“Staying” or “Beginning”?

I’m intrigued by something Father Richard Rohr wrote in his The Wisdom Pattern: Order-Disorder-Reorder.

“It seems to me we must begin conservatively—with clear boundaries, identity, and a sense of respect for our reality. Then, and only then, can we move out from that strong center, according to our education and experience.” (p. 61)

The trick, it seems, is to respect the word he italicized: begin.

I became a born-again Christian in my teen years. Firmly entrenched in the literal interpretation of the Bible, the substitutional-atonement doctrine, and the five spiritual laws you must share with others to keep them from hell.

In other words, when I was saved, my journey began, and ended, on the fundamentals of the faith. No need to question or redefine them, just protect them from secular humanism. Above all, defend the Bible and its literal inerrancy at all costs.

Of course, after a while, all this became oppressive. Encountering a grey world and trying to hammer all the amorphous pieces into rigid black-and-white squares grew exhausting.

It took a while for me to see that bringing “education and experience” into dialogue with faith began a more authentic journey. The new ideas you encounter, the people you meet, the experiences you have: bringing all of these to bear on those faith beginnings actually served to broaden them, not threaten or weaken them.

Regardless of whether you’re traditional-leaning or progressive-leaning, beginning a long journey of seeking and sometimes questioning is the baseline. It doesn’t matter where you may ultimately end up on the conservative-moderate-progressive spectrum. What matters is that you embark upon a trip that leads to greater humility, honesty, and openness.  

As Adam Grant wrote in his book Think Again, such a journey means we must “unlearn” some things that once served us well. To honor our minds and hearts, we have to anchor ourselves in “flexibility rather than consistency.” For me, that meant I had to unlearn a rigid view of Scriptural inspiration to appreciate a more dynamic one.

The Old and New Jerusalem Councils

Isn’t such “thinking again” modeled for us in Acts 15? At the Jerusalem Council, if those early church leaders hadn’t used their education and experience to interpret Scripture in the light of Jesus, we’d still be demanding circumcision as well as a boycott of Red Lobster. Their openness ultimately enabled them to see Macedonians in their dreams, inviting proclamation of the gospel in fresh ways.

Similarly, fast-forwarding 2000 years, can we see the issue of LGBTQIA inclusion as a new leg of our expanding faith expedition?

Frankly, when I read some articles by United Methodists advocating for separating from those who favor inclusion, I don’t see a model faithful to Acts. The writers seem to be working on the assumption that there’s only one way to view those faith fundamentals. Hence, dialoguing with progressives/centrists would be useless, especially since they view them as having abandoned the primacy of God’s Word to the treacherous waters of cultural accommodation. (This seems eerily similar to what the old Pharisee-Christians felt Peter and Paul were doing to the primacy of Mosaic law.)

When the Jerusalem Council in Acts made their pro-Gentile decision, some of those conservative Jewish Christians probably left. Hopefully, though, more remained. While they disagreed with the decision, their education and experience had humbled and opened them. They would leave the judging up to God and if they were to err, they would err on the side of the grace they saw embodied in Jesus. They would continue being in fellowship with radicals like Peter and Paul, even though they saw things differently.

It’s not dishonoring but honoring, not abandoning but affirming, our faith roots by asking questions before stating answers and taking positions. Indeed, one of the best ways to move out from our strong center is striving for real honesty and humility. In Father Rohr’s words, it moves us toward “nuance, compassion, exception, patience, tolerance, and wisdom.” (p. 62)

I’m afraid that 2,000 years of church history inform us that there will be a split in our denomination. The human need for certainty and security pretty much assures that. It’s more comfortable to “stay” than to “begin.” In the long run, though, it might get us back to that risk-taking imperative nestled in our Methodist roots.

“If your heart is like my heart, give me your hand.”

5 thoughts on ““Staying” or “Beginning”?”

  1. I recall John Wesley making a similar “journey” in his spiritual life. He finally returned to the root of his faith at a meeting in London on Aldersgate Street, where he reclaimed the reality of his redemption by the blood of Jesus. I hope your faith journey leads you home, brother Greg.

  2. Greg,

    I am an elder in the North Carolina Conference. A member of my church asked me to consider your article. Following is the greater part of my response:

    Thanks for sharing this article with me. I had not previously read it, and I agree that it is interesting. I did not, however, find that the author made a convincing case, primarily because the passage of Scripture he cited (Acts 15) does not actually support his position.

    The issue that the Jerusalem Council addressed in Acts 15 was the insistence by some Jewish Christians that Gentile converts to the faith must be circumcised in order to be saved. It is important to note that this was in the very early days of Christianity (within the first twenty years after our Lord’s resurrection), when the new Church was still trying to figure out just what this new covenant that Christ established was all about. In other words, Christian doctrine was still being worked out. It is not surprising that some Jewish Christians would have expected compliance with something so foundational to their identity and their history as the requirement for circumcision. However, the new Church was growing to understand that salvation is based not on works or ritual practices, but rather “that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:11).

    In short, the issue being debated was one of doctrine (specifically soteriology, or what saves us) and not of morality. In its response to this situation, the Jerusalem Council determined, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit (see verse 28), to remove the obligation of circumcimcision from the Gentiles, but to insist that the Gentile converts abstain from sexual immorality (among other things). Their decision and its implications were two-fold: they held that the Gentiles were not bound by the ritual laws of the Old Testament, but that Christians are nevertheless expected to maintain a high standard of morality. A note in my study Bible regarding the decision of the Jerusalem Council states, “This reaffirmation of the believer’s need to maintain sexual purity … serves as a reminder that the moral standards of the Old Testament still need to be obeyed.” In other words, just because we are saved by grace and we no longer need to obey the ritual laws does not mean that sin is permissible and we can forget about the moral laws.

    It was a nice effort by the author of the article, but I am somewhat surprised he would have used Acts 15 as the foundation of his argument for LGBTQ+ “inclusion,” given that the Jerusalem Council very specifically forbade sexual immorality, and the Bible elsewhere (in several places) condemns homosexual practice as being immoral.

    As a bit of an aside, the reason I put quotes around the word “inclusion” in the previous sentence is that I believe it is a false narrative to say that the issue facing our denomination is whether to include or exclude people who identify as LGBTQ+. It is rather about whether to celebrate homosexual practice or not. There have always been same-sex attracted people in the church, as there have always been sinners of every sort in the church (in fact there has never been a non-sinner in the church!). Only in recent years has there been a push by progressives to celebrate the sin of homosexual practice by conducting same sex marriages (rejecting 2000 years of established Christian teaching that marriage is between a man and a woman) and placing avowed practicing homosexual persons in the pulpit.

    There ends my response. I welcome your comments.

    David King

    • Hi, David—

      I appreciate you taking the time and effort to pen such a response. Your thorough reflections prompt me to ask myself, “Why do I believe what I believe?” That’s a recurring question for me.

      Underlying our differences, certainly, is the different way we understand biblical inspiration and interpretation. The dialogue between Tom Lambrecht and Adam Hamilton in the 2/12/21 issue of UM Insight pretty well lays that out, and there’s no sense rehashing it.

      I do want to respond to a couple of things you bring up.

      One, I think the Jerusalem Council is an event that’s relevant for us today.

      It’s certainly true that the doctrinal issue of the nature of salvation underlay the meeting. However, it’s not just about doctrine. What led up to the Council, in Acts 10-11, makes that clear.

      The Gentiles weren’t just viewed as misguided. They were “unclean” to the point that Jews must not have fellowship with them for fear of being tainted themselves. It didn’t matter if they were God-fearing Gentiles, like Cornelius, or not: all were in a category similar to the unclean animals in Peter’s dream. His ultimate revelation, “I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another” (Acts 10:34), breaks down such a cruel barrier.

      Note, though, that when Peter made his speech to the Pharisee-Christians in Acts 11, he omitted that revelation. I believe he knew that, since they held so passionately to the separate-and-unequal way of relating to the Gentiles, it would only inflame them. Rather, he concluded with the more indirect, “Could I stand in God’s way?” (11:17)

      If it were just about doctrine, then the Jewish Christians would have accepted Peter’s speech and there never would have been a Jerusalem Council. People hold onto their beliefs for a number of reasons other than logic or consistency.

      The Pharisee-Christians brought up the Gentile question again, connecting it this time to Mosaic law. They conveyed it so forcefully in a preaching mission that it set off a vicious feud with Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:2). Ultimately Paul would call them “false brothers and sisters” (Gal 2:4).

      I believe their anger came from the threat they felt with the scandal of salvation being truly based on grace. The flip side of a thousand years of prejudice against Gentiles is what you gain from it: security, identity, and a feeling of superiority. They didn’t want to give that up.

      I don’t want to draw an iron-clad connection between these Pharisee Christians and the more vocal opponents of excluding gays from equal rights in church today. I’m in no position to judge, and there are certainly other issues involved as well. I just want to point out that for all of us, traditionalist as well as progressive, we are drawn to beliefs that justify what we may already assume is right in our hearts. Our growth in faith depends on us continually coming to terms with that, honestly and humbly.

      A second point concerns morality.

      I certainly agree that Christians are to uphold a high standard of morality, but who defines that? This gets into the “Which things in the Old Testament do we think applies today, and which don’t?” How do we differentiate between the various types of laws, and by what standards? I think the phrase “moral standards of the Old Testament” can lead to a lot of disagreement along with contradictions.

      I believe we need to base our high standard of morality on how well we love God with all our heart and reflect that in loving our neighbor as ourselves. Lest that get too generic and sappy-sounding, I also believe this is shaped by the Sermon on the Mount, which should guide our morality as well as piety. Reading the Old Testament through that filter gives me an interpretation guide.

      One note: In my 40+ years of ministry, I’ve been privileged to work with as well as pastor many LGBTQ persons. I see them aspiring to hold the same high moral standards that any other Christians should. I’m especially inspired by gay couples who have been in committed, monogamous relationships for decades. It’s not by virtue of a dream, but from decades of experience and reflection, that I can affirm with Peter that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.

      Such are my couple of reflections, and I didn’t mean to get quite so involved. One thing leads to another, it seems. Regardless of differences, I hope we still may seek unity in trying to faithfully follow the call of Christ as we discern it.

      I would welcome further dialogue if you’d like. My email, off the link on my website, may be the easiest going forward.


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