Cool Church Or Faithful Church?
The United Methodist Church is meeting next week to figure out what to do about the issue of homosexuality within the institution. Despite those wanting to keep the denomination together via a “One Church” plan, Dale M. Coulter says schism seems like the least bad option. Excerpts:
This is a war for the soul of the UMC. People on both sides feel strongly about their positions, and I don’t see how they can live together any longer. Progressive and traditionalist churches are pledging to leave if the outcome does not go the way they want. This includes significant churches like Mt. Horeb UMC in Lexington, South Carolina, the largest church in the state conference. The One Church Plan feels like a shotgun wedding when what is really needed is for both sides to walk away. The recent history of the TEC, ELCA, and the PCUSA on this same question suggests that the best way to avoid either a scorched-earth campaign or a slow death with a steady stream of churches departing is to agree to separate amicably.
As Billy Abraham points out in his call for a “Mexit,” the divisions run much deeper than gay marriage and ordination of practicing homosexuals. There are divisions over the interpretation and authority of Scripture, the status of the Book of Discipline and the authority of the General Conference, and the mission of the church. When you cannot even agree on these fundamentals, it’s time to part ways. How could the General Conference continue to define doctrine for a church that no longer agrees on core theological principles? How can you maintain connectionalism when some believe the General Conference’s pronouncements need no longer be considered binding? How could there be a consistent theology of marriage and sexuality one way or the other?
I also encourage you to read Methodist theologian Billy Abraham’s “Mexit” essay. Excerpt:
First, the issue of human sexuality has become the most pressing issue for the church of our generation. This is not to say that it can be divorced from other crucial issues, say, of mission, ecclesial identity, ministerial orders, executive authority, epistemology, and the like. Nor it is to say that everyone would agree that it is the most important issue facing the church. We can all provide our own list of items on this score; for me, it would not be at or even near the top of my concerns. However, the crowbar of civil and church history in the West has sidelined ecclesial debates about ancillary matters. Human sexuality has become the issue of our time and anyone who cares about the future of the church cannot ignore it.
This is certainly true. Enough with the worn-out cliches about “is this what Jesus died for”? That’s a dodge, and no serious person is persuaded by it. Abraham makes a lengthy case for the United Methodist Church to split. The schism exists de facto, he argues; there’s no point in pretending that this division can be healed or tolerated. Read the whole thing.
Of course I agree with him. If what the Bible teaches about homosexuality is true, then there can be no compromise within the church over it. If progressives are right, and the teaching needs to change, then from their point of view, I don’t understand why they should tolerate being in a formal communion with people who hold same-sex romantic love and the commitments that emerge from that as sinful. The progressives say the orthodox/conservative belief is unjust … and if I believed what they believe about sex and sexuality, I would have to agree with them.
The point is, whether or not you are liberal or conservative, how the church reacts to homosexuality is a really big deal. By now, as Abraham and Coulter recognize, church people have had enough time to try to talk about how to hold things together. The progressive Methodists, as Abraham acidly notes, have made it clear that they are going to do what they want to do with no regard to what the greater body of Methodism thinks. Why pretend any longer that there is unity?
Along these lines, the Southern Baptist theologian Albert Mohler has a good piece talking about the issue of homosexuality and the church, as seen through the social media argument the lesbian actress Ellen Page started with the actor Chris Pratt. She called him out for attending a Hillsong church, which she condemned as anti-LGBT. Mohler writes:
Pratt responded to Page, stating, “It has recently been suggested that I belonged to a church which hates a certain group of people and is infamously anti LGBTQ. Nothing could be further from the truth. I go to a church that opens their doors to absolutely everyone. Despite what the Bible says about my divorce, my church community was there for me every step of the way, never judging, just gracefully accompanying me on my walk. They helped me tremendously offering their love and support. It is what I have seen them do for others on countless occasions, regardless of sexual orientation, race, or gender. My faith is important to me, but no church defines me or my life, and I’m not a spokesman for any church or any group of people. My values define who I am. We need less hate in this world, not more. I am a man who believes that everyone is entitled to love who they want free from the judgment of their fellow man.”
That last line encapsulates the modern secular orthodoxy – “everyone is entitled to love who they want free from the judgment of their fellow man.”
Pratt’s “defense” of his church also represents the thinnest ecclesiology—a conception of the church severed from the Scriptures. He claims that “no church defines me or my life.” According to the Bible, the church does define us. Whereas Pratt denies that his church defines him, the Scriptures teach that the church founded by Christ is the family of the living God, bought by the blood of Christ, in covenant together for the cause of the Gospel. That is the vision of a biblical church. Such a church, bound together in obedience to Christ, absolutely defines a member’s life.
Mohler points out that when pro-LGBT folks called out Hillsong in the past on this issue, its leaders waffled embarrassingly. They simply don’t want to take a stand one way or the other. I have more respect for the out-front pro-gay churches. Mohler continues:
Something far more important underlines the controversy between Ellen Page, Christ Pratt, and Hillsong church. This issue isn’t about Page, Pratt, or Hillsong—it’s about you, me, and our churches. Every church will soon stand trial in the high courts of modernity. The secular storm will leave no place to hide. Hillsong gave its answer: it would rather be cool than convictional. The nod towards cultural relevance leads to theological confusion—a deliberately marketed confusion.
The controversy coming out of Los Angeles is yet another rather rude awakening for those who want a church that is simultaneously cool and Christian. That possibility evaporated long ago, when the culture decided that biblical Christianity is decidedly uncool. So, which will it be? That is the question.
You all know my position on Christianity and sexuality — but if not, please read this short essay I wrote in 2013, titled “Sex After Christianity”. Excerpts:
It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to grasp why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among The People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-Puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.
In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitive Greco-Roman culture of the time—exploitive especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage—and marital sexuality—with love.
Christian marriage, Ruden writes, was “as different from anything before or since as the command to turn the other cheek.” The point is not that Christianity was only, or primarily, about redefining and revaluing sexuality, but that within a Christian anthropology sex takes on a new and different meaning, one that mandated a radical change of behavior and cultural norms. In Christianity, what people do with their sexuality cannot be separated from what the human person is.
Gay marriage signifies the final triumph of the Sexual Revolution and the dethroning of Christianity because it denies the core concept of Christian anthropology. In classical Christian teaching, the divinely sanctioned union of male and female is an icon of the relationship of Christ to His church and ultimately of God to His creation. This is why gay marriage negates Christian cosmology, from which we derive our modern concept of human rights and other fundamental goods of modernity. Whether we can keep them in the post-Christian epoch remains to be seen.
There is no question that the Church has lost this battle in the culture. The only question now is whether or not it will lose it inside itself. If a church flips on the gay question (and on sexual morality more broadly), then it surrenders more than it can afford to. For same-sex relationships to be rightly ordered in the eyes of the God of the Bible, too many things about Christianity have to be untrue. It’s not at all merely a matter of sexual ethics, or of Scriptural authority (as important as that is). This issue is at the level of anthropology — that is, of what a human being, as a bearer of the divine image, is.
I’m not going to get into restating these arguments in the comments section. I only want to make it clear that both church progressives and church conservatives are right: homosexuality is an issue that can no longer be evaded or elided. Those who choose fidelity to Biblical truth are going to have to suffer for it. The sooner they understand this, the better.