Will the United Methodist Church split or not over differing interpretations of human sexuality and biblical hermeneutics? That was the topic of informal conversation at a recent denominational retreat I co-led in New England.
“If The Way Forward doesn’t come back with something everyone can live with, we’ll split,” offered one pastor knowingly. “We’ve already split,” asserted another, “it’s just not official.” A contemplative silence ensued. “What if it’s not schism?” asked one savvy lay person. The group leaned in, curious. “What if it’s self-differentiation?” she continued. It got me thinking. Not all splits are schism.
Schism implies irreparable differences and anxious or angry reaction. Self-differentiation has a whole other feel to it. Yes, it’s a way of distinguishing oneself from the rest of the group. But it implies health, self-knowledge, and courage. Unity is the opposite of schism, but not of self-differentiation. Students of family systems know that anxious enmeshment is its opposite.
Jesus was self-differentiated. He didn’t go along just to go along. He stated his beliefs, his values, and his world-view. Even when it wasn’t popular. He offered his teaching—both when it coincided with current Jewish teaching, and when it veered away from it. He didn’t back down from either.
He was a non-anxious presence who allowed others to claim their own truth and life- experience. He was clear about his purpose, but he didn’t insist that others follow suit. For instance, he never decided for others whether they were “true Jews,” or faithful followers of his. By his estimation, even the Pharisees would enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus didn’t ostracize Judas, or cut him off from the others. Nor did he split his followers from mainline Judaism. That happened way after his death.
Could we learn to do the same?
Could we allow people to pursue truth as they see it? Could we calmly and lovingly self-differentiate, even as we maintain our bonds of connection? In other words, is there room for an intentional big-tent United Methodism?
Yes, I think so. Local churches do it all the time.
When you walk through the doors of First UMC, Anytown US, no one stops you to find out your theology or sociology. There’s no litmus test for biblical interpretation, or understandings of human sexuality. We don’t sort people at the door. We don’t sort people at the Lord’s Table, or at the Baptismal font. When we are baptized, it’s not into a set of doctrines. It’s into the Body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
When a person joins the UMC, they covenant to faithfully participate in the ministries of the church by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service and their witness. That’s it. The rest is open to interpretation.
The way our current system is set up, a simple majority prevails when it comes to setting up the rules we live by in the Book of Discipline. The whole idea is get people to agree with you so that your “side” can “win.” But we all know that that’s a losing battle. Winners create losers.
We’re not made to agree on everything. We’re made to be one in Christ—in all of our glorious differences. That’s the miracle and magic of it all. We can be Jew and Greek, male and female, servant and free. And be one in Christ Jesus.
A self-differentiated United Methodist Church would be unlike our current gridlock Methodism. It would require an intentional openness about our differences. And an intentional acceptance of them.
We would need to make space for a wide spectrum of understandings of sound biblical interpretation and healthy human sexuality. Likewise, we would need to make space for a spacious variety of Christologies, and understandings of the Holy Spirit. And we would have to be okay with them openly co-existing.
It would mean giving up being right. Or making others wrong. And it would mean more Christlikeness than we currently manifest as a body.
It can happen. Confirmation came around a New Mexican table laden with carne adovada and green chile stew a few weeks ago. I sat with a group of beloved colleagues I met through Creating a Culture of Renewal; we were talking theology. In our small group of 3-4, we had at least one tongues-speaking Charismatic, one fervent evangelical, and one liberal-evangelical-passionate-progressive (me).
It took a while for us each to be clear about our theological differences. But as we did, we discovered something very interesting. We had many things in common—beyond our love and respect for each other. We had shared goals in ministry. Shared compassion. Not to mention shared fears of being marginalized in our current system.
God had called each of us to ministry in a unique way. Yet, no one person’s call undid anyone else’s. They were all valid; they all came from God.
What if we treated each other the same way? No insistence of sameness. Just insistence on authenticity. The truth is, the UMC is inherently diverse. We just don’t really ‘fess up to it—in a non-anxious, self-differentiated way.
I wonder what might happen if we could openly own our values and worldviews and theologies? We might not need to split. Or schism.