Righteousness as a requirement

Near the end of his life, John Wesley wrote the following in his journal:

I then met the society, and explained at large the rise and nature of Methodism; and still aver, I have never read or heard of, either in ancient or modern history, any other church which builds on so broad a foundation as the Methodists do; which requires of its members no conformity either in opinions or modes of worship, but barely this one thing, to fear God, and to work righteousness. (August 26, 1789)

We heirs of the Methodist movement who call ourselves United Methodists stand on the brink of schism because we are deeply divided over whether sex between people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness.

We agree on some things regarding sex. We all agree, so far as I am aware, that adultery and polygamy are contrary to the will of God and righteousness. I am not aware of a significant movement within our denomination to declare fornication — sex outside of marriage — compatible with righteousness. We agree that divorce is contrary to the will of God, but that as sinful and fallen people we do break our relationships to the degree that divorce is the outcome and that divorce does not automatically preclude remarriage. And we agree that all these sexual sins are things for which we can receive forgiveness.

Our schism hangs on a disagreement about how to respond a subset of homosexual sexual activity. I do not hear anyone in the church advocating for celebration of casual, one-night hook ups by anyone. What one party in the church argues is that sexual activity between two people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness in the confines of a monogamous relationship that the partners intend to be lifelong. The majority of the church — at least as far as the votes of our General Conference indicate — has disagreed with this claim since it was first up for formal consideration in 1972.

I wonder if there would be any room for holding our denomination together if we could all affirm some form of the following statements.

  1. Righteousness before God is incompatible with sexual sin. We affirm biblical and Christian teaching that insists that adultery, polygamy, and fornication are contrary to the will of God and incompatible with Christian salvation.
  2. We recognize that the church has at times in its past held to teaching that it has changed. Guided by the prayerful study of Scripture under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church has in the past concluded that what it once held to be true should be revised. For instance, we believe there is a sound biblical argument in favor of a strict prohibition of slavery, the ordination of women, and the remarriage of divorced Christians. We hold these positions not in spite of what the Bible says, but because we believe the Bible, as the final word on all matters of faith and practice, is compatible with these positions. Arriving at these teachings has not been easy or without dispute.
  3. There are those in the church who believe that our teaching about same-sex sexual activity is in need of a similar revision. Those advocates have not persuaded the church of this position. They should be permitted to argue and attempt to convince the church that their position is consistent with the Bible.
  4. As the church is not persuaded, however, all members of the United Methodist Church should continue to honor and uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church, especially the clergy who have taken a vow to that end.

I realize this would not satisfy everyone in the church right now. We have reached the point where we can no longer hope to do that. We have arrived at the point where the question is no longer whether people will separate from the church, but what will be the grounds for separation. I believe the four statements above could be affirmed or accepted by the majority of our global denomination.

Divorce in a global church

The Liberia Conference of the United Methodist Church recently upheld a rule prohibiting clergy who are divorced from the office of bishop.

Here is a thoughtful article that raises good questions about the implications of this ruling for the global nature of the United Methodist Church. It has obvious parallels to other debates with in the church.

For my part, I hope the questions raised in the article are addressed by the Judicial Council at some point.

Losing faith in the cure

Here is a question I’ve been wondering about recently: Do we believe that holiness is the key to happiness?

That used to be a bedrock Methodist belief. The reason we wanted to help men and women become holy was because we believed that the secret to true, lasting, and invincible happiness was to be holy, as God created us to be. This was our prescription for the illnesses that weighed down the soul and blighted the world.

Of course, it has always been true that huge numbers of people do not agree with either the diagnosis or the prescription. They stoned the prophets and murdered Jesus, after all. Holiness as the key to happiness and cure for the world have always faced strong opposition and evangelists of rival gods. Hollywood and Madison Avenue and the Pentagon have always promised us other ways.

Here is what we used to say. God created us to live in peace, joy, and happiness with God and each other. We are none of those things because we are slaves to sin and death. The solution cannot be found in our own good works, something we buy, or even by banding together into communities dedicated to righteousness. The solution is God. What we lack, and often do not even seek, is communion with God. The name of the peace and happiness that so eludes us is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Now, here is the problem. If you look at the church, it is not often a very good billboard for the life of happiness, peace, and joy that God offers. You cannot blame the world when it doubts that we have discovered the secret of happiness. It is the task of the church to always be an imperfect reflection of the perfect happiness it proclaims.

That we do often fail to embody holiness is a grievous problem, but it is an entirely different problem than no longer believing in holiness itself.

So, I find myself wondering, do we believe in holiness still?