Making the hard argument

I recently read an article written by the a district superintendent in the Mountain Sky episcopal area.

The article is a critique of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The author tries to demonstrate what he sees as hypocrisy and inconsistency in the positions of the WCA. In doing so, he writes some things that I found rather troubling.

Here is some of what he puts forward:

  • The ordination of women is unbiblical.
  • The toleration of divorced clergy is unbiblical.
  • John Wesley’s primary concern was in new expressions of faithfulness.
  • The Nicene Creed should not be used as a litmus test for orthodox Christianity.
  • Central Conferences in the UMC do not have to follow the doctrine of the UMC.

I think the author is wrong in all five of these claims, but today I want to respond to the assertions that the United Methodist Church’s current teaching regarding women’s ordination and divorce are not biblical.

Here is what I believe the author was trying to do. He believes the church is wrong to hold as a matter of doctrine and law that gay sex is sinful and that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. He wants to critique the WCA for its support of current church teaching, so he wants to demonstrate that it is at its core a hypocritical and intellectually shallow association. To do so he asserts that the WCA endorses clearly unbiblical stances on women’s ordination and divorce and suggests therefore that the WCA is merely playing power games in not endorsing the unbiblical teaching regarding gay sex.

I am troubled by this line of argument, especially coming from the member of the cabinet of one of our episcopal areas.

Here is why.

He is asserting that the official United Methodist Church teaching on women’s ordination and divorce are unbiblical. I don’t believe that is fair or true. I believe our doctrines are compatible with the Bible and that we do not hold them in spite of what the Bible says but because of what it says. I believe our denomination tries rather hard to be faithful to its doctrinal standard that says the Bible is final authority in all matters of faith and practice and that we cannot adopt as church teaching or law something that we believe is in direct violation of biblical teaching.

As I see it, there are at least two ways of arguing that our church should change its teaching with regard to gay sex and gay marriage. The first is to do as this author appears to do. Argue that the church has already opted to ignore the Bible in many areas and therefore should do so again. In making this argument there is almost always the implication that dark motives are the real reason behind the current teaching and support of it. The upholders of current teaching are cast as bigots or cynical hypocrites. In addition, such arguments appear to take the stance that it is okay to endorse one unbiblical position because we have endorsed another one. That strikes me as a foolish rule, akin to saying two wrongs make a right. If the church is violating the Bible in ordaining women or permitting divorce, as the author of the article asserts, then the proper response would be to advocate for a revision of our doctrine and law regarding women’s ordination and divorce not the adoption of more self-consciously unbiblical teaching.

The second way to make this argument — and one that seems much more in keeping with the golden rule — is to assume that our church actually has arrived at its current teaching through faithful attempts to listen to Scripture. As the church is always in need of reform, we accept that we always stand in risk of being wrong about the teaching of Scripture and so are open to being taught. But we never intentionally and willfully dismiss Scripture and strive never to hold as doctrine any teaching that we believe is incompatible with the Bible. And so to argue that gay sex is not sinful and that marriage is not intended by God to be between one man and one woman, our author would need to demonstrate how a full and careful reading of the Bible actually supports these positions.

That is a hard argument to make. I know that some have attempted to make it. I know as well that many outside the church have no interest in making it. Millions of people who have no particular regard for the Bible cannot be bothered to treat the church’s attempts to be faithful to the Bible with respect. I understand that. I just hope that within the church we might start from a different place.

While riding a horse

By this time next year, I might be commissioned as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church. This assumes I successfully demonstrate my fitness to the Board of Ordained Ministry, the conference has a place to appoint me, and the denomination does not disappear into a black hole during General Conference 2016.

I’m sure this time is anxiety inducing for all those who have walked on this path, but with the great flux in our denomination right now, figuring out what the UMC desires from me and what it will expect from me feels a bit like trans-warp beaming.

Evil and the Board of Ordained Ministry

For seminary, I’ve been starting to work on some of what will one day be a response to questions in ordination paper work. Here’s my first go at the Book of Discipline’s question “What is your understanding of evil as it exists in our world?”

Here is my answer to the question of evil in an academic mode: Evil is the contradiction of good. It exists as a negation. It is a parasite. It is the darkness that is only visible in the presence of light. In an ontological sense, as Augustine taught us, evil does not exist.

This is the beginning of my academic answer. It is my bookshelf answer. It is not one that feels in any way adequate, however. Where life is lived, evil is real. I read this week a story about a man who bludgeoned a 3-year-old girl to death because she had an accident in her pants. You cannot retreat behind the cool, dispassionate pose of the academic musing on the nature of evil when you read such a story. Augustine’s argument about the non-existence of evil shatters in the face of such stories.

Or does it?

Augustine argued that evil does not exist because he knew that God is good. This good God created everything, and all that God created is good. Evil cannot exist as a thing because God could not have created it. God only creates good. This goodness is the light by which the darkness of evil becomes visible. We are repulsed by the story of a 3-year-old girl being beaten to death because we recognize that the world is not meant to be a place where that happens. Even if we in unbelief cannot name that place as God’s will, the grace of God whispers to us of a world in which such horrors do not happen. Evil can only be known as evil because we know of that other world, the world as God intends it to be. Evil is the gap between the world as it is and the world as God created it to be.

This is a world we both long for and resist. We resist it because it is the world in which our own will matches the will of God. It is the world in which we say, as Jesus did, not my will be done, but yours. We resist this because we are very much in love with our own will.

If you have ever read John Milton’s Paradise Lost, you know the real problem of evil. The real problem of evil is not that it is repugnant, but that it is so seductive. In Milton’s poem, it is hard not to admire Satan for his driving will, his resolution, and his declaration that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. Here is Frank Sinatra belting out his defiant “I did it my way.” Here is Katy Perry singing “Roar.” Here is the serpent in the garden urging Eve to think for herself. Evil comes to us in the disguise of independence and self-respect. It urges us to set up a false god called “my own thing.”

Of course, the real seduction of evil is that it takes things that are good – critical thought, perseverance in times of trial, determination, personal gifts – and uses them to shake us free of the God who is the source of all good. These things in service of God’s will are blessings. It is the way of evil, though, to take what is good and detach it from God, corrupting it. The evil we experience in our lives comes when human beings reject God.