Much noise is being made in The United Methodist Church (UMC) about divergent views on human sexuality. Political strategies and aggressive campaigns have been designed and employed to win sympathy and votes in favor of a variety of opinions on the topic. The resulting cacophony has become so loud and shrill that it is increasingly difficult for church members and observers to associate The UMC with anything other than internecine feuds about sex.
At a time like this we would do well to revisit the Wesleyan heritage to look for clues to a productive, spiritually healthy way to advocate for the things we believe in and, hopefully, to move into the future as if it were held and blessed by the triune God we profess in our creeds. The good news is that, in this heritage, we may find both theological and practical resources to help us. We turn first to the theological.
In the Wesleyan heritage of which United Methodism is a historical part, theology, social views, politics, and corresponding actions properly originate in and flow from the core doctrines of the church. United Methodist Christians of orthodox faith have long agreed that these basic, constitutionally protected doctrines have been informed and shaped by the biblical witness to Jesus Christ. If the church wants to have theological integrity, these doctrines must inform the faith and exercise of our worship and life together.
More specifically, in United Methodism true to its orthodox, doctrinal heritage, social and political advocacy is a theological and practical implication of the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification. This is because, following the new birth, the Holy Spirit continues to work by God’s grace in the hearts and lives of the faithful to cultivate holiness and its fruits. Sanctification is equated with holiness or Christian perfection, that is, the pure love of God dwelling and growing within the redeemed.
This being the case, what are the implications of the doctrine of sanctification for United Methodism’s sex wars? How might such implications apply to social advocacy for anything else, for that matter?
John Wesley was fond of explaining something by ruling out first what it is not. If we accept that holy advocacy is an outcome of God’s pure love working in and through the followers of Jesus to bless others and ourselves and, if we follow Wesley’s pattern above, we may quickly identify some prime examples from recent UMC history of what holy advocacy is not.
Even a rudimentary understanding of a Wesleyan view of sanctification should convince us that holy advocacy for a particular point of view will not involve name-calling, intimidation, mocking, or belittling the faith of those with whom one disagrees. Nor will holy advocacy impair or inhibit other valid ministries of the church by pushing its own agenda first and foremost, if not exclusively. Holy advocacy in a Wesleyan spirit will not presume to consume the “widow’s mites” of the church by spending or wasting otherwise dedicated resources in order to draw attention to its own purposes and to advance its own plan. Holy advocacy depends not on the cunning or conniving of men and women, but on a God of wisdom and awesome power guiding our path and leading the way for us to walk in it. Holy advocacy will be careful not to short-circuit the Holy Spirit’s capacity to provide its full fruit in due season, an abundant harvest of godly change in and among hearts, lives, communities, and nations. Holy advocacy is not imperialistic, forcing its way into lives and communities that, for whatever reason, emphatically object to it.
If not the above, then what does holy advocacy look like? How would one recognize holy advocacy from a Wesleyan perspective if one saw it? Surely in every case holy advocacy would be steeped in humble prayer and it would rest heavily on a deep, spiritual, and doctrinal base with faith in the triune God at the center.
Every United Methodist seminarian preparing for ordination is required to learn, among other things, that sanctification is what the Holy Spirit does in us to change us to become more Christ-like. Sanctification is as much a gift of God’s grace as is the justification that initiates the Christian into the new birth and Christian community. If this is the case, should not the implications of our sanctification, including our advocacy for anything, look, sound, and feel Christ-like?
If Jesus disagreed with me on my social view and wanted me to adopt a different position, how would he respond? Would he engage in “end justifies means” tactics to pressure or force me to come around to his position? Would he separate himself and stand aloof from me or expel me from the community? Would he intimidate, ridicule, mock, or otherwise abuse me?
Of course he wouldn’t. The Jesus of orthodox Christian faith would rather die (and he did) than treat members of the household of faith with anything less than love. In so doing, he set the pattern and provided the power for us all to go and do likewise. My own aspiration for holy advocacy, then, should mirror God’s consistent, persistent love shown to me in Jesus Christ, notwithstanding the advantages and limitations of my own views or my particular denomination’s particular teachings, structure, and polity.
This brings us to some practical resources in our United Methodist heritage that we may employ as means of God’s grace in getting through the present chaos to a redemptive future. These resources are based in our orthodox, United Methodist doctrine, and in the polity and governance structure that are somewhat unique to the Wesleyan and Methodist heritage.
First and foremost, we have at our disposal all the means of God’s grace that have always been available to believers: prayer, Christian conversation, the Sacraments, fasting, searching the Scriptures, worship, and more. The practical resources for holy advocacy are abundant. These include the structures of United Methodist polity and governance that were designed to further the ministry and mission of the church. These structures were intended to allow change when appropriate in things nonessential to the faith while protecting and preserving the denomination’s core doctrines and definitive ecclesiastical practices.
What is distinctive about United Methodist polity and governance that must be considered in the interest of holy advocacy? Let us begin, once more, by describing what United Methodist polity and governance are not. They are not the same as Roman Catholic, Congregationalist, Baptist Fundamentalist, Anglican, or Lutheran.
Roman Catholics have a pope to pontificate, yes, imperialistically, over the denomination’s official position on social matters. Congregationalists (independent churches) take a vote to decide things on a congregational basis. Fundamentalists of various stripes (including many Baptists) rely on selective literal biblicist interpretations as determinative for their own respective judicatory. Some Anglicans, Lutherans, and others discern social questions in regional or continental contexts. United Methodists, by comparison, long ago agreed to define, defend, and/or change our official, denominational social positions and principles on the basis of General Conference vote. In the USA, with its cafeteria-style freedom of religion, any member objecting to a particular aspect of United Methodism or his or her own denomination is free either to use the provisions of the respective polity to try to change the denomination, or to leave it and take their preferences elsewhere.
Deciding things as important as social issues that affect people’s lives by General Conference vote has always meant that United Methodists (and those in our predecessor denominations) have had to live with differences of opinion, disappointment, and abundant, sanctifying grace to labor faithfully in ministry together despite personal, social, and political disagreements. Historically, we have had to do our best, God helping us, to continue to love, respect, and work alongside others in a denomination in which toleration of different opinions was fully expected, except when it came to the core doctrines of the church. United Methodist polity rests on an assumption not that there will be winners and losers in a vote, but that even when a vote does not go our way, God’s grace will equip us to exercise holy respect and tolerance for differences, even while we continue to work together for the larger mission of the denomination.
It is a distinctive strength of United Methodism and its predecessor denominations that doctrinally, theologically, and practically we are passionately invested with a social and theological conscience that has its roots in the love of God for all humanity. However, it has never been the case that The UMC or its predecessor denominations have all been in agreement, let alone correct, on all our social views throughout history. This is a humbling, historical fact that should be well taken by all United Methodists. American Methodism flatly precluded this possibility, if it ever was one, when within its first year of existence the Methodist Episcopal Church rejected Wesley’s prohibition against slavery and enacted a form of polity that would put this and other critically important social matters to vote among persons with a variety of opinions and interests.
If allowed to proceed unchecked, the sex wars in American Methodism will continue to undermine the wellbeing of members, communities, and the witness and mission of The UMC in the world. Vitriol, disorderly conduct, ecclesiastical defiance, and separatist and schismatic leanings present an image of the church and of the triune God that are foreign to authentic Wesleyan doctrine and practice. At a time like this, United Methodists would do well to recommit ourselves to the gifts of prayer and sanctifying grace for holiness of our hearts, lives, and work together. God is still God, faithful to lead us through this challenging season. The given means of God’s grace and advocacy for what is holy can turn around a broken, bleeding church any time with much better results than any alternative.