The Evangelism of a Thousand Clergy Trials

The Evangelism of a Thousand Clergy Trials January 31, 2019

I denied Christ, just like Simon Peter when the cock crowed. It was a couple of years ago. A lesbian couple who were active in a progressive, inclusive post-evangelical church pastored by a good friend had told their pastor they wanted to do a destination wedding in New Orleans and they wanted the names of trusted inclusive pastors in the area whom they could ask to marry them. So he gave them my name. And I told them no.

I wrote a long email explaining how conflicted I was and how I didn’t feel I could do it because my blog is somewhat known in United Methodism and because of a particular group of pastors who don’t like me and have a history of scrutinizing and pursuing clergy charges against pastors they don’t like.

I rationalized it to myself by saying that I didn’t have any pastoral obligation to them since they weren’t part of my ministry. But I’m still haunted by it. Because it was not a principled decision. It was an act of cowardice. It was a betrayal of the vow I made when I first joined the United Methodist Church in 2005 to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.”

And I can’t guarantee that the same cowardice will not influence my decision in the future if I’m asked again to do a gay wedding. The real test will come if one day two queer students in my ministry fall in love and ask me to marry them. Because if that happened, I would probably not be able to preach or celebrate communion any longer after that if I said no.

It’s pretty obvious what the outcome of the United Methodist General Conference next month is going to be. The Wesleyan Covenant Association has guaranteed the outcome by throwing down their extortionist gauntlet of saying we get everything we want or else we will leave. The One Church Model is doomed because WCA will split the church over it. The rigorously anti-gay proposal will win because the progressives aren’t going to leave if it does and they’re not the ones with the money anyway.

The 2019 General Conference will have the exact same delegates as 2016. I don’t see any way that a delegate from a socially conservative Global South country who voted against the proposal to create regional autonomy and pastoral discretion for sexuality in 2016 is now going to change their vote when voting completely against the grain of their cultural context will also wipe out the denominational funding for their ministry.

If I’m such a coward in a country where queer acceptance is completely mainstream, how could I expect a Global South General Conference delegate to stick their neck out when they have to go back to a much more patriarchal society where queer people are still being beaten and killed with impunity? Global South delegates are actually risking physical violence if they vote in any way that seems to support queer identity.

So if the vote goes the way it’s all but predestined to go, what will happen after that? I’m pretty sure the WCA is presuming that progressives are simply going to leave and all the drama will finally be put to rest. There are several problems with that presumption. 1) There is no progressive equivalent of the WCA so progressives don’t have anywhere to leave to. 2) The centrists and Global South delegates are going to vote down any gracious exit clause. 3) We belong to a religion that was started by the clergy trial of a messiah who tells potential followers that being crucified is the test of their discipleship.

If the anti-gay proposal wins at next month’s General Conference, it will create a massive discipleship test for progressive United Methodist clergy. Many progressives understand inclusivity to be the heart of Jesus’ gospel and the most definitive mark of their spiritual identity. Whether or not you agree, for many progressive United Methodist pastors, discriminating against the queer members of their congregation in order to avoid getting defrocked is analogous to worshiping a Caesar statue to avoid being thrown to the lions.

The starker you make the terms of martyrdom, the more you call people to be martyrs if they are in fact Christian disciples. In evangelical youth group, we had drilled into us the idea that persecution is what creates spiritual vitality and makes the church grow. Many United Methodist pastors are ex-evangelicals like me who still have it ingrained into our bones that walking straight towards persecution is what a true Christian disciple does. Don’t bait Christians with strong convictions by drawing a line in the sand unless you want them to think they’d be betraying Jesus by not walking over it.

The persecution of queer and queer-marrying United Methodist pastors will occur in a unique cultural context when those doing the persecution have never had less credibility with the general public in the history of our country. White evangelicals have earned for themselves a more toxic brand than payday lenders and asbestos manufacturers. So while the pastors who go on trial may be sacrificing everything on a professional level, everyone outside the church will see them as heroes standing up to homophobic bullies, which will make the trial itself into cruciform evangelism.

I’m reading a book right now by two pastors who were expelled from the Vineyard movement because of their queer inclusivity. They planted a new inclusive charismatic Christian church that is now thriving as the fruit of their persecution. The coming clergy trials will galvanize progressives for church-planting like no other catalyst could, certainly much better than diminutively stumbling out the back door of United Methodism in defeat.

Every progressive United Methodist congregation is going to want to stand up and fight back not only out of its fierce love for its queer members but also for the sake of its loyalty to Christ. To progressives, being persecuted for standing in solidarity with the queer community is the most compelling discipleship and evangelism we could possibly be called into. If a new progressive Wesleyan denomination forms, then it will be birthed through the labor pains of a thousand clergy trials.

When United Methodism becomes known over the next several years as the denomination of clergy trials, it will keep our anti-gay stance front and center as our primary identity marker, which will make evangelism very difficult for any churches outside of the Bible Belt that aren’t loudly identifying themselves as insurrectionist. Maybe there will be sit-ins during the worship services at churches whose pastors participate in persecuting other pastors.

Right now, there are at least ten Tulane students who grew up in large conservative United Methodist congregations in Texas and Louisiana and now don’t want to have anything to do with the church. I can’t reach them because they’re too alienated. One young man from the Woodlands explained that Rob Renfroe is the reason he’s no longer a Christian. How many millions of young adults today have been ruined for Christianity because white evangelicals made opposing gay marriage their entire gospel?

As baby boomers die, the economic power that fueled the triumphalism of the suburban white evangelical empire will die with them. And then the degree to which white evangelicals have alienated the Millennial generation will be fully revealed. Europe became post-Christian because of a genocidal war that was blessed by the church. If our country is post-Christian in two decades, it will be because of the evangelical church’s toxic entanglement with white nationalism which has been justified through and is inextricably linked to its sexual puritanism.

But maybe if a thousand United Methodist pastors stand trial and put their careers on the line, then that act of public witness would show our country the cruciform courage that has always been the best Christian evangelism. Maybe our church will be saved from its toxic culture war idolatry if enough United Methodist clergy actually honor our covenant to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in every form they present themselves. Maybe the old wineskins need to be vigorously shredded so that new ones can be made to hold the wine that the Spirit is getting ready to pour.

Check out my book How Jesus Saves the World From Us: 12 Antidotes for Toxic Christianity!

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