This is not that: Glide and the UMC

To my friends beyond the United Methodist Church, thanks for your patience while I dig a little today into an issue currently circulating in my denomination. This post falls into that category of “UMC insider news.”

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church is a high-profile congregation and non-profit ministry in San Francisco. From what I gather it has a creative structure that allows the church maximum exposure to the community through a non-profit side that has operated since the 1960s. That side of their ministry doesn’t seem to be part of the present debate. The issue seems to be with Glide as a UM church. Recent communication between Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Glide representatives indicate a growing concern over ministry practices that Carcaño believes fall outside the purview of mainline Methodism. Representatives of Glide have responded to her concerns by questioning its future with the UMC.

My intention here is not to weigh in on this debate but to draw some broader conclusions that surface because of this story. It raises lessons and cautions as the whole church continues to wrestle with whether there is a way forward that keeps all local churches in the denomination.

Methodists are not universalists. This has been a recurring theme for me, so I’m interested to note that this is where Bishop Carcaño’s concern is focused. She has said that Glide’s Sunday celebrations are not United Methodist services. She cites the varied faiths represented in their Sunday celebrations (Hindu, Buddhist, etc), and notes that this theological diversity has gone beyond hospitality to theological pluralism. Meanwhile, representatives from Glide have made much of the day they took the cross out of their sanctuary.

To welcome folks from any faith into our worship services is commendable; to exclude Christ for the sake of including everyone else does not support our stated mission. This is precisely why I have contended that the future of the UMC begins not with human sexuality but with Jesus. What we do with the nature of Jesus Christ — this is the headwaters of our current conflict. If we differ on the nature of Jesus and the means of salvation, we might as well end our conversation there. The classic, orthodox understanding of Jesus, supported by our United Methodist Articles of Religion and the historic creeds, is that Jesus is the exclusive way to the Father. From our own Articles of Religion: “The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone” (Article XX). Our mission as United Methodists is to preach the gospel given us by eye-witness disciples of Christ himself.

Incarnational ministry is not the same as contextualization. My concern lately has been the misuse of the term “contextualization,” especially in the service of the proposed One Church Model. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Now, let me say clearly that I’m all about contextualizing the message so it connects with the people, but contextualizing is not the same as “gutting” the message, any more than changing the wrapping paper is the same as changing the gift inside. When some use the term contextualization as the argument, they would have us believe the only way forward is to minimize basic beliefs. In other words, we’re being asked not just to change the wrapping paper, but to remove the gift inside, allowing for outright contradictions to exist among us for the sake of being all things to all people. This misuse of the term will only serve to remove the theological  center of our tradition in the name of preserving the institution.

In the world of missions and evangelism, this is not what contextualization means at all. We might benefit from remembering a few definitions:

Syncretism is the attempt to blend different religions or world views together. Think “melting pot.” That is often the “feel” of universalism, and it sounds very much like Bishop Carcaño’s concern with Glide. Pluralism is about coexistence of principles or groups in a common space. Think “quilt.” Methodists are not syncretists, pluralists or universalists. This isn’t just an assumption; in 1972, we added the word “pluralism” to our Book of Discipline. In 1988 we removed it, having endured years a failed experiment.

Contextualization is the expression of a message in ways that make sense to the local culture using appropriate cultural forms. Think “parable.” Incarnation is about the posture of the person who takes a message into a cultural context in a way that serves both the message and the people hearing it. Think “Jesus.”

Contextualization in the missional sense of the term means making the good news about Jesus Christ accessible. It does not mean changing the message to make it more palatable. As a friend in the mission world says, “Contextualism without the centrality of Christ and the authority of Scripture dissolves into plain relativism and your truth is as good as mine.”

In other words, contextualization without incarnation will not produce transformation. In our conversations about the way forward, we must be careful about our use of terms so as not to make the idea of a watered-down gospel more appealing for the sake of institutional preservation. In that equation, no one wins — certainly not the one waiting to open a gift of good news.

A gracious exit is not the same as giving up. I have read Glide’s recent public letters and sympathize with the struggle of their leadership. They are asking good questions. Are they still United Methodist in their approach to ministry? Is this partnership still productive for them? Glide President and CEO Karen Hanrahan says, “The reality is that over the past decades, we’ve evolved so that about 95 percent of what we do is programs and services and about five percent is as a church.” And now, they have to ask themselves, “Does the five percent actually inform, in any meaningful way, the other 95 percent?” From what I’ve read, I would think not. So what they need are options that don’t destroy what they’ve built and truly invested themselves in.

And this is where their situation intersects with an important piece of our denominational debate. How do we provide a gracious way out for those who simply cannot abide the prevalent values of the UMC? Friends, an exit ramp is important … for all of us. After months of discussion within the Commission on a Way Forward, this was clearly their conclusion. Without an exit ramp, we will inevitably hold some section of our denomination hostage. And for what?

An exit ramp would allow local churches who find themselves unable to support United Methodist teaching and polity to leave the denomination with all their property and assets in tact. Rather than removing our theological center for the sake of preserving the institution, let’s remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer, in good conscience, support. This is the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its mission, not control the assets of local churches. We are not in the real estate business, nor are we designed for vindictiveness or control. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and offer a solid witness while maintaining a clear theological center. This, folks, is how love wins.

I hope and trust Bishop Carcaño and the people of Glide Memorial set an example for all of us in this contentious and uncertain season. If necessary, let us give congregations the grace and space to honestly and prayerfully discern whether they can continue to walk forward with the United Methodist Church. If they cannot, let us wish them well as they attempt to discern what God is doing in their midst.

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The insanity of pluralism

There is an old tale about four blind men and an elephant (this is not a politically correct tale, just an old one). As the story goes, each man is stationed around an elephant, their experience of him limited by what is within their grasp. The man standing by the leg decides this must be a tree. The man holding the tail declares it to be a rope. The trunk is determined to be a snake. The massive side of the elephant must be a wall.

Each of them interprets their “elephant” according to their own experience and the moral of the story is that none of us has the full range of truth. We each have our corner of it and our unique perspectives color our understanding of the whole. In other words, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians each have just a corner of the truth, though we are gathered around the same God.

And that, brothers and sisters, is just plain bad theology. For starters, it is an insult to every religion. To say all of them are equally right is to ignore the obvious and opposing differences. No serious Hindu can lay claim to one god, exclusive of all others. No faithful Muslim will embrace the Trinity (and in fact, considers that doctrine heretical). Jews are still waiting for their Messiah, while Christians cannot imagine a God without Jesus. To say these varied theologies are simply parts of the same “elephant” is to willfully deny their distinctives.

In a recent article, James Heidinger walks out the logic behind the theological liberalism of the 20th century that highjacked most mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church among them. The dismantling of orthodox theology began with the character of God (“Perhaps this is not an elephant after all”), its trickle-down effect impacting everything from our view of humanity to our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Heidinger writes:

“Liberalism believed that just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively and not absolutely or substantively, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just one, perhaps one of the most important, among the world’s various religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, the church’s missionary effort should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual dialogue and enrichment. The Christian faith is neither unique nor intended to be universal. Thus, the church’s worldwide missionary mandate was denied.”

This is the elephant redefined as chameleon. It will be what we need it to be, abolishing the need for absolute truth. It sounds gracious and accepting, doesn’t it? Except that it further diminishes the integrity of not one religion but all of them.

To say that somehow, we’ve all grabbed our own corner of the elephant is to say that the elephant itself is a donkey on one end and a peacock on the other. To call either an elephant is to misdefine the thing. In the story of the elephant and the blind men, no one is right. This elephant isn’t a snake or a tree or a rope or a wall. It is an elephant! The blind men can all be equally wrong, but they can’t be equally right.

Truth is not relative. 

There is a later version of this old story that includes another character. A king in possession of his sight eventually shows up to tell the blind men they have got it wrong. Their experience has deceived them. This is, in fact, an elephant.

And so it is with Christianity. Someone from beyond has come to reveal to the world the heart of God. He has seen what we cannot see and has come to tell us what truth is. Or more precisely, who truth is. Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. To believe in him alone for salvation is to be a Christian. Nothing else counts.

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