John Wesley, founder of the religious movement known as Methodism, was a very spiritual man. He woke every morning at 4am to read from his Bible and pray for three hours. He was well educated, and he had a heart for service, visiting prisons and orphanages every day. He believed in the power of the Bible and in the teachings of Jesus Christ, and it is Wesley’s interpretation of the gospel which shapes my own theology.
John Wesley believed there were four sources from which Christians should gather information to make spiritually sound decisions: Scripture, Reason, Experience, and Tradition. As with all approaches to a Christian life, the first place to look for truth is within the scriptures themselves, but Wesley believed that it was important to use all the gifts God gave us to interpret those scriptures, and that includes our own intelligence.
For example, many scriptures in the Bible speak of slavery. Even Abraham, the father of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, had slaves, forcing one of them, Hagar, to bear his child. Paul himself spoke of slaves and their need to submit to their masters. Does this mean that slavery is spiritually sound? It certainly is human tradition to use slavery as a means to control and oppress, and Christians used the Bible to support slavery as late as the 1800s here in the United States. But our experience has shown us that slavery is morally wrong. To treat other human beings as property is cruel and inhumane, and scientific reason has taught us that there is no such thing as race: no group of people is inherently weaker than, or inferior to, another. So even though Paul is accepting of slavery, and we can find that in the Bible, our experience and reason have shown us that Christians can’t condone slavery, and even more importantly, are called to fight against it.
The Wesleyan Quadrilateral, as it is called, allows for looking at scripture through the perspective of historical context, language translation, contemporary cultural experience, and just plain common sense. For me, it allows the Bible to be seen as a theological road map, a doctrinal guidebook, rather than a cold weapon, whose main use is for judgment and condemnation. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral is the application of grace to our sacred text, which while being divinely inspired by God, was first written down and then later interpreted by flawed human hands.
We use this methodology to interpret the Bible every time we read it. If you don’t own slaves, if you believe women can teach, if you eat shellfish, cut your hair, wear polyester, or don’t stone your children to death when they talk back to you, you are applying tradition, reason and experience as you interpret the Bible. The problem is, just like we cherry pick the verses we decide to ignore, we also cherry pick the verses we decide to wave around like banners, especially when we use verses to separate the “good” people from the “bad” people, when we use the Bible to point out which people are bigger sinners than us.
My denomination will hold it’s general conference later this month and vote on several pieces of legislation which will decide our official church doctrine concerning sexuality. This issue will dominate the discussions and votes, and likely, no matter the outcome, one population or another within the UMC will feel betrayed and possibly leave our organization. It is the most divisive social issue of our time.
There are any number of ways which I could use to discuss the issue of homosexuality in church doctrine. We could apply the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and discuss homosexuality in historical context. We could discuss Sodom and Gomorrah and what the Bible actually says about the reason for it’s destruction. We could talk about the fact that sin is sin, there are no levels of better or worse, and yet we don’t have language in church doctrine specifically condemning adultery, lying, prostitution, gambling, or any other sin which we know exists within the population of Christian church goers, and in fact, allow marriages of adulterers to take place in our church all the time. Two people who have had an affair with one other, left their spouses, and gotten remarried to each other, can continue to sit in the pews of the church as full members and are allowed to do so by church Discipline. But for some reason the Discipline specifically pinpoints homosexuality as a sin, and a population to exclude, from the grace of the church.
As we prepare for the discussion and possible conflict which loom in front of us, that is not what I want to talk about. Today, as we attempt to interpret and understand how the church should handle the issue of homosexuality in our Discipline, I want to talk about you. I am not interested in your stand on homosexuality. To be honest, I don’t care what your interpretation of the Bible is regarding homosexuality. What I do care about is your interpretation of the Bible on what it looks like to be the church.
14 You are like light for the whole world. A city built on top of a hill cannot be hidden, 15 and no one would light a lamp and put it under a clay pot. A lamp is placed on a lampstand, where it can give light to everyone in the house.16 Make your light shine, so that others will see the good that you do and will praise your Father in heaven.
And my argument today is that is all that matters. It is not up to you to judge who among us is a better or worse sinner. For we all sin. It is not up to you to judge what is sin and what isn’t. And it is not up to you to pass judgment upon who gets grace and who doesn’t. What is up to you is how you treat people, and how you allow the love of God to shine forth from your actions and your words every day. What I care about is how we be the church: open minds, open hearts, and open doors.
I personally believe that divisive language in church Discipline must go. There is no reason to point out one group of people and make them feel unwelcome within our hearts and within our walls. That is not what we are called to do. It is our job to love people, share with them the word of God, and invite them into our circle of fellowship. It is simply not our job to judge.
Many of you are old enough to remember when it was illegal for a biracial couple to marry in the South. The Bible was used to justify not allowing whites and blacks to marry because “you shouldn’t be unequally yoked.” As Christians, we get it wrong when our focus is on who to exclude. But we get it right when we focus on our own relationship with God, and the journey of faith we are called to. All are welcome here. And may the blessings we receive from God shine so brightly within us that we become lamps of God’s love, which then shine so brightly that they draw everyone toward us and into a loving and welcoming church.