The North Georgia Annual Conference was held last week at the Classic Center in Athens, GA. I confess that I both look forward to and dread annual conference.
Seeing people you know from seminary, a prior appointment, a seminar, residency group, etc. is wonderful. We rarely see each other otherwise. We just don’t have time. I also enjoy hearing what is being done by local churches and agencies around the conference and beyond. This is always inspirational.
Reverend Gary Moore, a Methodist clergyman from Northern Ireland, led us in a series of sessions on conflict and reconciliation. Having lived through “The Troubles,” witnessing death and destruction for years between Protestants and Catholics, he knows what he is talking about. Since our theme was “One with Each Other,” and divisiveness is the way of most things these days, his sessions were challenging, inspiring and realistic.
What I generally do not like are the floor debates and General and Jurisdictional Conference elections. This year was different. We did not have many resolutions on which to vote, and the one that might have spiked a bitter debate was introduced by our Youth Delegates (high school age kids from all 12 districts who have full voting rights just like the adults). These youth spoke eloquently during the floor debate, and the resolution passed. And, for once, I was prepared for elections. I, and many of my colleagues, met multiple times to talk with and about who would bring voices of reconciliation to the next gathering of the world-wide UMC.
Many annual conferences were different from prior years as well. The Greater New Jersey Conference stood out in my mind because of their “5 Principles” developed by Communities of Hope.* Here are excerpts from these guidelines for doing ministry and making decisions in a world that is increasingly partisan and divisive:
1. The Lord loves unity.
Jesus prayed that “they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11), not only about the disciples, but “also for those who will believe in me through their message” (John 17:20). That’s us.
Our unity was very important to Jesus, and should be important to us. The call for oneness echoes through the New Testament, with Paul, Peter, and James adding their voices. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” Paul wrote (Ephesians 4:3). Scripture is full of conflict but the message of unity remains.
2. Discern what is essential, and what is not.
John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, was fond of reminding colleagues and members, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity.”
This saying was written in the middle of the Thirty Years War, a colossal struggle between Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics that tore Europe apart in the 17th century, killing half the population. Originally applied to this misuse of the church by national political entities, Wesley used it in his struggles with opponents to his mission (Methodism) to the unchurched in the Anglican Church.
This quote doesn’t solve our problems, but should cause us to determine how essential our position is. We should ask, “Is there a core aspect of Christianity at stake here, or could we “agree to disagree?’” Christians have split over issues such as the use of alcohol, policy on divorce, ordination of women, slavery, and justification by faith. Which of these call for division, separation and walls?
3. It’s better to be loving than right.
The New Testament refers frequently to the all-importance of love. What’s the greatest commandment? Love God and others (Matthew 22:37-39). It’s how we fulfill God’s law (Romans 13:10). It’s greater than faith and hope (1 Corinthians 13:13). Even if you do amazing religious things, without love they’re worthless (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Of course we shouldn’t dilute God-given love into the stuff of pop songs and romantic comedies. Love doesn’t mean avoiding all conflict or just doing whatever people want. But it is our ultimate calling to put others first, to live sacrificially in the way of Jesus.
Paul, in his discussion of Christian disagreements in Romans 14-15, was dealing with issues that separated people from Jewish and pagan backgrounds. He assumes a certain liberty in these matters, but challenges people to act in love. “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God” (Romans 15:7).
4. We pay attention to our culture, but we don’t follow it.
We want to avoid two extremes. On the one hand, there are culture-following churches that simply go with the flow, blithely accepting the opinions of the prevailing culture on money, marriage, or even morality. Then there are culture-blind churches that pay no attention to the changing attitudes of their communities. Both types become irrelevant. The culture-blind church loses its ability to speak to people in the modern world, and the culture-following church has nothing to say.
We should be leading the culture, speaking prophetically; which means applying the teachings and example of Christ to daily life and decisions. We share the Lord’s passion for this world (John 3:16), but we won’t let the culture decide our priorities. The apostle Paul lived this, “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews,” he writes, adding that he had a similar approach to non-Jews. “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22).
The important questions to ask are, “What is the most God-honoring stand we can take?” “What is the best witness to the Gospel?”
5. Through the Bible, God still speaks to our world.
Increasingly, Americans see the Bible as a relic of the ancient world. How could it possibly guide us today? Some consider it irrelevant to 21st century issues because ‘things were different back then.’ Others consider this book dangerous, a supporter of violence, slavery, and discrimination against various people groups.
The Bible describes violence and oppression enacted by fallible humans, but it also provides a better way. Only through prayer and studying together can we understand context, intent, audience; and discern modern application: essentially the spirit, not the letter. Current conversations are not in any way a referendum on whether we believe the Bible or not, but rather how we understand it? So, what is God saying to us? And how does he want us to communicate his message to our current culture?
For me, these five principles are helpful – challenging o be sure – but still helpful.
* Communities of Hope walks with communities to identify their assets and develop strategic plans for community transformation. During training, local teams develop a Hope Plan for implementation within their communities.