Living in the tension
"I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:1-3)
By BISHOP ROBERT HAYES Jr.
Today I feel compelled to address what I believe is the most volatile issue in U.S. culture and within our denomination: human sexuality. More specifically: homosexuality and same-gender marriage.
Debate has intensified since the recent Supreme Court decision that made it possible for same-gender couples to legally marry in five states, including here in Oklahoma.
This subject is so provocative that mere mention of the topic can trigger strong emotions and sides are chosen. There seems little tolerance by people of any view for those who hold a different opinion, or for those who are neutral. And silence on the subject is not a helpful response.
We know that our United Methodist Church says the practice of homosexuality is "incompatible with Christian teaching," (paragraph 161.f, Book of Discipline) and that marriage is "shared fidelity between a man and a woman" (paragraph 161.b, Book of Discipline). But the U.S. legal system and the voices that cry out for equality and justice from their perspective are saying something totally different.
The tension between these two stances literally has dominated our Church’s conversation for a long, long time. Until we acknowledge and address the anger, pain, and passion generated by this subject, it will continue to divide us.
Yet a way forward remains unclear. I admit that I have no easy answers. I am not suggesting a fix-it-all solution within these few paragraphs.
As a bishop in the Church, I believe that I have an obligation to voice hope and reassurance in the midst of our differences.
I feel there is wisdom available to us in the lessons woven into the fabric of our Christian history — lessons that will help us to see these issues from another perspective. They may even teach us how to treat one another as we search for answers to our future.
Division and problems are not new
When you look at the history of the Christian church, you will discover that controversy, disagreement, and discord were present from the very beginning. From the moment the 12 were sent out by Jesus to "make disciples" (Matthew 28:19), there were problems.
A primary hindrance was Rome itself. The empire viewed the Christian movement with suspicion, believing it was an effort to overthrow that system of government. So persecution was the way they dealt with this newfound faith.
Another great obstacle was the Jewish religion. The Pharisees and rabbis saw an imminent threat to their authority in the masses of people who were following Jesus. They sought to crush that perceived menace wherever it existed, giving rise to prosecutors such as Saul.
Even the question of who was eligible to be a disciple sparked arguments.
Some members in the early church insisted that only Jews could be followers of Christ, but Acts 8, 9, and 10 paint a different picture. Stephen baptizes the Ethiopian; Paul is converted on the road to Damascus and chosen as the "apostle to the Gentiles"; Peter converts all the members of Cornelius’ household and preaches Good News to non-Jewish believers.
Additional problems in that first era included the role of women in the new movement, the practice of circumcising those who converted, eating food forbidden by Jewish law, and a host of other issues. Yes, there was a multitude of problems that plagued the early church.
My point is this: Somehow those early Christians found a way to live together amid the tension of their differences!
What did they have that enabled them to overcome their arguments and disputes? What was the key to their success? I often contemplate those questions.
And precisely at that point, the passage Ephesians 4:1-3 comes to me!
A plan of action
The author of the letter to the church at Ephesus makes sure his readers understand that unity is his theme. But it is not a form of unity that declares everyone must think alike. Rather, it is the unity demonstrated in the virtues befitting a person who follows Christ: humility, gentleness, and patience.
The writer goes on to say that we should make every effort to "pour out ourselves for each other in acts of love, alert at noticing differences and quick at mending fences." (The Message)
This scripture has led me to action. I will pursue a dialogue with individuals in our Conference, scheduling times to meet together and discuss this controversial subject that creates such discord among us.
Early next year I will invite both pastors and laity to talk with me and with each other, not in an effort to change anyone’s mind, but committed to find ways that we can be the Body of Christ, working together — ways we can live faithfully within the tension that exists within the Church and our society.
We must find the path that leads us to the unity that was present in the early church. We owe it to the Church we love to do this.
And for me personally, I intend to govern my ministry among you by trying to fulfill the duties set forth in paragraph 403.e of the Book of Discipline: A bishop should have … "a passion for the unity of the church. The role of the bishop is to be the shepherd of the whole flock and thereby provide leadership toward the goal of understanding, reconciliation, and unity within the church — The United Methodist Church and the church universal."
With God’s help, I intend to fulfill that calling.