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Sharing in Faith: Authority, unity and grace

Sometimes when I’m sitting in the congregation or in a class or church meeting, I look around at folks and wonder what their position might be on the issue of homosexual practice. Of course, being a good United Methodist, I never ask. In the church we seem have our own tacit “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.

Personal opinions are sacrosanct, are they not? You have your opinion and I have mine, we always say. But I think it is important to consider that emphasizing personal opinions on issues of doctrine reflects a rather contemporary-American way of thinking. Since when is it normal for Christians to individually make up their own doctrine? Whatever happened to the authority of the teaching office of the church?

I, of course, have a position on this issue. But I don’t feel particularly comfortable referring to my own personal opinion. Instead I prefer to say that I live in obedience under church law, which in current United Methodist Book of Discipline language is that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

But it is further appropriate to say that, as a thinking, praying, Bible-studying individual disciple of Jesus Christ, I happen to agree with the church’s teaching. That makes life for me in The United Methodist Church easier than it is for my counterparts. I do not gloat; in fact, I sympathize. But that is simply the current situation.

The question for dissenters

How we deal with controversies and differences of opinion says a lot about our view of the church, and our unity and covenant fellowship. Therefore, I think the question for a United Methodist who dissents is: Are you willing to live under a church teaching with which you disagree? For some the answer will be yes; for others, no. And I guess that’s the way it’s always been in The United Methodist Church or any other denomination.

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But it’s important to note that, in United Methodism, living in obedience to a law doesn’t mean you must stop trying to change that law. And that, of course, is what we have seen at General Conferences for many years: pro-LGBTQ folks advocating for and voting for change. Every one of those folks who stayed, obeyed and worked for change should be respected because they have shown respect for The United Methodist Church, its laws and polity, and for their fellow United Methodists with whom they are in covenant.

Regardless of current church law and what happens at General Conference, each United Methodist must decide whether or not he or she can live in obedience under the church’s teaching. If they determine that they in all good conscience cannot, they would, it seems to me, do well to seek and find a denominational church home agreeable to their theological perspectives, a fellowship where they can thrive as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I say this knowing full well that if I ever one day find myself the dissenter who cannot abide, I too would need to face the same awful decision. As someone who loves The United Methodist Church, I pray that day never comes.

What is essential for unity

With its democratic polity, The United Methodist Church is well equipped to function with dissent, giving respect, voice and vote to the dissenter. What it is not well equipped to handle is a blatant, unremitting disobedience that leads to chaos. Respect for the institution and for one’s brothers and sisters in Christ would preclude such behavior.

It always takes a full measure of God’s grace to remain in covenant with those with whom we disagree. For those United Methodists on the other side of this issue from me, I pray God’s grace for them – grace to stay in obedience and to stay in fellowship.

For those whose conscience demands they depart the fellowship of The United Methodist Church, I say, go with God, go in peace. I wish it did not have to be so. But there is no true unity without integrity – integrity of the individual and integrity of the church.

Jerry Rectenwald
Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania

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Posted September 18, 2014.