The United Methodist Church faces a major flashpoint next week when our Judicial Council meets to decide whether lesbian bishop Karen Oliveto can be summarily dismissed from her post without a clergy trial. It’s a fascinating test because a true judicial conservative in the mold of Neil Gorsuch would be constrained by the limits of the United Methodist system of polity and protocol and say that Oliveto must face a formal charge and a clergy trial for her consecration as bishop to be challenged. An ideological activist conservative would throw polity and protocol to the wind in order to enforce the “spirit” of the law (i.e. a completely liberal judicial attitude). If the ideological conservatives win out on the Judicial Council, United Methodism will face the paradox of throwing out the Discipline in order to enforce the Discipline.
Christianity is a religion of clergy trials. We were founded as the result of the clergy trial of Jesus Christ and we’ve been putting Christians on trial ever since then. It’s how we measure in each generation how far we’ve strayed from Jesus. Most of our clergy trials are the product of a fierce underlying debate within the Judeo-Christian tradition that has never been resolved over the course of thousands of years. I’m sure that those who find themselves on the other side of the debate from me would articulate the opposing sides differently, but what I see from my vantage point is a debate between moral legalism and pragmatic mysticism. Or for those of you who use nerdy ethical terms, it’s a debate between deontological and virtue ethics.
The basic question is this: are the laws of God ends unto themselves as opaque expressions of God’s authority or are they pragmatic guides whose purpose is to accomplish a deeper goal such as mystical union with God? The legalist’s chief concern is to respect and enforce the authority of God. The only reason to study the Bible is to figure out exactly what God said so that it can be obeyed with perfect submission. The legalist does not ask why questions because attempting to get “behind” the purpose of biblical teaching subverts God’s authority. God said so. I believe it. That settles it. The perfect deontological expression. To a legalist, the level of respect for God’s authority is directly proportional to the cost of obedience. In other words, obedience should not be practical or self-interested because if your will coincides with God’s will, you’re not really choosing God’s will over your own. That’s what makes pragmatism innately suspicious to a moral legalist.
Mysticism and pragmatism are two words that don’t usually go together, but in spirituality, they do. A mystic is a pragmatist in this sense: a mystic has tasted divine union and wants to do whatever it takes to get there again. So a mystic uses biblical teaching not as an authority to be obeyed but as a tool for connecting more deeply with God. Using the Bible as a tool means relating to it in a way that a legalist would instinctively find disrespectful and presumptuous. Because if the Bible is a tool for deepening my intimacy with God, then I’m going to focus on the verses that prove helpful to me in that journey and set aside the verses that don’t, even if I trust that some day under different circumstances, the verses that seem unhelpful now might well be indispensable later.
I’m not editing the Bible or officially rejecting anything in it since “all scripture is God-breathed and useful” (2 Tim 3:16, a pragmatic doctrine of scripture if there ever was one), but it just doesn’t occur to me as a pragmatic mystic to think of it as “authoritative.” In fact, when people talk about scripture’s “authority” in the abstract, I often wonder whether they’re engaging any of its actual texts or just fetishizing the idea of scripture. For example, Jesus says in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” a favorite verse of the legalists. The problem is that Jesus doesn’t give any direct concrete commandments in John beyond “love one another,” which is about as abstract as you can get. John provides us with incredible mystical imagery. It has shaped my imagination and deepened my intimacy with God more than any other gospel. But there just isn’t much to “obey” in the sense of a concrete thou shalt or thou shalt not. Outside of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus doesn’t give many concrete commands, which is what makes the statement in John 14:15 inherently mystical to me. Maybe the legalists get the flow of causation backwards and it’s by loving Jesus that we’re made capable of keeping his commandments rather than proving our love for Jesus by following rules that aren’t anywhere near that verse.
Now here’s my most contentious claim. I think that Jesus and Paul are both pragmatic mystics and that their Pharisee opponents are moral legalists. When I follow their debates throughout the New Testament, I’m stupefied that anyone could read the same Bible I’m reading and emulate the religious leaders who are consistently being repudiated by Jesus and Paul. What’s even more incredible to me is when the pragmatic mysticism of Paul is converted into moral legalism. I don’t think there is a greater dishonor that could be shown to Paul’s authority as a spiritual master than to reduce his writing to a set of rules that can be ripped completely out of their pastoral context. In other words, it’s not just that the legalists are overemphasizing “the law” instead of holding the law and grace in the perfect both/and tension that we love in Wesleyan theology. Paul loved the law. But his disobedient legalistic interpreters today make Paul’s words into a law which they use precisely how Paul teaches us not to use “the law”: to justify themselves as a means of asserting control over others. The heretics Paul battles most consistently throughout his epistles are not free love hippies, but dour authoritarians who teach that the way to get right with God is to follow the rules they are enforcing (Galatians, Romans, Colossians, 1 Timothy, etc).
To me, Galatians is the clearest battleground between the moral legalism of Paul’s opponents and his pragmatic mysticism. Notice the way he poses his most fundamental question to the Galatians: “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Galatians 3:2). What is the point for Paul? To receive the spirit. Following the rules is not an end unto itself. Proving your loyalty to God”s authority means nothing if you do not receive the spirit. What you should be doing is whatever it takes to receive the spirit. In other words, Paul is operating with a pragmatic, mystical “proof” of spiritual transformation. It’s not a question of whether your earthly obedience to God (or even the earnestness of your “belief” in Jesus) merits an afterlife reward. It’s a question of whether you are doing whatever it takes to gain experiential intimacy in this life right now with the living God by receiving his Spirit. Trying to twist Paul’s teaching into a legalistic reward/punishment system like the Four Spiritual Laws is doing exactly what Paul is teaching us not to do.
Though I’m not prepared to write an entire commentary on the book of Galatians tonight, I did want to take a look at what I consider to be the most important passage and the core of Paul’s virtue ethics: the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
First let me note that even though Paul says that “jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy” are all direct obstacles to inheriting the kingdom of God, no United Methodist moral legalist has ever tried to make “quarreling” a chargeable offense in the Book of Discipline even though an honest legalistic reading of this passage would have to adjudicate what specific expressions of anger or jealousy are serious enough to keep a person out of heaven, sinner’s prayer notwithstanding.
Also note that Paul is very explicit about saying “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.” It’s not just a proof-text. It’s an insight into Paul’s way of thinking about spiritual authority. He’s claiming that people can be “led” spiritually in a way that involves intuitive sensibilities which supersede explicit religious teachings. He doesn’t say if you are led by the Spirit, you will naturally do everything the law tells you to do anyway. In a letter whose purpose is to wrest the Galatians free from their legalistic handlers, this statement explicitly takes aim at the authority of the legalists who are trying to control other people. Many Jewish rabbis say similar things about the law: namely that it’s subtle enough that honoring its spirit can look like breaking it to a legalist. The law is not the problem. Slavish legalism is the problem. As Paul says elsewhere, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6).
In any case, the following are the two major points I find in this passage.
1) Paul’s concern is to help us live by the spirit rather than the flesh. It’s important to understand that flesh and spirit are not analogous to physical and non-physical. Paul is not a Gnostic Platonist who hates the contingency of physical matter. That’s why I translate the words Paul used sarx and pneuma as meat and breath instead of flesh and spirit. Living according to the flesh is treating the world around you like to meat to be consumed. It’s mindless, self-centered consumption in which every appetite must be quenched and every itch must be scratched. Living in the spirit does not mean that I don’t eat or drink. It does not mean I eschew all forms of pleasure. It doesn’t mean I avoid sex. It means rather that I seek God’s glory in all that I do (1 Corinthians 10:31). In other words, I savor life rather than stumbling through it like a half-dead zombie. When you live according to the spirit, it doesn’t make your life more physically dull. It means that instant oatmeal can taste like an amazing delicacy and a boring Nebraska cornfield can become a glistening cathedral of God’s kingdom. Paul isn’t giving us rules to follow to establish his authority; he’s giving us concepts to contemplate in order to pursue a life that is fully alive.
2) Paul says the fruit is what measures whether I’m living right or not. If you told me to “obey” this passage, I honestly wouldn’t know what to do, because Paul doesn’t give me a list of specific actions to take or not take; he gives me a list of character qualities that show whether I have taken the right or wrong turn. In other words, this is not about obeying Paul the way that a dog sits or plays dead or fetches a stick when you give a concrete command. This is about examining myself to see whether I exhibit peace and patience or strife and envy. If I have cultivated the fruits of the flesh, then I need to make some changes in my behavior. If I exhibit fruits of the spirit, then I’m on the right track. The purpose of following biblical teachings is not to be able to say, “Look God; I did everything you said; so what’s my reward?” but to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The reward is the fruit itself.
So if Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians as a corrective to their sinful, heretical moral legalism, then are United Methodists disobeying Paul’s teaching when we reject his rubric for determining whether someone is living according to the flesh or the spirit? If a queer Christian is plainly filled with the fruit of the Spirit, would Paul want us to prevent that person from obeying God’s call on their life? What would Paul say if we put him on the witness stand at the judicial council gathering next week? Would he speak similarly to how he spoke at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? Or do we have to wave away any analogies that contradict the legalisms we’ve constructed to feel like we’re obediently resisting the changes in our world?
I understand that we have a discernment process to go through. And I get that the moral legalists are sincerely trying to be faithful to a God they think is being kicked around by moral relativism. I just wish there were some recognition that when I read Galatians 5 and declare my support for Karen Oliveto’s episcopal leadership, I’m doing so out of obedience to God, however wrong I may be in what I think I’ve heard God tell me consistently over the course of the last two decades. And likewise if God tells me to take up my cross and risk my ordination by marrying queer people, I will see it as disobedient and cowardly not to do so.
All of us Christians belong to a movement that exploded after the clergy trial of a young Galilean rabbi that resulted in a horrific execution and a miracle that changed human history. If Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, he would still be known as a mighty, eccentric prophet who went too far and blasphemed God. The clergy trial of Jesus created the context for the punitive savagery of the religious moral legalists and the miracle by which God categorically rebuked them. If the United Methodist judicial council rules that queer clergy can be dismissed by summary judgments rather than full clergy trials, then they are choosing to bypass the cruciform means of our collective discernment and covering our ears from hearing whatever the Spirit might say through that process.
It seems that too often this conversation has been an argument about whether or not people who have already made up their minds have to keep listening to others. Defending the right to stop listening does not seem like a very good posture for spiritual growth. So all of us should examine our hearts for the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit. Paul would tell us that whoever wins the argument has lost everything if they’ve given their hearts over to enmity, strife, and quarrel. Perhaps most importantly, we should try to find the fruits of the spirit in those we consider our enemies. The goal is not to validate myself and invalidate others; the goal is to find Christ and let him draw me closer into union. Every fellow Christian I vehemently disagree with has a part of Christ inside them that I need to know.
Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us!
Subscribe to our podcast Crackers and Grape Juice!