In the latest issues of Good News Rob Renfroe wrote a good article called The Deeper Issues of United Methodist Renewal. Renfroe lists 4 topics that he says divide the UMC and claims that conservatives and liberals take opposite positions on these views. John Muiner wrote a great response, but I wanted to add my own thoughts.
I think Renfroe is on to something. I think for too long the UMC has ignored the real issues that divide us, (the deeper issues instead of just the presenting issues as Renfroe says). I also think that Renfroe correctly identified four significant issues that divide us. However Renfroe also set up a false dichotomy and still didn't get to the issue that I believe is at the core of our problems as a church. Let me explain:
Issue 1: The Nature of Moral Truth. "Is moral truth determined by the unchanging character of God? Or is it determined by the ever chaging experiences of human beings?" Conservatives say God, liberals say humans. I'd say the answer is both. True moral truth is determined by God. There are divine principles behind every true moral. However our society operates under a system of morals (right and wrong for all time) and mores (loosely defined as what current society believes is right and wrong). Most of the debates that we have around morals is a question of whether a particular issue is truly a moral or a more. Hopefully we would all agree today that slavery is 18th century mores taught that slavery was OK. Biblically, I think part of Jesus "you've heard it said... but I say to you..." statements in the Sermon on the Mount were morals vs. mores. Renfroe is right that the debate around homosexuality (and many other issues) is about the nature of moral truth. A deeper question, though, is "which issues that we wrestle with are eternal morals and which are mores for today's society." It's not an either or question.
Issue 2: The Authority of Scripture. "Do they speak the truth to all people in all cultures at all times? Or were they...hopelessly out of date for persons enlightened by the truth contained in the latest sociological surveys?" I think the phrasing of the question reveals Renfroe's view. I believe in the truth of Scripture. I also believe that Scripture is always interpreted and well intentioned people have always disagreed about the proper interpretation of Scripture. I believe that the Psalm 137 accurately reflects the desire of the writer for Edomite babies to be killed. That is a truth in Scripture. I also believe it is hopelessly out of date for us to desire the same thing. The issue of the Authority of Scripture is a real issue, but it's deeper than agreeing or disagreeing with "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it." That's Bumper Sticker Christianity, which is not the United Methodist Way. The deeper question is "how do we faithfully interpret Scripture in today's context?"
Issue 3: The Revelatory Work of the Holy Spirit: "Is it always in accordance with the Scriptures? Or can it amend and even contradict the Scriptures?" This is not a real issue. Renfroe toes on to say that we all agree that Scripture is interpretted and that the Holy Spirit aids in the interpretation. The only argument he gives is that "radical liberals" believe that Scripture can be amended and contradicted. Renfroe says "this is where the battle will be fought in the coming years," but the last person I'm aware of who seriously wanted to change the contents of the Bible was Martin Luther. The deeper question is "how do we know when the Spirit is leading us to a new understanding of Scripture?"
Issue 4: Uniqueness of Christ. "Do we confess him as the only-begotten Son of God, the unique Savior of the world...? Or can he be ... trivialized into just one of many ways to God?" Yes. Christians must claim Jesus is the unique Savior of the world. That's central to our faith. Christianity is a unique faith, and we must claim its uniqueness. But that does not exclude the possibility that God is active in other religions and in other ways throughout the world. We believe that the Old Testament is part of God's Word. This is still true whether it is read by a Christian pastor or a Jewish rabbi. There is truth in the Jewish faith. Islam also shares many of the same stories as Christianity and Judaism. There is truth in Islam. Complete truth? No. But some truth? Certainly. God nudges us towards truth in many different ways, first among them Christianity and Jesus Christ. The deeper question is "what are the ways that we can affirm God's presence in other faiths while maintaining the distinct and unique place of Christianity among world religions?"
So here's the deepest issue that we need to ask as United Methodists: Who are we and how will we be defined? Will Rob Renfroe and other "conservatives" define United Methodism? Will MFSA and other "liberals" define United Methodism? Or will we instead identify ourselves as a strong family of faith which, like any family, has moments of strong arguments and differences of opinion but is ultimately held together by a common love for one another and a unity that in John 17 Jesus says will help the world "...know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."