II Corinthians 5:17-20
Of course, the history of Christian faith reveals that they have changed.
We ordain women. We have outlawed slavery. We have outlawed segregation. We oppose racism and sexism (at least that’s what we say). We don’t burn witches or heretics. Our previous exclusions, rejections, persecutions, and oppressions all claimed doctrinal and scriptural support.
But as the great abolitionist hymn writer and poet, James Russell Lowell wrote:
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.
Looking back, we know that all of those things were wrong and it seems clear to us now that we can draw a straight line from the biblical witness and the teachings of Jesus to our present understandings. We should have known all along that those things were wrong. But we didn’t. We thought and believed differently. In each instance, those who advocated for more justice and equality were met with the argument that in one way or another the particular injustice under attack was actually sanctioned by God.
Scott Fritzsche’s complaint is that those who support the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons within the United Methodist Church, particularly those who have officiated at same sex weddings, have been disobedient to the doctrines and policies of the church and that such disobedience is the result of unbelief. Because we are a connectional church, he asserts, all of us are affected by this.
“What one does affects us all,” he writes. “What happens to one affects the other. When disobedience is allowed to occur, I am complicit with it, whether I like it or not.”
He goes on to argue that, “You in leadership, especially those who happen to be Bishops, have failed me greatly. The episcopal leadership of the church should be a sacred trust and a holy calling. You who are to safeguard the church have instead chosen to allow it to be torn asunder. You have allowed the disobedience to grow to such a level that it is now an epidemic in some regions.”
And I agree with him that the unfaithfulness is epidemic in some parts of the church.
What we disagree about is the nature and source of that disobedience. Those who advocate a more inclusive church are not the ones being unfaithful. On the contrary, it is those who are opposing and obstructing the full inclusion of LGBTQ Christians within the United Methodist Church who are being unfaithful to the Gospel and to the teachings of Jesus.
Those who favor exclusion believe they are doing what is right. They do not intend to be unfaithful. We should not question their intentions, but good intentions are not enough.
Doctrines and policies come and go. In a few years, we will change our Book of Discipline to be more inclusive. I hope we will do it next spring at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon. Some think it will not happen before 2020 or 2024. But it will happen.
John Wesley and Martin Luther and John Calvin were criticized for violating the doctrines and policies of their time. They were each charged with disobedience.
The Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, Reformed Judaism and Conservative Judaism have all become inclusive. They have all changed, and so will we. But change never happens unless some people move ahead. It may appear at first to be disobedience, but when we look back we will call it leadership. And we will call it faithfulness.
Our faith is always growing and changing and evolving. Change is the only constant over more than three millennia of Judeo Christian history. As William James wrote a century ago, “We have to live today by what truth we can get today and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”
That is an unsettling thought, but it is true.