Archives For General Conference

Here’s the final session to our church-wide study on Scripture and Sexuality where we took a look at Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Note, the lecture below and the audio from the class are complimentary but by no means the same. And, you’ve totally got to listen to it because…how often do you hear the Doxology sung to the Mary Poppins’ tune?

Where We Are 

Last week, we started to delve into the good stuff, also known as the “clobber passages.”  We discussed how the naming of them as such also names the powers that hold us captive insofar as we engage the passages to harm our neighbor.  The Sin, the Devil, the Enemy, he cannot be dealt with until we acknowledge that he is indeed at play and at work.  Part of the aim of last week’s session was to try and turn us towards a new understanding of those passages, such that we can attune ourselves to the ways we misconstrue them at the cost of the Church.  

A Note on Purpose and Method

It may not be entirely obvious why I have structured this class the way I have.  I want to clarify this, and in doing so clarify also what my purpose in this class is.  

I wanted to start by rethinking how we read the Bible.  So much of what we discussed in the earlier sessions was meant to frame why the Bible, the Church’s unifying document that teaches the narrative of God’s grace in and for the world, can become such a source of antagonism, dis-grace, division, and rupture for the Church.  I want to urge us towards a deeper understanding, both of Sin, and of Faith, as given in Christ.  By rethinking how we read the Bible, and thus impressing on you the need to re-read it, I want to show what the Bible makes evidently clear: sinners are the only people reading it.  That statement, as obvious as it may be, seems to disappear when we approach the Bible, with all its intricacies and difficulties.  Despite what we may think, the Enemy is always at work in the world, even (and perhaps, especially) when we try to read the Bible.  

For that reason, the lesson on discernment and Bible-reading as a churchwide endeavor seemed the obvious next step.  As individuals approaching the text, it is much harder to identify and see where Sin is working in and through us.  The Church serves this function of accountability.  As a community, we can hold each other accountable to the grace given through the cross of Christ.  The Church is the place where we can learn, teach, and discern the work of God in His grace.  Thus, reading the Bible as a community formed in the image of Christ is the best defense against the Enemy, because the Church is the people through which the grace of God is shown to be at work in the world, by bringing sinners and strangers into communion with each other.  

Only with such an understanding of the depth and difficulty of the task of reading could we begin to approach the Bible anew and afresh, with the openness to hear the Spirit speak.  In reopening the Bible, I am not seeking to convert or evangelize.  Despite what the WCA says about me, I am not part of the gay mafia, and I am not trying to push a liberal agenda.  

Positively speaking, I am trying to get us to realize that, as a Church called and formed by grace, I am seeking simply to show that it is possible to live in community with others who think differently than us.  The work of discernment is how we open ourselves to God, such that, through our baptism, we allow ourselves to be in communion with each other.  

 

Romans 1: 18-32

Last week, there was one text we left out of the discussion of the “clobber passages”: Romans 1:18-32.  The reason I did not include Romans in our discussion is that it does not particularly fit into the category of “clobber passages” in the same way as the others do.  As we saw, the “clobber passages” are notable for the ease with which they occupy our ideological language.  The “clobber passages” are those with which we can effortlessly and comfortably, fundamentally attempt to excise God’s active work in the Church, while also being persuaded that what we are doing is God’s work.  

This is a diagnosable problem on all sides, from the most conservative to the most leftist.  To throw Sodom and Gomorrah at someone, without regard for who they are made to be in light of the cross (physical, embodied symbols of God’s grace), functions in the same way as blinding someone with the colors of the rainbow, disregarding that the Church holds true that it is the cross that makes us equal (in our sin), not the terms of secular ideology.  It is not by chance that Paul’s focus in Romans 1 is also on the work of the cross, cutting against our attempts at self-righteousness.  

Romans 1.18-32 is the key scriptural text that Christians on both sides of this debate must wrestle with when it comes to homosexuality. It is the only passage in scripture that treats the subject in more than an illustrative fashion, and it is the only passage in scripture that reflects on it in theological terms.

No matter what you conclude about this passage and its understanding of homosexuality, the theological context is crucial. That is, we have to understand what Paul is doing, not just in these verses, but in the first chapter of Romans, and the epistle, as a whole.  In the first chapter, Paul is attempting to demonstrate how the Gospel, rather than a set of philosophical precepts or moral teachings, is the power of God active in the world and, in fact, acting to overturn the world (the incarnate God is not an apolitical agent – though his politics are not like our own).

The Gospel, for Paul, is where the very righteousness of God is present.  And if it is present, it is active.  That is, Paul understands God’s righteousness not as a noun or adjective, but as a verb.  The Gospel – the story it tells about the work of God in Christ on the cross through the Spirit – is God’s way of making righteousness present and at work in the world.  

Thus, Paul sees that Jesus is the active embodiment, the incarnation, of God’s righteousness, and in chapter 1 of Romans, he is taking it as his task to detail the vast difference, the abyss between the righteousness of God disclosed in Christ, and the particular unrighteousness of fallen humanity.  Paul’s work in Romans is to diagnose the theological problem that makes the world the world.

Verses 19-32 serve for Paul as his exhibits of the evidence for the unrighteousness of the fallen world. Paul catalogs homosexuality as part of his thesis. Homosexuality’s inclusion in this series of illustrations should not obscure Paul’s larger rhetorical point. As verse 21 indicates, the cited sins all fall under the more general, and more damning, indictment that these fallen sinners have failed to honor God and render him his due thanksgiving. The sin Paul is zeroing in on, in other words, is idolatry.

In what way does Paul understand homosexuality as idolatry?

A majority of biblical scholars and cultural historians concur that Paul has in mind not monogamous homosexual relationships as we might know today, but heterosexuals in the wider Greco-Roman culture who engaged in homosexual acts purely for the sake of sex. That is, his focus is not, say, marriage.  His focus is, instead, sex taken from its place as a unitive and reflective theological motion.  This means that Paul is critiquing those who have made sex an end in itself, unattached to any sacred or intimate relationship of trust. In Paul’s mind, sex has become (or, is one example of) an idol.  

It is also necessary that readers do not miss Paul’s larger argument and the implications it bears for how we think of homosexuality. Paul, in chapter 1 of Romans, is not warning his readers of God’s wrath to come if they should engage in such sinful, idolatrous acts.  Paul’s point is, rather, that the world has already come under (and been delivered from) God’s wrath.  The presence of the idolatry of sex is not cast as a sin deserving of God’s wrath, but rather as proof of God’s wrath.  This may sound harsh, and it would be so, if not for the cross.  

God’s wrath, displayed in the death of Christ (of Godself) on the cross, exposes sin for what it is.  For Paul, then, the inclusion of the language of homosexuality is not meant to single out homosexuals as particularly deserving of God’s wrath (which is, by the way, exhausted on the body of Christ).  Rather, in diagnosing the theological condition of humanity, Paul sees the idolatry of sex, of which unfaithful homosexual acts are an illustrative example, as proof of God’s wrath.  Again, the indictment here, as I see it, is not against homosexuality proper, but against the idolatry of sex.

While this may be cold comfort to gay Christians, it should preclude Christians from singling out homosexuals as peculiarly deserving of God’s wrath. Indeed, if one is faithful and literal to the text of Paul’s argument, homosexuality is no more grave a sin than those who are “full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” 

Paul, quite intentionally I think, provides an exhaustive and all-inclusive list. After all, his point is that all of creation is groaning in rebellion to God and we are all victims of and participants in unrighteousness.

On the other hand, and to be fair, Paul’s theological point in Romans also gives grist to the argument that many Christians make, that homosexuality violates God’s creative intent for humanity. I do not want to skirt by this; after all, my aim here is not to convert anyone to any particular view.  While gay Christians may feel that they were created so, readers of Paul can make the theological claim that homosexuality is a sign of how Sin in our fallen world has distorted God’s aims in creation. Nothing in creation, some might posit, presently resembles what God intended in the beginning.

Readers must remember, as well, Paul’s claim in 2 Corinthians 5.17, that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.”  That is, the old narrative of creation is left behind.  The creation and intention of God for creation is not only made new, but is made right through the rectifying power of God’s righteousness, incarnate in Christ. 

Paul’s writing in Romans is dense and difficult. Readers should not forget that Paul’s argument is a theological one, not a moral one. To be faithful to the text, the arguments and conclusions one makes about homosexuality, at least in terms of Romans, should be theological ones, and they should be theological ones couched in the exhaustive list of sins Paul enumerates in verses 29-31.

Another word of caution to those who debate these matters, and the word of caution comes from Paul. As Paul’s reasoning continues into chapter two of Romans, Paul warns that, “You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things” (2.1). 

The Grafting of Gentiles

In his book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, Richard Hays acknowledges that the New Testament provides no definitive, applicable “rule” on homosexuality. The New Testament, as in the case of Romans 1, offers only theological principles against homosexuality, yet Hays stresses that scripture’s negative prohibitions regarding homosexuality be read against the larger backdrop of the male-female union, which scripture presents as the normative location for love and intimacy. 

However marginal or unclear are the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality, the scriptural canon clearly and repeatedly affirms that God made man and woman for one another. Any contemporary discernment over homosexuality must struggle with this positive norm that is the overwhelming witness of the scriptural narrative

There is, however, another way of thinking about homosexuality that can serve to help balance our present discernment in the bounds of scriptural cannon and tradition.  We should remember here the advice of David Fitch: grounding our discernment in the stories of real people, in the reality and complex materiality of sexuality.  And we should also heed the advice of Luke Timothy Johnson, who notes that, “The burden of proof required to overturn scriptural precedents is heavy, but it is a burden that has been born before. The Church cannot, should not, define itself in response to political pressure or popularity polls. But it is called to discern the work of God in human lives and adapt its self-understanding in response to the work of God.”

To those who would worry that this advocates turning the Church into a replication of modernity, fear not.  Johnson’s advice is not advice to rush ahead and simple acquiesce to culture at every turn.  What Johnson gives us is the possibility of a hermeneutic of openness within the Church.  That is, Johnson’s advice is to maintain a posture of humility to being open to listening to the stories of God’s people with intent, grace, and the full armor of tradition.

Because scripture consistently adopts a negative view of homosexuality and affirms the heterosexual norm, we should listen to Hays, who argues that any change to the Church’s traditional teaching must come only “after sustained and agonizing scrutiny by a consensus of the faithful.” 

This agonizing is not dissimilar from the work Paul does in all his corpus, but especially in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians to understand theologically the grafting of the Gentiles into the body of Christ.  As in the famous line, Paul writes that in Christ, “there is neither Jew nor Gentile” (Galatians 3.28).  That is, in Christ’s death and resurrection (and the grace and salvation poured from there), the distinction between opposed groups is abolished.  For Christians, that means that each person in the body of Christ becomes an occasion for grace.  

Referring back to our notes on marriage, relationships are made possible by such work along Christological lines.  Relationships, of which marriage is the pinnacle, are opened to the work of Christ, precisely because God has made the relationship of the Trinity accessible to us in the incarnate Body of the Son.  

Eugene Rogers takes this to be the foundation on which gay and lesbian Christians in monogamous relation with one another, can be grafted into the body of Christ.  He posits that the relationship into which we are grafted through our baptisms is precisely the relationship Paul highlights in the adoption of the Gentiles into God’s salvific work, noting, “The sting is this:  In saving the Gentiles, God shows solidarity with something of their nature, the very feature that led the Jew Paul to distinguish himself from them.”  

The nature with which God shows solidarity to the Gentiles is the same nature with which God shows solidarity with the Jews: their sin and excess.  It is on the basis and mutual affirmation of our sin that God shows solidarity in adopting us into the life of the Trinity.  On the grafting of the Gentiles, Rogers writes:

The baptismal formula is not merely descriptive of the eschatological community, but normative…the salvation of almost all Christians, those who are not ethnically Jews, and do not observe the Torah, depends on taking [Romans 11:21-2] seriously, not only because it reflects on the cause of their salvation in God’s gracious grafting of an unpeople into God’s people, but also because it regulates relations within God’s people.”

Rogers, in analogizing this to the grafting of gay and lesbians Christians into the Church, concludes that it is only by affirming our baptismal relationship to each other that we can seriously think through the issue itself.  Our baptismal relation, which unites us in our death, allows us to discern the relations we ought to affirm and engender in our own community.  

Conclusion

Rogers also offers a simple question for us to ponder: how can we deny the Spirit, when it moves right in front of our eyes?

What Rogers is implying with this question is that we open our eyes to the work of the Spirit in gay relationships.  What he means by the work of the Spirit is the opening of grace to two sinners called into mutual life together in monogamous marriage.  If marriage is a site of grace, then the Church ought to consider whether gay marriage can also be such a site.  The grace of God in Christ knows no bounds.  What the Church needs to consider is whether, given all that has been said, we ought to affirm grace in the relationships of gay Christians.  

For the fourth year in a row, the podcast posse hosted a live pubcast to kick-off annual conference, this time at Ballast Point Brewery in Roanoke where we had over 200 folks attend. Our guests were Jeff and Steve Mullinix, who shared with us their story of growing up in the closet, attending Bob Jones University, and eventually finding one another and marrying. Jeff is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and Steve is a teacher. As Steve told us in an earlier podcast, “I am incompatible with Christian teaching because of my relationship with another man; his name is Adam.”

If you’d like to get your own “Incompatible” glass that we passed out to partcipants that night, go to our website www.crackersandgrapejuice.com to order your own.

While you’re there, click on “Support the Show” and become a patron of the podcast.

We’re doing a church-wide Bible study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. In addition to the crowd at church, literally thousands have downloaded the class notes or audio. It’s encouraging to see so many people from so many viewpoints earnestly want to learn.

THE CLOBBER PASSAGES AND CREATION (AKA: “THE GOOD STUFF”)

Where We Are

Last week, having solidified our understanding of Bible reading as a communal enterprise, we started to talk about sexuality through a positive, substantive understanding of marriage and its theological purpose:  to reflect the mutual joy and vulnerability that constitutes the life of the Trinity. 

And Now… the Good Stuff

After three weeks of re-learning how to read scripture, I know you are all anxious to get to the texts in contention. The day has finally arrived.  The “clobber passages” are finally here.  Just by the name, we must note the violence these passages have done, not only to certain LGBT people, but to the Church as a whole.  The “clobber passages” have done harm to the body of Christ called the Church not only because we throw them at each other with such disdain for the other, but because when we do so, we resist and reject the idea that reading the Bible is a Churchwide enterprise for the purpose of discernment, not destruction.

That is, when we read these passages and (1) take them out of context, (2) use them to hurt one another, and (3) refuse to open ourselves to any interpretation other than the one we supposedly conclude on our own, we preclude God from working through the process of discernment.  Like David Fitch told us a few weeks ago, such actions are the simple reiterations of cultural antagonisms.  

Thus, the fact that we have even coined the term “clobber passages” belies our captivity to the ideology of the world, and the need for the freedom Christ’s grace provides.  Before we even begin, then, we need to set out, once again, our communal assumptions.  Doing so provides a consistent reminder that keeps us framed well within both tradition and the concrete world we inhabit.  The interpretation of Holy Scripture is one of the most important tasks assigned to the Church, and in such a tumultuous world, this very activity of discerning the work of the Spirit in scripture and our lives can show the world the alternative that is Christ.  

By the same token, narrow, closed interpretations cannot do justice to the complexity of the issue at hand.  It is inadequate discipleship to approach this issue with a “the Bible says it’s wrong” attitude. Such a closed attitude treats scripture as a dead letter, and it fails to ask what the Holy Spirit might be speaking through the Word of God to the Church today.  

It is also insufficient to respond to this issue with the contrary attitude which says, “Well, I know how I feel about this matter.” Such an individualistic attitude fails to take seriously the testimony of the larger Christian community, both past and present. The Church is a community, and its testimony is predicated not on individual suppositions, but on the community’s work in discerning God’s work.  

With that, allow me one more remark about the nature of what we are doing here. Homosexuality is an issue that strikes at God’s intention for our relationships. Whatever answer one gives to this debate, it is clear that God intends for our conservations and discernment to be marked by mercy, humility and love.  This study, which we are undertaking for the sake of the Church and in the assurance of the Gospel, must be undertaken with the conviction that our world, being a profoundly polarized world, needs a sanctuary, a place where complex issues can be discussed, where God’s will can be discerned, and where such dialogue is guaranteed to happen with a love born of grace and a hospitality tempered by humility.

This conviction necessarily takes every side of the issue with sincerity and with the assumption that each person comes seeking God and what God is doing in the world.  It is inadequate to assume otherwise. If we treat this issue with silence, we do a deep injustice not only to LGBT people in our congregation, but to the Church as a whole. Christ came to forgive all sin, not to keep his people silent.  

With that, let’s remind ourselves of the guiding parameters from the first session: 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance, of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (”I know Jesus said, but I say to you.”). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriage was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

The Good Stuff, Part 1 – Sodom and Gomorrah

Genesis 19.1-29 tells the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a familiar, yet little understood passage that many insist is a clear moment of God’s wrathful judgment levied against homosexual activity.  Clergy, laypeople, and theologians often make reference to this story to shore up their accounts of the absolute heterosexual proscription of the Bible.  

In the story, a mob of men from the city bang on Lot’s door. Their apparent intention is to gang-rape Lot’s visitors, whom the reader already knows are really angels. No reason is given in the text for why the men of the city should be so moved. Rather, their threat stands as a sort of symbol in the story for the city’s general wickedness.  That is, the specific intention of the mob is a byproduct of the city’s captivity to sin.  

The angels rescue Lot’s family and later pronounce the city’s destruction. Despite the propensity of some to read this narrative as an anti-homosexual text, no where in the story itself or in the rest of scripture is Sodom’s sin identified as homosexuality. Instead of homosexuality, the prophet Ezekiel identified Sodom’s chief sin to be: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (16.49). In discerning scripture’s will for homosexuality, it is prudent for the Church to look to other texts.

Further, reading the text in this fashion forces one to draw an analogy between gang-rape and consensual homosexual relations. This is a textual and a logical stretch, at best.  Especially, in light of the work we have done in the past few weeks to resituate our communal understanding of marriage within the life of the Trinity, the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah could hardly function as an example of such relationships.  If there is some condemnation of homosexual activity here, it is most certainly not of the kind that concerns the Church.  There is nothing that even remotely resembles the faithful, monogamous kind of nuptial relationships that are under consideration here.  

Bonus Note:

The activity of the mob is, as the text tells us, one unnatural to the human condition. That is, there is nothing about the people in the mob that naturally inclined them to gang-rape. Whether or not you believe being gay is a matter of nature or nurture, gay people are who they are, and that will not change. 

The attribution of the mob’s acts to their nature, and thus the blame of judgment on homosexual activity, does not hold.  After all, the members of the mob had wives.

The Good Stuff Part 2 – The Household Codes

Leviticus 18.22 and 20.13 belong to a portion of Leviticus referred to by scholars as the “Holiness Codes.” If you read them, you will see that they clearly prohibit male [but not female— because the texts are most interested in preventing unclear lines of inheritance] homosexual behavior. They seem straightforward and clear. Case closed, right?  

As clear as these texts are, however, they are not satisfactory texts for many Christians. The Holiness Codes, after all, contain many moral admonitions that have been ignored by Christians since the days of the early Church. These are matters related to food regulations and the ritual necessity of circumcision. Both “Acts” and “Romans” confirm for us that these codes do not apply to the life of the Church.  It is inconsistent with the larger Christian tradition to pull these texts out of Leviticus for the purpose of debate when the communal consensus has been that they belong to a code that is no longer normative for followers of Jesus. In fact, even the biblical literalist would have to acknowledge that while Leviticus prohibits male homosexual behavior, it makes no mention of female homosexual relationships. Indeed, such a jump to the condemnation of all homosexual relationships would be outside the bounds of a strict interpretive lens.  

As interesting and provocative as these passages are, they are not binding to us unless we also do not eat bacon.  

I don’t know about you, but whenever I hear Paul’s Gospel announcement that “for freedom [from the Law] Christ has set us free,” I first think of bacon.  

The Good Stuff Part 3 – The New Testament

As we noted in our list of assumptions, the Gospels show Jesus teaching within the bounds of male-female normativity.  That is, Jesus does not denounce homosexuality, but he does not condone it either.  He is strongly within the bounds of male-female relations.  To be fair, Paul does reinterpret some of Jesus’ teachings, but he does not question those bounds.  

Beyond the Gospels, homosexuality and homosexual behavior receives few mentions.  For now, we will leave Romans 1 aside.  We will pick up on that next week.  

For now, 1 Corinthians 6.9-11 and 1 Timothy 1.10. 

The First Letter to the Corinthians is a corrective that Paul issues out of frustration over their illicit actions.  The Corinthians, as bible readers and church-goers will remember, believed that they were already enjoying the exalted resurrection life. They concluded, therefore, that traditional moral conventions no longer applied to them. An aggravated Paul calls the Corinthians “wrong-doers.” To illustrate what he means by wrong-doer, Paul very helpfully provides them with a list of the sorts of people he is including the Corinthians among: “…fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers.” 

For us, as Bible readers, it is important to note two things: 

  1. Sodomy does not equal homosexuality.  Sodomy is a particular sexual act, while homosexuality is a sexual orientation.  The two are not exchangeable, equivocal terms.
  1. Where we find homosexuality, especially in lists like this, it is often serving a rhetorical purpose, more so than being treated as a topic in itself.  

1 Timothy makes a similar move.  Timothy presumes that homosexuality is wrong, but 1 Timothy is not concerned with examining it in its own right. Instead, Timothy provides a list of behaviors and vices that are opposed to the Gospel, such as: “fornicators, sodomites, slave-traders, liars, perjurers.” 

In an earlier lesson, we talked about approaching scripture with a larger hermeneutical frame through which we interpret specific passages.  In passages like these, such a hermeneutic is requisite for proper ecclesial interpretation.  As much as these passages declare homosexuality as inconsistent with the Gospel, the broader theological condition that the New Testament diagnoses is that we are all incompatible with the Gospel.  

That theological conviction aside, the acts described here are, again, not the kind of relationships that concern the Church presently.  While it may seem like I am side-stepping the problem here, it is important to reflect on what kind of questions we want to ask, as a community, when it comes to this issue.  The nuptial vows we take in our wedding do not reflect individualized actions and vices that occur outside the bounds of our relationships, but rather the life and grace of the Trinity that has the possibility of being reflected in our relationships. Such distinctions are important when we interpret passages like this.  

What it is that we are after is a concrete, positive understandings of relationships in the life of the Church – relationships formed in the image of grace.  

Reframing Normativity – Genesis 1

When the “clobber passages” have worn themselves down, the conversation usually turns to Genesis and the account of creation.  Genesis 1 details the story of creation in pairs, and the heteronormative, supposedly binary creation of Adam and Eve, along with their complementarity, is used to support the doctrine of marriage.  

There is no denying the force of the Creation narrative on discussions of relationships, marriage, and human sexuality.  The beauty of the creation story seems bound up in the duality of the pairings.  More negatively, such a binary view necessarily flows into an interpretation that sees non-heterosexual relations and people as a result of the Fall.  

However, the narrative of creation is not primarily about the pairs that mark its ends.  Creation, as St. Gregory of Nyssa argues, is the script of the revelation of God as love.  Insofar as that is true, there must be a relationship of congruence between the Creator and creation.  Along with Christ, creation is the “primary act of God’s self-expression and an important part of God’s self-revelation to us.”  

With this frame, we can posit the creation narrative not as a strict narrative of ontology (a fancy word for the nature and existence of things), but rather,as a broad libretto that delineates the ends of the diversity creation inaugurates.  

Creation, in other words, is “non-binary.”  

The mystery such a conception of creation reveals is the notion that the pairings given in Genesis 1 are each “spectrums within which a variety of expressions occur.”  

Take light, for an example.  

Just as with day and night, light and darkness do not name the only possible options available within God’s creation. It’s not, that is, either light or dark. As I write this essay, it’s dusk.

The first act of creation is the creation of light and, as we know from quantum physics, light is “itself one, but with variety that’s visible when it’s passed through a prism.”  Further, if creation is an expression of the triune Creator, then, of necessity, it cannot be contained by binary sets of parameters.  Creation must reflect the full spectrum of the goodness of God.  

The phrase “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve,” thus, has force only as a rhetorical insult, with little interpretive basis behind it. The phrase assumes an absolute doublet pairing, lacking the room of diversity reflected in every pairing of the preceding creation narrative.

A non-binary conception of creation, despite how counter-intuitive it might strike us, actually proceeds from the source of creation:  God as Trinity, a unity of oneness that makes room for diversity.  The cosmos mirrors such diverse unity, and the demarcation of creation as such with pairs, indicative, but not wholly descriptive of its inner diversity, opens for us a new way of seeing the pairing of Adam and Eve: descriptive, normative, but not proscriptive, nor exhaustive.  

In Conclusion… Procreation?

You are probably wondering about the command ordered to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply.”  This is not an incidental question, for most orthodox Jews even today will name “Be fruitful and multiply” as God’s very first commandment to his creatures. 

As the ancient wedding rite makes clear, a willingness for a married couple to welcome children into their life (without condition— this is why Christians are against abortion) is an attribute constituitive of any understanding of Christian (or Jewish) marriage. After the clobber passages are set aside, Christians will often cite the inability of gay Christians to bear biological children as a disqualification of their marriage as Christian marriage. While this point is more constructive than resorting to the clobber passages, it often inappropriately elevates the role of child-rearing as a Christian vocation and, in doing so, dismisses the vocation of single Christians and adoptive Christian parents. Still, the command to create like our Creator is an important one for Christians to address.

I want to conclude by commenting briefly on this and bringing us back into the original frame of our conversation.

The command, so often thought to bear only on Adam and Eve, is really a creative command issued to all of creation for the sake of creation.  That is, the procreative act is a necessary byproduct of creation’s contingency, which is a fancy way of saying that creation, unlike its Creator, does not have itself as its foundation, and thus must have certain procreative capacities to ensure its continuity.  Moreover, the command to procreate comes after the declaration of everything as “very good,” which means that the diversity of the continuum of creation is imputed a goodness in its relation to God prior to any requisite necessities.  

What does that mean? 

It means that the inherent created “very goodness” of those who constitute a Christian marriage is not invalidated or insufficient by marriages which cannot have childrenor choose not to have children. Logically, this would apply to gay Christians every bit as much as it would apply to infertile Christians. 

Christian couples are required to welcome children into their marriage (should children come); they’re not required to have children. 

Further— and this is key for it’s oft forgotten— Christians believe the command to “be fruitful and multiply” is now a closed commandment. 

The fullness of creation, in terms of Christian doctrine, is fulfilled in its entirety in the coming of Christ. That is, as Paul declares in Galatians and Romans, Christ fills all commandments, including the procreative command. What’s more, the need to fill the earth is no longer necessary, for, as the Bible declares to us in Ephesians, the Fullness of Christ is a Fullness that already now fills all of creation precisely because it is God condescending into His creation itself.  The Creator enters creation, and in so doing, fills creation to its absolute core.  

The crucified and risen Christ is in all of creation; such that, all of creation is a sacrament, rendering the command in Genesis not just closed but obsolete.

Our discussions of sexuality, keeping within the interpretive frame set out above, must acknowledge the coming of the Creator as the fulfillment of the world, and with it, the final completeness of the creative act.  The love that inaugurated the world, the love that every Christian marriage has the capacity to reflect, was made flesh.  

We continued our church-wide Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality by looking the Song of Songs.

SESSION THREE: MUTUAL VULNERABILITY AND DELIGHT— SONG OF SONGS AND MARRIAGE AS A PARABLE OF TRIUNE LOVE

WHERE WE ARE

So far, we’ve done little to deal with the actual portions of the Bible that mention sexuality.  Purposefully, the first two sessions were meant to try and reframe how we approach and think about the Bible.  In the first session, we discussed how the reading of the Bible is a churchwide endeavor.  That is, the Church is the means by which we mediate our understanding of scripture, because it provides the communal frame through which we can interpret the particulars of scripture.  

  In the second session with David Fitch, we doubled-down on the importance and difficulty of reading as a community.  David helped introduce us to notions of ideology and banners, concepts that help us to identify what happens when we start throwing scripture at each other; that is, David helped us see when we turn the grace of God as communicated by scripture into the Law as dictated by the antagonisms society envelops us in.  When antagonisms are the basis of the Church’s (Read: the community’s) use of scripture, the Bible becomes a weapon, an instrument of ideology.  

David left us with the question of how to discern what it is that God is doing on the ground in the Church.  Discernment on our part requires an active participation in the life of Christ by forming our discussions in the same way that Christ forms us through the cross.  Discernment means beginning in a space of brokenness – the only space from which God enters the scene.  It begins, then, with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, opening up the community to seeing collectively where God is present and where God is working among them and outside of them.  

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Once again, since I want to make sure this sinks in for everyone, I’m going to reiterate the assumptions and premises to help us navigate this question and open ourselves to how God is shaping us through it.  (Notice: the emphasis here is on what God is doing.  We cannot proceed unless we can first get to a point where we acknowledge our need to be led, to be taught, to be humbled in the work of God in this community.)  

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes which have been superceded by the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized instead that their reading of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses, which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

SONG OF SONGS AND MUTUAL, MATERIAL JOY

First, take a look at the ancient wedding rite as found in the Book of Common Prayer. While the rite obviously assumes the male/female norm, notice what the liturgy names as the first purpose of Christian marriage:

Dearly beloved: We have come together in the presence of  God to witness and bless the joining together of this man and
this woman in Holy Matrimony. The bond and covenant of marriage was established by God in creation, and our Lord Jesus Christ adorned this manner of life by his presence and  first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. It signifies to us
the mystery of the union between Christ and his Church, and Holy Scripture commends it to be honored among all people.

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture  in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.

In the debate over sexuality, verses are plucked from various and different contexts to corroborate one position (and by the very same token, denigrate the position of another).  Think Leviticus 18 and Romans 1, to name a few.  

The most neglected book of the Bible in this discussion, and perhaps the most neglected book generally in the Church, is the Song of Songs.  Perhaps, this is because it is the most openly erotic book of the Bible.  Perhaps, it is because the love song uses language many of us would never dream of saying in the bedroom (nor would we want to hear it). 

Given the openly amorous language, I wonder why this does not get the attention it ought to receive in debates about sexuality.  

It is a love poem, but a love poem of a different kind, something not found in the whole of scripture.  Ancient Jewish interpreters of this poem understood it to be a love song conveying the relationship between God and Israel.  Reading in that legacy, interpreters in the early Church understood the poem on two levels: on the interior relationship that constitutes the trinity, and the relationship between God and the Church.  For ancient interpreters, rarely was it the case that this scripture was referenced to refer to marriage as we know it.  

The Song of Songs was not a song of human marriage, but of the marriage of the divine, through which human marriage finally became intelligible to early Christians (Paul, famously, advocated chastity and asceticism before marriage).  It should be indicative even from the name of the poem, which takes a superlative, genitive form.  It is the Song from which all other songs proceed, which is to say that the relationship disclosed in the Song of Songs is the primary relationship of focus for those in the Church.  

The Song of Songs shows us that, in the life of the Church, marriage becomes intelligible only on a tertiary level.  The Song of Songs, in primarily disclosing the relationship that constitutes the Trinity, reflects the focus that Christian marriage is meant to reflect: the unmitigated, continuous exchange of grace and love between partners.  The relationship that the Song of Songs most ardently expounds is the relationship of grace that marriages are meant to reflect.  

Marriage, then, is a signifier of the one-way grace and love of God for the world, given in Christ through the power of the Spirit.  

Take this passage from Song of Songs 5: 1-8

  1. I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.
  2. I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.
  3. I have put off my coat; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them?
  4. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for
  5. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handles of the lock.
  6. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
  7. The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they wounded me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
  8. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am sick of love.

Obvious innuendos aside, the centerpiece of this passage is the opening and closing to the Beloved.  The whole dramatis of this section relies on the climax that occurs in verse 6.  Read as the relationship between the Church and the Lord, this can be identified immediately as a statement begrudging the lustful desire of the Lord’s flock and instead turning her to seek after him properly.  

Beneath this, though, is a deeper meaning.  The theologian Robert Jenson writes in his commentary that what is revealed in the oscillation of open and closed is moreover the laying out of the recurring pattern of Israel’s salvation history.  This history is laid clear by the shifting nature of the love the woman has for the Beloved, shifting from seeking after him, to desiring him, to knowing him properly.  

Deeper still, there is something revealed about the nature of the Trinity here.  The same oscillation between lust and love, between eros and agape, is representative of the continuous exchange of love and grace, and the transformative, active power therein, that makes the Trinity’s inner communion distinct.  

The song, in its ebb and flow, tracks and maps the exchange of love that constitutes the unity of God: Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.  

And notice (this next part is important for the rest of what I am going to say):  The kind of love and desire described, the kind of actions used illustratively, they are all embodied acts.  

BABETTE’S FEAST

The cult classic film, Babette’s Feast, is a helpful example in attempting to understand the grace God gives, which is the same grace that makes God, God.  In the film, which takes place in a small town in Sweden, the two female leaders of a struggling congregation that declined after the passing of its founder, find a woman on their steps needing a place to stay.  She was fleeing persecution from the French, who had killed her family.  The women agree to let her stay, and in return she cooks and cleans for them, providing meals for their services and maintaining the church.  One day, she happens to receive the winning ticket of the lottery, worth $10,000.  After notifying the two sisters, she insists that they celebrate her winnings with a large feast, which she offers to prepare.  She leaves for a while to get everything necessary for the feast.  When she returns, a boatload of food arrives with her, and she prepares a full meal in French style, with which the locals are unfamiliar and on first taste, unsatisfied.  But as the feast progresses, the gathering becomes more and more lively, the food tasting better and better with each bite.  

At the end of the feast, the two women, fearing that she will leave since the feast is over, ask the lady what she plans to do.  She replies by saying that she is not leaving, for she spent all her winnings on the feast.  “That is the cost of a meal for friends at Café Anglaise,” she states.  

The story is a story of unmerited grace, where the Christ-figure both upsets and reconciles.  The narrative, which shows a lot more Gospel than cultural criticism will allow us to admit, tells us a several things.  

  1. The human Jesus really was a human, who appears to us in the state of brokenness and need. Therefore, the redemption offered in Christ is one offered through a body.
  2. The price of grace can be paid only by Christ: It is inaccessible without him.
  1. The promise of grace is never revoked, for it promises bodily resurrection and rehabilitation.

TRINITY, THE BODY, AND MARRIAGE

Before we start judging gay people for the supposedly distinctive unrighteousness of their marriages, straight Christians need to first have a positive understanding of what marriage is and what it does.  And for us Christians, that means taking the resurrection seriously.  In fact, taking the resurrection seriously is the only way that the Christian view of marriage makes any sense.

The resurrection, we confess in the creeds, is bodily; the Christ who leaves the grave on Easter morning is not only alive, but he is alive and breathing. The resurrection we profess is embodied, which makes the marriage of two people not simply a sign of invisible grace, but a physical embodiment of the promise God gives in Christ, the only promise that could ever be unconditional.  

As we saw in the Song of Songs, the relationality of the Trinity is what marriage ought to point to.  And insofar as one person of the Trinity is, in fact, a Person (albeit with a capital P), then the relationship expressed in his life, death, and resurrection, provides the necessary centerpiece of the physical bond we call marriage.  

In fact, without that piece, marriage is simple a soluble spiritual bond that cannot sustain itself, and that will inevitably not take seriously the importance of the body.  That is, without the resurrection, Christian marriage becomes unintelligible, because the body becomes meaningful. 

In the ancient world, between the 1st and 4th centuries, a proto-religion called Gnosticism came out of the early Christian tradition. You’ve probably heard the name before.  In fact, you’ve probably been a practicing gnostic before (don’t feel bad about it; its America’s religion, really).  There were two central things, thematically speaking, that made Gnosticism different from the early Christians: their conception of the body, and their notion of salvation.  The latter, for Gnostics, informed the former.  They thought of the body as encumbering the soul, the freedom of which is the ultimate salvation.  

We may not want to admit it, but we (as a society) are much more prone to thinking of bodies in this way, in this negative light that ties the body to a negative materiality.  For Gnostics, salvation ultimately ended in the release from the body and the ascent of the pure soul.  

Despite its ravaging popularity, even to the point of being a distinct part of our philosophical inheritance, the Gnostic notion of the body is utterly different from the one offered in Christ and in our marriage to Him.  

The marriage rites, which quote from Genesis (something we will talk about next week), tell us that the couple “cleaves” to each other.  The couple, that is, literally physically attach to each other (yes, that means what you think it means).  The resurrection and the ascension, the moments in which God raises both Christ and humanity with Him, are bodily acts, and in that vein give our bodies a substantive meaning – a positive meaning.  

Further, the ascension, which is the visible sign of the unity of the Trinity in which all of humanity is invited to participate, actually makes our material lives good.  The goodness of the body of Christ, raised into active participation in the unity of love and grace, raises our bodies into that goodness as well.  When Christ returns from the dead in the physical body that was nailed to the cross, the bodies we have were given a good meaning. 

The resurrection, assured in the ascension, makes the bodies we have important conduits of grace.  Grace comes not in a disembodied, vaporous form, but in the substantive body of Christ. That body was made naked and vulnerable to us, such that we might “see the Father” (John 14:9).  The vulnerability of Christ’s body is a sign to us of the goodness of our own vulnerability.  And remember, the body the disciples see after the resurrection – it’s still vulnerable.  Jesus urges Thomas to “put your finger here; see my pierced hands.  Reach out your hand and put it into my side” (John 20:27).  

Nowhere is the vulnerability of our bodies more evident than in marriage.  

Thus, all the acts of marriage, and especially sex, are the truly parabolic moments that signify a couple’s reflection of the Trinity.  We have to remember that the Trinity, whose love we attempt to reflect in marriage, is the constant self-disclosure and love and grace to itself, which requires of it an absolute vulnerability.  Each of the members of the Trinity is always already open and vulnerable to the others.  

When we open ourselves to others (literally and metaphorically) and become vulnerable, our three-way relationship with us, our partner, and God becomes intelligible.  Our nakedness takes on a theological meaning, because it reflects the same nakedness that binds the Trinity together.  

Thus, marriage is not only an outward sign of an inward grace, but a physical sign of a bodily grace.  God, who is all in all through Christ in the unity of the Spirit, cannot help but raise our bodies, too.  It is only from that stance that we can begin to evaluate, in a Christian sense, the goodness, or not, of nuptial unity.  That is, if we are to evaluate marriages as a church, then this positive understanding of the goodness of our bodies and the reflection of the Trinity that is a centerpiece of the sanctifying function that marriages serve for the community called the Church.  

That grace, moreover, is the means by which marriages become sanctifying bonds given as a gift to the Church for its edification.  More on that next week.  To end, I want to offer you a “Charge for a Wedding,” written by Eugene F. Rogers, a theologian who was my first teacher at UVA, which does not depend on male-female normativity for the coherence of Christian marriage:  

“Dearly beloved: we have come together in the presence of God to witness and bless the joining together of these God’s human creatures, [x and y], in Holy Matrimony.  Marriage signifies the mystery of the love that God bears for human beings, in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith with us.  That love is mysterious to us in that, unlike us, God just is love, an interior community, never lonely, already rich.  That love is open to us in that God desires, befriends, and keeps faith in God’s very self, as these two desire, befriend, and keep faith with each other.  And God’s Spirit internally witnesses and blesses and keeps faith with the love in God as today we externally witness and bless the love of these two human creatures in God’s image.  Today the celebration, blessing, and witnessing of this wedding catch us up into a parable of the inner love and life of God.” 

I’m leading a Bible Study on Scripture and Sexuality in my congregation this summer. For the second session (since I was traveling), participants watched a video conversation I had with Dr. David Fitch of the Northern Seminary about how Christians can discern the debate around human sexuality without participating in the antagonisms which exist outside the Church in the larger culture.

Here is the video and the session notes distributed for the class:

Reiteration of “Yes, but…” Conversation Parameters: 

Just to make sure we start from a place of continuity, I want to reiterate the “Yes, but…” parameters set out last week.  These allow us to maintain a posture of grace and humility when discussing such a fraught subject.  Since this is a subject we approach as a community, formed and read on the level of discernment (more on this later), it’s important to keep each of these in mind going forward. 

1. Yes, homosexuality is given minimal attention in scripture, and where it is mentioned, it is most often mentioned in an illustrative fashion. But, where homosexuality is referenced illustratively, it is used as a negative example— usually, as a for instance of Gentile behavior. 

2. Yes, homosexuality is not a matter that receives attention in Jesus’ preaching and teaching. But, that’s an argument from silence, and Jesus’ teaching explicitly endorses the male/female normativity of marriage.  

3. Yes, Jesus teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman (“from the foundation of the world”), but St. Paul adapts Jesus’ unambiguous teaching on divorce to allow for divorce in the specific cases (I know Jesus said, but I say to you). 

4. Yes, the New Testament Church understands marriage as between a man and a woman. But, marriage is an evolving institution in scripture (Abraham?!)— and, the early Church’s first expectation was for believers to remain single and celibate. Indeed, the celebration of marriages was forced upon the ancient Church by the Roman empire.

5. Yes, it’s true that some of the prohibitions people cite against homosexuality are contained within Old Testament purity codes, which have been supercededby the Christian new covenant. But, it’s also true that the early Church at the Council of Jerusalem (Book of Acts) singled out which Levitical codes still bound believers. These include the commandments regarding sexuality.

6. Yes, the Book of Acts shows the Holy Spirit working to expand and open up covenant belonging beyond what the Church deemed permissible from their prior reading of scripture (e.g., Cornelius, Ethiopian eunuch). But, the early Church did not conclude from the Spirit’s inclusive work that their scriptures had been wrong; they realized, instead, that their reading* of their scripture had been wrong— God had always intended the inclusion of Gentiles (Isaiah 60). This same tension is true when it comes to the issues of slavery and women in leadership. The Church concluded they’d misread the dominant themes of scripture in favor of a few verses which supported their prejudice. The Church did not conclude that scripture was wrong about slavery or women.  *Note to Jason:  added emphasis

7. Yes, homosexuality is nowhere affirmed or even condoned in the Bible. But, nowhere in the Bible is what we think of today as monogamous, faithful homosexual relationships even countenanced. 

8. Yes, the Church has historically defined marriage in terms of one man and one woman. But, the Church historically has not demanded immediate agreement about marriage when it has been at odds with the cultural norms of a given mission field. Namely, Christian missionaries have long tolerated polygamy in the mission field in order to advance their mission of proclaiming the Gospel. 

 

Recap from Session 1:

Last week, we started off our discussion by focusing on how it is that Christians approach, read, and appreciate the Bible, and attempting to place this within the larger discussion of how we, the Church, ought to read the Bible together.  For us Christians, the sacred nature of the Bible can often be forgotten when we approach it to justify our previously arrived at conclusions.  This is part of the meaning of the term “sinner.”  To package the Bible up and, in essence, read it for ourselves, is a mode of self-justification that belies the underlying problems facing us as readers.  Further, searching the Bible for particular passages on particular issues places us at the wrong starting point, the whole while* assuming that the Bible is meant to be used in the fashion of proving people wrong. *Note to Jason:  Urban for: “all the while”

The Bible (and, especially, the New Testament), the great narrative of God’s grace visited to the world through the flesh of Christ and the witness of the Spirit, was written for and speaks to the primary duty of the Church:  The apostolic proclamation of the Gospel.

And just so we are clear on what exactly that Gospel is: “For while we were still sinners, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5).  

As we said last week, the broader plot, the narrative that undergirds it all, should determine how we read (i.e., interpret) the particulars.  Thus, we should approach the Bible not in search of particular self-justifications that we can hurl at other pews, but rather with a larger hermeneutic (a fancy word for ‘the lens through which we read’) that makes sense of the particulars.  

That hermeneutic* is none other than the grace offered to us endlessly through the cross of Christ. This means that when we read the Bible, we approach it as sinners postured by grace. Note for Jason: added emphasis 

 

Some Notes on David Fitch

We ended last week by talking about how sexuality, and scripture, is something to be approached at the level of community, formed by the discipline of tradition and informed by the context we inhabit.  

David Fitch, as we see in the interview, provides us with a way of conceptualizing (a) why reading the Bible well is so hard in modern culture (a culture opposed to the proclamation that Jesus is Lord), (b) what makes reading the Bible on a communal level so difficult, and (c) the ways our cultural divisions, ideologies, and arguments find their ways into the Church, tailoring how we interact with, perceive, and understand our relations to one another.  He posits in his book that the Church has been consumed by the “us vs. them” version of faith, one that guts the Gospel message at its very core.  Subsequently, Fitch notes, the Church is subsumed by the “enemy-making machine,” feeding off our own fears, anxieties, and ideologies.  

Fitch argues that when we as a Church engage in this kind of reading and line-drawing, we simply reiterate the cultural argument, stymieing any attempt to preach the Gospel and blocking off anything God might have to say on the matter.  

In short, when we approach scripture with the divisions of culture already inscribed into our eyes, we preclude both God’s presence and, logically, our ability to preach that presence.  

Fitch’s argument borrows a lot from ideology studies, which is a dense and complicated field that mixes philosophy, critical theory, and sociology.  One of the claims that is central to what we are doing here is that ideology is bigger than the Church.  That is, ideology tends to dominate our modes of thought, and since we are Christians, it is particularly obvious in the way we think about, interpret, and use the Bible.  

In modern studies of ideology, the concept of “antagonism” dominates.  To be clear, this is not the colloquial notion of “antagonism.”  An antagonism is the process by which we make someone an enemy by turning them into an “Other.” An “Other” is what we turn people into when we dissociate them from their concrete reality and identify them by monolithic abstractions.  To turn someone into an “Other” is to distance them from who they are by not allowing ourselves to be present with them.  It functions on us, too.  The defensiveness and hurt we feel when labelled particular names which bear particular connotations (such as sayings like, “You’re just a liberal,” or “You’re stuck in the 18th century.”) is a result of the simplification and monolithic abstraction that is a patent mark of “Otherness.”  

The antagonism, displayed in the process of othering, is precisely what occurs when we see people in our image of God, rather than in the image Christ made them to be.  When we turn people into objectified “Others,” we do violence to that Christological imprint.  

Fitch notes, importantly, that we do not knowingly start antagonisms; the genesis of the antagonism is ideology – it is a product of our social and cultural life and thought.  Fitch wants us to realize that when we are functioning essentially as an “us vs. them” church, we are presupposing the antagonism.  

The concrete way this functions is through what Fitch calls “banners.”  Banners are an ideological product that extract in-life practices and means of navigating the world and turns them into abstracted identity markers.  Banners signify a monolithic, abstract structure that conveys a simplistic model with no (or, virtually, no) relation to the complexity the thing has in its concrete form.  These banners tend to lead to a thing ironically called a “master-signifier.”  These master-signifiers do not actually function to show any relation occurring in reality.  They serve only to confuse. 

For example, when we label someone “progressive” or “conservative” and proceed from there to bash our Bibles over their heads, we are participating in the “banner.”  The banner, then, is in the service of a dichotomization, a crystallizing of who the enemy is and what they stand for.  This is the antagonism we spoke about earlier.  

The banner, with its abstracted simplicity, removes the material reality from people and the church.  It obscures, under the guise of “us vs. them” the ability to physically discern what God is doing.  

 

Speaking Christian:  Discernment

Sexuality, it turns out, is one of those things we use banners for all the time.  Sexuality is not, as we pretend it to be, a singular issue.  Presenting it as such necessarily presumes that there are different opposing camps, only one of which can be right.  Sexuality is, however, bound up in a world of complexity.  In fact, it is bound up in the world.  

Just as we cannot talk about who we are without talking about the world in which we live, sexuality cannot be abstracted from and discussed apart from its material reality, which is found in people, in all people.  

Reading the Bible and searching for answers to a particular question (like sexuality), ignoring the larger narrative, and approaching the text with a microscopic hermeneutic, are each signs of reading the Bible ideologically; that is, it is a sign of reading the Bible through the lens of antagonism.  The Church, then, is assigned the task of discernment.  Discernment is a “local” project; it involves the Church being first open to seeing what God is doing.  From there, discernment involves being led (Note, the passive voice) by God to learn how to speak Christian in a culture that rejects Christ.  

What, you might ask, does discernment at the level of the Church really involve?  The active components of discernment are myriad, but Fitch offers a couple crucial points from which to begin.

  

  1. Discernment begins from a space of brokenness:  The Church is a collection of sinners, not saints.  The process of discernment begins, then, not from a hierarchical positioning, but with a posture of humility that acknowledges sin and shortcoming, no matter the argument.
  1. Discernment reduces the language of positions:  The Church is caught up in its “position” on x and its “policy” on y.  This language is not only foreign to the Gospel, but it is the reproduction of cultural norms.  The language of “positions” is bound to treat people as objects instead of faithful Christological subjects.  Further, policy and position leave no room for God to work in the world through our brokenness.  

According to St. Paul, the Church is the “fullness of Christ,” which means that the Church submits both to Christ’s reign and, consequently, His presence.  A resulting tenet of the Church is that Christ is the only alternative to the “antagonisms” of our time.  Antagonism, violence, banners, master-signifiers:  They are all tools of the one Paul calls “the Enemy.”  

Each of these tools from the Enemy’s toolbox requires a constant stream of new enemies because – pay attention here – the enemy-making machine has no positive definition.  That is, the only way it exists is by constantly defining itself by what it is against.  

But, the Church cannot exist like this.  If the Church is the fullness of Christ, then Jesus, in his fullness, provides the Church with what the Enemy’s enemy-making-machine cannot:  a substance and sustenance that does not run out, a “well-spring that never runs dry.”  When Jesus commands us, then, to love our enemies, it is not just a challenge to our virtues as a Church; it signifies the endless love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness God gives through the death and resurrection of Christ.  We cannot learn to love, much less love each other, if we have not first learned of how Christ has loved us (unto death on the cross!).  

So, part of the work of discernment is asking the question: “Can the banner we use make sense apart from describing who or what it is against?”  If it cannot, then there is no room for God’s work, argues Fitch, partly because we have tied our own self-definition to the definition of our enemies.  However, concrete, mutual discernment can combat the enemy-making machine, not least because it opens us again to be able to see where God is working, even in conflict.  

Scripture teaches us a thing or two about God working in conflict.  He does not recede from the scene; in conflict, God intensifies his work of healing and restoration.  Focusing only on the determinative point set by the Enemy does not allow us to recognize what God is doing in the midst of our disagreements.  

 

Some Suggestions

At the end of the video, David Fitch offers some tips for how to deal with talking about this.  I’m just going to reiterate and clarify them a little here.

 

  1. Tell stories.  Don’t start from an argument, but a story.  Stories allow us to avoid a confrontational beginning by humanizing the situation.  Stories remind us of the concrete reality from which our discussions arise.  They also mimic the way God tells his story in the narrative we call the Bible.  They allow us to begin in weakness and vulnerability.  In dislodging ideology from below, stories provide a substantive referent, rather than the exhausting extraction and abstraction of the “banner.” 
  2. Ask good questions.  Banners, ideology, antagonisms, master-signifiers:  They always mask a contradiction.  Good questions lead to the discovery and inquisition of these contradictions.
  1. Provoke…sometimes.  Provocation can, when used well, take the existing wisdom to its extreme, thereby laying bare what the contradiction is that upholds such wisdom.  Use sparingly.
  1. Always look for a place of agreement.  Note:  This is not looking for agreement, but a place of agreement.  The subtle, but important, difference is that the former is about arguments, while the latter is about people.  The emphasis is not on theoretical agreement disjointed from subjects in the world, but on relationality and community in which agreement takes the form of a connection made possible by Christ.

Happy Pentecost! 

Can the Church be inclusive towards LGBTQIA people without being a progressive Church? Does “All means all” mean so long as you all agree with us?

She’s back!

Friend of the podcast, Christy Thomas joins us to reflect on where the United Methodist Church is at in its present moment somewhere on the timeline between divorce and reconciliation. A week after the UMC Next and UMC Forward gatherings and a few months after General Conference 2019, Christy ponders whether Methodists are wasting the opportunity of a good crisis or whether we need to learn to live together in the tension that comes with a Church of adult ducks.

Plus we make jokes.

Christy is a retired United Methodist pastor from Texas, journalist, and blogger at The Thoughtful Pastor.

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I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.*

*Note: No mention of sexuality

The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church ruled Friday on portions of the so-called Traditional Plan passed at General Conference. The “gayness test” for clergy and clergy candidates was struck down by the JC so I guess my Tori Amos records are safe for now. The substance of much of the plan was affirmed by the UMC’s ruling body. Thus many ministers like myself will spend time and energy talking about sexuality in gross disproportion to the concern given to it by scripture and the creed.

Speaking of the creed, Christians already centuries ago established the boundaries by which we determine who is and who is not a legitimate Christian. Put another way, the creed alone outlines for Christians what is worth fighting over between Christians— if it’s not in the creed, it’s not an urgent concern to warrant ostracizing or scapegoating those who are different or those with whom we disagree.

Sexuality, as being fundamentally about us, has nothing to do with Christian orthodoxy while the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave, as being fundamentally about the character of the Father and the truth of the teachings of the Son has everything to do with it.

 

In the same week that United Methodists will again obsess over sexuality

(gayness test…really?!)

the president of a (once prestigious) mainline seminary, Union in New York City—

where Bonhoeffer, Niebuhr, and Cone formerly taught—

gave an interview to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times (here) wherein she dismissed Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession.

 

“What if tomorrow someone found the body of Jesus still in the tomb? Would that then mean that Christianity was a lie? No, faith is stronger than that.”

Surely President Serene Jones has read St. Paul, according to whom Christianity is actually a sinful, pathetic lie if God has not raised Jesus from the dead.

Worse, says scripture, if the resurrection is not true, then Christians commit idolatry by worshipping Christians.

 

She adds to Kristoff: “The empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed.”

That this is how the Easter news gets distilled to the New York Times— to a symbol…not even a symbol for God but a symbol of us— that this is someone charged with training preachers of the Gospel reveals our ecclessial infighting over sexuality to be a giant adventure in missing the point. To paraphrase Paul, if we have the right position on sexuality but have not the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our justification, then we have nothing and we are nothing.

Don’t buy the fake news:  The United Methodist Church specifically and the mainline Church generally are in hastening decline not because of our position on sexuality but because we proclaim an emaciated theology that’s become unmoored from the Gospel that “brings into existence the things that do not exist.”

Christianity, don’t forget, is not— properly speaking— a religion at all. It’s news. It’s a message about something that happened in history, making Christianity the only “religion” that is potentially disproveable.

 

To the extent we forget or downplay that Easter is a claim about something true in history, God is right to reduce the United Methodist Church into extinction.

 

Contrary to Jones, belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is the lynch pin of Christian orthodoxy. You can be damn sure cowardly Peter didn’t let himself get crucified upside down because he held a ‘Search for Spock’ doctrine of the resurrection (when we remember him, it’s like he’s still here with us)

I’m not even arguing science or history right now. I’m arguing linguistics.

 

Christian speech falls apart without Easter.

Resurrection’s the verb that makes sense of all Christian language.

Without it, Cross and Incarnation and Sermon on the Mount are all unintelligible, free-standing nouns.

 

Jesus might’ve thought all the law and the prophets hang on the greatest commandment, but— think about it— we’ve absolutely no reason to pay any attention whatsoever to anything Jesus said, thought, or did if God didn’t vindicate him by raising him from the dead.

Actually. Really. Truly.

 

If the resurrection is just a metaphor, then Jesus’ teaching and witness is just another way that leads to Death.

Even worse, if you still insist that Jesus is God Incarnate, the Image of the Invisible God but deny the resurrection you’re arguing that violence, suffering and tragedy is at the very heart and center of God’s own self-understanding- rendering a God not worthy of (mine, at least) worship.

 

In other words- in John Howard Yoder‘s words- without the actual, physical, literal resurrection of Jesus we’ve no basis to assert that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.

In other words- mine this time- if God did not vindicate Jesus’ words and way by raising him from the dead, we’re in absolutely NO position to say his teaching about the Kingdom (see: cheek, turning of) corresponds to any present or future reality. 

Put another way, that the teachings of Jesus become unintelligible or worse without the truthfulness of the Gospel’s teaching about Jesus suggests that, regardless of our debates about sexuality, liberal United Methodists and conservative United Methodists cannot afford to lose the witness of one another.

On the final afternoon of the United Methodist Special General Conference in St. Louis, the Traditional Plan having just secured passage with a comfortable majority of votes, I watched from up above in the press box, as a group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor.

 

They fell on their knees and wept, praying in protest and lament.

 

Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration.

 

It reminded me of how scripture reports the dedication of the Second Temple in the Old Testament. Some of the exiles, having returned home to a razed nation, celebrated the new temple. Others, scripture notes, knew this new temple was a bullshit knockoff and wept. Of course the chief difference between the Book of Ezra and General Conference is that in the former’s case the disparity in emotions was not produced by one party doing willful damage to the other party.

 

If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity, it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box in the former home of the St. Louis Rams— this doesn’t mean, however, that it’s incompatible with United Methodism as we’ve selected to order the life of our institution.

 

The fallout from General Conference obscures a basic fact of organizations and leadership.

 That is, every system gets exactly the results it is designed to produce.

 

That the decision-making mechanism known as General Conference produced such an acrimonious, callous, and (for the life of the local church) disruptive result should not be viewed as an aberation but as the expected outcome of the system as we United Methodists have arranged it since 1968.

 

What’s lamentable, in my view, is that the passage of the Traditional Plan has now tricked many centrist and liberal Methodists into believing that what ails United Methodism now is our denomination’s position on human sexuality.

 

Finally, at long last, Methodists on the left and the right poles are unaminous. Just as conservatives have long attributed Methodism’s decline to its liberal social agenda, now liberal and even moderate Methodists think our chief problem is that our denomination has the wrong stand on sexuality. An enormous amount, if not most, of our energy as centrist and liberal Methodists will now be channeled into correcting that stand rather than addressing the system which produced such a destructive, adversarial 50/50 vote.

 

Those who believe that all would be well in United Methodism had the One Church Plan or the Simple Plan passed are living in a fantasy.

 

To be sure, the passage of the Traditional Plan has given many local churches like my own little choice but to articulate an open and inclusive position towards those LGBTQ Christians in our congregations and communities, yet what’s even more regrettable in my view is that the United Methodist Church long has victimized LGBTQ Christians (and is now scapegoating conservative African Christians) to the end of ignoring the larger illness that ails us as a denomination. A shrinking tribe finds more issues over which to fight, and United Methodism has been in decline since its inception. We’d be unwise to assume that’s anomaly. Again, it’s leadership 101. Every system gets the results it’s designed to achieve.

 

The problem in United Methodism is not sexuality but the structure of United Methodism itself.

 

In nearly 20 years I have served a variety of congregations in Virginia and New Jersey, large and small, rural and metro, blue and red. In none of those settings has human sexuality been an issue. In all of those settings, the congregations, in fits and starts, showed the ability to negotiate with grace the inclusion and welcome of the LGBTQ folks in their midst. As I’ve told my present congregation, despite its marketing posture the Traditional Plan is inherently not conservative in that it has now foisted a top-down, one-size-fits-all solution to a problem most localities were finding ways to solve on their own as congregations.

 

This is ironic given that the first Methodists to push back on the disempowering, upside-down structure of the UMC were American conservatives in the 1990s.

 

The damage done by the Traditional Plan is but the clearest and most recent evidence, I believe, that the structure of the United Methodist Church is designed to serve the structure of the United Methodist Church and not the people of the United Methodist Church.

 

The structure of the United Methodist Church itself is incompatible with the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel in word, wine, bread, and deed.

And this is not a new or novel observation (though the nature of an appointive, itinerant system makes clergy and congregants reticent to voice it). The famed Methodist theologian, Albert Outler, the dude who literally coined the term “Wesleyan Quadrilateral,” argued as early as 1968:

 

the structure of the newly united UMC would arrest the growth of the Methodist movement, dissipate its evangelical power, create an isolated bureaucracy, and alienate and disempower local congregations.

 

As Will Willimon paraphrases Outler’s prophetic caution:

 

“Starting in 1968, distrust of the local congregation was sewn into the ethos of the denomination by the Book of Discipline.”

 

This distrust of the local congregation transformed what had been a Wesleyan movement into a United Methodist institution and flipped connectionalism on its head. Where connectionalism once named the very practical ways congregations pursued our common Gospel mission, now it names our organizational identity (“UMCOR does great stuff!”). As a consequence, fidelity to the organization is how we define what it means to be a faithful United Methodist; such that, pledging allegiance to itinerancy is required for ordination candidates but clear, compelling Gospel proclamation is incidental. The new structure of the UMC, Outler argued, replaced the local congregation as the primary unit of the Methodist movement. Beginning in 1968, the latent governing assumption of the UMC was that the General Church, with its bloated bureaucracy and agencies, was the “real” church whose work the local congregations were responsible to fund. This assumption was echoed doubly by the way in which the UMC then replicated the General Church structure in redundant forms at the Annual Conference and District levels. It’s seen in a detail as innocuous seeming as the red and green ink in which congregations are marked out in the conference magazine according to the level of its apportionment payments.

 

The General Conference decision in St. Louis is symptomatic of a larger, older illness; namely, that the structure of the United Methodist Church is not designed nor has it ever been designed to serve the people of the local church.

 

And now that structure has done damage to the people of the local church in ways that continue to unwind in our communties.

 

As many United Methodist pastors and parishioners are now discerning ways to be inclusive of LGBTQ families, just as many should be discussing how to turn the structure itself on its head and make the UMC more compatible with the mission and ministry of the local church.

 

One such way forward— make apportionments voluntary.

 

Starve the beast.

 

General Conference cost the UMC approximately $4,000,000.00. Next year’s 2020 GC will cost at least double that amount— why should faithful United Methodists continue to contribute to an organizational system that so clearly does not have the best interests of their local congregations in mind? Even the “good” mission and service work done by the larger UMC is work that many local congregations have no hands-on, organic relationship with other than as a donor— that donor relationship is how the General Board of Global Mission wants the relationship. And that’s the problem. In every congregation in which I’ve served, the mission and service work that parishioners are most impacted by and about which they are most passionate are the local service projects and the mission work they themselves have selected to engage hands-on. Even the more meritorious work of the larger denomination (mission) is not immune from Albert Outler’s original critique that it comes at the expense of the local church’s empowerment and fruitfulness.

 

The quickest way for local churches to do something about a structure that is not designed with them in mind is to stop paying for that structure.

 

Despite how it will be received, this is not to commit a Wesleyan heresy. 

 

Apportionments only began in the Methodist Church in 1918 (curiously, around the same time the income tax was instituted) as John Wesley’s movement was beginning to mirror corporate America with its aspirations of becoming a national bureaucracy.

 

Funded by apportionments, institutional creep followed until what had been voluntary became mandatory 62 years later when the 1980 Book of Discipline removed the right of local churches to vote upon the apportionments levied on them.

Today, in my current appointment— as in my previous appointment— apportionments total nearly 1/4 of the church’s operating budget.

 

Just a matter of practicality—General Conference has now created a PR problem for many churches in their localties that apportionment dollars would be better spent addressing. Here in my neck of the woods, $250K can undo a lot of PR damage.

 

Will Willimon says the dominant ethos of the Book of Discipline since 1968 is “You can’t trust local congregations” and that the involuntary nature of apportionments is the best example of that assumption. After GC2019 in St. Louis, in which the leaders of the UMC went into a destructive, 50/50 vote that no competent pastor would even allow to happen in his or her congregation, it’s pretty clear (indeed maybe it’s the only assertion liberal and conservative Methodists could agree upon) that “you can’t trust the General Church.”

 

If mandatory apportionments were the mechanism which reflected the former ethos, perhaps voluntary apportionments are the mechanism to assert the current reality of the United Methodist Church.

Like scores of other United Methodist pastors, I wrote the following letter to my congregation on my way back from General Conference in St. Louis. I thought it might be helpful to share it here as well.

Hi Folks, 

If before this week you had been paying only minimal attention to matters in the larger United Methodist Church, then you’re likely well-aware that something happened this week. Many of you have forwarded me articles from the NY Times, NPR, Washington Post, et al about the General Conference here in St. Louis. Even more of you have reached out to me over email and text to express confusion, saddness, and anger. Some of you have conveyed that you’ve either decided or are considering leaving the United Methodist Church. Some staff even have acknowledged that this makes them reassess their work relationship to the UMC. 

I understand.  

Ask our last bishop, I’ve never been a company man. I don’t intend to start now. 

So before I communicate anything else about General Conference’s decisions and what they mean for Annandale UMC, let me clear: we’ll still be having church come Sunday morning; that is, what happened here in St. Louis in no way changes the ministry of Annandale UMC. What Annandale UMC did last week to proclaim the Gospel of grace in our context is what Annandale UMC will be doing next week to proclaim that same message. And I believe— to the point where I’d get another job were it not so— that the Gospel of grace is unintelligible apart from the good news that all are welcomed by Christ and, by our baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection, all are incorporated into Christ. 

I often joke that the Church would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letter to the Romans. I’m not in a joking mood today, but I’ll double-down on my point. It makes absolutely no Gospel sense to me to divide the Church according to who’s in and who’s out when Paul tells us in Romans that by our baptisms we’re all already in Christ. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation when Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that not one of us is righteous. We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our holy-living or right-believing. Paul tells us in Romans that for all of us righteousness is not achieved but received— through our baptisms. We have been have been gifted with an alien righteousness— Christ’s own righteousness. It’s been given to us not through the Law but through Grace. And Grace is always an undeserved gift because Grace grants what you could never earn. What makes us a “child of God” is not anything inherent to us by birth nor anything we accrue in life; what makes us a ‘child of God” is our adoption by Christ through his death for us.

I wish more Christians would actually read Romans because it’s there God gives us the most inclusive of all doctrines:

“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.”

As I repeat all the time to you on Sundays: Christ came not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or salvage the salvageable. Christ came to raise those who are dead in their trespasses. God’s Grace isn’t cheap; it isn’t even expensive. 

It’s free.

It turns out that it’s costly when we forget that Grace is free. Indeed I fear our Gospel amnesia has broken the United Methodist Church.

These past few days have only confirmed for me how easily we end up with a toxic form of Christianity when we fail to make this distinction between Law and Grace.

What I witnessed at General Conference in the tit-for-tat of weaponized parliamentary procedure was a whole lot of people preaching the Law at one another, liberals and conservatives alike. The Law of Inclusivity vs. The Law of Biblical Authority with all the unsurprising talking points and proof texts marshalled to their sides. All this Law-laying left no room for Grace. Without Grace, there can be no charity, and without charity compassion remains only a concept.

I realize all this sounds overly theological compared to what you’ll read in the Atlantic or USA Today this week, but theology matters— especially now. 

What I witnessed from the press box in St. Louis is a theological failure. Over the last four days, 864 delegates have argued (in often unholy and callous tones) about what constitutes a “lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching.” Not only is this unfortunate, it’s unnecessary. It’s unnecessary because the Gospel truth is right there in Romans as plain as the nose on your face: 

We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching. 

So, before I get into the weeds of what the hell happened I want you to know that you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re LGBTQ, you’re still welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. Notice, I said still. The unfortunate part of this decision is that it fails to appreciate how local churches already have, in fits and starts, figured out ways to be inclusive. Speaking of inclusivity, if you’re an outright, unapologetic homophobe you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church, too. If you’re somewhere between those poles still working out your own convictions on this question, you’re welcome at Annandale United Methodist Church. If you’re conservative, you’re welcome. If you’re liberal, you’re welcome. We’ll take you if you’re too skinny, if you thought Green Book actually deserved Best Picture, and even if you post annoying status updates whenever you’re exercising at the gym. 

If all Christ requires of you is your need, then we as a church need nothing from you in order for you to participate fully in the Body of Christ. 

While we’re on it, recent events have made it so I can longer be coy in my own beliefs: I believe marriage and ordination are very clearly vocations through which we live out our baptism. The liturgy makes that point crystal clear. And most Methodists get baptized long before they’ve figured out their sexuality— so if you’re LGBTQ and feel God is calling you to one of those vocations, I want you to know that you’re welcome here with me to discern God’s call upon your life. It’s been my experience that Jesus, in his great humor, persists in calling queer people and I’m enough of a biblical literalist to think we ought not tempt God by thinking we can put up barriers to God’s work in the world. 

Bottom Line—

No matter what a handful of bureaucrats and lobbyists in St. Louis insist, I say all of you are welcome here because the Gospel says the basis for your inclusion is not your goodness but your ungodliness. All you need for admission is your sin and I’ve been your pastor long enough to know that you all, gay and straight, have got that covered. 

Take a deep breath because I’m about to pivot to Church business, and the business of the denomination couldn’t be further from the Gospel. 

On Tuesday afternoon, as you’ve no doubt read in the papers or heard at your kid’s bustop, 438 delegates to 384 (53% to 47%) voted to adopt the Traditionalist Plan. As a pastor, I would never allow such a close, divisive vote to happen in our congregation but that’s exactly what happened here because both sides in the UMC have been playing this brinksmanship, winner-take-all game since before I became a Christian. The General Conference also considered several and approved one plan that would allow for churches to exit from the United Methodist Church with their assets and property.

After the vote, many wept and gathered to pray in the center of the floor in protest. Meanwhile, another group— only an arm’s distance away— sang, clapped, and danced in celebration. The mutual hostility and callousness were bracing.

If you don’t believe in original sin and low anthropology, this would have convinced you.

The Traditionalist Plan not only keeps our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language about homosexuality, it aims to ramp up enforcement of it, expediting the punishment of pastors, bishops, and congregations who marry or ordain LGBTQ Christians. Covering the General Conference as press for my podcast, I can tell you how I was surprised by the sheer number of gay clergy and gay clergy couples in attendance. In other words, parts of the United Methodist Church have found ways, despite the Book of Discipline’s restrictive language, to marry and ordain LGBTQ people. The One Church Plan would’ve protected this reality while respecting traditional norms in other contexts and cultures of the global Church. The Traditionalist Plan does more than maintain the Book of Discipline; it eliminates what has become a norm in many parts of the Church in America. 

This is what my friend Bishop Will Willimon (who is nobody’s idea of a progressive) meant when he said to the Washington Post:

“This is not a victory of “tradition,” but another lurch toward punitive, exclusionary practice.”

The finance department of the denomination, for example, had cautioned the delegates before this week’s General Conference that the Traditionalist Plan was the one option before them that would break the UMC’s pension system because the new degree of loyalty to the Book of Discipline it will demand from churches and pastors likely will mean an exodus of centrist and progressive pastors and churches from the denomination. 

Just last night, Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, the largest church in the UMC, announced that he’d be convening a gathering of like-minded pastors and lay people after Easter to begin discussions about a new form of Methodism in America. Meanwhile, the Western Jurisdiction of the UMC is preparing to leave the denomination. The New England Conference has already announced it will not abide the decision. I realize all this could sound alarming, but I think I owe it to you to tell you what I know. Pending a Judicial Council review of parts of it, the Traditionalist Plan will go into effect in January 2020. If the Judicial Council overtuns the Traditionalist Plan, a real possibility, then it is probable that the traditionalist wing of the denomination (the global, but not American, majority of the denomination, keep in mind) will exit with their property and assets. General Conference was already scheduled to meet this time next year so the fight will continue. However, because of the rate of growth in the global church, the traditionalist delegation will only be greater moving forward. 

How Methodists have structured ourselves as a denomination for these past decades is clearly broken— that may be the only observation on which the General Conference delegates would concur and would require no translator. And it was no small part of the sadness I heard from older pastors. Of course, we’ve only structured our Church this way for a relatively short amount of time and, truthfully, United Methodists have never really been all that united. As Will Willimon put it:

“what’s passed for church unity for the last 40 years in the Methodist Church is a kind of bureaucratic, rule-driven, top-down, corporate-America type unity. If that unity is disrupted, that puts us back to where we’ve always been: That’s a gathering by Christ of all kinds of people that make up the church.” 

Any honest United Methodist pastor or parishioner who’s not been in a coma during our institutional gatherings already knew the way things have been cannot be for much longer. The status quo needed disruption. Perhaps the Holy Spirit, by giving the United Methodist Church this disruption, has actually blessed it. 

What’s the way forward now that the Way Forward has brought us here? 

All this House of Cards-like ecclessial maneuvering gives you, Annandale UMC, three possible responses. There’s probably more, but three sounds biblical. 

1. You can celebrate the passing of the Traditionalist Plan. 

2. You can watch for the Judicial Council’s ruling on its constitutionality while aligning with like-minded congregations to amend it, undo it, or resist it.

3. You can discern if you want to stay within the United Methodist Church. I’ll get in trouble for acknowledging number three but I’ve told you I believe in transparency, and the reality is other churches will be talking about it so you may as well know it’s on the table.

The survey about the Way Forward I asked you to complete in the fall tells me that most of you don’t have the stomach for number three. Likewise, it tells me that even the traditionalists among you aren’t going to much like the tone of the Traditionalist Plan. That puts most of you somewhere in the neighborhood of number two. 

This isn’t a conversation a pastor with six months in a congregation would ever want to have with a new church, but I believe I would be a bad leader if I pretended like everything was fine and was going to be fine. 

The United Methodist Church is going to be different, no matter what happens. 

I don’t invite conflict into my life, but I’m not afraid of it. Moving forward, we’re going to need to have conversations about this as a congregation, and we need to be honest that not everyone will like that we’re having the conversation. Some may not like where it goes. And that’s okay— after all, what got us into this mess was the expectation for uniformity of belief. What’s not okay, from a leadership perspective, is to wait passively for events to unfold and roll like a tsunami against your church.

However you feel about #1-#3 above, no matter if you would’ve voted at General Conference for the Traditionalist Plan or the One Church Plan, here’s what we should all be able to agree upon. The headlines in the news outlets coming out of General Conference have portrayed the UMC as a prejudiced, bigoted, and homophobic institution. Many in our community won’t take the time to learn the ins-and-outs of our polity to understand how and why the vote went as it did. They likely won’t even read the story. They’ve just seen the headlines shared across social media.

Like it or not, we’re now going to have a perception problem, made all the more tragic because it’s a perception I do not think corresponds to the character of our faith community. 

Whatever is the way forward, I believe it begins with us, both individually and as a congregation, being the local PR in Annandale for the United Methodist Church. We need to find ways to communicate clearly and tangibly the good news:

God’s Grace does not require us to have a lifestyle compatible with Christian teaching.  We’re all incompatible with Christian teaching— that’s Christian teaching.

After this week and its unhelpful media blitz, I think that work of welcome should probably start with the LGBTQ folks in our pews. If you’re reading this, I want you to know that God’s Grace is for sinners, which makes you every bit as welcome as me*. 

Jason

*Actually, I’m clergy. Next to lawyers, we’re always the bad guys in Jesus’ stories. So you’re probably more deserving to be here than me. 

Watching the United Methodist Church at General Conference skate along the knife’s edge of schism, up from my perch in the press box it’s shocking to me how the future of a denonmination has become handcuffed to a parliamentary process that is in no way intelligibly Christian. The UMC suffers a paralysis of leadership, to be sure, but Roberts Rules of Order are one of the chains not one of us appears to be able to see.
When in the hell did we all agree as Christians to hitch our communal life to RRoO where the ‘winner’ almost always is determined by who can master the passive aggresive rules of arcane prodedure?
At least casting lots over the UMC’s inclusion or exclusion of homosexuals would be biblical; in fact, deciding the fate of gay Christians by lot would be as biblical as traditionalists who come to this argument armed with a few lone verses from the holiness codes.
I’m not sure exactly when the United Methodist Church and other mainline churches accepted giving away the spiritual practices of discernment, reconciliation, and consensus-building to Roberts Rules of Order. I do know, for example, that St. Luke does NOT tell us this in his Pentecost reporting:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, the prayers and Roberts Rules of Order. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”
And I know, whenever we went all-in for this unChristian practice, it was likely sometime in the 20th century. Roberts Rules of Order was first written in 1876 by Henry Martyn Robert who was an engineering officer in the regular Army. 
In other words, the Methodist Church adopted a secular means of deliberation in the industrial age at the same time the Methodist Church was adopting bureaucratic denominational and congregational structures that intentionally mirrored the corporate practices of the time, which produced, as my friend and mentor Dennis Perry says:
“a conflation of effectiveness with efficiency, so that we now care more about process than outcomes to the point that our outcome is our process.
If asked most United Methodists can tell you who should be around the table and how to use parliamentary procedure, but few would have any words for how to create and lead a Gospel-centered community.”
Our adoption of RRoO coincided with our idolization of machines and factories. As a result, Dennis Perry argues, we seek a mass produced, top-down (what we call ‘connectionalism’) one-size-fits-all Christianity rather than a mentored, hand-crafted one; mass produced by a machine-like-culture where there is an artificial separation of management and labor, brain and brawn, producing a denomination that treats its laborers as unskilled and needing supervision:
“We trust statewide and national organizations more than local leadership.
We believe and act as if the larger organization is the real church while the local church exists for the greater church’s good.”
The impulse that gave us RRoO begat these structures and dynamics as well, structures we’ve largely left unchanged even as best practices in business have since evolved, flattened, and streamlined.

In an era where Amazon doesn’t even show me the same products it shows you, RRoO is but one of the ways we’re still trying to be Sears. 

 

I know in my pastoral experience generations of Christians raised on Roberts Rules of Orders has produced members of an institution not a movement. RRoO has produced leaders who think discipleship is about raising their hand yay or nay at a meeting.
This is a devaluing of discipleship which in turn disempowers pastors into chaplains whose role is chiefly to pray at those meetings.  

This is seen at our General Conference level where our bishops do not actually have the authority to lead our Church; their given only the authority to preside over parliamentary procedure.

Which gets to the real problem with Roberts Rules of Order- as any one who follows Congress knows is that it’s an inherently coercive, oppositional process for an ecclesial setting. In this Roberts Rules of Order is but an antiquated form of the binaries lobbed on Twitter. When a challenging issue hits the floor, for instance, responses are generally limited to three for the proposal and three against, and each response also has a time limit.  Not to mention the amendments, sub-amendments, calls to table, etc. which follow. The more controversial motions passed then get litigated at our Judicial Council, Methodism’s version of the Supreme Court- another troubling not very Gospely attribute of how we’ve agreed to arrange our lives.
Roberts Rules of Order is not Holy Conferencing. 
The very nature of pro/con debate and parliamentary maneuvering is not dialogue and leaves the body more polarized.
As my e-friend Christy Thomas says: “Roberts Rules of Order is not the way to bring renewal to the church or bring the good news of Jesus, the one who sets us free and brings us redemption, to the world. [Christian] Dialogue is very, very different from parliamentary discussion.
“Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you. My peace Roberts Rules of Order I give you.’”
Where the first Christians once accepted martyrdom in coliseums rather than betray their loyalty to the Caesar called Jesus, today Christians’ worked to determine the future of the United Methodist Church with discourse that more nearly resembled Caesar asking the crowd for a thumbs up or a thumbs down. 

What if, despite all the rhetoric and rainbow flags, the Westboro Baptist bystanders and debates about what constitutes a lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching (FYI, we’re all incompatible with X’n teaching— that’s X’n teaching), we’re not really arguing about sexuality?

In 2016 the General Conference asked the Council of Bishops to lead the Church. The bishops chose to “lead” by appointing a commission to draft a proposal— that, as my friend Drew Colby says, was their leadership. The commission submitted a plan. The institutional Church and Council of Bishops spent much time and treasure advocating for the Commission’s recommendation. Presentations were convened. Websites developed. FAQ’s written. Even badges were distributed. In every respect it resembled the run-up resembled the red and blue hued campaigns that run parallel in our culture.

When we arrived here on Saturday to pick up our press passes, we ran into several “mainstream” leaders of the institution who expressed confidence in both the imminent success of the One Church Plan and the demise of the Traditionalist Plan.  The next day, on Sunday, a clear and surprising majority of the Called General Conference rejected both the leadership of the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the Way Forward. Bishop Will Willimon says that while it’s too early to know if we’re watching the dissolution of the United Methodist Church, we ARE watching the dissolution of the General Confence as a decision-making body. 

I wonder—despite all the impassioned speeches, the faith-based lobbying and parliamentary manuevering, the anxiety among pastors and the fear among gay Christians in congregations— if we’re not really arguing about sexuality at all? 

Wouldn’t it be naive, if not close-minded, to suppose that we’re immune to the currents roiling our civics and upending our politics?

The rejection of the One Church Plan is a big F-You to the Institution which backed it. 

There’s a lot of F-Bombs being thrown in our culture.

What if the UMC, as it’s currently structured, is but another institution a large (and—self-perceived- alienated) segment of our world want to burn down to the ground? What if what the antagonism that ails the UMC is but a symptom of a larger cultural affliction?

Many pastors here at General Conference sounded like they’d been gut-punched earlier today when the Traditional Plan passed for debate and decision on Tuesday while the One Church Plan failed. Many of those pastors compared the shocked, disheartening experience to what they felt on election night in 2016 when the Donald beat out the prognostications and defeated Hillary, the establishment’s presumptive winner. 

I do not think the analogy a bad one.

We are at the end of the age of curators and top-down answers. The last election proved it when voters stunned the pundits and rejected the heirs of both legacy brands in American politics – the Bushes and the Clintons. Every institution in American society is buffeted by this fundamental societal change – it’s why the number one department store in the world is do-it-yourself Amazon has left Sears is in bankruptcy. In the smartphone era, citizen make up their own minds and don’t look to top down hierarchies for cues or direction.

It’s why Budweiser is buying Goose Island, Devil’s Backbone, Wicked Weed, and 7 other craft beer companies. The world’s best marketing company has realized it cannot manufacture authenticity. Keep in mind that was not their first plan. They first tried “Budweiser American Ale” in 2008 (now defunct) to compete with Sam Adams and then created Shock Top and LandShark (it’s why both those beers suck). You cannot force people to do what you want them to do— even if what you want them to do is holy, righteous, and good— in the age of the smartphone.

Obscured in our debates about what constitutes a lifestyle incompatible with Christian teaching is a larger debate (indeed it’s a global one) about how historic, hierarchial institutions themselves are being judged incompatible with the 21st century landscape on which we live. This isn’t to dismiss the strongly held convictions about how we include gay Christians in the Body of the Church; it’s to wonder if the struggle is larger than we see— a struggle which might otherwise make common allies of those who today find themselves quite the opposite.

The Decision

Jason Micheli —  February 20, 2019 — 3 Comments
Over the years, Tamed Cynic has grown far larger than I ever countenanced when I first began blogging by Tony Jones’ urging— several thousand readers a day. I get a lot of correspondence, much of which I regrettably don’t have the time to engage. Sometimes, something catches my eye and its worth reposting here.
As the UMC nears its global gathering to debate a way forward through the impasse over sexuality, I received this note from a UMC pastor in the MidWest:
Every United Methodist pastor since 1773 has answered the same nineteen questions in regard to entering the life of ordained ministry. 
In the Conference I serve in, every candidate for full membership is paraded in front of the entire clergy session at the beginning of Annual Conference and are asked, as a group, to answer those questions. Some see it as a profoundly holy moment in which we are tied to the clergy of the past who answered similarly, whereas others treat it as a mere formality before kneeling in front of, and being prayed over by, the Bishop.
During my time as a provisional candidate I did whatever I could to serve God at the local church to which I was appointed, and when I received word from the Board of Ordained Ministry that I was to be fully ordained I rejoiced.
But then I worried.
I worried because for a very long time I was afraid about one question that I would have to answer before the clergy session: 
 

“After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures and will you preach and maintain them?”

 
For months I desperately prayed for a way forward. On one level I thought that just saying yes would be okay because then I could get ordained and keep doing the work I love. But on another level I knew that I couldn’t faithfully say yes.
There is a particular doctrine of the UMC, one that has driven us to the point of schism, that I believe runs counter to a full and canonical reading of the Bible. That doctrine is as follows: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Until the day of the clergy session I was still wrestling with what to do, and I finally resigned myself to say “yes” and continue to work from within the church to change our doctrine. It’s how I felt years ago when I first felt God calling me to the ministry, and it’s how I still feel today. 
But then when I stood in front of all my clergy peers, and was asked the question, I was physically unable to open my mouth. 
I really felt like God was preventing me from speaking. 
I stood there with my eyes on the floor while all of my soon-to-be fully ordained brothers and sisters shouted, “Yes.”
And I said nothing.
The service continued and the room erupted in applause, and the next night I knelt before the Bishop and was fully ordained in the United Methodist Church.
The following Monday I received a voicemail from my District Superintendent. “You need to come to the District Office today for a meeting.”
So I did.
And within the first few minutes my DS cut straight to the chase:

“I watched you during the clergy session, and I saw that you didn’t answer the question about our doctrine. So I need you to swear to me right now that you will not marry two men or two women at your church.”

For years I feared having this sort of question being placed before me, and perhaps I felt a new boldness from the stole having so recently been draped over my shoulder that I answered simply, “No.”
We went back and forth for awhile about the ins and outs of the church’s current theological position, and my disagreement with it. I expressed that at the moment there were no gay couples at the church I was serving, but if a couple did arrive and demonstrated the same qualities of a faithful and monogamous relationship as a heterosexual couple I would not say no to presiding over their marriage.
———————-

When I was a teenager one of my best friends came out to me before even telling his parents. They disowned him and so did his church.

And when  I was at my first appointment I discovered that a former pastor had told that church that if anyone was gay in the pews they needed to come to his office where he would “pray the gay away.” 
When some of my friends outside the church discovered the doctrine of the UMC in regard to homosexuality they all asked me the same question, “How can you believe that?”
I don’t.
I never have.
Before I got ordained I had hope that we would’ve repented of our wrongness and hard-heartedness before I had to stand before the clergy session. But I was wrong. And even in the moment of my silence, I believed in the possibility that the United Methodist Church could change.
But when I was called into my DS’ office, my heart grieved for my church. 
I don’t know what will happen at the Special Session of the General Conference toward the end of February. 
We might change, we might stay the same, and we might be ripped apart. 
 
I am not ashamed of the Gospel, and I love getting to do what I do.
But sometimes I sure am ashamed of the church. 
 
-Anonymous 

Nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

It insists upon a Church where there is no distinction between us. 

Because not a one of us is righteous. 

We’re all the ungodly. 

This coming Sunday’s lectionary reading is Paul’s great text on the necessity of the resurrection for Christian confession. At the top of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul takes his hearers back to the Gospel he delivered to them. The Gospel, Paul reminds this unholy lot, is “our most important urgent concern.” It’s an important text not only for thinking through the logical necessity of the resurrection for Christianity but also for reflecting on the current divisions in the United Methodist Church over the issues of human sexuality. 

Just shy of two weeks from now United Methodist leaders, clergy and lay, from around the globe will gather to debate whether “it” is or isn’t a sin and what implications that should have for our polity, which currently labels homosexuality a lifestyle “incompatible with Christian teaching.” 

Side Note for Later:

Does the justification of the ungodly make the very concept of  “the Christian lifestyle” a non-sequiter? Or, is a better construal of “the Christian lifestyle” the everyday ways by which Christians prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt “Yes, Christians also, in fact, require Christ to be crucified in our stead?”

Given our denominational bickering over “holiness” I think we United Methodists would do well to notice that in Paul’s rundown of the Gospel the only sins he mentions are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them.

As Robert Capon says, throwing mud in the eye of all of us woke and pious types:

“The only people in heaven will be sinners made safe in his death, gratis.

And the only people in hell will be sinners, forgiven free of charge as well.” 

As I make plans to journey to St. Louis for the UMC’s Special Sex Conference, I can’t help thinking we’ve jumped the Jesus shark, arguing to brinksmanship just what does and does not constitute a sin when the wages of every one of all of our sins have already been paid by Christ’s bleeding and dying. Once for all.  In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul argues that if Christ has not been raised from the dead then we are still in our sins.

The inverse of his argument sharpens what’s at stake:

Since Christ has been raised from the grave, we, who are in Christ by baptism, are NOT in our sins. 

Though, red-handed and pants-down, sinners we remain.

Or, as St. Paul says in Romans 8, the lynchpin of the entire New Testament: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” And being in Christ is not something for you to subjectively discern. You can know you are in Christ Jesus because, just before Romans 8, Paul has told you that by your baptism you have been crucified with Christ in his death for your sins, buried with him, and raised in him for your justification. Therefore— by your baptism— there is now no condemnation. Isn’t our willingness to divide Christ’s Body the Church over issues of sexuality a disavowal of that Gospel Therefore?

If we’re wiling to split the Church over some “sins” (the sin of homophobia for some, the sin of sexual immorality for others) aren’t we really declaring therefore there are still some sins for which is condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus?

Or, are we instead implying that we’re in Christ not by way of Christ’s doing for us but because of our own holy living and righteous doing?

If the wages owed for our unrighteous ways in the world is the grave, then Christ’s empty grave is the sure and certain sign of the opposite: his perfect righteousness. His resurrection is the reminder that his righteousness is so superabundant it’s paid all the wages of our every sin— their every sin too. This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. By baptism, what belongs to you is Christ’s now (your sin- however you define what constitutes sin- all of it is his).  And by baptism, what belongs to Christ is yours now (his righteousness, all of it). You’ve been clothed, Paul says, with Christ’s righteousness. 

So why do we spend so much time arguing about sinful living vs. holy living when the former cannot undo nor can the latter improve the righteousness of Christ with which we’ve already been clothed?

Nothing you do can take those clothes which are Jesus Christ off of you. And nothing the baptized OTHER, with whom you disagree, can do can take those clothes that are Christ off of them.

Jesus was stipped naked to clothe you, in your naked and ugly sin, with his own righteousness.

By fixating on the sin in another you’re just giving Jesus his clothes back— but he doesn’t want them returned.

In fact, he left them in the tomb.

And when he returned, a new Eve found him in a garden as naked as Adam. 

To be blunt about it- 

Whether you’re liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter how correctly you interpret scripture on sexuality nor does it matter with whom you share a bed or what you do in it. None of it changes the fact that if you are in Christ God regards you as Christ. That is not your pious achievement nor is it your moral accomplishment; it is grace. It is gifted to you by God through your baptism. And if you’re tempted to interrupt now and say something along the lines of “Yes, but as baptized Christians declared righteous for his sake we should live according…” I’ll insist, as Paul does in Romans 6, that the introduction of any “shoulds” eliminate the Gospel of grace altogether. 

If we were all convinced that all of us who are baptized are as righteous as Jesus Christ himself, then maybe we’d be less eager to divide his Body the Church in the name of our righteous causes.

Holiness doesn’t become a reality in you until you’re more passionate about the grace of God in Jesus Christ than you are about your own holiness. 

The former is to love God for what he has done for you. 

The latter is to take God’s name in vain in order to love yourself for what you do. 

Luther said we prove our depravity as fallen creatures not by our sin but by our propensity to fill Christ’s empty tomb with well-intentioned obligations, to add to the Gospel that we are made right with God by grace alone in Christ alone through trust- not the uprightness of our sexuality or interpretation of scripture- alone. If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then— in our post-Will and Grace culture, this isn’t a hill he would die on- especially not a hill on which he’d euthanize the Gospel. Why would he?

The Gospel is that because Christ was crucified for your sins and was raised for your justification there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 

You see, the rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that it means we can’t shake those Christians who think there STILL IS CONDEMNATION. 

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

The rub of the Gospel of NO CONDEMNATION is that we’re forever stuck at the party called SALVATION with THOSE PEOPLE WHO THINK THOSE PEOPLE SHOULDN’T BE AT THE PARTY. The Elder Brother in the story never goes into the Father’s feast for the prodigal son- but the WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION.

THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

I don’t know what will come of the Special Sex Conference, and I suppose its naive to think the United Methodist Church will get through this debate more easily than the other denominations that jumped into it ahead of us. Nonetheless, the Church’s primary mission remains unchanged even if our denomination— and, as a consequence, our church— changes. Our mission is to proclaim to sinners that God in Jesus Christ loves ungodly them.

To the grave and back. 

You know a denomination is in trouble when they dispense press credentials to a podcast where “without stained glass language” is a disclaimer about blue humor as much as it is an aspiration for plain talk. Regardless, the posse at Crackers and Grape Juice will be your correspondents at the UMC’s SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE (my name for it) in St. Louis at the end of the month.

Thanks to the United Methodist Church, sex hasn’t been this uninteresting since 7th grade Health Class.

What it doesn’t have in titillation, it does have in waste— the SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE will cost the United Methodist Church approximately $11 MILLION DOLLARS. That’s right, $11 MILL. I’d honestly rather spend that to build a little patch of steel slats somewhere down south. Not really, but I hope you get my drift. And for the record— yes, I’m aware that as a straight white guy and so I’ve got a privileged position from which I opine. Still, as someone who counts LGBTQ people and very conservative people among my friends, it does not cost $11 MILLION dollars to discover that people on both ends of this debate come to church for the same reasons.

This:

People need Jesus and his grace, straight or not straight.

The Church is an ER for sinners.

The Church is not a graduate program for do-gooders looking to learn how to straighten up and fly right.

And every ounce of air we spend talking about sexuality and numbered parapraphs in the Book of Discipline Bureaucracy is air we’re not using to tell prodigals that the fatted calf has been slain and the party’s already started.

For them.

Its not that I don’t think the authority of scripture, for example, is important or that amending the BOD isn’t a serious topic; it’s that neither is a local church’s raison d’etre.

A Global Methodist Conference on Sex Costing $11 Million Bucks…nevermind what I said above. Such a conference almost begs for a snarky, cynical theo-podcast to follow after it like TMZ muckrakers. The team at Crackers and Grape Juice— well, me and my minions— will be on hand at the colesium, up in the press box, to give you our play-by-play. Look for it here, at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, and our Facebook and Twitter pages.

In the meantime, I thought I’d try to offer something constructive:

My teacher, Nancy Duff, in her essay, How to Discuss Moral Issues Surrounding Homosexuality When You Know You Are Right, defers to the philosopher John Stuart Mill to explain why it is important for Christians to dialogue with Christians of differing views. Long after the $11 MILLION SPECIAL SEX CONFERENCE is over, these are incredibly helpful reminders for Christians on every issue, especially in a culture choking on self-righteousness and caught in an endless loop of indictment and recrimination.

1. Mill reminds us that because we are fallible (Paul would say we’re all sinners, among us there is no distinction), if we ignore an opposing opinion we may in fact be ignoring the truth. 

2. Mill  points out that even if another’s opinion is in error, it may still contain a portion of the truth.

3. Lastly Mill reminds us even if we are entirely correct in our position that position risks becoming simple prejudice if we cease to be in conversation with those who would disagree with us.

So, as we begin our journey to the most expensive least exciting time spent on sex EVER remember that you are fallible (sinful) and that to ignore one of your peers may be ignoring truth that the Spirit is trying to speak to you. 

Remember that even if you think one of your peers is wrong, it’s not likely they’re absolutely wrong. Listen for what you think is true about their perspective. And do not forget that even if you have no intention of ever changing your mind on these issues, you owe your peers your conservation

The Special General Conference of the United Methodist Church will meet in St. Louis later this month to debate proposals offering paths forward through our impasse over human sexuality. Yours truly and the podcast posse at Crackers and Grape Juice will be there— someone was dumb enough to give us press passes.

To get ready, I’ll be writing about the issue from a biblical and theological point of view, new posts and old posts from over the years. I’ll leave the bureaucractic questions and the headaches they induce to someone else.

My muse and friend, Stanely Hauerwas, says that “whenever United Methodists talk about grace— which is all the time— they know not what they’re talking about.”

I think how we engage this debate is Exhibit A for Stan’s point. In all our arguing about the way forward, I can’t help but wonder if what the Church needs most is to go backward.

St. Paul writes to Timothy about the urgent need for interpreters of scripture to be able to divide rightly the Word of God, and the Protestant movement began 500 years ago largely as a preaching movement that had at its core the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. Echoing the Apostle Paul, Martin Luther said there is no other higher art than making that distinction between the two words with which God has spoken and still speaks to us.

When it comes to the debate about sexuality in the Church, not only do I not hear alot of nuance I don’t hear much distinction being drawn between God’s two words.

Instead, what I hear from both conservative and progressive sides is a lot of Gospel-flavored Law laying the net result of which is a muddled message, Glawspel, rather than the grace-centric proclamation that is our reason d’etre as Protestant Christians. Anything goes in this debate, the stakes are so high, because, as advocates on both sides often insist “the Gospel is at stake.” For conversatives, the Gospel is at stake in the sense that the authority of scripture is up for grabs. For progressives, the Gospel is at stake in that the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians is a justice issue.

The Gospel is at stake, I think.

Just not in the way either side imagines.

Look-

I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I empathize with those who critique the nihilistic sexual ethics of our culture, worry about its cheapening of sex and the objectification of bodies, and its devaluing of tradition, especially the traditional authority of scripture in the life of the Church. Such traditionalists are correct to insist that the male-female union is the normative relationship espoused by the Church’s scripture and confession. They’re right to remind us that neither scripture nor tradition in any way condones homosexual relationships.

I don’t disagree with them that in a Church which took centuries to codify what we meant by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Jesus as the God-Man,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the kerygma about Christ and him crucified. And I concur with them that if, as progressives like to say, “God is still speaking…,” then whatever God is saying must conform to what God has already said to us in the One Word of God, Jesus Christ. In the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, I too want to hold onto sola scriptura and secure the Bible’s role as sole arbiter in matters of belief.

I’m just aware that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such conservatism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

On the other side of the debate, frankly it makes no sense to me to baptize babies if the Church is not prepared for them to exercise their Christian vocation once they’re grown, and ordained ministry and marriage are but two forms that Christian vocation takes. If we’re not prepared for gay Christians to live into their baptism as adutls we shouldn’t be baptizing them as babies, which means we shouldn’t be baptizing any babies.

Nonetheless, I think progressive Christians who insist that their fellow Christians see this as exclusively as a justice issue make the same mistake their conservative counterparts make.

Namely, they tie our righteousness as Christians to being ‘right’ on this issue.

It’s in this sense that I believe the Gospel is at stake in this debate because, thus far, the debate has obscured our core message that our righteousness comes entirely from outside of us by grace alone through faith alone. Put another way:

You would never come to the conclusion from how both sides engage this debate:

Grace gives us the right to be wrong. 

To the extent that is obscured, the Gospel is at stake in this debate.

The good news that Jesus Christ has done for you what you were unable to do for yourself: live a righteous life before a holy God who demands perfection.

In all our arguing about getting it right on this issue-

I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news:

Everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel frees us from the Law.

The Gospel frees us from the burden of living a sinless, perfect-score sex life. Having a “pure” sex life justifies us before God not at all.

The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sexuality.

Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification. Almost by definition then, it’s a stupid issue with which to obsess. The Gospel, as Jesus freaking says, is good news. It’s for sinners not saints. It’s for the sick not the show-offs. As with any family on the brink of divorce, I worry that the family’s core story has gotten muddled in the midst of our fighting.

As much as I worry with my conservative friends about the status of sola scriptura in the Church and as much as I concur with them that any culture that produces Snapchat and Tinder, Bill Clinton and Donald Trumpshouldn’t be trusted in matters of sex, I worry more that in fighting so much over the “right” position on sexuality we’ve turned having the right position (either on the issue or in the bedroom) into a work of righteousness by which (we think) we merit God’s favor.

In fighting over who has the righteous position, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of works righteousness that prompted Luther’s protest 500 years ago.

I care about the proclamation of the Gospel more than I do protecting the Law. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture- they’re the Law. The Law, which the Apostle Paul says, was given by God as a placeholder for Jesus Christ, who is the End of the Law. The point of the Law, for St. Paul, is to convict of us our sin, making us realize how far we ALL fall short such that we throw ourselves on God’s mercy in Christ.

I don’t get the sense that’s how the Law functions for us in these sex debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

But I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to die for them.

I care more about them knowing the only access they require to this eternal get of jail free card is not their pretense of ‘righteousness’ but their trust in his perfect righteousness.

I care more about them knowing that any of us measuring our vice and virtue relative to each other is to miss the freaking huge point that our collective situation is such that God had to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree.

Every last one of us.

More than the ‘right’ position on sex, I care more about people knowing that God gave himself for them in spite of them; therefore, God literally doesn’t give a @#$ about the content or the character of their lives. God’s grace, as Robert Capon said, isn’t cheap. It isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

I fear our fighting over sexuality conveys the same message the sale of indulgences did on the eve of the Reformation: that God’s grace isn’t costly. It’s expensive, paid in the tender of your right-living and right-believing. Maybe the way forward is the backward.

You might very well think the Donald is a disaster in the White House, but is he exactly the disruptive force the bloated United Methodist Church needs? Friend of the podcast, pastor and author Christy Thomas, talks with us about the value of barbarians for bureaucratic blight, upsetting an unhelpful status quo and possibly razing present structures for future effectiveness.

Oh, and she also gives the United Methodist Church a 5% chance of existing beyond 2020 so it’s a cheerful episode.

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The Church’s acrimonious impasse on the issue of sexuality is not without victims. The fight has alienated gay Christians from living out their baptisms by out and active participation in congregations, and it has mired the Church in expensive and time-consuming legalities that undermine the scope and effectiveness of its larger mission to make disciples.

Do I even need to f@#$%^& point out the kids I’ve baptized and confirmed over the years in this one congregation who now wonder if the church that baptized and confirmed them loves them enough to let them live out their baptism in this church?!

Another victim of the Church’s unreconciled and possibly unreconcilable domestic dispute is St. Paul. Specifically, Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

We’ve gotten so accustomed to going to Paul’s letter to answer or address individual questions, particularly about the issue of homosexuality, that we ignore the overall development of Paul’s logic in Romans, which, remember, was intended by Paul to be announced to the faithful in a single beginning-to-end reading. We turn to Romans for points of doctrine when, in fact, what Paul is up to in Romans is worship.

For example-

Opponents of the inclusion of gays in ministry frequently turn to Romans 1.18 as Exhibit A to evidence their argument. Romans, unlike Leviticus say, is not compromised by being a fulfilled Old Testament law. Yet, as my former teacher Beverly Gaventa notes:

“…just as shining a spotlight on a stage leaves the rest of the stage in near darkness, putting a huge spotlight on one verse has obscured the rest of the passage. Indeed, directing that spotlight toward this verse distorts even that verse since it tempts readers to think that Paul’s only real concern is with sexual conduct.”

Intense and solitary focus on Romans 1.18 obscures that Paul’s focus is not on sexual conduct but worship.

Not only is sexual conduct but one sin in a list so comprehensive not one of us is excluded- for no one is righteous, not one- it is referenced here by Paul as the product of a more fundamental sin: withholding right worship.

The practices in 1.18 then are not stumbling blocks frustrating us from right worship of God. They’re not stumbling blocks for which we must repent so that we can worship God rightly. Interestingly, Paul NEVER uses the word repentance. Rather, they are practices that result from refusing to worship God; that is, sexual misconduct, greed, gossip, etc. they are practices produced by idolatry.

Paul’s point, the point which our no holds barred arguments over homosexuality has veiled, is that worship is formative.

Right worship of God forms us in the virtues such that repentance of our vices is possible.

Wrong worship forms us in vices and makes repentance an impossibility.

Proper worship of God, therefore, is the only condition for right conduct. So then, following the logic of Paul’s larger argument, those who are concerned about homosexuality and see it as a sin should be the last people working to exclude homosexuals from the worship life of the Church. To alienate them from the Church and push them from it, to follow Paul’s logic, is only to push them into false worship, idolatry, for outside the Church there is no salvation just to the extent that outside the Church, without the Church, we are all every day preyed upon by idolatrous ideologies like nationalism, materialism, individualism.

The very text most often deployed by traditionalists to push gays out the Church is, in fact, the very text that should compel traditionalists to welcome them into the Church and worship with them.

If you think homosexuality is a vice, inherently sinful- and I do not, follow any of the tags on this blog- then worship is the only “cure.”

 

With the denomination seemingly on the precipice over sexuality and creaking under the weight of institutional decline, we talked with Christy Thomas about her recent article “It’s Time to Pull the Plug on the UMC.”

Christy is a writer and retired United Methodist Elder. She blogs at the Thoughtful Pastor. She writes the weekly religion column (Ask the Thoughtful Pastor) for the Denton Record-Chronicle newspaper. She also does film reviews, opinion pieces, and has completed one book (An Ordinary Death) with others in the works.

Next up: conversations with man Stanley Hauerwas says is the best theologian in America, Robert Jenson, and Rod Dreher of Benedict Option fame as well as Carol Howard Merritt about her new book.

Stay tuned and thanks to all of you for your support and feedback. We want this to be as strong an offering as we can make it so give us your thoughts.

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Earlier this month the United Methodist Church continued its decades-long impasse over homosexuality.

Like guns, drugs and electric chairs, the United Methodist Book of Discipline states that homosexuality ‘is incompatible with Christian teaching.’

Part of my frustration that we cannot affirm the basic humanity of homosexuals is due to my belief that we should already be on to other topics as it relates to homosexuality.

Namely, ordination.

Ministry.

Our baptismal summons.

Allow me to elaborate by way of my hero, Karl Barth.

rp_images1.jpegIn the mid-20th century, Karl Barth wrote a surprising critique of infant baptism at the conclusion of his massive work Church Dogmatics.

Barth’s experience from having seen Germany and the German Church capitulate to pagan-like nationalism in two world wars eventually convinced him that the practice of infant baptism- though perhaps theologically defensible- was no longer practically tenable. In his about-face on infant baptism,

Barth reiterated the fact:

there is no explicit scriptural basis for infant baptism in scripture while there is a clear prejudice towards adult baptism.

More urgent for Barth was his belief that infant baptism had led to the malignant assumption that one is a Christian from birth, by virtue of having been baptized- quite apart from any appreciation of conversion.

In Barth’s view this had the effect of cheapening the grace won by Christ on the cross but, even more, it wore away at the eschatological character of Christ’s Church; that is, infant baptism helped create the circumstances wherein Christians no longer remembered they were set apart by baptism to anticipate Christ’s Kingdom through their counter-cultural way of life lived in community.

Perhaps its the cogency of Barth’s theology or the integrity of Barth’s lived witness (he was one of the few Protestant leaders in Germany to oppose from the beginning the rise of Nazism), but from time to time I dip in to his Church Dogmatics again only to find myself empathizing if not agreeing with Barth’s view- or at least agreeing with Barth’s diagnosis that the Church has lost its foundational, Kingdom-embodying point of view.

I never had the courage to admit it in the ordination process, but whether or not you agree with Barth’s conclusion his critiques are spot on.

rp_barth-224x300.jpgToo often debates about adult and infant baptism focus on the individual baptismal candidate and obscure what was central to the early Christians: baptism is initiation into a People. Christ intends the gathered baptized community to be a social and political reality.

We neither baptize to encourage sentimentality about babies nor do we baptize to secure private, individual salvation.

We baptize to build an alternative polis in a world where all the other Kingdoms care not about God’s Kingdom.

What’s missing in baptismal liturgies, adult and infant, is the sense of awe, or at least appreciation, that God is slowly toppling nations and planting a new one with just a few drops of water. That baptism doesn’t only wash away an individual’s sins but washes away the sins of the world because through baptism God creates a People who are his antithesis to the Kingdoms of the world.

This is what Paul conveys when he writes about how those who are one in Christ through baptism are now no longer Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. Baptism is a social reordering. Baptism sets apart a community that challenges and critiques the social hierarchies of this world.

Baptism makes Church a community where the class distinctions of Rome no longer matter and where the familial distinctions of Israel no longer matter.

Whereas in Israel priestly service was reserved for the sons of Aaron, baptism creates a community where we are all priests now because every one of us bears the investiture of the Great High Priest’s death.

This is why the question of baptism, not marriage or ordination, is more interesting theologically when it comes to the issue of homosexuality.

If baptism commissions us to service in Christ’s name and if marriage and ministry are but forms Christian vocation take, then the Church should not baptize homosexuals if it’s not prepared to marry or ordain them.

I’m not suggesting we refuse homosexual persons baptism.

I’m suggesting that a fuller understanding of baptism changes the stakes of what is otherwise a tired cultural debate.

Baptism not only relativizes cultural and religious hierarchies, it relativizes- or it should and once did- blood lines. At baptism, you’re not just saying ‘I do’ to Jesus you’re saying ‘I do’ to everyone else there. The waters of baptism make Church our first family- a scary proposition because often it’s a family every bit as strange and dysfunctional as our family of origin.

rp_barth_1_3-300x250.jpegOnce we’re baptized, Jesus ambivalence becomes our own: ‘Who are my mother and my brothers? Those who do the will of God the Father.’ The baptismal covenant should always caution Christians against making a fetish of ‘family values.’

 

Crackers & Grape Juice 2We’re only on Episode #7 of the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast and already we’ve hit a regular diaspora of listeners that would put us among the largest of United Methodist Churches.

In this installment, intentional mentor that I am, I delegated Teer to talk with my friend Tony Jones. Not only is Tony the editor of my forthcoming book, Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer, he is the author of many books himself, including last year’s phenomenal Did God Kill Jesus? which comes out in paperwork soon. I first “met” Tony when he was finishing his PhD at Princeton and I was a lonely MDiv student working in the mailroom. I still have the muscle memory to place Tony’s Field and Stream in his box without looking.

photoListen up. Tony’s a good dude, who does good theology and cares about the Church. Here, Teer and he talk about the United Methodist General Conference, the Cross, manipulative preaching, and how cancer is the perfect drop the mic excuse.

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this shit, so spread the love.

Give us a Many Starred review there in the iTunes store. It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast.

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