Is our symbol the cross or a windsock?
The United Methodist Church has never had the uniformity in its teaching and doctrine that more hierarchical bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church. There are good reasons not to seek to be that way. But, I do wonder if our church can be said to have any “teaching” at all.
What are the issues that inflame us as United Methodists? Homosexuality and to a lesser extent abortion. Yes?
Would you be surprised to find out that the nation as a whole is fairly evenly divided on these issues?
A Gallup poll this week found that the country is split 51%-42% on the issue, with Pro-Lifers for the first time in the majority after being a 50%-44% minority last year.
A Gallup poll last year found the country equally divided at 48%-48% on the morality of homosexual relationships.
In other words, the church is little more than a mirror of the society around us. The issues that surround us, set the agenda for the church. This may seem natural and beyond controversy, but the Gallup survey last year included data that I found telling.
The United Methodist Church has a clear teaching in its Social Principles about gambling. I will quote: “Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government.” Not a lot of the mushy and equivocal language you find straddling the divide in our social teaching on abortion and homosexuality.
So, given this strong and clear position, why is the United Methodist Church such an anemic voice on gambling? Can anyone deny that gambling is widespread and growing in its influence. Just this week the state of Delaware voted overwhelmingly to expand sports gambling in the state.
The Gallup poll may suggest one answer. It turns out Americans have little problem with gambling. By a 63% to 32% spread they say gambling in morally acceptable. In the face of such popularity – even within our own pews – is there any doubt that the church is weak on gambling because the society is so strongly in favor of it?
Or look at the death penalty. The Social Principles say the church opposes capital punishment because it denies the power of Christ to redeem human beings. How vigorous is the church in teaching this? How often do we even talk about it at General Conference or Annual Conferences? Could it be because 62% of Americans reject the church’s position on the death penalty?
Let us not even discuss divorce. In a church ripped apart by debates about what marriage is there is barely a squeak about divorce or pre-marital sex. Society has spoken. We dare not quibble.
The overwhelming impression I get is that the church is little more than mirror of the society around it. The issues that are on the public agenda are reflected inside the church. Where Americans are divided, the church is divided. Where America is not divided, the church is silent, even if the majority swings in direct opposition to the supposed position of the church.
I am not holding myself up as a paragon of courage on these issues. My own preaching and teaching have not heavily engaged any of these issues. I am a coward, too. But I wonder whether anyone finds this situation troubling. Or are all these “teachings” just fluff and nonsense anyway?