The first two Commandments might be the best approach to religious disagreements | Opinion

Sometimes the responses I receive from readers make more sense than any opinion I’ve been able to come up with on my own. I want to pass along one of those responses.

Recently, I wrote a column about the United Methodist Church’s vote at its General Conference in Charlotte to remove bans on same-sex marriages and gay clergy.

With this step, the United Methodists became one of the last mainline Protestant denominations to end anti-LGBTQ policies.

What interested me about the Methodists’ vote, however, wasn’t the decision itself or even the Methodists per se. It was how religious bodies go about changing directions on major moral or theological issues.

That is, if you’ve been preaching for generations, or centuries, or millennia that God is absolutely, irrevocably opposed to something — in this case, same-sex relationships — how do you then conclude that, hey, oops, God isn’t opposed to that after all?

And, in another, related dilemma, if you do so conclude, how do you explain the shift to yourself and others with integrity?

Were you mistaken about God from the get-go — God never was opposed to, say, homosexual behavior? Or, were you right about God’s views 50 years ago, but it turns out God’s since changed his mind? (So maybe it was God who made the mistake?)

Or, do you say that, well, we were right about God before and God still feels exactly as God always has, but it’s gotten too exhausting trying to buck the current cultural grain, so we’re bending our principles in hopes of remaining current and popular?

I didn’t attempt to answer any of these thorny questions. That wasn’t my intent. The answers might vary from person to person, group to group, and situation to situation.

Afterward I heard from people across the religious and irreligious spectrum, offering their own solutions.

For me, the best response came from a reader in Arkansas, who described himself in an email as more than 70 years old and a lifelong United Methodist. I’m not using his name because I don’t want to repay his wisdom by making him the target of readers who’d disagree with him.

“For a long time I have struggled with what respected biblical scholars said was God’s instruction for us,” he wrote. “From the beginning there were different viewpoint(s) expressed by what I considered individuals more knowledgeable than me.”

He’s seen dramatic shifts in his church’s teachings on multiple subjects, such as race and the role of women in leadership, he said. He’s also read religious history, and noted how in past centuries “Christians moved from dying for their religion to killing for religion.”

It’s all enough to leave a believer confused, he said.

“My struggle has (led) me to test issues against the Two Great Commandments and try to determine a loving and good response to situations,” he wrote. “Not easy. But (it’s the) best I can do. Also I try hard not to judge others as they may (be) struggling as much as me.”

His reference to “Two Great Commandments” comes from Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus is asked to name the greatest commandment in the Old Testament Law.

Jesus replies: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

My Arkansas reader clearly meant that when faced with some proposed controversial change to church’s tenets, he asks himself what would exemplify the two rules that Jesus calls the commandments from which all others originate and to which all others must bow.

Namely, what would a loving, compassionate God expect of us? And what would be the kindest, most merciful solution for our brothers and sisters?

That’s pretty sage advice right there, friends.

As my correspondent suggested, weighing a proposed change against the two great commandments doesn’t solve everything.

Granted, it doesn’t tell us why exactly we’re altering course — whether we were wrong before, or God changed his mind or we’re bowing to public pressure.

And even if we’re diligent to be guided by love, you and I might disagree on what the most loving action is. I’ve met Christians who think the most loving thing they can do is tell some supposed sinner the unvarnished bad news about himself — that’s he’s hell-bound if he doesn’t change right now.

That’s not my own approach, yet I don’t doubt that some who believe that are as sincere as I think I am. Others, I suspect, just like being the bearers of any type of woe, and enjoy even more having some poor reprobate to feel superior to.

But, as the Bible says, that’s the problem with the human heart, both yours and mine. It’s endlessly deceitful and impossible to understand. If you don’t know that, you haven’t learned much about your fellow man. Or about yourself.

Probably the best we can hope for, then, is what my Arkansas friend suggested.

We can take pains to start and end disagreements from a place of genuine love for God and for one another. We can remain humble. And we can give each other the benefit of the doubt, even if we never manage to agree.

Paul Prather
Paul Prather

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You can email him at