January 30, 2023

Pastor’s Ponderings

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Last month I explained that the United Methodist Church’s official position is that the bible is its standard for faith and doctrine, but did not require its members to agree to any specific creedal formulation.  It encouraged its members to use tradition, experience, and reason to come to their own understanding of what the bible meant and how it should be reflected in our everyday lives.  As a result, there have arisen within the church a wide variety of viewpoints.

There are those who believe every word of the bible should be binding on Christians.  But there are also those who believe that scripture is a loose set of guidelines that can be ignored if you don’t like them.  Of course, most United Methodists are somewhere In between these two extremes.  Very few would hold that we should be bound by the dietary laws from Leviticus, or that we must observe all of the Jewish holidays required in Numbers.  After all the New Testament exempts Christians from these (Mark 7:19 and Galatians 4:10), except that Jesus did say He did not come to abolish the law (Matthew 5:17-19).  People beyond the Methodist fold have argued for centuries about how to reconcile these passages, and about which Old Testament laws are to be obeyed.  The ten commandments are clear since Jesus referred to a number of them, but he also had the cleansed lepers go to the priests as Leviticus instructs (Matthew 8:4).  I have never had anyone come to me when a skin condition cleared up, nor do we as a church forbid people with skin conditions from attending worship.

Jesus also said some things that seem to be more thought-provoking than to be taken literally.  In Luke 14:26 he says unless you hate your parents, spouse, and children you cannot be His disciple.  We know that Jesus believed in the commandment that we should honor our parents, and gave the commandment that we should love one another.  So we take this as more figurative, calling for us to love him above our family, not to literally hate them.  Then in the sermon on the mount, he says that if our eye causes us to sin we should pluck it out shortly after he has told the disciples that to look at someone with lust is to commit adultery.  Again I don’t see many taking that literally.

The question becomes what is meant to be taken literally, and what is figurative.  Different people have come down on different sides of this issue.  Are the “days” in the creation story literal days, or a longer period?  As 2 Peter 3:8 says, “With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.”  In other words, God’s view of time is not ours (and no people were around to witness the creation, so it has to have been a revelation from God).  Those on the more liberal side say that even if parts of the bible are not literal, they are still revealing God’s truth.  Thus they may doubt the actual existence of Adam and Eve but say the account reveals a truth about human nature:  When we have done something wrong our first instinct is to hide it (even from God), and if found out (due to our guilty actions) to blame someone else (Adam blamed Eve and God, Eve blamed the serpent).

These debates about how literally to take the Bible can illuminate many differences in theology, and what we believe about God.  What scriptures do we feel most accurately portray God’s nature?  Some would stress the God who demands strict obedience, anything else leading to death.  Others stress that God loves all of his creation, and is a God of mercy as well as justice.  Of course, scripture says God is both.  God calls his people to live a holy life, but we recognize that no one can fully measure up.  In some places, the bible says we are to separate ourselves from sinful influences, but it also says that we should go into the world to share the message of salvation.  How do we do both?  Again people have come down on different sides of which of these we should stress.  Harry Denman was a Methodist Evangelist who reached out to people with the gospel.  He went wherever he found people who needed to hear about God’s love, including in bars.  He was recognized for successfully reaching out to people with the message of salvation, but also condemned by some for being willing to go into the bars in the first place.

Methodists come down on different sides of many issues, but all seek to honor God according to their understanding.  This has led to the current move to split the church, because people do not recognize “the other side” as faithfully seeking God.