Note: This is a post in response to an article written by Rev. Paul Kottke in the Rocky Mountain Conference News concerning his impressions of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It will be helpful to read his critique before reading my rejoinder.
The Princess Bride is one of my favorite movies of all time. This fairy tale about a beautiful princess, a dashing hero, a giant, an evil prince, and some colorful sidekicks always makes me smile, but one of the best parts about the movie is that it is eminently quotable in a variety of situations. Sending the church staff out at the end of a staff meeting? “Have fun storming the castle!” Got some bad news to deliver? “Chocolate coating makes it go down easier.” Trying to impress a potential mate? “Please consider me as an alternative to suicide.”
Inigo Montoya, the Spanish swordsman, gets a lot of the best lines—most famously his practiced revenge speech for day he meets the six-fingered man who murdered his father: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” But while that’s the quote everyone loves, there’s another that I find even more useful. When his boss, the nefarious Sicilian named Vizzini, keeps using the word “inconceivable” to describe situations that are, in fact, conceivable, Inigo looks at him thoughtfully and says:
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
It’s that quote that keeps coming back to me during the current dialogue about the future of the United Methodist Church. I read Paul Kottke’s assessment of the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s inaugural October meeting in the latest issue of the weekly Rocky Mountain Conference News and was struck again by the fact that while progressives and orthodox United Methodists often use the same words, it’s pretty clear that the words do not mean the same thing to people sitting in the same room.
Take the word “biblical,” for example. Paul lauds the WCA for standing for gender equality in ministry, but then claims that this position is “not biblical” based on a couple of verses from his apostolic namesake. His argument seems to be that if we see these biblical prohibitions as “not valid for our day,” then we must see the verses that prohibit homosexual practice as equally invalid for our time. He then makes the same argument about divorce, citing Jesus’ prohibition and arguing that the WCA “is able to understand the wisdom of adjusting these scriptural prohibitions [against divorce]” but wonders why “when it comes to the few passages with translations of sexual orientation, these must be adhered to with literal rigidity?”
In arguing this way, Paul makes the same mistake that many Christians, both progressive and conservative, make in declaring what is “biblical” or not—a mistake that has proliferated ever since chapters and verses were added to print editions of the Bible in the 16th century. We tend to read the Bible in a truncated, proof-texting manner, lobbing verses back and forth like verbal grenades. Such a reading of the text inevitably leads to controversy and contradiction.
When I use the word “biblical,” however, I mean it to refer to the witness of the entire biblical canon and its trajectory on a particular topic or issue. While Rev. Kottke quotes a couple of verses in the epistles, I would point to the entire witness of Scripture when it comes to women in ministry—from the creation of Eve from Adam’s side as an equal partner, to the leadership of Deborah in Judges, to the first Christian sermons preached by the women who encountered the empty tomb, to the apostle Paul’s own assertions of gender equality in Galatians and his assumption that women will prophesy in I Corinthians 14:34. In Romans 16, Paul mentions 30 active Christians, eight of whom are women. The trajectory of the Scriptures as a whole, in other words, is toward gender equality.
Jesus’ teaching on divorce is part of the Bible’s comprehensive sexual ethic. Indeed, Jesus tightens the Old Testament restrictions on divorce rather than relaxing them. I have written extensively on the fact that any Christian sexual ethic must take Jesus’ prohibition on divorce as seriously as the scriptural prohibition on homosexual practice—a prohibition that Jesus never rescinded, by the way, thus rendering moot the argument from absence (ever popular among my progressive friends). Divorce is a sign of our human sexual and relational brokenness, which is why we don’t celebrate it or set up a network of “Irreconciling Congregations” that affirm it.
A comprehensive biblical sexual ethic will thus look at the whole witness of Scripture and its trajectory. The Bible begins with an archetype of human sexuality—a one flesh union of man and woman. Of course, human sexuality gets distorted by human sin, thus the Bible pulls no punches in revealing a ragged sexual history of lust, polygamy, polyamory, incest, rape, and homosexuality; but in no case does the Bible affirm any other sexual union than that which God created in God’s image. Indeed, the Bible ends with the marriage motif of the eschaton as Christ and his Bride are united forever.
In other words, the argument that we can use the Bible in a truncated way to support homosexual practice, or argue its validity through the argument from absence, is what is really “not biblical.” As New Testament scholar Richard Hays puts it in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, “The issue of homosexuality differs significantly from matters such as slavery and the subordination of women, concerning which the Bible contains internal tensions and counterposed witnesses. The biblical witness against homosexual practices is univocal” (p. 389). Ben Witherington offers a longer treatise on this subject as well.
This is why those of us on the orthodox side see this as a non-negotiable “biblical” issue. Marriage and sexuality are critical issues because they are bound up in God’s missional purposes for creation. This is not, as many of my progressive peers will quickly argue, a way of “hating” LGBTQ people. The idea that one must fully embrace homosexual practice and same-sex marriage or be labeled a hater and bigot is false dichotomy. We love our brothers and sisters who struggle with same sex attraction because we are all too aware of our temptations and brokenness. The answer, however, is not in acquiescing to the sexual ethics of the culture, but rather in “spurring one another on to perfection” within the community of faith.
That most Methodist of statements leads us to the second word—“Wesleyan.” Paul claims that John Wesley “bristled against the orthodoxy of his day in the Church of England” and “wanted a revival freed from orthodoxy.” This is similar to the claim I often hear from my progressive friends that we are not a “creedal” or “doctrinal” church because Wesley was all about “think and let think.” This has led to all sorts of theological “creativity” that borders on Unitarianism. I have had colleagues in this conference snort derisively at my belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I have heard a bishop replace a reference to the atoning “blood” of Jesus in a Charles Wesley hymn “because we don’t talk about that anymore.” I have had a fellow pastor chastise me for quoting Wesley on the pastor’s task as of having “nothing to do but save souls.” If you think Wesley would approve of such “think and let think” challenges to Christian doctrine, then you really haven’t read Wesley! Like the word “biblical,” this word “Wesleyan” does not mean what my friend thinks it means.
United Methodist church historian Kevin Watson has written cogently on this, saying that “Wesley was creedal because he was a Christian. And, more specifically, he was creedal because he was Anglican.” Wesley included the Apostle’s Creed in the Sunday Service and in the liturgy for baptism. He believed that orthodoxy was essential; he just did not believe that it alone was sufficient for salvation. Orthodoxy is necessary for orthopraxy.
The point here is not to deify Wesley, but to maintain what Wesley desired for the movement—a restoration of “primitive Christianity.” We said the Nicene Creed at WCA because it unites us with the historic, apostolic witness of the Christian church over time, not just the Wesleyan movement. No, the Creed alone is not sufficient for Christian faith and practice (actually, I agree with the great Methodist missionary E. Stanley Jones that putting a reference to Jesus’ teachings in there would have been immensely helpful in joining orthodoxy to orthopraxy), but neither is it to be discarded as old and irrelevant. The bishops who formed it at Nicea did so carrying the scars of persecution for the beliefs it contains.
Rev. Kottke asks if the Holy Spirit can move in our midst in ways that are not grounded in the Creed. I respond that the Holy Spirit would never call the church in a direction apart from the witness of the Scriptures that the Spirit inspired, nor would the Spirit call us to leave behind the witness of the church to whom the Spirit was given at Pentecost. It is in vogue these days to call any new idea, theology, or practice a “movement of the Spirit,” but it is the Spirit-inspired Scriptures and creeds that provide the real acid test. The Spirit is always moving the church in mission, but never by disconnecting the church from its moorings.
Lastly, we come to the word “covenant.” Every United Methodist clergy person takes the same vows to uphold the doctrine and Discipline of the United Methodist Church (don’t believe me? Check your ordination certificate!). It is strictly a voluntary vow. No one made us take it. We are required to study our polity and doctrine and give our assent to it when we are ordained. Presumably, every clergy person who has been ordained since 1972 has had to wrestle with the Discipline’s language on human sexuality and decide whether or not to agree with it. If they disagree, they have two choices: 1) Respectfully decline and join another body that aligns with their views, or 2) work to change the language via the church’s due process. There is no option 3 that involves outright disobedience to the order and discipline of the church without consequences. I have heard the language of “civil disobedience” used many times in reference to what our Jurisdiction and Annual Conference have done, but that only applies if you have no other choice.
My colleague claims to want to uphold a higher covenant—one in which individuals get to decide what is right based on their own discernment of the Spirit. The problem arises when the Spirit begins to sound more and more like our own rebellious spirit. The church was created as a check on this narcissistic impulse. The means by which God has chosen to administer his grace and his love to the world is through the church, thus the church as a body prayerfully discerns together what God requires and what God will have the church do. When we choose to go our own way, regardless of the discernment of the church, we can no longer be called the church in any reasonable sense. As one of my WCA colleagues put it, “If we are to be one church, we cannot keep acting like two churches; and if we are two churches, we cannot continue to act as though we are one.”
That’s the reason the local option is not acceptable to the WCA. If the local option were to be instituted, the United Methodist Church would no longer be United nor Methodist. We cannot remain one church if we are actually two churches. If that happens all we can do is, well, “prepare to die.”
I joined the WCA because I am hopeful for a future where there is clarity in mission and vision for the Wesleyan movement. I have a great deal of respect for my friends and colleagues in the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference, many of whom I am glad to call friends even if we would disagree on most things theological. I am glad that Paul attended the WCA meeting and have always enjoyed my interactions with him. I write this not as a personal rejoinder, but as a reminder to members of the Annual Conference that there are those of us among you who do not agree with the direction the Jurisdiction and Annual Conference have taken. We are not going anywhere, but we will be working with the WCA in the coming months as the future of the UMC comes into clearer focus.
I would invite those who have interest in the WCA or in talking further to contact me. Even if you disagree with everything I’ve written here, I invite you to pray with me about the future of the denomination and our Conference.
Oh, and have fun storming the castle!