Centrifugal Forces in the Church

A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.
A swing from the NY State Fair. Courtesy blog.syracuse.com.

“Suspense of judgment and exercise of charity were safer and seemlier for Christian [people], than hot pursuit of these controversies, wherein they that are most fervent to dispute be not always the most able to determine.”

-Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity

The church is about Jesus.  That seems obvious, but we humans are a distractible lot, easily thrown off course.  Yes, it  seems obvious that the Body of Christ is to be centered in Christ.  But in large, bureaucratic organizations, mission drift is all too real.  As a big-tent denomination, our variety of goals, agendas, and callings within the United Methodist Church is a strength (other large denominations, or even megachurches, would apply equally, here).  Taken individually, most of these are even noble and life-giving, but they can also take us off-center.  Put another way: there are many centrifugal forces at work in the church.

Wikipedia defines centrifugal force in such a way that I am reminded of the UMC at present:

Centrifugal force (from Latin centrum, meaning “center“, and fugere, meaning “to flee”) is the apparent force that draws a rotating body away from the center of rotation.

A force that draws a body away from center? Wow. We have a lot of those.  All those boards and agencies, all those programs, teams, and sub-sub-committees, each vying for attention, energy, and resources.  One veteran of a similar family feud is R.R. Reno, who draws on Anglican priest-theologian Richard Hooker for advice on weathering the storm:

“For a great Anglican figure such as Richard Hooker, the deepest law of ecclesiastical polity was preservative, and all the more so when the church was threatened by centrifugal forces that threatened ruin…he was convinced that the church communicates the grace of God as a stable and settled form of life that is visibly connected to the apostolic age. His via media was precisely the willingness to dwell in this inherited and stable form, especially when uncertainty and indecision about pressing contemporary issues predominate. For Hooker the first imperative is clear: to receive that which has been given, rather than embarking on a fantasy of constructive theological speculation and ecclesial purification that would only diminish and destabilize.”

In the midst of “centrifugal forces” that sought to destabilize and harm the Body, Hooker’s strategy was to stay close to the apostolic deposit which had been received, on his view, from Christ an the apostles. I am especially drawn to Hooker’s insight, quoted by Reno in the original section above, that the quickest to debate might be the last people you want trying to make decisions.

We all know the swing is fun.   The centrifugal force brings a rush; it’s a blast to swing out as far from center as possible and look around.  But the Body can’t maintain itself if too many of us are constantly playing so far from center that we forget what home looks like.  As Reno hints at, “when uncertainty and indecision” abound (hello GC2012!), it’s time to stay close to center, to what has been received.

After all, it’s impossible to build on an unstable foundation.  Even the friendliest centrifugal forces still need a center off of which to pivot.  What would it look like for protestant Christians, and especially for United Methodists, to dwell in the inherited forms today? What would it look like for us to get off the swing?

Source: R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

Advertisements

11 thoughts on “Centrifugal Forces in the Church”

    1. I think, yes, in one sense I would agree with that – it is the role of bishops to exercise charity to set us an example (some, like Sally Dyck, have not aways done this). But that is not mutually exclusive with actually doing the work of a bishop and fulfilling apostolic, unitive role for which the office is designed. To put it in more contemporary political terms, the COB is our Executive branch, and a large part of their work is to enforce GC policy not work hard to get around it.

  1. So, reconciling the whole world to God through Christ, including the members of the LGBTQ community, is no longer at the center of our ministry as a denomination?! Amazing!!! I wonder what Jesus would have to say about that.

    1. Doug, if you look at that verse, it’s actually God through Christ the does the reconciling – not us. I think putting our ideology, our projects, our thoughts – however noble they are – at the center of the life of the church is deeply problematic. Christ should be at the center, and be there alone.

      1. Drew, so you’re suggesting that the final portion of the following verse has no validity: “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation;” (2 Cor. 5.18)?

      2. No, I’m saying that the priority is on Christ; if we do not follow Jesus first, our ministry of reconciliation is likely to be shaped and driven by a political ideology rather than the gospel.

      3. I agree with you wholeheartedly, that “the priority is on Christ,” and that “if we do not follow Jesus first, our ministry of reconciliation is likely to be shaped and driven by a political ideology rather than the gospel.” I also believe that same-sex loving persons who enter into and live faithfully in loving, committed relationships in which they seek to share God’s love as they have come to know it in Jesus Christ are both following Jesus and giving Christ priority. I’m guessing that’s not a position with which you could agree, because you would judge it to be “shaped and driven by a political ideology rather than the gospel.” And that comes, at least in part, from the fact that we disagree about the significance of the negative references to same-sex sexual activity found in scripture, I believing that they condemn abusive and loveless sexual activity, and you believing that they condemn all same-sex sexual activity. The question then becomes, “Which of our interpretations is ‘driven by a political ideology rather than the gospel’, and which, by the gospel itself?” Having seen in history that longstanding biblical interpretations regarding slavery and the position of women in the plan of salvation, in particular, though not exclusively, have been judged to have been “driven by a political ideology [of ethnic superiority in the one case and male superiority in the other] rather than the gospel,” I suggest that the UMC’s current position is driven by the “political ideology” of not just the superiority of opposite sex sexual activity but the exclusivist claim that heterosexual activity is the only activity in which godly love can be expressed. In fact, we see the passages that relate to heterosexual activity in which abuse and loveless sex being exhibited also to contain condemnations similar to those aimed at abusive and loveless homosexual activity. The fact that there are also many passages extolling godly love between heterosexual partners, and there are none that are generally recognized that celebrate godly love between same-sex partners (since the David/Jonathan relationship is questionable and the Jesus/Beloved Disciple relationship is even more ambiguous), while weighing against a biblical affirmation of same-sex love, is also a product of at least a lack of awareness of writers at the time of such loving same-sex partnerships among the followers of The Way, if not the actual absence of them – not to mention the perception of the lack of the possibility of their existence. The fact that Leviticus 18 equates having sex with one’s father’s wife with “uncovering the nakedness of your father” (vss. 7-8), or of one’s own granddaughters with uncovering one’s own nakedness (vs. 10, the person being addressed clearly being male), or of one’s father’s sister with uncovering one’s father’s flesh (vs. 12), or of one’s aunt with uncovering one’s uncle’s flesh (vs. 14), and so on, tells us that the problem being addressed, even in vs. 22, is the shaming of the other men in the household, either by having sex with their spouses or their children or one’s own grandchildren or with the men themselves. Even the references to the abomination of shaming one’s mother through having sexual relations with her daughter or her sister are condemnations of abusive sex, much, if not all, of it tied to the sense of ownership of all women by the men to whom they were related either as daughters or spouses. Today’s church is right to condemn such abusive and shameful sexual activity; but to extend that condemnation to disciples of Jesus Christ who seek to love their same-sex partner as God loves them is an abomination equal to the abominations of the sexually abusive persons to which Lev. 18 and 20 refer. Though I doubt many in our generation will recognize the truth of this, I do not doubt that the reality of this will dawn more and more on future generations, so that the “political ideology” of many in the church since Aquinas, if not the Apostle Paul, can be revealed for the ungodly and spiritually harmful thing that it has been in the lives of many children of God.

      4. Doug, there are an awful lot of assumptions in your response about who I am and what I believe (for starters, we are not of the same generation). This is instructive to me, though, about one of the big problems of the present state of the discussion in the UMC: any hesitation about or questioning of the progressive agenda automatically puts you in the enemy’s camp. There’s no room for nuance, for honest struggle, or for prayer and fasting. As I’ve said before, I could live in a church that gives some flexibility on this, by region or by some other distinction in our polity – but how we get to that place is as important as the destination. We are Christians, the ends do not justify the means, and actions which damage the fabric of the church (see for instance, the – as I have called them in print – BS “just resolutions” that do an end-run around accountability). Your Biblical reasoning is spurious at best, Doug. You present very recent, progressive analysis of texts as if they are settled questions, which they aren’t. Relationships like Jesus and John and David and Jonathan could be evidence, not of biblical affirmation of same-sex intimacy, but of our own modern discomfort with same-sex friendships (because we think all intimacy must be manifested physically). You can assert all day long that all the biblical injunctions are against same-sex sex are only really against what (*we*) determine to be harmful sexual relationships, but that isn’t a slam dunk either. At best, it leaves you with a Bible that does not condemn same-sex intimacy in healthy, committed relationships – which means all you really have at that point is an argument from silence. The main difference between this question and previous social concerns like the role of women or slavery is that the Bible contains clear counter-narratives to the oppressive texts that had been used to defend unjust practices. This should not be hard to realize, and progressives should understand that it’s Biblically a harder sell to convince the church that same-sex sex can be acceptable when there is an utter lack of biblical support – you can shout “the right side of history” all you want, but the Bible simply isn’t on the side of change in the same, clear-cut way that it was for slavery and the role of women (see also: abortion, a modern freedom we love but which Christians have historically stood against).

        None of this is to say that change is impossible or shouldn’t occur, but just that progressives who genuinely want to change the church- and not just tell everyone else what terrible people they are – should realize that the obstacles to this social change are significantly higher than previous questions, and demands more than recapitulating old arguments and repeating platitudes ad nauseum.

  2. Reconciliation is sharing the Good News of Redemption which comes through repenting and believing and receiving. All three necessary parts of the Good News.

  3. Doug, there are an awful lot of assumptions in your response about who I am and what I believe (for starters, we are not of the same generation). This is instructive to me, though, about one of the big problems of the present state of the discussion in the UMC: any hesitation about or questioning of the progressive agenda automatically puts you in the enemy’s camp. There’s no room for nuance, for honest struggle, or for prayer and fasting. As I’ve said before, I could live in a church that gives some flexibility on this, by region or by some other distinction in our polity – but how we get to that place is as important as the destination. We are Christians, the ends do not justify the means, and actions which damage the fabric of the church (see for instance, the – as I have called them in print – BS “just resolutions” that do an end-run around accountability) should be shunned as a pathway to change.

    Your Biblical reasoning is spurious at best, Doug. You present very recent, progressive analyses of texts as if they are settled questions, which they aren’t. Relationships like Jesus and John and David and Jonathan could equally be evidence, not of biblical affirmation of same-sex intimacy, but of our own modern discomfort with same-sex friendships (because we think all intimacy must be manifested physically). You can assert all day long that all the biblical injunctions are against same-sex sex are only really against what (*we*) determine to be harmful sexual relationships, but that isn’t a slam dunk either. At best – if everyone suddenly agrees that all the Biblical talk about same-sex sexual activity is *really* about pederasty or temple prostitution, which they don’t – it leaves you with a Bible that does not condemn same-sex intimacy in healthy, committed relationships; that means all you would really have at that point is an argument from silence.

    The main difference between this question and previous social concerns like the role of women or slavery is that the Bible contains clear counter-narratives to the oppressive texts that had been used to defend unjust practices. This should not be hard to realize, and progressives should understand that it’s Biblically a harder sell to convince the church that same-sex sex can be acceptable when there is an utter lack of biblical support – you can shout “the right side of history” all you want, but the Bible simply isn’t on the side of change in the same, clear-cut way that it was for slavery and the role of women (see also: abortion, a modern freedom we love but which Christians have historically stood against).

    None of this is to say that change is impossible or shouldn’t occur, but just that progressives who genuinely want to change the church – and not just tell everyone else what terrible people they are – should realize that the obstacles to this social change are significantly higher than previous questions, and demands more than recapitulating old arguments and repeating platitudes ad nauseum.

What do you think? Share your thoughts below...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s