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By Byron Bufkin
The first part of this article examined support for the protocol of separation being considered by the United Methodist Church as an extension of Christian love and ministry. Christ humbled Himself and taught by word and deed to turn the other cheek, to love our enemies, and to show our love by being faithful to His teachings (John 14:23, “Jesus replied, ‘Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’”). If we are so committed to the testimony of a traditional understanding of Scripture that we are willing to see the church split, then we must move beyond our insistence on keeping the title of “United Methodist.” Quite frankly, we also need to be willing to relinquish our “rights” as we move through this process.
Even in the midst of our own pain as we struggle with grief over a splitting church, we are nonetheless called to continue ministering the love, grace, and reconciliation of Jesus Christ for all sinners. That includes those we disagree with about the nature of His ministry, as well as those who reject Christ’s work of atonement and hate us. Peter would explain that these efforts are the very basis of Christ’s ministry of redemption: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
Friends, even in the midst of ecclesial schism, we must be on guard to never let the perception of our rights interfere with proclaiming the love of Christ. Paul addresses the nature of “rights” in his first letter to the church in Corinth. His warning in chapter 8 is remarkably salient to our situation even though he’s discussing eating food sacrificed to idols:
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak… So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. (1 Cor. 8:9-12)
Paul will go on to give an illustration from his own life. In chapter 9, he explains the reason why he refused to exercise his right for financial support through preaching while in Corinth: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23).
We must have this same attitude. Toward that end, we do not support the protocol for separation because we hate the LGBTQIA+ community. In fact, I have yet to encounter a colleague who does not openly speak about reaching all people for Christ regardless of their sin – of the need to show righteous love, not self-righteous judgment. The vast majority of conservatives and Traditionalists with whom I come into contact have nothing but hope that the progressive branch of this split will be blessed in their ministry. Yet just as Paul and Barnabas came into sharp dispute that sent them in different directions, we in the UMC have different and contradicting values that require a change. The greatest challenge facing us is not administrative hurdles or Parliamentary hoops, but living out the full witness of Scripture that we claim to follow.
Many denominational leaders on both sides of our current situation have mourned the negative impact our disagreement has had on our respective ministries. Perhaps our greatest hope in an amicable separation is that we can release each other to pursue our understanding of God’s love to the fullest extent. But shouldn’t we be doing that already?
Traditionalists, it’s time to get our heads out of the sand. And make no mistake, for decades – across the span of multiple generations – we have tended to ignore the issues of human sexuality our culture has embraced, as well as the direction of our denomination. We have hoped that the problems would just go away, and that our inter-denominational disputes would resolve themselves without requiring us to stand up or speak out.
Much like Moses explained to the people of Israel before they committed themselves to following God’s law (Exodus 19:3-8), we have a choice. We can persist in doing things our way by continuing to fight for our perceived rights and what we think is fair. Make no mistake, this battle will be bloody with many casualties on every side. Again, the Special Session of the General Conference in 2019 proved that. Alternatively, we can live the faith we claim by humbling ourselves before God. There is certainly still a battle to be waged, but we need to be engaged in action where our Lord directs us.
Are the provisions within the protocol for separation fair, just, and equal? To be perfectly blunt, it shouldn’t matter. Our enemy is not the LGBTQIA+ community, Progressives, or Centrists. Paul’s exhortation to the Ephesians is clear and concise on where the battle truly takes place:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:12)
Of greater importance than having our rights respected or insisting on getting our way is to give ourselves completely to the will of God by living our faith in a self-sacrificing Savior.
Let us therefore engage in this disagreement standing on the instruction of Christ. Instead of arguing over earthly factors, may we instead seek a heart for our Lord and a mind for His kingdom. In so doing, “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).