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Disarming a Weaponized Church: Moving Forward Amid Turmoil in the UMC

We get to participate in the mission of God, but we must do so in the way of Jesus.

2. Standing Under to Under Stand

The Old English word understand is a compilation of two simpler words, under and stand. While it has mysterious origins, typically, we use the word to denote grasping a meaning or attaining the truth of a matter. Once we have an appropriate understanding we can explain or defend a position. Conversations then become an exchange of understandings. 

We are conditioned to approach conversations with a hermeneutic of suspicion, in which we seek to deconstruct a perceived opposing idea. Often, we move to deconstruction before we have achieved comprehension. We are well versed in listening to respond but struggle to listen to understand.

What if a better metaphor for true understanding is the ability to stand beneath an opposing view in the humble posture of a learner? Really under-standing our conversation partners position, empathetically, is a way to maintain a heart at peace. 

A helpful resource here is The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute. In life, and especially during conflict, we either have “a heart at peace” or “a heart at war.” When our heart is at peace, we are aware where we stand, but we remain open to explore other sides and possibilities. We lead with wonder, curiosity, open-mindedness, and humility. We can rest in the reality that our “struggle is not against flesh and blood” (Ephesians 6:12) and it’s highly possible that while pointing out the speck in our sibling’s eye, we may have a plank in our own (Matthew 7:3). We view those who disagree with us as beloved children of God, fearfully and wonderfully made, and we treat them accordingly. We disarm our other by disarming ourselves.

Conversely, a heart at war sees the other as enemy. We are closed off to under-standing by the rigidity of our own position and assumptions. We cannot even entertain a perceived compromise, and so we gear up to protect, divide, and conquer. In this state we are on high alert, and often restless, irritable, and discontent. We baptize our position with divine right and aggressively enforce our beliefs, even if it harms others. People become objects and obstacles that we blame, dismiss, or ignore.

A heart at war has strong correlations with the attitude Jesus confronted in the Pharisees. They seemed to have certain ideas around how their ancestry and their interpretation of God’s law placed them in an elite and superior class (Matt 3: 7-9, Mark 10:5). Jesus called them “blind guides” (Matt 15:14; 23:16, 24). Their eye condition was connected to a deadly heart condition, which he described as pōrōsis (hardened) kardia: (heart) (Mark 3:5). In several of those encounters, Jesus highlighted their diminished way of seeing others, their overly fixed views, and their stubborn resistance to take on the posture of a learner.

While I will continue as a United Methodist, I have read the Global Methodist Church’s Transitional Book of Discipline and its 483-page theological manifesto The Next Methodism. I teach at a seminary with faculty and students on both sides. I pastor a network of churches and direct fresh expressions for a denomination that represents the theological spectrum. I have regular ongoing conversations seeking to learn from people I disagree with. 

I’m convinced we can stand-under another position, in a posture of humility and learning, while maintaining integrity to our own core convictions. This allows us to show up as an informed, self-differentiated, “non-anxious presence,” aware of our own biases. This can help us more clearly delineate multiple possibilities.  

3. Getting Particular to Go Universal

The incarnate Son of God, whose glory shines in the whole of creation, has a birth story steeped in the particular. Jesus was born at a particular time, in a particular place, to a particular couple.

But all that particularity is there to tell a universal story. 

God so loved the cosmos, the all, that God deigned to stoop to the particular and initiated our connection with the One, Emmanuel (“God with us”). God transfigures creation by entering fully into it, taking on the particularity of with to redeem all. The content of the universe enters into the context of a human life. 

Jesus of Nazareth fully immerses himself in the language, culture, and practices of a seemingly insignificant place. God doesn’t merely love in general but in the particular. Jesus didn’t just love people, he loved particular persons. We love not in universals but in particulars. To departicularize is to dehumanize. To clump and lump and label is to libel. 

Amidst times of schism, the tendency is to wait and see how things shake out. Local churches experience missional paralysis, hoping the denominational body will solve our problems for us.

It’s unlikely that rescue from congregational death will descend institutionally from on high. We cannot expect our systems to come and fix the specific adaptive challenges of our particular context. Local congregations deal in particularities, made of particularly unique persons, in particularly unique communities, with particularly unique challenges. God is asking us the same question posed to Moses, “What’s that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:1-5).