Many digital bytes have been spent responding to and analyzing the recent Judicial Council decision on the South Central Jurisdiction's challenge to the Western Jurisdiction's nomination, election, consecration, and assignment of Karen Oliveto as a bishop. Of all that's been said, perhaps the most insightful piece I've read was written by Rev. Dr. Robert Hunt before the decision was announced. Dr. Hunt uses missiological analysis to reach a broader perspective on the debate as a whole.
In his piece, Dr. Hunt analyzes the various arguments on both sides of the debate to identify the sources of authority to which each appeals. He notes six: biblical arguments, arguments from the early church, arguments from Wesley and the distinctively Methodist tradition, arguments from God's providence at work in history, arguments about the basis of valid ministry, and legal arguments. As Dr. Hunt notes, both sides in the debate use all six, but in very different ways from one another.
Dr. Hunt traces the disparate interpretations of these six sources to what might be termed two different theologies of inculturation or contextualization:
"On one side are those who argue that Christianity is about certain essential principles that must be enacted in different ways in different times. For them the Bible and all successive Christian tradition is a contextual document, telling us how those principles were to be enacted in a particular places and times. The combination of general principles and specific instances of their realization over time helps us clearly understand the principles, but doesn’t force us to accept those enactments as precedents that must be followed.
"On the other side are those who argue that Christianity is precisely about fidelity to the precedents set by Christ, his apostles, and the apostolic church. The principles of Christianity are not mere abstractions, but specific structures, laws, and actions commanded by Christ that must be upheld in all cultural and historical contexts."
As Dr. Hunt notes, such a debate is not unique to this issue, to United Methodists, or even to Christians. Seeing the debate in this light does not indicate how we should move forward. (Indeed, Dr. Hunt suggests the UMC is at an impasse over this difference.) It does, however, add perspective in understanding the debate.