conditions in Haiti are so overwhelming. Then it dawned on me that mission work was never meant to be easy. Living out our faith by reaching out to God’s precious children who are in need is intense and difficult, but that is what builds up our faith. We trust that God will take our efforts and bless them in ways we will never know.”

I was deeply moved by the story of this faithful disciple of Jesus Christ because he has been willing to commit to the long haul in Haiti. There is nothing easy about being a Christian, either here in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. And there doesn’t seem to be anything easy about being a United Methodist these days, either.

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The cover picture of the April 16 issue of The Christian Century shows a person wearing a rainbow stole with hands open in prayer, along with these words, “Time to Split? The United Methodist battle over same-sex marriage.” Our denomination has not been of one mind about homosexuality and same-sex marriage for decades, but I was not prepared to see these words on the cover of a national Christian magazine. I thought, “What do you mean … time to split? How could it ever possibly be time to split?”

I am an incurable optimist. I always believe there is a way to work through differences. “Where there is a will, there is a way,” I was taught as a child. When we make a commitment to a relationship or a group, we also promise to stay in the same boat together and not bail or jump ship. Even when disagreements are intense and hearts and minds are not clear, I am convinced that, with God’s help, we can almost always stick together.

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My own call to ministry came as a child, but I never pursued it because women could not be pastors in the General Conference Mennonite Church at the time. Although my gifts were affirmed in many different ways by the people at Zion Mennonite Church, no one ever said to me, “I think you would make a good pastor. Have you ever thought about ministry?”

When I was in a seminary-based graduate school for sacred music, I realized for the first time that some women were, indeed, pastors. That Christmas I shared my now fifteen-year-old call to ministry with our pastor’s wife. She replied, “But you know, Laurie, women can’t be pastors. If all women pastors were like you, however, it would be just fine.”

The implication was that somehow women pastors were scary, odd, threatening, and even suspect. I was not deterred by her words, and in a few years my home church in Pennsylvania was also convinced, having watched me grow up. I was ordained at Zion Mennonite Church despite the fact that every other pastor in our district boycotted the ordination because I was a woman. I remember wondering how sad it was that such a difference divided us.

At the very beginning of my ministry I learned that our own fears, stereotypes, and judgments about those whom we perceive as different can prevent even Christians from seeing one another through the eyes of love. I realized that only way to work toward positive change was to be myself, follow my call, and keep on loving.

I soon migrated away from Mennonite territory to Michigan, where the West Michigan Conference extended a warm invitation for an Anabaptist woman to receive an appointment. The United Methodist Church eventually won me over, and I transferred my ordination credentials to a denomination that I freely chose, in large part because it exemplified John’s Wesley’s words in his sermon, The Character of a Methodist: “But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”

That’s precisely why the cover of The Christian Century was so shocking to me. How have we come to this, my beloved adopted family? Can an issue that Jesus never even addressed strike at the root of Christianity? Is there no way that we can live together despite our disagreements?

In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t always been willing to accommodate my practical theology to those who differ from me. I brought vestiges of my Mennonite heritage to The United Methodist Church. I do not wear make-up or jewelry. Neither do I drink alcohol or coffee. And I am a pacifist, having grown up in one of the historic “peace” churches.

When I am in proof-texting mode, I can find passages in the Bible to justify all of my quirky behaviors and beliefs, although Jesus only touched on one of them. Yet, over the years I have worked to humbly surrender my assumed moral superiority and judgment of others.  John Wesley has taught me that if my ways of living as a Christian don’t strike at the heart of the Christian faith, I need to chill out.

“THE distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of notions, his espousing the judgment of one man or of another, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a man of such or such an opinion, is grossly ignorant of the whole affair; he mistakes the truth totally.”

What do you mean … time to split? I have struggled mightily with homosexuality over the years, but if the truth be known, the battle has been primarily with my own inability to love unconditionally and embrace what I cannot understand. I have also come to realize that Christianity is ultimately about how we practice our own faith, not about how we judge another person’s faith. The root of Christianity is the vulnerable, sacrificial, self-giving love of Jesus, who calls us to share that extravagant, “knows no bounds” grace with all.

“‘What then is the mark? Who is a Methodist, according to your own account? I answer: A Methodist is one who has ‘the love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost given unto him;’ one who ‘loves the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength.’ God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul…” 

Is there room in The United Methodist Church for everyone who has the love of God shed abroad in their heart and desires to live in peace with their neighbors? Even if resolution is not possible, dare we live together as the body of Christ and honor the depth and integrity of all perspectives by how we choose to be the beloved community?

  • Can we project a positive image of our cherished church by sharing Christ’s love with all and putting our energy into making new disciples instead of politely encouraging others to leave or threatening to leave ourselves?
  • Can we focus on our missional DNA by volunteering in our schools, prisons, food pantries, hospitals, and soup kitchens?
  • Can we band together to eliminate malaria, tackle poverty around the world, and fight injustice and oppression wherever they present themselves?
  • Can we vow to be the body of Christ in a pluralistic world in which God calls us to be a beacon of hope, a lighthouse, and a saving station rather than a battleground?
  • Can we covenant to work together before the 2016 General Conference to honor cultural and geographical contexts and adapt our structure to God’s world, where the many United Methodist branches that are connected to the root of Christianity are constantly changing, growing, and moving on to perfection?

If we are true to John Wesley’s teaching, and true to his definition of Methodists, the idea of “splitting” would not be part of the conversation. Time to split? Far from it. Time to rise to the occasion and become the beloved community. We need each other to be whole, especially when we don’t agree. In renewing our commitment to demonstrate the character of a Methodist by loving one another, we model for the world the possibility of shalom.

“And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? I ask no farther question. If it be, give me thy hand. For opinions, or terms, let us not destroy the work of God. Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship.”

What if The United Methodist Church began to model healthy rather than punitive ways of dialoguing about its own difficult issues so that we can be a witness for how our world can manage complex differences? What if conflict became an opportunity for spiritual growth – to enlarge our hearts, see ourselves in new ways, and contribute to peace and justice in our world? What if we trusted the hard work of treating each other in a life-giving manner, maintaining church fellowship, and preserving the unity of the community of faith?

The United Methodist Church won me over thirty-three years ago. What do you mean … time to split?

Blessings,
Laurie

25 thoughts on “What Do You Mean… Time to Split?

  1. AMEN! Well said. How can allow one single issue to divide us when across that line, United Methodists hold so much in common? “in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

  2. I grew up in the post Vatican II time frame in the Roman Catholic Church. There was near open warfare and schism over “doctrinal purity” and liturgy that seems to have lingered to date. One of the things that drew me to the United Methodist Church as a young man was its open and sharing attituide to all. Only recently has the Roman Catholic Church begun to heal. Pope Francis made a profound but simple statement when he remarked, “who am I to judge?” We in the
    United Methodist Church would do well to think about what Pope Francis said. The scriptures tell us to love one another. God will do the judging when that time comes.

  3. I trust that a decision is not made in haste that could be regretted later. It is only recently that this issue has started to be discussed openly and we meet people behind what was a mask previously. In my experience, time generates understanding of and we can decide what are enduring values. For example, my mother’s uncle was a missionary in a Pentescostal church. He explained to me with a twinkle in his eye that they used to preach against radio. On the other hand I regretted that my parents were not sophisticated as my friends whose parents smoked and drank, etc. One day I was attending a course and we had to share our greatest concern. A lady explained that her parents were alcoholics and she could not invite her friends home and had to hide this from her friends. It affected her whole life. I decided to grow up. Over time I have come to understand my some of my parents’ values whereas they became more open to Christians from other denominations.

    Let us not act in haste and repent later.

  4. Amen and Amen! It is, indeed, time to rise to the occasion. Thank you, Laurie, for the rallying cry and for arguments to support it.

  5. I do not believe homosexuality is the primary interest of the conservatives. Rather, I believe it merely is the chosen battleground for the primary issue of biblical authority. Is the Bible to serve as a guide book that will lead people into a deeper spiritual relationship with God, or is it primarily a book of Law (as the Torah) to be obeyed? The chosen battlefield of homosexuality stirs up powerful emotions and draws people to side with the conservatives for reasons having nothing to do with Scriptural authority except to provide a religious rationale for their prejudice.

  6. I applaud this sentiment – I REALLY do. But even as I do, it provides me no direction for answering how to serve my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. Do you mean we should not split, but I should turn away those who want to marry and those with fruitful gifts of ministry? Gayle Carlton Felton said regarding this issue, “There are worse things than that we should divide over this issue.” As painful as the idea is for me, I find it excruciating to be put in the position of denying God’s blessing to those who come to the church in search of it. I can totally get behind Wesley’s message of “think and let think” – but this is not a matter of thought. It is a matter that has real, life and soul-impacting consequences of action.

    • Amen. I do not desire schism. At the same time, unity at all cost is not healthy. If we are to remain united, there has to be some give to allow for diversity and expression of worship. I pray that we can find a way forward, preferably as a United church.

  7. Thank you Laurie, for once again articulating what so many would like to say but have not the skill or opportunity due to their own circumstances. You have given voice to the masses who pray for unity in the context of a diverse denomination. Your call to mission hits the nail on the head for United Methodists. If we would pour the resources of our church into ministries with the poor, eradicating malaria, providing shelter for the homeless, feeding the hungry – ministries where Jesus speaks clearly of our calling – we would not have energy or time for this issue. Well done sister.

  8. we need “us all”. Not half–divided by gender, not factioned –divided by race, or by preference, or geography, or educational background or a hundred other “distinctions” we might make. Us all.

  9. AMEN and AMEN!! Well said! When the church decides to address the tough issues head on, with openness and honesty – it opens itself to the wind of the Spirit! Thank you, Laurie.

    • Thank you Laurie for your witness. Love trumps judgement and mission is a most adequate way of demonstrating what love means. Well done and thanks.

  10. I am disturbed by the “think and let think” direction that does not include the call to justice that many among us deserve. I am confused as to how someone who was denied pastoral ministry in another denomination now seems to deem it okay to continue to deny the same to others. It is all well and right to focus on our various calls to ministries as United Methodists but it as a gross mistake to bury our heads in the sand as we refuse to engage the larger picture.
    Sunday after Sunday I sit among faithful people who are denied FULL participation in ministry that I as a mere woman have the right to enjoy. Their faithful devotion is no less than mine and if examined would likely surpass my own. We must address the issues of homosexuality and Christian living as we continue to provide witness and mission in the ministries to which each of us are called. Where would we be as the United Methodist Church if we did not take a stand on the issues of slavery, or pastoral ministry for women? I think we would be tasting a lot of sand as we continue to bury our heads and say it’s not my problem and I don’t want to fight for the rights of others. This does strike at the root of our faith and what is essential. We need to do more that just think and let think!

  11. Amen!
    Thank you Laurie. I’ve come a long way in past 10 years, in understanding and accepting. I strongly believed that the Bible taught that homosexuality was a sin. While I still do not believe it is God’s will for us, I accept the fact that it is not for me to judge, but is for me to love and accept “all”. Thank you for putting it so well!

  12. Charles Wesley wrote a hymn found in UMC hymnal called
    A Charge To Keep I Have. The lyrics are:
    A charge to keep I have,
    A God to glorify,
    A never dying soul to save,
    And fit it for the sky.

    To serve the present age,
    My calling to fulfill:
    O may it all my powers engage
    To do my Master’s will!

    Arm me with jealous care,
    As in Thy sight to live;
    And O Thy servant, Lord, prepare
    A strict account to give!

    Help me to watch and pray,
    And on Thyself rely,
    Assured if I my Lord betray,
    I shall forever die.
    I contemplate the words of each verse but especially the last. Does your blog and the numerous responses keep the charge given to you? Are your words and opinions to accept what God calls sin giving Glory to God? Doing the Lord’s will? Saving a soul? Will you be able to give a strict account to our Holy God as Charles Wesley apparently desired? The Methodist church has changed from it’s origin of desiring Holiness.
    Every person owes their entire existence to their Creator and Sustaining God. God is Holy and will not tolerate man’s sinful rebellion. We are created to worship and serve Him, not to do whatever gives us pleasure.
    Every person has rebelled and is separated from the Holy God. God declares that the penalty for sin is death. But God had a plan from the beginning of sin to make a way for sinful man to be reconciled to our Holy God.
    God sent His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to live a sinless life perfectly obeying God his Father, though tempted in every way. Jesus is the only God/man who could complete God’s perfect plan of salvation. Jesus took the guilt and shame of sinners upon Himself when He died on the cross. It is Jesus’ death that demonstrates God’s grace and love. God accepted Jesus’ sacrifice and raised Jesus to life again. Jesus today is exalted to the right hand of God interceding for each of us.
    Man must respond to this free gift of God. 1. Each of us must choose to believe Jesus died for me personally, to forgive me for my rebellious behavior. 2. Each of us must choose to repent, i.e. change our mind and heart, behavior, denying ourselves and serving the Savior as King of our lives. 3. Each of us must choose to be transformed from a life of sin and disobedience to a life of righteousness and obedience. The Holy Spirit is God’s gift that transforms us.
    One day, each person will give an account for themselves before God’s Judgment seat. God will judge each thought, action, and word we speak. Those who belong to Jesus will be covered by Jesus’ blood shed on the cross and live with Jesus forever in heaven. Those who reject Jesus and are living in rebellion will be judged on their own merit and will suffer in eternal fire. His measuring rod is His Word, the Bible and the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s time to pray, read, study and live as God’s true Word instructs.
    Sadly, it appears that Methodists today are willing to accept sinful rebellion instead of advocating transformed living through faith in Jesus, repentance of sin and God honoring thoughts and lives. What account will you give the Lord on Judgment day?

    .

  13. Amen!! Well said. Thank you for your practical wisdom. May we focus on God’s love for all and make it known to all.

  14. Thank you Laurie. I pray that we can all continue to be United Methodists, being loving and in mission, as we struggle with disagreement about issues. You have provided a way to do so. It’s time to focus on what it really means to be Disciples of Jesus in the Methodist tradition. The possibility of a split bothers me because instead of saying followers of Christ will be known by the way they love each other,( I think this is in the Bible), it says we are like the world in judging others, and denouncing unity in the Spirit.
    Thanks again, Laurie for voicing so well our struggles, and helping us remember that Wesley calls us to find ways to struggle while remembering our primary focus of mission to a hurting world.

  15. Wonderfully put, Laurie. In my opinion, to have any concerns about the private living of another person is not our calling. Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged. It is not our place to make judgements about other people and their acceptability to God. God loves us all. He works inside each of us in mysterious ways. It is not for us to speculate on how and what God is doing in the personal lives of other people. On top of the above opinion, I fear we are allowing the concerns of The World to overshadow our life in God’s Kingdom. We are to be in The World, but not of it. The World would drive wedges between us given half a chance. We must be very careful.

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