A response to Billy Abraham regarding United Methodism’s orthodox rebirth

A response to Billy Abraham regarding United Methodism’s orthodox rebirth June 2, 2016


Dear Dr. Abraham,

This week, I read your essay “The Birth Pangs of United Methodism as a Unique, Global, Orthodox Denomination.” Like you, I long for a “robust orthodox and missionary version of United Methodism” rather than Garrison Keiller’s stereotype of nice, lukewarm people who do potlucks. I believe that a vital church looks like Acts 9:31: “living in the fear of the Lord and the confidence of the Holy Spirit.” I spend most of my waking hours each day thinking about how to share the gospel in a culture that has never been more distrustful of Christianity. The way I’m different than you is that I am a progressive evangelical, which means among other things that I live in the tension of affirming many tenets of evangelical Christian faith while also believing there is a holy way for LGBT Christians to live in lifelong companionship. So when you talk about a rebirth of United Methodism, I can’t help but hope that it doesn’t require getting rid of me.

I did take exception to some of the things you had to say about progressive United Methodists, such as the following:

They possess endless moral zeal married to a Pharisaical conception of their own righteousness.  They represent the typical second-generation reformers who take a hard-won virtue – the extension of genuine civil rights, for example – and turn it into a vice that they pursue regardless of the merits of the case and regardless of the consequences for the body they seek to serve and claim to love.  Their intellectual mediocrity shows up in their naïve conviction that gays and lesbians will rest content with gay marriage as the way ahead; even a superficial reading of the burgeoning field of queer theology and ethics would disabuse them of this illusion.

I certainly have a “Pharisaical” sense of self-righteousness at times and I have trafficked in ideas that were “intellectually mediocre.” But do you really want to paint all progressive United Methodists with this broad stroke? Is this how you would describe your former colleagues Elaine Heath and Joerg Rieger? What about Thomas Frank who wrote my textbook on United Methodist polity or my seminary professor Richard Heitzenrater who cracked John Wesley’s journal code? What about Randy Maddox whose Responsible Grace is the most beautiful articulation of the Wesleyan conception of grace I’ve ever read? Do you think United Methodism would be better off without them? Other than Asbury, which seminaries would United Methodism keep if the progressives are thrown out in order to gain orthodox purity? Do you envision a purge like what happened in the Southern Baptist seminaries in the 1980’s?

I go back and forth on whether it’s beneficial to the kingdom of God for you and me to remain in the same denomination. But I do know that conservatives are some of my most valuable conversation partners. For better or worse, the way I became progressive is through a long journey of trying (and failing) to be the best Christian evangelist I could. When I started college, I would print out salvation tracts in the computer lab at the University of Virginia and hand them out to people on the sidewalk. I’ve come a long way since then. I am constantly trying to figure out how to share the good news in the most beautiful way possible. And I know that I go too far sometimes, so I need to be in relationship with people who are passionately focused on staying faithful to our tradition.

If my gospel proclamation can speak to postmodern sensibilities in a way that falls within bounds for my conservative friends, I consider that a huge victory. It’s like I’m diving off a boat deep into the water to rescue people who are drowning, and the way I avoid drowning myself is because my conservative friends yank on a rope that’s tied around my ankle whenever I go too deep. I wonder if conservatives and progressives in United Methodism could have a collaborative, symbiotic relationship like this in which innovative cultural engagement and the preservation of sacred tradition are held in healthy tension. What if that’s actually what a United Methodist rebirth looks like rather than a schism into two homogeneous sects? In seminary, we were taught that United Methodism is the denomination of the both/and.

I know you recognize the history of our faith is more complicated than the four schisms you describe in your essay. I also imagine you recognize that every conflict in our church history has involved a legitimately difficult and nuanced discernment process rather than cartoonishly black and white conflicts of obvious heroes and villains. For example, even if we ultimately side with Augustine over Pelagius, Pelagius had a lot of good points which the church has quietly conceded over the centuries as some of Augustine’s claims became too embarrassing to teach anymore.

Right now, we are going through a season of trying to understand what gender should mean to Christians after a century of feminism has thrown millennia of stable patriarchy into chaos. We are living through a Galatians 3:28 controversy. What does it mean that there is no longer “male and female for all are one in Christ Jesus” if the church hasn’t actually lived this way for most of its history? Does it mean that women no longer need to submit to their husbands as heads of the household? Does it mean that women can serve in ordained ministry unlike most evangelical Christians believe? Does it mean the Christian gospel does not depend upon making sure that girls play with dolls and boys play with trucks and that boys only marry girls and vice-versa? Does it mean that people who are born with a conflict between their hormones and physical anatomy should be able to use whichever bathrooms fit their understood gender identity?

How do you explain which questions get a yes and which get a no in a way that embodies the heart of the gospel rather than dismissively marshaling a set of clobber verses or simply saying emphatically that the matter is closed? It is historically dishonest to act as if the meaning of gender has been debated the way it is today for longer than the past century which has upended the stable patriarchy that defined most of our church history. When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist church only a few decades ago, the debate was whether women should work outside of the home. We live in a rapidly changing world. I hope that the Spirit will clarify God’s will for those of us who seek it with humility and integrity, and I wish we could have a genuine healthy discernment process involving both conservatives and progressives.

One part of our church history that you didn’t mention is the devastating sin of European colonialism, which is another source of major theological upheaval in our time. For at least four centuries, Christian theology utterly failed to stop Europeans from justifying the conquest, slavery, and genocide of the ancestors of the Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans who are now paraded as the salvation of United Methodist orthodoxy. I wrote a seminary term paper on Spanish theologian Juan Gines de Sepulveda who rationalized the New World conquest with the Great Commission. What failed our ancestors so profoundly? And how can we adopt their theology uncritically as though it didn’t fail them? To what degree did the glory of God leave the church during those dark centuries like in the book of Ezekiel? Have we inherited an apostate theology shaped by the self-justification needs of colonialism?

These are the questions that haunt progressive evangelicals like me. And so we read liberation theology, postmodern deconstruction, post-colonial theory, critical race theory, queer theory, etc. Not because we want to sell out the gospel. But because we want to take Christianity’s critics seriously in an effort to engage in the serious analysis and repentance required by European Christendom’s massive sin against humanity. All of this occurs against the backdrop of an incredibly toxic political culture in which too many Christians have been directly complicit. When the apostle Paul wrote about living according to the spirit rather than the flesh, he couldn’t have envisioned a political discourse in which “family values” and “social justice” would be pitted against each other, where traditional sexuality is used as a wedge issue for corralling votes as well as the justification for social inequity and the coded racial superiority of those who aren’t “welfare mamas.”

As a campus minister at an overwhelmingly secular liberal university, I want to tell my students about the beauty of life in the spirit without all the baggage of stupid culture war. As long as “holiness” is a code word for people who don’t want to bake gay wedding cakes, they won’t hear me when I say that it’s actually about being tuned into the divine wavelength of God’s incredible song. As long as sexuality is a civil rights issue, they won’t hear me when I say that chastity allows them to live with the rich physical vitality all the yuppies are seeking in their yoga classes.

I want them to know that their bodies don’t have to be commodities sold on the meat market of social media, because they are sacramental temples where the Holy Spirit lives. I want them to understand what Jesus is talking about when he says that tasting the kingdom of God is like finding a pearl of great price that you would sell everything else you own just to have. I want them to discover how much more alive we can be when we engage in the ascetic spiritual practices of the ancient church. I want them to know the incredible belonging we experience in the divine indwelling described by Paul when he says, “I have been crucified with Christ so it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me.”

Based on everything I’ve said here, do you really think these three sentences describe what I’m up to?

Progressives are simply seeking to minister to a culture that wants enough accommodation to the gospel and to spirituality that will not interfere too radically with its own favored interests and ideologies.  Its leaders are at times brilliant in mastering the marketing techniques to keep themselves in business. Its theologians can sometimes appear to be adept chaplains to its intellectual elites, even though they readily make this accusation against their opponents.

Do you really think all my evangelistic thinking is reducible to “marketing techniques to keep myself in business”? If you’re right and I’m wrong about sexuality or anything else, are you confident that you haven’t failed to represent God’s truth well with these off-putting assumptions you’ve made about me? I know that too much of what I write serves the purpose of high-fiving people who already agree with me at the expense of our common enemies. So God convicts me when I see you apparently doing the same thing at my expense. Thankfully, I have conservative friends who support the spirit of what I’m trying to do and disarm me enough with their humble sincerity that our dialogue helps keep me in check.

Right now, I see a tremendous evangelistic crisis in the way the left half of our country has been utterly alienated by sleazy culture war from ever considering the gospel. They’re alienated not because they’re hedonists who love to sin and hate God’s truth, but because their consciences are legitimately reviled by Christian hypocrisy and self-righteousness. My heart is ripped apart by the stories of the ex-evangelical students I’ve been meeting on campus. Since they are my mission field, I can’t just dismiss their grievances as being their “favored interests and ideologies.” I don’t think the gospel should be revised to accommodate any culture, whether it’s patriotic, capitalist culture or progressive, identity politics culture. I am however committed to casting out every unnecessary stumbling block that prevents the real gospel from being heard. Do you remember where Jesus tells people to throw themselves if they put stumbling blocks in the way of his little ones?

I happen to think that LGBT exclusion is a stumbling block; you think LGBT inclusion is a heresy. We probably agree on a lot of other things. So can we share a denomination? I’d like to keep trying.

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