Good News magazine recently published an open letter to the United Methodist Council of Bishops complaining that Bishop Karen Oliveto’s election “seriously undermines the ministries of thousands of clergy colleagues and the work of thousands of local churches” because “pastors and lay leaders have spent precious time and talent trying to carefully explain to new and old members why our church’s leaders have failed to uphold the Discipline” and it’s caused “the departure of faithful members and clergy colleagues dismayed by a church that says one thing about the importance of our biblically grounded sexual ethics, but then allows others to routinely flout them.”
Good News says that “our church is in crisis,” and I agree. But this open letter seems to lack the introspection to recognize how its illustration of the “harm” of Oliveto’s election exudes the discipleship crisis created by our society’s culture wars. Let’s bracket the question of whether Bishop Oliveto’s election is legitimate or not. Let’s even suppose for the sake of this conversation that it’s wrong. Supposing that’s the case, if Christians are really leaving their faith communities and wasting “precious time and talent” to gossip about someone else’s sexuality, that’s an acute failure of their discipleship culture. Have we really failed so utterly to build meaningful community in our local churches that our congregation members put their ideological litmus tests above decades-long relationships? Are we really so consumeristic and utterly non-missional about our Christianity that we leave faith communities to which God has called us when we’re ideologically offended?
For churches with true disciples, what takes place in the Western Jurisdiction should not make any difference in a local ministry outside of the Western Jurisdiction (a point which is entirely independent of asking how United Methodist bishops should respond to the Western Jurisdiction). The degree to which Oliveto’s election is “harmful” to local church discipleship is the degree to which that discipleship was built on a toxic foundation in the first place. It reminds me of my seven year old son whose world is thrown into moral crisis if I don’t adequately punish his ten year older brother when he tattles on him. Often I deliberately refrain from punishing my ten year old son in order to help my seven year old with his sanctification.
What the Good News open letter illustrates is the consequence of living with a concept of “holiness” that’s built on ideology rather than lived personal discipleship. The entire Book of Discipline has been reduced to several sentences just like the entire Bible has been reduced to a few verses, because these paragraphs and verses are the ideological proving ground where Christians can demonstrate their “orthodoxy” amidst an environment of “worldly compromise.” The irony is that you can’t get any more worldly today than defining yourself according to your ideological tribe rather than the deep, rich relationships you’ve formed in your local community. When our local communities are so easily ruptured by global ideological conflicts, we’ve got way bigger problems than gay bishops.
Long before I found out my best friend was gay and long before I got saved from toxic Christian theology by a queer United Methodist church, I was suspicious of the anti-gay hysteria in the Southern Baptist world, which was at culture war peak in the early nineties. My first exposure to the issue was the way that homosexuality was used in our denominational political battles to discredit moderate conservatives. As a young teen, I read the Southern Baptist newsletters in which moderate leaders were maligned for having conversations with people who were having conversations with feminists and homosexuals. Once my eyes were opened to the way that homosexuality almost always functioned as a proxy battlefield for showcasing your superior “orthodoxy,” I couldn’t unsee it.
The substitution of ideology for discipleship over the last three decades of culture war is the most toxic thing that’s happened in modern American Christianity. How did it ever become Christian for your “holiness” to be measured by how confidently and full-throatedly you condemn the gays? I honestly believe this is one of the most spectacular tricks Satan has ever pulled for destroying the discipleship of millions of Christians and the evangelism of millions of people who might have considered Christianity. Many wonderful people with good hearts have been sucked into this trap, and it completely breaks my heart that our denomination is going to split in two as a result of it.
I’m not saying that you’re toxic unless you agree with my understanding of sexuality. But I am saying that if you’re going to claim that your Christian discipleship has been “harmed” by the election of a gay bishop, then you need to take a hard look at your own relationship with Christ. Because ideology is not discipleship.