The Issue of Authority
May the grace and peace from our risen Lord be with you.
The 2016 General Conference (GC) is adjourned. Delegates from all around the world worshiped together, conversed with each other and struggled together. It was not only a time of discussions, prayer and discernment, but also a time of celebrating and experiencing the global nature of the United Methodist Church. Although we have different cultures and languages, we confirmed that we also have one Lord, one baptism and one mission.
As I said in my pastoral letter on May 26, 2016, the GC asked the bishops to lead and work for the unity of the Church which is divided over the issue of human sexuality. This decision was the dominant news covered by the media, but there were also other good decisions. We will continue to work to increase the number of vital congregations and for our four areas of focus: developing leadership, growing new places for new people, ministering with the poor and improving global health. And to reflect the global nature of our churches, we will keep on working on preparing the Global Book of Discipline. The budget for the upcoming quadrennium will be slightly increased because of the last-minute action to increase by $5 million the theological education fund for the Central Conferences.
As I observed the GC, I remembered a book I read during my seminary years: “The Spirit of Protestantism” by Robert McAfee Brown. In this book Dr. Brown talks about the characteristics of Protestantism. One interesting chapter is entitled, “Authority: The Achilles’ Hill of Protestantism.” This chapter discusses the authority issue as a weakness or vulnerability of Protestantism. Protestant churches replaced the authority of the Church with the authority of Scripture. But in interpreting the Scripture, we see many differences. Who has the authority to make a decision in this situation?
This is where we are now. We have given authority to the GC to resolve this kind of situation. But some people do not agree with the GC’s decision based on their conscience and insist that a prophetic voice should be honored. They also emphasize the importance of personal experiences. The other side says that the authority of the Bible and the decision of the GC should be fully respected and our covenant honored.
Today we are struggling over the issue of authority, our ‘Achilles’ hill.’ If we cannot find a way to resolve this situation, we may face a time similar to the time of the Judges in the Bible: “In those days there was no king in Israel; all the people did what was right in their own eyes (21:25).”
Just repeating superficial unity will not work anymore. We need to be aware of the seriousness of our situation. We need an honest and fair conversation on this matter.
I think, first of all, that we need to be more humble before God and each other. We are full of convictions on this matter. All of us are seeking the truth of God, but no one owns 100 percent of God’s truth. Can we open our hearts and minds by saying I am only a human being and not perfect? Humility begins by emptying ourselves and making room in our hearts for discernment. Is it impossible for us to honor the Lordship of Jesus Christ in making decisions through prayerful discernment rather than political maneuvering? Do we really believe that the risen Christ still leads our Church through the Holy Spirit? How can we radically open ourselves to God and humbly discern and follow the guidance of the Spirit? Do we have spiritual depth and maturity, enabling us to embrace this humility? Is this an unrealistic hope?
The situation we face today is very challenging. In order to move forward toward unity in Christ we need deeper and harder prayer. Especially, thinking of the special commission that will be organized soon, we cannot stop praying for its work and its future. We pray that only God’s will be done in its work.
We are already in the middle of June. After this Annual Conference, clergy will move to their new appointments, and the churches will welcome their new pastors. I, and the whole Cabinet, pray that all these transitions will go smoothly and well, and that all these appointments will be a blessing to the churches, clergy and their families.
With many thanks,
Young Jin Cho