A letter that captures the heart of the Methodist conflict

A letter that captures the heart of the Methodist conflict January 3, 2014

The Institute of Religion and Democracy just published a letter from a retired professor Walter Benjamin to a sitting bishop whose identity wasn’t named. Though portions of this letter got me churned up, I thought it would be a helpful test of my New Year’s resolutions to see if I could engage it in a loving and truthful way. Dr. Benjamin’s letter reflects the fact that he grew up in a very different time than I did. I disagree with many things about his perspective, but I’m going to try to do so in a way that is respectful and charitable.

I. “We’re losing the culture” (with teenage pregnancy as an example)

It is a tragedy of monumental proportions that the influence of the church that used to serve as the spiritual and moral foundation of American society is now weak and waning. Social pathologies, literally unknown during my youth, are now legion. Let me cite but one: “Illegitimacy” is now a verboten word but 41% of American babies are now born out-of-wedlock and that percentage is going up. Increasingly, the family no longer serves as the central organizing feature of American society! Sixty years ago, Daniel Moynihan, Assistant Labor Secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, indicated that the black family was “chaotic” because of illegitimacy (now at 72%). Alas, white families are following black pathology and our governmental policies encourage the practice. Many black female teenagers are making what for them is a rational decision; that is, Uncle Sam is a far better provider than any black men they know.

Obviously this is a very hurtful racial generalization for Dr. Benjamin to make that I am not condoning by choosing to engage it. The first thing I would say is that the thinking behind the original welfare system that was dismantled in the 90’s was that children needed to grow up in a home with stay-at-home moms. Since middle-upper class families could afford for mothers to stay home and focus on raising their kids, welfare was supposed to make it so that poor mothers could do the same, whether the problem was that they didn’t have husbands or their husbands couldn’t bring home enough in a single income to support their families without the wife working. Believe it or not, this was the conservative “family values” solution for poverty in the early 20th century. As we now know, it turned out that poor kids need more than just a stay-at-home mom to break the cycle of poverty.

I’m not sure that Uncle Sam is much of a provider today. I’ve personally seen the hoops that poor people have to jump through to get a section 8 housing voucher, food stamps or disability pay through Social Security. I agree that teenage pregnancy is a devastating crisis in our culture, even if it’s decreased somewhat in the last decade. I used to teach high school, and many of my former students of all races have given themselves a tremendously uphill battle to fight in life by becoming parents at a very early age. But teenagers are not making “rational decisions” to exploit taxpayer dollars when they have premarital sex any more than they are making rational decisions when they drink and drive or start a brawl in the lunchroom. The ubiquitous use of sex in advertising and the glorification of sex, drugs, and violence in the entertainment industry are the cultural cancers at play (not the same-sex marriage movement). And it is valid to ask where is the church? But not in the sense of proclaiming “values” on a macroscopic level to trickle down through society. Why aren’t the Christians who rail against the supposed “culture of dependency” rolling their sleeves up and volunteering their time to be mentors and encouragers to youth who have the odds stacked against them?

II. “We have too many seminaries and some of them are marginal at best.”

Frankly, I was appalled at the mediocre candidates we interviewed for Methodist ministry! Sixty plus years ago those heading into the ministry compared favorably with those entering medicine and law. This is no longer the case. I would recommend that seminarians attend Duke, Emory, or Perkins. Why? They are respected graduate theological schools linked to prestigious universities and therefore have the resources that the others do not have. Their faculty is better paid and their scholarship is far superior to those at our free-standing seminaries.

Having attended Duke, I breathed a sigh of relief that I went to one of the acceptable seminaries. But I will say that while Duke gave me an excellent foundation for academic work, I don’t think I have any advantage over anyone else when it comes to the real trench work of pastoral ministry. I have been in a provisional elder covenant group in which two of us went to Duke and three of us to Wesley seminary in DC; I don’t see any difference in the theological aptitude of my Wesley graduate colleagues in this group or anywhere else in the Virginia conference which is populated largely by Wesley graduates. Furthermore, it’s often the case that “better paid” faculty with “superior scholarship” who are also supervising a full slate of doctoral students do not have time to be mentors to future pastors.

III. Confirmation is too easy

I was in 9th grade when I was confirmed in the Pipestone Methodist Church. Confirmation class was from September to Palm Sunday. We stood in front of the congregation and answered questions on the Bible (we were told the questions and answers earlier by the pastor). At the time I was pleased that my Methodist church membership came “on the cheap!” My best friend, a Missouri Synod Lutheran, had to endure a three-year ordeal of confirmation. Later I realized Methodists did not take church membership as seriously as the more doctrinally focused churches do. For decades, we have been paying the price for “easy come, easy go” attendance musical chairs!

Regarding this question, I tend to agree. But I see the problem coming form a different place than Dr. Benjamin. I grew up Southern Baptist. I have never taken confirmation classes. When I decided I wanted to be baptized at age 7, I met with the pastor once and quoted enough scripture at him for him to agree that I was ready. At least in the South, Methodist congregations tend to be Baptist-lite, so I wonder if that’s where some of the pressure to go light on confirmation at least nowadays is coming from. Now I wouldn’t say that my spiritual formation necessarily suffered because I didn’t have confirmation growing up; it’s just that it didn’t happen before I joined the church.

I do think that Methodists need to take a hard look at our confirmation process. The problem is not that it’s not tough enough. That Credo curriculum is painfully comprehensive. I’m just not sure that 14 year olds need to learn about liturgical colors (maybe that’s the Baptist in me). Our problem is that families come out of the woodwork to get their kids confirmed and then disappear after the year is over. Confirmation Sunday is the “date last attended” in the church database of a majority of our confirmands over the last decade. They are not connected enough to our community for it to be relevant to their lives beyond being a means for collecting resume bullet points. More than knowing about liturgical colors or even the technical terms for the three types of grace, kids joining the church need to be discipled by spiritually mature adults. That’s why we’ve revamped our confirmation program to focus on mentorship rather than classwork.

IV. Open minds, open hearts, open doors (not a fan!)

Put me down as a “geezer crank” but I have a special dislike for “OPEN MINDS, OPEN HEARTS, OPEN DOORS” as our motto for church growth. Isn’t the only reason for having an open mind to close it on some good idea when it comes along? Conservative evangelical churches are growing today because they are proclaiming that, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Grace is costly!”

My uncle got me Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship when I was in high school and it was a very spiritually formative book for me. I do agree and have often said that Methodists need to be about something rather than just generally “open-minded.” But I would also that “costly grace” isn’t always costly. Hearing a sermon that talks tough about sin in the safe anonymity of a very large congregation can give you a deceptively cathartic “fix” without much cost to it. We’ve had several members leave our church for one of the many local megachurches where they “really preach the gospel.” One of them who had been a very active (and burned out) volunteer in ministry with us shared with me that it was nice now to be in a church where the staff “took care of everything.” I suspect the consumerization of church is at least as big a factor as the theology in drawing people away from smaller congregations where they have to carry a lot more of the weight to larger ones where the staff “takes care of everything.”

V. The “feminization” of the church

The issue that is verboten (it is never raised) among Mainline Protestant observers is “What effect is the increasing numbers of women pastors in ministry and as bishops, having upon men considering the ministry and upon membership growth?”… I was at Garrett from 1950-53. There were 750 of us, all World War II veterans. We were thoroughly masculine (not a negative attribute then!), one half of us had experienced combat. We knew evil was deep and deadly and knew the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the answer to our personal and worldly wounds… Male bonding, whether in the Marines, Navy Seals, the Masons, and in the ministry, is important for selecting a career. Radical feminists are increasingly pushing our culture to eradicate gender differences (the feminists having won combat status for women, now want their acceptance into the Navy Seals!)… While I agree that women should be encouraged to enter the ministry, you know better than I do, that they often present problems in appointment because ours is an itinerant system. Those who are married are reluctant to serve rural charges if their husbands have city employment.

I’m not sure that Dr. Benjamin really does agree “that women should be encouraged to enter the ministry.” He insinuates here that being “thoroughly masculine” is necessary to understanding that “evil is deep and deadly and knowing the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the answer.” There are many conservative evangelical pastors who agree with Dr. Benjamin on this. Of course I disagree, having married a clergywoman who’s a better pastor than I am.

VI. Promoting “soft virtues” instead of “strong virtues”

Christianity is a symbol system and a pervasive feminism has changed the symbols so that there is a concentration of the “soft virtues (passivity, meekness, forgiveness, abasement, turn the other cheek, etc.) to the detriment of the “strong virtues” (courage, bravery, fortitude, etc.) so that a normative and positive masculinity is rarely experienced in church liturgy. Catholicism has a good balance here by incorporating the Virgin Mary’s chaste feminism with a male priesthood.

The interesting thing about this critique is that it’s exactly what the 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said about Christianity in general, that it was a religion for the weak. I’m not sure the Catholics would agree with calling the Virgin Mary a “feminist” (I think he meant “femininity”). The Catholic priests who I’ve had contact with are anything but macho reservoirs of oozing testosterone. If meekness, forgiveness, abasement, and so forth are “feminine,” then most of the male leaders in Catholicism are effeminate. Furthermore, the Christian feminists I’ve known are criticized not because they’re calling Christians to “soft virtues” like meekness, passivity, and turning the other cheek, but because they exhibit courage, bravery, and fortitude in ways that make men feel uncomfortable.

VII. Affirmative action for female clergy

Am I right to observe a significant disconnect between the election of male and female bishops? Male bishops are elected after having successfully served large churches with multiple ministries while our female bishops have been elected after having served as district superintendents. Is it possible that some female district superintendents receive their appointment due to affirmative action criteria? I know of no Protestant mega-church in America that has a female senior pastor. What does this data tell us?

I can’t really speak to the “fairness” of the election of male and female bishops, though I d hope that the people involved in that are at least striving to do what they do in a prayerful, Spirit-led way. What does it to tell us that no Protestant megachurch in America has a female senior pastor (which isn’t actually true but never mind)? The same thing that our country’s lack of ever having a female president tells us. That we still live in a day when women are not respected as leaders in society. Dr. Benjamin writes that “all sociological studies indicate that when an institution ‘gets the man/husband,’ the women and children follow.” That may be the case within the subset of the American population that attends church regularly, but if a majority of men will not go to churches pastored by females, is that an indication that the Holy Spirit has spoken?

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  • Gregory Nelson

    I am a 61 year-old white male with two teenage kids who joined the Methodist Church because Jesus Christ was revealed to me there through it’s women pastors. In the seven years I have been a Methodist I have never had a male senior pastor, and if I got one, I would probably look for a different church. I think this is because I was raised Catholic and molested by a priest. But what do I know?

    When my local Methodist congregation sent me before my local Board of Ministry to become a Licensed Local Pastor the only mandatory training I had to have was a course called Boundaries Training. That’s a euphemism for “How to keep sex from being discussed in the church.”

    My 16 year old son attended church until a few months ago. I got tired of having him fall asleep in the pew and we had a long talk. He said he didn’t get anything out of church. I want him to act more mature, and the decision to worship God weekly in a congregation is a mature decision. So I gave him the responsibility of making the church-going decision himself. Naturally, the first thing he did was stop going.

    Now the question is, can I model Christ for him to the point where he asks himself why I love going to church on Sunday?

    If I cannot, then why should he go? I will tell you that he is interested in what it means to be a Christian, and that we talk often about it. The other day, after reading a book I gave him he said, “Dad, I don’t think I have suffered enough to understand Christ fully yet.” I thought that was a wonderfully good observation and I felt that my faith in Christ’s was renewed. We continue to think about Christ together.

    Do we want people to go to church, or do we want people to meet Jesus Christ?

    It really doesn’t matter how many people become Methodists unless being a Methodist reveals Christ.

    But don’t tell me Christ was the brave, macho soldier who led men into battle. He leads men into love. That’s why I love Him.

    We don’t need Christ when we go to war. We do that well enough without any of His help. We need Christ to stop going to war.

    I think there are two different Christs (at least) in Christianity, and in the Methodist Church. There is the Christ leading the White Man’s army, singing Onward Christian Soldiers, and striking down the evil ones, and he is full of testosterone. I don’t know how he remains celebate. it’s so un-macho.

    And then there is the Christ of slaves and lepers, the Christ of the crucified man, Saint Dismas.

    Would you let Dismas come into your church?

    You always remind me that Christ was the despised one. Remember the way the Romans honored us by describing our “church” as the church of “women and slaves.”

    I make a motion that all Methodist bishops should be women. That’s what Jesus would say.

    Alas, perhaps that is why the local BOM declined to make me a preacher. I’m too radical for our church at this time.

    I am convinced that the more you mirror Christ the less you will be noticed. Avoid mega-churches at all costs, I say. Unless you want to use them as a model for what NOT TO DO!

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      Wow preach it brother!

    • rob@thesesigninsdontworkforme

      Yes you can but like most young people (myself included at the time although in my case it was I swung MORE toward church it became a crutch) he will not recognize it or act on it until later in life, perhaps when he has his own children. That is normal “cats in the cradle and the silver spoon…” stuff.

  • Rob@noneofthosesigninsworks

    I know next to nothing about Methodists but I do about teenage pregnancy statistics and the history of childbirth in the human race. You are correct that statistically at least teenage pregnancy has gone down in the last decade. What I find more shocking is how the church in general is so ignorant to history. Prior to the 20th century, indeed much of the first quarter of it teen pregnancy was the NORM and certainly NOT any measure of a nations values at all. Heck its well believed that “virgin” Mary was a teen. They were however usually married – some more like a slavery type marriage but married none-the-less. This is really because biologically it was safer and healthier to have the children when YOUNG and the man of the house to be established and older. This may have been why prostitution was so accepted in much of society too, to get the guy by until he did marry. This isn’t about any so called morality this is cold hard humanity, nature vs. nurture survival of fittest stuff. What is different in mid 20th century on is the NEED for education. Progress in medicine and equal opportunity created a society that NEEDS the woman to be more educated and technically skilled now. To make matters worse the 70s brought about the credit card, inflation, decrease of the dollar and so on that double incomes now are essential. IOW the whole so called “problem” is bigger than just some morality blanket statement cobbled together by a string of unrelated Bible verses to make a teaching which clearly leaves out other verses to the contrary.

    • MorganGuyton

      There’s definitely more going on sociologically with teenage pregnancy than just a wane in “Christian values.” Thanks for writing.

  • John Meunier

    You stopped before engaging with his penultimate paragraph. I wonder what you thoughts are there:

    “As you know better than I, our pastors are poorly deployed. They are serving in dying rural communities with a paucity of population. What would we think of an army general who had the bulk of his soldiers facing near empty trenches when the enemy crushed his army with a “double envelopment” around his left and right flank which were lightly defended? Years ago a colleague suggested a novel approach to me: the conference should appoint pastors to enter population centers that are “church and gospel poor.” They would be domestic missionaries supported by conference monies for three years. After that, they would have to “fish and cut bait” and be on their own. A radical step? Yes, but perhaps analogous to Whitfield and Wesley’s preaching in the fields and coal mines in the 18th century. Methinks, Coke, and Asbury would agree.”

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      Good point John. I was nervous about how long it was getting. Regarding the penultimate paragraph as I wrote on the UMC clergy page, I think he’s very on-point in this paragraph and I would love to be one of those clergy given three years to figure out how to make a new church plant work in the inner city. I’m in the process of discerning this with the Virginia conference.

  • Zzyzx

    Wow. “Black pathology?” That would have been enough for me to just stop reading. Yet another case of someone wishing to turn back the clock to their rose-colored childhood (or rose-colored reading of history before their birth) and unwilling to accept that certain things have occurred and certain things need to occur. This mindset of “get back to this utopic point!” really baffles me. I mean, it’s ingrained in Protestant thought in many ways. More so in Protestant thought outside the line of Magisterial Reformation. This idea of “get back to this utopic point.” But history doesn’t run backwards. You can’t simply sweep away what has happened (at least not without some kind of dystopic global catastrophe) so we need to move forward. We can debate whether some changes are good or bad, and what our actions and reactions should be, but this kind of “everything used to be better” fails to even engage in that kind of debate. It’s the theological equivalent of sitting on your porch and complaining to anyone that will listen that the neighborhood has changed.

    • Zzyzx

      Also, another couple of things I forgot:

      1. Wesley Seminary has a historical connection to American University. It may not be as closely connected as, say, Duke is today. But there is still some connection. I enjoyed taking classes at American University during my time there. Although perhaps, given what Walter Benjamin has to say, I should be proud that Wesley wasn’t mentioned? We did something right!

      2. It’s deeply disturbing to me that any Methodist in this day and age could conceivably be trying to roll back female ordination. I wish I could say that I couldn’t believe it, but I have heard some rumblings from various sources. I always dismissed them as fringe. Here’s hoping they stay on the fringe…

      • MorganGuyton

        I don’t know. There’s definitely been a rightward drift in the denomination as a whole, perhaps due to what I would call “Baptist-envy” at least here in the South.

        • Zzyzx

          The drift does make it difficult for me to feel a place in the denomination as a whole sometimes…

          • MorganGuyton

            That’s why I feel like I’m supposed to be writing what I do.

    • MorganGuyton

      That’s a good point that what this letter is doing is different in nature with its nostalgia for the golden days of strong family values (and segregation) than engaging in debate over particular changes being good or bad.

  • tsgIII

    “Do you want people to go to church, or do we want people to meet Jesus Christ?”
    I read in another post on this blog about the “experience” part of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Although not a Methodist, I’m a big fan because meeting Jesus happened for me in a Methodist Wednesday night “bible study”(it was very much what old time Methodist class people called “experimental”).
    Today I don’t hear people talk about it, but I have this nagging doubt about the idea that anyone should hold a belief in “going to church”. If you are the church and you simultaneously think you go to it….then in holding to the original title of this post…you are in conflict. I don’t think Gregory Nelson is too radical for Methodism. In the Reformation the radicals wanted to separate from society in enclaves of professed, adult baptized believers. What’s salt of the earth about that? I think infant baptism is a much better analogy, in that even us 60 and over are infants in our faith. I think Greg’s son is more mature and Christ-like than many I’ve encountered who have sat in pews for years.

    • MorganGuyton

      We definitely shouldn’t believe in “going to church” as the end-all be-all.

  • The whole idea that Christianity isn’t masculine enough is something I’ve been pondering a bit lately. I often wonder if what our culture views as masculine is at odds with what Jesus calls us to be as his followers. Not that it’s outright wrong in every case to be masculine as our culture often defines it, but that Jesus isn’t as narrow about what being a man is about as it seems some people would like to make it. The same is very much true for femininity and what being a woman is about.

    Honestly it seems like he wants the church to be some sort of special ops unit. Give me the manly men (and maybe a few women if you have to), train them to be the best of the best, keep the bar high to kick out the stragglers, and point them to any cultural ill you think that needs attacked. Seems a rather poor model of the church in my mind, and not really reflective of what Christ did when he was on earth.

    • maguyton@gmail.com

      Nietzsche was right. Christianity is supposed to be for the rejects, not for the popular kids. But you wouldn’t know that from looking at the American church.

  • Eric Hausker

    Dr. Benjamin was my advisor for a year and a half in 1972 at Hamline University for a special group of scholarship recipients. I knew him as a kindly but very biased and arch-conservative person.
    Years later I read his book “War and Reflection” which I recommend for anyone who wants to hear
    this man thinking out loud. It appalled me to read of his admiration of war as the apotheosis of
    manhood and masculinity. Then again, he never saw war upclose, the war having ended before
    his training period did. The same dynamic applies here: Never having served as a pastor, he
    offers scathing criticism of current pastoral practices. This undercuts both his critique and the solutions he offers. All of my dealings with him reveal his shortsightedness, sanctimoniousness,
    and bristling pride

    • MorganGuyton

      What a shame when being a curmudgeon becomes the standard for holiness.

    • Eric Hausker

      In his book there was his astounding account of his visit to Normany in 1994, which
      was the 50th anniversary of D-Day. His continued disdain for all things French for having been defeated quickly by the Nazis in 1940 is breathtaking to read. Then, he poses for
      picture taken by his wife as he kneels reverently next to a gravestone in a cemetery
      for German soldiers. He describes the atmosphere in this seldom-visited graveyard
      as “Teutonic and stoic”, and he means it admiringly for the toughness of Hitler’s troops.
      “War and Reflection” is available from Amazon for $0.01