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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.

For the record—

I think opposition and resistance to the Traditionalist Plan in the UMC need not equate to a progressive (I hate that term— it’s elitist) United Methodism. In fact, I think if opposition to the TP leads to or becomes synonymous with a progressive Christianity then GC2019 will only hasten our decline. Theologically speaking, I am not progressive. 

I happen to think that, on the one hand, the Traditionalists are not really traditionalist in that their chief concern, sexuality, is not a matter of creedal confession and, on the other hand, the justification of the ungodly is the most inclusive and traditional doctrine possible. A bare-knuckled, unapologetic Pauline understanding of grace makes our holiness-enforcing and bickering over inclusion unintelligble as Christian speech.

Masked by the Traditionalist Plan’s regressive treatment of gay United Methodists is the larger structural problems in the denomination and the longer historic acrimony of which GC2019 was but the latest skirmish.

As Diana Butler Bass shared at a gathering of pastors and laity in my home this weekend: “Those who think that if the One Church Plan had passed all would be well in the UMC are living a fantasy.”

Had the One Church Plan passed a different 50% of the UMC would now feel aggrieved and victimized. That the math and the felt outcome would not have changed— and that the council of bishops were unable to avoid any other outcome— shows the extent to which the UMC is broken. 

Christians are good at burying the dead. 

Christians are seldom good at giving a funeral to church programs or polity.

Brad Todd, a good friend and parishioner, shares these thoughts on GC2019:

“The United Methodist Church has finally admitted this week that it’s not united at all but what’s worse is that few in the nation’s second-largest (for now) Protestant body seem to even understand why. 

After a divisive global gathering of the denomination to sort out policies on gay ordination and gay marriage, I have been more dismayed by the way my fellow Methodists have reacted to the conference than by anything that was decided at the conference – and I think I’d be saying that no matter which side ended up on the 47 end of the 53-47 vote. That event was ill conceived and destined to fail no matter how the votes fell. Almost all American Methodists speaking out this week express angst about the church’s future – but these emotions, on both sides, are mostly unconstructive and not aimed in the direction of our problem.

The United Methodist Church’s unfixable rot has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with polity.

For the purposes of argument let’s totally set aside for the next 1,200 words what I believe is a symptom of our problem – the debate over church’s positions on homosexuality – and focus on the tectonic plate structure that ripped us open at that specific fissure. It’s not that I don’t think the debate over sexuality is one we can respectfully have, but I think people like my pastor Jason Micheli have accurately noted that the Methodist left and Methodist right have both pursued this legalistic question far outside the dominant shadow that should be cast by our shared commitment to spreading a theology of sin-cleansing Grace, and only sin-cleansing Grace. 

So for a moment, let’s assume both sides on this question have enough sin and wrong to go around and look behind the way we got to this food fight.

And while we’re at it, let’s junk the faction labels crudely borrowed from secular politics (my chosen profession, incidentally) and use centuries-old, value-positive religious analogies instead – let’s call those who want to change the Book of Discipline’s policies on gays “reformers” and those who like the current policies “orthodox.” 

For decades in the last century, orthodox Methodists protested the drift of the UMC on societal issues and personnel policies but their objections were beaten back by the majoritarian, procedurally rigid, top-down polity of the denomination’s quadrennial conferences. 

An insulated, career-tenured church bureaucracy functionally ignored the unrest in the years between conferences. But eventually, as mainline American Christians began making church a thing of their memories and not of their lifestyles, the numbers got away from the old majority in the UMC – and the people I’m now calling “reformers” became outnumbered by a booming population of orthodox Methodists in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. This week in St. Louis, those globally-diverse orthodox Methodists used the same rigid majoritarian polity to stuff all notions of reform on gay marriage and ordination policies.

Too few got the irony of a mostly-white losing faction using rainbow avatars to deride the lack of inclusiveness of a real rainbow coalition on the orthodox side.

This omission once again should have proven that the problem is polity and not people.

The United Methodist Church as we know it was forged in the post-war era dominated by national brand conformity and big, top-down, bureaucratic solutions. From government to beer brands to department stores, the age that spawned the UMC created national behemoths in almost every consumer category. But today, Sears & Roebuck is in bankruptcy and Amazon is creating a hundred million different, individualized department stores on the smartphones of a hundred million Americans. In politics, a reality show act with a can’t-miss Twitter account created an organic movement that blew up both political parties in the 2016 election. In The Great Revolt, the book I wrote with journalist Salena Zito, we attempted to put that election in the light of every other change that has happened in our economy in the 12 years since the smartphone was introduced. This Methodist failure should also be put on that timeline.

Why should United Methodists think our musty, unresponsive, hierarchy is going to fare any better in this moment of individual empowerment than any other fat, slow post-war monstrosity? 

You simply cannot force people to change their minds or trust your brand today. 

Organizations that dictate from the top are doomed to fall in consumer-led coups. 

Sometimes those coups elect Donald Trump, sometimes those coups nearly nominate Bernie Sanders, sometimes those coups send your company to bankruptcy, and sometimes those coups split your denomination.

The likelihood of this failure in Saint Louis was entirely foreseeable – the numbers are the numbers. But the bishops and ordained church leaders and staff who cooked up the one-sided reform plan ignored the denominational dynamics they’d put in place over the last three decades, and chose to never look in the mirror. Now they seem shocked that the orthodox delegates wouldn’t accept what they smugly dubbed the “One Church Plan” (a title reeking of “do this or else” sentiment) crammed down their throats. The back up Connectional Plan – which would’ve split the church into three quasi-autonomous strains – raised so many long-lead constitutional questions that it had no chance among the delegates, reflecting the fact that it was proposed ten years too late. But tone deaf bureaucracies are always late to the party with the answer that would work. It’s the nature of the arrogance of unchecked power.

The inherent impossibility of running a bottom-up religion with top-down bishops and winner-take-all conference showdowns is the crisis Methodist now must address if we are to quit sniping at each other long enough to get back to the work of spreading the good news of Christ – together or apart.

Next year in Minneapolis when Methodists gather again for the regular global conference, this reform of our polity should be the only item on the agenda. Let’s blow the whole thing up and replace the cathode-ray tube governance model with a digital-age grass roots structure that puts congregational work first.

It might look something like this:

  1. Make a denomination wide commitment to evangelism, above all social activism and even the good work of the church. A shrinking army argues more than a growing one, so it will be good for governance and has the added benefit of being the one thing Christ compelled the church to do (sarcasm intended.)
  2. Allow any UMC church that wants to leave the denomination with its property to gracefully do so, provided they assume any debts associated with the property. Deed over all other church properties to the congregations that remain. Make it clear that no congregation is held captive. The mother church must earn the trust of its congregants every day and a land-poor mother church will be a more responsive mother church.
  3. Make the job of bishop a 5-year, one-term job to be completed at the end of a ministry career. Refashion the job to be a congregational consultant and ministerial mentor instead of the current role of administering a needlessly complicated system of itinerancy and moderating parliamentary procedure.
  4. Dismantle the bulk of the central denominational staff via generous early retirement packages. Every other industry has right-sized itself in the last decade – and many of them gave up middle management layers that were less flabby and failed than ours. Devolving power away from the central organization of the denomination is essential to sustainability in the new age of smartphone connectionalism. Keep only the departments and agencies that provide direct services to congregations, and trim even those. 
  5. Spin off the mission functions of the denomination to separate entities that are sustained only on voluntary subscription payments from congregations. As Christians we believe we are all called to mission – so our denomination should trust Christ to adequately do the compulsion.

Critics of my plan will say that this is incompatible with the inherently catholic notions of pastoral authority that have been embedded in Methodism since our founder John Wesley came from the Anglican tradition. They are right. But Bible-centric orthodox Methodists will surely agree that this pastoral authority model has few plausible New Testament roots and modern reform Methodists have to admit that this system no longer works for any of us no matter how we got it or how long it took them to realize they will never again have the numbers to run the machine.

Dueling speakers on the floor of the St. Louis conference extolled, in alternating speeches, the need for Methodism to focus on the teachings of the Bible and on the need to reach a new generation for Christ. They are both right. We need a new polity to achieve both – or either – aspiration.

Our secular politics has devolved into a poisonous frenetic cycle in which the second line of any dialogue is either: “you’re a bigot” or “you’re a traitor.” Now we’ve let those same slurs come to define how church people talk to each other. We have a better model than that.

Forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

 

 

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.

I feel like we’re on the Titanic and all of us are acting like Billy Zane, po’d about who’s sleeping with whom.

The posse from the podcast arrived in St. Louis yesterday for the Special General Conference of the UMC, called for the purpose of finding a way forward through our impasse over the issue of sexuality. As I pulled up to the airport yesterday morning, NPR was a playing a story about the conference. The woman in front of me on the flight, a lawyer, was reading a Wall Street Journal story about the conference. The man across the aisle was playing an NCAA game too loud on his phone, and reading a Washington Post story about the conference.

About how United Methodists will or will not include in its ministry those gay Christians in its Body.

Oh, and the usual crowd of protesters from Westboro Baptist Church are here with their bullhorns and their “God Hates Fags” placards.

As I mention below, it’s hard for me to think about this issue from anything other than a personal perspective. I might not be a pastor were it not for the influence of my first theology professor in college, Dr. Eugene Rogers, a conservative Karl Barth scholar who also happened to be gay. I think too of my friend Andy, clearly called by God to ministry and went all the way through seminary before coming out and culling himself from the ordination process before a committee of strangers did it for him. I think too of the various congregations I’ve served, all of which had LGBTQ folks in them and about whom none of these local churches needed lobbyists and bureaucrats from the larger institution telling them how to do their ministry.

Off my soapbox.

The posse recorded our initial thoughts about being here, below, and then we sat down for whiskey with Bishop Will Willimon last night. Here’s Will’s wisdom in a nutshell: “There’s a difference between a problem (which has a solution) and a condition (which does not). Methodism doesn’t have a problem; it has a condition. Maybe the best way forward is for the larger church to allow local churches to continue to muddle their way through this issue.”

Here are those episodes:

 

 

Marriage is for Sinners

Jason Micheli —  February 21, 2019 — Leave a comment

“For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” 

The marriage vows mark marriage out as an ascetic discipline. 

As the Wesley hymn explains:

“The Church’s one foundation/ Is Jesus Christ her Lord/ . . . From heaven he came and sought her/ To be his holy bride;/ With his own blood he bought her,/And for her life he died.” 

The controlling New Testament interpretation of marriage relies upon Genesis, yet— notice—Paul does not associate marriage with procreation or with complementarity, but with typology: with God’s plan to love and save his people, one God, one people. 

Same- and opposite-sex couples seek to participate not in something natural but in something unnatural— something known to us only by revelation— this typology of marriage. 

It belongs to the church’s mission to introduce them into that witness and discipline.

The question of same-sex marriage therefore comes to the church not as an issue of extended rights and privileges (this is why the language of “full inclusion” is insufficiently Christian language, I believe) but as a pastoral occasion to proclaim the significance of the gospel for all who marry, because marriage embodies and carries forward the marriage of God and God’s people. 

Because the marriage rite itself presumes that marriage is about sanctification, to deny committed couples marriage deprives them not of a privilege but of a medicine. 

“It deprives them not of a social means of satisfaction but of a saving manner of healing. Those couples who approach the church for marriage– and those whose priests prompt them to marry—are drawn there by the marriage of Christ and the church, which alone makes it possible for human relationships to become occasions of grace” (Eugene Rogers).

Couples who delay marriage are like those who previously waited for deathbed baptism.

They unaccountably put off the grace by which their lives might be healed. Likewise, the Church which denies them marriage may be like the priest who fails to show up and offer them a saving rite.

There is no question of whether the marriage of Christ and the church is available to sinners.

 Only, how it is so.

The church must know how to respond both to couples who seek marriage and those who delay it. Among those who seek marriage are same-sex couples who offer their relationship in witness to and imitation of Christ’s love. Among those who delay are same-sex couples waiting for the church to discover and proclaim the significance of its marriage to Christ for their relationships. In both cases, the church faces a test of its understanding of atonement, posed in an immediate pastoral query. How will the church receive the couple that would approach the altar, and how will it suffer the couple that delays?

How the church marries couples shapes its witness to Christ’s atonement. Whom the church marries testifies to its understanding of its own sanctification. The church’s practice of marrying is an evangelical practice, proclaiming that the love of God for God’s people is real, that the atonement is real, that reconciliation is real, that salvation is real. The Spirit calls all Christians to witness to that reality, and the church offers practices for doing so.

Because the love of God for God’s people is real, and the declaration “this is my body given for you” is true, the church needs as many witnesses as the Holy Spirit and its mission may draft. Same- and opposite-sex couples who want to marry in the church bear witness to the love of God for God’s people and to the power of that love to atone, reconcile, and heal. Not that they can do those things by their human power alone, but the Spirit can attest their witness to the atonement and healing of Christ.

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 

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.

 

Starting in a new congregation in a denomination that stands at the precipice of schism, I sense a lot of anxiety from the laity I meet. EVERYONE wants to know what their new pastor thinks about homosexuality, the Church’s ‘position’ on gay Christians, and what I view as the “Way Forward” through this ecclessial impasse.

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 that 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 sex.

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.

 

 

This Sunday I preached on my denomination’s proposed “Way Forward” through the impasse over human sexuality. My texts were 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 8.

     A year ago this past Thursday a couple asked to meet with Dennis and me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently. Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. 

     Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

     When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

    The husband, the Dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the Mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives. You baptized and confined our daughters so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.”

     Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

     “What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

     And then she told us something else entirely. Something surprising.

     She told us their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

    “They’re both gay” she said.

     “Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

     They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

     “This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

     “But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here, that there’d be a place for them.”

     “Of course. Absolutely.”

     I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

     “You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

     “Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be just as true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners. It’s pious types he’s got a problem with.”

     We talked a bit more.

     About how this “issue” was playing out now in the larger United Methodist Church. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

     “You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’ve always pictured them having a place here.” 

——————

     As Dennis broke down for you last Sunday, the United Methodist Church stands at a clenched-teeth, fingers-crossed impasse over the issue of human sexuality. 

     The Council of Bishops earlier this year received a report from a special 30-person global commission called “The Way Forward,” and on Friday the Council of Bishops released the broad strokes of what will be their recommendation to the larger Church next winter at a special session to decide the matter. 

    And on Friday night Dennis called me to tell me to talk about it in my sermon. “I’ll be away for the weekend,” he said before disappearing in a cloud of sulfur.

     The Council of Bishops weighed 3 options put forward to the them. 

     Two of the options, on either end of the spectrum, could be termed the conservative and progressive options. The former option would keep our church polity and discipline as it is now where homosexuality is described as being contrary to Christian teaching and openly gay Christians are kept from serving in the ministry. The latter option, meanwhile, would liberalize the Church’s language on sexuality. 

     The challenge for a global Church, of course, is that there are many churches, especially in the developing world, that insist on the conservative option while there is a growing cultural consensus in North America towards flexibility on our views of sexuality. 

     What the Council of Bishops recommend is a middle way, a compromise called the “One Church” Model where the United Methodist Church doesn’t fracture and schism into pieces yet would allow churches and jurisdictions to decide for themselves, based on their mission field and cultural context, how they will interpret and enforce teaching on human sexuality. 

     In other words, it would allow the Church in a place like Greenwich Village or Dupont Circle to look different than the Church in Mississippi or Ghana. 

     Let me repeat that so you’ve got it: 

The mission field would determine our position on sexuality and enforcement of it not our differing interpretations of what scripture says about sexuality. 

     And just in case the term “mission field” conjures up exotic images of sun-swept savannas, by mission field we’re talking about places like Aldersgate and 22308 where, for my kids and their peers, it’s strange-to-the-point-of-archaic that Christians are even still having this argument. Like it or not, Will and Grace settled this question for the culture years ago. In such a mission field, the question is do you care more that people have the right position on sexuality or do you care that they know Jesus is the friend of sinners?

     If the recommendation is approved next winter (long odds still), then the best case scenario is that the United Methodist Church’s position on sexuality will be peace amidst difference. So, it’s much too early to know what will come of this issue in the larger Church but Dennis thought we owed it to you, as pastors of this particular church, to articulate why we endorse something like this middle way. 

———————-

     What the “One Church” model gets right that both of the other options get wrong, in my view, is that our mission to proclaim the Gospel to our community is more urgent than our being the Church with the right position on sexuality or the right interpretation of scripture on it. 

     Put another way, nothing is more inclusive than the Gospel of justification for the ungodly. 

     I have no interest in being a part of the Church-of-the-Correct-Opinion, whether that Church is traditional or progressive. I want to be a part of a Church that makes the Gospel what St. Paul says it is: the most important of our concerns.  

     And, notice in 1 Corinthians 15, in his definition of what is supposed to be our chief concern, the Gospel, the only sins Paul mentions in the Gospel are the sins for which Christ has already died; that is, all of them. 

     It seems silly to the point of missing the plot to spend time and treasure ($2,000/minute when the global Church gathers for days to debate this issue- I don’t want to put a damper on your generosity, but for every dollar you give to this church pennies to a nickel of it go to fund this argument)- it seems silly and sinfully wasteful to me to argue 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. 

     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?

———————-

     Look, don’t let the earring and tattoos mislead you. 

     Theologically-speaking, I’m the most conservative pastor you have on staff. That’s not even a joke. Theologically-speaking, I’m so hyper-Protestant our DS accuses me of being Methodist-in-name-only. 

     So I understand those Christians who advocate for a traditional view of sexuality and marriage. I really do. In the wake of #MeToo and this current administration, 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 of women, 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 mean by ‘Trinity’ or ‘Incarnation,’ it’s a bit narcissistic to insist the Church rush headlong into upending millennia of teaching on sexuality and personhood. 

     And I sympathize with their critique that, in many ways and places, the Church has substituted the mantra of inclusivity for the Gospel of Christ and him crucified.

     I get it. I’m just aware- and if I wasn’t already, those parents who came to Dennis and me last spring grabbed me by the collar and shook me awake- that a growing number of people (read: potential converts to Christ) see such traditionalism not as a reverence for scripture but as a rejection of them.

————————

     So I empathize with my friends on the “traditional” side of the debate. But, I find other issues, other biblical issues, more urgent. Namely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

     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 one issue- I worry that we’ve obscured the Gospel good news.

     Take today’s text:

     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. 

     This is why St. Paul is so adamant about the absolute necessity not just of Christ’s cross but of Christ’s empty grave. Because 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.

     To be blunt about it- 

     Whether you’re progressive 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. 

     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.

———————-

     Look-

     I know what scripture (ie, the Law) says about sex; however, the Gospel, says St. Paul, 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 you before God not at all. And because by your baptism you’ve been clothed in Christ’s perfect righteousness, the opposite is also true. Having an “impure” sex life effects your justification before God NOT AT ALL. 

     The Gospel also frees us, interestingly enough, from finding the perfect interpretation of what scripture says about sex. Having the right reading of scripture on sex doesn’t improve our standing before God nor does having the wrong reading jeopardize our justification.

     In fighting over who has the righteous position, left and right, I worry our positions about sexuality have become the very sort of self-righteous works of the Law that prompted the Protestant movement exactly 500 years ago. And let’s be clear, all those stipulations in scripture about sex- they’re the Law: Do this…don’t do this.

     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 sexuality debates. Instead the Law functions for us to do the pointing out of how far the other has fallen short.

You’ve fallen short of traditional biblical teaching.

You’ve fallen short of being open and affirming and inclusive.

You’ve fallen short. 

    I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

    But I care more about the Gospel. 

    And the Gospel, as Jesus says, is good news. It’s for sinners and scoundrels and phonies not saints. It’s for those who are sick and know their need not for the show-offs with their claptrap about holy living.

     I care more about the Gospel.

     I care more about ordinary sin-sick people, gay and straight, knowing that God loves them so much as to get down from his throne, throw off his robe, put on skin, and come down to rescue us on a cursed tree. 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 Christ’s perfect righteousness. 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 your 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 that God’s grace isn’t costly.

It’s expensive.

Paid in the hard-to-obtain currency of your right-believing and your-interpreting and your holy-living. 

    But here’s the thing about holiness- 

Holiness, as Martin Luther said, 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. 

———————-

     Back to those girls- 

     And, since you baptized them, they’re your girls as much as they’re their parents’.

     If our ongoing, intractable fights over sexuality convey to even one person that God condescended in Christ for someone UNLIKE them, then all our fighting is costlier than $2000 per minute.

     If our ecclesial brinkmanship over sexuality implies to even one person that our having the right position on sexuality in any way effects our justification, then the debate isn’t worth it.

     And if my kids’ peers are any indication, then the risk to the Gospel grows every day we waste with this impasse. 

     Like it or not, Will and Grace first aired 20 years ago. Velma on Scooby Doo was TV’s first lesbian 50 years ago. Admit it, Anderson Cooper is the only member of the media you actually trust. 

     Our culture- this mission field- has moved on whether we like it or not. Queer Eye seems passe at this point. 

     If meat sacrificed to false gods was fine fare for a BBQ for the Apostle Paul, then 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 is STILL 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 Bishops’ recommendation 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, we’re in favor of a middle way because it seems that a middle way which leaves everyone slightly teed off is exactly how God works. 

     Such a middle way allows good people of faith to keep on discussing who it is those girls- your girls- can love but such a middle way does so without jeopardizing the Church’s primary mission to make sure those girls- your girls- know who loves them. 

     Know who loves them. 

To the grave and back. 

     Jesus Christ. 

     Who takes us into himself in our baptism and who gives himself to be taken into us through the wine and bread that is his body and blood.

     Honestly, there is no way forward other than a middle way.

Because all of us who are baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us.

All of us baptized are already in Christ and through wine and bread he is in us; such that, not one of us can say to the other, no matter what we think about scripture or who we sleep with- not one of us can say to the other, I have no need of you.

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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     Here’s my sermon from this Sunday. I guest preached at the Kingstowne Communion for their series on the Apostles Creed. My text was Philippians 2.1-11.

Not long ago, USA Today featured a story about perceptions of God in America, and how a person’s perception of God influences their opinions on issues of the day.

The research can be found in a book by two sociologists at Baylor, the Baptist University in Texas. Their book’s entitled: America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What that Says about Us.

The researchers identify four primary characteristics of God. They are: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. Based on surveys, they have come up with percentages of what American people believe about God:

Authoritative 28%:

According to the authors, people who hold this view of God divide the  world  along good and evil and they tend to be people who are worried,  concerned and scared. They respond to a powerful, sovereign God  guiding this country.

Distant 24%:

These are people who identify more with the spiritual and speak of finding  the mysterious, unknowable God in creation or through contemplation or in elegant mathematical theorems.

Critical 21%:

The researchers describe people who perceive a God who keeps a critical  eye on this world but only delivers justice in the next.

Benevolent 22%:

According to the researchers, their God is a “positive influence” who cares for all  people, weeps at all conflicts, and will comfort all.

Benevolent.

Distant.

Critical.

Authoritative.

Along the way, their research nets some curious findings.

For instance, if your parents spanked you when you were a child, then you’re more likely to subscribe to an Authoritative God view. If you’re European, then in all likelihood you have a Distant view of God.

If you’re poor then, odds are, you fall into the Critical view.

My wife only seldom agrees to spank me but presumably if you’re into adult spanking then you subscribe to a Benevolent God view.

United Methodists meanwhile- proving we can’t make up our minds about anything- tend to be evenly distributed among the four characteristic views.

The book is several years old now so I was surprised to discover that the sociologists’ survey is still up and running online.

As people take the survey, the percentages change.

You might be interested to hear that right now the Distant God is now pulling ahead in the polls, as the Authoritative God falls behind, and the Benevolent God gains a few points.

———————

     When I discovered the website not long ago, I decided to take the survey, all twenty questions of it. I was asked to rate whether or not the term “loving” described God very well, somewhat well, undecided, not very well, or not at all.

Other divine attributes in the twenty survey questions were “critical, punishing, severe, wrathful, distant, ever present.”

I was asked if I thought God was angered by human sin and angered by my sin. I was asked if God was concerned with my personal well being and then with the well being of the world.

In order to capture my understanding of and belief in God, maker of heaven and earth in whom we live and move and have our being, according to my watch, the survey took all of two minutes and thirty-five seconds.

Or, roughly 10,078 minutes faster than God managed to create the world.

After I finished, I was told what percentage of people in my demographic shared my view of God (college educated men under the age of none of your damn business).

You may be interested to know, but no doubt not surprised, that the survey says that this pastor maintains a perception of a Benevolent God.

It was only after I answered all the questions, only after I saw my results, only after I saw how I measured up against other respondents….only then did it strike me how the Baylor survey never asked me about Jesus.

The survey asked me to choose if I thought God was Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent, but it never asked me, it was never given as an option, if I thought God was Incarnate- in the flesh, among us, as one of us.

I’m no sociologist.

Presumably,

‘Do you believe that God, though being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself  taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on the cross…’

Presumably that’s a lousy survey question.

Even still, it struck me that I’d just taken a supposedly thorough survey about my belief in God, and Jesus was not in any of the questions nor was he ever a possible answer.

I even tried to go back and undo, invalidate, my responses but it wouldn’t let me.

The problem with the survey is that, whether I like it or not, God’s not someone I get to pick with just the click of a mouse.

———————-

     I’m a Christian. How I conceive of God isn’t optional. It isn’t up for grabs.

We don’t get to define God according to whatever generalities we’d prefer instead when we confess Jesus Christ is Lord we profess that God has come to us with the most particular of definitions.

The problem with the survey is that I don’t believe God is Authoritative, Distant, Critical or Benevolent.

I believe Jesus is God.

Christians are peculiar. Maybe it takes a survey to point that out.

When we say God, we mean Jesus.

And when we say Jesus, we mean the God who emptied himself, the God who traded divinity for poverty, power for weakness, the God who came down among us and stooped down to serve the lowliest of us.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said that if God had wanted to God could’ve been Sovereign. If God had wanted to God could’ve been All-Powerful or All-Knowing. If God had wanted to God could’ve been Holy or Righteous.

But instead, said Wesley, God chose to be Jesus.

You see- it’s not that God’s power and glory and divinity are somehow disguised behind Jesus‘ human life. It’s not that in Jesus God masquerades as someone he’s not already.

The incarnation isn’t a temporary time-out in which God gets to pretend he’s a different person.

Rather, when we see Jesus in the wilderness saying no to the world’s ways of power, when we see Jesus- the Great High Priest- embracing lepers and eating with sinners, when we see Jesus stoop down to wash our dirty feet, when we see Jesus freely choose death rather than retaliation, when we see Jesus pour himself out, empty himself, humble and humiliate himself we’re seeing as much of God as there is to see.

In the Son we see as much of the Father as there has ever been to see.

Just look at today’s scripture text.

The song Paul quotes here in Philippians 2 is a worship song, older even than the Gospels themselves.

Don’t forget, the believers who first sang that song- they were good synagogue-going Jews; as such, they could worship only God alone.

To worship any one other than God was to break the first and most important of commandments.

But here their song praises Jesus as only God can be praised, lauding him as Lord to whom, the song concludes, has been given the name above every name.

Of course, the name above every name is the name that was too holy for Jews to utter or even write.

The name above every name is the name that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush.

     The name above every name is the name of God.

     And now that name’s synonymous with Jesus.

———————

     After I completed the Baylor survey, in less than three minutes, a window popped up on the screen to tell me, conclusively, that I had a perception of a Benevolent God.

For me, the survey said, God is a positive influence on people. I suppose that means God is like Anderson Cooper or Donald Trump.

The survey results also explained how my particular perception of God likely impacted my worldview, in other words, how my belief in God played out in my positions on contemporary issues and politics.

But the survey never mentioned anything about a community.

According to the survey I’m just an individual person who has a certain perception of God and that perception influences my opinions on political issues. It never said anything about a community.

I told you it was a terrible survey.

———————

     This past Thursday a couple asked to meet with me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently.

Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

The husband, the dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.” 

Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

“What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

And then she told something else entirely. Something surprising.

She told me their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

“They’re both gay” she said.

“Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

“This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

“But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here.” 

“Of course. Absolutely.” 

I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

“You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

“Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners.”

We talked a bit more.

About how this “issue” is playing out now in the larger Church. About how you can know your kids but still they can be a surprising mystery to you too. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

“You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’d always pictured them getting married here and you performing their wedding.” 

“Their wedding photo might look a little different than you’d imagined it, but I’ll still be in it. I’ll still do it” I said. “But, let’s wait until they’re out of high school.” 

“Isn’t there a rule against you doing it?” the mom asked. “Wouldn’t you get in trouble?”

“There is and I might” I said “but what am I supposed to do? I serve a God who says his Kingdom is like a wedding to which all the wrong kinds of people get invited. He’s the only rule I’ve got to obey.”

They laughed a little, but then he said, with absolute seriousness:

     “I guess we came here because they want to know, and we want them to know, that God still loves them.” 

———————-

     Maybe it was because I’d just filled out that silly survey, but after they left the church office I thought about sort of God it is that could produce the conversation we’d just had.

What sort of God is that?

Authoritative? Distant? Critical? Benevolent?

Or is it Jesus? Is it the God who trades away his divinity so that he might be with us?

Is it the God who takes flesh to welcome outcasts, embrace lepers, and feast with sinners?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?

Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent or the God who is with-us, while all of us were still sinners with us, with us through the grief and joy and confusion of our lives?

With us such that to be faithful and obedient to this God we must be willing to be with one another no matter what?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had or the kind of community capable of such a conversation?

Benevolent doesn’t even scratch the surface of the God who took flesh, became what we are; so that, what we are- male or female, black or white, gay or straight- we are in him so that all of us must treat every one of us as him, as precious as him.

All of us must treat every one of us as Christ.

     He became what we are.

     What we are- black or white, male or female, gay or straight- is in him.

All of us therefore must regard everyone of us as though we were him.

Distant. Critical. Benevolent. Authoritative.

Tell me what sort of God other than Jesus Christ could produce that posture?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?

Sure, there’s scripture verses that could’ve taken the conversation in the opposite direction, but we’re Christians.

We believe Jesus, not scripture, is the Word God speaks to us because we believe Jesus is God.

Maybe if our God was Authoritative or Critical or Distant even, maybe then we could throw around scripture words like abomination but we believe Jesus is God.

Jesus is God and, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones. God says to the woman caught in adultery “I do not condemn you” even though scripture condemned her.

God forgives those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks with sinners, and to the thieves by the cross God gives the first two tickets to paradise.

And speaking of the cross, God responds to the crosses we build with Easter. With resurrection.

Only that sort of God could produce the conversation I’d had with those parents.

Even more importantly- only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced our conversation.

     Only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced those girls who yearned to hear that God loved them.

———————-

     After they left my office, I emailed the Baylor sociologist responsible for the survey:

     Dear Dr. Bader,

I’m a United Methodist pastor in Alexandria, Virginia. Having read about your book and your research in USA Today, I just completed your survey online Since I was unable to cancel or otherwise invalidate my responses I felt I should share a few comments with you.

First, let me take issue with the four views of God that you group responses into. I don’t deny there is a diversity of religious belief in America. It’s just that, as a Christian, I was surprised to find that the God whom I worship isn’t to be found in any of your questions or categories. I believe Jesus of Nazareth is as much of God as there to see.

Authoritative, Distant, Critical, or Benevolent therefore are not sufficient categories to describe the God who empties himself of divinity, takes flesh, lives the life of a servant and turns the other cheek all the way to a cross. Perhaps you think my definition of God is too specific. The trouble is in Jesus of Nazareth God couldn’t have been more specific.

Second, your survey suggests that believing in God is primarily a matter of having a particular worldview that then influences one’s opinions on issues. I can’t speak for other religions, but as a Christian I can say that if Jesus Christ is Lord, then it’s not a matter of opinions.

Before the creed is a profession of our beliefs; it’s a pledge of our allegiance. If Jesus Christ is Lord then faith in him means faithfulness to him.

His life is the pattern to which we must conform our lives.

And “must conform” is the right wording, for if Jesus is Lord, then he’s owed not our belief but our obedience.

And obedience for Christians means imitation. Imitating Christ.

So, you see, Dr. Bader, Jesus expects a lot more from us than having the right positions on issues.

Finally, I just came from a conversation with parents of two teenage girls who just came out of the closet.

And during my conversation with them it occurred to me.

In all of your questions on your survey, you never asked if I believed that God loved me. Postulating a loving God in the abstract isn’t the same thing as believing that God loves me, ME, no matter what.

You never asked that question, and that’s the most important question. For those parents whose fear of God’s rejection I could see in their eyes and for their girls who’ve already been baptized into Jesus Christ- for those girls and for their parents, I thank God that in Jesus Christ the answer is yes.

No doubt the harsh tone of my email will lead you to conclude that I score in the ‘Authoritative God’ category.

Not so, even though my mother did spank me as a child. No, I rate solidly in the ‘Benevolent God’ category. So I hope you will believe it’s in a spirit of benevolence when I say, for lack of a better expression, I think your survey is crap.

Blessings…

Jason Micheli

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.”

 

No, that’s not Bryce Harper. It’s Colby Martin.

He’s got the best head of hair in Progressive Christianity and we’ve got him to talk about his new book, ‘Unclobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality’. Endorsed by Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, and Glennon Doyle Melton, Colby Martin works his way through the ‘clobber’ passages often used to denounce and dehumanize our LGBT brothers and sisters. He talks with the voice of a theologian while using a pastoral tone.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

For Episode 56 of Crackers & Grape Juice, we talk with Max Kuecker and Jane Liu.

Max and Jane worked for years with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, an evangelical college ministry that recently decided to purge its LGBT-affirming leadership. Max and Jane have launched Incarnation Ministries, an LGBT-affirming evangelical college ministry.

Be on the lookout for future episodes with next week with Brian McLaren and Father James Martin and, this week, a special book debut episode to launch my book Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage Serious Chemo. 

For that episode, Teer Hardy spoke with an all star lineup including Tony Jones, Todd Littleton, Jeffrey Pugh, Kendall Soulen, and JC Herz. 

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A.. There’s only 15 tix left so if you’d like to be a part of it, check it out here.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

Prayer for Omar Mateen

Jason Micheli —  June 23, 2016 — 8 Comments

2016AC-logo-color-with-UMC-flameI’m recovering from 3 plus days spent at my little nook of Methodism’s Annual Conference. Given that nearly a quarter of every dollar a United Methodist gives goes out the door of his or her congregation to the larger Church, there’s many structural and strategic critiques I could offer about how we spent our time (and I’ve already seen many of my younger clergy colleagues doing so on social media).

I won’t belabor the organizational beef. I do want to address what I took to be both a grave theological error and a personal one too. During the proceedings we debated- debated- a resolution recommending that we pray for the (gay) victims of the Orlando tragedy. We actually debated it. Christians debated praying. Full stop. For victims of murder. We eventually did so and in it we prayed for the victims and their families and, if I recall, there was verbiage spent on gun violence and gun legislation and hateful ideologies.

What was missing, I noticed immediately, was a prayer for the perpetrator. We didn’t prayer for the shooter. And that wouldn’t be odd in any other context except for a Christian one, for we are the people who believe the cross erases any meaningful distinction between victim and victimizer.

I noticed the lack in the prayer and in our debate about it, but I was too afraid to step up to microphone 10 to say anything about it. For that, I am ashamed. It’s little recompense but I offer this prayer here that I should’ve offered there:

Slaughtered Yet Risen Lord-

You forgive us from the cross with which we push you out of the world, invoking to the Father that we do not know what we are doing. Perhaps we know ourselves better than you know us, for surely we knew what we were doing.

We confess.

And, we presume, Omar Mateen knew what he was doing too by murdering out of hate (and it seems self-hate too) by wounding just as many, and, in so doing, wreaking violence on his family and any who cared for him. We presume he knew what he was doing, and so not one of us has any natural inclination to forgive him or, even, to pray for him.

We confess.

Actually, Lord Jesus, we’d rather pray for you to punish him. We’d prefer the assurance of his eternal torment, and we don’t know how to square that desire with the news that you’ve already suffered hell for us, once for all, and that you died- accursed- not for people like us but the wicked. Like Omar Mateen. We desperately do not want him to be counted among that ‘all’ for whom you died.

We confess.

We don’t want to pray for him, Lord. Maybe it’s because we don’t think he deserves it, or maybe it’s because we suspect it will prove hard to hate someone for whom we pray. We don’t want to pray for him, but you queerly command us to love enemies and trespassers and to pray for them. So we do- not because it’s a strategy to make the world more peaceful and not because we believe that by loving our enemies our enemies will cease to be our enemies. We do so, reluctantly, only because you commanded us, and as dumb and offensive as praying for him strikes us, you’re still the only one whose character God has vindicated by resurrection. And if you can raise the crucified from the dead, then perhaps you can raise up a People whose hates are not more precious to them than their faith.

We hope.

So against our better judgment but towards our Easter hope, we pray for Omar Mateen and any and all who, in the mysterious complexity of life, loved him. We’re told he killed in the name of righteousness; help us not shirk your command to pray for enemies in the name of righteousness. Give us grace, Lord Jesus, that in the fullness of time we may see in him, and him in us, thieves welcomed by you undeservedly into paradise.

Help us to pray for Omar Mateen and those like him. Help us to believe the Gospel that its through such practices and the communities constituted by them that you have chosen to redeem this sinful and violent world. Amen.

 

nt-wrightDelicately: “None of us conform to what Genesis 1 says about us.”

Here’s the second installment of the Crackers and Grape Juice interview with NT Wright wherein Morgan delicately tries to ask him about gender binaries and homosexuality.

Here’s some of the nerdy text messages Morgan and I exchanged after we talked with him and with Fleming Rutledge:

Morgan Gunton:

So what do you make of the debate over apocalyptic?

Jason Micheli:

I’ve never been convinced by NT Wright’s ‘this is what God was up to all along’ angle. I think it ignores, like Fleming said, the shock of the cross, and the theme of discontinuity in Paul. Wright too often brushes critiques aside by saying his critics or the reformers et al just don’t know 1st c Judaism as well as him.

Morgan Gunton:

I feel like he makes Paul into a default first century Jew

Jason Micheli:

It’s stretches credulity to suppose that the fathers and reformers, and were completely wrong in all their impulses. Marcionism is a heresy obviously and the law wasn’t as bad as Luther made it out to be but still those sentiments are not without a textual grounding. It’s not a little thing, as Fleming Rutledge mentioned, that Paul doesn’t speak of the covenant- esp when NT would have us think that that’s the whole arc of scripture.

Morgan Gunton:

Yeah it was really eye-opening for me when Fleming said that because the whole reformed theological system is built upon covenant.

Jason Micheli:

Of course, I freely admit NT’s criticism in his most book- that those who espouse apocalyptic do so bc it’ll preach in a way that doesn’t force preachers to be fundamentalists. That’s me I know.

Morgan Gunton:

How is that though?

Jason Micheli:

It allows room for God to be the acting agent, for the world to be a dark place, for the church to be a pilgrim people living according to a diff time…all without being literalists. Basically, Barth and Hauerwas.

Morgan Gunton:

Yeah I guess it seems to me like NT Wright over-historicizes his theology if that’s the right terminology.

Jason Micheli:

It’s hard to put a finger on, but it’s def true that I don’t think he ‘preaches’ like Kasemann and Martyn. Nor do I think his own sermons are urgent enough but he is English so…

Download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here.Teer spends unpaid HOURS editing this crap, 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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Here it is:

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.’

 

GC2016-logo-color-hi-resWatching the live stream and Twitter feeds of the United Methodist Church’s General Conference this week, I had to pinch myself to remember that I wasn’t binging House of Cards. What’s become apparent over the last few days of General Conference is that the United in United Methodist Church is every bit the false advertising our tag line proffers (Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Something).

See: this story

The predatory parliamentary proceedings, however addictive, have not left me incredulous. Let’s not forget, the United Methodist Church has been united for only a generation and that institutional unity was itself the fruit of a century’s long process of reconciling the divisions wrought by the slavery debate. Ever the trend setters, Methodists split before the nation did in the Civil War and we reunited long after reconstruction. That this ‘unity’ lurks in our not too distant past should serve as a caveat to the United Methodist Church today which is fixed at an impasse over the question of homosexuality. On the one hand, we should not be too hyperbolic in how we laud the supposed unity of our connection; on the other, we should be cautious about again dividing our Church over an issue that will in a generation or more be a head scratching embarrassment to our ecclesial heirs.

The Church after all is not a mutually agreed upon confederacy from which we can uncouple ourselves when it suits our read of the situation. When the Church uses the word ‘unity’ we do not intend- well, we should not intend- the same meaning as the nation does by the United States.

When Christians use the word ‘unity’ we refer firstly to the unity of God, to the triune life of Father, Son, and Spirit in whom there is both difference and harmony, particularity and peace.

This unity is ontological; that is, it is the ground of Being itself. It is the very grain of God’s universe. It reflects the reality of who God is; it is not the result of Roberts Rules of Order.

When Christians use the word ‘unity,’ we mean the unity of the 3-Personed God; therefore, for Christians unity is always a gift of God for its the fruit of the God whose immanent life is marked by a constancy of gift and exchange. Whereas unity, in the Christian sense, might appear mysterious, abstract, or elusive, disunity in the Christian world is not so at all.

Disunity, as the proceedings at General Conference have exemplified, is not equivalent to diversity. Nor is it the same thing as sin though, as Herbert McCabe argues, disunity is connected to both diversity and sin.

Our divisions in the United Methodist Church do not arise from Christians failing to follow Christ fully.

Our divisions derive from Christians so fully following, in their way, their commitment to Christ that they become blind- willfully so, I’d say after so many iterations of the same debate- to the faithful following of others.

In striving to be faithful to the authority of scripture, say, or in striving to be faithful to Christ’s gracious inclusion of all, we discover that we’re divided.

Those proposing a moderate, ‘third way’ solution appear to want to ameliorate these divisions with a euphemism. Diversity. Needing my pension and my health insurance as I do, I’d like it to be true. Diversity, as Paul teaches, is a good and needful characteristic of the Church, but I’m not sure the indictments and mistrust I see splayed out in 140 characters on my Twitter feed are analogous to Paul’s eye // ear illustration.

Diversity reflects the creative intent of the Creator.

Division happens when faithful people become so fixed with their own way of following that they lose sight of their more fundamental ontological unity. Or, more nearer to the matter, they become so fixed in their way of following that they discover that the other has lost sight of their more fundamental unity– lost sight of, the indictments always go, God.

When such divisions emerge, the temptation is to disavow diversity. To demand uniformity. Of belief. In practice. This is a move, McCabe argues, towards sin. The real sin in our disunity is not what happened in the past that we’ve inherited; it’s what’s happening now, in the present, in our (intractable) failure to heal the divisions between people who are, on both sides, only concerned, intensely so, for the truth of the gospel as they apprehend it.

What’s so sad about what I see at General Conference is that the divisions of good people are leading inexorably, not by malice but by well-intentioned folly, to yet another division. Which is but another denial of the one Spirit into which all of us, liberal and conservative, were baptized.