The Preamble to the Social Principles in the United Methodist Book of Discipline speaks with some depth about how we should live with our differences within the church.
We acknowledge that, because it is a living body of believers, gathered together by God from many diverse segments of the human community, unanimity of belief, opinion, practice has never been characteristic of the Church from the beginning to this day. … Therefore, whenever significant differences of opinion among faithful Christians occur, some of which continue to divide the church deeply today, neither surprise nor dismay should be allowed to separate the members of the Body from one another; nor should those differences be covered over with false claims of consensus or unanimity.
The preamble goes on to encourage us to embrace conflict with courage and see it as a sign that God is still working with us and shaping us. It concludes with a call to “respectful dialogue” in a spirit of exploration, honor, and truthfulness.
To me, the key word in the passage above is “opinion.”
I wonder what the General Conference means when it refers to matters of opinion, over which we should embrace differences.
In Western philosophical history, the discussion of the difference between knowledge and opinion goes back to Plato or beyond. I’m not capable of explaining the thousands of years of history of thought about the nature of knowledge and opinion, but I think it is fair to say that a key distinction is that it is irrational to embrace or endorse the idea that there can be differences of knowledge. Matters of opinion admit differences, but matters of knowledge do not.
If the word “opinion” is used in this sense, then the preamble to the Social Principles appears to echo the thought of John Wesley, who said that we should allow differences of opinion that do not strike at the core of revealed Christianity.
The flip-side of this, however, is that there are matters of knowledge, which do not permit differences. For instance, Jesus Christ is Lord. To believe this is to have actual knowledge. Whether you or I believe it, however, does change the truth of this statement. To deny this is not merely to have a different opinion. It is to be wrong.
When writing the above paragraph, I had to keep editing myself. What I started to write was “For Christians, Jesus Christ is Lord.” To write it this way, however, is to treat the Lordship of Jesus as a matter of opinion. For Christians, he is Lord. For non-Christians, he is not.
This is why the word “opinion” stands out to me in the preamble of our Social Principles. I want to know what we mean when we speak of differences of opinion. More importantly, I want to know what we think is not a matter of opinion.
In this vein, it is interesting to note the contrast between the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The Confession is written as a credo. Each article begins with the words “We believe.” In our contemporary context, these statements of belief are easily read as statements of personal opinion, although is not how Creeds were historically understood by the Church. The Articles, in contrast, perhaps reflecting a greater confidence in the knowledge provided by revelation, do not have such a subjective construction. They are not couched as the things we believe but as the things that are.
Hence, Article I reads:
There is but one living and true God, everlasting without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
I understand that there are very good reasons why we find it hard to talk about knowledge and opinion in the ways that previous centuries did. But I can’t escape the thought that if we are going to go about arguing that differences of opinion should be embraced, it would be good to be clear what we mean by that term.
I suspect that most people today use the word the way nearly everyone does. When we say “opinion” we tend to mean whatever I happen to think or believe. We don’t actually believe in truth so much as “my truth.” And so, if everything is opinion and can never be more than that, then I can see why people feel like the church is wrong to ever establish boundaries of any kind.
If the things we believe, however, are matters about which it is possible to have knowledge — and not just opinions — then it would be irresponsible for the church not to have boundaries.
In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth?