Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part II): The Authority and Interpretation of Scripture

Tuesday, November 21st, 2017

This is the second installment in a series of reflections on the “local option” to resolve the current crisis in the United Methodist Church. The “local option” would remove all language related to human sexuality from the Discipline and allow local churches to make decisions regarding membership and pastoral leadership and permit annual conferences to make decisions regarding ordination. In future installments of this series, I will address the specifics of the most prominent “local option” proposal, known as the Uniting Methodists Document. However, there are several foundational issues which must be addressed before we can properly reflect on the proposal and determine whether it is likely to produce the unity and flourishing which is clearly hoped for and intended by those who propose it.

The first foundational issue addressed in the earlier part of this series was the meaning of the phrase “church unity.” I suspect that the vast majority of us would agree that our unity with Christ, the historic gospel, and our fellow believers around the world and back through time should be the primary concern for all of us, whereas the ongoing institutional structure of the denomination known as United Methodist is a separate, though also very important, concern.

I think those who are advocating that the United Methodist church embrace new doctrinal positions related to sexuality and gender identification genuinely believe that both kinds of unity can be achieved through their proposals. In other words, they do not see any gap between the proposal for the ongoing organizational unity of the United Methodist Church and that deeper unity which we share with all Christians through all the ages. It is too early in this series to render a judgement on this point, because we are still establishing foundational issues. At this point I am merely making the point that, hypothetically speaking, if there was a gap between the teaching of a particular denomination and the teaching of the New Testament then we should all agree that this represents a problem. The New Testament is, of course, one of the great unifying forces in the life and faith of the church. If we do not have the commitment to a proper understanding of unity, then we will likely not make substantial progress in resolving our crisis.

The second foundational issue has to do with the nature of Scripture itself. In short, is Scripture authoritative in the life of the church, or not? This is not a question intending to nullify the role of tradition, reason or experience. The question is whether Scripture is one of several sources of authority, or if Scripture has a final voice in deciding doctrine among the people called Methodists. This leads to a second, but equally important question. If Scripture is authoritative, then how is the meaning of Scripture known and received in the life of the church? I am not convinced that the crisis within United Methodism is about who can have sex with whom. That is, of course, the leading presenting issue; but it has always been evident to many that the deeper issue has to do with the authority of Scripture and how we interpret and apply Scripture to the various issues which are before us.

It is also too early in this series to make a judgment regarding whether or not the normalization of homosexual behavior is consistent with biblical teaching. We will need to exercise patience here. My point in the first two articles is to establish two foundational points: First, we should value and give a greater voice to the deeper unity, and focus less on the structural, organizational meaning of the word. Second, we need to develop much more time reflecting on our views of Scripture and how it is interpreted. This is essential for any hopeful progress on the issues which are before us. Often in conflict the “presenting question” is not the actual question. I am suggesting that there are several questions such as “What is the nature of church unity?” and “Does the Scripture hold final authority over the life and faith of the church?” which are far more important than we realize. The next installment will focus on the authority of Scripture and how it relates to tradition, reason and experience.

Seedbed recently published a helpful book on this matter of properly understanding the authority of Scripture by Dr. David Watson, a great colleague of ours at United Seminary. It’s called Scripture and the Life of God: Why the Bible Matters Today More Than Ever.

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