Accepting Carolyn Moore’s Invitation to Higher Conversation

“Bible with Cross Shadow,” David Campbell, Flickr C.C.

Carolyn Moore is probably my favorite conservative United Methodist leader. What I see in her is a genuine thirst for Christ that is absent of the scorn that I encounter too often on the other side (and probably exhibit too often myself). Carolyn put out a challenge for us to have a better, more Spirit-seeking conversation within United Methodism as part of discerning our way forward. She laid out a framework for how such a conversation could be shaped. Here are her exhortations and my responses.

1) Let’s talk Christologically.

I absolutely agree that we need to start with carefully observing and emulating the Jesus whose character is revealed especially and uniquely in the four gospels of the New Testament. This Jesus said to the religious authorities in his day exactly what I think he would say to United Methodists today: “Go and find out what this means: ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice'” (Matthew 9:13). If we are on the side of mercy, we are on the side of Jesus. That’s not to say that sacrifice itself is evil, but sacrifice as a moralistic power play is the distortion of religion that Jesus dismantles through his sacrifice on the cross that is supposed to rescue us from trying to justify ourselves before God through our own exhibitionist sacrifices.

Jesus is not merely a generic divine human sacrifice upon which to project a message of “exclusivity.” If the only claim of Christianity is that we have the only real savior, then we’re no different than any other religion. What makes Jesus unique is how he positions himself as God’s Word made flesh among the Jewish people through whom God chose to make his glory known. Jesus is not neutral; he always takes sides and he almost always sides against the religious authorities and in favor of those whom they judge.

Jesus is not nice or meek or mild. He’s not an idyllic projection of modern liberal middle class civility. He often has a “heart of war” instead of a “heart of peace.” It’s true that he can be very gentle with those he calls “little ones.” But he’s incredibly brutal to the people who think they have God all figured out and try to trap him in heresy.

The best example of this is the demise of poor Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7. Jesus humiliates the host of a dinner party that had been given in his honor by saying that a prostitute who walked in off the street is being a better host than Simon is precisely through the erotic foot massage by which she has scandalized all the dinner guests. It’s no wonder that Jesus so angered the religious authorities that they condemned him to death.

We cannot erase the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities and make Jesus into a generic exclusive savior if we’re going to have a christological conversation. The religious authorities are the foil against which Jesus defines himself as a centerpiece of his teaching, which raises the question of how Jesus would position himself amidst the religious authorities of today who claim to own Jesus’ legacy.

When we try to make Jesus into a generic savior and erase his conflict with the religious authorities, then we distort what it means for him to save us from the judgment of the law. The law becomes an abstraction rather than a real institution in which religious authorities create power for themselves and oppress others. So absolutely let’s talk christologically and let’s specifically draw from Jesus’ life story rather than theological abstractions.

2) Let’s talk biblically.

We need to have a much better biblical conversation. John Wesley talked about reading the Bible according to the rule of faith. I may not understand this correctly, but the best I can tell, it means that we interpret the Bible through the lens of the gospel. The heart of the gospel for Wesleyan Christianity is the gift of God’s grace that intervenes in our lives preveniently to draw us into relationship with God, rescues us through Jesus’ justifying sacrifice from the spiritual prison of self-justification, and sanctifies us as we surrender to the will of God.

Reading the Bible through the lens of the gospel is different than reading it through the lens of moral legalism. Too often, the pastorally contextual exhortations of the apostle Paul are made into a new legalism instead of recognizing that the purpose of Paul’s rhetoric in the various different contexts of his epistles is to help his readers encounter God’s grace and through that to discover the life in the spirit that sets us free.

Paul says, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful for me, but I will be mastered by nothing” (1 Corinthians 6:12). It’s such a radical statement that the translators of the NIV couldn’t help but theologically edit it. To Paul, there is no law in the Bible that is law for its own sake. In his understanding, God doesn’t traffic in the “because I said so” decrees that religious authorities have always used to claim the higher moral ground and control other people. If we read scripture the way Paul teaches us to interpret it, then we will not see rules for the sake of rules, but a mystical treasure map through which the Spirit draws us into greater liberation (which sometimes involves different people being inspired by the same verse in completely different ways).

When we make a first century Jewish understanding of gender into a gospel essential by turning Paul’s words into moral legalism, we are doing exactly what Paul chides the Galatians for doing. We are creating a gospel of justification through ideological circumcision rather than justification by faith. Paul’s primary rhetorical battle in his epistles is against the “super apostles” who try to preach a harder gospel, the heresy that the church came to know as Pelagianism, or works-righteousness, the most prevalent modern version of which is doctrinal Pelagianism. We not only need to read the Bible as the chief tool of our spiritual discernment; we need to read the Bible the way that Jesus and his apostles like Paul, Peter, John, and James show us how to read the Bible.

3. Let’s talk globally.

An authentically global church is not a homogeneous church. Currently, the United Methodist Church pretends to be a global church whose quadrennial gatherings are completely dominated by the debate within the US church and the attempts by US delegates to shoehorn global delegates into supporting their side. Every other region in the world is organized into central conferences who have the autonomy to modify the Book of Discipline as appropriate to their missional context. Only the US is not allowed to be missionally contextual, which means that the United Methodist Church remains US-centric. A truly egalitarian global church would afford the US the same central conference status as other regions. The idea of missional contextuality is not a liberal innovation; it’s completely biblical. Look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.

Paul is willing to adapt in ways that others judge as theological compromise for the sake of evangelism. For Paul, everything is about evangelism. The question we have to ask ourselves as United Methodists is whether we are more concerned with winning souls for Jesus or with winning arguments. My biggest concern with next February’s General Conference is that whatever decision is made will be done in the spirit of winning arguments.

For the past forty years, the American church has been hijacked by a demonic spirit that has mired us in spiritually devastating culture wars that have alienated millions of people from considering the gospel. The rapid secularization of American culture over the past four decades cannot be understood apart from the alienation of toxic Christian fundamentalism.

Europe was secularized by World War II; America has been secularized by Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and Paige Patterson. The culture wars have just about lost an entire generation for the gospel. The only spiritual category growing more rapidly than “Nones” are ex-evangelicals like me. The membership of the Southern Baptist Church in which I grew up has been plummeting for the last several years much more rapidly than the United Methodist Church. Why would we pursue spiritual vitality by emulating culture warriors whose ship is rapidly sinking?

We have a very specific missional context in the US that is completely different than the missional context of United Methodists in the Congo. In our context, the church has a lot of repentance and trust-building to do. People who actually care about sharing the gospel are not going to be defensive or cavalier about the unique challenges the American church faces.

4. Let’s talk systemically.

Carolyn suggests that we talk systemically in terms of whether we’re going to be a bounded set or centered set or some other kind of set. She creatively turns the concept on its head by claiming the centered set as her position (which is what progressives usually do). What she says is that a centered set should be focused on what we put at the center and that we can’t control what gets put in the center because that’s God’s job. I agree.

And now I need to share a story of something remarkable that happened this past weekend. When I marched in the Pride parade last Saturday, I ran into a church I hadn’t encountered before called New Covenant Church. They interacted with the crowd in a way that came across as very evangelical, but their punkish haircuts and  glittery attire seemed completely at home in the Pride community. It was kind of like a burning bush that attracted my attention.

So I went to worship with them Sunday morning. And I discovered them to be a mostly queer, completely Pentecostal church community. They were waving flags as Pentecostal worshipers do. One woman was waving a rainbow-tinted flag that had the word “glory” on it. And God used that moment to reveal something incredible to me.

He told me that over the last four years, I have fostered a welcoming church community but not a liberating church because I have not allowed his glory to be at the center of it, and people need to taste God’s glory to be liberated spiritually. Our worship gathering hasn’t really made space for authentic worship partly because of misgivings I didn’t recognize in myself until a queer woman started waving a rainbow flag in front of me with the word “glory” on it.

After the worship service, a prophet told me that I needed to forge a different path: one defined by obedience to God rather than a reaction to my past. It was completely bizarre to have a queer Pentecostal prophet tell me I need to stop being a reactive ex-evangelical. Which was entirely a manifestation of God’s glory.

God’s glory is what needs to be at the center of our church. I’m not sure exactly what I mean when I say that. Glory describes the signs and wonders that astound and overwhelm a community where people are surrendered enough to God to see them. I experience God’s glory whenever God does something that knocks me flat and demolishes the box I had put him in. God’s glory happens when he does things and I scream inside, “You can’t do that!”

My two encounters with the glory this past weekend were the queer Pentecostal worship service I attended yesterday and a dinner I had with a group of conservative United Methodists Friday night in which we had a beautiful discussion and I saw a man weep as he talked about feeling the presence of God in church, which completely melted any animosity I could have possibly felt towards him. God is evangelizing me through conservative United Methodists and queer Pentecostals at the same time.

My favorite verses in the Bible right now are 1 Corinthians 3:17-18: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

God’s glory is unveiled in the midst of our unveiling, when our defenses are taken down and we are able to share in the joy of God’s presence. The more that we are liberated from our idols and our veils, the more deeply we can immerse ourselves in the glory which is itself the source of our transformation. What we should be focused on as a church is making space for God’s glory and allowing it to transform and inspire people instead of putting stumbling blocks in their path that cause them to recoil from beautiful words like “holiness” and “orthodoxy.”

5. Let’s talk eschatologically.

I don’t have a lot to say about this one because I basically agree entirely with what Carolyn wrote in her post. Jesus will have the final victory whatever happens to the institution called United Methodism that is only fifty years old in its current form. We should not be sentimental about our ecclesial institution. We should think pragmatically about what will best serve God’s mission and cause the least stumbling blocks to those we are trying to reach with the gospel.

I don’t have a problem if the Wesleyan Covenant Association feels called to start a new denomination. What I do have a problem with is using the threat of schism to control the vote at next year’s General Conference. If the traditionalist, noose-tightening plan is rammed through because of the threat of schism, then we will continue to languish in our never-ending argument, the resistance of dissident annual conferences will become more absolute, the bishops will keep on trying haplessly to find a way to be pastors instead of executioners, our churches will keep on hemorrhaging members, and millions of Americans will continue to be alienated from the gospel by toxic culture war.

But honestly it may be God’s will for our church to continue to languish until we are brought to our knees in repentance. 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are.” Perhaps our church has to be reduced to nothing so that those who are low and despised can be exalted by God.

6. Let’s talk health, not just survival.

I absolutely agree with this statement on its face. I just don’t agree with Carolyn’s dismissive assessment of the centrists with whom I probably disagree as much as Carolyn does. I don’t think that “unity” is merely a sentimental or institutional concern. I honestly believe that the greatest evidence that a church has been shaped by orthodoxy is when it enables theologically diverse people to stay in communion together because they’ve been taught to trust the living person of Jesus more than the correctness of their beliefs about Jesus. Interpretive charity and humility are at least as important to our orthodoxy as the content of our doctrine.

When I was growing up Southern Baptist, our sense of religious identity was contingent upon judging other Christians as less than. I remember being told that Methodists didn’t read the Bible at all. I don’t think we have found orthodoxy if we need to be the only real Christians in the room, regardless of what we technically believe. Paradoxically, I would contend that we are closer to orthodoxy the more that we are able to appreciate the validity in the perspectives of our theological opponents, because orthodoxy has to do with integrity and it often involves the acceptance of complex paradoxes rejected by those who want a more easily police-able form of doctrine.

Ultimately, the question is whether it’s healthier for us to stay in relationship with people who are theologically different for the sake of being sharpened or to build our communion around more like-minded people for the sake of greater synergy and clarity of vision. I’m honestly not sure which is better. But I know that whatever happens structurally with the United Methodist Church, I would be lost if I cut off all my ties to conservatives.

I need people who challenge me and push back. I need to know people with very different spiritual priorities whose faith has a beauty I cannot caricature. My spiritual vitality requires me to ponder the wisdom of conservatives like Carolyn Moore, which I will continue to do whether she and the WCA start a brand-new denomination or we both remain United Methodist.

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