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Three Requests of My Centrist Friends - An Open Letter

By Rob Renfroe
Over the past four years I have had the opportunity to be in dialogue with several leading "centrist" pastors. I have gotten to know them well enough to know that I like them. They are intelligent and thoughtful. They care about people and the vitality of the church. In fact, many of them have built great churches that do much good in the name of Christ. And they are people of deep faith. They love Jesus and they want people to come into a personal relationship with him. In so many ways, I have the utmost respect for them.
 
Of course, I have also become aware of how differently we see some very important issues and how unlikely it is that we will ever agree on what the church should teach regarding sexuality and marriage. I find their arguments for changing the church's position lacking biblically, theologically, scientifically, and anthropologically. I realize my arguments are insufficient in their eyes, as well. But I do believe we have created the kind of relationship that we can work together in a positive and helpful way as the church navigates its course into the future.
 
In that spirit, I have three requests for my centrist friends. And even before making them, let me say that I am open to how they might like me to change the dialogue.
 
First, please stop referring to us traditionalists as "the far right." We're not. In fact, we're not even "the right." We believe what the church has taught for 2000 years regarding sexuality and marriage. We are in solidarity with the vast majority of Christians around the world on these issues. At least 90 percent of Christians worldwide share our views. And we hold the majority opinion within the UM Church, an opinion that our denomination has held and reaffirmed for over 40 years.  How that makes us "the right" or "the far right" I have no idea.
 
It was a stroke of brilliance to brand yourselves "the centrists." That may sound more sarcastic than I mean it. Seriously, it was a smart way of positioning yourselves. But holding a position somewhere between the church's traditional position and those who would change it radically and immediately doesn't place you at the center of the church universal or of the UM Church, for that matter.
 
Actually, I think we who hold to 2000 years of Christian teaching have far greater claim to the term "centrist" than those who stand to the left of it. We are as committed to stating that all persons are persons of sacred worth as we are to stating that the practice of homosexuality is contrary to God's will for his people. We are accepting of persons who identify as gay in our churches. And we preach that heterosexual sin is a bigger problem in the church than homosexual sin. I am sure there are Christians who are less accepting or more judgmental than we are. Call them "the far right" if you wish, but that's not us.
 
I believe that we are the true centrists historically and globally when it comes to the Christian faith.  But, we're friends, so I won't fight you for the title. And I won't use pejorative terms to describe you that I have heard some use - terms like "the accommodationists" or "the muddled-middle" or "the every man did what was right in his own eyes crowd." It wouldn't be respectful, just as "the far right" isn't. I am good with "traditionalist," "conservative," or "evangelical." I prefer "orthodox" but I know claiming that term for myself and others like me is offensive to you, so I won't fight for it. But please, lay off "the far right" moniker. I think we all know it's not fair or accurate.
 
Second, please don't say any longer that we don't really have a difference regarding the authority and the inspiration of the Bible; we just have a difference over its interpretation. I know many of you were once where I am and you even felt comfortable being called "evangelical." But you have travelled some distance from where you were in your understanding of the faith and of the Scriptures. You see that as a positive, whereas I see it differently.
 
But all I ask is that you be honest about the distance you have travelled. When you believe that some parts of the Bible never were truly God's word - that's not just a difference in interpretation. It's a difference in how we see the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures. You, I think, will admit that your view is different from the Apostle Paul's which he expressed in 2 Timothy 3.16: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness ..." 
 
We all struggle to understand how God inspired the Bible. None of us are fundamentalists who believe God dictated Scripture, bypassing the knowledge, experiences, and personalities of its human authors. Even we traditionalists don't believe God turned human beings into mindless keyboards that he employed to bang out his word. So we all wrestle with what it means to have the word of God in the words of men.
 
But that struggle is a different project than trying to determine which parts of the Bible are still God's word and which parts never were. Taking a pair of scissors and removing the passages we don't think God could have possibly inspired is not an act of interpretation. It's more than that. It's a decision about the inspiration of the Bible - which parts were inspired by the Spirit and which parts weren't.
 
Of course this nontraditional understanding of the Scriptures raises all kinds of problems. It could be that even all centrists won't agree which parts of the Bible never were God's word, which parts were but aren't any longer, and which parts still are.  Without another church council to determine a new canon, there will be many divergent opinions with none having a greater claim of authority than any other.  But the chaos that approach might create is a topic for another day.
 
The point is, please don't muddy the waters by saying we have the same view of the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures. I hold to the same view as does the Apostle Paul. He may be wrong and y'all may be right. (To be fair, I'm not sure if all centrists share the same view on this.) I realize my view has real problems.  There are some very difficult texts I must be willing to state were inspired by God. Nevertheless, I do make that affirmation.
 
You believe your view of the Bible's inspiration and authority is correct. I believe mine is. One day, we'll find out who is right. But for now, let's just all be honest and say our views are different.
 
Third, please don't make the charge that we traditionalists are willing to separate the church because we have different views regarding sexuality. I have listened to one of you say on more than one occasion, "Are we really going to break fellowship because we have a difference of opinion on this issue?"
 
You know that's not a fair representation of where we are, right? We have been willing to live in a church with different opinions on sexuality and marriage for over 40 years. We have never said we cannot be part of a church where different views are held.
 
The problem that we are facing now, the one that threatens our unity and could lead to schism, is not a difference of opinions or beliefs, it's a difference of practice.  It's pastors acting contrary to the Scriptures and to the Book of Discipline by marrying gay couples. It's pastors who bless and who enable what the church states to be incompatible with Christian teaching. It's bishops who refuse to enforce the Discipline in meaningful ways that take our covenant and vows seriously. It's pastors who break the covenant that holds the church together by performing a same-sex marriage and then whose "punishment" is to write a paper telling the rest of us why we must live together in unity. It's a bishop who attends the wedding of one of his pastors to a same gendered person performed by another one of his pastors and by his presence blesses their actions. It's a bishop who marries gay couples himself. And most recently, on top of an entire jurisdiction voting to defy the church's position regarding ordination and marriage, it's several boards of ordained ministry that proclaim publicly their unwillingness to abide by the Discipline. It's several annual conferences specifically stating they will no longer conform to the requirements of the Discipline. And by the end of July it may be the election of one or two openly gay bishops.
 
We don't merely have a difference of opinion any longer. We could live with that. We have lived with that. But we now have different practices. We have rebellion, and we have many bishops who encourage and bless this rebellion, all the while claiming to be working for the unity of the church.
 
So, please don't call us the far right.  We're not. Please don't try to smooth over our differences regarding Scripture. It's more than interpretation. And please don't present us as so small-minded that we can't be in fellowship with persons who hold different views regarding sexuality. We have been in fellowship with people who see even more essential doctrines differently than we do. And we would continue in fellowship if our bishops would enforce the Discipline with integrity.
 
I'm grateful for knowing you. I think I'm better for knowing you. I think we will serve the church best by being honest about our differences and by being respectful in our terminology as we speak about each other and the issues. I feel sure we can do so. I really do like and respect you.
 
I'm happy to hear from you how I can do better in our dialogue, as well.
 
Rob

The Reverend Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.
       
                                       
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