Last week I was at a gathering for general conference delegates, held at an event sponsored by the Reconciling Ministries Network. I’ve been in several gatherings like this to prepare for General Conference and heard many different perspectives. At this gathering, Bishop Karen Oliveto preached a sermon using, as her text, the story of Jesus and the woman at the well. She offered up a very high Christology, pointing out how Jesus revealed to this marginalized person that he was the Messiah, the Christ. She called Jesus also our everlasting God. In the context of listening to calls for schism within our Conference because of “low Christology,” my radar was up, and I was pleased to hear this affirmation of Christ.
At this gathering, I heard many testimonies of people whose lives have been transformed by the living Christ, people who are so attracted to the message of Jesus that we are willing to stay in a church even in the face of harm, wanting to give witness to Christ’s steadfast and eternal love for all. I heard from people who want to be in a church where they can be held accountable for growth in faithfulness and the virtues of love. It was made so clear that this movement was not about pushing some secular agenda. This movement is made up of committed United Methodist Christians wanting a church that makes room for all, reads the whole of scripture without selective literalism to justify exclusion, and practices true Wesleyan holiness. Many of these siblings remain committed to our beloved church because of Jesus Christ in their lives, certainly not to fight against him.
This experience serves as a backdrop for how I want to respond to recent calls to schism from colleagues in our conference. To justify the call to intentionally bring division to the Body of Christ, we are being invited to look beyond differences of opinion on matters of human sexuality and towards the claim that the United Methodist Church is increasingly becoming “unitarian” in our theology, where we deny both the divinity of Christ and the primacy of scripture. I do not believe that this projected narrative is based in any reality. Furthermore, it is alarming to see our Living Lord and Savior being used in this way to justify division within the body of Christ.
In one sermon, the evidence of this heresy included a search of church websites where no information about Christ could be found on the home page, or beyond. This example was shocking to me since the home page of the congregation lifted up as a model had no mention of Christ, or the congregation’s mission statement, on its home page. At the time that I looked, such statements could be found in subsequent pages, but this would be the case for many. Is it fair to judge the Christological witness of others because of poor website management? If there was a mass movement to disavow creeds in worship, or not baptize in the name of the Trinity, then I would consider joining in this response, but that is simply not my experience. I would even say it is a false witness.
Other “evidence” revolved around statements from two bishop, one of them not United Methodist, who have probably not been quoted by a United Methodist pastor in 20 years – and even back then, it would have been rare. In some quick research on one of them, I found that this bishop did not deny the resurrection, but questioned whether the resurrection involved a resuscitation of the physical body. I suspect he used standard scriptures to share this perspective – the way the risen Christ was able to transcend time and space in the gospel accounts and the Apostle Paul’s affirmation that we are raised with a new spiritual body. Out of a high view of the whole of scripture, it is possible to engage in theological reflection around such topics, as we open ourselves to the mysterious, sovereign, uncontrollable nature of a God who will not be boxed in by our limited perspectives. Scriptures support that. Today, such theological explorations are common even in the most conservative of circles for those who dig deep into the Word. Schism will not move the church away from this kind of theological exploration.
In this call to “split,” a quote was used from Bishop Oliveto. It was lifted out of context from an online devotion dealing with a very challenging passage of scripture from the lectionary that week — Matthew 15:21-28. In this passage Jesus encounters a gentile woman asking for healing for her daughter and is likened to a dog. With her push back, Jesus seems to change and takes time to bring healing to her family. In her devotion, Bishop Oliveto clearly named Jesus as our “wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, and prince of peace.” She framed her struggles through this text with a very high Christology, but here dealt with humanness of Christ, the one “who did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited but emptied himself…”- and came all the way into our humanity. In this humanness he gives us an example of how we might need to be transformed. While one might argue with the interpretation, this one reference, from one of many bishops, does not seem to be adequate grounds to incite division of the body.
As we move towards General Conference, I want to be a part of the strong movement that believes in both inclusion and in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In this movement, these two commitments go together, and by putting them together God is truly glorified. To separate these two commitments and try to paint those who want inclusion as those who practice a low Christology is, in my opinion, a false characterization that is harmful and divisive to the body of Christ. Frankly it hurt!
Please know that I share this witness out of a sincere hope for reconciliation and for peace among us. I truly believe that is what God wants from us and for us. In this light, you are invited to choose reconciliation over schism. Please prayerfully reflect on which one of these choices truly glorifies Christ.
(Up next – I was asked “What would Wesley have to say about this?” I’ll try to address that)