Some of you who have been so kind as to follow my blog are also inclined to follow in the news some recent happenings within the United Methodist Church, which happens to be where my ordained clergy credential is located. Those who know me well at all understand that I came out of a fairly conservative and evangelical sector within this particular denomination of Christians. Biblical authority is in my bloodstream!
That said, the meaning of biblical authority has shifted in my own mind as I've grown older. (Okay, much older now that Y76 is staring into my windshield.) Which is to say that the Bible itself means to confer absolute authority to Jesus, the Christ. The Bible submits to Jesus as the One who is divine. Only Jesus is the Christ. The Bible itself is not, nor can the Bible be viewed in Christian tradition as a divine part of the Holy Trinity. Christ and not the Bible carries divine authority.
The Bible reveals the Jesus who reveals God in the fulness of creation and redemption. It is a wonderful library of 66 ancient books authorized by 3rd Century church-fathers because it completes this revelation within the context of hundreds of years and multiple authors. The Bible reveals the Christ who then inerrantly reveals God.
To assume such a question now present in your imaginations, I must state my own case for what in today’s parlance would pass for the new United Methodists. That is, United Methodists who would welcome in all who once were outcast even within the church herself. Or, in today’s parlance, the outcast-including and LGBTQIA+ affirming United Methodists.
At issue today is the question of how God, i.e, Jesus as our ultimate authority sent to speak and act for God, deals with outcasts among his fellow religionists. Who would Jesus affirm? Who would Jesus include? WWJD?
But were there even any outcast communities to be found throughout the Bible, or more particularly within the time of the Christ’s ministry of revelation? Oh, absolutely! It would be far easier to count the insiders of Jesus’s time and place than those excluded as outsiders. The insiders were men who used their Hebrew Bible as a weapon against those who sinned in ways they did not. Everyone else was an outsider, be they adulterers or Samaritans or tax collectors or Gentiles or Romans or lepers or the mentally ill. Or women. Or children. Everyone of these groups was marginalized in some way and especially so among the official religious authorities. They were all marginalized and excluded!
Except by Jesus.
And except by those who would become the followers of Jesus’s way.
What the aforementioned out-groups had in common was this: all were included and affirmed in some way by Jesus to the despair and disgust of those religious leaders on the inside. Even his own charter church or initial followers were slow to catch on. To illustrate, there was that time (Mark 9:38-40 CEV) where we read of the disciples telling Jesus: “Teacher, we saw a man using your name to force demons out of people. But he wasn't one of us, and we told him to stop.” Jesus said to his disciples: Don't stop him! No one who works miracles in my name will soon turn and say something bad about me. Anyone who isn't against us is for us."
By the end of the biblical witness, even Christ's original church was acting to include the outcasts.
Which suggests two paths that may be taken in answer to that “whither” question now facing our United Methodists.
There is the “better late than never” path as followed by Christ’s original church. Slow to catch on but, like Peter’s visit to the home of Cornelius in Acts 10, every bit as sure as it was slow. Those who followed the way of Jesus learned eventually how to affirm the outcasts of their own time and place. It’s what followers of Jesus are supposed to learn. If it came naturally or were simply caught rather than taught, there would be no need for Christ’s appearing in the first place. However, inclusivity is not in our most fundamental nature.
And why is that?
For the sake of human survival, our brain’s Limbic system is designed for fight or flight against any unfamiliar “foreign” object such an invasive germ. We survive as a species per God’s creative wisdom by first recognizing and then resisting or rejecting the “other” that is “different” and does not belong in us. Let’s go ahead and mention Covid-19 here for the sake of illustration.
Survival can be viewed in our Methodist context as something of an Old Testament exclusionary need to express God’s “prevenient grace.” We differentiate first for the sake of human survival, and we cast out the “other” by divine design.
Yet God did not create us only for the purpose of survival. God’s plan is for salvation from mere exclusionary survival by means of growth. We are meant to thrive. And for that to happen we learn to adapt. To include. And, dare I say, to change. To get beyond our diet of mother’s milk 3 X a day, different as our newly acquired tastes may become.
This is the path I see Christ’s inclusive and affirming church taking in the post-Gospel New Testament. Such growth, per the Creator’s design, takes on a progressive or dare I say liberal or even woke path toward an “all means all” approach to God’s now justifying and sanctifying grace.
Ah, but there’s a second path to be noticed.
Because of our human free will, there is always a choice to go unweaned from the milk of Old Testament exclusionary principles. We can always cling to survival by refusing the justifying grace meant to follow. We can live out of our brain’s Limbic system and perpetuate our fight or flight nature by God’s prevenient grace. We can always stay put and survive.
Or can we?
Therein lies a troubling question, at least in my own mind. Is survival by exclusion and resistance of the “different” or “foreign” or “unfamiliar other” really possible in itself, or it the way that leads to death? Death the way a baby dies from “failure to thrive” or to adapt and include the “other” in its world?
Someone once said, “it is not change that will kill us; rather, our inability to change.” It wasn’t Jesus, but I’m not sure he wasn’t saying something of that nature when teaching us the difference between life in the Kingdom or death for those not wanting to be included with “them” -- those neighbors that are also enemies from “outside.” Or the difference between seeds that enter the soil and survive but never thrive due to outside pressures vs. those that seem to adapt and grow and bring forth new fruit.
Yes, I realize the choice of which path involves the choice of biblical hermeneutics, as well as which cherries to pick from the Levitican laws. I’ve read them all many times and recall my own days of literalist interpretation when my own seeds of faith first poked through the soil. That, by God’s grace, I’ve also grown to believe Christ alone is God’s inerrant Word for eternal life (something about loving God, neighbor and self, as I recall) is a matter of my own choice or “whither” in matters of United Methodism.
Christ’s original church found themselves growing, let’s say surviving by also thriving, after and not before affirming those Romans, Gentiles, women, children, lepers, Samaritans, the mentally ill, and, yes, even tax collectors. What the law at first excluded grace ultimately came to include, grace being an ever-flowing stream that is now finally reaching us but not yet through “growing.” What began as personal piety has grown to become social holiness.
The jury is still out where it comes to the future of Methodism. We know the past as well as we know mother’s milk. Changing our diet will now take some doing, some personal deciding, and intentional change and growth. Can we survive by exclusion using our brain's Limbic system alone to cast out the unfamiliar, even as it pertains to the very meaning of biblical authority? Or must we survive by thriving through the use of adaptation, inclusion, and affirmation even for our outcast communities today?