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.”