Later this afternoon, the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will come to a close. The two-week conference, which is held every four years, dealt with several important issues, such as restructuring, guaranteed appointment, and homosexuality. It also dealt with other issues that will not receive as much attention, which includes a change in the amount of money in the Ministerial Education Fund pool, a change in the apportionment formula, and a change in clergy pension.
While it will take some time to fully evaluate the impact these decisions and others will make on the global movement of the United Methodist Church, there is one trend that developed from General Conference that we must address.
That is we are more defined by political thought than we are by our faith in Jesus Christ.
Throughout the General Conference, especially in the plenary sessions, we saw the full embrace of political theory and thought. This is nothing new. Both the left and right flanks of the church fully embrace thought and practices that are more akin to political races than a desire to engage Scripture and faith. What was on display at General Conference, and in the Twitter feed that dominated the responses, was an “us versus them” mentality.
The “us” always claims to be on the right side of God and the true church. The “them” are always the one opposed to the “us” vision of the church. Political thought suggests to win an argument you have to take sides – liberal/conservative, young/old, gay/straight, or evangelical/postmodern. In order to pass an agenda, you have to claim the other side is invalid, wrong, or not fully part of the discussion. When we live in a time that is defined by partisanship, political thought prevents seeing value, or decency, in the other side.
Many went to Twitter claiming it was the rules, and Robert’s Rules of Order at that, which forced people to take sides in arguments. However, to claim that is to make something a scapegoat to a deeper issue. We embrace a political process to Scriptural issues. We desire to “win the argument” over seeking the will of the Holy Spirit.
This does damage to the body of Christ. Galatians 3:28 tells us that we are “all one in Christ.” Paul’s message of the unity of the body of Christ runs counter to the message of political thought, which seeks exclusion over the tougher calling of embrace. Our desire for political approaches to spiritual issues prevents us from fully engaging the “other” in the debate or the discussion. We are no one together seeking the will of the Father, but “us” and “them” seeking to win an argument.
Our witness suffers because of this. In the aftermath of a contentious debate regarding homosexuality, many took to Twitter to voice their disapproval. Some went as far as to blaming the African church for “their agenda” not being approved – an act which at times bordered on full racism. This is one of the side effects of engaging the political over seeking the face of God. When our agenda fails to pass, we have to seek out the person, or group, responsible for this action. We then turn our anger and disappointment on the “other” as a way to make ourselves feel better. Clearly, this is not a sound representation of our witnesses of the love of Jesus Christ.
Finally, when we seek political answers to spiritual problems we try to find other ways to get “our agenda” passed. In the aftermath of Thursday’s sessions, many are arguing for “central conference” status for the United States. This would give the United States the same ability to set the discipline according to cultural needs. Some believe doing this would allow the church in the United States to pass a more “favorable” agenda and church.
There is something deeply wrong and disturbing by this. It goes beyond seeking a schism, which we believe to be wrong. The advocating of a “U.S. Central Conference” would break the church from the global kingdom of God. This is more than a taking-our-ball-and-going-home response. It is an act to cut off relationship, which breaks the body of Christ in two. We must be willing to learn from the entire global church. When we only want in ministry and relationship with people are like us and think like us, we are not growing or being challenged. Isolation is no answer and it is not a desirable call that we see from Scripture.
As the United Methodist Church moves out from Tampa and heads back to its congregations, we will have time to fully reflect more on what transpired. We will write about Plan UMC and the many structural changes. I hope that what will not get lost is our deep need for repentance. At times, we have failed to seek God and have tried to seek self. We are all guilty of this. May God prune us and shape us in the ways that are needed, and mold us into the church God needs of us to “make disciples of all people” and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all.