Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A New Methodist Map

Some helpful work has been done recently in attempting to categorize the various constituencies within the United Methodist Church as we inch closer to a report from The Way Forward commission and a special 2019 General Conference. Categories can be helpful handles for us to grasp as long as 1) we don't grasp so tightly that we can't unclench our fists when we find someone in a different category and 2) the categories fit with our lived reality. As Gordon Livingston (no relation) said, 

“If the map doesn't agree with the ground, the map is wrong”

Tom Lambrecht first developed the map that is now becoming well known. It was enhanced by Tom BerlinChris Ritter took it another step. In each design, the map categorizes United Methodists into four groups based on their position on LGBTQ inclusion and willingness to share a denomination with those who disagree. The groups are labeled Progressive Non-Compatibilist, Progressive Compatibilist, Traditional Compatibilist, and Traditional Non-Compatibilist. There is value to this map. It highlights well the immediate situation that we face. But it doesn’t reflect the broader ground around us. Once we get over the current hill in front of us the map becomes worthless. So I want to try changing the map. I want to try a map that speaks both to the ground we are walking on now and to the ground that we will inevitably walk on in the future.

If you are a reader of this blog you undoubtedly know that I have grave concerns about the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA.) It is ironic, then, that I'd like to change the map because of the words of Jeff Greenway, chair of the WCA, at a gathering in Memphis a few weeks ago. As reported by Good News Magazine, Greenway said, 
"... I believe human sexuality is the presenting symptom of much deeper theological fissures and systemic problems that are dividing The United Methodist Church. The foundation for our theological crisis has been in place since the very beginning when we embraced Theological Pluralism --resulting in a sort of ‘big tent’ Methodism where a variety of theological expressions were appreciated and valued. There was a sense of mutual appreciation and tolerance at that time. I can remember talking with some of my older, more liberal colleagues who would not agree with my more orthodox perspectives, but they would say there was room in their church for me. It was a generous pluralism whose limits had not yet been truly tested. Those limits are now being tested...."
He's right.

The reality is we are divided on a great number of issues, not just human sexuality. This is the presenting issue for a deeper crisis. Which means that coming to a final resolution on human sexuality would not solve the deeper issues. One who is a Progressive Non-Compatibilist on LGBTQ rights may be a Traditional Compatibilist on rebaptism, for example. Thus, using Greenway's language as a springboard, I propose three different categories. 

The New Categories

Progressive Exclusionary - this group consists of those who take a consistently progressive view. But to belong to this group one must not only have a progressive theology, but also insist that this progressive theology is unquestionably the future of the church. Individuals in this group might say something like "We know through science that miracles can't occur and never did occur and it's embarrassing to be associated with people who still hold on to old superstitions like that." This group is sometimes labeled as "tolerant of everyone except those who aren't tolerant," which can also become "tolerant of everyone except those who don't think like them." In Greenway's quote above, this group is represented by the phrase "Those limits [of pluralism] are now being tested."

Traditional Exclusionary - on the opposite end are the traditional exclusivists. This group consists of those who take a consistently traditional stance AND insist that the denomination must always do so as well. They will fight for the faith that was handed down to us. They conserve. When they say "The Bible is True" they mean "The Bible is True in the way that I understand Biblical truth as it was handed down to me. Period." This group is sometimes labeled (unfairly) as haters of anyone who is not like them. But they are naturally suspicious of theological innovation. I cannot speak for where Rev. Greenway comes down, but the quote we began with sounds like what one would expect from the Traditional Exclusionary group.

Wesleyan Inclusivists – This is the final group. They are inclusive in their thinking. In Greeway's words, they are in favor of "big tent Methodism." Theological Pluralism is a good thing, in part because I may be wrong and you may be right and the only way we'll find out in this lifetime is if we stay in relationship. But this group is not entirely inclusive. The Wesleyan Inclusivist holds in Wesley's sermon on a "Catholic Spirit" high regard. Wesley clearly communicates in this sermon the inclusive principle that people of different opinions can coexist in the same church. “Every wise man...bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question. 'Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?’” But there is more. In the same sermon Wesley also speaks against latitudinarianism, which today we could translate as an "anything goes" approach. A latitudinarian would end the story of the woman caught in adultery with "Is there anyone here to condemn you?" and skip the "Go and sin no more" part. Wesleyan Inclusivists, then, would hold to a core of the faith that the Progressive Exclusionary group would not hold to and simultaneously hold to a smaller core of essentials than the Traditional Exclusionary group. In the words of Albert Outler, "Here, then, is a charter for a distinctive sort of doctrinal pluralism - one that stands at an equal distance from dogmatism on the one extreme and indifferetism on the other." (from his introduction to “Catholic Spirit” in The Works of John Wesley.)

Making the Map

So now we can start making the map.

We need a new map because the Lambrecht/Berlin/Ritter map categorizes us primarily in relation to one topic, albeit a very important topic. The bigger question is the one Greenway named. "The foundation for our theological crisis has been in place since the very beginning when we embraced Theological Pluralism --resulting in a sort of ‘big tent’ Methodism where a variety of theological expressions were appreciated and valued." 

If you agree with Greenway that this is a problem and the solution is some form of denominational purification (aka enforcing the Book of Discipline) then you are in the Traditional Exclusionary camp.

If you agree with Greenway that the "big tent" is a problem but you think the solution is to enforce a deep pluralism and those who cannot accept the pluralism will need to exit then you are in the Progressive Exclusionary camp. 
Progressive Exclusionaries cannot agree with Traditional Exclusionaries. Again, Greenway is right. The limits of a generous pluralism are being tested. And we are failing the test. We are failing because, like the current culture of the United States, we are moving ever more rapidly to the poles - to the extremes. One extreme has forgotten how to be generous; the other has forgotten how to be pluralistic. And so we stand in opposition. 

In the middle of the map sits the Wesleyan Inclusivists. This is my preference and where I would place myself, so I’ll take a short tangent. As a Wesleyan Inclusivist I led the church I serve through the process of becoming a Reconciling Congregation. At the same time, anyone who has been a member of the congregation through the previous four senior pastors will tell you I am the most theologically conservative pastor this church has ever had. When I arrived we lost some members because I was too conservative. More recently we lost members because of our pro-refugee stance. Now I’m too liberal. Some will say we talk about sin too much and some will say you can only be comfortable here if you're a Democrat. And those statements will surprise the many Republicans in the congregation and those who thank God daily for saving them from sin. We've also baptized four adults in the last month who are finding a fresh, authentic faith.

In other words, the Wesleyan Inclusivist lives in the tension of the real world. Some say we will not be able to move forward as a church until we have a final resolution to the issues before us. I remind you that the first church fight is recorded in Acts 6, not long after Pentecost, "while the number of disciples continued to increase" (Acts 6:1, CEB). We live in tension not because of our current dispute, but because we are human. The church has always and always will exist in this tension.

The Wesleyan Inclusivist will embrace from the Progressive Exclusivist a spirit of Christian pluralism. The tent should be big because Wesley’s tent was big and Jesus’ tent was big. But there are pieces that the Wesleyan cannot take from the Progressive. For example, we must be able to say that Jesus is the Way. A universalism that says all religions are ultimately the same diminishes our own faith while also doing a disservice to other faiths (see Stephen Prothero's God Is Not One for a good survey.) We cannot succumb to a pluralism whose only boundary is excluding those who believe in boundaries.

The Wesleyan Inclusivist will also embrace pieces of the Traditional Exclusivist. In short, we would hold onto the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith in the Book of Discipline. And, to quote another WCA presenter, we would hold onto those statements "without crossing our fingers behind our backs." But the Traditionalist will have to let go of some things, too. The Traditionalist will have to note that our statements on Scripture include the phrase "Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith..." (Confession of Faith, Article IV.) This means that there are some things you might want us to hold as essential that...aren't. And we may have some legitimate disagreements about what precisely is revealed in Scripture.

Now to finish the map. In themselves, the Progressive and the Traditionalist cannot be reconciled. But the Wesleyan invites both into relationship, taking pieces that can be embraced by all in order to bridge the gap. Because the Methodist tent is big. It is not all-encompassing, but it is big. And that’s a good thing.

We need to be realistic. There will be those who are not able to stay united in this denomination. The person I interviewed years ago who held to the idea that God dictated Scripture word by word doesn’t belong in the same denomination as the person who believes the Bible is a human construct with divine inspiration.

Rob Renfroe said in the March/April issue of Good News that, “A win for the Kingdom is coming out of the present mess with as many faithful Methodists as possible connected to each other and working together for the Kingdom (p.3).” We will not stay entirely united. But if we can see beyond the presenting issue to the deeper issues, we can stay mostly united. We can work together towards common goals and allow differences in matters of opinion. 

Monday, May 8, 2017

Even the Gentiles

Acts 10 tells the story of the conversion of Cornelius. As I preached on Sunday, the story could equally be referred to as the conversion of Peter. Not a conversion to faith, obviously. We're well past that time in his story. But Peter's conversion is incredibly important nonetheless.

As the story begins Peter holds the traditional understanding that a person had to essentially convert to Judaism before converting to Christianity. By the end of the story his understanding of how God is working is dramatically changed. Verse 45 is a key verse.

"The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the
Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles."

Did you notice that last phrase? "Even on the Gentiles." You can hear in this the way in which the circumcised believers felt about the Gentiles. It reminds me of John 1 when Nathaniel asks Phillip, "Can anything good come from Nazareth?" The nerve of God! To go beyond our understanding, to go beyond our expectations, and bless someone who is different from me with the Holy Spirit! Yes, God blessed even the Gentiles.

Which group of people do we think of today as Peter and the others thought of as the Gentiles? What country, or gender, or economic status, or political party, or religion, or denomination, or sexual orientation, or skin color, or ... do you (we) assume God will not work through?

I pray that God surprises us again and again with the ones that God chooses to bless.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A Parable

A young man was walking home after a wonderful Sunday evening worship experience at the church. As he silently shared a silent prayer of gratitude to God for the light of the moon and chirps of the crickets, he heard a muffled voice from the crumbled sidewalk running perpendicular to his path. He crossed the familiar "work zone" tape that had blocked the walk for the last few days as crews worked to rebuild the old concrete. Quickly, he realized what had happened. Storms  had washed under the sidewalk, eroding dirt below. Over time, more and more dirt washed away until a large hole opened up. This was what the workers were trying to fix.

But now where the sidewalk should be he saw only the hole that the rain had left behind and heard, again, a voice, coming from below.

"Help! Anyone?"

The voice was weak.

"Hello!" The man replied. "I can hear you. I'll help get you out!"

"Thank God. I've been here for...I don't know how long."

"Well don't worry, I'll call for help. It's just after noon now."

A sigh...a deep breath...a word "so long."


"It's been so long. I was working all night Saturday in the office and into Sunday morning. Things had to get done, you know. 9:00 maybe when I started to walk home. I just wasn't paying attention. Fell right into the hole. My leg is bent...I know it's broken. The blood coming from...I don't know where. I hurt. Everywhere."

"So you've been here for, what, 12 hours? Oh my gosh. That's horrible. You need to get to a doctor!"

"I'm so thirsty...hungry..."

"I bet. Well, I'll get you all taken care of. You just stay there and don't worry. Or...wait. I'm sorry, but I need to ask you another question. Are you a Christian?"

"Yeah. Sure. Isn't everyone?"

"No, not everyone. But I'm asking because it occurred to me that you said you were working all night and into Sunday morning. I mean, I'm busy too. I work hard five days a week and sometimes on Saturdays. But Sunday is the Sabbath."

"Yeah, so?"

"Well, it's God's day. You understand you were breaking God's law, don't you?"

"I didn't know it was that important."

"Well, it is. And if you had been going to worship like you should have been instead of working in the office you never would have fallen in this hole to begin with."

"Look, I appreciate your view but can't you just help me out of this hole? You don't even have to do it. Just call someone else who can help."

"I'm sorry, I just can't do that. You didn't just break one law, you broke two. You were working on the Sabbath and because you were doing that you weren't worshiping the Lord. That's why you fell down the hole. I'm sorry, I really am, but when you live in sin there are consequences."

"What? That's not funny."

"Oh, I'm not joking. If I help you I'm just making it worse. I'll be enabling you to continue sinning. Plus then I'll be working on the Sabbath, too."

"You're going to leave me here until tomorrow?"

"I might be able to help then, sure. Hang tight. If you find where you're bleeding make sure to hold something up tight to it so you don't lose as much blood. And elevate that part too. That might help. I'll pray for you, too, that you might have a change in heart. Just remember this all would have been avoided if only you had followed God's law."

"Come back! Please!"

"Don't worry, I will. Tomorrow. Bye for now."

The man walked on. He truly was sorry for the person in the hole, the poor soul who had so misbehaved. He too, was one of the Shepherd's sheep who had gone astray. It was so hard to do the right thing. And yet every person has their struggles. Every person must learn to obey...

You have heard it said that homosexuality is a violation of God's law. You have heard it said that someone who is gay must change their ways. I ask you: How many lives must we lose to suicide before we choose to pick a person up out of the hole instead? How many people must run from the Church that condemns before we will be open to the fruit that comes with acceptance? How many times must we run to "But the law says..." before we run to the Gospel of Grace that says "You are welcome to the table."
- Matthew 12:9-14