The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church uses “incompatibility” language in two areas. Both of these areas are incomprehensible to large swathes of the church membership.
In the best known passage, the BOD declares “the practice of homosexuality” to be “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Less well known is the other declaration of “incompatibility” in our Social Principles. We find there also, “We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.”
In the early 20th century Rudolf Bultmann famously claimed that in our scientific world of electric lights we cannot believe in miracles and resurrections. Events that cannot be explained within the bounds of science are incomprehensible to us. True respect for scripture means we have to find other ways to read that scripture to make sense of it so it is the word of God for us. He called this “demythologizing.”
Science and scientism don’t play the same role in our culture as they did a hundred years ago. Now we find them speaking most clearly in the realm of ethics. When we look at the world we find that it is descriptively true that the “practice of heterosexuality” is not for everyone. Some people, as far as we can tell through no choice of their own, are attracted (oriented) toward their own sex. Some men are sexually attracted to men, some women are sexually attracted to women. If this is descriptively true of the way people are, it is incomprehensible that acting on these attractions could be wrong. And yet the Bible and the UM BOD appear to say that acting on these attractions is wrong.
We can find ways around the Bible. We can say that the “homosexuality” it talks about is not the same phenomenon as the “homosexuality” we’re talking about. We can be faithful to scripture and set aside the incomprehensible teaching of scripture.
Getting around the BOD is harder. The statements in the BOD are formulated as interpretations and applications of scripture addressed to our current context. As a legal document the BOD aims to be as specific as possible and to eliminate loopholes and avenues of contrary reasoning.
A significant portion of the United Methodist Church membership in America finds the current position regarding this aspect of sexual ethics utterly incomprehensible. This portion is not evenly weighted throughout the church, however. Greater percentages of the episcopacy and top leaders of the denomination and its institutions find our official teaching on homosexuality to be incomprehensible than do those who do not have positions of power. Also, clergy are more likely to find our position incomprehensible than are laity. It is largely this differential that has led to the reality that our official position has rarely been taught, defended, or developed in many of our churches. It is not surprising that a position that is rarely taught, defended, or developed becomes incomprehensible, especially when the culture as a whole is moving in the opposite direction.
Our declared position on war is equally incomprehensible, though to different people. I haven’t seen surveys of our UM population in America, but I would guess that the variance among those who hold and those who reject our position on the incompatibility of war with Christian teaching is close to being opposite to that of our position on homosexuality. In other words, laity are more likely to find our position incomprehensible than those who inhabit the upper reaches of the church hierarchy.
If we look at Jesus, our position on war seems entirely comprehensible. Jesus talks about “turning the other cheek.” More than that, when Jesus is threatened, arrested, attacked, and even killed, he does nothing to defend himself. Jesus in the Gospels is clearly depicted as a practitioner of nonviolence.
What about Jesus’ followers? How did Paul, for example, handle the dangers that his churches faced from their enemies? Did he say something like, “Make sure your security teams are well-armed, so that if any violent evil people come into your midst and try to kill or injure people, you will be ready to ‘put them down’?” That makes sense to us. We look at recent church shootings, for example. A man with a gun wants to kill people. An armed and prepared defender of the defenseless steps up and with a single shot saves the congregation. It makes perfect sense, this instance of using power to defend the weak. It’s incomprehensible that this could be wrong.
Unlike the issue of homosexuality, the BOD gives us more maneuvering room on this issue. Rejecting war as “incompatible with the teaching and example of Christ” is not the same as rejecting “self defense” or “defense of the weak” as incompatible with Christian teaching.
From what I see, we look at war – at least our wars – as justifiable extensions of the same principles we use when arming “guardians” in our churches. Killing Iranian General Suliemani, for example, is justifiable because he was an evil man bent on killing many innocent people. Bad war, non-Jesus-style war, would be wars like he perpetrated; or wars like Russia engages in with Ukraine.
Scripture also gives us more of an out when it comes to justifying war. All we have to do is look at God’s chosen people, Israel, in the Old Testament. Their wars were not only justifiable, but were also commanded by God. If God can desire his people to go to war in times of threat in the Old Testament, surely it must be justifiable for his people to go to war now when we’re threatened. It’s incomprehensible that our nation not be allowed to defend itself!
There is an obvious asymmetry of action in these two areas. When we teach that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” we are talking about the church and putting limits on what the church does and doesn’t do. When we teach that “War is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ,” we are putting limits on what another entity, the state, does and doesn’t do. We have no control over the state (though we imagine we have influence). We do have control over the church – well, I take that back. We don’t have control over the church. In its work of legislating the General Conference imagines it has control over the church, but when most of the executive authority of the church finds its teaching incomprehensible (and even immoral), then there is a failure of control.
What are we to make of these two incomprehensible incompatibilities? The obvious solution is to divide so that each segment of the church can be fully aligned with what it finds comprehensible. Looking around the United Methodist Church recently it seems more and more have finally reached this conclusion. It’s time to stop fighting and go our separate ways. I understand that. I feel the relief division offers. (That’s not all I feel. With many others, even many of those working hardest for division, there is also extreme discomfort, unease, pain, and a sense that we’re failing Jesus’ prayer in John 17.)
As we pursue division so that we can be more pure in our alignment with what we think is right, I’m concerned that will find ourselves even more in a place where we are more formed by our culture than by our discipleship to Jesus. Our culture is not monolithic, so it’s easy for us to have factions fighting with each other and yet each in thrall to some division in our culture. Once we divide it’ll be easy for some to just follow the culture in the area of sexuality. Division will also make it easier for some to just follow the culture in the area of war and the use of force. As we’ve done before (I think of 1844), the fact that our divisions mirrors the culture’s divisions, makes it more difficult to speak to that culture and not just echo it with a veneer of religiosity put on top. I don’t see a way around division. But I am praying, and God’s smarter than I am.