The UMC at the Valley of Elah

During the later stages of the controversy over Donatism in Africa during the fourth and fifth centuries, Augustine of Hippo took a major role. It is a long and complicated story and not without controversy still today, but I wanted to share some of Augustine’s words that remain relevant to the church today. While writing in response to an opponent in the controversy, he had these words for his allies in the church.

These things, brethren, I would have you retain as the basis of your action and preaching with untiring gentleness: love men, while you destroy errors; talk of the truth without pride; strive for the truth without cruelty. Pray for those whom you refute and convince of error. — Answer to Petilian the Donatist

In my branch of the universal church, United Methodism, we need these words.

We have within our denomination two groups who are convinced of the truth. We stand arrayed like the Israelites and Philistines on the hills surrounding the Valley of Elah. In our struggle, each side believes itself to be the bearer of the banner of truth. Each side has come to this conviction with earnest, thoughtful, and prayerful effort. Neither side holds its convictions loosely, and for most on both sides those convictions are closely tied to a whole network of beliefs and convictions that are central to their entire faith. Neither could easily set aside their convictions on the issue of human sexuality without unraveling many other beliefs. The roots of their convictions are deep and tangled up with much else that defines their faith.

Both sides are tempted to see and portray the other side not just as wrong but as evil, led astray by devil and in the legions of the anti-Christ. Both are tempted to see the other as not just in error but as the enemy of God. Both are tempted to attribute to the other all manner of vices and dark motives.

Standing separate from these two groups, a third group calls for an end to the struggle. They do not appear to see how deeply rooted the convictions that drive the two contending sides are and appear to assume that they can be laid aside as easily as a person takes off a baseball cap and puts on another. They imagine a unity in the church that could only come if the contending sides both admit that what they hold as truth is not truth but mere opinion and not essential to what it means to be a Christian.

Maybe the image I have drawn here is not right, but it is how the situation appears to me. It is not a new moment in the life of the church, which has sadly always been rent asunder by disagreements, heresy, and sin. And this morning I turn to the wisdom of Augustine to help me in this moment.

I do not think either side can or will lay down their banners and return to their homes. And so I pray that we might hear and heed the words of Augustine until the Lord brings our church through this crisis. Act and preach and speak with gentleness. Love those with whom we contend. Set aside both pride and cruelty. Pray for those we believe are in error.

I am not wise enough to see how God will lead us through this. If I am in error, I pray the Lord will break me gently. If I am in the right, I pray my words and speech honor Christ.

3 thoughts on “The UMC at the Valley of Elah

  1. John,

    I apolaud your call for love and prayer.

    I think you have named the degree of enemy-feeling by and against both sides fairly accurately.

    I see the call of the third group a bit differently than you may. I would agree that if the third is saying “lay aside what is central to you” then, indeed, that cannot but fail.

    Instead, what I hope I see the Commission on the Way Forward doing is more like, “We acknowledge how deep our divides are on this. Let us find another way to order our lives together so we may honor these differences while continuing to work together in love in other areas of our common work and mission.” The call here is to drop not the differences, but rather the implicit demand that all comply with MY side or else. It is possible to hold deep conviction without requiring everyone else to comply as a condition of continuing in relationship together. It is not easy, but it is possible.

    1. Thanks for your comment and your spirit. I cannot imagine the two sides saying that. But God’s imagination is bigger than mine. I just don’t see how the one side will abide what it sees to be bigotry and the other can abide what it regards as calling holy what is sinful. I pray for your health.

  2. Neither do I see the so-called Third Way as viable. There has been a sea change in the West (in my experience). The course is set; it is implacable. There is the inflation of ecstatic personality to an extent I’ve never witnessed before. But I am comforted by 1 Corinthians 11:19: “Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.”

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