This week the United Methodist Church met in a special conference to consider that denomination’s stance on human sexuality. Their discussion is not new or unique to the United Methodist Church. Questions of LGBTQ rights have been debated in many Christian denominations since the early 1970s. The Episcopal Church first addressed homosexuality in 1976, at which time it declared that, “homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance and pastoral concern and care of the church.” On July 13 of 2018, the Episcopal Church passed a historic resolution giving all Episcopalians the ability to be married by their priests in their home churches. Other denominations continue to debate their positions on such important issues.
Divisions over church polity are not a modern phenomena. Contrary to the popular notion that the “the Reformation” split the Christian church, scripture tells us that Christians have experienced divisions practically from the religion’s founding. The letters of St. Paul occupy about two-thirds of the New Testament, the primary foundation of Christian belief, and pre-date the Gospels. Significantly, the most prominent topic across those letters is dissension within the church. Many of St. Paul’s letters reprimand Christian church communities for excluding individuals for a variety of sociocultural reasons and emphasize the fundamental teachings of Jesus: Love God and love one another. Unfortunately, 20 centuries later, we have not learned that lesson.
We have become not one Christianity but many, with some church leaders going so far as to claim sole ownership of the phrase, “under God.” Such statements are completely inconsistent with the words of St. Paul, who wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers and sisters,[ by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Of course, there is much debate over which of those “minds” is the right one.
The answer to that question can be found in the portion of the Gospel of Luke which was read in both Episcopal and United Methodist (among other) congregations this past Sunday, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you (Luke 6:27-31). Thus, depriving another human being of freedom and dignity, ignoring the needs of others, and suggesting that any one of us is superior to another by virtue of race, socioeconomic status, education, creed or any other human measure, is opposed the basic principles of Christianity. Certainly, using faith to incite division and hatred is completely counter to the Christian gospel.
Nonetheless, public opinion surveys tell us that those of us who profess to follow the way of Jesus Christ have become so divided that we often do not recognize each other. We cannot imagine being able to live together, much less work together to bring the Kingdom of God to this suffering nation and the world. First century Christians had the same arguments that we do, often sorting themselves into different groups based on perceived hierarchies like who is the most or least sinful or who deserves the largest share of material goods. These tendencies continued throughout Christian history. For example, “The Protestant work ethic,” a deeply held American belief that being industrious is biblically mandated – that there is no free ride – and that people who need help drain the community of resources is one explanation for why some Christians agree to limit programs to assist those who – for a variety of reasons – have fewer concrete assets than others. But scripture does not say that people who cannot work should not share in the fruits of the community; it says that the contributions of all members of a community are required for its survival – and that those contributions are not about meeting the needs of any individual, but rather what benefits the group as a whole.
Such misreading of scripture is frequent and used maliciously to justify behavior that is opposed to foundational Christian teachings. That is why those who would follow the way of Jesus must stand firm in our faith together in order to resist the powers that would destroy the sacrificial love demonstrated in the life and death of Jesus the Christ that is at the core of our community. It is not enough to have individual faith; it is only by living out our faith in community – by working together- that we can withstand the onslaught of fear and hatred in our world. That requires knowing what it truly means to be Christian and acting on it. All those who call themselves “Christian” should work toward this goal.