An open letter to Timothy Tennent

An open letter to Timothy Tennent May 24, 2016

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Dear Dr. Tennent,

Thank you for your open letter and your follow-up post. Three years ago, I sat down to write a book, thinking it was my job to save Christianity from conservative evangelicals like you. My most popular blog post at the time talked about how Ted Cruz was the perfect embodiment of the misanthropic nihilism of evangelical theology. I was a rising star in the rapidly growing ex-evangelical blogosphere. Armed with my critical race theory and postmodern deconstruction, I was determined to prove how all of your theology had its origins in capitalism and white supremacy.

Two things happened over the past three years: 1) I got to know conservative United Methodists whose humility and compassion demolished my caricatures of them. 2) God confronted me with what a self-righteous, toxic person I had become. Nothing brings your demons to the surface more than writing a book and realizing that many of your critiques are actually projections of your deepest spiritual struggles. I learned that Jesus needed to save the world from me just as badly as anybody else. It was like when the angel of the Lord made Balaam’s donkey turn around. I hope the book I ended up with was more circumspect and spiritually edifying than the self-righteous manifesto I started out with.

Many evangelicals in my generation are very conflicted about our beliefs. The culture wars have been tremendously alienating to us, but we don’t want to lose the zeal for Jesus that was the best part of our upbringing. Many of us came to United Methodism seeking refuge from what we understood to be a toxic, misanthropic gospel. So when you mourn the loss of a “Wesleyan distinctive” within United Methodism, I mourn the same thing from an entirely different vantage point. I thought I was getting involved with something that wasn’t Southern Baptist.

When I was growing up Southern Baptist, we used to think that Methodists didn’t read the Bible at all. As a child, I was scandalized by the way that people recited their prayers out of the bulletin at my grandma’s Methodist church in Jackson, Mississippi, because that was ritual, and ritual was insincere. Every Baptist kid knows you’re supposed to pray extemporaneously from the heart, not read words off a sheet of paper. Methodists had religion, but we Baptists had a relationship with Jesus.

Southern Baptists say things like “God’s word hasn’t changed” all the time. Back in the eighties when I was growing up, the question wasn’t whether LGBT people could be ordained for ministry, but whether women ought to work outside of the home. While our shifting economic reality put an end to that debate, most Southern Baptists to this day would say that female ordination is incompatible with Christian teaching. In fact, they point to United Methodism as an example of how female ordination is a slippery slope toward LGBT inclusion and God knows what else.

When I arrived at the University of Virginia in fall 1996, I was an on-fire evangelical gospel warrior. I was determined to take our campus for Christ. I typed up my own tracts and handed them out on the sidewalk. I organized an evangelism rally called the Lovefest on Valentines Day. But when I was nominated for leadership in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a rival told me I couldn’t sign the covenant saying I accepted Biblical inerrancy because he knew I believed in evolution and he would call me out.

So I drifted for several years. After graduating college, I held a series of high-stress social justice jobs during which I fell into depression and drug abuse. I was in a pretty dark and desperate place when I walked into the door of Central Avenue United Methodist Church in Toledo, Ohio. And I discovered to my shock that I was one of three or four straight people in the room. Words can’t do justice to how different that church felt than any other church I’ve ever attended. It was the gentlest, meekest community I’ve ever been a part of. I wasn’t walking on eggshells. I didn’t have to be “on” with my rapid-fire Christianese.

I joined a Bible study with a group of sixty-year old lesbians. What threw me for a loop was the way that they talked and acted completely evangelical except for the fact they were gay. They were zealous about their sanctification. We read Henri Nouwen’s book Life of the Beloved together, and it completely changed my life. I realized that I was engaging in self-destructive behavior because I hadn’t truly accepted God’s love in my heart, despite the fact that I’d said multiple sinner’s prayers growing up. The gospel Henri Nouwen presented was so much more beautiful and compelling than the four spiritual laws I grew up with. So I thought that’s what United Methodism was about.

Perhaps you’ll contend that Nouwenian United Methodism is a completely different entity than Wesleyan United Methodism. What I would say is that both Henri Nouwen and John Wesley understood Christianity to be much more about the transformation of the heart than the recitation of flawless doctrine. I wrote a blog post recently where I tried to summarize the essentials of the Wesleyan gospel as I came to understand them in seminary. It’s three simple sentences. God’s grace is our foundation. Perfection in love is our goal. The means of grace are our method. For too many Southern Baptists, salvation is a hand-stamp that gets you into heaven. The Wesleyan gospel says that salvation is the entire process of becoming like Jesus as we are detoxified from sin.

A movement whose goal is perfection in God’s love is going to produce a wider range of doctrinal orthodoxy than a movement whose goal is speaking correctly about God. As an evangelical, I am zealous about the truth. I am wired to find the one right gospel and tear down every other gospel that’s being preached. Because of where I come from and what I’ve come to define myself against, my gospel is different than yours and my instinct is to tear your gospel down. In my zeal, I often lump you into the same category with five-point Calvinists and end-times Pentecostals, which isn’t fair. If you were Southern Baptist, you would probably be a moderate just like my family was.

There are times when I wish I could evangelize without the baggage of sharing a denomination with conservatives like you. The mission field God has given me are the ex-evangelical “Dones.” I’ve met so many students through my campus ministry who grew up evangelical and have left the church altogether. A lot of what I write is shaped by my evangelistic intuitions about how to coax them into giving Jesus another chance. Too often, my instinct is to throw the conservatives under the bus. I need to figure out a better way to articulate the good news I believe God has given me.

At General Conference, I was thinking it might be time to plant a new progressive Wesleyan denomination. During a podcast interview with bishop candidate Tom Berlin, I asked why progressive campus ministers and church-planters should stick with United Methodism rather than find some other movement to join. The wisdom and empathy with which Tom responded made me realize that I was in the presence of someone immensely wiser and closer to Christ than I’ve ever been. I can’t explain how the Holy Spirit filled that conversation except to say that when it was over, I thought I really want to stay United Methodist if people like Tom Berlin are in charge.

One of the things Tom Berlin said is that moderates aren’t lukewarm about our contentious issues; they’re just hot about Jesus’ prayer for church unity in John 17. What if you and I both allowed the moderates to lead us? And what if instead of defining ourselves against each other, we asked God to show us what the other one had to teach? What if each of us sought to encourage one another with the beauty God has shown us rather than discredit and repudiate each other? What if we focused our energy on sharing our positive vision for God’s kingdom instead of telling the people we disagree with why they “really” think the way they do?

I really appreciated the way that you showed your heart in your open letter and even more so in your follow-up. The way you described your worship experience at the New Room conference was very similar to the way my friend Rachel Held Evans described her worship experience at the Gay Christian Network conference. Honestly, I think we’re both hungry for the same kind of Spirit-driven, authentic gospel-preaching church. We just disagree on some details. Whereas you see LGBT inclusion as worldly compromise and selling out the gospel for identity politics, I see LGBT exclusion as an unnecessary stumbling block that prevents a growing majority of our country from giving Jesus a fair hearing. I’m opposed to worldly compromise; I just think our church was way more compromised in the Fifties when our theology and morality became indistinguishable from white middle-class social norms. I suspect you are trying as hard not to be a bigot as I’m trying not to be a heretic. I think we’re both primarily concerned about evangelism, though we’re coming from very different angles.

So the question is whether you see value in sharing ministry resources with people whom God has shaped very differently to reach a very different mission field than yours. Is it only okay for me to disagree with you as long as you get to control what I do? Or is there a way for us both to minister in the same denomination following the Spirit’s lead and our respective interpretations of scripture regarding our relationship with LGBT people?

I’m not sure what the right path forward is. My goal is to evangelize as many ex-evangelicals as possible and help them find their way back to Jesus, whether I do that as a United Methodist or otherwise. That is the work to which God has called me. I don’t have all the answers yet, but I’m genuinely seeking God’s will in prayer as I’m sure you are. If we do decide to part ways, I hope it’s because of prayerful discernment and not because of scorn. I’m sorry that I have demonized you and other conservative United Methodists unfairly. I will try to listen more carefully for the way that God is speaking through you in the future.

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