I am not surprised that there are disagreements in the church. That has always been the case. What both surprises and dismays me is the manner in which so many disagree­ments are conducted. In the sermon published last month’s Perspective, I contrasted the misleadingeven blatantly dishonest̶—tactics common to today’s political rhetoric with the example of Jesus. Most disturbing is the extent to which those same strategies have come to dominate discourse within American Protestantism broadly and within my own denomination, The United Methodist Church, specifically.

In the essay linked below, I have attempted briefly to bring to bear three critically important resources: perspective on our history, perspective on the wider church, and perspective on our sources.

Edmund Burke said that “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” You’d think that a movement that has seen as much splintering over the centuries as Methodism would face the present hour with an eye to its past, but that is hardly the case. It is as though substantial disagreement was an entirely new phenomenon, so we may freely disregard our own history.

Methodism in America has seen many dissenting offspring denominations formed over the past two centuries. For example, the Southern Methodist Church[1] split in 1940 based on its inerrantist view of scripture, which to this day requires it, for example, to prohibit the recognition of clergy “if either spouse is divorced, or has been divorced, except in the case of innocent parties who have been divorced for scriptural cause” [porneia, “sexual immorality” according to Matthew 5:31-32]. (Link) Likewise, no women are allowed to occupy the pulpit (1 Timothy 2:11-15). The more you learn about the conduct of prior controversies, the more perspective you gain on their contemporary analogs.

Next is perspective gained by viewing the church broadly. If we look at only a subset of the larger whole, we will likely overemphasize differences and overstate polarities. The UMC is not representative of the full spectrum of opinion found in the wider church. Imagining that it is allows us to portray those with whom we disagree as our polar opposites. What is in reality a spectrum is thus portrayed as a dichotomy. This encourages the widespread but deceitful stratagem of tarring with the same brush everyone with whom one has any degree of difference. This latter phenomenon in particular has become distressingly common­place.

Finally, sources. When Methodists face thorny issues, the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is often referenced. It suggests that we might appeal to scripture but also to tradition, reason, and experience when forming our stance on issues of faith or practice. The standard view is that conservatives prioritize scripture and tradition while progressives lean most on reason and experience. This is partly but by no means wholly true. An examination of how decisions have actually been made tells a far more complicated story, especially with respect to matters of ethics.

Gaining perspective can guide us toward more humane and fairand, frankly, more Christiandialogue in the midst of controversy. I explore all of this further in my article Perspective Is Essential to Faithful Disagreement. I hope you’ll take the time to read it and think prayerfully on it. Bringing it home, I end with a story that, I believe, shows how Perkins faculty have modeled civility and constructive dialogue in the past, and how we might continue to do so going forward.

Grace and peace,

Dean Craig C. Hill

 

[1] Not related to Southern Methodist University.