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.

Christ, doctrine, & holiness

Joel Watts writes that matters of sexuality are not about Christ or doctrine, but holiness.

For me, the via media focuses on Christ. As a subset of this, it focuses on orthodox doctrines of the Church. For most of us, the issue of homosexuality is not a doctrinal matter (i.e., Trinity, baptism, episcopal authority) but is a matter (in Wesleyan terms) of holiness. That is why I can focus on episcopal authority even while arguing for inclusion. I can focus on orthodoxy, hold to prima scripture, and attempt to be a part of the Great Tradition while arguing for inclusion.

The way his words flow here, it reads to me as if he is saying orthodox doctrine is “a subset” of a focus on Christ but that holiness is not. Perhaps he is merely saying holiness is a different subset of the focus on Christ. Or maybe he is saying holiness is a subset of doctrine. I’m not entirely sure.

In any event, he has me puzzling a bit about the relationship between doctrine and holiness. I’ve always taken holiness — which is another word for sanctification which for Wesley is another word for salvation — to be itself part of the doctrine of the Christian Church. Holiness is what it means to live out our baptismal vows. It is what it means to be saved.

I don’t see how we can disagree about what it means to be holy and say we agree on the doctrines of justification and sanctification, for instance. Furthermore, if pressed, I’d argue that holiness comes before doctrine.

First, we focus on Christ. In this focus, what we notice overwhelmingly is his holiness. It is only after this that we begin to develop the superstructure of doctrine that gives shape and stability to our beliefs and practices. The Church was the church when all it had before it was the holiness of Christ. It did not have to wait for Nicea to become the church. All we needed was Christ and his holiness.

This is why questions about food laws and circumcision were existential issues for the church. They cut to the meaning of holiness.

Which is all a way of saying that I find matters of holiness more important than doctrine when it comes to Christian unity. And I think Wesley would agree.

This has little to do with the main point that Watts was trying to make about United Methodism and schism and so on, but it his post got my gears moving.

When it comes to questions of doctrine vs. questions of holiness, which do you think is more crucial for the unity of the church and the life of the Christian?

Protestant purgatory?

How do people who are imperfectly sanctified at the time of their death enter into heaven?

For what it is worth, there are some indications in John Wesley’s writings that he might agree with the views expressed in this video.

Understanding the argument on sex & gender

I’d never read the “Welcoming Toolkit 2.0” before Saturday. It is a document that advises those who are trying to organize their congregation to adopt a public stance known as “reconciling” or “welcoming” or “open and affirming” with regard to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, pansexual, or queer.

It is a really impressive document that rivals anything I’ve seen when it comes to analyzing a congregation and leading a process of change. The Appendix on how organizations change would be useful for any church leader in any setting, for instance. The document is a testimony of the skill, expertise, and funding behind the movement.

One thing that I found helpful in my quest to understand the debates and arguments in our denomination was Appendix Nine (pp. 43-48), which outlines a the way members of the church are invited to understand issues of sex, identity, and attraction. It is the closest thing I’ve found to a comprehensive theological statement about how the movement would have us understand who we are. The statement is not at all theological, of course. It is based rather on the work of Indiana University’s own Alfred Kinsey, who was the son of devout Methodists according to his Wikipedia profile. But it does outline what we are invited to affirm.

The Appendix argues that the idea that humanity was created male and female is a woefully inadequate way of describing us. Rather, we are beings who exist along a continuum of experience between the poles of male and female with no normative expectation that we should treat biological sex, gender identification, gender expression, or sexual orientation as properly understood in either/or terms. (If that is confusing, go read the Appendix for further explanation. One key concept is that sex is a physical biological category and gender is a psychological and social construct that may or may not have anything to do with biological sex.)

The bottom line argument is that since some people do not fit within the binary categories of male and female, the categories should be set aside in favor of a set of four continua: sex, gender identification, gender expression, and sexual orientation. Any individual might occupy any spot on each of these four continua.

What I think the basic move entails is taking description of natural diversity for a norm. So, because there are people who are born with sexual organs that are not clearly male or female, we should reject the notion that the only two normative categories are male and female. Similarly, because some people who are biologically male are sexually aroused by and attracted to other biological males (or people who express their gender as male), the notion that sex should be between people of opposite genders should not be affirmed.

So, for instance, we are invited to embrace the notion that sexual attraction to the people of the opposite biological sex is not normative or God’s intention in creation, but one possible position along a continuum of equally holy and blessed options. (The theological language here is mine not the document’s, but this is a document for the church, so I assume it is not out of place.)

Here is how Appendix reflects on one implication of this melange of categories:

Remember in the graph of the Kinsey scale, the ends of the scale refer to same and opposite gender. How can there be a same or opposite with gender in such a mix? This is why some people who are attracted to people of a variety of genders identify not as bisexual (which still implies that there are only two genders) but as pansexual or queer. For them, these words better reflect their experience of falling in love with a person rather than a gender.

So, here are some of the take-aways I hear in this document.

The terms “male” and “female” provide an inadequate binary choice in defining who people are. We should, rather, teach that people may be male, female, or any combination of the two. Similarly, the gender people identify with (woman or man) has no tie and should have no necessary tie to biological sex. At the center between the poles of man and woman, the Appendix offers a third gender, “queer,” that is neither of the other two. Beyond this, since how people express gender is socially determined, there can be no norm, certainly not a theological one, regarding to the ways people of various genders (or no gender?) act, dress, speak, or otherwise behave. Finally, because of all this, there is no coherent or justified reason to deny that God blesses all forms of sexual attraction and sexual activity between two consenting adults. (The “two consenting adults” part is not stated in the document, but I assume it is implied.)

This may not fairly sketch out the approach to questions of sex and gender being outlined in the document. It is my attempt to do so.

What is clear from the Appendix is that this is not a theological argument. But, of course, it does have theological implications. I’ve not heard any of the public voices for an “inclusive church” lay this all out so clearly. I am glad to have found a place where it is set out for full consideration and reflection.

Honoring their story

Why did many of the leaders of the Church of England oppose Methodism? This is a question raised recently in another place. A full answer requires more than a few blog posts, but I did find John Wesley’s letter the Bishop of London, written in 1747, an interesting source of information about this historical question.

In the letter, Wesley reprints the accusation raised by the bishop in a recent address:

Your Lordship begins, “There is another species of enemies, who give shameful disturbance to the parochial Clergy, and use very unwarrantable methods to prejudice their people against them, and to seduce their flocks from them; the Methodists and the Moravians, who agree in annoying the established ministry, and in drawing over to themselves the lowest and most ignorant of the people, by pretences to greater sanctity.”

A couple paragraphs later, Wesley quotes the bishop farther:

Your Lordship adds, “Their innovations in points of discipline I do not intend to enter into at present. But to inquire what the doctrines are which they spread. … Doctrines big with pernicious influences upon practice.”

So, here we see, it is the doctrines and practices of the Methodists that are seen as the root of all their evil. They poison the people against the clergy and lure them away, so the bishop charges, from attending worship and taking the sacraments. As we see elsewhere in the letter, the Methodists also encourage their people to — in the eyes of the elites — to forget their place in the class system of England.

Several of the charges about doctrine leveled by the bishop, Wesley denies. The bishop attributes to Methodists doctrines that Wesley says he never taught and, in many cases, actively opposed. In the course of doing so, Wesley recounts his teaching on what we would call the “open table.” Perhaps in a later post, I will delve into that discussion.

After this exchange, Wesley return to the question of worship attendance. The bishop had accused Methodists of disparaging worship and keeping people from attending the services. (Note: The complaint is not that Methodists flooded the church with dirty newcomers but that they kept people out of church.)

Wesley admits — and cites his own story — that Methodists teach that worship attendance alone does not make a person love God. It is only “the preaching remission of sins through Jesus Christ” that does that.

And he writes that far from keeping people out of church, those who attend Methodist preaching attend church and communion more regularly than they did before they heard the Methodists preach.

Wesley then summarizes the warnings the bishop issues his clergy, the steps they should take to protect their flocks from the depredations of the Methodists:

  • teach the people that the church liturgy is a service of most importance
  • show people that they must not neglect their secular work or duties
  • perform their own duties as clergy with diligence and timeliness
  • live their own lives in ways that will raise the esteem of the clergy in the eyes of the people

The concern of the bishop appears to be that Methodists somehow undermine the ministry of the parish clergy and bring them into reproach by their own example and efforts.

Clearly, part of this reproach is because some of the parish clergy seem unconcerned with or overwhelmed by those who do not darken the door of the church. Near the end of the letter, Wesley appeals to the bishop to explain what he would have done in such cases.

I would fain set this point in a clearer light. Here are, in and near Moorfields, ten thousand poor souls for whom Christ died, rushing headlong into hell. Is Dr. Bulkely, the parochial Minister, both willing and able to stop them? If so, let it be done, and I have no place in these parts. I go and call other sinners to repentance. But if, after all he has done, and all he can do, they are still in the broad way to destruction, let me see if God will put a word even in my mouth. True, I am a poor worm that of myself can do nothing. but if God sends by whomsoever he will send, his word shall not return empty. … Is this any annoyance to the parochial Minister? Then what manner of spirit is he of?

And he continues:

What have been the consequences … of the doctrines I have preached for nine years last past? … The habitual drunkard that was, is now temperate in all things; the whoremonger now flees fornication; he that stole, steals no more, but works with his hands; he that cursed or swore, perhaps at every sentence, has now learned to serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice unto him with reverence; those formerly enslaved to various habits of sin are now brought to uniform habits of holiness. These are demonstrable facts; I can name the men, with their places of abode. …

My Lord, can you deny these facts? I will make whatever proof of them you shall require. But if the facts be allowed, who can deny the doctrines to be, in substance, the gospel of Christ?

I quote this letter at such length, because I want to do justice to Wesley. The tempest that arose in response to Methodism surely had many causes, and I do not want to pretend that the Methodists were somehow not the cause of any of the troubles. But if we would use the experiences of those early Methodists as lessons and examples, it seems to me that we must take the greatest care that we understand their suffering and its causes.

It does not do justice to their memories to have the men and women, who suffered beatings and mud-slinging and the loss of property for the sake of the Gospel, be used by us as straw-stuffed effigies for our own agendas.

Why they threw rocks at the preacher

The RMN blog posts today an interpretation of John Wesley’s ministry that offers the following explanation why he the movement was opposed, sometimes violently:

Why would the leaders of the church attack him and his followers? There may be many answers, but a clear reason is that he sought to include people who weren’t accepted in the churches. They were the coarse workers from factory and field. They were not the respectable folks of the parish. The respectable folks didn’t want to sit next to the unwashed, illiterate rabble that Wesley was sending to church.

See, he took them the word of God’s redemptive love, but he sent them to the churches for communion and baptism. John Wesley was an Anglican until he died. He didn’t set out to found a new denomination; he set out to reform Anglicanism. He sought to expand the church to include all of God’s children – not just the “respectable” ones. Perhaps had he not sent the less respectable folks to church, had he performed baptisms and communion outside of the church, he might not have stirred up such a storm of opposition.

In all my reading of John Wesley’s works, I’ve never found anything that would support the conclusion that he faced rock-throwing gangs because he sent poor people to the local church to take communion. Maybe it is in the histories that I have not yet read.

His own account of the troubles faced by Methodists, written in 1745, goes like this:

1. About seven years since, we began preaching inward, present salvation, as attainable by faith alone.

2. For preaching this doctrine, we were forbidden to preach in the churches.

3. We then preached in private houses, as occasion offered: And when the houses could not contain the people, in the open air.

4. For this, many of the Clergy preached or printed against us, as both heretics and schismatics.

5. Persons who were convinced of sin, begged us to advise them more particularly how to flee from the wrath to come. We replied, if they would all come at one time (for they were numerous) we would endeavour it.

6. For this, we were represented, both from the pulpit and the press, (we have heard it with our ears, and seen it with our eyes) as introducing Popery, raising sedition, practicing both against Church and State; and all manner of evil was publicly said both of us, and those who were accustomed to meet with us.

7. Finding some truth herein, viz., that some of those who so met together walked disorderly, we immediately desired them not to come to us any more.

8. And the more steady were desired to overlook the rest, that we might know if they walked according to the Gospel.

9. But now several of the Bishops began to speak against us, either in conversation or in public.

10. On this encouragement, several of the Clergy stirred up the people to treat us as outlaws or mad dogs.

11. The people did so, both in Staffordshire, Cornwall, and many other places.

12. And they do so still, wherever they are not restrained by their fear of the Magistrate.

In neither this letter nor any any of the other of Wesley’s works that I have read — journals, letters, sermons, pamphlets — do I recall the issue being about who was sitting next to whom in church.

The matter at hand was doctrine. Wesley preached a strict holiness and a justification by faith in Jesus Christ that saves from the guilt and power of sin. Wesley preached this gospel to all would hear, but his journals are replete with cases of him ejecting from the Methodist society those who were “disorderly walkers.” This was not movement of blind inclusivism. It was a movement of egalitarian spiritual renewal. All need to be saved from sin.

Wesley did preach to the poor, the in prison, the illiterate, and the unloved people of the British Isles. He did care for their spirits, their minds, and their bodies. He did encourage them to partake of constant communion, but I can find no evidence at all that it was the unwashed showing up for communion that got him in trouble with the establishment.

It was doctrine that started all the trouble. It was preaching moral and spiritual holiness that enraged the well-heeled and the powerful. It was calling on sinners to “flee from the wrath to come,” to repent of their sins, and to work out their salvation with fear and trembling that upset the comfortable church people.

If you know of evidence that contradicts my reading, I’d love to have it pointed out to me. Until then, I’ll close with another quote from John Wesley’s journal about the redemptive love of Christ he preached in the fields and public squares:

I had a great desire to visit a little village called Placey, about ten measured miles north of Newcastle. It is inhabited by colliers only, and such as had been always in the first rank for savage ignorance and wickedness of every kind. Their grand assembly used to be on the Lord’s day; on which men, women, and children met together, to dance, fight, curse and swear, and play at chuck, ball, and span-farthing, or whatever came next to hand. I felt great compassion for these poor creatures, from the time I heard of them first; and the more, because all men seemed to despair of them. Between seven and eight I set out with John Heally, my guide. The north wind being unusually high, drove the sleet in our face, which froze as it fell, and cased us over presently. When we came to Placey, we could very hardly stand. As soon as we were a little recovered, I went into the Square, and declared Him who “was wounded for our transgressions,” and “bruised for our iniquities.” The poor sinners were quickly gathered together, and gave earnest heed to the things which were spoken. And they did in the afternoon again, in spite of the wind and snow, when I besought them to receive Him for their King; to “repent and believe the Gospel.”