a bit monkish.
Being united doesn’t mean we’re always in agreement. Unity is nothing more than a coalescence of ideals and purpose. The United States of America, for example, is united, but its citizens are certainly not of one mind. We disagree, sometimes over important issues, but in the end we have a greater good in mind: The preservation of the republic. I'm in unity with my fellow Chicago Cubs fans, but we don't always agree on the best winning strategy.
From voices across The United Methodist Church, we hear talk of unity and disunity, and whether or not we can continue to live under the same ecclesial roof. The primary, contentious issue has to do with human sexuality. But human sexuality is a surface-level issue representing deeper matters, such as of the natures of God, humanity, and Scripture.
Why does The United Methodist Church exist? The Book of Discipline states our purpose is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Yet when we look at the statistics of the denomination, we’re losing disciples, not making them - at least in North America. The Central Conferences are making disciples at an exciting rate while it seems that many United Methodists in North America seek to transform the world through facility expansions, saving the environment, and personal fulfillment.
I like to describe myself as an optimistic realist. I have great hopes for the people called Methodist. However, until we can find theological unity in our disagreements, we’re going to remain shackled by issues that divide us. And while those of us in North America bicker over matters that are clear in Scripture and 2000 years of church history, our African United Methodist sisters and brothers are transforming their cultures, one new disciple after another. They might disagree on discipleship methods from time to time, but they’re unified in the task of making those disciples. Just like Jesus (and the Book of Discipline) tell us to do.
Perhaps the formation of The United Methodist Church 48 years ago was a great theological experiment: Can Christians with conflicting theological views live in unity? The answer is 'yes' if everyone abides by the same covenantal framework. However, once the breaking of covenant is seen as courageous and noble, all that's left is chaos, especially when the covenant breakers are the very ones who are supposed to be leading us.
What used to unite us was our covenant to live together in theological tension, even if our personal views didn't always align with official church teachings or policies. Without faithfulness to our United Methodist covenant, we're no different from the people in the book of Judges, who did whatever seemed right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6). And we know how well that turned out for them.
(c) 2016 Michael C. Voigts
This week, Danville Centenary UMC is hosting Camp in the City, a ministry of Pine Cove Camps in Tyler, TX. Camp in the City brings a Christian camp to a local church, transforming the church into a summer camp for a week.
The love of Jesus has flowed through our church during Camp in the City. What has inspired me the most are the counselors, who have boundless energy, deep love for their campers, and hearts of servants. Camp in the City counselors have a relationship with Christ (vertical faith) that extends to others (horizontal witness). To be honest, they have an exuberance for God and others I haven’t seen in a while, and they genuinely want to see their campers fall in love with Jesus.
Having Camp in the City here this week has allowed me to process the various issues facing the United Methodist Church. It seems that many in the UMC are trying to see a horizontal witness develop into a vertical faith. That’s why in North America, the UMC is in many ways, failing in our mission. When what unites us is polity and church laws and not the Apostolic, Trinitarian Godhead, we’re just another 501(c)(3) non-profit trying to do good works in the world. When our goal is to appease every people group so as not to offend them and not to share "the way, the truth, and the life" message of Jesus Christ with people who have no idea who He is, we’ve become something other than the church depicted in the Book of Acts.
When the vertical gets replaced with the horizontal as the focus of the church, we cease to be the Body of Christ because Christ is no longer our head (Colossians 1:18). This principle is the same for progressives who desire to create their own morality as it is for conservatives who focus solely on denominational standards and policies.
I’m longing - praying! - for a renewal in The United Methodist Church that is focused on a vertical relationship with Jesus Christ that extends horizontally into the lives of others. If this spiritual leadership is not going to come from the Council of Bishops or other denominational personnel, then it’s time for us to stop waiting. Let's be the holy people of God the Bible tells us to be: not united with the values of the world, but united for the transformation of the values of world by the Holy Spirit.
What the world needs is not United Methodist clergy and laypersons who are simply obedient to the Book of Discipline. What the world needs is United Methodist clergy and laypersons who are so in love with God the Father, so committed to Jesus Christ, and so empowered by the Holy Spirit that they count it a privilege to be called fools for Christ and to be scolded by the world. May it begin with me.
It’s in our Wesleyan heritage: Without personal holiness there is no social holiness. Only good works.
Thank you for your vertical witness, Camp in the City. You've inspired me to remember what constitutes real ministry in the world.
** ADDITIONAL NOTE: The violence in our country - police shooting citizens, citizens shooting citizens, and citizens shooting police - is not going to be stopped by new laws or heightened protests. The answer to these and other issues in society is Jesus coming alive in people's lives. Horizontal solutions will always be limited in their effectiveness. What the world needs is an increase in vertical relationships becoming horizontal.
(c) 2016 Michael C. Voigts
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.