In reference to the Supreme Court decision to strike down part of DOMA, a Bishop in the United Methodist Church offered the following commentary:
They may adhere to the laws of the land, but I adhere to the laws of God.
Regardless of the intent and situation, the Bishop’s statement brought up a good question for me: What do United Methodists consider to be the “laws of God?”
While it seems like a really simply question, I don’t think it has a simple answer.
Is it Scripture? While the obvious answer, I don’t believe it is the true one. We don’t follow Scripture like a lawbook. Regardless of Leviticus ridiculous laws on shellfish and polyester fashions, we outlaw slavery which the Bible is pretty supportive of (hello Onesimus in Paul’s letter to Philemon!). We support women in ordained ministry and not as second-class citizens, which the Bible rejects across the board. We allow divorce, which Jesus himself is prettttttttttty clearly against in Matthew 19. So, no, I don’t think Scripture is “the law of God” as we do not follow it literally.
Is it a particular Commandment–or Ten? Ah, so it would be particular segments of the Scripture? But which ones? Do we go with the Great Commandment and the Second Great Commandment? But if so, none of them outlaw marriage equality. None of them address the issue of abortion. While they address the basic needs for human society, I’m not sure they effectively rule like a “law of God” should rule for all situations.
Is it the laws of a particular denomination like the United Methodist Church? It could be, as that is the focus of the rest of the Bishop’s remark: “I took an oath and was consecrated that I would uphold the laws of the church.” But I don’t think the good Bishop or anyone would point to the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline and say it is the “Law of God.” Indeed, Bishop Pete Weaver’s introduction to the 2008 Book of Discipline should settle any thoughts that the Book of Discipline is “the Law of God.”
The Discipline is not sacrosanct or infallible. It is the product of research, prayer, conversation, and worship which provides the most current statement of how United Methodists agree to live their lives together.
So, we are in a dilemma. If it isn’t Scripture, if it isn’t segments of Scripture like the Ten Commandments or the Great Commandments, and if it isn’t the Church’s polity…then what are the Laws of God?
As a United Methodist, I occasionally (not often) find it helpful to go back to the beginning of the denomination and see what John Wesley has to say. Even though I usually disagree or can contextualize Wesley, on occasions we find ourselves in sync.
So, what did John Wesley consider to be “the Laws of God?” This gets tricky. One clergy friend on Facebook pointed to “A Catholic Spirit” sermon by Wesley and said that the law of God is simply to “love God” and “love one another.” Or said differently in “Justification of Faith“:
[The] unchangeable law of love, the holy love of God and of our neighbor.
I really like that definition. But I found another perspective on Wesley to be even more compelling: that the “Laws of God” is not simply a principle we follow, but needs to be alive and active in us through the indwelling of the Spirit, the best evidence of that type of life is found living and breathing in Jesus Christ. From Derek Flood’s treatment here, he shows that the law as a set of rules is out of sync with even what Scripture says itself:
Jesus for example (following in the tradition of Isaiah) sharply criticized the contemporary understanding of the law, and was himself regarded as a blasphemous lawbreaker by the religious authorities of his day. Paul speaks of how the law which was “good and holy” in fact “became death” to him because of his own sinfulness (likely the sin of legalism, Paul being a zealous Pharisee before his conversion). Even with the perfect law before us, we see it “through a dark glass”. Our understanding of this law – like us – is created good, can become fallen, and needs to be redeemed.
In John’s Gospel for example Jesus says “I am the truth” (not “I know the truth” but “I am the truth”) so that truth is a Person. Along these same lines, Jesus refers to the Holy Spirit as “the Spirit of truth“. This is a fascinating idea because then truth or law is not based on static principles but on is creative, active, transforming, and alive. Truth is a Person (“I am the truth” Jesus says). So in Welsey’s view truth and law are alive – God’s living word.
May the United Methodist Church–and all churches that are not Sola Scriptura or Sola Traditiona–also pay attention to that living Law of God found regenerating in our hearts, and may it guide us continually to find out exactly what God wants from us in each moment. It may surprise us. It may push us to uncomfortable places. It may turn over the tables and cause us to feel in chaos. But eventually, through turning to God and turning to love our neighbor, we’ll eventually find that the dark glass has faded enough to allow the guidance to shine through clearly.
May we continue to love God and love our neighbor until that day.