One of the affirmations of faith in our United Methodist Book of Worship (#884 in our Hymnal) is “A Statement of Faith of the Korean Methodist Church.” It contains this important affirmation:
We believe in the Word of God contained in the Old and New Testaments as the sufficient rule both of faith and of practice.
That affirmation is an important way of describing what the many denominations of the Methodist/Wesleyan tradition believe about the Bible. The Bible is central to our faith, it is the first and most important of the truths of the “Wesley Quadrilateral” (the others being Tradition, Reason and Experience) and John Wesley was known for saying he was a man of “one book” (even though he read and studied many books).
As United Methodists, we revere and respect the authority of Scripture. We understand that the Bible “contains” the Word of God. That means we are not Biblical literalists and we try to avoid turning the Bible into an idol. Rather, we study, pray, conference and interpret the Bible together in order to grow in faith and to become more Christ-like, because Jesus Christ is the Word of God, as the first chapter of the Gospel of John clearly states.
The Bible is a compilation of the inspired words of people of faith who witness to the Word of God, but the Word of God is Jesus Christ. This distinction is important, because it reminds us that God alone has the whole Truth, and God has chosen to reveal that Truth in the person, life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. None of us humans are capable of fully understanding or interpreting without error the Word of God. Rather, we all must be guided by the Spirit of Jesus Christ to grow in our understanding of the revealed truth of God.
This is why the church has often modified its interpretations of Scripture through the years – not because the Scriptures have changed, but because the Spirit of Christ has helped us to discern the Truth in the Scriptures. Three examples come to mind:
- The church moved from endorsing slavery to opposing slavery as we have further understood the truth of Scripture, especially Paul’s words that in Christ there is no longer slave or free, male or female, Gentile or Jew. We are all new persons in Christ.
- The church moved from banning women in ministry to allowing women in ministry (at least in most Christian denominations), because we have realized that women have been leaders since the very beginnings, as described in the Letters of Paul, and because we have grown to understand that ministry is based upon spiritual gifts and not upon gender.
- The church moved from ministry being limited to the priests to the “priesthood of all believers,” which embraces God’s gifting all persons for ministry – thus our United Methodist Church honors the ministry of lay leaders and teachers like you.
The current issue of our day that calls for deeper study and interpretation is the whole issue of human sexuality and the related issue of the meaning of marriage. Christians on all sides of this debate claim the authority of Scripture, which is a way of saying that they have differing interpretations of Scripture as they seek to know the Word of God.
Whether or not the Spirit of Jesus Christ is leading us to new understandings of the meaning of marriage is something I do not know. Certainly our culture is changing, and the Church and our pastors face pressures today that were not a part of the ministry when I began 40 years ago. I believe our UMC will maintain our traditional stance on marriage, but I also know that many deeply sincere Christians sense the Spirit of God leading in new directions. I believe that time will tell whether this movement is of God or not. In the meantime, I advise our pastors to remain faithful to our Discipline and our United Methodist position on marriage – in spite of the decisions of other denominations or the changes of our secular society.
I also remind us all to be careful to avoid the sin of religious hypocrisy which Jesus so clearly condemned. I am dismayed that so many heterosexual people have damaged marriage by their infidelity and immorality. Before we focus upon the “splinter in the eyes” of homosexual people who want to be legally married, the heterosexual community needs to remove this “log from our own eyes.” I am not comparing sins, just warning us to avoid the sin of hypocrisy, because that is such a clear teaching of Jesus in the Gospels.
Personally, I regret that the on-going debate about sexuality has so distracted us from our primary mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I long for us to get re-focused upon that mission, and I pray that the Word of God will guide us to be faithful.
From Bishop Michael J. Coyner,
Indiana Area of
The United Methodist Church
“Leadership for vibrant congregations making faithful disciples of Jesus Christ”