Both gain and loss. That’s what this North Carolina pastor sees as the outcome of the upcoming 2020 General Conference.
UM News Commentary
For well over four decades, we as United Methodists have permitted a lesser and non-salvation social agenda item to overshadow our primary calling, which is that of making disciples of Jesus Christ.
We are therefore guilty of idolatry. For we, no matter the camp or the stance, have made idols out of our social issue position. The result? Missing the mark. Majoring on minors.
As of this writing, United Methodists find ourselves on the threshold of a General Conference in which we likely face a division— a divorce — as a denomination. This faith family chaos and impasse are painful and sinful. We must confess before God our brokenness and unfaithfulness and failure.
As with any separation and divorce, there will be loss. There will be regret. Remorse will raise its head. And, as with divorce, if we choose the road of renewal and the pathway of both inner and interpersonal peace there will be required of us confession of our failures, civility in dialog and deep respect for one another as children of God created in the divine imago dei.
As much as I grieve any division and separation in the church, I am reminded divorce can be a lesser of two evils. At times when marriage partners are abusive toward, instead of nurturing, one another, it is better for them to go their separate ways. Hopefully, the divorcing parties will move forward and build a healthier and stronger life, learning from rather than wasting their past mistakes and missteps.
If honest, we United Methodists have been abusive toward one another concerning our attitudes, actions and angry words. For more than 40 years we have put one another down, forming rigid camps and divisive tribes. At times, we have derided and demeaned one another because the other does not share our personal conviction or interpretation of Scripture.
Perhaps our parting is the lesser of two evils. Maybe we United Methodists will convey a mature and gracious example to the culture and to ourselves through seeking and finding an amicable separation.
Let us admit that there is no such thing as a “no-fault” divorce. What if all involved would confess our own fault and failure, instead of pointing an accusatory finger at others, projecting our painful failures upon another? What if, by God’s grace, the United Methodists incarnate and demonstrate that good and right and oft-quoted, yet too-seldom lived, statement, “Agree to disagree agreeably”? Could we make a winning and winsome witness to the world as one part of God’s people, or what?
I believe we can. I affirm that through our division and divorce we can become stronger and better. In the midst of weakness and brokenness, we find our renewed strength and guidance in God’s power and grace. As we yield our human hubris to divinity’s design for us, we discover and demonstrate genuine humility and loving-kindness. As we treat one another, no matter differing convictions and interpretations, with respect and dignity, we walk the Gospel way.
As a people directed by Christ, may we avoid litigation — the painful and demoralizing path our culture so often selects (that which Scripture exhorts believers to avoid in I Corinthians 6:1,6). And, as a people of grace, let us affirm the other, respecting rather than denigrating their different convictions.
In this way, we are freed to recognize and celebrate and participate in the powerful work God can do in and through us — reaching more persons in more venues through our separate pathways and differing interpretations. In our parting, may we find ourselves blessing one another, instead of “devouring one another” (Galatians 5:15), and in the process destroying ourselves and our witness for Christ.
May we pray and work for a “United Methodist” peaceful, God-honoring path forward. Although we may go different ways, we all remain on the same Christendom tree and the same Wesleyan branch. As we divide to prayerfully reach more persons for God’s Kingdom, let us give each other the benediction of a mutually hoped for grace-filled and fruitful future for the sake of Christ.
Lastly, I share my conviction because I readily recognize that mine is only one Christian conviction, and there are other faith-based convictions expressed. I have family and friends, church members and valued clergy colleagues, who differ with me on this topic. They are just as Christian as I am. I love them, value them and, respect their opinion. I will always do so. I am not their judge, nor are they judge of me.
As stated earlier, I do not perceive the social issue before us as a salvation matter. That is, I do not believe this topic to be a matter of justification or salvation. But I do view it as a matter of sanctification — seeking to be more and more like Jesus. Therefore, I am convinced the issue matters.
Because of my Scriptural interpretation and personal conviction, I am unable to preside at a gay union ceremony. My conviction will not permit me to participate in a community of faith that sanctions or endorsed homosexual unions.
Having said this, I will respect, care for and pastor to all persons. As pastor of this United Methodist congregation, as long as I am pastor, I will welcome all. No matter one’s background, demographics, sexual orientation, etc., I want all to know they have a place of safety, and all will be treated with dignity and acceptance within our church family. I will offer the God-given and grace-filled sacraments to all who wish to receive — for the sacraments belong to God and are given for all who open and accept. I will receive persons into church membership and serve as their pastor and spiritual shepherd if so desired.
I do not share my position with a vindictive spirit or as a pontificating edict. I am one person with one opinion among many. I affirm a defining marker of Christian grace and maturity manifests in, for example, two parties honestly, and at times radically, disagreeing, yet remaining connected and continuing in civil communication. Actively, not passively, listening — and sharing assertively, not aggressively.
I would want others to share their honest convictions with me. I respect and honor and even desire straight-forwardness from another, rather than complicit compromise or false overtures for the sake of pseudo peace.
We lose respect for ourselves and for others when we do not maintain our self-differentiation. The key to integrity and genuine unity is to stay connected with one another even, and perhaps especially, in going different directions and in sharing opposing opinions. Even with the prospect of possible polarizing positions we carefully listen to the other person while at the same time respectfully expressing our honest convictions.
May we remember and celebrate our United Methodist past. Let us look to the future with renewed hope. And, as God leads us forward may we treat one another with respect and dignity as we look to a new day of fresh expressions, perhaps taking different paths; yet, affirming our connectedness through one Lord, one faith, one baptism for the sake of God’s kingdom.
~ Michael Kurtz, the pastor at Francis Asbury United Methodist Church in Candler, North Carolina, wrote this commentary as a letter to his congregation as United Methodists prepare and pray for the 2020 General Conference.