Let’s stay together

Bud Reeves

(…with apologies to the Rev. Al Green)

By William O. “Bud” Reeves
Special Contributor

We were privileged recently at First United Methodist Church Fort Smith to have a visit from Bishop Ken Carter of Florida. 

Bishop Carter and I attended seminary together, and he came to share a weekend of spiritual renewal at the church. But a great deal of interest was generated by his position as one of the conveners of the Commission on a Way Forward, the group that is devising a plan for the future of our denomination, despite conflicting views on homosexuality. At a Monday morning coffee, Bishop Carter spoke candidly about the commission and the issues around it to a group of Northwest District clergy and laity.

The most important aspect of the discussion was for us to see a real live human being who is involved in this crucial process. What we saw was a calm, wise, personable, humble leader who nevertheless had a firm grasp of the complexity of the issues facing the church. He assured us that with all the diverse opinions on the commission, nobody wants to do harm to the church or to each other. We all came away with our anxiety level considerably lower.

Bishop Carter offered six reasons he thought the denomination should avoid splitting (as has been consistently rumored of late):

  1. God desires unity among God’s people. (See John 17:11 and Galatians 3:28.)
  2. We believe in the doctrine of progressive grace. Every person is a child of God, endowed with sacred worth, justified by faith in Christ and on a journey of sanctification. There is disagreement about what sanctification looks like. Can an LGBTQ person be on a journey to holiness? Yes.
  3. We already have LGBTQ persons in our churches—“they” are “us.” We need to live in love and harmony with our brothers and sisters in faith.
  4. The United Methodist Church has a tremendous global mission. United, we do too much good together to diminish our mission by fragmentation.
  5. The next generation of the church wants unity. For most younger people (under 40), sexuality is not a deal-breaker. Even if they don’t agree with homosexuality, they live with its acceptance daily.
  6. The institutional piece is not insignificant. The United Methodist Church has billions of dollars in assets, from the pension fund to colleges and hospitals, not to mention all the local church property which is held in trust for the denomination. Do we really want to spend untold resources dividing, untangling and litigating for years at the expense of our real mission?

As intractable as the issue of homosexuality has been, there is hope. There may be new definitions of unity that will allow us to disagree on some important issues (oh yeah, there’s also abortion, war, capital punishment, climate change and politics!) while still being united in our mission and resources for building the Kingdom.

Human sexuality includes a multitude of important issues. But none of them are the main thing or the central purpose of either the church or the disciple. We are here (as Bishop Mueller has taught us) to make disciples of Jesus Christ who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world. Homosexuality is not a problem to be fixed; it is a reality to be addressed with the best our church and our faith have to offer.

Over the years our best attempts to discern the mind of God have yielded a spectrum of options, and faithful United Methodists—yes, Wesleyan Christians—have found themselves with differing opinions. What has been hard to admit is that we could all be wrong, at least in part. If so, we should err on the side of grace. Jesus had much to say about those who were too judgmental, but I don’t recall him ever criticizing someone for being too gracious or merciful. I don’t think Jesus will be mad if we extend the hand of grace to those with whom we disagree. We won’t be more gracious than he is.

The United Methodist Church has been called the most American of all denominations. Democracy runs in our structures, and the American dream is in our DNA. In the 1840s, as the largest Protestant body in this new nation, we gave the country an example of how to deal with slavery that was replicated with carnage in the Civil War. Now, as much more of a minority report, we have the opportunity once again to give the nation a model for how to deal with issues that are important yet divisive. The legislative approach has not worked. We need to find a better way forward.

For the sake of the mission, for the sake of the Wesleyan witness to a lost and broken world, for the sake of our churches, and for the sake of disciples yet to be made, we need to find a way to stay together.

The Rev. Dr. Reeves serves as senior pastor of First UMC Fort Smith. Email: breeves@arumc.org.