A Way Forward: Essentials and Non-Essentials*
I’ve known for a while that we would need to spend some time preparing together for the Special Session of General Conference this February - we’d have to find a way to talk about complicated, difficult, things that are close to our hearts, that impact people we love, and that can sometimes cause pain and division in the community of faith. I was blessed, then, to come across a sermon series preached by one of my colleagues in ministry last year. Katie Z. Dawson preached a beautiful sermon series on A Way Forward for The United Methodist Church, and I’m thankful for her permission to use her work to help me shape this sermon series.
The Special Session of General Conference begins on Saturday. Delegates from United Methodist Churches around the world will meet for four days to look at different proposals for structuring our denomination based on our significant ongoing disagreements when it comes to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and the life of the church. As I mentioned last week, we’ve had a study group going, reading a book together (Holy Contradictions, Brian K. Milford, editor) that focuses on this question: “How might United Methodists bear witness to graceful and mutually respectful ways of living in the Wesleyan tradition amid the enduring disagreements about same-gender relationships and related church practices?” And last week, we talked about how as we seek to answer that question for ourselves, we turn first to scripture, but then we use the tools of tradition, experience, and reason to help us interpret what we find in the text.
Today, we’re asking more questions, as we reflect on a statement oft-quoted by United Methodists. “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity” or sometimes, “In All Things Love” - love and charity were used somewhat synonymously when this phrase was coined. The quote has been misattributed a lot over the years, and is sometimes wrongly assigned to John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. But actually, it was written by a German Lutheran theologian named Rupertus Meldenius in a tract he wrote on Christian unity in the early 1600s. (1) However, in the way things work over time, these words, never spoken by Wesley, have become tied to our understanding of who we are as United Methodists. This phrase “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity” was even the theme of General Conference in 1996. Certainly, I think they express a sentiment Wesley would support.
So, today we’re thinking about what it means that we Methodists cling to this motto, that we’ve made it our own even though it doesn’t come from Wesley. What do we mean when we say, “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity”? The general sense of these words is that when we talk about the main things of faith, we should be unified in our hearts and understanding. When we’re talking about non-essentials, things that aren’t critical for right relationships with God and neighbor, we should allow people freedom for their own expressions of faith. But in everything, we should interact with charity and love. It makes a lot of sense, this approach to disagreements, doesn’t it? “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.” I can support that. But...what is an essential of faith? What things are not essentials of faith? How do we decide? And what if you think something is an essential, but I think it isn’t? And above all - do we really have charity, have love in all things? In the midst of all disagreements? I know that I’m not always feeling very charitable when I’m not seeing eye to eye with someone! How can I change my heart?
One of the essays we read in our book study quoted Wesley’s sermon called “On Schism.” Wesley was preaching at a time when many churches were experiencing divisions, when groups were breaking apart and forming new faith communities. Wesley was part of the Church of England, and he very much never meant to start a new denomination. He remained an Anglican priest his whole life, in fact. For Wesley, the idea that you might break apart a faith community over theological disagreements was an extremely serious matter. In his sermon, he wrote, “To separate ourselves from a body of living Christians, with whom we were before united, is a grievous breach of the law of love. It is the nature of love to unite us together, and the greater the love, the stricter the union. And while this continues in its strength, nothing can divide those whom love has united. It is only when our love grows cold that we can think of separating from our brethren … The pretences for separation may be innumerable, but want of love is always the real cause.” (2)
What things are essentials? What things are non-essentials? Are we wanting in love for our siblings in the body of Christ? The very first Christian faith communities faced some of these same struggles, as we see in our reading today from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul writes, “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall … Let all be fully convinced in their own minds … We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s ... [E]ach of us will be accountable to God.”
Katie Dawson writes, “In Paul’s time, the conflict he saw in the Roman community was a clash between Jews and Gentiles – people who followed the laws of the Old Testament and those who had never lived under that law but who were accepting Jesus Christ. At this point in time, Christianity was not really a separate thing from the Jewish faith… It was a movement that had begun within the Jewish community, but it was also quickly taking root in Gentile communities who had no knowledge of or cultural connection with the Jewish faith. This created all sorts of problems:
“Should someone be circumcised into the Jewish faith before being able to follow Jesus? Did the Jewish dietary laws have to be followed? What are the holy days that must be honored? When you got to a cosmopolitan, diverse place like Rome, you had folks in the same community who held vastly different opinions about how the faith should be practiced. People who ate meat and people who didn’t. People who were circumcised and those who weren’t.” In general, keeping in mind that we should always be wary of generalizations, Paul and his contemporaries answered these questions in two ways. Some thought that of course you would continue to follow all of the laws of Judaism as Jesus-followers - why wouldn’t you? And some thought that of course, being followers of Jesus set you free from some of the laws that seemed impossible to live up to. Salvation came through God’s grace, not through earning God’s love with obedience. So, Jesus-followers should have freedom from oppressive religious laws. In general, those were the two “camps,” and they played out in a big way in the diverse context of Rome, home to many peoples and cultures.
Again in general, and being mindful that generalizations oversimplify things, we have two schools of thought in The United Methodist Church right now as well when we start talking about same-sex relationships and the life of the church. Folks we might call “progressives,” who read the scripture, faithfully interpret what they read, and reflect theologically conclude that the scriptures do not condemn LGBT persons. Dawson writes, “They believe that some these passages refer to culturally bound understandings of holiness that no longer apply in Christian community. These passages are not talking about loving, mutual, relationships between two persons, but instead about exploitive violent actions and abuse or cultic sexual practices. Progressives would call us to look for the fruit in the lives of all persons who claim the Christian faith – do they love God and their neighbor? And for those who have experienced the call of God in their lives to serve, it wouldn’t matter if they were gay or straight … Progressives also would point to the marginalization of LGBT+ persons, not only in history but all around us today as well. They see current prohibitions in church law as harmful not only to our witness, but to the actual lives of LGBT+ persons.”
Other folks are “traditionalists,” who read the scripture, faithfully interpret what they read, and reflect theologically conclude “that scripture is clear about the prohibition of homosexual acts.” Dawson writes, “While justice might be a key word to describe progressives, covenant might be a key term for traditionalists. They believe that these passages, along with others, describe what personal holiness looks like within the Christian community and that if we interpret the meaning away from these scriptures, [then] all of our understandings of personal holiness might be compromised. God has created us in a particular way, man and woman were designed for one another, and only within the covenant of marriage between one man and one woman are sexual acts pleasing to God. When we choose to follow Christ, traditionalists would argue, we reject the ways of this world and allow ourselves to be conformed instead to Christ. That is the covenant under which we now live. Traditionalists believe we are called, in community, to hold one another accountable to this covenant.” You might find yourself connecting to one of these points of view more closely than the other, or find yourself somewhere along the long spectrum inbetween. I believe strongly that progressives and traditionalists love the church, love Jesus, and love scripture.
When we turn back to our text for today, I think Paul has wisdom to share with us. Paul appears to be saying something like, “These practices, these convictions, they are not essential to what it means to follow Jesus. If you are celebrating particular holy days in the Lord’s name – great! If you choose to refrain from participating in the Lord’s name – great! Because you are doing it all in the name of Jesus. Whether or not you keep kosher laws or are circumcised or whether you prefer pew chairs or pews – as long as you are focused on your Lord – that’s all that really matters. Paul goes on to say that we should not judge one another for our various convictions. Each person will stand before the Lord in their own time. We are not to force our own convictions about practices upon one another, nor are we to be a stumbling block to another person’s faith by allowing our practices to interfere with those of others.” (Dawson) Sounds good, right? But that last sentence - that’s such a hard balance to strike: Neither forcing our own convictions on each other, nor allowing the way we practice our faith to interfere with the faith of others. As I’ve mentioned before, Jesus speaks clearly, definitively about being stumbling blocks that keep others from getting closer to God. Sometimes, in the midst of the divisions we’ve been facing, I feel like we are just stumbling all over each other. How do we live into Paul’s words?
Thomas Lambrecht, one of the contributors to the book we’ve been studying together, talks about “compatibilists” and “non-compatibilists” - two “mouthful” words that I think are actually easy to understand in meaning. We’ve talked about progressives and traditionalists. Within each of those groups, there are those who “understand [that] people who have been wrestling with these questions arrive in different places. These folks also don’t believe that the answer to this particular question is essential to our faith. Lambrecht … would refer to these folks as compatibilists. Compatibilists are willing to remain in community with those who disagree with them.” They focus on “what unifies us as United Methodists …. [W]hat IS essential is our understanding of grace, our focus on personal and social holiness, and the connection that allows us to be in ministry across this globe.” (Dawson)
There are those within each of the progressive and traditionalist groups, however, who believe that how we view human sexuality and faith is an essential. “They would argue that what Paul is talking [in today’s text] … practices like what we eat and wear – [are] truly non-essential things. But values like justice and covenant are not something you can compromise. Traditional non-compatibilists believe that our call to covenantal holiness requires us to maintain these standards across the church … Progressive non-compatibilists ... want the church to be faithful to what they believe are the obvious cries for inclusion within scripture.” (Dawson) These perspectives bring us to the crossroads we find ourselves at in The United Methodist Church today.
Essential, or non-essential? Progressive or traditional? Compatible or non-compatible? Nothing is quite so black and white, so either/or as that, but thinking about these groupings helps us understand the perspectives folks are bringing to the table when General Conference begins this week. The proposals delegates are considering reflect those points of view, and if you want more information about the proposals, I encourage you to check out the link in your bulletin worksheet, or talk to me and I can share some details with you. And we’ll hear a bit more in worship next week.
So, “Is the question of human sexuality an essential of our faith? Will our response divide the church? Or is it a non-essential? Is it a place where we can respectfully disagree and create space for one another?” How would you answer these questions? My take: how we love people is essential. How we act as neighbors is essential. How we fulfill the commandments of loving God and loving neighbor is essential. So, to the extent that our divide is impacting our ability to love - to the extent that we’re displaying a want of genuine love like Wesley talks about? We’re indeed talking about essentials. But to the extent that we’re talking about differences in faithful interpretations of scripture, perhaps we’ve lost sight of the main thing. Jesus - following Jesus - is our main thing. I hope, I believe that we have room for lots of people and lots of ways in the body of Christ of doing just that, as we build each other up for the sake of God’s kin-dom. Helping people meet Jesus, follow Jesus, serve Jesus? Our main thing.
In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things - in all things - love. "May God continue to lead us as hold fast to the essentials of our faith and respect differences in non-essentials, and may love be the source of all that we do." (Dawson) Amen.
(1) Ross, Mark E., https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/essentials-unity-non-essentials-liberty-all-things/.
(2) Emphasis mine. Wesley, John. “On Schism,” Sermon 75.
(3) Dawson, Katie Z., http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/08/26/a-way-forward-to-each-their-own-convictions/
* This sermon series draws on the themes, structure, content, and excellent work of Rev. Katie Z. Dawson, and the sermon series of the same title featured on her blog, Salvaged Faith. Used with permission. Direct quotes from Dawson’s sermons are so noted. Her series can be found at: http://salvagedfaith.com/2018/08/26/a-way-forward-to-each-their-own-convictions/