We humans are such odd creatures. We seem to oscillate between giving no thought to the consequences of our actions to being paralyzed with fear by imagined consequences of our actions.
Take one of the proposed constitutional changes in the United Methodist Church as an example. Here’s the proposed text for part of Article IV:
Inclusiveness of the Church — The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth and that we are in ministry to all. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, and upon baptism be admitted as baptized members. All persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body.
Doesn’t look very controversial on the face of it. One might naturally read the statement as saying something like, “We believe Jesus came, died, and rose for all people. Since Jesus came to bring all people back to God and to invite them to take up his kingdom agenda, we his followers aim to do likewise. There is no category of humans that we seek to exclude from this ministry.” For one who reads the New Testament and takes it as authoritative, I don’t see how they could be other than affirming of such an inclusive mission. So what’s the problem?
All UMs who have been following debates within the church for the past thirty years know what the problem is. Our greatest outward schism these days is over homosexuality. Some are convinced that the practice of homosexuality is perfectly acceptable from a Christian point of view. Others are convinced otherwise. The current disciplinary language affirms homosexuals as people of “sacred worth,” and thus a category of people not to be excluded from our ministry work. At the same time, the Discipline teaches that the practice of homosexuality is “not compatible with Christian teaching,” that we do not recognize or perform homosexual unions (whether “marriages” or another other kind), and do not accept “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” into ministry. These statements, however, are in parts of the Discipline other than the constitution. Thus, opponents reason, if the amendment is passed, the new form of the constitution will trump these exclusions, making them null and void. Since we say that “no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body,” that means that any member is eligible for participation in any body of the church. Currently this article has specific non-exclusions: “race, color, national origin, status or economic condition” do not exclude one from membership and participation in the UMC. It is possible that some see the switch from particular non-exclusionary language to complete inclusionary language as a less controversial (opponents may say “devious”) way to bring currently excluded groups into the areas from which they are current excluded.
If this constitutional amendment is adopted, surely some will seek to rule out the current disciplinary restrictions regarding homosexuality. But because some might – or even surely will – pursue this course of action, is the language of the amendment any less true to our Christian convictions, regardless of our position on the acceptability of homosexual practice?
United Methodists often pride themselves on not being literalists. Such pride is mistaken. We, like most other collections of humans, are selective literalists. While some may push the literal language of an amended constitution at this point (along the lines of the “all means all” campaign) to turn the UMC toward official acceptance of homosexual practice, a literal reading of this text, as in purely literal readings of pretty much any text, be pushed to what seems absurd. Let’s consider other forms of exclusion we currently practice. When it comes to age, we have disciplinary language on mandatory retirement. Can’t do that – that’s exclusionary. Though I’m not aware of any specific disciplinary language on this point, I’ve never heard of a child (under the age of 16) being ordained in the UMC. Sounds exclusionary to me. What about the current educational requirements for ordination? Some people lack the capacity for such education – and we heartlessly exclude them from ordained ministry.
Surely such reasoning is silly. No one is out pushing for ordination of children or the uneducated. No one wants bishops and pastors to keep going until they drop dead or become totally senile. But a plain literal reading of the text of the proposed amendment could surely lead in such directions. Since people might use the text in this way, we need to refrain from tinkering with it at all, lest bad things happen.
If we argue this way, maybe we should take up Stanley Hauerwas’s idea of keeping the bible away from people also. There are passages in the bible that if read and applied literally might be used to justify and promote what we take to be murder. Yet while I strongly believe many unintended consequences have come out of the way some people have handled the bible – the word of God (not just the word of the General Conference of the UMC) – I still believe the bible in the hands of people to be a good thing. Dangerous? Certainly. Ought we to teach people to handle it rightly? Absolutely. But that goes for the Discipline as well.
Knowing then, that consequences I thing wrong might flow from passing this amendment, I’m still inclined to vote for it. I’m not basing this on my confidence on the maturity of discourse and argumentation in the UMC. I’m afraid my confidence in that is very low. I’m also not basing my position on a commitment to the gospel of inclusion. While I think there is a proper biblical concept of inclusion, I cannot see that what goes by that name in most discussions today has much connection with such an account. Rather, the gospel of inclusion, as I hear it preached, sounds much more like a version of modern individualism than the gospel of Jesus. I also have no confidence that debates over “sexuality” (I doubt the helpfulness of abstractions in this case) end soon or reach a conclusion satisfactory to all. We UMs mirror our culture (as we have since the beginning) in being pretty messed up in this area. Whether we identify as heterosexual or homosexual we tend to be (mis)ruled by our desires, thinking (with Alexander Pope) that “whatever is, is right.” Our desires are, so since God made us and everything good, our desires must be good also. Surely we ought not to thwart that which is good? (My position on this is that while we shouldn’t thwart that which is good, we need to (a) sometimes say “no,” (b) sometimes say, “not yet,” and sometimes (c) recognize that we might be mistaken in our identification of a good.
Instead, my inclination to vote for it is that as far as I can tell from my submission to the authority of the bible and orthodox Christian theology it is simply true. We United Methodist Christians do believe that Jesus died for all. We do believe that God calls all people to die to sin and live to holiness.
Enough rambling for today. If you’d like to argue with me, go for it! I’m amenable to correction or persuasion.