Sometimes it is helpful to put two different perspectives alongside one another to think more deeply about both. Below is a Message from a group identified as UMC Africa Initiative, dated 5 August 2016 and published through United Methodist News Service, and a Response by Wesley White (associated with Love Prevails but writing under his own recognizance). Little is known of UMC Africa Initiative other than their own claims. The email contact in their letter does not exist.
Over the past weeks we have been following the events and activities of the five jurisdictions of The United Methodist Church with mixed emotions and serious concerns about the future of our beloved church. We have read of actions taken by some in gross disobedience to the Bible and our Book of Discipline, and of others who have written to express their disagreements. We are deeply concerned. However, we are praying for God’s intervention as we discern God’s plans for the future of our church.
It is shockingly amazing that in the communication of “Love Prevails” to the Council of Bishops there was no mention of a specific reference to any passage of the Holy Scripture, our primary authority for doctrine, faith, and Christian living as the Church of Jesus Christ, to support any of its claims, arguments, and demands and justifications for the actions it has taken in recent times. This attitude and behavior has the propensity to embarrass, ridicule, and blur the message of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone has the power to save and transform society.
In light of the commitment we (African delegates to the 2016 General Conference) made to the request of the Council of Bishops by our support to have them set up a special Commission to inquire into all human sexuality issues contained in our Book of Discipline, many of us are deeply saddened by the actions of some of our brothers and sisters to attempt to derail the unity of global Methodism. Their actions to grossly disrespect our Bishops and disobey our global decision at the recent 2016 General Conference are incompatible with fostering unity within global Methodism.
Furthermore, their actions seem to confirm the fears of our founding father, John Wesley. About five years before his demise, John Wesley had expressed his fears about the future of our church in regards to its continued commitment and submission to the Scripture and discipline that govern us. He said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America [in Africa and the rest of the world]. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both to the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out”. When we abandon the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of some philosophies and ideologies of contemporary society, we cease to exist within God’s parameter of grace.
We are left to wonder, why are we not identified as Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, etc., but Christians? It is because every religious faith has a doctrine and a religious code of conduct that distinguishes it from all other religion. In the case of Christianity, it is the Bible, the Holy Word of God, as the Quran is for the Muslims. One’s religious identity is not found in the most appealing cultural or political system of the day, for that is fleeting. Loyalty, obedience, and submission to the teachings of these “divine writings” of the faith to which one belongs defines, distinguishes, and truly identifies adherents. One cannot claim to truly be a member of any of the world’s religions and live in gross disobedience to its teachings. (John 14:15; Psalm 119:9-11,105; 19:7-11). Let the church be the church; and let not the culture of the day define the global Christian community called United Methodist, but the Bible (Joshua 1:8; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
The Christian Church, bought and birthed with the blood of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:1-13; Matthew 27: 32-61; John 10:10-11; Hebrews 10:1-39) is not and cannot be a social club; it cannot be directed by any form of political activism that contradicts the teachings of Scripture. And it is not a social or political system based on humanism or secular ideologies and philosophies (2 John 2;15-16; Colossians 2: 8-15;1 Samuel 8) that seeks endorsement for a kind of “human rights” to the detriment of human existence as God our Creator has designed it. Instead, the Church of Jesus Christ is a global community redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, who lives in loving relationship with their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They are a people called out from the world and yet sent into the world (John 16:7-11; Acts 1:8; Genesis 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 28; Judges 2:10-13; 17:6) to share the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit in order that persons might come to faith in Christ and become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We cannot in any way be “bad news” by our decisions, actions, and attitudes, and yet attempt to proclaim the good news.
It is time to return to the faith of our fathers and mothers (the Holy Scriptures) and be the church. In spite all that is going on, there is hope for the continued growth and development of the Church of Jesus Christ because Jesus is still the LORD of His Church. We will remain committed and determined to live in loyalty and obedience to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, and to our Book of Discipline. We will also remain supportive of the unity of the global United Methodist Community as long as the Bible remains our primary authority for faith and Christian living. We shall remain loving of members of the UM Church who have chosen to tread the cultural path of contemporary society that is inimical to the teaching of Scripture, in the hope that we will reconcile our differences and submit to the Lordship of Christ. They are our brothers and sisters for whom Christ also gave his life. However, we shall not compromise our Christian faith on the altar of what seems to the minds of some to be “socially acceptable and politically correct” cultures and practices of contemporary society.
We are confident that God is in sovereign control of His Church. He promises to continually build it until He returns to receive us unto Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18b). We need to only be still, yet vigorously prayerful and discerning in such a time as this, and we will see the deliverance of the Lord.
We must admit that global United Methodist Church is at the crossroads (Jeremiah 6:16). We have choices to make. On one hand, we can choose to obey God and His word, and thereby repent of the sin of gross disobedience and abandon the quest to be like the rest of the world. On the other hand, we can choose to continue in pursuit of what the cultural practices of the day dictate that denies God’s sovereignty over God’s creation and accepts what feels good, what seems politically acceptable to society, etc. The choice is ours.
But as Joshua, at the close of his ministry in Shechem, said to all of the Israelites, and by implication to all United Methodist at the crossroads today, we wish to challenge all born-again believers in Jesus Christ (John 3:3-5), in the words of this great general of God’s people, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness…But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household (the UM Community in Africa, in particular, and all faithful Christians everywhere who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the undiluted Word of God for belief and practice), we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14-15). Together, we shall make it for God’s glory (Joshua 2:17-18; 2 Samuel 10:9-12). God has wonderful plans for the prosperity of His Church on earth (Jeremiah 29:11). Let us be firmed and very courageous in prayer and in discerning God’s will for the future of our church, always abounding in the Word of the Lord; for we know our labor in the Lord is not in vain (Joshua 1:4-6; 1 Corinthians 15:58). May God bless the people called United Methodist.
For His Glory,
Rev. Dr. Jerry P. Kulah, Central Conference Coordinator, UMC Africa Initiative
On behalf of the UMC Africa Initiative
Even though “God’s intervention” is prayed for, the stronger emphasis is upon our discernment of “God’s plans” which may be as flawed as previous discernments regarding race, gender, smoking, divorce, etc.
While appreciating the boldness of Love Prevails, it is of significance that the communication referenced was about a common decency of calling people by their preferred name. It does not seem appropriate to pull out scripture such as Matthew 5:22 to goad the Bishops into basic human decency of telling the truth about people by using the names they prefer. A relative lack of scripture is also found in John Wesley’s “Thoughts Upon Slavery” where, again, human compassion coming from a life of piety and mercy cannot be improved with scriptural references. Love of Neighbor does not need scriptural warrant.
It was not just African delegates who voted for a process now called, “A Way Forward”. The Bishop’s own comments about the special Commission puts church structure first and only deals with the code language of “human sexuality” as it forces a false unity on the church. Neither the Bishops nor UMC Africa Initiative name LGBTQ people as human beings. Not being able to talk about the real life of real LGBTQ lives means we can’t have real unity. A willingness to dismiss one part of the church or semi-divide the whole church over the lives of gay and lesbian United Methodists is where real disrespect lies.
It is important to do more than rely on the authority of quotable authorities. Major questions can be raised about any form of religion when the animating part of the quote is about power. When attention is paid to church history, even the short history of United Methodism and its predecessors, it is notable that we have had one teaching or doctrine after another. They do not live comfortably with one another. A “spirit” of movement has been replaced by structures of institution (including positions of privilege) and “discipline” is a way of living that can never be bound into a book.
An affirmation and limitation of “the clear teaching of Scripture” is not without its own philosophy and ideology. Always there is a tension between our desires, understandings, society, and grace. The most difficult of these to sustain is grace, which needs to be read back into “doctrine, spirit, and discipline”.
And it must be asked, “Are we Christians in more than name?” We might remember John Wesley’s sermon on “Scriptural Christianity” is not about proving, but showing, “Christianity; not as it implies a set of opinions, a system of doctrines [or “clear teachings”], but as it refers to [people’s] hearts and lives.” John confesses, “…we have never yet seen a Christian country upon earth” because we are yet lacking righteousness or justice and mercy.
Or if we turn to “The Character of a Methodist”, regardless of the culture, there is only United Methodist Connexion or Community. “Let us not always be fighting in the dark. Come, and let us look one another in the face. And perhaps some of you who hate what I am called, may love what I am by the grace of God.”
In these and other ways, John emphasizes his Anglican Arminian roots over the doctrines of Calvinistic Methodists1 in Colonial America and still expressed in this Message.
It is very difficult to stay out of traps of sequence and causality. Christ and Culture are continually clarifying one another. The accusation here is something called “political activism”. In this view, anything that does not agree with either my personal or my 51% or more majority view is automatically out to destroy 100% of my belief. This model only sees political activism as disorderly, not compassionate.
Here remember the activism of “Renewal” groups that set up an alternative mission society, women’s ministry, publishing house, and some would add seminary or African Initiative. This activism is blessed?
It is critical to not overlook the put-down found in the subtle language, “endorsement for a kind of ‘human rights’ to the detriment of human existence.” This is at the heart of the matter. Can love of neighbor be a “kind” of human rights that is detrimental to human existence? Simply substitute “love of neighbor” for “human rights” and it becomes clear that we are in the arena of idolizing the words of the Bible over the living of it. We are close enough to be in danger of throwing “love of neighbor” out of the Bible and of separating vital piety, that includes the Bible, from everyday lived mercy.
Read, again, “Scriptural Christianity” (based on Acts 4:21) to see that the early faith of our mothers and fathers was not the “Holy Scriptures” but relationships one person to another. John emphasizes that within these relationships, the Holy Spirit distributes many gifts to all for a more excellent purpose.
This kind of distributive unity is far different than a false uniformity. The unity of the Spirit is also different than the use of the word “unity” to cover the emptiness of only those with a “clear teaching” being able to define and deny the presence and gifts of others on the basis of one human identity characteristic or another.
An appreciation of gifts in others is not a compromise with what one understands their gifts to be. To mistake an individual for a whole or to claim a blessing for someone else can cancel every blessing I’ve ever had moves dangerously close to what can be described as sociopathic or narcissistic. Let us not mistake enforced unity for the diverse, profligate, distribution of spiritual presence to “all” (Acts 4:21).
Talking about “the deliverance of the Lord” makes it sound like End Times are already with us. This raises the stakes to “ultimate” and it is very difficult to make wise decisions when a whole web of relationships depends on one decision. As one who believes Love Prevails, this is difficult rhetoric to have as part of a creative Way Forward.
It is accurate that The United Methodist Church and each of us have choices to make. Ever has it been so. The choice here seems to be drawing a very small circle of saved individuals to the inside of a castle and leaving the unsaved on the outside. There is not a drawbridge in this picture.
An outsider might be able to convincingly talk the right talk to be lifted over the wall. Those from the inside who are discovered to fall short of a current law and who can no longer be closeted, can always be thrown from the wall. Surely there is a better choice.
In the end, it turns out there is no real choice available through this Message from UMC Africa Initiative. The bottom line is, “Believe the Bible and United Methodist traditions as I have come to believe them.”
To have a vision that takes the way of loving G*D and Neighb*r (* means these cannot be defined in a single way as there is always more to be learned about both) as seriously as our current great mission to disciple and transform would help broaden and temper needed temporal decisions. We are still not deciding once for all — remember the schism we had over slavery, our segregated reunion, and how when our official racial segregation was ended we immediately instituted an “incompatibility” clause against a new group, gays and lesbians. If we split again or have segregated conferences or come up with a third hurtful thing to do to ourself and others, it is helpful to remember that we are not the measure of goodness, faithfulness, or clear teaching.
Let’s presume G*D continues to bless. The question is whether we will bless or curse those deemed, a priori, outside our salvation track.
Mercy and Joy abound
and more to pass around
[Additional side-by-side responses to writings from Good News, Confessing Movement, IRD and others are available here.]