The Real Issue

that keeps the United Methodist Church from being united
A Point Paper
from Rev. Robert K. Schneider
The United Methodist Church
New England Annual Conference
Moultonborough UMC, NH

The objective of the 2019 Special General Conference was to agree on “a way forward” that would keep The United Methodist Church united.  The process failed to do that, resulting in an even wider divide.

And yet, while the presenting issue was homosexuality, the underlying issue is:

How we read and use Holy Scriptures.
And we are highly divided on this!

     In this paper, I offer a brief teaching on the two competing approaches to reading and using Holy Scriptures.  My prayer is that – once you have read this and thought about it, you’ll be more open to hearing from God who is still speaking.  I also pray that we of MUMC will rise above whatever-the-fray to journey forward united in Christ.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND

     Yes, I grew up in New Hampshire, but I could be said to actually be from Missouri.  “Show me!” is part of my motto.  Indeed, I’m an engineer and a product of postmodernism … that is, I don’t want to simply be told what to believe.  Instead, I demand to be shown the basis for a claim and/or to be pointed in the direction where I can discover the answer myself. 

     “Show me” is also the predominant mindset of Gen-X’ers and Millennials.  The number one reason they leave or stay away from the church is hypocrisy.  Yet, the second (they say) is that the church is too dogmatic and just about telling people what they must think and do.  They don’t just want to be told, simply subjected to dogmatics!  They want to dig in, to discover, and to learn!  They especially want to hear stories and to see and experience the Sacred in those who profess to believe. 

How effective we can be in making disciples today (especially of young people), then, is dependent on our reading and understanding of Holy Scripture and on our experiences of the Sacred … individually and as a congregation … and then, on how authentically and yet respectfully and openly we can be in conversations around the two. 

     I taught a bit about how to read the Bible in our second discussion gathering on sexuality and the church.  I started with helping us to understand the time, place, circumstances, and original intended recipients of the various Scripture passages.  We call this reading skill historical criticism.  I also hope you saw how important it is to also use your best reading skills to stay in context as you read.  It’s important to keep each verse in the context of the surrounding verses and in the larger story and lens of the author … as well as to keep in mind the type of writing style being used (poetry, prose, folklore, historical reporting, etc.).  These skills are important to discerning the author’s original meaning and intent.  This is form critical reading.  I also pointed to online tools for researching and understanding the original Greek and Hebrew. 

     These combined skills are referred to as “critical reading” and are exactly the type of skills Linda (a certified reading specialist) taught for 39 years to elementary school students. 

As an additional point of background:  Orthodox Methodism (the way John Wesley and company did it from the beginning) calls for the same way of critical reading and discerning of Scripture.  We often talk about the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” – their way of employing 1) Scripture, 2) Tradition, 3) Reason, and 4) Experience in discerning the ways of Christ.

TWO PREDOMINANT WAYS HOLY SCRIPTURES ARE READ

     While in seminary, a Systematic Theology assignment was to discuss my theological understanding of Genesis, chapter 2.  I got an “A” on the paper.  My professor actually told me that I should publish it.  He said, “You are a gifted “liberal theologian.”

     “Liberal!”  I’d never been called that before!  My initial reaction was not very positive.  …But then I began to learn what the term means.

     I urge you to research “liberal theology.”  Its roots are in the Enlightenment and became formalized in the late 18th-early 19th century.  Technically speaking:  Liberal theology is a method of biblical “hermeneutics” – i.e., first reading a text to understand its original intent and meaning.  I was taught that only after completing such scholarly hermeneutics, could I faithfully conclude an “exegesis” – i.e., assert a lesson from the text for today.  Liberal Protestantism became that subset of Protestant Christianity that relies on the methods of liberal theology.

     Liberal theology seeks, then, to liberate a text from a simply “literal reading.”  Again, my wife, a teacher and reading specialist, says that critical reading is to read “literarily,” rather than just “literally.”  This is what Wesley was getting at when he called for tradition, reason, and experience to also be brought to bear with Holy Scriptures.

   And yet, a second way of reading Holy Scripture became formalized specifically in opposition to the coming of liberal theology.  It became known as “fundamental theology.”  Fundamental theology tends to stand in opposition to allegorical, archetypal, hyperbolic, or metaphorical reading of Holy Scripture.  It puts more emphasis on a “literal” reading of the text – not extensively employing the critical reading skills of liberal theology.  The term, “fundamental,” finds its roots especially in a compendium of essays edited by A.C. Dixon entitled:  The Fundamentals:  A Testimony to the Truth.   The teachings in these essays were asserted by the authors to be “orthodox.”
 
     Things got really heated between these two ways of reading Holy Scripture in the early 1920’s, especially due to a sermon delivered in First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan’s West Village by Rev. Harry Emerson Fosdick.  The sermon was titled: “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” – Defending Liberal Protestantism.   Fosdick was very direct against the forceful nature of fundamentalism and its efforts to push the faithful out if they did not agree with what fundamentalists said are the fundamental ways of reading Scripture and the dogmas and doctrines that result.  Rev. Fosdick was put on trial for his “heresies.”  He resigned from First Church, but was immediately called to pastor Riverside Church – built specifically for him by John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

     So, how we read Holy Scripture matters.  To think that it can be read literally is to dismiss the evolving understanding of God and humanity.  Even Jesus said many times, “but I tell you…” in order to correct misunderstandings and religious dogmas of his day.  To think that the Bible can be read literally is to dismiss the ways Jesus taught --- using parables that even his disciples did not understand until they dug deeper for their true meaning. 

     To think that Holy Scriptures can be read literally is also to dismiss the evolution of cultures and social constructs.  We do not legally enslave people in America today or preclude women from what used to be considered only men’s jobs.  The context today is very much advanced from past eras.  Not to take this into account when reading and interpreting Scripture is to limit the continuing revelation of God.

     I would add one additional complicating factor in reading and using Holy Scripture … and that is:  the lens through which we read.  By “lens,” I mean the preformed beliefs and ideas about God that we bring to our reading of the Bible. 

     Those who see God through the lens of some of the Old Testament writers (who felt that God was just in bringing in the Assyrian and Babylonian destroyers because of the unfaithfulness of the people), will read the New Testament apocalyptic writings as a foretelling of what a God of just power will do in “the second coming” to destroy the world, form a new world, and throw most of us into a “lake of fire.”  (I lived in such fear in my youth!) 

     And yet, those who look to a new covenant, to a new understanding of God as love (agape) and see it in Jesus, who was killed (the synoptic Gospels all state) because of jealousy (not to pay an angry God), will read Jesus’ words about “coming” (in conjunction with his words about being with us always) and conclude that Christ comes again and again --- each and every time a new person is born not only of water but also from above.

     Polishing our theological lens is specifically the goal of the Disciple 1 Bible study.

USE OF HOLY SCRIPTURES

     Martin Luther said that the Scriptures contain everything necessary for our salvation.  Karl Barth added, though, that one must “do theology with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.”  For me, these combine to say that the Bible contains teachings and principles that are sufficient to discern the will of God in all situations, but that discernment must take into account the context of the moment. 

     Consider the fact that Holy Scriptures do not speak specifically to the use of nuclear weapons, of stem cell research, of genetic engineering, or of global warming.  Therefore, for Christians to use the Bible as a means to guide their discernment relative to such present-day issues, calls for great attention to critical reading of the text and to a commitment to having the very heart and mind of Jesus … the lens of Christ.

     Pope Urban II used Holy Scriptures to substantiate the Crusades.  Early American colonists used Holy Scriptures to substantiate slavery.  Hitler used Holy Scriptures to substantiate the Jewish Holocaust.  Southern churches used Holy Scriptures to substantiate racism.  And, men have used Holy Scriptures to oppress and control women for ages. 

     On the other hand, the story of Jesus and the cross highly influenced Gandhi, inspiring his efforts at non-violent resistance, which led to the liberation of India from oppressive British colonial rule.  The influence of Holy Scripture on Gandhi inspired Rev. Dr. King and brought America closer to its Declaration that all “men” are created equal.  And the prophetic writings of Holy Scriptures have influenced efforts to extend democracy and to bring about many social support programs and laws, including child labor laws and our social security program.

     How the Bible is used must always be of great concern … and is, certainly is to young people today.  Unfortunately, they tend to see only the negatives of religion.  They see The Church and its Book only as a means for the powerful to control others.  I would exhort us as members of the body of Christ at MUMC to be always sure that we are critically reading Holy Scriptures and using them with the heart and mind of Christ Jesus.

CONCLUSION

     And so, I agree with Brother Luther - the Scriptures were assembled to help us to learn and to discern all that we need for the salvation of ourselves and the world … which is to realize the kingdom of God right here on earth, now.  And, I also agree with my United Church of Christ brothers and sisters as they rejoice that God is still speaking.  Let us be always listening for what God is still saying! 

Amen.

P.S.  I have posted additional information on our website.  Specifically, you will find there a short paper entitled The Real IssueAdditional Terminology.  The slides (with explanatory notes) that I used in helping us to look at the subject of homosexual behavior in Holy Scriptures are also posted here on the church website.

Like Us on facebook!