January 19, 2020
Today’s message is basically a homework assignment I recently finished for the current UM Course of Study I am enrolled in. I did, however, re-word it somewhat so as to eliminate words such as teleology, deontology, and aretology. The course is in Christian Ethics, and in this particular assignment I was asked to write how I would solve a problem in my life or a parishioner’s life using Goals, Duties, and Virtues (which is what those three big words mean). Perhaps if any of you have struggled with the problem I have chosen, this might help you as well.
Since I personally know someone who wrestled with a decision as to whether or not to leave the denomination after last year’s General Conference, the problem that I outlined in my paper and attempted to show how it might be solved using goals, duties, and virtues as discussed in “Christian Ethics”, is how a Christian who is a member of the Methodist church, be they clergy or laity, should respond to the current division, and actions taken, in regards to the LBGTQ issue within the denomination.
From the standpoint of GOALS, one must first determine what their original goal in joining the United Methodist Church was. For most, hopefully at least, that goal is to serve God as part of the Body of Christ into which they have been called. Reason tells us that while we can serve God as individuals, greater good can come about by working together toward common goals, or as utilitarianism dictates, “the greatest good for the greatest number of people”. I deliberately did not say ‘the greatest happiness’, as would the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, but ‘the greatest good’ as would Augustine, because as Christians, personal happiness should not be our highest goal, not even for others, but rather the goodness of salvation, faith, and love for God. So if we joined the United Methodist Church because we have come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ, and now wish to serve Him along with His people, by reaching the lost with the message of the Gospel, helping those in need, and maturing in the faith, our decision to stay or leave should be based on whether or not the greatest good can be done within the denomination, or outside of it. Questions one might ask oneself could include, “Is there any way I can help the denomination through this struggle so it can remain a vital force in the work of Christ?”, “Is the issue confronting the leaders of the church, and causing division among them, one that will adversely affect its membership and the Christian mission of the denomination?”, “Will the ultimate decision one way or the other affect my personal ability to serve within the denomination?”, and “If I leave the denomination, what message am I giving to others?”. Someone who strictly adheres to rules might decide that if the ultimate decision does not coincide with their interpretation of Scripture, that they should leave and join a church that does agree with their interpretation so they can serve God with a clear conscience, as well as send a message to others that their interpretation is the correct one. Someone who is more open to other’s understanding of the Word might argue that all interpretations are equally valid and should not be the basis for one’s decision to stay or leave; and might actually be eager for those who do not agree to leave so as not to cause further division. Someone who is more inclined toward what is called situation ethics might base their decision on the good of the denomination itself, its members, and its witness to the world.
If one uses DUTIES, and hence relies on rules instead of outcome, in an effort to make this decision, they would look to both the Bible and The Book of Discipline. However, in this particular case, one might argue that there are disagreements as to the interpretation of Scripture in regards to the issue itself, and that the Book of Discipline is subject to change and not always enforced. Thomas Aquinas might argue that natural law provides an answer, even if sin blurs it somewhat, as the Bible itself declares in Romans 2:14-15 which says, “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” However, we who have received Christ have also received the Holy Spirit, who decrees God’s divine law and opens our eyes to its truth, unlike those who are blind to its message, as were the Pharisees in Jesus’ day. Jesus warned his disciples about them in Matthew 15:14, when He said “Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” Divine law is not mere words on a page but is written on our hearts as Hebrews 10:15-16 tells us, “The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this… ‘This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.’”
And finally let’s consider VIRTUES in addressing the issue. What would a ‘good person’ do? The Bible says repeatedly that no one is good except God (e.g. Psalm 14:3, 53:3, Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19, Romans 3:12). But those who are in Christ, and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, should exhibit the fruit of the Spirit as in Galatians 5:22-23, which clearly states, “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things!” Therefore, these ‘fruits’ should never be in conflict with any law, be it natural or divine. Augustine saw all virtue as a form of love for God, and a virtuous person who loves God will express that through love for his fellow man as well, even those with whom he disagrees.
Did not Christ himself bring all three methods together when He declared that the two greatest commandments (Love God – Love Others) summed up the entire law and prophets? (Matthew 22:37-40). Back in the 1990’s the WWJD movement was popular among Christians, yet somehow the simplicity of that question, “What Would Jesus Do?”, sadly seems to evade many Christians today.
On a joyous note, the person I initially mentioned has indeed continued within the United Methodist Church - praise God.
However, ironically I noticed on the same day that I finished writing this assignment, which was January 3rd , that several folks shared a link on Facebook from the website of the Council of Bishops of the UMC whose headline was “United Methodist Traditionalists, Centrists, Progressives & Bishops sign agreement aimed at separation”, and then I received the same news in my email via the IGRC in “The Current Week In Review”.
May the Holy Spirit work in the hearts of all who are affected by the division within the United Methodist Church and safeguard our witness for Christ in the world. Amen.
"Choices" (JJ Weeks) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i6-tRS7TrbI
"By Our Love" (King and Country) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9zoq3k-3K0