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; take 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.

Behind enemy lines

The very first time I read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I remember being deeply taken with the following observation:

Christianity thinks that a Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied terrority — that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.

Lewis was an Englishman writing during World War II. As I read these lines, I am reminded both of that war and of the legends of the English hero Robin Hood, who fought against an evil king until the rightful king returned to claim his throne.

Our metaphors might be different and our frames of reference are not those that Lewis used. I’ve worked a bit on mapping this image onto the Star Wars movies, which also feature a rebel movement within a vast evil empire. Whatever metaphors we use, though, I find the basic idea compelling.

To me, this basic idea — that the universe is in rebellion against its Creator — creates a lot of tension with the way we often think about the state of the world and our place within it. It is a rich and creative tension that calls us into forms of life and ways of being Christian that do not sit easy with cultural Christianity, but it also has risks. This “fighting religion” view of Christianity can lead us into grimness and its own kind of darkness. We must be careful of that even as we recall that the world is not as God intends it to be. It is bound by a dark power, and as servants of the light we are unavoidably at odds with it.

The challenge of polygamy

The United Methodist Church’s official web site shares a commentary by the Rev. Lloyd Nyarota about the differences between American and African United Methodism, especially the different challenges facing the African church. Among the many interesting concerns he raises is the following:

Polygamy is one of the big issues facing Africa, and it’s often confusing to pastors in the local churches. Children from polygamous marriages sometimes cannot be baptized. Women from polygamous marriages are sometimes denied acceptance into women’s fellowships (organizations equivalent to United Methodist Women) because of the stigma associated with polygamy within the church.

Polygamy is a long time cultural phenomenon and missionaries created a legacy of stigma around this issue that is difficult for The United Methodist Church in Africa, especially since some African churches promote polygamy. This is an issue that we will be discussing for generations to come.

The challenge the church in Africa faces with the cultural acceptance of polygamy is both pastoral and theological. The full depth of the matter is beyond my understanding or experience. However, I am familiar with the fact that the church is always and constantly in a position in which its teaching and its call to holiness is at odds with aspects of the non-Christian culture in which the church exists. The church always finds itself at odds with the culture around it. The church is constantly being pressed by those outside it and within it to reformulate its vision of holiness to accommodate God to human desire. The great temptation of the church — one it has often failed to meet — is to confuse the sinfulness of human hearts for the holiness of God. The church is always in need for reformation and confession in this regard.

I do not expect the church will find any resources in this struggle from the secular or non-Christian cultures of Africa and America. What it will find is what it has always found from its earliest days. Those who do not acknowledge the lordship of Christ will provide the church with many reasons to abandon its understanding of holiness because holiness is always an affront to sinful desire.

I pray that our church can and does provide Christians in Africa with the support and resources they need to provide a strong witness to Christ in the face of the particular cultural challenges that work against the gospel. I pray the same for the church in America.