“Infinitely more harm is caused by spineless and sentimental church leaders who misrepresent the truth because they like being liked by people more than they like people loving Jesus,”
- Rev. Eric Huffman at the WCA Global Gathering
Huffman has tried to walk this statement back some in social media forums, but his whole speech and a recent article in Good News lead to the same conclusion: Progressives don't value Scripture the way they ought to.
It's always a shame when we put a comprehensive label on any group. Using myself as an example, I am unabashedly progressive on LGBT+ inclusion. As a straight, cisgender, white man I acknowledge that I can't fathom what it is like to live any other way than I do. I can't comprehend being gay. My inability to comprehend another person's reality does not lessen that person's authentic witness to Christ's love or their gifts for ministry in all forms. It just means I am a limited, finite human being. I am an equally unabashed believer in the Trinity and specifically in Jesus of Nazareth as fully human and fully divine and that something salvific happened through his life, death, and bodily resurrection. I believe Article IV of the Confession of Faith in our Book of Discipline contains beautiful language describing my understanding of Scripture.
In short, to dispute a famous WCA trope, I can happily recite our doctrines (which, by the way, are silent on human sexuality) without crossing my fingers behind my back. Are there progressives who can't do that? Of course, in the same way that there are currently traditionalist pastors and churches who openly advocate against infant baptism (websites available upon request).
Now about that sentimentality...
In his speech and article, Huffman hinted at his own story of moving from a more progressive mindset to a traditionalist mindset, in great part through a conversion experience in the Holy Land. God bless you! I'm genuinely grateful for this experience. I presume his own experience includes a shift from being spineless and sentimental to salvation (note that in his speech, Huffman is emphatic that nobody is questioning the salvation of LGBT+ Christians. That is belied by 1) his own statement in the article that he was not saved when he believed in inclusion, 2) repeated references to progressive pastors by Good News and WCA leadership as "false teachers", which, if you take the Bible literally, condemns us to hell, and 3) my memory from General Conference 12 years ago when somebody said on the floor, "Why are we talking about this when they are going to hell anyway?") Huffman's experience is his own. It is not the experience of all.
The current version of the Global Methodist Church's Book of Discipline and Doctrine makes no reference to the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is no surprise since it has been despised for decades as a device for putting tradition, reason, and experience on the same level as Scripture. I get that. But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Quad is not supposed to be a square. Scripture is primary. I prefer to think of reason, tradition, and experience as three lenses through which we view Scripture. "The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it" has never worked. We must all look through at least one lens.
So here is the super short version of how a guy who, frankly, is not overly sentimental came to change his mind on the "compatibility" of LGBT+ people and Christianity. Previously, as I looked at the Bible through our tradition and reason, the message seemed clear. To use the archaic language of the UMC, "the practice of homosexuality" was wrong. And if you had an "inclination" towards same sex attraction then you needed to control it, just like if you had an innate desire to steal you needed to control it. Then I met people who were gay. Or, more accurately, I met people who were willing to tell me they were gay. I listened to them and I looked at their lives, including the fruit they bore. Yes, I used experience. But that's not the end of the story. I never said, "well, I guess since they aren't hurting anybody whatever feels good must be OK." This is the stereotype that I hear, and it is not what I or the people who I know best have done. Experience is only the start of a dialogue with the Bible.
The internal conversation that now began for me was, "When I read the Bible with tradition, the answer seems clear. When I throw in reason, the answer is not quite so clear, but I, we, can't simply throw out centuries of tradition and a plain reading of the Bible because of what I'm hearing from a handful of people. The Bible says what it says." Some well-meaning people end the conversation here and stay traditional. I did for awhile, too. I think that is a mistake. Like Jacob wrestling with God, if we are really going to take Scripture seriously we have to wrestle with it. So I did. I read authors and books that I would not have touched before. I learned some new Greek and Hebrew. My question changed into this: "Is it possible for me to read the Bible in a way that opens the door for inclusion without compromising the integrity of the Bible?" Or to turn Huffman's words around, "Is it possible that the best representation of God's truth comes from reading Scripture in light of sentimentality (emotion, experience, compassion)?"
When I added the lens of experience to my reading of the Bible, words and ideas that didn't make sense took on new meaning. It did not reduce my appreciation for Scripture - it enhanced my appreciation. This is what reason and tradition do, also. Our understanding is deepened, not lessened, by bringing these lenses to it.
I'm going to say it one more time, plainly, so that there is no misunderstanding. Scripture is our primary and authoritative source for understanding God's self-revelation through Jesus Christ. Our debate in the denomination is not about the authority of Scripture. When people choose to go to the GMC or stay in the UMC they will not be choosing whether or not to be in a "Bible believing" denomination. Our debate is about the interpretation of Scripture - the lenses through which we read Scripture. It would be best if Huffman and others would refrain from telling me why I believe what I believe. Our rhetoric is not helpful.