Jesus survived the temptations of the wilderness because of his spiritual grounding and his guidance by God. Another factor empowered him as well: his emotional intelligence. Jesus had his wits about him. He never could have survived otherwise.
The UMC faces its own set of temptations as we threaten to implode or explode over General Conference proceedings. We too need our wits about us.The UMC faces its own set of temptations as we threaten to implode or explode over General Conference proceedings. We too need our wits about us. Click To Tweet
A hidden opportunity awaits us in this timeline. These 40+ days give us time to think instead of react and time to pray instead of stew. It gives us time to gather our wits about us. So that we can address the last temptations of the UMC in a calmer fashion.
This week I want to address the temptation of demonizing the other side.
Reactions to General Conference have included: THAT side is against love. THEY are against me. Clearly, THEY don’t want me, so I’m outta here. I am done with church, done with organized religion, done with people like THAT.
Or on the other side: THAT side is godless, THEY worship at the altar of human preference, THEY have abandoned the Bible, and the authority of Scripture. Clearly, God’s will was done through General Conference. God wants for things to be this way.
Demonizing the other side feels empowering, but it’s a temptation we can ill afford to entertain. The truth is many factors came into play at General Conference. Let’s see what we can tease out.
Factor 1: Our will, not God’s will. In the Bible, Jesus is explicit that humans must decide how to interpret the scripture. Not only that, Heaven will go along with what we decide. This principle is captured in Matthew 16:19 “I will give you the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” So, when it comes to General Conference decisions, we’re not so much looking at God’s will but at the will of the delegates we elected. We must take responsibility for our theologies and votes, not ascribe them to God. In this case, the will of the General Conference was to pass the amended Traditional Plan. It received 438 yes votes (53 percent) and 384 no votes (47 percent).
Factor 2: The will of the body can change. Two thirds of US delegates were in favor of the One Church Plan. Even though the One Church Plan didn’t pass, a mere 54 votes separated the two sides. From a numbers perspective, that’s an astonishingly narrow margin for a global church. It says to me that The UMC has come a mighty long way in its ability to accept people where they are.
Factor 3: Cultural understandings vary. According to reports I’ve heard, two thirds to three quarters of the International delegates were in favor of the Traditional or Modified Traditional Plan. Why the insistence on a traditional view when the One Church Plan would have safeguarded people’s dignity of choice? The answers are as varied as the delegates. Some international delegates were under the impression that the One Church Plan would have required them to accept LGBTQ pastors. How and why did they get that idea? Were they intentionally misinformed? Others were told that they could not return home if they didn’t vote for the Traditional Plan.
Factor 4: Becoming a global church. In addition to the above, consider this. This year, the General Conference consisted of 58% US and 43% International delegates. That’s a real shift from previous years. Now put these two sets of figures together and you can see why things came out so tight. As Bonnie Ives Marden, head of the New England Delegation and author of Church Finances for Missional Leaders: Best Practices for Faithful Stewardship likes to say, “We are a global church without a global business plan.”
Factor 5: Context matters. Since discussions about full inclusion of LGBTQ folks in the UMC began, gay marriage has become legal in the US. The rights of LGBTQs to marry has gained wide acceptance in our country. In light of these developments, restricting church leadership of LGBTQ folks in the US feels harsher and less just than ever before to many people. Meanwhile, the mere fact of being homosexual is outlawed in some other countries, punishable by death. Both contexts are very hurtful for a wide swath of people. But the US context heightens the sense of injustice and impatience with the Traditional Plan.
The bottom line is that many of us were hurt and deeply discouraged by the recent General Conference. At the same time, others of us felt calmed, satisfied, even justified. Untold numbers are somewhere in between. Because we are church people, it’s easy to theologize our differences. And to demonize those with whom we disagree. As in, “God is on OUR side, not THEIR side.”
Demonizing the other side is a temptation we must avoid. The truth is, we are a church in transition. Instead of reacting, we can gather our wits about us, think, pray and practice the Platinum Rule.