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An Evangelical Perspective on the Current Issues Facing the United Methodist Church

Dr. Rodney J. Buchanan

Kurt Vonnegut Jr., in his book Cat’s Cradle, rewrites the story of Genesis 1:

“In the beginning God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.  And God said, ‘Let Us make creatures out of mud, so mud can see what We have done.’  And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man.  Mud, as man, alone could speak.  God leaned close, as mud as man sat up, looked around and spoke. Man blinked.  ‘What is the purpose of all this?’ he asked politely. ‘Everything must have a purpose?’ asked God.   ‘Certainly,’ said man. ‘Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,’ said God.  And he went away.”

Vonnegut’s parody captures the dilemma facing us today.  The issues which divide us are not the ones which get the most press, rather they are the issues raised in the retelling of the biblical record, and the doubt it raises about a personal God who is able to communicate with us effectively and accurately in Scripture.  At issue, even beyond that, is whether truth is indeed knowable.  Objective reasoning has given way to glandular thinking.  It appears that it is no longer important whether or not there is objective truth to which we can refer, but how we feel about the rightness or wrongness of certain moral behaviors.  As with Vonnegut’s mud-man, meaning and morality are whatever we decide they should be.  God leaves it all up to us as he departs to attend other matters.

The progression of thought among many in the church is, first, a loss of confidence in the historic faith and the Scripture behind it, then a commitment to radical pluralism, and ultimately an openness to syncretism.  We have searched for common ground among divergent worldviews and theologies, become open to their systems and ultimately embraced them so that we now have a composite religion.  But those who hold to the historic, orthodox position of what C.S. Lewis has called “Classical Christianity,” believe that not all stories/worldviews/theologies are equally valid.  When we speak, we are not just giving personal opinion, or interpretation, but reflecting the historic position of the collective church for generations, and thousands of years.  The more recent systems of morality and ways of viewing the world have arisen from the subjectivism of the current politic.  Suddenly we believe that we understand things in a way that Christians for two thousand years were not able to see.  It is cultural arrogance.

Joy Davidman, in Smoke on the Mountain, writes,

“We see that many articulate secularists are well-meaning and law-abiding men; we see them go into righteous indignation over injustice and often devote their lives to good works.  So we conclude that ‘he can’t be wrong whose life is in the right’ — that their philosophies are just as good guides to action as Christianity.  What we don’t see is that they are not acting on their philosophies.  They are acting, out of habit or sentiment, on an inherited Christian ethic which they still take for granted though they have rejected the creed from which it sprang.  Their children will inherit somewhat less of it.”

Again, the question is whether we have a revealed religion which has come to us through authoritative Scripture, or whether we have a subjective, collaborative, consensual ethic.   The conflicts arising over the acceptableness of homosexual practice are only symptoms of this larger issue.  Also at issue, for us as United Methodists, is whether we will continue to be a connectional system, or whether every pastor will simply do whatever seems best to her/him.  Do we have an authoritative Book of Discipline, or will we continue to ignore those who disregard and demean its clear intent?

If homosexuality, which was once regarded as deviant behavior, is now not only seen as acceptable, but good, then we have lost our ethic. If we have lost our ethic, and the authority of Scripture, then we can no longer delude ourselves into thinking we are still in the mainstream of historic, orthodox Christianity.  If our ethic has lost its transcendent base and has now declined to the subjective level of consensual morality; if we have lost a universal, divine Savior and the accompanying universal standard of morality and decency, then we are subsequently bereft of the benefits of the faith “once delivered to the saints.”  It has become a gutted Christianity which is Christian in name only.

If God is indeed evolving, and therefore his will and word are evolving as well, as the process theologians would have us believe, then actually this God is a product of our imagination — the collective will of society.  If our morality is nothing more than an ambiguous niceness, or a call to be loving toward others without any specifics, then it has no substantive value.

So what we are faced with is the core of our faith — whether this is indeed a revealed religion from a transcendent, holy God who holds us accountable, or merely something we make up as we go along.  Our calling is to reach a culture in crisis, and to do so we must present a relevant Gospel, but the way to do that is to change our methods not our message. It is important that the church has become more open and accepting of homosexual persons, but which is more compassionate: to say that persons of homosexual orientation cannot be any different and must therefore continue to live out the impulses which drive them, or to introduce them to the power of God which is able to control and even change our natural inclinations?  It is precisely because we love homosexual persons, as we do all people, that we offer them hope.  The steep decline in our membership should be dramatic proof that we have lost our message of supernatural grace.  The message of the Gospel has been changing lives for thousands of years among every race, tribe and culture.  Our concern is not so much whether our culture will find our God relevant, but whether our God will find our culture acceptable.   Those given the responsibility of holding the light are especially accountable.

Franz Kafka tells the story of “The Watchman” in his Parables and Paradoxes:

“I ran past the first watchman.  Then I was horrified, ran back again and said to the watchman: ‘I ran through here while you were looking the other way.’   The watchman gazed ahead of him and said nothing. ‘I suppose I really oughtn’t to have done it,’ I said.  The watchman still said nothing.   ‘Does your silence indicate permission to pass?’”

“‘Watchman, what is left of the night?   Watchman, what is left of the night?’  The watchman replies, ‘Morning is coming, but also the night.  If you would ask, then ask; and come back yet again’” (Isaiah 21:11-12).

Dr. Rodney J. Buchanan
Mulberry St. United Methodist Church
205 N. Mulberry St.
Mt. Vernon, OH 43050
Voice: 740-393-2576
Fax: 740-392-4846

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