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On Uniting Methodists: The Authority of Scripture

I had the pleasure of being on the host team for the Uniting Methodists “Room for All” Conference held at Lovers Lane UMC in Dallas, TX just a few weeks ago in July.  The pastors, staff, and lay members of LLUMC were incredibly thankful to be able to have such an inspiring and important event on our campus.  Those who attended the conference would have seen the following words printed in large black letters on a wall in our Watson Hall: 
Our Vision: To be one diverse community, passionately engaging the Bible, uplifting Jesus in worship and loving service, and challenging in love that which divides.
We’re proud of that vision statement here at Lovers Lane, it sums up who we feel like God has called us to be as a community of faith, and we hope it inspires those who walk through our doors.

During the past few weeks, as tensions continue to rise with the release of the “One Church” Plan put forth by the Commission on a Way Forward and recommended by the Council of Bishops, I have noticed a common criticism from those who would oppose the Plan due to their traditionalist convictions. The criticism sounds something like, “Those who support this plan do not believe in the authority of Scripture!”

The authority of Scripture.  It’s a phrase I imagine we will be hearing a lot of in the near future, though I hope the decision at GC 2019 is not framed as one of “Scripture vs. Culture.”  Those of us who support the One Church Plan may be told we don’t view Scripture as the final authority, that we are submitting Scripture to culture, that we conveniently interpret Scripture to suit our needs, etc., etc., etc.

These are not new arguments.  We’ve heard “the authority of Scripture” used in arguments against multi-ethnic marriage, racial inclusion, desegregation, women in leadership, and the list goes on. The fact that we will certainly be hearing the argument again has caused me to think about what it is we mean when we say “the authority of Scripture,” or more specifically what it is we mean when we say “authority.”

Soundbites and Slippery Slopes

One of the loudest critiques that came out of the “Room for All” Conference in Dallas was in response to a panel of Millennials moderated by Rev. Mike Baughman of the Union Coffee mission in North Texas.  One sound bite that has been getting a lot of attention is when one of the panelists, Lauren, a young, lesbian woman and self-identified outsider of the institutional church, said this: 
When I read the Bible and I read those passages that are-- so many people look at and say, “This is the reason why we are not going to hold same-sex marriages in the church,”  that’s how I take it. I believe if I sat down with Paul today, Paul would say, “I’m not down for that.” But I think the Bible is wrong.
This is the fear of many conservatives, that at the core of the One Church Plan is a belief that the Bible is simply wrong when it comes to same-sex attraction.  And if the moderates and liberals believe the Bible is wrong about that, what else don’t they believe?!  The slope begins to feel slippery fast for our most conservative colleagues.

But even though Lauren’s statement makes for an easy straw-man sound-bite, I wish we could consider the larger context of why she said what she did and why it’s not so scary after all.

Rev. Mike Baughman is many things. He is my friend and colleague, he is an opinionated Yankee who I think has a love-hate relationship with Texas, he has views on God and the Church that I sometimes think are odd or even dead-wrong, but he is one of the most successful people I know when it comes to cultivating relevant conversations with young people who do not know Jesus and certainly want nothing to do with church.  I say this because what I heard in that Millennial Panel in Dallas was not rejection of the Bible or a dismissal of its authority; I heard young people in conversation with each other, with God, and, yes, with Scripture.

Under Whose Authority?

Christ is our Lord.  I believe that statement and have defended it and will continue to do so my whole life long.  We are to serve Christ as a servant serves a master, with humility and a heart that trusts in his will and not our own.  When we say that God is our authority, we mean that in a monarchic, even authoritarian way, because God is the ultimate benevolent master, and should be seen and served in that way.  But the Bible is not God, unless I have misread the Gospel of John and the writings of John Wesley.  

Scripture, I believe, is authoritative, but not in the same way that God is.  We have different models of authority in the world, and I believe we can allow for the nuance of differing models of authority in the life of faith. Where God’s authority is that of a King, could we embrace a Scripture whose authority is more democratic, an authority that allows for more voices and more conversation? Is that such a dangerous idea? Are we not Wesleyans of a quadrilateral, where tradition, experience, and reason have served us as valuable lenses and influences as they did Wesley?  (I think Adam Hamilton does a far better job unpacking a similar idea in his presentation from the Conference.)

I’m not suggesting that we level the playing field, that Scripture now be held with the same weight as tradition, experience, or reason; Scripture is of course primary in my own theological development.  I’m just saying that perhaps when we talk of the authority of Scripture, we could understand that term not in an autocratic, fundamentalist fashion, but rather in a more democratic way that includes conversation.  Could we trust that Scripture’s authority is not threatened when we put it in dialogue with the experiences of the historical church and our modern-day hearts, minds, and souls?  Surely Scripture is strong enough.

Like the local church I serve, I believe that Scripture is authoritative.  Scripture challenges me to love the unlovable, to extend the grace of God to all peoples, and to listen intently for the new movements of the Holy Spirit.  Those messages are certainly authoritative in my life, but not every word on every page is literally, perfectly right for my life or for the people I serve.  I think the desire to make a pyre out of Lauren the Millennial is hypocritical. 

Perhaps when Jesus said, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye,’ but I tell you, ‘turn the other cheek,” he could have been more clear and just said simply: “You have heard it said, An eye for an eye,’ but the Bible is wrong.”

Or does Jesus not believe in the “authority” of Scripture?

The second we stop allowing conversation with Scripture in our churches, I fear our churches will become much quieter places, and not because they’ll be full of folks praying.  We serve a Savior who savored conversation, challenged status quo, and knew how to look past the words on the page to instead preach the heart of the message.  I pray we can be a Bible-believing church that follows in our master’s footsteps.


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