A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

Some hope of truth

Christian Century has published a number of responses to the 25th anniversary of the publication of Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. I skimmed a couple of the responses, but what I found most interesting was Hauerwas and Willimon’s response to the responses. (Warning: You can only read a handful of Christian Century articles without having to sign up, so I’d start with the Hauerwas and Willimon piece. But that is me.)

These two paragraphs were particularly nice:

Again we say: when Christians are asked to say something political, we say church. The reason we say church is that the church for all its limits is where we have some hope of being a people who do not lie to one another.

If Resident Aliens has a bottom line, it is that the hidden violence intrinsic to our manipulative relations with one another that are so often identified as “love” can only be named and transformed by a people capable of telling one another the truth. Of all people, Christians should be capable of truth-telling, trained as we are Sunday after Sunday to confess we were there when they crucified the One who is truth itself.

Three marks of evangelicalism

I came across a wonderful little book at the university library earlier this summer. Timothy L. Smith’s Whitefield & Wesley on the New Birth contains sermons and writings from the two great Methodist preachers. It also includes a lucid and edifying essay by Smith tracing the essentials that bound the two men and the differences that divided them on matters of theology. The book is out of print, but worth picking up if you find a copy.

In Smith’s essay, he summarizes his view of the three points on which Wesley and Whitefield always agreed. Smith writes that the pair shared these convictions with Quakers, Baptists, German Pietists, Mennonites, Moravians, and Presbyterian, Anglican, and Congregationalist heirs to the Puritans.

All such “evangelicals” affirmed the moral authority of the Bible, declaring that it called human beings to righteousness that is not only imputed to them in Christ’s name but actually imparted to them by His grace. All stressed the work of the Holy Spirit in bringing sinners to repentance and faith in Christ, assuring them of forgiveness, and, by His presence thereafter in their hearts, nurturing in them the love and holiness that please God. Evangelicals also declared it the duty of all who had discovered these truths and experienced this grace to proclaim the good news of salvation everywhere, at home and abroad. From that day until this, these three convictions have marked the boundaries of evangelical Protestantism.The Bible is its authority, the new birth its hallmark, and evangelism its mission.

There are others schemes that people try to use to define what it means to be an evangelical, but I find Smith’s summary quite appealing.

Methodism as option 3

I’ve been reading William J. Abraham’s Dialogues: Amongst the People Called United Methodists.

People who read this book looking for a fair and balanced airing of various view points — expecting it to be a piece of journalism — will be shocked and disappointed. Those looking to see our current crisis through Abraham’s eyes, will find it an interesting read. (I suspect Steve Harper and Adam Hamilton may use words other than “interesting,” as will anyone who labels themselves a progressive.)

In the book Abraham touches on one proposal I find intriguing. The following proposal is offered by the character “Traditionalist,” but I have heard a version of it in the past from Abraham’s mouth, and I take Traditionalist to be the character in the book who most reflects Abraham’s views. This may be off base, but I don’t think it is far off base.

Traditionalist describes a taxonomy of three ways of being the church.

The first he call the “big C” Catholic and Orthodox option that puts an emphasis on “the historical episcopate, on baptismal regeneration, on an exclusionary account of the Eucharist, and on a clerical hierarchy with our without Rome.”

Traditionalist claims that Wesley started as an Anglican committed to this option up until it failed him spiritually.

The second option is Magisterial Protestantism, which Traditionalist says has as its core a commitment to “learn the original languages and finally figure out what to believe and do, not least what do do by way of church ministry and polity.”

Traditionalist argues this is a poor fit for Methodism because “we do not believe there is a normative church polity in scripture. We begin with the work of the Holy Spirit and effectively buy the slogan that where the Spirit is there is the church and the fullness of grace.”

Building on this thought, the third option offered by Traditionalist is Methodism as a Holy Spirit filled revival of the “Primitive Christianity that stretched beyond the New Testament era into the first centuries of the church’s life.”

Traditionalist argues that this option for Christianity coming forward from Wesley includes the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism, and much of the most vibrant expressions of Christianity now witnessed around the world.

I’m not sure how Traditionalist/Abraham fleshes out this notion of Methodism as a third way (based on the book, I’m pretty sure Abraham would not embrace calling it the third way) of Christianity. But the notion is interesting, and it speaks to some of the ways that Methodist evangelicalism often does not feel like the Reformed kind. It isn’t just about predestination, but about the robust embrace of the Holy Spirit. One of my professors calls it Metho-costalism.

Losing track of God

[T]oo often Christians do not realize how subtly we are dissuaded from the theocentric perspective that should characterize faith. We live in an age of super-subjectivism, in which how we are experiencing things determines their reality. Subjectivism is evident in such slogans as “If it feels good do it.” Not so evident is the way subjectivism distorts our society’s approach to religious phenomena.

Postmodern interpretation of scriptural accounts center on the perceptions of the disciples rather than on what Jesus was teaching about His kingdom, or on the experience of the children of Israel rather than on what YHWH was showing them about covenant purposes and faithfulness. Last Sunday,  I heard a sermon that focused primarily on dimensions of life that bend women over, but hardly mentioned anything about the Jesus who healed a deformed woman (Luke 13:10-17)

Because the twenty-first century mind is characteristically inward-turned, this subjectivism has invaded our theology, as can be seen in much contemporary Christian ethics, as well as Christian music. Several years ago a large dramatic Easter pageant shocked me when the words from Handel’s Messiah, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” were changed to “when we shall see his glory.” That shift might not seem so drastic, but think of the dichotomous difference of perspective it indicates. Now the emphasis is on how we, subjectively, are (or are not) seeing God’s glory, rather than on the objective fact of YHWH’s revelation.

– Marva J. Dawn, Joy in Our Weakness

Holy Spirit & Bible then and now

I was going on about not having had an opportunity yet to pick up a copy of Adam Hamilton’s new book on the Bible, when someone very graciously sent me a copy. It arrived today. Is there anything better than free books in the mail?

Rather than skip to the chapters on hot-button issues, I skimmed through many chapters of the book and then went to the back where Hamilton turns from questions and critical reflection to what he calls an “honest and reverent view of Scripture.”

Here is one paragraph in which he summarizes things:

To reiterate the basic premise of this book: You are not dishonoring God by asking questions of scripture that seems inconsistent with modern scientific knowledge or geography or history. And you are not being unfaithful to God if you ask questions of a verse that seems inconsistent with the picture of God seen in the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is possible because you recognize that the Spirit’s inspiration of the human authors of scripture was similar to the Spirit’s work in your own life. The Holy Spirit prompts you but does not dictate. The Spirit whispers to you, but you don’t always hear correctly. The Spirit’s work in your life does not make you inerrant or infallible.

Hamilton’s emphasis on the Spirit reminds me of his charismatic background. I take his argument to be that the Holy Spirit today inspires people the same way it inspired the biblical authors, so our experience of the Spirit can and should inform our encounter with the Bible.

This might lead to ask why we treat the Bible as special. Aren’t worship songs and religious writings of our day — or other religions — just as inspired as the Bible, then? Hamilton responds to these questions in his chapter about whether the gospels can be trusted when they tell us about Jesus. He argues that the historical proximity of the authors — at least the New Testament ones — to the events they describe and the value the church has found in the writings warrant our giving them special attention and authority. I take this as saying the Bible’s authority comes from the circumstances of its writing and its usage in the church, not the unique nature of its inspiration.

In the end, if I am close to reading Hamilton correctly, most of the arguments that he makes on specific questions, including his controversial “three buckets” framework for classifying parts of the Bible, come down to this matter of what it means to say the Bible is inspired.

I’d be interested in the thoughts of others who have read his book or who have thoughts arise by reading my all-too-brief description of this point.