Editorial: What Does Love Require?

Editorial: What Does Love Require?

By Rob Renfroe

Recently Dr. Timothy Tennent posted an article on seedbed.com entitled “Why the Church is So Concerned with Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination.” As president of Asbury Theological Seminary, Dr. Tennent’s article was thoughtful, insightful and reserved. In all of his writings, he has a wonderful way of making his point without belittling or condemning those with whom he disagrees.

The reaction to Dr. Tennent’s article was as predictable as it was immediate. Of the many responses that could be cited, Dr. Sanford Brown, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Seattle, critiqued Dr. Tennent’s thoughts as “a reminder that our message of ‘God is love’ hasn’t yet melted the iceberg at the heart of conservative, evangelical Christianity.”

Dr. Brown’s primary criticism was that those of us who maintain traditional Christian beliefs regarding sexual morals do not truly love our neighbors. Instead we are “… hamstrung with the older-than-Christianity tradition that drags us downward toward pride in our own righteousness and condemnation toward others and emptiness of heart toward the stranger.”

We’ll leave aside Dr. Brown’s less than charitable characterization of those he disagrees with. But his response did cause me to think about the words we use.

For example, the word “love.” Brown uses the word 18 times in his article and along with “listening,” he states that love should be the determining factor in how we think about homosexuality. But he never defines “love.”

We must love our neighbors, Brown rightly contends, but he never defines what it means to love another person. The closest he gets is that love requires us to be in “an attitude of compassionate service” to those around us. But that simply begs the question, “What does it mean to serve someone?” “What does it mean to love?”

I facilitate a course at our church titled “How to Love and Help Your Adult Child.” Parents attend who have children who are alcoholic, guilty of criminal behavior, and/or repeating bad decisions regarding their love life. And every parent who attends, no matter how much pain he or she has experienced, still loves his or her child.

But the question becomes: “What does it mean to love a child who is making poor decisions?” Some want to give the child money and shelter so he or she will be safe. They’re certain that’s what love would do. Others feel they must let the child live with the consequences of his or her choices, even if it means living on the streets. These parents believe that’s the loving thing to do. Both sets of parents love their child, but they disagree about what love requires.

I think in some ways that’s where the church is.

Does loving others mean that we must celebrate their lifestyle? Does serving another person mean we must accept and support every choice he or she makes?

If it does, then surely Jesus was not a loving person. He told people, all people, to repent of their wrong choices and change their “lifestyle,” to use a word that was not known in the time of Jesus and is today used primarily to defend the idea that all moral and sexual choices are equal and above criticism. He told the greedy, the self-righteous, the sexually immoral, and those who taught falsehood as truth to repent – not because he did not love them, but because he did.

There was no iceberg in the heart of Jesus. There was no emptiness of compassion in his soul. There was only the purest love the world has ever known. And yet, serving others did not mean accepting what they did or what they taught. It meant caring enough to tell people the truth they needed to hear – the truth that would set them free.

M. Scott Peck defined love this way: “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing … another’s spiritual growth.” I don’t deny – in fact, I decry – the fact that there are some conservative Christians who use demeaning language toward persons with same sex attraction and who find it difficult to feel compassion or have friendships with persons who are gay. That’s not who I am. Furthermore,  it’s not indicative of any of the orthodox leaders I know within the UM Church. But I know there are some conservative Christians who are unwilling to “extend” themselves to love, accept and serve persons – all persons – as they are. And out of love let me say, they need to repent and change.

But there is also a word of caution in Dr. Peck’s definition of love for progressives. And that is what does it mean to nurture another person’s spiritual growth.

Is spiritual growth nothing more than learning to accept one’s self? Or is spiritual growth a process of transformation from who we are into the person God wants us to be?

Is spiritual growth learning the eternal moral truths of the Bible and living accordingly? Or is it ignoring the teachings of The New Testament in order to affirm “the new thing” that liberals tell us “the Spirit is now doing?”

Is spiritual growth coming to a place where we believe we know the motives of others and judge them for having icebergs in their hearts and being guilty of “pride in (their) own righteousness” and “emptiness of heart toward the stranger?” Or is it believing that we can have real differences on important issues and even write about them, without impugning each other’s motives?

Progressives tell us that the way of Christ is the way of love. And I agree. But what we don’t find in Jesus is the love of the sentimentalist. What we don’t witness in the ministry of Jesus is grace without truth. And what we don’t see in Jesus is a compassion that accepted people without also telling them, “Now, go and sin no more.”

No, he extended himself to nurture the spiritual growth of people – and that always meant speaking to people about the Father’s love and their brokenness and their sin. And then teaching them about and loving them into a new way of life.

My best friends have been the ones who have told me when I was failing. They have done so with compassion, but on two occasions, different friends have said, “Rob, here’s an area of your life that needs to change.” And they were right. I needed someone to confront me and correct me. And these two friends loved me enough to tell me the truth – and nurture my spiritual growth. And I am forever grateful.

I hope the church will be a good friend to all – the greedy, the self-righteous, the sexually immoral, the prejudiced, the alcoholic, the judgmental. And being a good friend means loving people as they are and then nurturing their growth so they can become more the person God desires them to be.

That is the least that love requires.

Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News. 

Editorial: What Does Love Require?

Editorial: Facing Up

By Rob Renfroe

We’re about to find out if we have any face boys.

In 1936 the Olympic Games were held in Berlin.  Hitler intended to use them to showcase the glory of the Third Reich and the supremacy of the Aryan Race. Sparing no expense, Hitler constructed imposing stadiums, all adorned with swastikas. He attended the games in military dress and was hailed with the Nazi salute.

Into this formidable setting stepped the son of an Alabama sharecropper, so sickly and thin as a youth that he had often been unable to help his father and brothers in the cotton fields. After moving to Cleveland, Ohio, so his father could find work, the course of his life was changed when a track coach watched him run the 100 yard dash in 10 seconds. He was 12 years old.

Attending school during the day and working at night, he refused a college scholarship because his family needed his paycheck. Only after the authorities at Ohio State arranged permanent work for his father, did he agree to attend.

Living in a segregated society, not allowed to eat in the same restaurants or use the same restrooms as his white teammates, he traveled to Hitler’s Germany to run for the United States. And there in the Olympic Stadium, with the Fuhrer glaring at him, Jesse Owens won four gold medals, breaking three Olympic records, tying another, and shattering the lie that Nazism was built upon.

Describing the internal strength that had allowed her son to overcome the challenges of sickness and poverty as a child and then the immense pressure of “Hitler’s  Olympics” as they were called, Mrs. Henry Cleveland Owens said: “Jesse was always a face boy…. When a problem came up, he always faced it.”

The United Methodist Church is about to learn if we have any face boys at the top. In this issue of Good News you will read that 59 United Methodist pastors, some leading our largest congregations, have called upon the Council of Bishops to respond together to the 900 United Methodist clergy who have stated that they will break The Book of Discipline and marry homosexual couples. They believe that if enough pastors break the Discipline enough times, the UM Church will not have the resources or the will to enforce the covenant that holds us together. And we will have a new de facto policy regarding marriage and the practice of homosexuality.

Our life together as United Methodists is at risk. We have a problem.  And we need some leaders who will face it.

Fifty-nine pastors from every part of the country have stepped up and put their names on the line. Pastors who love their churches and who love the United Methodist Church. And who can no longer turn their faces away from the problem before us. (You may read the letter they sent in the following pages, as well as learn how to add your name to theirs.)

These pastors correctly understand that an after-the-fact response by the Council of Bishops shows no understanding of the damage widespread disobedience will do to the life and the unity of the church. They are correct in believing that even forceful statements by a few Bishops will be ineffective. And another call to “holy conferencing” (the typical tepid response given in the past) will not be simply pointless—it will be ludicrous, when 900 pastors have declared they are done conferring and conferencing and trusting the process of General Conference.

In essence, the fifty-nine who have signed the letter are calling upon our Bishops to be “face boys”—men and women who will together speak out as the shepherds of the church and the defenders of the faith.

And Good News is calling upon the Council to go one step further. Defend and promote our position regarding sexual holiness. We live in time of sexual confusion and hedonism. And the damage done to families, to marriages and to individuals is impossible to overstate.

The United Methodist Church has a word to speak to our culture and to our members. The Wesleyan way of holiness is a beautiful offer of freedom and dignity that protects the worth of all persons and that offers healing and wholeness for all who are broken.

It is time, past time, for our Bishops to address the most controversial issue facing the church—and the issue that is most likely to cause the church to be torn in two. It is time to create resources for the church that provide a biblical, theological, historical and psychological defense of the Discipline’s position regarding sexuality. In other words, it’s time to be face boys.

Friends, we have a problem. Is there a Jesse Owens in the stadium?

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.