Straight Talk


Straight Talk
News, View, and Uproars

Taking life seriously

The 2008 General Conference of the United Methodist Church took a step toward greater moral seriousness when it amended the denominations Social Principles on abortion, observes Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker of the Florida Annual Conference.

He was, of course, referring to additions to Paragraph 161 J of our 2008 Book of Discipline: The Church shall offer ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies, and We affirm and encourage the Church to assist the ministry of crisis pregnancy centers and pregnancy resource centers that compassionately help women find feasible alternatives to abortion.

From our perspective, it is refreshing to see a United Methodist bishop speak so candidly about having our denomination take a step toward greater moral seriousness on this vexing and tragic issue.

In his article in the Florida Annual Conference e-Review, he tackles the worn-out critique of pro-life activism as being a single-issue obsession. Of course, it is a mistake to single out one moral concern to the practical exclusion of others in our daily discourse, ethical reflection, and political attention. Nevertheless, the fact that a few would be so foolish is no excuse for the rest of us avoiding being engaged in an issue, Whitaker writes. The narrowness of others who are obsessed with abortion is no excuse for the rest of us to narrow the scope of our own moral attention by excluding abortion from our view.

He also reflects on the tension between moral standards and personal freedoms. Abortion is a vexing issue for Christians in America because it strains the capacity of our culture and political system to find a way to protect the life of the unborn in a social environment shaped by the value of individual freedom, Whitaker observes. The freedom we exercise in the case of an abortion is more than the liberty to live where we desire or to hold whatever religious or political opinions we choose, since the exercise of this freedom results in the extermination of another human being.

Whitaker correctly points out that the Christian community distinguished itself in its very beginning by opposing infanticide and abortion, both of which were commonplace in the Roman Empire. The Christian worship of God as the creator of all life and Jesus teaching, which generates values of the worth of every human being and our responsibility to take care of those who cannot care for themselves, made the churchs position inevitable.

One would find it difficult to disagree with Bishop Whitaker that the additions to the 2008 Book of Disciplineas well as previous statements opposing late-term abortionare encouraging signs of United Methodisms strengthened pastoral witness and moral seriousness. As we embrace more fully the larger historic and ecumenical Christian witness about abortion, Whitaker concludes, we shall grow in our ability to develop a distinctive Christian identity in a pluralistic society and a secular government.

By Steve Beard, editor of Good News.

 

From one heart to another

In 2 Corinthians, Paul is put in the position of defending his ministry. Are we beginning to commend ourselves? he asks the Corinthians. You are our letters [of commendation], he reminds them. Pauls defense of the authenticity of his work is the strong, open, vulnerable witness he has lived among these people. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify Gods word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves (4:2).

The open statement of the truth is delivered by means of a transparent witness, by the work of Christ in the hearts of the ministers. Paul says that the light of God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ, (4:6). This treasure is carried about in jars of clay, so that the glory may rebound to God and not to the vessel (4:7).

The gospel goes from one heart to another. The transparent witness of one Christ-follower lights up the knowledge of God in another person. Grace extends to more and more people (4:15).

Im struck by the lack of standard supports for ministerial authority in Pauls situation. I just re-read John Wesleys sermon entitled, The Ministerial Office, which serves as an apologia for Methodism and an exhortation for Methodists to keep to their station. He upholds lay preaching, for example, but he criticizes Methodist preachers for trying to administer the sacraments. The purpose of lay preaching was evangelism, which does not need the standard support of ordination. The purpose of Methodism was spiritual renewalfor the light and love of Jesus Christ to shine in the hearts of Methodists so that others could see the glory of God.

I find here an irreducible core to Christian ministry. Ultimately, ministry is not training or skill, though both are crucially important. Ministry is heart to heart, whether lay or ordained. In some fundamental sense, ministry is nothing more than witness. And witness means that something is happening to me, to my heart, which becomes visible in my actions.

As United Methodist annual conferences met and tallied the votes on the Constitutional amendments, these thoughts kept me oriented. I am not pitting heart against external, organizational matters, as if structure does not matter. It does. And people in favor of and against the structural changes care deeply about mission.

But the ground of confidence in Methodism or any other church or movement ultimately is not in the structures. It is not in the various kinds of standard supports we build to enhance the organizations effectiveness. The ground of our confidence lies in the glory of God shining in our faces; the grace of Christ extending to more and more people; the treasure of the Gospel embodied in these earthen vessels.

I take comfort in these thoughts. When I had to vote at my annual conference, I struggled with the pros and cons of opinions about the amendments. I voted my conscience. At the end of the day, however, no matter how the structure changes or remains the same, the gospel still goes from one heart to another. I need always to remember this one thing.

By Steve Rankin, the newly appointed chaplain to Southern Methodist University. For many years, Dr. Rankin served as professor of religion and campus minister at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas.

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