Should the United Methodist Church be more like McDonald’s?

"Ronald McDonald sitting," M.Minderhoud - Own work, Wikimedia Commons C.C.
“Ronald McDonald Sitting,” M.Minderhoud, Wikimedia Commons C.C.

Last night, I went to a screening of the film “Act of Love” about the trial of Rev. Frank Schaefer, who was defrocked for performing his son’s same-sex wedding. One thing I appreciated about the film was the way that it tried to let both sides have a voice. I thought that Rob Renfroe and Thomas Lambrecht of the Good News movement did a good job of representing their perspective. I decided to presume they were being sincere when they said they hated church trials and felt like they were bound by duty to defend their traditional position on sexuality. It certainly seems like a lonely place to be when you feel like it’s your duty to defend tradition against a tidal wave of changing public opinion.

However, Thomas Lambrecht said something that will probably invoke some scorn from viewers of the film. He said, “If you go into any McDonald’s and order a hamburger, you know what you’re going to get. Not so with the United Methodist Church.” If I hadn’t just written a blog post eschewing scorn, I could have gone to town on this quote, saying well of course the evangelical gospel is a McGospel. So I wanted to try something different, engaging Lambrecht’s words sympathetically. Should there be a consistent message being preached in every United Methodist church across the country? Is there a case to be made for some degree of uniformity?

If I had to defend Lambrecht’s comment, I would pull out the example of Alcoholics Anonymous as a spiritual organization which is like McDonald’s in its uniformity. If you go to an AA meeting anywhere in the country, you’re going to find the exact same format. They open with the serenity prayer and close with the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone says, “Hi, I’m ____ and I’m an alcoholic.” AA has a 12 step practice that every member tries to follow. Nobody gets to add or subtract from the 12 steps or invent their own version of it. You can’t go into an AA meeting and promote drinking in moderation. Some claim that the most recent science suggests AA’s approach is outdated, but if you attacked the premises of the program at an AA meeting, you would be asked to leave. Because you would be sabotaging the spiritual solidarity of the group which its members have staked their lives upon. You could certainly start an accountability group for drinkers who want to drink in moderation, but you couldn’t call it an AA chapter.

I suspect conservatives like Lambrecht feel that United Methodists like me who promote LGBT inclusion are analogous to people going into an AA meeting to promote drinking in moderation. They would like us to form our own separate entity because they’re worried our teaching will undermine Biblical authority and wreck the foundation of the coherent and powerful gospel that has inspired their churches. I don’t believe Good News is an anti-LGBT organization. If I interpret its purpose sympathetically, it seems that it exists simply to promote an undiluted gospel. I’ve often seen conservatives lament that United Methodism has lost the gospel by over-prioritizing the -isms of secular liberalism. It’s not that conservatives want to be racist or sexist. They just think that the real gospel properly understood ought to take care of all human conflict, without the need for special commissions, quotas, political correctness, bureaucracy, etc.

I recognize that many Christians have had their lives transformed by the gospel that Good News wants to defend. Part of that transformation means choosing God’s kingdom over the ways of the world. The insistence upon unconditional acceptance within affirming, inclusive churches can seem like it does away with the concept of sin altogether and thus the need for salvation and new birth, which seems to leave you without a gospel at all. I also get that it’s scary and confusing to think about living in a world where there aren’t just girls and boys anymore, because people can be genderqueer, transgender, intersex, or non-binary. The challenges brought forth by the LGBT movement are disorienting and probably feel socially destabilizing. So I can appreciate the desire for a world in which simple ancient truths are still sufficient.

The problem is that this isn’t a monolithic battle between a coherent, uniform liberal Christianity and a coherent, uniform conservative Christianity. I am no more a John Shelby Spong Christian than Thomas Lambrecht is a Jerry Falwell Christian. I suspect that I could preach many of Rob Renfroe’s sermons with complete authenticity and without any theological dishonesty. When I preach, I am quite evangelical. I believe every sermon should say something about the cross and resurrection. I believe every word in the Bible is God-breathed and authoritative (though I don’t believe each verse has to have a single universal meaning). I believe in hell. I believe there is a penal, juridical aspect of Jesus’ atonement on the cross (that has been largely misrepresented in pop-evangelicalism). I hate lukewarm mainline-ishness. I hate it when correct “social justice” posturing is a substitute for personal spiritual formation. I am most at home praying with people who aren’t going to flip out if I speak in tongues. So I would be split down the middle of my soul if United Methodism split in two.

I continue to have many of the instincts of evangelicalism. I abhor the way our culture has made sex into an act of consumerism rather than a gift of sacred intimacy. Where I differ from Lambrecht and Renfroe is that I see United Methodism’s anti-LGBT stance to be a stumbling block that isn’t biblically necessary given the range of legitimate interpretations. Most importantly, it sabotages our ability to offer a beautiful vision for sexual holiness to young adults who need something better than Tinder. I would love it if the United Methodist Church offered ways for people of all sexual orientations to take vows of celibacy and live together as monks and nuns.

What if instead of focusing on banning and punishing people who are different, we offered a positive way to live apart from the world in our sexuality? Both Jesus and Paul considered celibacy a higher pursuit than married life. The Reformation destroyed the idea of monastic vocation for Protestants. Why can’t United Methodists be the ones to bring it back? Not as a punishment for people who are different, but as an invitation to deeper spiritual devotion for all people to consider.

One of the things Rob Renfroe said in the video was that he wished we could “set each other free” to do ministry in the different ways that we feel called. I’ve decided to trust that he was speaking sincerely. It’s just that there aren’t two United Methodisms to split cleanly into. Nor do I necessarily want to be in a church in which there are no Rob Renfroes. I don’t want to do anything to dilute the gospel that Rob Renfroe preaches. If his congregation has discerned a need to adhere to traditional teaching about sexuality in order to offer a coherent vision for holy living, I respect that. I do wish that Rob and other conservatives would set me free to minister to my particular mission field according to the direction of the Holy Spirit, even if that includes one day marrying a same-sex couple that wants to live the same holy life they would be seeking to live if they were straight.

I can’t make sense of a gospel that requires gender complementarity to make sense. But I’m willing to serve alongside other United Methodist pastors who cannot make sense of the way I understand the gospel. I hope Rob Renfroe gets his wish for us to “set each other free,” and I hope it happens without the traumatic experience of splitting our church in two, which would probably result in hundreds of thousands of United Methodists quitting church altogether. I would have to be extremely certain of my perspective for it to be worth the lost discipleship of hundreds of thousands of people. Imagine if both sides were able to say we might be wrong, and we adopted a compromise that wasn’t a complete capitulation to one side or the other. I hope there are enough thoughtful, pragmatic delegates at General Conference this year to avoid the scorched-earth, winner-take-all approaches of the past. I can understand the attractiveness of a coherent, compelling gospel, but United Methodism will never be like McDonald’s, and that’s part of its charm.

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