Uniting Methodists - Wheat and Weeds

The United Methodist Church is facing the reality of becoming a monoculture denomination. (Monoculture in the church is something that I have touched on before below are a few links to previous posts for reference).

A monoculture denomination is a denomination that is really good at making one type of thing. This efficiency means a monoculutre denomination may be able to grow in numbers, but like all other monocultures, it is very susceptible to sickness and unhealth. Nonetheless, when there is a lower "yield" than previous years and the numbers do not look good, monocultures are very attractive.

Jesus had a little parable about the kingdom of God and buried within it we can see the resistance Jesus has for the monoculture church. 

Even weeds have beauty

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ’ - Matt. 13: 24-30

Every side of the denomination feels like they are the wheat and others are the weeds. You know the arguments made by different field workers of today:

  • Traditionalists argue that Progressives are sowing seeds of disobedience and seek to uproot the entire orthodox tradition.
  • Progressives argue that Traditionalists are sowing seeds of contempt and seek to uproot justice for the sake of compliance.
  • Non-Compatibleists on both sides argue that those in the are sowing seeds of fear and seek to uproot the whole church for the sake of a Pollyannan idea of unity that is lukewarm at best. 
  • Compatibleists argue that the extremes are sowing seeds of anger and are determined to uproot the entire church out of their self-righteous peacocking. 

The reality is we all are convinced that we are the wheat and others are the weeds. We all are convinced that we are good enough at this thing called Christianity that we can remove the weeds without harming the wheat. 

Jesus says otherwise. 

Jesus reminds us all that we are not very good at all at discerning wheat from weeds and even if we could, we are so inept that we do much more harm than we realize.

I read this parable in part as a caution against the attraction to a monoculture denomination. In our efforts to be as faithful as possible (growing only wheat) we will always find things/people we believe are not faithful (weeds). The Uniting Methodists stand with those who heed the call of the master and, despite our frustration, let the wheat and the weeds grow together. The Uniting Methodist stand with the humble servants who were confronted with their own limitations. The Uniting Methodists stand with those who trust that the Master is okay with wheat and weeds in the field.

If we cannot live with the weeds in God's field, then perhaps our anger/frustration is less about the weeds and more about our own lack of faithful discipleship.

Uniting Methodist Conference - Holiness not Purity

During the course of the Uniting Methodist Conference, author David N. Field, lead the group by lecturing from some of the material of his book, Bid Our Jarring Conflicts Cease: A Wesleyan Theology and Praxis of Church Unity

One of the key points Mr. Field unpacked was the role of holiness in the Wesleyan theological framework. For the sake of brevity in this post I wanted to highlight one major clarification about holiness in the Wesleyan tradition. 

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

Growing up I was told that holiness was meant to mean "that which is set apart". So holy things are things that are set apart for a special use. The Bible is holy and Sabbath is holy. Objects and places can be holy, but so can God. And since God is holy, God is "up there" separated from us. There are spirits but there is only one Holy Spirit, which is a part of God but we talked about the Holy Spirit as though it was separated from God in some way. The things that are holy are the things that are set apart and to be treated with reverence. It was not too far off the mark that holiness was just another word for complete and pure.

When we conflate holiness with completeness and purity then we are off the mark. Holiness in the Wesleyan tradition is not an adjective that describes an object, but a verb that describes the Christian life. The holy life is not a pure life but a life that is driven by love. Thus the holy one is the one who moves toward others. When holiness is seen as something that is set apart so in order to avoid contamination, we confuse holiness with purity. 

To quote Field's book:

Holiness is that which distinguishes the Christian community from the broader society. Paradoxically, when the core of holiness is love, then that which is to be the primary distinguishing marker of the Christian community is that which directs the Christians, as individuals, and the church, as a community, away from themselves toward God and others. 

Or more acutely: "Holiness can only exist and grow in the context of relationship with other people" and "we can only grow in holiness as we interact with diverse people." 

And so sitting in the Uniting Methodist Conference it was made even more clear that when we call for a personal holiness and/or a social holiness we are often talking about a personal purity and/or social purity. 

Traditionalists tend to elevate personal holiness, which is great. However, when we talk about personal holiness it sounds a lot like personal purity. Personal holiness means you read your Bible and attend worship but you also don't cuss, smoke, chew drink, have pre-marital sex, etc. If you read your Bible all day long but then cuss while you have a drink at night, your personal holiness (read: purity) is at stake.

Progressives tend to elevate social holiness, which is great as well. However, when we talk about social holiness it sounds a lot like social purity. Social holiness means you march in the streets and advocate for the marginalized, but if you step out of line on a liberal platform you are cannibalized (just google examples of "liberals cannibalizing liberals" for endless examples). If you march all day for equal treatment but then support a candidate who is pro-life your social holiness (read: purity) is at stake.

When the Church confuses holiness as purity then we really all have lost our way as a Church. Holiness is a verb. Purity is adjective. 

Christians live verbs not adjectives.

Uniting Methodist Conference - Alternative to Purity

The Uniting Methodist Conference in early November 2017 was filled with a great number of teachings and fellowship opportunities. I heard once again the ways the Church is following and not following the three rules of the Church (Do no harm, Do good, Stay in love with God). I am thankful to have been there. 

Photo by Jamie Templeton on Unsplas

Like all movements there are those who feel the movement is not what it should be. Some feel the movement is too bold and others feel it is not bold enough. At the heart of this tension seems not so much a desire to do what is Right, but rather to do what is Pure. Traditionalists desire that there be a purity of standards and Progressives desire there to be a purity of justice. The striving for a "purer" expression of Church is one of the most illusive and sometimes most destructive endeavors we embark upon. In our pursuit of purity we can really do some great harm to others and our own selves. 

It is clear to me the "incompatablists" on the left and right are trapped by the same desire for purity. As one who upholds unity as a core value, I find the movements to embrace purity to be misguided and unhelpful. Frankly, purity hurts. It is why Jesus was less concerned about purity than about healing. 

Purists would desire a church that is free from whatever it is they find less than pure. And if there is a blemish in the church then the blemish is to be removed. The efforts to create a pure Church ultimately lead to a Church that is the whitewashed tombs Jesus spoke against. A charge against the Uniting Methodist Movement is that centrists do not stand for anything, that they are lukewarm.

So let me be clear, centrists in the Uniting Methodist movement stand for mercy over purity (Matthew 9:13). 

The pursuit of purity in the church reminds me of the great work of Carlo Carretto. Specifically how, without calling it purity, he calls out the idolatry of a Church where purity is promoted:

How baffling you are, oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms. No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go? Would I establish another? I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me. And if I did establish another, it would be my Church, not the Church of Christ. I am old enough to know that I am no better than anyone else. - 

I invite anyone who understands that a pure church is less a church of Christ and more a church of ego, to join the Uniting Methodist Movement.

Uniting Methodist Conference - Not Letting Ourselves off the Hook


Among the many wonderful experiences at the Uniting Methodist Conference held in Atlanta, Georgia (November 13-14, 2017), I submit this post to share a few highlights. 

First, it has become a lazy argument that Unity and institutional survivability are interchangeable. Put another way, it is argued that if you desire for Unity then you really are driven by your fear of loosing pension, health care and salary. This misrepresents the Uniting Methodists in the same way it is said that the traditionalists hate LGBTQI+ community and that the progressives believe traditionalists are racist and homophobic. All of these lazy arguments are caricatures that do not represent reality. To continue to speak to one another as caricatures is not only un-Christ like but it is mean.

Rather, the Uniting Methodist feel God is calling the Church to uphold Jesus' great prayer in John 17:

"‘I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."

Jesus is not praying for an institution or a pension. He is upholding and elevating the value of unity in the face of pressure to easily dismiss and divide. Yes, centrists understand that those on the left see inclusion as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also understand that those on the right see the lack of following the Discipline as a justice issue. Yes, centrists also know that the both sides do not view these two justice issues as morally equivalent. Both sides view their justice issue as higher and thus morally more important. 

Just as the right and left each have a rooting in the Biblical text, so to do centrists. Everyone places a premium on the authority of scripture. To say your side values scripture more than the other side(s) is the church version of the kid saying his dad is stronger than your dad. Can we all grow up? The Uniting Methodists movement is standing up to stop dealing in absolutes

This leads me to say that one of the most heart stopping speeches that I heard at the Uniting Conference came from Rev. Vance Ross. Rev. Ross rose and stated that as an African American, he has witnessed years of systemic racism in the UMC. He cited two specific examples of how the structure of the UMC had been set up and continues to disenfranchise people of color.  Rev. Ross was quick to point out that he is not trying to equate the African American experience with the LGBTQI+ experience only to point out that he has seen how the Church has worked (intentionally and otherwise) to keep people of color in the margins of the Church. He then said that the people of color have chosen to remain in the broken Church in order to bear witness to Love.

I interpreted his comments in a few ways. First to leave the church is a position of privilege. If you can leave because you have another place to go, then you are privileged. People of color cannot even go to the store without being met with suspicion, and so their local church is a safe haven (even in a systemically racist church). Second, if people of color left then it lets us anglos off the hook to face our failures. If we don't see people of color then we can ignore them even more than we do now. To stay and bear witness to Love is to be a presence even if the system says you are unwanted. Bearing this loving witness is a position of strength that just knocked me to the floor.

Rev. Ross' comments not only deeply resonated with me but convicted me. It resonated in that his witness of Love speaks to the Jesus I know who continued to be in relationship with the ones who doubt, dismiss and abandon him. He bore witness to love in the face of accusations from those who could kill him by standing silent before them. Rev. Ross and people of color are not Jesus. However, Rev. Ross' comment hit a bass note of God in me. To break apart from others I disagree with mean that I will always be blind to large portions of my sin. And, if I separate from those I feel are doing wrong then I will not have opportunities to practice forgiveness and reconciliation. 

Rev. Ross reminded me once again of all that I need to learn and better understand in my own self. In order to become more like Christ, then I need to be in communion and relationship with those who expose in my the very things that I cannot see. Therefore, unity for the sake of unity is a shame, unity for the sake of Christ is the Church. But maybe I am remembering the song differently: 

I am the church! You are the church!
We are the church together!
All who follow Jesus,
all around the world!
Yes, we're the church together!

The church is not a building;
the church is not a steeple;
the church is not a resting place;
the church is a people.

We're many kinds of people,
with many kinds of faces,
all colours and all ages, too
from all times and places.

Sometimes the church is marching;
sometimes it's bravely burning,
sometimes it's riding, sometimes hiding;
always it's learning.

And when the people gather,
there's singing and there's praying;
there's laughing and there's crying sometimes,
all of it saying:

At Pentecost some people
received the Holy Spirit
and told the Good News through the world
to all who would hear it.