Due Diligence in the UMC: Not just to be understood, but to understand

Not long ago, I sat in on a discussion between two seminary professors who presented opposing views on the biblical interpretation of marriage. The discussion was hosted by an Atlanta church (you can watch it here) and was attended by hundreds. Earlier in this season, I attended another event held in the Atlanta area hosted by a progressive coalition. We heard stories of those who have found their home in the LGBT community when it wasn’t available to them inside the church. A third experience has been more personal. A queer, married pastor in the UMC has reached out for conversation with the mutual understanding that neither of us will change the mind of the other. We trade texts, compare news stories with what we know to be more true, and try to listen.

I’ve appreciated these opportunities. Beyond these, I’ve also been reading the research, because I know I need more understanding. We need to learn how to hear each other not in order to “win” or persuade or even find common ground but so we can genuinely understand the depth of our differences on key issues like human sexuality, Christology, ecclesiology and biblical interpretation.

Can I say that again? We need less lecturing and more listening so we can actually understand the depth of conviction most of us hold around the crucial theological issues that divide us. In the gentle work of hearing and understanding, I believe we’ll discover not how alike we are but how much we ought to respect the differences. And how wise it will be for us to create space for those differences to prove themselves.

A huge part of understanding for me has been intentional exposure both to events and research especially around human sexuality and gender identity. This is a kairos moment for pastors, an opportunity to teach people in our care what we believe so we can guide them into deeper theological waters. Folks in our care deserve not only a fair account of the gospel but a clear and educated understanding of where the leadership of their church stands. How else can they make an informed choice about their spiritual care?

In the list that follows, I offer a few resources that have helped me begin to get acclimated toward greater understanding where issues of human sexuality are concerned. I’ve learned from these teachers how to more sensitively articulate both my position and how it contrasts with other worldviews. I’ve also learned how to better pastor my people, particularly youth and young adults who desperately need an orthodox, Wesleyan vocabulary. I encourage you to explore this list (and share it) and get started on your own journey toward greater understanding:

Mark Yarhouse — Understanding Sexual Identity. This book is written especially for youth leaders, offering an exceptional teaching on how identity forms in young people. I lead off with this book because I believe today’s youth pastors have an incredibly challenging call and need a whole new vocabulary for meeting students where they are. Every youth leader ought to read this book. Yarhouse has authored a second book to equip parents for the conversation: Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for parents, pastors and friends.

David Bennett — A War of Loves. Bennett tells his own compelling story of navigating the church world as a gay teen. He eventually makes his way into the classroom of N. T. Wright, where he finds a context for his circumstances that is life-giving. He spends the second half of this book making recommendations of reform to the Christian church in light of national conversations about human sexuality. Bennett has helped me understand just how we idolize sex, even inside the church. Exceptional read.

Mark Ongley — Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. What I love about Ongley’s contribution to the conversation is that he widens the net to include a wide range of sexual wounds — “infidelity, sexual abuse, incest, emotional adultery, and sexual addiction, to name a few.” Ongley reminds us (as do critics of the conservative position, and rightly so) that sexual brokenness is not the property of one group of people. The church desperately needs an openness to addressing the whole range of unholy behaviors we bend toward to feed our cravings.

Preston Sprinkle — A People to Be Loved. Sprinkle is a theologian and solid Bible scholar who deals in depth with every Bible verse (and every word of every verse) up for debate in the human sexuality discussion. He is very upfront about his desire to engage the scriptures objectively with fresh eyes and vulnerability. His work answers too many decades of insensitive exegesis. From my perspective, he treats the scriptures, the issues, and people affected by the conversation with great sensitivity. If you have not done your own complete and objective exegesis of the passages under debate, this should be required reading. Sprinkle’s website contains all kinds of articles and resources on the topic. Start here.

Wesley Hill — Spiritual Friendship. Hill has written and spoken extensively on issues related to human sexuality and has produced a lot of solid resources. Personally, I’d have you start with Spiritual Friendship simply because I believe Hill champions an important topic for the Church. Until we reclaim the value of spiritual friendship and begin to emphasize the importance of biblical communities, we will miss our opportunity to minister in compassionate ways to those who choose celibacy as a holy response to same-sex attraction. Hill’s book on spiritual friendship should be required reading for every person joining a church. He also gives a brief overview of his thesis in a talk at Biola University. Well worth the half-hour it takes to listen. Hill’s Washed and Waiting is a classic defense of celibacy in singleness (you can hear an overview of it here).

Grant Hartley — Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure. Hartley gave this (somewhat controversial) talk at a ReVoice conference to both educate his audience on some of the more recent history of the LGBT movement in America and also pose some evangelistic possibilities. I believe the themes of this talk if taken seriously could help us shape a whole new way of treasuring community life, and for that reason I think the talk is worth your time. In general, we all need a more robust theology surrounding what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth. For Christians, community is essential.

Jackie Perry — Gay Girl, Good God. Perry is a rap artist turned preacher and spoken word artist who tells her own story of transformation. She writes with remarkable authority on issues of human sexuality from a biblically orthodox perspective. You’ll find a lot of other good material from Jackie on YouTube. Start here.

Ryan Anderson – When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson was widely criticized for undertaking this study of gender dysphoria and gender identity in the U.S., but his work is well researched and presented with great compassion. This book will give you a starkly different view of gender-identity issues than what you’ll find in media stories.

Pope John Paul II — The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). Pope John Paul’s seminal work building a comprehensive theology of the body ought to be required reading for every seminary student, and the good news is that you can read it here for free. Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, has taken the themes of Pope John Paul’s work, and turned them into both chapel talks and blog posts. His series of articles reflecting on those themes can be found here. I found Dr. Tennent’s work to be accessible and helpful as I developed my own sermon series around these same themes.

Ravi Zacharias — Years ago when I was just returning to the faith, I happened across Dr. Zacharias’ radio show and distinctly remember being amazed to hear a Christian talking intelligently on such a wide range of issues. He is both bold and loving in his apologetic. Listen to his well-reasoned defense of an orthodox view of human sexuality here.

N.T. Wright — As a theologian, Wright stands in the company of such contemporary greats as C. S. Lewis. Listen to his position on same-sex attraction here.

Let me offer these brief articles as one more resource for those attempting to shape a pastoral approach to these delicate issues. Centered-set thinking was a concept first formed on the mission field, and I’ve found it useful in framing discussions about controversial theological issues. I discuss it in two blog posts, here and here. Centered-set thinking has been most helpful in shaping a theologically rooted ecclesiology in a pluralistic world.

Finally, let me acknowledge the obvious. This list is both incomplete and unapologetically biased. I realize it omits a progressive perspective, but that returns us to my initial point. I have deeply held convictions from which I teach and preach and those are the positions I champion. As a pastor, it is not my charge to remain neutral (Jesus had strong warnings against settling with “lukewarm”). If your view contrasts with mine, please compile and share your resources. You’ll be better informed than I at creating such a list. I hope you’re helped by my list; I’m sure I’ll be helped by yours.

Let’s encourage understanding. I believe our path through may just be not in minimizing theological and ecclesiological differences but in understanding and respecting just how real they are.

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Seeking higher ground: Conversations in the UMC

As conversations around the future of the UMC heat up in this Annual Conference season, I hold a prayer that we will elevate our discourse above the level of emotion. Here are a few things I’d like to hear in discussions around what comes next:

Let’s talk Christologically. Does the conversation about the future of the UMC begin with Jesus? If my experience is any indication, then the Lordship of Jesus–the exclusive nature of Jesus–is where we in the United Methodist Church part ways long before we ever get to the topic of sexual ethics. In the UMC, there is a great divergence around the nature and role of Jesus Christ; yet, we spend all our energy on other things. We rarely acknowledge what is. What is, for those of us who embrace an orthodox understanding of faith and truth, is that Jesus is the most true being. Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus alone embodies that Truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are not the authors of our faith. The author of our faith is Jesus Christ. In other words, we have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith. Our conversations must reflect this “Kingdom down” perspective while resisting the urge of a “humanity up” perspective. If we start with Jesus Christ, I suspect we will find plenty to discuss and (grievously) much on which we fundamentally disagree.

Let’s talk biblically. Are our debates rooted in scripture? We all live under the same blue sky. Anyone who is practicing faith in Christ with love and integrity is in relationship with people … all kinds of people. We are all navigating all kinds of relationships and stories and we want God’s best for people we love. We who are pastors contend for souls daily. However, theological tents are not built on a foundation of who we know, love and want included. If we are going to talk about the future of the UMC, let’s talk biblically and not just anecdotally. When the Minnesota Annual Conference chooses to substitute the name for God in the Apostle’s Creed, that provides plenty of fodder for discussion. Does an official United Methodist entity have the right to change something as fundamental as the biblical terms of our creed? After all, Methodism is a defined theology. There are lines we can not cross while remaining true to our tradition.

Let’s talk globally. Do our discussions about unity take into account the global nature of the UMC? Let’s talk about John 3:16. Jesus told us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. The world, not just our corner of it. Let’s discuss the values of the typical follower of Jesus anywhere on the African continent, or in the Philippines, or South America. Do we understand that a call to unity that doesn’t include them is not a call to unity at all in a global connection? Please understand that a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will alienate us from an African UMC. An American church that has separated from our global connection is far more detrimental to our personality and theology as a denomination than any decision to uphold our Book of Discipline as it stands. You and I are not the only ones deciding whether we stay or go. There are a world of people making that choice … literally. In fact, they are contending in ways we cannot fathom. One African brother told me, “I wake up every morning prepared to die.” I thank God we are a global connection and that my friend’s drive to wake up daily contending for the faith is part of who we are. But as I’ve said myself, anecdotes won’t win the day so let’s talk about Revelation 7:9. That’s how we’ll guard against cultural drift. If you want to talk about unity, make certain we include the global connection in that conversation.

Let’s talk systemically. Are we thinking centered sets or bounded sets? This would make for great conversation in this season. The concept of “centered sets” and “bounded sets” emerges from the mission field (you can read about it here or here), and it describes what happens when communities choose “bounded set,” “fuzzy set,” or “open set” thinking over “centered set” thinking. Bounded sets draw a line between the world and the congregation. Open sets have no boundaries at all. Fuzzy sets thrive on a lack of clarity. But centered sets cast a clear vision for a community’s values, then invite folks to orient toward those values.

Centered-set thinking reminds me that the responsibility for a person’s orientation toward the truth is theirs, not mine. Likewise, it is not for me to widen the tent pegs to make sure everyone is inside, never mind the direction they are pointed. I am responsible for pointing toward the center of my set; so are you. How far I am from that center is not the issue so much as whether I am pointed toward or away from the agreed-upon center. Centered-set communities allow adults to take responsibility for their choices as well as their spiritual progress. What it does not allow for is changing the center to suit your tastes. Be where you are, but don’t ask others to change direction so you don’t have to.

Let’s talk eschatologically. Do our discussions rest on the assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ will continue undeterred from its mission, whatever is decided by this denomination? Let’s talk about how our ecclesiology can be better rooted in our eschatology. Remember that the Church extends nearly 2000 years further back than the fifty-year history of the UMC. The next iteration of our tribe (whether it is some altered version of the UMC or something else) will be robust and hopeful. We know this, because we know how the story ends. Jesus wins. His Church (the Body of Christ on earth) can’t be killed. We may be rearranging chairs on a deck, but we are not on the Titanic. Methodist theology will continue (there are 80 million Methodists of varying flavors in the world and 279 million Pentecostals; our tribe is not going anywhere and in fact, is growing in other places). I am committed to the process of The Commission on a Way Forward and certainly to our brand of theology; but if our denomination makes a fundamental shift away from the values of historic Christianity, I am not fearful of what comes next. The gospel of Jesus Christ will keep right on rolling toward His second coming and I’ll do my best to keep pace because I  don’t want to get left behind.

Let’s talk health … not just survival. Being unequivocal about our beliefs and values is simply good relational work. We must all decide in these days where our boundaries are; to have none is simply not Methodist. Nor is it healthy. This is the fundamental problem with the “one church” proposal. It may support survival, but for all the reasons above it isn’t healthy. I contend it isn’t even Methodist. My friends in Christ, sound theology is worth the fight. Setting clear values and making a firm statement about what they are does not mean giving up; it means we care. What progress we could make if we choose to elevate our conversations to the level of theology over institutionalism or emotionalism, respecting each other even as we expect folks who commit to a covenant to keep it. Without that expectation, there can be no health.

As I head to Annual Conference this week, I’m looking forward to robust conversations and pray that we will all seek higher ground.

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