Earlier this week a group called “Uniting Methodists” convened in Atlanta. The stated purpose? To “be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.” The movement is purported to be a centrist one to allow space for traditionalist, moderate, and progressive United Methodists to continue together under the proverbial bigger tent. But I don’t think there is really anything new here.
For a movement that’s supposed to unify both traditionalists and progressives, they still seem intent on alienating, marginalizing, and negatively labeling those of us who hold to traditional views regarding sex and marriage. For instance, they continue to compare the debate over sexual ethics with past debates over slavery, race, and women in ministry. How is it unifying to continue to compare traditionalists with proponents of slavery, racists, and misogynists?
The Uniting Methodists movement shows few, if any, signs of actually respecting those with opposing views on Christian sexual morality and marriage. One prominent advocate for the supposed centrist position in my own conference talks about the LGBTQ movement as if it is just a forgone conclusion that the church just needs to accept in light of the cultural and political changes that have taken place in the United States. He also continued the comparisons to race, slavery, and women in ministry, and said the only reason conservatives won’t go along is because of fear and ignorance. I’ve heard these kind of arguments for years from the upper echelons of leadership, most of whom claim to be centrist. Either the progressive~centrists really don’t understand why traditionalists believe what they believe, or they just don’t want to lend any credibility to traditionalist views and, thus, seek to caricature them.
Bishop Ken Carter, who is supposed to be a moderator of The Way Forward Commission charged with presenting possible solutions to the Council of Bishops, also took on the role of a progressive advocate while claiming to be centrist. In a video he released he made pretty much the same arguments that Uniting Methodists are making. He implied that unity is the only absolute non-negotiable. He even argued that’s because it is Biblical as he rattled off a few proof-texts. He then went on to talk about the LGBTQ movement as a forgone conclusion and implied that the only way the church can be in ministry with all people is to accept the beliefs and practices advocated by the LGBTQ movement (find summary here). He also continued the fallacious race comparison in an interview with Bishop Woodie White, posted on the Facebook page for the “UMC Commission on a Way Forward.”
Bishop Carter’s role as a moderator has certainly not been a neutral one. He doesn’t even indicate that conservatives have any objections to the race comparison, much less plausible ones.
Why is “unity” a non-negotiable because the Bible says so, but Biblical sexual holiness isn’t? Have centrists considered the possibility that not only do we have contradictory visions for holiness, but also of unity. Unity is not something that we can create through waving a legislative wand, it is a gift of the Spirit. Conservatives do not believe real unity can be achieved apart from a unified vision of what it means to be a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. As David Watson argued recently, it seems “we lack not only a common vision for the church, but a common vision of the church. Put differently, it’s not just that we disagree over what the church should do. Rather, we disagree over what it means to be a church.” (see my thoughts here for why unity must not be separated from the other marks of the church).
I see a lot of contempt, not much respect, for the views of traditionalists like me coming from the centrist~progressives. If you really want to be a unifying voice that makes space for conservatives and progressives under the same tent, you might want to stop comparing conservatives to defenders of slavery and racists. Neither is it unifying to accuse conservatives of killing people with their views. This kind of labeling and accusation makes it really hard to believe that it’s remotely possible for conservatives and centrist~progressives to peacefully co-exist under the same tent.
As far as being a clarifying voice, I don’t really see that either. It still looks like the same old smoke and mirrors game. The centrist~progressives claim to represent 80% to 90% of United Methodists, who supposedly don’t think views regarding sexuality should divide the church. I’d like to see the research methodology that revealed those numbers. I doubt they were derived from a random, representative sample of United Methodists, clergy and laity from around the globe. Polls of United Methodists who can easily access email and social media would hardly be representative of the global church. If 80% really do believe we should remove the restrictions regarding sexuality from the Book of Discipline, then the petition that my own conference put forward in 2015 to have General Conference remove those restrictions should have passed easily. But, in fact, it failed. But majorities in terms of numbers of people is not the best way to gauge faithfulness to the one who calls us to follow the narrow path to begin with (Matthew 7:13-14).
Moreover, it’s not clarifying to continue to put forward the idea that issues regarding sexual morality are indifferent matters like whether or not one eats certain foods or observes particular Sabbath days as Paul writes about in Romans 14 (see article making this fallacious comparison on the Uniting Methodists website here). I suppose it’s better than comparing views regarding sexual morality and whether a clergy person wears robes and stoles or not as one retired Bishop did a few years back or comparing it to people in the same family who support different sports teams as did another prominent pastor. It’s still, nonetheless, a confusion of categories that the apostle Paul himself would not recognize. Just look at what comes right before Romans 14.
“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” Romans 13:13-14 ESV (compare Galatians 5:16-24 and the dire warning there)
How can you on the one hand compare conservative views to the support of slavery and racism, and also say that views regarding sexual ethics are indifferent matters? That’s not clarifying; that’s confusing to say the least. At my own Annual Conference in 2014, during a panel discussion where James Howell advocated for the indifferent position, a progressive layperson, the wife of a pastor, said she could not understand how the status of homosexuality could be treated as an indifferent matter. To her it would be like treating racism or slavery as an indifferent matter. There is nothing new about this position; neither is there anything really clarifying about it. And to suggest that our view of the nature of God is all that we need for unity belies the call of that same God for us to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16).
It’s also not clarifying to continue to suggest that homosexuality is the only issue that divides us. To be sure that has drawn the most attention because of the specific restrictions found in the Book of Discipline. But conservatives are not just concerned about sexuality. Just take the case of Karen Oliveto, for example. She is married to another woman and has performed dozens of same-sex weddings in defiance of church law. In 2016 she was elected bishop out of the Western Jurisdiction, even though she is not technically qualified to even be a pastor. Conservatives are rightly concerned about the fact that she flouts our official standards for sexual morality. However, we are also concerned that she feels free to set herself up as a corrector of not only the apostles and prophets, but Jesus himself. She argues that the Bible has benefits and flaws. She says the Bible’s language about election and separating the sheep from the goats is wrong because it is exclusionary. This she says in spite of the fact that Jesus himself talked about the elect and that he himself would separate the sheep from the goats at the final judgment (see Matthew 25:31-46).
Seeing Jesus as sometimes needing to be corrected is apparently no big deal at all to Oliveto. A few weeks ago she drew criticism for suggesting that the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to deliver her daughter from demon possession, actually corrected Jesus and helped him to change his mind to let go of prejudice and bigotry. Instead of seeing a divine test of faith from the sinless God-man, as John Wesley did, Oliveto sees Jesus here as an example of someone repenting of bigotry. But at least she didn’t criticize him for casting the demon out of the woman’s daughter as she did with the apostle Paul who casts a spirit of divination out of a young girl as recorded in Acts 16:16-24. Here Oliveto echoed the same criticism leveled against the apostle in a sermon delivered by the progressive former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. Schori, in addition to criticizing Paul for depriving the young girl of what she called a valuable spiritual gift, said:
“Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!” (See report here)
For her part Schori stood by her criticism of Paul and the Bible in general as sometimes needing to be corrected by postmodern readers like herself (See NY Times report here). Oliveto also stood by her assessment of Jesus as needing correction initially, although her controversial Facebook post was eventually removed. John Lomperis, however, did save a copy of her post in his own report (here).
What some have called a generous orthodoxy has just turned out to be a clever, albeit misleading, name for heterodoxy, and what Wesley would call a “speculative latitudinarianism” (Sermon 39, Catholic Spirit 3:1). One of the leaders of my conference posted a promotion of the Uniting Methodists movement followed a little later by a promotion for an event featuring the ELCA pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. I noticed that a lot of the centrist~progressives were ecstatic. As I have written before, I read Bolz-Weber’s book, “Pastrix” in which she says she sometimes needs to hang out with God’s aunt, the Wiccan goddess, among other troubling things.
As a matter of fact, about three months ago Bolz-Weber responded to the release of a conservative Christian statement regarding sexual morality called “The Nashville Statement” with a very detailed statement of her own, which she called “The Denver Statement.” Bolz-Weber’s Denver Statement not only denied that homosexual practice is sinful, but also affirmed and denied the following:
“WE AFFIRM that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices.”
Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2017/08/the-denver-statement/#oWc7oDYElmsDIoTe.99
As far as I could tell there was nothing but contempt for the Nashville Statement coming from the centrist~progressive types, and an abundance of praise for the Denver Statement.
So is it really clarifying to suggest that our views regarding homosexuality are the only obstacles to unity? Perhaps the most prominent leader among the Uniting Methodists, Adam Hamilton, argues that the Bible is no more inspired than the writings of other Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, Hamilton believes there are certain portions of Scripture that were never really worthy of God as revealed in Jesus (see Brent White’s analysis here and here). Whereas Psalm 19:9b says “the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether,” Hamilton says they are true and righteous for the most part. Our differing views on the authority of Scripture alone are a major obstacle to unity, not to mention, to use Bolz-Weber’s words, those who would push for the legitimization of the “endless variety” of sexual expression. As for me, I’ll stick with John Wesley’s assessment that:
“The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.” ~ Preface to New Testament Notes
**I would recommend David Watson’s new book, “Scripture and the Life of God” on why this is still important, especially if you’re wrestling with how to make sense of the more difficult parts of Scripture.**
I would suggest that it is the centrist~progressive view of what unity is itself that stands in the way of real unity. We have different views of unity. The centrist~progressive view of unity is inextricably tied to their commitment to theological diversity, the pluralism that got us into this mess to begin with (see Drew McIntyre’s assessment of that here). The traditionalist view of unity is tied to a commitment to the other marks of the church, namely holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Centrist~progressives seem to be committed to a view that makes room for just about any view other than the traditional orthodox view of a unity firmly grounded in the other marks of the church.
And quoting Wesley out of context to support a view of unity grounded in a commitment to a theological diversity that Wesley himself would call a “speculative latitudinarianism”, an “indifference to all opinions”, which is “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven” (Sermon 39: Catholic Spirit, 3:1) simply won’t do. It is neither unifying nor clarifying. For Wesley the main branches of Christianity include not only our views on the nature of God, but also holiness grounded in the holy and perfect moral law of God revealed in Scripture (Sermon 39:1:16).
In short, the centrist~progressive view of unity is not Biblical, not matter how many proof-texts from the Bible or Wesley they line up. I would say it is a unity conceived in the flesh with a commitment to theological diversity, not one born of the Spirit with a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. The proof is in the fruit (see again Galatians 5:16-24).
I’ll conclude with the wider quotation from Wesley on what he did NOT mean by the phrase “the catholic spirit.”
“One inference we may make from what has been said. We may learn from hence, what is a catholic spirit.
There is scarce any expression which has been more grossly misunderstood, and more dangerously misapplied, than this: but it will be easy for any who calmly consider the preceding observations, to correct any such misapprehensions of it, and to prevent any such misapplication.
For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.” Sermon 39: 3:1