I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum. That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have). But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains. Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion. Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism. It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.
Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”
Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later). On my reading, these 8 points say:
Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
We should all be really, really nice to each other.
Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful. Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs. And of course, no mention of the Trinity. Which brings me to…
Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity
Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:
“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”
Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on. Did it take a while to work out? Yes. The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia. No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that. Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course. But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us. Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.
There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days. Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge. I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”
Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge
I have many friends who are progressive Christians. By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus. Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church. They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.
But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity. Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found. They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.
That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity. Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union. Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal. Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.
So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you. The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.
Heresy never goes away, it simply returns in various forms. Whether it is the gnostic escapism of the Heaven is For Real, so popular in our ‘Christian’ bookstores and movies, or 18th century deism that has re-emerged as MTD, heresy (being a parasite) will always be found wherever true belief and practice occur. The key is not just to be able to identify it, but to recognize now boring it is. Thus, G.K. Chesterton speaks of “the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy:”
“People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy.”
Those of us advocating for a third way or via media tend to share an interest in basic orthodoxy, in part because we see doctrinal renewal as a key to the vitality of the church, but also because this gives us something more interesting to do that merely wallow around in progressive and conservative echo chambers. As Chesterton notes, the church had to constantly juke to avoid heresies from every corner.
“She swerved to left and right, so exactly as to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic. it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth wheeling but erect.” (Orthodoxy [Mineoloa: Dover 1994], 94.)
In my view, the wild truth remains the property neither of the left nor the right in the church. Orthodoxy is not the possession of any culturally-determined faction or party, but it is the inheritance that the Holy Spirit, the saints, apostles, and martyrs have entrusted to us. And that millenia-old party is better than all the dull heresies put together.
Thanks to wonders of Amazon Prime, I’ve been working back through the classic HBO show The Sopranos. In re-watching the program, which follows the life of a mafia family in New Jersey, I found myself thinking about US evangelicals. Here’s why.
It’s no spoiler that a running theme throughout all six seasons is infidelity. The protagonist, Tony Soprano, hardly makes it two episodes being faithful to his wife, Carmela. The other guys in his “crew,” most of whom are married or have girlfriends, have a similar lifestyle. There is even a formal institution for this: the gumar, a quasi-official mistress. Most of the wives know about the presence of the gumars. Mrs. Soprano certainly does. She admits at one point that she accepted the mistresses for years, though eventually – when the gumars come home to roost, we’ll say – she comes to regret that. On top of all that, Carmela knows that Tony’s main office (and where the most senior crew members spend their days) is at a gentlemen’s strip club operated by the organization, which also doubles as a brothel on occasion.
Contrast that with the way the Sopranos characters speak of and act towards LGBT persons. In a season four episode, Carmela gets into an argument with her daughter, Meadow, over the interpretation of a Melville novel. Meadow defends her brother’s opinion, via a teacher, that one of the main characters was gay. Carmela loses it over this assertion, and makes some disparaging remarks about the gay “agenda,” in education and society. But that is just a preview of what is to come. Later on in the series, a minor character is discovered to be gay, and he has to go on the run in fear for his life. The way the mafiosi speak about this colleague and friend after they discover his secret is so heinous it is difficult to watch.
The double standard reminds me of American evangelicals, in my own (UMC) church and elsewhere. They have largely turned a blind eye towards adultery, divorce, pornography, and other sexual and relational questions, and yet have drawn a line in the sand over accepting gays and lesbians. Moreover, they have the temerity to suggest that there argument is, on principle, a matter of Biblical authority.
But the Bible speaks just as clearly, if not more so, about adultery and divorce. The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?
Evangelicals have a Sopranos problem. They have accepted all manner of compromise on the sexual ethics of the Bible and classic Christian teaching, and have now dug in their heels at the 11th hour. Like Carmela, they have lived with gumars and lap dances for decades, but now their children are applying that same logic to gays and lesbians and they don’t want to hear it.
So perhaps rather than blaming the culture or media for this assault on their traditionalist sensibilities, American evangelicals should just look in the mirror. They may not like the harvest, but it seems to me they are reaping what they have sown.
What if I told you there was a resource out there that could help your church or your small group engage the Bible faithfully, critically, deeply – and have fun doing it? Animate: Bible from Sparkhouse (a Fortress affiliate) is just such a study. I recently completed this curriculum at my church and wanted to offer you a few thoughts, since several colleagues asked for my feedback.
Who are the experts? The leaders for Animate: Bible include a who’s who of evangelical and/or progressive church leaders, pastors, and and thinkers: Nadia-Bolz Weber, Will Willimon, Rachel Held Evans, Phyllis Tickle, and others.
Who can lead it? The scope and sequence gives you a good idea of what to expect in leading or participating in Animate: Bible. The material is arranged so that someone with little to no knowledge of the subject can facilitate sessions effectively.
Who should participate? I have a feeling that Animate: Bible was especially designed with younger Christians and seekers in mind, but I believe it would be a worthwhile study for Christians of any age and experience. I had a mix of long-term and newer students of the Bible in my class, and everyone seemed to find the contents interesting and helpful.
What?Animate: Bible is composed of a series of 7 short, engaging videos with a journal for each participant and a leader guide for the facilitator. The videos (remember the title) are not just “talking heads,” but effectively communicate the points being made by the speaker though drawings and animation that are both informative and whimsical. The journals include a variety of questions that are very adaptable for the size of your group and the time frame allotted, as well as interesting illustrations and space for notes.
Why? What I appreciated most about Animate: Bible is the chance to discuss questions and topics not covered in the usual Sunday School curriculum or Bible study: How did the canon form? How should we read different kinds of scripture? How do the Old and New Testaments fit together? Much of this material – the 10,000 foot view questions of Scripture – was new to my participants (as it would have been for me had I not been to seminary).
What worked especially well? The topics are arranged in such a way that they build upon each other quite effectively. The materials themselves – the journal, video clips, etc. – have a quality look and feel to them that give you a sense this was put together with care. More to the point, Animate: Bible helps your group approach difficult questions about Scripture (such as: maybe we should read Jonah as allegory more so than history?) in a way that is sensitive to where people come from, but inviting to a new manner of reading. Finally, the leaders were especially engaging; they possessed a variety of backgrounds and approaches to their topics, but on the whole the video components were quite well done. My favorites were probably Willimon (I know, I am a company man!) and Bolz-Weber. I even enjoyed the sessions with Rachel Held Evans and Phyllis Tickle, neither of whom I am especially fond of. (For more on the latter, see here.)
What could have been better? I’m a preacher, so I am critical by nature about other preachers. I had some minor quibbles with some of the points made in the curriculum. The session on canon ends by asking what might be added to the canon, a question which, though sensible in the context of the conversation, I find risible. The session on grace discusses looking at Scripture with twin lenses: the “love” of Jesus and the “grace” of Paul. I found that distinction difficult to maintain, however. Minor points, to be sure.
Concluding Thoughts & Recommendations
Animate: Bible would be especially effective in certain contexts. For instance, a college or young adult group, a city or suburban church, or a college town. I believe it would be less effective in a setting where the the majority of participants would be serious inerrantists or otherwise not interested in questioning their understandings of the Bible. I would also suggest taking the “For Further Study” recommendations seriously, as they are quite good. I read Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book and Jaroslav Pelikan’s Whose Bible is it? in the course of leading and preaching this study. I would also suggest Hays and Davis’ The Art of Reading Scripture, a precis of which you can find here.
Oh yeah, preaching. I preached this as a series as I led the study. That is, I took the topics of the study and preached through them as a small group I led worked through the sessions. This allowed me to “double down” on learning and teaching the topics, and also allowed me reach more people with material that I believe could transform their reading of Scripture and their walk with God. If you are the adventurous kind of preacher – and not too tied to the lectionary – I would suggest giving this a shot. (Side note: the sample clips work great for sermon videos.)
So, if you think your church or small group could benefit from this material, run out and get yourself a copy. I highly recommend this excellent resource and I am looking forward to checking out other offerings in the Animate series.
Since I am a company man, here’s the sample from Bishop Willimon’s session “Interpretation: Scripture Reads Us.”
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given; they cried out with a loud voice, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth?’”
A False Choice
Do the oppressed care about my ideology? My conservative friends talk a lot about Christians in Northern Iraq who are being persecuted – even crucified – by a self-declared Islamic state known as ISIS. My progressive friends have been writing and reflecting a great deal about the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. By and large, the right doesn’t seem to care about the Palestinians and the left doesn’t seem to pay much attention to Christians persecuted in Iraq and elsewhere.
I’m not sure why this is. My best guess: this is just another instance of how all-encompassing the conservative and progressive worldviews tend to be. There is a set of issues that the right is supposed to care about and a set of issues the left is supposed to care about. Ergo, if I post about Iraqi Christians being persecuted, I am dismissed as a conservative. If I express concern about suffering Palestinians, I am dismissed as a liberal. I am willing to bet, though, that the oppressed don’t care what our ideology is.
Since both Western culture and Protestantism largely assume the liberal/conservative paradigm, most of our conversation and debate is not aimed towards truth, but intended either to show which “side” we are on or why the other “side” is wrong. It’s more ping-pong than discourse. So we become traitors to our team to express concern for the wrong subset of the oppressed.
But if, as James Cone and other liberationist theologians have argued, God has a particular concern for the oppressed, we should refuse this choice. We should reject an artificial bifurcation of God’s hurting children, because they are all beloved.
Reclaiming Our First Family
Instead, I think Christians should reclaim a particular concern for our own (a choice based on God’s own revelation and salvation history itself). In a sermon based on the famous Mennonite slogan, “A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other,” Stanley Hauerwas defends just this concern. When criticized for such a special emphasis on the welfare and actions of other Christians, Hauerwas’ usual reply is: “I agree that it would certainly be a good thing for Christians to stop killing anyone, but we have to start somewhere.” (1)
Indeed, if we take Scripture seriously, Christians are to consider the Church as our “first family.” We are to do good to all, but especially those who belong to the household of faith. (Gal. 6:10) After all, God’s concern for the oppressed is especially directed towards His people, Israel and the Church. It is Israel that was redeemed from Pharaoh, and “to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises.” (Romans 9:4, NRSV) The Church was established to point to the Kingdom inaugurated by Christ in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that all nations would be blessed through him, and this beloved Body suffers as she awaits the return of the her Head.
In fact, God’s concern for all is expressed through the bonds he makes and covenant he keeps with the particular people who belong to Him. Likewise, our empathy as Christians should be first and foremost for our sisters and brothers in the Church and Israel (though I do not believe the biblical covenant people should be identified exclusively with the modern nation-state). Let charity start at home. As Hauerwas put it, we have to start somewhere.
In Revelation 6, the souls under the altar who cry out for justice are not just any oppressed persons, but those who have suffered for the Lamb. They cry out, “How long?” How dare we pick and choose among them. All of them, not just the ones beloved by the left or remembered by right, have an equal share of God’s justice and mercy. Each and every one are given white robes and told to wait just a little while longer. God has no side when it comes to the martyrs who (literally) bear witness to Him: they are all precious. If their blood, as Tertullian said, is the seed of the church – it is all held dear by God. And it should be by us.
Meanwhile, we Western Christians need to remember that some of our sisters and brothers experience oppression of a kind we cannot possibly comprehend, no matter how much CNN we watch or how much we would like to be in “solidarity” with them. Sometimes, it appears we desperately want to be part of that group under the altar – not by seeking actual martyrdom, which we aren’t supposed to do – but by re-defining oppression. Thus we conflate the relatively minor injustices and inconveniences we may face with the experience of suffering Christians around the world, which is a sad, self-aggrandizing form of moral equivalency.
The Seed of the Church
I recall a story told by Cardinal Dolan in a recent sermon. He shared with his parishioners at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York that he now dreads Mondays, not because of complaints from bishops and priests based on Sunday’s activities, but because of a phone call he usually gets from a colleague. Most Mondays, said Dolan, his friend, the Archbishop of Jos, Nigeria calls to inform him of yet another attack on the Christians of his archdiocese. Regularly, in that part of Nigeria, Catholics on their way to mass have been targeted for vicious attacks by the radical Islamic group Boko Haram (this sermon was before the gang became internationally infamous for kidnapping innocent young women). Nigerian Christians are the victims of wanton murder for no other reason than their identification with the Crucified. Diocletian would be proud. Most astoundingly, though, the Archbishop from Jos also reported that his people are still coming to Sunday mass. Not only that, but their numbers are swelling. “Our churches have never been more full,” reported the Nigerian church leader.
The blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the church. But let us not make martyrs of each other. What if Christians agreed not to harm each other? How might that change the way we look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, whose Christian victims often go ignored? How might that change relations between Russia and Ukraine, or our approach to the children at the US border? If the church really is our first family, we should not be willing to see any of our own harmed, marginalized, or killed. Sounds like a good start.
In the meantime, we can rejoice in God’s power to work despite and even through oppression, such that the witness of those who die for the faith of the apostles are honored in this life by the faithfulness they inspire, even as they wait under the altar for justice to be done. Let us be thankful for that faithful cloud of witnesses who have suffered and continue to suffer, that their deaths are not in vain, that their patience will be rewarded, and that God has not forgotten. And may our prayers and concern be for the whole company of martyrs, for all the oppressed, suffering, and slain of the church, and not merely for those whom we are supposed to remember according to the artificial dictates of 21st century political culture.
And, finally, let us take heart: as the words the words of Samuel Stone, drawing on Revelation 6, remind us:
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song!
1. Hauerwas, Unleashing the Scripture: Freeing the Bible from Captivity to America, 63.
The suicide by self-immolation of Rev. Charles Moore, a retired UMC pastor from Texas, has inspired a host of responses by those troubled by his startling death. Unfortunately, his suicide has been turned into a call to arms by many, and even an instance of hero worship or martyrological fascination by others. With due respect for his lifetime of ministry and his family, I believe some clarification is in order.
Martyrdom is Not Sought Out
Many commenters have hinted at Rev. Moore’s status as a martyr, and at least one blogger was bold enough to outright assert it. The problem is that martyrdom is never something that, according to Scripture and our earliest witnesses, is ever supposed to be sought out. Take, for instance, the comment about Quintus, a Christian who handed himself over to the authorities, seeking the glory of a martyr’s death from The Martyrdom of Polycarp:
“But a certain man named Quintus…when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was he who constrained himself and others to come in of their own accord. This man, the proconsul, with much importunity, persuaded to swear and to sacrifice. On this account, brethren, we praise not them that give themselves up, since the gospel doth not so teach.”
This is contrasted with the approach of Polycarp, who did all in his power to avoid martyrdom, and who blessed his persecutors even as they came to arrest him. Martyrdom is not to be sought intentionally, and nor is it something that is self-inflicted.
Heroism is a Communal Achievement
‘Heroism’ is one of those words that has become flattened through overuse. We apply it too easily, and thus have cheapened the ambitious call to excellence that the heroic label entails. Many who commented on Rev. Moore’s suicide implied he was a hero, if not for the way he died, for the causes which drove him to self-immolate. A Reconciling Ministries Network article likened him to Jesus but quickly tried to distance from that analogy:
“Even Jesus, who led a parade from the east of Jerusalem on a colt the same day that Pilate led his Roman legion on a white stallion from the west, knew that such an act would lead to his arrest and likely execution as an insurrectionist against Rome. However, placing yourself in harm’s way out of conviction is still very different from taking one’s own life. If we had had the opportunity to talk to Charles before he took this drastic step, we most certainly would have tried to talk him out of it.”
In their marvelous book Heroism and the Christian Life, Brian Hook and R.R. Reno seek to reclaim a particularly Christian vision of heroism by examining the gospel narratives, the ancient views of heroism, and the critiques of Christianity’s greatest critic, Nietzsche. Part of their argument is that heroism entails both recognition (by a community) and imitation (it is worthy of repetition):
“Starved for ‘real heroes’, we latch onto the extraordinary and elevate the agent to the stage of hero. The problem is that heroes are people who possess remarkable virtues and abilities, and are not unique acts. Since true heroism entails recognition and emulation, the incidental hero fails. ” (12)
The hero is formed, recognized, and imitated over the course of a lifetime; in short, one incident does not a hero make, let alone an act neither condoned nor imitated by one’s community.
Naming the Silence
Many, myself included, were and are disturbed by Rev. Moore’s death. I would posit that the best name for the resulting silence is tragedy. Note the first two definitions listed by Merriam-Webster:
: a very bad event that causes great sadness and often involves someone’s death
: a very sad, unfortunate, or upsetting situation : something that causes strong feelings of sadness or regret
We can, and should, respect that Rev. Moore lived out his convictions with such boldness – regardless of whether we share them. An encounter with the living Lord should call us to solidarity with the widow, alien, and orphan – and all who are forgotten, abused, and oppressed. For the dedication to that Kingdom work I give thanks. How then, might we best remember Rev. Moore?
I’m reminded of a movie scene. At the end of The Last Samurai, the young emperor asks Captain Algren how his mentor and friend died. In the closing line of the film, Algren replies, “I would tell you how he lived.”
I would suggest we honor Rev. Moore’s memory by remembering how he lived, and for what he lived. From what I have gleaned, he had a lasting impact on the church in Texas and the communities he served. That he felt his work inadequate or unsuccessful, such that self-immolation was a necessary or desirable end to fulfill his vocation, is a tragedy.
My prayers are with Rev. Moore, his family, and his loved ones. May we all turn our dreams, our desires, and our hopes over to the one in whom no work is wasted, and no life or ministry, however great or small, is worthless. I rejoice that Rev. Moore is at peace. Let us who remain tarry on, in hope that “the one who began a good work among [us] will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:16, NRSV)
Aren’t you tired? Aren’t you worn out by all the nasty wrangling? I think many of us are getting hungry for an alternative to the culture wars that dominate our political culture in the US and in the church. In particular, the Mainline denominations, especially my own United Methodist Church, have been riven by partisanship that would make the most radical Tea Party or Code Pink gathering blush.
Myself and a growing number of others have been calling for an alternative kind of church, a better discourse, and more and more I sense a hunger in others for something deeper, less shrill, and more Christocentric than ideological. If that sounds like you, then you are in luck. Retired seminary professor Steve Harper has just provided an excellent primer on why a third way is needed and what that path forward might look like in his new book For the Sake of the Bride. Agree with his conclusions or not, I posit that it would be difficult for anyone to come away after reading this book without respect for Harper’s prayerful and heartfelt analysis both of our situation and a potential path through the present morass.
As someone who has invested a considerable amount of time in seeking out a Via Media between the extremes that dominate our church (and churches), I am deeply grateful to Dr. Harper for his work. Below are collection of quotes pertaining especially to the third way as Harper narrates it (the largest number of quotes come from chapter 4, entitled “A Third Way”). I highly encourage you to buy, read, share, and discuss this book with your classes and small groups as soon as possible. In a perfect world, this would be required reading for all General Conference 2016 delegates, if for no other reason than its basic ecclesiological focus: a concern for the health of the Bride of Christ that is usually not evident in those who seek to tear her to shreds in order to get their way.
But enough from me. Here is your sample – but make sure to pick it up and read it in full for yourself. I would love to hear your own feedback on these quotes or the full book in the comments section.
“Early in my experience I saw more clearly than ever before that Jesus was able to make friends with people who were unable to make friends with each other. I saw that this was a deliberate choice on his part [...] In short, I saw the inability of dualistic thinking to take us where we need to go in restoring intended honor to the Bride.” (9)
“Dualistic thinking pervades nearly every part of our lives, especially evident in advertising, which reinforces the ‘good, better, best’ mentality and which (even if kindly) tells us that one product is superior to another. Dualistic thinking not only tempts us; it trains us to use the same tactics when we deal with people, places, and things. Almost without realizing it, we are conditioned to enter into life not simply differentiating, but dividing and conquering. To come out of this process requires insight and courage. The insight is fundamentally that those who choose a third way will not be welcomed by either of the sides. And because we like to be liked– by somebody, anybody– we gravitate toward a side rather than calling the process of taking sides into question. Jesus challenged the status quo when he told his disciples not to trust the yeast of the Sadducees or the Pharisees (Matthew 16:5). Neither side had the complete picture. The whole ministry of Jesus was a third way…”
“The very nature of the third-way enterprise will be limiting and incomplete, because we do not often see it attempted. We do not see it fully applied in the divisive issues of our day. And when we do, it is often caricatured as inadequate by the dualistic thinkers who must have it one way or the other. An invitation to a third way is actually more difficult than choosing a side and then defending it to the death.” (14)
“…this book is a call to find a third way that enables the sides of the debate to bring their best to bear upon finding a new way to move forward into the future.” (62)
“…the old processes have patterned us toward negativity and divisiveness. The way of love does not accept these attitudes and actions as the only options that we have.” (86)
As a leader, one of my habits is to attempt, as far as possible, to claim maximum responsibility for everything that happens in my life. It is not fun, but it is, I believe, a path to sanity. The alternative – to refuse agency in my life and calling – is infinitely more unpleasant and dis-empowering.
When I was in high school, I played soccer for one fun but inglorious season. I was the classic benchwarmer; I only played because I had some close friends on the team, and since I was at a very small school they let me on the team despite my lack of speed, athleticism, and knowledge of or interest in soccer. In one of my rare appearances on the pitch, I was shoved hard from behind by another player, so much so that I somersaulted. I was furious. At my next opportunity, I threw up a very hard elbow and sent my opponent to the ground. The ref promptly brought out a yellow card.
My friend and team captain came over and began to explain to the ref that I was new to the sport and didn’t really understand what I was doing. He was about to talk me out of getting the yellow card! But I was livid, and I wanted the other player to know that I thought he deserved it. So I walked over to the ref and exclaimed, “I knew exactly what I was doing!” The yellow stood. For better or for worse, maximum responsibility has been my calling card – of whatever color – ever since.
This memory crept up as the news came out a few days ago: the ugly specter is back in the UMC. Complaints have been filed once more, this time against 36 Eastern Pennsylvania clergy who conducted a same-gender ceremony last year. This is, of course, the same conference that recently de-and-refrocked Frank Schaefer.
The Scandal of Accountability
No one likes church trials. More then that, no one likes to see clergy who breach the covenant have to face discipline in any form. Those of us who serve in churches where previous pastors have faced disciplinary procedures know the toll it takes on our congregations. It is always unfortunate, and yet, the coherence of any community demands that some boundaries must be set and maintained. Even the most secular professional organizations have strictures on what is and is not acceptable for its members; how much more should this be the case for the church, where our work is not some product or service, but the proclamation of the Kingdom?
Many denounce trials as, more or less, “unchristian.” These days, the bulk of such calls come from progressive Methodists who tire of worrying about trials for those who run afoul of the Book of Discipline in terms of gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies and (however ill-defined) “practice.” I do not recall most of these folks claiming trials, similar hearings, and other agents of “institutional force” were depraved, pseudo-Christian institutions when a Virginia pastor was put on leave for refusing membership to a gay man. Nor did Bishop Carcano argue with the decision of our judicial establishment when Frank Schaefer was recently refrocked. It seems we all dislike disciplinary procedures when they don’t go our way, but can’t praise them enough when they vindicate our position. But I digress.
The distaste with trials is exacerbated because of the polarized nature of the church (reflecting the wider culture), our inability to discuss hard questions with prayerful charity and theological rigor, and the more general scandal that any exercise of church authority causes in the post-Enlightenment West.
Rev. Hannah Bonner’s critique over at UMC Lead (a blog which seems to be pretty clearly picking sides now) is illustrative:
“It is hard to hear the words church and trial put together. The church is the body of believers who are to show the world who God is through their love for one another and to continue Christ’s ministry of reconciliation. A church trial is an act of institutional force – becoming necessary when individual dialogue has not brought about reconciliation. While we can use the language of “tough love” and covenant, the reality remains that a trial is simply not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light. The words themselves trigger for most people images of the Salem Witch Trials and the Inquisition. And it seems that the further removed we are in history from church trials, the more painful and illogical they seem to us. The reality that trials are conducive to further division and damaging to our witness – and not cowardice – is the reason why many of our Bishops are seeking to find different paths forward through this struggle.”
Of course a trial is “not the place where the body of Christ is presented in the best light.” No one wants them. But trials are present as a final step when just resolution (or “reconciliation”) fails. The BOD is quite clear that this is not the preferred outcome. And yet those who have a distaste for trials seem to think only the church or “the system” is at fault for them: if only we didn’t resort to trials, our witness would not suffer so and we could come to a real “Christian” solution.
Credit Where Credit is Due: A Parable
But are trials only the fault of our (admittedly defective) system? Pastors, at least, know the stakes. As clergy who have taken vows which state we have studied and approve of church law, we know what we are welcoming if we flaunt it. I’m not saying it’s right. I’m not saying it’s pretty. But at some point, pastors who knowingly play loose with the covenant should receive a share of the ire for putting the church through the cost and controversy of more trials.
To put it another way: imagine you are driving your car, and you just happen to have a CB radio tuned to the police band. You get on the horn and announce to all the police in the area that you are about the speed on the highway. You then get on the road and proceed to do 105 in a 70. Not surprisingly, you are pulled over. Because of the egregious nature of the speed violation, you are given a ticket with little discussion. You will face court costs, an increase in your insurance rate, and possibly a suspension of your license. All kinds of government resources will be used in holding you accountable: police time, magistrate salaries, a judge’s attention. What a miscarriage of justice! Wasted resources abound! You harmed no one. You were just speeding.
Would anyone blame the speed limit laws or the cop in this case? No. You announced to the world, and especially to law enforcement, what you were going to do. Whether or not speed limit laws make sense is beside the point. Their job is to enforce those limits, and you told them you were coming. The onus, at least in part, is on you.
A crude analogy, perhaps, but is it that different from those who flagrantly disregard the Discipline and then balk at accountability? I respect prophetic witness, but true prophetic witness means being willing to face the consequences.
Conclusion: On Owning Choices
I don’t disagree that trials are damaging to our communion and our witness. Unfortunately, the reality is that the only thing that may erode the glue holding together our denomination faster than church trials is the avoidance of trials and any semblance of meaningful accountability.
Furthermore, I am convinced it is not the role of bishops to seek “different paths forward” through these struggles. Such direction is given by the General Conference and codified in the Book of Discipline. The bishops are called, as the executive branch, to order the life of the church in part by enforcing policy made by the General Conference and supporting our doctrine and order as agents of church unity.
We may not like what the “current path” holds, and indeed, I hate that so much energy and resources must go into trials, especially for the reasons before us. (I would not be so remorseful if we had trials for more crucial matters, like doctrine. Oh, if only we would put rebaptizers and unitarians on trial!)
But the only thing worse than the trials may well be not having trials. Part of the Christian life, as lay and clergy, involves making and keeping promises to one another. We clergy have all agreed to live by a certain Discipline, and when we fail to do so – whether by momentary lapse of judgment or conscious, intended effort – there must be a response that recognizes that failure. A gracious response and oriented towards restoration, of course, but a response nonetheless.
And yes, church trials bring up some of the worst parts of Christian history, those things with which the New Atheists love to fill up their screeds: inquisitions and witch hunts. But not every church trial is an inquisition, no more than seeing blue lights always indicates something like the Rodney King incident is going to occur.
We will find trials unpleasant. We should. They are always sad. And I sympathize with fears that more trials will threaten to rend our communion past what it can bear.
But the only thing that might be a more serious threat, that might endanger our life together even more, is the refusal to hold pastors accountable when they choose to flagrantly violate the covenant and show no willingness to stop doing so. We all know this is a delicate time. Our church is imperfect, including its accountability structures. But I can’t help but think that those pastors who flaunt the Discipline – regardless of the nobility of their cause – like the Eastern Pennsylvania 36 , are also at fault.
Part of maturing is owning our choices and the consequences that they bring. Don’t tell the police you’re going to break the law, and then complain when you get pulled over.
Bishop Michael Lowry from the Central Texas Conference has an excellent chapter on church order. In the course of this chapter, he examines the notion of ‘biblical obedience’ from Bishop Talbert and his supporters, which is little more than a baptized version of civil disobedience. Of course civil disobedience has a long and valuable history in our country and around the world; its ‘biblical’ variant, though, leaves something to be desired. Lowry reflects,
“…it should be carefully noted that when civil disobedience is invoked, Christians have been willing to bear the penalty for such disobedience. This has long been a principle of civil disobedience. The need for order is not ignored but rather embraced on a higher level through the witness of being willing to face the penalty incurred. Presently, the position of biblical obedience, which evokes by some of civil disobedience against church law, is corrupted by the lack of meaningful penalties applied to those engaging in disobeying church law. it is now acceptable for some advocates, some church juries, and some bishops to settle for a twenty-four-hour suspension of the guilty clergyperson. Such a meaningless level of accountability has the effect of giving a person an extra day off for violating church law established by General Conference. Such actions offend the very integrity of the advocated biblical obedience.” (pp.75-76)
In other words, if one wants to invoke the honored history of civil disobedience within the church, part of that legacy is accepting the penalties that come. At present, ‘biblical obedience’ advocates are doing everything they can to avoid consequences. This, as Bishop Lowry points out, effectively neuters the power of strategic disobedience – because instead of forcing onlookers to see unjust penalties carried out, what we have is a de facto change in church law underwritten by certain places in our Connection.
Progressives can’t have it both ways. I can respect the desire to call upon the powerful witness from decades past of civil disobedience, for it is a valuable tool for social change. Much of the force is taken away, however, from biblical dis/obedience when its advocates refuse to face the consequences of their actions. The result from continuous disobedience devoid of consequences has not been and will not be a change in church law, but a continued strain on our covenant life together that could well bend our connection beyond what it can bear.
Let those with ears, hear.
P.S. For more on Finding Our Way, and reactions from other UM leaders, check out the helpful page dedicated to this discussion over at Ministry Matters.
“Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice.” -Proverbs 24:17 (NIV)
I had a feeling this might be coming. Last Friday night I listened in to Frank Schaefer on what was basically a conference call with the Reconciling Ministries Network community of my conference (WNCCUMC) during a worship service that they hosted. When he said that he felt good about his chances of being reinstated – the church’s representation seemed unprepared, he noted – the congregation erupted in applause. Today that applause is surely redoubled, as Frank’s defrocking has been reversed on appeal.
But to be clear, this is not a clear victory for anyone, which may the best possible outcome. The court did not say the church was wrong to punish Frank. It said the mix-and-match penalties – a suspension and defrocking contingent on his unwillingness to promise future compliance – was inappropriate. The appellate court upheld the suspension, but reversed the defrocking (thus, refrocking?). So while some might say “he got away with it!” and others will cry “justice has been done!” neither is exactly correct.
The progressives are clearly taking this as a victory, though, which is understandable. I wonder what kind of victory it really is, however? It is certainly a vicarious victory, not unlike the relief that many felt when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty in his initial criminal trial. Millions who were actually unaffected took it, nonetheless, as a victory for “us.” As Chris Rock later said, sarcastically, “Every day I look in the mail for my O.J. prize, and nothing!” Thus many are taking this as a victory for LGBT “inclusion” advocates, even though the decision actually is not a rebuttal of the UMC’s official position.
It could also be a pyrrhic victory. A pyrrhic victory is one in which the victory gained is overshadowed by the costs inflicted. Think of Lee near the end of the Civil War; he was beating Grant with superior generalship, but Grant could afford the losses he was incurring and Lee could not – despite winning many engagements. The symbolic victory that Schaefer’s refrocking is for the progressives pales in comparison to the problem of yet another occurrence that will up the temperature in our wider denominational divides, when we already have conservatives looking for excuses to bolt. And before you say Schaeffer’s victory is more than symbolic, bear in mind that he’s become a minor celebrity since the trial, busy with the lecture circuit and entertaining offers from schismatic bishops like Carcano. Whether one agrees with today’s outcome or not, from all appearances Frank was not suffering in exile.
So whether you think today was a great victory or a great defeat, do not be too quick to celebrate or mourn. Neither “side” won here, though the outcome may be to take us ever closer to the precipice that most of us do not want to reach. As Proverbs 24 reminds us, do not gloat, whether you wish to to transform the church or break away.
And for those of us left somewhere in the middle – neither celebrating or grieving, but concerned for the future – take heart. God is still with all of us: left, right, and the wide middle. There seems to be more energy directed now to staying together rather than rending our communion. The tail need not always wag the dog. God may yet surprise us. In the words of T.S. Eliot, “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
I’ll close these reflections with some lines from S.J. Stone, which describe vividly the strife in our church and the hope that we yet hold. Easter people know that the night of weeping does not last. May the God in whom there is true justice, peace, mercy, and holiness hear this prayer:
Though with a scornful wonder
we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder,
by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;
their cry goes up: “How long?”
And soon the night of weeping
shall be the morn of song.
Update: Just a few hours after this blog was published, it was announced that the refrocked Schaefer has been appointed to the Cal-Pac Conference to a serve in a student ministry appointment. Especially interesting is Bishop Carcano’s distinctly un-prophetic praise of Disciplinary procedure in her letter.