Happenings Around the Church
By Riley Case

Mainstream United Methodists is a group of UMs, mostly clergy, which is lobbying the upcoming General Conference to adopt the One Church Plan which calls for removing all negative references in the church Discipline to homosexual practice and marriage between a man and woman so that, somehow, the “unity” of the church will be maintained and all will live in harmony. The word “Mainstream” is misleading since it suggests the group might represent the broad middle of United Methodism which, in the eyes of many of us, it does not. The group might better be described as progressive-leaning institutional loyalists willing to make great compromises in order to keep together some semblance of the institutional structure. 

At any rate, the group’s December 2018 bulletin, “The GC 2019 Delegate,” addresses the matter of Biblical authority and posits the idea that the disagreement in the church is not over Biblical authority but over interpretation. The bulletin argues that there are two kinds of Bible texts, those that are “descriptive” and those that are “proscriptive.” “Descriptive” texts relate to people in a different time and place and are not necessarily appropriate for today. “Proscriptive” texts are those passages which are still true for how we are to live today. 

This analysis has problems. First of all the very idea of “descriptive” texts and “proscriptive” texts is a new construct.  An obvious question is: who decides which texts are “descriptive” and which “proscriptive”? This is quite foreign to the way the church historically has sought to understand the Bible. One suspects this method is a way of dealing with texts we might disagree with in the present day, so to render them irrelevant. In preparing to make this point the bulletin gives examples of Biblical texts that the group says the UM Church believes are “Descriptive Truth” and no longer binding for us today. The examples given are slavery, the role of women and divorce.  If the Bible and the Church didn’t get it quite right on these items in the past it is possible they don’t get it quite right on marriage and homosexual practice in the present. 

A response: the Bible is not a rule book, nor a science book, nor a cultural standards-setting book. It is the authoritative witness to the mighty works of God in history as God calls out a people for his name. Obviously, God has dealt with his people at different times in different ways. It is not only progressives but the church generally, including conservative Christians, which believe in progressive revelation. God deals with us where we are. And so in dealing with “enemies” we move from revenge (you kill one of mine; I kill two of yours), to justice (an eye for an eye), to love (“You have heard that it has been said but I say unto you…”). The culmination of this story is the cross and resurrection which serve as the basis for a New Humanity. 

The historic Church hermeneutic (principle of interpretation) is that the New Testament interprets the Old Testament and the epistles interpret the gospels. The significance of Jesus’ life, teachings, death and resurrection is found in the authoritative interpretation of the apostles. For Martin Luther and John Wesley key books in the Bible would be Galatians and Romans. These serve as a lens by which the whole can be understood. Here is found Atonement, Salvation by grace through faith and the promise of ultimate victory. With the writings of the apostles the canon is complete. The Church is always interpreting the revealed Word of God for the current times, but it is not the teaching of the historic Church that God is revealing new “truth” ( ”truth” being moral and spiritual truth) and that truth is discoverable by science or secular culture or progressive ideology.

And so we who see ourselves in the tradition of historic Christianity do not accuse the Bible of getting it wrong in regard to such matters as slavery or the place of women in the Church.  Old Testament and earlier texts prepare the way   They are markers; they shadow (Col. 2:7) and anticipate and help to define what is to come. Jesus came not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them

What about slavery? Instead of criticizing the Bible (and some Christians through the years) for not raising a prophetic voice against slavery in the ancient world, let’s consider what God did do about slavery. Leviticus 25, the Year of Jubilee, is so radical that it makes modern socialists look like Adam Smith. While the Bible recognizes slavery (in ancient Israeli slavery in some ways was a substitute for welfare) it declares that in the Year of Jubilee all slaves are freed. Not only that, debts are forgiven; property is returned to the original inheritors of the land.  In related passages God’s people do not charge interest for loans. I have sometimes told people this must be the Word of God because no human could ever have dreamed up this stuff. This teaching is so extreme that it is believed it was never attempted, let alone lived, in ancient Israel. This is far more radical than any social or economic or political system today. It reminds us of how far yet we have to go in our work for transforming the world. 

Instead of talking about what we don’t have to believe anymore (as do the progressives) and how parts of the Bible are sub-Christian, we should be discussing how marvelous is God’s salvation story. Among all the religions and cultures of the world the Biblical texts have guided the faithful in the vision for a better world, such as in the elimination of slavery. This is a fallen world.  There always has been tension between God’s vision for the Kingdom and the present world. Because some Methodists argued for the existence of slavery from Biblical texts does not mean that they understood those texts correctly or that God approved of slavery or of their interpretation. There was never any question where Wesley and the early Methodists stood on slavery. Methodism never, ever, in its Disciplines, approved of slavery. Still, many thought it prudent not to push too strongly against slavery lest there be greater turmoil in the church. Those who did push strongly were the abolitionists and they were viewed as troublemakers, disruptors of unity.

It needs to be pointed out that the push-back against the abolitionists came not only from the slaveholders and those who supported slaveholders, but also from the institutionalists for whom church unity was a bigger issue than the abolition of slavery. Institutional leaders, including most of the bishops, spoke of discussion and listening to one another and loving one another (as today). Theirs was an earlier version of the One Church Plan. Live and let live. Respect one another’s interpretations. The federal government was making all kinds of compromises to keep the nation together. Should not the church do as well? 

In 1844 when abolitionists brought legislation and resolutions to the floor of the General Conference to force the issue, the bishops were arguing for more discussion and more study. They refused to discipline even one of their own, a slave-owning bishop. 

Unity was not preserved. The church divided. When the most extreme of the abolitionists left to form the Wesleyan Church they began to apply other Scriptures to issues of the day. Many of these were the revivalists of the Holiness tradition. With their vision of a disciplined church and social justice came also a vision for unleashing the gifts of women. A key argument for these early Wesleyans was from Holy Spirit experience, specifically that taking place during the Western revival. Earlier Methodist revivalists had introduced a new understanding of “the altar” (as in “altar calls”) where the individual was the one sacrificed. This new understanding lessened the importance of the priest or ordained clergy and opened the door for all persons, including women, to minister. In their altar ministry and their exhorting, women became key players in the egalitarian camp meetings of the Second Great Awakening (where blacks met with whites on more or less equal social standing).  When the Wesleyans broke from the ME Church in 1842 they fought slavery, ordained women, opposed war, and supported temperance. The Seneca Falls meeting, which launched the Women’s Movement, was held in a Wesleyan Church. Perhaps the greatest argument from Scripture for using the gifts of women in ministry came from the Methodist holiness teacher, Phoebe Palmer, whose book Promise of the Father (1859) was an exegesis of the prophets through the lens of Pentecost. 

While the seeds of later church understandings on such matters as slavery and women in ministry were foreshadowed by earlier Biblical tests, there never was any hint that marriage was other than that between a man and a woman.  This is consistent Biblical teaching from Genesis 1 through Revelation. These teachings are part of the orders of creation and point to the union of Christ and the Church.

Because of this it is discouraging that Mainstream Methodists, as well as bishops and others, play games with Scriptural authority. If, as they argue, the issue is not authority but interpretation, let them explain their hermeneutical principles. If the appeal is to Scripture as interpreted by tradition, reason and experience, let them stick within Wesley’s understandings of those words. 

If we cannot come to some agreement on these matters what basis for unity do we have?  

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