The United Methodist Council of Bishops proposed more discussion at a later date to try to resolve differences over human sexuality. But what if the controversy over sexuality really is just a presenting symptom of a much wider divide? Maybe this is and has been such a big deal for so long because it really is a much bigger deal than some want to admit.
Of course there are those who are genuinely unsure about these issues that we could honestly identify as in the middle. If confusion and uncertainty about what to believe is really the issue, then why would we be so rash to haphazardly abandon the existing and longstanding, universally accepted until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, teaching of the Church, which is still the teaching of the vast majority of the Church universal.
But as for those on the left, including those who call themselves centrists but are obviously and clearly progressives in alliance with progressives, and for those of us on the right the issue is not really confusion and uncertainty. By certainty I’m not talking about an absolute epistemological certainty that God alone has; I’m talking about clarity of convictions, an assurance of faith. We believe what we believe firmly, even though, as Alister McGrath has argued, as Protestants we may intuitively hold our beliefs provisionally. And our differing beliefs run much wider and deeper than what we think about sex.
When I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM) in my conference a few years ago for provisional membership, based on a conversation that I had with one person along the way, I was deemed to not be quite “theologically diverse” enough, although I was passed for provisional membership on the Elder track anyway. I was passed but not without extra requirements. One was a reading assignment. The conference approved psychologist I had to meet with before I could go before the BOM recommended to them that I read a book, “Six Ways of Being Religious”.
This was because when the psychologist asked me to tell him how I would handle conflict in the church, I gave the example of when I led a Bible study and discussion around the controversies concerning marriage and sexuality in response to questions from both liberals and conservatives in the church I was pastoring at the time. I told him we had people in the middle who were confused by it all, and some on the right and some on the left. I told him that I had come through a lot of confusion myself after reading and listening to people on all sides of the issue along with much prayer and Bible study. I had come to a traditional viewpoint and did not hide that fact from the group or my church. We had a great, even if sometimes intense, discussion during that group study. I did my best to accurately present viewpoints from both sides, and people within the group on both sides felt and were free to share theirs. No one left the group and we all remained friends, even though I clearly shared my view, which includes the belief that this is not an indifferent matter. Everyone was thankful and appreciative for the discussion.
For sharing this the psychologist deemed me not to be “theologically diverse” enough and after explaining that he believed himself that all religions really point to the same ultimate reality, he recommended the book I mentioned above, although that is not what that book actually argues. In addition to that reading assignment the BOM also recommended – in writing – that I read Harvey Cox’s book “The Future of Faith, wherein he argues that orthodox confessional faith was actually a corruption of the original more “diverse” form of Christianity, which he seems to believe is captured in the Gospel of Thomas and apparently Gnosticism. He considers confessional (i.e. the development of creeds) orthodoxy to be a corruption of the original faith, which he believes was more “diverse” and “open”, conveniently, kind of like progressive Christians like him. He even seems to throw John Wesley into the mix of what he believes to be the problem. I wonder what Wesley would think of a Methodist BOM recommending such reading?
I didn’t have a problem reading the book, I have learned the hard way of the importance of considering other views, but when I complained to some colleagues that it seemed quite suspect that the BOM would require me to read such a book that bashes orthodoxy, including Wesleyan orthodoxy, some said the BOM probably just wanted me to consider other views. Okay. Well my experience through provisional membership (I have self-delayed interviewing for full-ordination for the past couple of years) has proven otherwise.
The BOM also required me, for other reasons, to take another Christian education class on teaching Bible study after I had already completed the MDiv. So I took a class, which had undergraduate and graduate students in it. The professor overtly bashed evangelical conservatives and explicitly deemed evangelical Bible study curriculum to be “theologically problematic” but gushed over the theology of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, pantheists, who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus . She also had students look up Bible verses where Jesus seems to speak negatively about family to argue that Jesus didn’t really care about family values like ‘some’ Christians do today. Another time she had us look up verses in the epistles that mention the “gospel” (singular) to argue that those verses were telling us that the four “Gospels” were more important, I suppose to try to neutralize some of the unpopular messages of Paul in the epistles. At any rate, those verses in the epistles are obviously talking about the general content of the Gospel message not the four Gospels specifically. Both were shameless, egregious exercises in proof-texting and eisegesis, which I challenged to little avail.
I also participated in a special RIOM (official provisional clergy mentor group) that made it available for us to go to special meetings and conferences, including a trip to the Holy Land. In all cases, with the exception of one meeting at a conservative UMC that I wasn’t able to attend, the progressive bias was incredible, outrageous really. I was subjected to meetings where conservatives like me were called “Pharisees” or worse, one where it was openly questioned, after what was basically a reconciling church promotion, whether an African American candidate for Bishop should be seriously considered because she is theologically conservative. How bout that for a commitment to ‘theological diversity’?
The conference that was almost the last straw for me was when our RIOM group and a couple of others were taken to see the future of the church, at least according to the theories of the ultra-progressive Episcopal theologian, Phyllis Tickle, whose view are similar to those of Harvey Cox. It was a conference featuring Tickle, who ended up not being able to attend for personal reasons, and the Lutheran (ELCA) “Pastrix” (title of one of her bestselling books), Nadia Bolz-Weber, the main speaker.
I read most of her book, “Pastrix”, on the way to the conference. In it she talks about how she believes the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt as she promotes syncretism, and how she used the baptismal covenant to bless and rename a transitioning transgender, an experience she compared to the conversion of the apostle Paul and Martin Luther. At the conference she bragged about how she used the baptismal font as a chocolate fountain for a party after a worship service as an example of her many intentional acts of “holy irreverence.” She also made fun of the Methodist notion of “going on to perfection” and said in terms of the means of grace, she doesn’t do sh&#. Talking about a prominent conservative figure, she called him “bat sh%# crazy”. She does believe in the bodily resurrection though! Whatever that may really mean to her.
I seemed to be the only one who didn’t think she was the greatest thing since sliced bread in the auditorium of the Methodist retreat, Epworth by the Sea, in St. Simons Island, Georgia. On the way home though, one of our leaders did, however, question whether the Pastrix cussing every other breath was really in keeping with a holy life! Of course that was the least of my concerns.
How wide is the divide? Much wider and deeper than many want to admit. This crisis issue of human sexuality is such a big deal, because it is a much bigger deal than some will admit.
When it comes right down to it, we not only have competing visions of Christian sexual ethics; we have competing visions of the Christian faith, really two different religions as has been argued since the first half of the 20th century. Although some at the 2016 UMC General Conference voted down making the Nicene Creed a doctrinal standard because they may have thought it unnecessary in light of our Articles of Religion and Confession of faith which explicate further many of the same truths, I wonder how many voted it down because they have the faith of Harvey Cox who sees the creed as a corruption of a supposed more original faith.
We are of two minds because we are, in the main, of two different spirits. When it comes down to it, one vision of the faith seems to be an open-ended syncretism where it is Jesus by addition, thrown into the pantheon, if you will. The other is a monotheistic Trinitarianism where it is Jesus by submission, surrendering to the One true God who has revealed himself most fully in the person of Christ by the illuminating and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s not enough that we consent to the same terminology when we have diametrically opposed meanings and beliefs. The so-called commitment to theological diversity is really just a commitment to theological progressive-liberalism, which is apparently open to all things, except those who aren’t.
The bias should be obvious, and the marginalization and demoralization of conservative evangelicals in the American context is real. It is true that were it not for our African brothers and sisters this discussion would have been settled in favor of the progressive view long ago. And as the church seems to be moving in a more conservative global direction despite what looks like a progressive full-court press at this year’s GC, now they want to prolong the debate even further. Does anyone really believe that if things were going in the other direction, in favor of the left, that calls for delay and further discussion, would be taken seriously? When the committee for General Conference who put together the “Handbook for Delegates” assumed the new theories of gender neutrality to be settled reality and advised all delegates to “.. not assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past” and to ask everyone what pronouns they prefer, he, she, or something else (p. 39), I wouldn’t count on it.
How wide is the divide? We are of two minds because we are of two spirits. There is a mighty gulf between us that God did span at Calvary, but we can’t pretend like we can live together on both sides as one church. We have to choose one side or the other. I know this is stark, and for some, harsh language, but it is true. Why don’t we admit it and take action accordingly to allow for an amicable separation? This is much more gracious and generous than anything we’ve seen in the other mainline denominations, which have gone in favor of the progressive view. It would just be an official acknowledgement of what is a present reality made more evident by progressives defiance. The divide is great and it is real. Let’s get real and do something real about it.