Methodists and the Myth of the Church

Feb 28, 2019

The United Methodist Church's referendum on homosexuality reveals a forgotten narrative of Christianity.

Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. Frank Herbert, Dune

The Church, too, finds its greatness when it understands the myth it is in. The truth of this resonated to us recently from the unlikeliest of places: a United Methodist conference in St. Louis to decide the church’s stance on LGBT issues.

A point of clarification before we begin. “Myth” has become a synonym for “fairy tale”, that is, a story which is not true. That is itself not quite accurate; a better definition comes from the Oxford English Dictionary:

A traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining a natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events.

The “myth-making imagination of humankind,” as Frank Herbert puts it, stems from the innate knowledge that there is a story to the world. It is God’s story, and we see it most clearly in the arc of redemption in the pages of Scripture. Even those who reject the true story still try to understand their world in stories. That is how God created us.

As Christians, then, we have the advantage of knowing the true myth, the story that does explain all of history. We can look back and see God working from ancient times until now, shaping history into the story we find codified in the Book on everybody’s shelves. We see the Church, beset by enemies on all sides; persecuted by governments, hated by other religions, yet persevering; bloodied but triumphant; standing faithful against evil, and against all odds.

This is not quite the same story we are being told in America today. The Enemy, too, understands the power of Story, and has turned his engines towards cranking out his own version of events in volume. We are told that the Church is dying; that young people are leaving in droves because it has failed to Get With The Times. We are told its only hope is to join the moral revolution, and see, these big denominations are doing it! They’re the real Christians here. Sure, there are some radicals on the fringes who still believe that hateful stuff in the Bible, but they’re the exception rather than the rule.

These are the two competing stories: the inevitable march of Progress, where those who fall behind the latest innovations are relegated to the Wrong Side of History; and the returning Lord, who will say “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

This week the United Methodist Church, for years a liberal denomination, bucked the Enemy’s new story when it voted to reinforce its teachings that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity. That is significant in itself, but what’s interesting is where that move came from.

The UMC is a global denomination. It has conferences and churches outside of America, especially in Asia and Africa, and there the Church understands very clearly the myth it is in. It understands the Gospel that is spreading and swelling its ranks, and it understands the Enemy it is fighting. Those churches see more clearly than we in our clouded haze of secular media and entertainment.

The Church must have a feeling for the myth it is in, but it can be difficult to separate that from the myth we think we are in, or that someone else wishes we were in. We correct for this in three ways:

First, by reading the Scriptures: the story of redemption, from creation to consummation. It is the tale of Christ, who (as Douglas Wilson puts it) slays the dragon and gets the girl, and of all the trials along the way.

Second, by reading history. Understanding the pattern of the myth from Scripture, we can see it playing out in history. We can watch as God shapes the course of events, from the Dark Ages to the Reformation to World War II to modern America, and read in those events the story that explains everything.

And, as we saw in recent days, by getting a global perspective of the Church. When we confine ourselves to our provincial corner of the world, the Enemy’s lies are convincing, but when we open our eyes to the work of God everywhere, those lies become mighty thin.

When the Church understands who it is in God’s story, where it has come from, and where it is going, it acts with boldness - and because we know the myth we are in, that boldness becomes greatness.