Undoubtedly, some marriages are wrong, some divorces right. But it must also be understood, I think, that the possibility of breaking a vow can tell us nothing of what is meant by making and keeping one. Divorce is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its proposed results.
— Wendell Berry, “Poetry and Marriage”
I’ve been waiting for Ben Witherinton III to finish his four-part response to retired Bishop Richard Sano’s call for what he and others in the United Methodist Church call biblical obedience.
Here are Witherington’s responses.
In the last part, Witherington makes his case for a split in the UMC. He ends his final post this way:
So let us find a way to help those who need to leave and start a Progressive Methodist Church do so without losing our sanctification or our willingness to go on loving one another, no matter how strongly we may disagree on this fundamental issue. The dictum for the UMC should always be ‘in fundamentals, unity, in non-fundamentals diversity, in all things charity’. But make no mistake, the sanctity of marriage as Biblically defined, and the need for personal holiness when it comes to sexual conduct are indeed fundamentals of the Christian faith.
In the piece, Witherington uses the analogy of marriage and divorce, and in all these controversies I do find myself reflecting on the nature of marriage vows. I ask myself in grief how people can break their vows of covenant while presiding over the vows of marriage.
But I also hear myself talking about the way marriage is treated in our country and culture. Marriage, we are told by the courts of law, is a contract entered into for mutual benefit and terminated at the whim of those who entered into it. That may be the secular meaning of marriage, but that definition of marriage has nothing to do with God.
Christian marriage is a lifelong bond that is not intended to be ever broken. The vow to love until death does not include small print that says “unless we get sick of each other.” Yes, Christians divorce, but only because we are fallen and hard-hearted people. It is always a tragedy. Divorce, Wendell Berry wrote, is the contradiction of marriage, not one of its possible outcomes.
And so, I find myself unable to suggest divorce as a solution to our crisis in the United Methodist Church. Not over this question. Even though we’ve had — and likely will have — some fights that damage the walls and break lamps.
I am sick of the fighting. I am outraged by the politics of it all. I am heart sick over the name calling and the distrust that runs deep in our connection. I believe some of my brothers and sisters are teaching doctrines that imperil the happiness and salvation of souls. That for many is a reason to break fellowship. I understand why people feel this way, and I worry that perhaps there is some hypocrisy in me that I am not ready to join the ones calling for a split.
I don’t have a good response to that charge. I guess, in the end, I hope and trust that God will overcome the mistakes of human beings. In end, I am too aware of my own flaws and failures to eliminate the possibility that I am wrong. In the end, I am holding out hope that there is a coherent, biblical response that neither denigrates scripture nor forgets that mercy triumphs over judgement.
I pray that God makes right what I have done wrong in my ministry and has mercy on my mistakes and my failures. If I pray that God will do that for me, then I feel I must pray he will do the same for those with whom I disagree on these questions.
There are lines I could not cross. There are matters that amount to theological adultery. If the UMC became Unitarian Universalist, I would leave. But when I read Witherington’s call for a split, I find I am not ready to go where he summons. Maybe that is cowardice. Maybe it is hope. I cannot say. All I can report is this:
I’m not ready for divorce.