By Dr. Richard Boatman
A few months ago a retired Iowa United Methodist clergyman performed a same-sex marriage in the greater Des Moines’ area. Not surprisingly, his action has had a polarizing effect, with some celebrating it as liberating and compassionate and others criticizing it as covenant breaking and biblically irresponsible. Reinforcing this disparity of views has been the subsequent application of “church discipline,” after charges were filed. The absence of punitive measures has been seen by some as a just response when weighed against the unjust language in The Book of Discipline—to others an ecclesiastical neutering of the Discipline, casting doubt on the applicability of the entire church covenant.
This parrying of perceptions has long been in the making. And like so many conflicts in so many places at so many different times, this battle of ideologies is really a clash of metaphors that, in turn, represent presuppositions. For those on the “left,” the action described above is a civil rights’ issue with placard carrying activists using civil disobedience as the necessary path to overthrow systemic evil, from prejudicial voting practices against minorities to discriminatory language for people of various orientations. For those on the “right,” this action is one of dangerous, even heretical unfaithfulness to the biblical text—a passenger jet pilot flying in a storm, ignoring the instrument panel, choosing rather to go by his feelings, though completely disoriented. The Civil Rights’ Movement and the navigational power of a guidance system—these are powerful images—but they are clashing metaphors in the Iowa United Methodist Church.
Perhaps complicating this clash is the way in which different professing Christians discern truth. For some, an experiential approach is fundamental: “I have a friend who is gay who has been ostracized, and yet who loves God.” This emotive base becomes a strong filter for scriptural interpretation. For others, a propositional method is required: “The God of love has given us the Bible, so all that is said is motivated by love—and for our freedom—which is manifested by our obedience to its teachings.” This cerebral and passionate adherence to central ideas or tenets is an equally influential lens for discerning biblical truth.
So it seems apparent that at the center of this church and societal storm of values are differing metaphors and procedures for procuring truth. Strong convictions and sincere intentions are evidenced by practitioners from both bents. Overly zealous proponents on both sides tend to summarily dismiss opposing views, reducing sincere sentiments to pejorative slogans. While logic would dictate that both viewpoints from the “left” and the “right” cannot be correct, the framework of our denominational “house” may not be able to endure the division precipitated by either the process or the final pronouncement in this debate. It is possible that some sort of agreed upon separation (as prescribed by Rev. Tom Albin, Dean of Upper Room Ministries) may be unavoidable for our United Methodist denomination. Whether this will be the case or not, the fact that such a solution would be voiced serves as ample evidence to the climate of conflict that exists. I would therefore posit that as Christ followers—though with differing metaphors—we can agree to approach such a potential crossroads of decision with civility, and even productivity.
For such a productive exchange to happen, there would need to be agreed upon parameters by participants holding differing views. Here are some possibilities: Firstly, be candid, respectful and accepting that there will be strong disagreements. Secondly, differ without demonizing one another. Thirdly, try and eliminate “us against them” language. Fourthly, genuinely listen to the greatest fear and distrust that each has for the other. Fifthly, openly acknowledge some of the contradictions in our held position. And sixthly, discuss the pros and cons of denominational reconciliation versus separation.
In the months and years ahead, United Methodist Christians will continue to face great challenges, just as in all of culture. With prayerful diligence and faithful adherence, perhaps God will grant that our clashing metaphors might somehow give way to a communal mission in Jesus Christ. “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”