It’s Biblical Series:
by Michael Roberts, D. Min.
The United Methodist Church does not expect everybody to agree on everything. Each of us has different personalities, different needs, and different concerns. We come from diverse backgrounds and live within a variety of circumstances. God is big enough to work in relationship with all of us, “for from him and through him and to him are all things. To God be the glory forever” (Rom 11:36).
God does not want us to be clones of one another (Rom 12; I Cor 12). What God does want is for us to support one another, love one another, respect one another, and help each other grow in faith. We do not all have to think alike. As United Methodist Christians, we respect a diversity of opinion and interpretation. We believe that this diversity helps all of us to grow.
The scriptures confirm the blessing of diversity when it comes to matters of interpretation and thought. In the Church at Corinth, for example, people were debating about whether to follow Paul or Apollos. Which way was the right way? Paul says, “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted. Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (I Cor 3:If).
In the Book of Acts we see several debates over how to reach out to the Gentiles. Some believed that the Gentiles must follow the same ritual laws as the Jewish Christians. Others believe that this requirement would be a burden rather than a blessing, and would nullify God’s grace. In Acts 15, a compromise was reached.
For other examples, Paul talks about his differences with Peter and members of the “circumcision party” (Gal 3). Paul uses words like, “in my opinion,”(I Cor 7:12; 8:25; Rom 14:1), and “Judge for yourself,” (I Cor 11:13). Concerning one hot issue of the day, the eating of food offered to idols, Paul says it is okay, but he cautions Christians, who believe they are free from such ritual constraints, to avoid being a stumbling block to those who choose to live under such laws (See I Cor 8 and 10). He says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful….whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (I Cor 10:23-31). It is interesting to note that on this issue Paul is breaking the compromise reached at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. The Bible also reports contention between Paul, Barnabus, Mark, and Silas (Acts 15:39). Here, the Bible simply reports the differences, it does not take sides. All are still honored in the Bible.
One of the blessings of the Bible is that it is rich with a diversity of theology, perspectives, and insights into the ways of God. The Bible does not try to cover up such debates and disagreements. Within its pages we learn that it is possible to disagree on many facets of faith and still maintain a sense of unity in Spirit (See Rom 14:1-23). Diversity of thought helps us all to grow.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, had some helpful things to say on this subject. For example, he says, “As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity we think and let think.” In another place he says, “In essentials unity; in nonessentials, freedom; in all things love.” Our challenge is to make these distinctions. What are the essentials, the things that strike at the root of Christianity? For Wesley, these included our belief in God, in Jesus as the Christ and living Lord, in the Holy Spirit, in salvation by grace, and so forth. What about the nonessentials, those things in which we think and let think? For Wesley, these included styles of worship, methods of baptism, interpretations of scripture, and opinions about many matters. Wesley wrote, “It is the glory of the people called Methodist that they condemn none for their opinions or modes of worship. They think and let think and insist upon nothing but faith working in love.”
In the United Methodist Church, our General Conference (which meets every four years) gives us the official position of the church on a variety of topics. These decisions define the way we speak as a denomination on certain issues. But with the exception of our constitution and Articles of Religion (the essentials), any United Methodist Christian can submit a petition or resolution on any matter. All such petitions and resolutions are considered respectfully. We believe that, as finite and limited human beings, who do not have all the answers for every time and circumstance and who are still seeking and growing, this diversity of thought enriches our lives and helps us to grow in faithfulness and love. While we don’t always agree (in fact, because we don’t always agree) we can show the world what it means to “love one another.” (I John 4:7-19). As Wesley said, “Though we may not think alike, we can love alike.”