“Every word of God is pure; He is a shield to those who put their trust in Him. Do not add to His words lest He rebuke you, and you be found a liar.” Proverbs 30:5-6
Following the United Methodist General Conference 2016 in Portland OR, there have been “Open Letters to …” written by those who mean to lift up and encourage some but to chastise and perhaps shame the “other” – whomever that “other” may be. Some “open letters” have been informative perspectives while some have been downright condescending; and regardless of which side (orthodox or not-so-orthodox) one happens to agree with, it has been clear that all the talk of unity in the United Methodist Church is just that: talk.
We will never be able to shame “others” into agreeing with us nor will we help the conversations along by giving those of our particular camp “ammo” to fire back at those with whom we disagree. Accusatory language will not go far with those we mean to denigrate since such language usually only steels the resolve of those being accused, and our case will not be made by human reasoning. As the Teacher maintains in the Proverbs, the purity of our chosen words comes only from the mouth of The Lord.
We all have something to say, and we all have a right to say it within reason. As it is often said, however, yelling “fire” in a crowded facility just for giggles is not protected speech, and the reason is simple: people are likely to get hurt in panicked stampedes. Do we do any less harm in our feeble attempts to slander or shame those we cannot agree with?
Kenneth L. Carder, in his book, The United Methodist Way: living our beliefs, wrote: “Preachers could, a few decades ago, attract a following through denominational chauvinism. Condemning other churches and extolling the superiority of one’s own denomination could build churches. Such a message today receives but isolated response.”
Those decades have long passed us by. The idea of making others look bad in our feeble attempts to make ourselves look good simply does not wash (sadly, however, it is still the way of electoral politics). Thinking and reasoning people today demand more, and rightly so. If they are going to choose to go along with us, they must be shown the virtue of our chosen way rather than the vice of the “other”. It is not enough to tell people how bad or awful or unjust or ignorant or unenlightened the other may be (in our own opinions, of course), but we can be sure that those who are attracted by such language are themselves bad and awful and unjust and ignorant and unenlightened – taking perverse delight in character assassinations.
Especially pertaining to theological reasoning (holy language with holy intentions) while claiming to speak in The Lord’s Name, our reasoning must be much more closely connected to the “pure word of God”, recognizing the intimate connection between Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Not “one or another”, but rather “all/and”. Beginning first with Scripture as the “pure word of God” and the necessary foundation, then we evaluate Tradition AND THEN Reason AND THEN Experience – all within the scope of our Holy Scriptures. The Church’s tradition is steeped in the Holy Scripture. Indeed can there be any Church as the biblically defined “Body of Christ” which is substantially disconnected from the very Word which became Flesh? The same Scripture Jesus Himself came to “fulfill” rather than to do away with?
Sometimes a firm word becomes necessary toward those who have strayed, but a harsh word has been shown over and over to be counter-productive to making earnest disciples of Christ. As it is written, “A harsh word makes tempers flare” (Proverbs 15:1). It is no different from threatening fire and brimstone from the pulpit in an attempt to make people afraid of hell. They may well be sufficiently afraid of hell, but neither are they fully on board with the Kingdom of Heaven.
So to “open letter” writers seeking to make a point at the expense of the “other”: enough. If we set out to shame the “other” in the name of our God and try to pretend we are holier-than-thou and oh-so-enlightened especially by “adding words” to the Holy Scripture, we will not only fail to make our case on its merit; we will also be revealed as the “liars” we truly are – because our God, and our God alone, is Truth. Anything less than this Eternal Truth is spoken only by “liars”.