An open letter with 12 honest questions for the Wesleyan Covenant Association

An open letter with 12 honest questions for the Wesleyan Covenant Association September 12, 2016

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Dear Wesleyan Covenantal Association,

First of all, I’m not afraid of you. I don’t think you’re being malicious and deceitful to gather with a group of like-minded Methodists to be inspired and synergized. I know that you see an analogy between what you’re doing and the original Methodist movement which sought to revitalize the Church of England. I share your longing for a spiritually vital, theologically robust Wesleyan movement.

In many ways, the WCA is where it makes sense for me to be. I grew up in a moderate evangelical Southern Baptist home. Though I worry that you’re being pulled in a rightward direction, your theology mostly sounds moderate evangelical to me. You seem more in Scot McKnight and NT Wright’s camp than John McArthur and Wayne Grudem’s camp.

I would be joining you in Chicago but God completely messed up my spiritual trajectory 14 years ago by sending me to a gay Methodist church in Toledo, Ohio. Not only were they gay, but they introduced me to contemplative spirituality, which included some people you probably read too like Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton, but also perhaps problematically, the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn, who not only muddied my understanding of Christian exclusivity but also planted the seeds of mindfulness that led me to my understanding of the divine union that I believe salvation is all about, a path which only received further corroboration from the Eastern Orthodox theologians I read like Alexander Schmemann and Vladimir Lossky.

I also got ruined by stumbling into community with Christians in the Latin American solidarity movement, who introduced me to liberation theology, which seems a whole lot more in line with the cosmic vision of salvation and reconciliation in John 17, 2 Corinthians 5, Romans 11, Isaiah 2, and other places throughout scripture than the gospel of individualist afterlife insurance I had always thought was the only gospel. Not every liberation theology is the same, but the Latin American Catholic version seems more robustly orthodox than many forms of Protestantism.

In any case, at the very same time that you’re creating synergy with conservative evangelical Wesleyans, I will be in Indianapolis at the OPEN Faith conference, a group of progressive evangelicals who are seeking to create synergy and possibly ecclesial structure around the vision of Christian mission we believe God has given us. So it would be hypocritical of me to cast aspersions on you for doing exactly what I’m doing. I don’t know if I’ll be United Methodist two years from now. I’m open to the Holy Spirit’s lead, wherever it takes me.

So I wanted to ask you some honest questions to help with our collective discernment about how conservative and progressive United Methodists should be in relationship moving forward. I recognize that a progressive evangelical refugee like me is a completely different creature than a cradle mainline liberal. So I definitely cannot speak for all who self-identify as progressives. But I suspect there’s a sizable contingent of people like me who are no less evangelical than they are progressive and thus are every bit as zealous as you are about restoring the original Methodist ethos while being equally zealous about our pursuit of full inclusivity.

With each question, I figured I would offer my own reflections so you can see where I’m coming from. If you’d like to go all-in on a constructive dialogue with progressive evangelical Wesleyan theology, check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes To Toxic Christianity. I’ll even send you a free PDF if you ask me. I don’t mean to overwhelm you with the quantity of questions here. Answer some of them. Ask me some questions of your own. Let’s have an honest theological dialogue instead of galvanizing our camps around straw caricatures of each other.

1) How have you benefited from being in community with progressive United Methodists?

I know that from from my vantage point, my relationships with conservative evangelicals have kept me evangelical when I might have otherwise sold out and uncritically adopted secular social justice warrior doctrine. As it is, I live in multiple tensions because of my involvement in very different communities. God has called me missionally to the progressive secular activist community because I speak their language and I see many ways in which it’s totally compatible with what Jesus was trying to do. But because I’m still in dialogue with conservatives, I find that I’m able to live with greater integrity and stand with some critical distance from “social justice” groupthink.

2) Do you think it’s more missionally effective to be in covenant with other Christians who are theological diverse or have a tighter sense of orthodoxy?

I go back and forth on this question. Is it enough to have Christian conversation partners with very different beliefs to keep me honest or do I need to wrestle through the challenge of being covenantally bound to them? Jesus’ communion table included a zealot and a tax collector, the two political extremes of the 1st century Jewish community. But I’m not convinced that we have to be locked into one covenant for the sake of church unity. That would mean we should all return to Roman Catholicism. Can there be one church, one faith, one baptism expressed through multiple covenants for the sake of the broadest possible evangelistic reach?

There are people you can reach better than I can who will leave your church unless you are able to control how I minister, and there are people I can reach better than you can who have left my church because you’re in control of our denomination. What if you’re Peter and I’m Paul? What if God wants for each of us to have a slightly different set of boundaries in our respective mission fields? Paul plainly contradicts the ruling of the Jerusalem Council on sacrificial meats in his letters, so it’s bad exegesis to pretend that the early church had consensus even on issues identified to be important in our canon. Can we be one church in the way that Peter and Paul were one church?

3) How do you decide what the non-negotiables of orthodoxy are for you?

I have a lot of trouble with the way that people in your camp seem to have made LGBT non-affirmation the circumcision test of your orthodoxy. I’m familiar with the refrain that it’s only a “presenting symptom” of a compromised theology. But I hope you understand that when you say that, you’re lumping me in with people who are more different than me theologically than you are.

I think I believe everything you believe about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I believe that there are multiple legitimate frameworks for understanding Christ’s atonement, including a ransom payment, a cleansing sacrifice, and God’s judgment against sin. I’m not trying to erase the blood of Jesus or the fear of God from my theology because of my bourgeois modern sensibilities. I probably share your high view of the authority of scripture with the same nuances that make us both groan at Ken Ham’s young earth creationism for the same reasons. I just think that making LGBT non-affirmation the circumcision test of orthodoxy precludes the possibility of an objective, holistic biblical sexual ethic. How do you understand why your non-negotiables are what they are?

4) Can Wesleyan theology expand and evolve or does it need to conform permanently to John Wesley’s 18th century context?

NT Wright often says that we’re supposed to view the 21st century world with 1st century eyes. I contend that he’s conflating the task of being a historian and a theologian. Recognizing what things really meant in the first century is essential to exegesis, but I don’t think we have to become first century Jews to follow biblical wisdom faithfully. Analogously, it seems to me that traditionalist Wesleyans are so focused on getting our history right that they think the key to restoring Wesleyan spiritual vitality is to become 18th century Methodists. For instance, if the Articles of Religion are supposed to be our binding doctrine, does that mean that we’re supposed to oppose “Romish doctrine” as polemically as the Church of England did when they were written?

5) Do you think our world is biologically or socially corrupted by original sin?

Many Christians believe that Adam and Eve were historical figures who were physically immortal until they ate the forbidden fruit. They point to the curse in Genesis 3 to say that any form of death and decay did not exist until after their fateful choice. This doesn’t work for me as the son of a scientist, because everything about our biological world depends upon a continual cycle of life and death. Every species in our food chain depends upon some form of decay and death in order to grow and live. If you’re going to take this stance, then what you’re saying is that God didn’t create fungus or bacteria or hyenas until after the Fall, and that everything about the universe was defined by a completely different set of scientific laws before that moment.

To me, Adam and Eve’s story is an allegorical representation of our loss of innocence both as a species and as individuals. The focal point of the story is their exposure to their nakedness which God tried to protect them from, and the fear and shame that results from that. When our eyes are opened to the fear and shame of having a vulnerable, naked self, we stop trusting God and we try to be our own gods. We stop living in equilibrium with our ecosystem and start trying to exploit it. I think Genesis 3 happens over and over again throughout our lives. We are constantly listening to serpent voices that tell us to mistrust God and deify ourselves.

I interpret the curses in Genesis 3 as the psychological repercussions of shame and fear applied to food cultivation and childbirth, rather than physical punishments that God imposes on the entire created order in response to Adam and Eve’s sin. So I see the fallenness of original sin as the innate social corruption of humanity rather than a biological brokenness. I think this makes a huge difference in our theology of creation care. It makes sense that people who view all physical reality as innately broken would have an escapist nihilistic response to challenges like climate change. If sin’s corruption is social, then the problem is our disharmony with our ecosystem and our collective sanctification results in a restored natural equilibrium, not an escape into a Gnostic heavenly paradise.

6) How do you understand the nature of Christian salvation?

I’ve often said that fundamentalist and moderate Southern Baptists share the same basic beliefs about heaven and hell, but moderates are just conflicted and embarrassed about it. I was taught that the problem Jesus’ cross solves is that it rescues us from God’s perfectionism. God expects us to be perfect; we make mistakes; so God has no choice but to punish us in hell unless we accept Jesus’ punishment on our behalf.

When I was exposed to the justification and sanctification that are the bread and butter of Wesleyan theology, my understanding of salvation evolved dramatically. Augustine describes the fundamental brokenness of humanity as homo curvatus in se (humanity curved inward on itself). We are imprisoned in a state of self-justification in which we rationalize our sin and isolate ourselves from God and other people.  God wins our trust through Jesus’ justification on the cross so that we can be sanctified through the Holy Spirit and reconciled with God and other people. I understand salvation to be the reconciliation of humanity with God as we are liberated from our self-justification by being crucified and resurrected with Jesus. I mostly don’t think of this in terms of an afterlife reward, though I certainly believe that we live forever when we are brought into eternal communion with God.

7) Do you think God can justify and sanctify people “accidentally” who don’t explicitly identify Jesus as their savior?

In a lot of ways, I was ruined by C.S. Lewis. Particularly his novel The Last Battle, where the soldier who was worshiping the fake evil god Tashla gets into paradise because he was really worshiping Aslan. It’s true the Bible says “no one comes to the father except through [Jesus]” but does that mean Jesus can’t go undercover into other faiths and draw people to the Father through him? If there’s a specific formula by which we have to officially “accept” Jesus, wouldn’t that be works-righteousness?

I’ve recently entered into the world of 12 step recovery, which is basically Wesleyan justification (steps 1-3) and sanctification (steps 4-12) with an intentionally heterodoxical “God as we understand him.” I have a hard time believing that the people I meet in those rooms who are more saved and filled with fruit of the spirit than I am will be damned forever if their theology isn’t orthodox Christian.

8) Do you think faithful discipleship depends upon correct doctrine?

This is related to the previous question. I’ve heard some of you say that the main crisis in United Methodism is a lack of doctrinal precision. I obsess over doctrinal precision myself. After all, I wrote a book claiming that bad Christian theology makes people toxic. At the same time, I’ve met many people who have what I consider to be bad doctrine but are way more sanctified than I am (including many conservatives ;-)). So my sense is that doctrine matters to the degree that it shapes discipleship. The better our doctrine is, the more deeply we experience communion with God and the more authentically we embody God’s mercy. But correctness is always penultimate to communion. And people who use doctrinal precision as a substitute for lived discipleship become toxic.

9) What do you think the purpose of holiness is?

I think the biggest misconception your side has about the “pro-inclusion” crowd is that somehow we are unconcerned about sin and the pursuit of holiness. I consider Christian perfection to be one of the most important doctrines Wesleyans have, because it defines our goal as perfection in love, having a heart that is emptied of sin and thus full of love for God and neighbor. The point of being empty of sin is to be filled with love.

Every idol in my heart distracts me from my vocation to share God’s mercy with other people. But I consider it critically important that every sacrifice I make is for the sake of mercy. I am emptied of sinful idols so that I can be radically hospitable to other people. Inclusion is the goal of my holiness. If I pursue holiness out of self-validation and thus snuff out the mercy in my heart, I will be a greater enemy of God than the prostitutes and tax collectors whose sin has at least not made their hearts cold.

10) Is gender complementarity essential to human community?

When I was growing up in the eighties, the big scandal in the Southern Baptist Church were the “women’s libbers” who were trying to push women to work outside of the home. We were taught that feminism is a slippery slope into social chaos. That’s how conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly was able to take the Equal Rights Amendment down. Schlafly and her friends were exactly right. Feminism is what opened the door for people whom previous generations viewed as misfit freaks to discover different ways of defining themselves according to their sexual orientation or gender identity so that they could step out of the shadows and gain some degree of normalcy in their lives.

I believe that we can only understand what the Bible teaches about the boundaries of Christian behavior if we dig for the logic underneath the pastorally contextual prescriptions that are made throughout the canon. We cannot settle for surface-level proof-texts if we’re going to be diligent proclaimers of God’s truth. So it seems to me that the underlying question of biblical sexual ethics insofar as it concerns whom we are with rather than how many people or under what circumstances hinges upon answering whether or not gender complementarity is essential to human community.

It seems like United Methodists are trying to hedge their bets on this question. If female ordination were not a fait accompli within United Methodismwould the traditionalists be rationalizing it scripturally when there’s a pretty robust biblical case and nineteen centuries of church tradition against it? What about the historical reality that allowing women into roles that tradition granted only to men forever has been a tremendously catalyzing source of empowerment for sexual and gender minorities? Every time a woman is ordained for ministry, it becomes more imaginable for a gay person to follow suit.

I have to wonder to what degree LGBT non-affirmation is the means by which moderately conservative United Methodist traditionalists defend their right flank against the complementarian Calvinists who try to say that United Methodists are not real evangelicals because we have women pastors. If indeed gender complementarity is essential to human community, then what is your theology for defining what men should do that women shouldn’t and vice-versa? If you can’t delineate precisely which roles are only appropriate to men and which are only appropriate to women, then why does it matter which genders are bound in holy matrimony?

11) Do you think gay people are able to live holier lives when their identity is socially taboo or socially normalized?

One of the scariest things that happened to me in the fifth grade was when I accidentally touched another boy’s penis. I went to the school counselor sobbing because I was sure that everyone in the school was going to call me gay. Homophobia defined everything about my interactions with other boys growing up. “Smear the queer” was our favorite game at recess. My beloved late Southern Baptist deacon grandpa told me dirty jokes about gay people. In contrast, my son’s best friend came over to play the other day, and they hugged at the door in a way that made me feel uncomfortable. There wasn’t anything about it to which I could justifiably object. It was just a physical interaction that I knew was “wrong” from growing up in a world where men shake hands instead of hugging, with the exception of testoserone-saturated bro-squeezes.

So it occurred to me that this is what happens when social norms shift over a generation. Boys express affection for each other without being terrified of someone calling them gay. Is it a sinful slippery slope for boys to start hugging each other the way that girls do? What about when their teachers tell them not to bully each other for acting “gay” because there’s nothing wrong with being gay?

The problem is that socially you can’t really have heteronormativity without homophobia. If a strong gender binary is essential to our survival as a human community, then what we currently call “bullying” has a crucial role to play in training children to behave the way their gender is supposed to behave. Sunday school lectures will never shape behavior the way peer pressure can. That might be politically incorrect and uncomfortable to name aloud, but for centuries, boys in particular were expected to toughen each other up into men. If it’s actually a moral crisis for gender dysphoria or homosexuality to be normalized so that children grow and evolve without gendered expectations for their behavior, then what we call “bullying” needs to be part of the means of corralling our confused children back into their appropriate gender norms.

Would you say that it’s better to have a society where boys are afraid to hug too closely if the result is that fewer gay people are unashamedly having gay sex? Is the normalization of gay identity a greater stumbling block to holiness than homophobia or vice-versa?

12) How are you investing your resources into promoting celibate singleness as a viable life vocation?

Our church ministries for adults are mostly designed around the assumption that getting married and raising a family are the basic goals of adulthood. The purpose of offering a singles ministry at church is so that singles can meet a wholesome significant other and then transition to the family ministry. We presume that we’re engaging families when we preach, plan social events, or evangelize. We live in an incredibly lonely world for people who don’t have families, and we claim to be showing the world a holier, healthier way of doing community.

I’ve often wondered whether a point on which progressives and traditionalists could collaborate is creating a viable neo-monastic movement in United Methodism. New Duke Divinity School Dean Elaine Heath has been doing this for several years through her Missional Wisdom Foundation, in which houses of young adults are organized around a monastic rule of life and paired with local congregations. What if our parsonages became intentional communities for celibate singles who formed the contemplative core of their ministry and prayer life? Wouldn’t that be awesome?

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