Archives For Way Forward

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

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

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

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

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St. Luke tells of Jesus encountering a woman possessed by a spirit. She has been bent over, unable to stand up straight, crippled for 18 years. At least, bent-over and crippled is how her neighbors see her and, presumably, Jesus’ disciples. But at the end of the story in Luke 13, after the exorcism slash healing, Jesus proclaims her to be a “daughter of Abraham.”

The point isn’t so much Jesus healing her as it Jesus teaching his listeners how properly to see her. She was a beautiful daughter of Abraham even before Jesus freed her of the spirit. Such is the entire Gospel.

It’s about learning to see.

Despite having been told that Christ is risen, the two disciples on the way to Emmaus speak of Jesus (to the stranger who is Jesus) in the past tense: “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” Having been crucified, Jesus now belongs to past history.

In the moment their eyes are opened to him- and the passive voice is key, Jesus is the agent of the revelation and Jesus remains ever thus- they don’t simply see that it’s Jesus there among them. They see that Jesus does not belong to the past, or rather they see that the past history of the historical Jesus has invaded their present, that the Jesus of this Gospel of Luke is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

Resurrection means that what is past now isn’t Jesus.

What is past is their lives lived apart from him.

In Luke’s Emmaus story, it’s not- as it’s so often interpreted from pulpits and altars- that the breaking of the bread opens their eyes or that the breaking of the eucharistic bread, magically or mechanistically, can open ours. It’s that Jesus, who is not dead, chooses that particular moment on the way to Emmaus to reveal his presence to them and that Jesus can freely choose still to reveal (or choose not to reveal) his presence to us.

The point of Luke’s story, which Karl Barth said was a lens through which the entire Gospel should be seen, is that these two Emmaus bound disciples do not deduce Jesus’ presence among them. They do not perceive it through their own agency. Jesus, risen and alive, is not only the head of the Church. He is its acting subject.

Disciples are not, in the evangelical parlance, those who’ve come to know Jesus.

Disciples are those to whom Jesus has made himself known.

As obvious a point as this may appear to you and as clear a takeaway as it is in Luke’s Gospel, post-cancer I’ve been convicted (I freaking NEVER use that word) by the extent to which my preaching, prayer, and pastoral ministry treats Jesus in the very manner those two Emmaus bound disciples do, as belonging to the past– distant in history and disappeared now to sit at the right hand of the Father.

Sure, every Eastertide I proclaim his resurrection and I’m even willing to posture apologetically to assert the historical plausibility of his resurrection; nonetheless, I treat his resurrection primarily as an event in the past and his ascension as his departure from earth to heaven, forgetting his Gospel-ending Easter promise: “Lo, I am with you always to the end of the age.”

I shouldn’t need to point out how such forgetting conveniently makes our Christianity no different than functional atheism, for it allows us to live in this world as if Jesus isn’t really, here and now, the Lord of it.

I’ve seen Jesus the same way the disciples see that bent-over woman such that those two Emmaus-bound disciples might as well have never sat down at table with the Risen Christ because I- we- still usually render him they way they did before supper. We study the Gospels as texts of what Jesus did, what Jesus taught, what Jesus said rather than proclaiming that Jesus, being very much not dead, still speaks and teaches and DOES.

To take one important example, we think of faith as something we do. Belief is our possession, we think. Faith is our activity of which we’re the acting subjects. We make a decision for Christ. We invite him into our hearts. But if Jesus is alive, if he reveals himself and open eyes on the way to Emmaus, if he confronts us behind our locked doors and summons out of us, despite our doubts, confessions like ‘My Lord and my God” then our faith is the act of the Risen Christ upon us. What Jesus does on the road to Emmaus is what Jesus only ever does still.

We don’t invite Jesus into our hearts.

The Risen Christ invades our hearts.

To take another important example, we think of the Church in such a way that effectively conjugates Jesus in the past tense the same way these Emmaus-bound disciples do.

This week in my little stream of the Church, the UMC, a Judicial Council is meeting to adjudicate the election last year of a gay bishop. How the UMC is structured just like the U.S. government and we think sexuality is our primary problem is a mystery to me, but my point is:

The UMC is fraught right now with speech about the “future of the Church” that in itself betrays a lack of resurrection faith.

Books like Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option portend ominously the demise of Christianity in the West while denominations ratchet up the pressure on pastors to play hero and arrest sobering statistical trends.

As my former teacher Beverly Gaventa says:

“We act as if the Christian faith itself were on life support and it’s our job to find ways of resurrecting it.

We act as if pollsters [behind the Pew Survey on Religion] were in charge of the world rather than simply being in charge of a few questions.”

The Church isn’t our work or creation. It is the means through which the Risen Christ works and creates.

To the extent we ‘see’ him to as he is, risen and alive and acting still, the Church- in some form or another-will always have a way forward.

 

 

 

rainbow-cross_aprilMy modest cranny of Methodism recently tabled a motion to ameliorate the denomination’s official language on homosexuality.

Rather than call what surely would have been a divisive and possibly rancorous vote, a counter-motion proposed that Methodist churches in Virginia instead spend the next year engaged in ‘conversation’ over the issue.

I’ve taken initial stabs at the conversation here and here in case you’re late to the party.

Probably not unlike working at Pontiac or Radio Shack, it’s discomfiting to be part of an organization where a bleak and battered future is both a live possibility and largely out of your hands.

A discombobulating experience, yes.

But an unbiblical experience? No.

Those who wring their hands with fright that the Church must face thorny, divisive questions of faith and experience forget that the New Testament itself was written in such a climate.

What we unthinkingly call ‘scripture’ was formed-largely- in the midst of churches arguing over how to read their scriptures (Old Testament) in the presence of the Spirit (potentially doing a new thing in the inclusion of Gentiles in to the People of God).

In arguing over how we should read our scriptures, Old and New, in the presence of the Spirit possibly doing an extraordinary thing in the inclusion of gay Christians, the Church merely mimics an ancient acesis.

So we shouldn’t shy away from the conversation debate.

One of the most prominent parts of this debate has nothing to do with those icky stone folks for who-lies-with-who passages in Leviticus.

No, the grown-up part of this debate has to do with scripture’s positing the male-female complement as the created norm.

What do gay Christians do with that?

The creation story wherein Adam and Eve are made for each other has been understood in the Christian tradition as the foundational text for the normativity of the male-female union.

RogersDr. Eugene Rogers, the teacher with whom I cut my theological teeth, observes how neither Jesus nor Paul ever quote the ‘be fruitful and multiply’ of the creation story when they quote Genesis. Children, then, are not requisite or constitutive of any understanding of marriage for Paul or Jesus.

Not only is a ‘natural’ law understanding of marriage not primary for Jesus or Paul, Rogers notes, how when Paul does quote the creation story (in Galatians 3) he maintains its precise wording in telling fashion:

“…Paul preserves it just when parallelism might prompt him to change Genesis’ wording. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no ‘male and female:’ for you are all one in Christ Jesus (v. 28).’ 

The first two pairs have ‘neither…nor’ (ouk…oude); the last pair correctly quotes the Septuagint to read ‘no male and female’ (ouk…kai).

Paul denies that the gender of the believer can hinder Christ. Male and female, Christ can draw them: Christ can be all to all.

Christ is bridegroom for women and men; the Church is Christ’s bride regardless of gender. Precisely because Christ is all -the omega- there can also be ‘no male and female.’ 

Christ attracts or orients all desire to God.

‘No male and female’ denies, therefore, strong forms of the complementarity theory (where the male-female relationship is inherent to God’s creative design).

Such a theory of complementarity effectively denies the Christ in whom all things are summed up. 

Thus Paul, when he does quote Genesis 1 at Galatians 3.28 subordinates it to Christ and blocks the implication that complementarity of ‘male and female’ is exclusive.”

Those who oppose the inclusion of gays into the Church and into the covenant of marriage are quick to cite St. Paul and Genesis 1 respectively. Not only does Paul list homosexuality as a vice worthy of God’s wrath (it’s supposed), same-sex unions violate the clear (it’s supposed) creative intent of God (it’s supposed).

As much as Paul becomes the rallying point for the traditionalist perspective, it’s odd- or revealing- that it’s seldom pointed out how Paul minimizes the very categories so crucial to the conservative argument.

If the Jew-Gentile distinction has been obliterated by Christ much more surely has a lesser distinction like gender or sexuality been  transcended.

The normatively of the male-female union may have been biblical in Genesis 1 and onward, but because of Christ it is no longer.

So to speak.

Of course, that Paul makes such a rhetorical move shouldn’t surprise us.

If the male-female union, if being fruitful and multiplying is God’s ironclad intent for human creatures both he and Jesus were in clear violation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Church-RainbowA few days ago a friend in my congregation emailed me, responding to a series of posts I’d written about the ‘Way Forward’ proposal in the United Methodist Church. The Way Forward is an attempt for a third way through the impasse over homosexuality which presently besets the church.

He writes- and, trust me, he’s not whatever comes to your mind when you think ‘liberal:’

In 1990 golfer Tom Watson, one of the best players on the PGA Tour and winner of 8 majors, abruptly resigned from the exclusive Kansas City country club where he had grown up and learned to play golf. He said that as a matter of personal integrity, despite great memories and a long association, he could no longer belong to an institution that discriminated aganst and blackballed Jewish, black, Hispanic and Asian prospective members.
I can belong to a church where members disagree about whether the Primeval History in Genesis is literally word-for-word true. That difference does not affect our ability to live, love and serve together in Christian community.
The homosexuality issue is different.
As part of a Christian community, we are charged to make disciples; to invite friends and acquaintances to join us in that community. How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil, cannot hold positions of leadership and may not enjoy the blessing of holy matrimony?
I question more and more whether as a matter of personal integrity I can continue to be a member of such a group. How can I acknowledge (witness) on a Facebook post that I am a member of a Methodist church and then look my gay and lesbian friends in the face the next day? Make no mistake, about 50 of my Facebook friends are gay or lesbian.
“A Way Forward” is something I can live with. I’m not sure that the status quo is. If I were not positive that you do not hold the hard-line position on his issue I would already be gone.
In case you skipped ahead, my friend’s point boils down to this:

Methodism’s posture towards gays makes for increasingly bad advertising.

Or as we like to call it in the Church: evangelism.

My own cul de sac of the United Methodist Church begins its annual 3 day conference today, and the first resolution on the docket is a motion to amend our denomination’s official language that homosexuality is ‘incompatible with Christian teaching*.’

If the resolution passes, not at all a certainty, the motion simply moves on to (possibly, maybe) be debated at the global meeting of the United Methodist Church in 2016.

 

Two full years from now.

 

Where most of the delegates will be from the most conservative parts of the world.

Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the denomination which educated me, just this week voted to allow gay marriages.
By the healthy margin of 429 to 175. You can read about it here.
Where Methodists are still stuck in the love the sinner/hate the sin time warp, debating whether we can officially regard homosexuals as fully human or not, Presbyterians have moved ahead to grant homosexuals access to the sanctifying grace Christians call ‘marriage.’
The Presbyterians, as this article rattles off, join the ranks of other mainline denominations which have ameliorated their previous positions on sexuality, such as the Episcopal Church, the Lutheran Church, and the United Church of Christ. Not to mention 2 out of 3 of America’s Jewish denominations.
Which leaves who exactly other than the United Methodist Church as the remaining ‘mainline’ Protestant traditions that still take a hard line against gay Christians?
Can Methodists really consider ourselves mainline anymore when we now have more in common with Southern Baptists than we do Presbyterians or the Episcopal tradition whence we came?
Do we really want to be the last ones to this party?
What will be the demographic cost of lingering prejudice associated with our particular brand of Christianity?
And I know this is the place where some will want to interject and point out how the above mentioned denominations are all smaller than they were mid-century before they purportedly went liberal. Therefore, the argument always goes, United Methodists cannot change their position without losing members and their money.
Two quick responses:
If people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should change its stance towards homosexuality then the moral imperative of that belief- our compassion for people- should outweigh our ‘compassion’ for an institution.
Likewise, if people really do led-by-the-Spirit believe the Church should keep its stance towards homosexuality then that’s fine too so long as institutional maintenance is not the mission.
Two:

There’s a pernicious fallacy in linking the gradual decline of mainline Protestantism with its supposedly liberal policy positions.

We’re not the only ones in the decline as the Pew Survey on Religion has helpfully revealed. Southern Baptists and Evangelical Churches, no liberals and no friends of gay Christians, are in their own moment of decline and, were it not for immigration, ditto the Catholic Church in America.
The ecclesial decline to which we so often turn to homosexual-support for a scapegoat actually suggests a more general cultural shift towards secularism, a shift that shows no partiality to liberal and conservative alike.
And if what churches are really experiencing is a seismic shift away from religion in general, then the stakes of the current debate over homosexuality suddenly seem a lot smaller and more urgent.

How we vote on sexuality will not determine the demise or the future of the Church; how we tackle secularism will.

 

And if secularism is the true threat to the institutional faith then, to my mind, it’s all the more imperative that we do right by what the Spirit is showing us about gay Christians.
*Of course, our denomination’s official language also marks out war, unfettered capitalism, alcohol and tobacco, and disregard for the creation as contradictory with our Christian faith so let’s keep things in perspective and not suppose sexuality is the lynchpin of the moral universe.