Archives For Way Forward

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

As Will Willimon paraphrases Outler’s prophetic caution:

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

One such way forward— make apportionments voluntary.

 

Starve the beast.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Hi Folks, 

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

I understand.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s free.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason

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

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

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

Because not a one of us is righteous. 

We’re all the ungodly. 

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

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

Side Note for Later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In fact, he left them in the tomb.

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

To be blunt about it- 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Condemnation for those who have the wrong view of scripture. 

     Condemnation for those who aren’t inclusive enough. 

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

THE WHOLE STORY IS SALVATION. 

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

To the grave and back. 

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

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

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

This:

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

The Church is an ER for sinners.

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

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

For them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel is at stake, I think.

Just not in the way either side imagines.

Look-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grace gives us the right to be wrong. 

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

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

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

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

Everything has already been done in Jesus Christ.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I care about scripture and tradition, sure.

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

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

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

Every last one of us.

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

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

“Teer, there’s no future for you in the UMC.”

It ended on a such a dour, heavy, foreboding note we didn’t even ask her the Ten Questions.

This one is a great episode even if it’s a little Methodist-centric. In advance of the Special Sex Conference in St. Louis, Teer and I talk with journalist, blogger (The Thoughtful Christian), and former UMC pastor Christy Thomas. Christy breaks down the various proposals before the UMC regarding sexuality, why the Traditionalist Plan is the Mean Girl Plan, and why there’s no future for Teer in the UMC.

If you’re getting this post by email, you can find the audio here.

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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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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.