Christology and Inclusion (in response to recent calls for schism among us)

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)

Inclusion at the Core of the UMC Constitution and Tradition

IMG_4576With another General Conference quickly approaching, and as a delegate, I have spent some time re-reading our constitution in the Book of Discipline (BOD).  Interestingly, it is all about unity! We see this theme in almost every paragraph.  It is clearly stated that “dividedness” is a hindrance to our witness.  We are called to confess, in humility, our brokenness and seek opportunities for reunion, “in the confident assurance that this act is an expression of the oneness of Christ’s people.”  We are then to “strive towards unity…at all levels of church life.” I wonder how we could have strayed so far?

As a matter of constitutional proclamation, we are also called to work towards inclusion, “without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition.”  Scriptural Unity is not to be found by dividing into like-minded camps or by excluding others.  It is not found in our agreement over things that do not “strike at the root of faith,” but in our coming together in environments where we can practice our calling to love with patience, kindness, humility, and without insisting on our own way. That glorifies God!

The BOD gives us powerful guiding principles for how we can strive for this unity of spirit. Later in the BOD, we are challenged to seek unity in the midst of both continuing “historic tensions” and as “new issues continually arise and summon us to fresh theological inquiry.” In this light, we affirm our rich diversity of perspectives and see this as a sign of health within the Body of Christ.  We affirm that “our faith is enriched by indigenous experiences and manners of expression.” As a guiding principle, in this diversity, we believe that “we are held together by a shared inheritance and a common desire to participate in the creative and redemptive activity of God.” I wonder what conferencing would look like if we were more faithful to this charge?

By taking a small leap, we can also say that inclusion is at the heart of our tradition, defined as the living faith that honors those who have gone before us rather than the dead faith of the living.  With this definition, I do not think we should use the word “traditional” to describe the policy (It is no longer a plan) that is before us.  This policy is built on a mandate to exclude, punish, and strengthen stances that cause harm.  Even the Judicial Council has likened this policy to an “inquisitional court.”   This policy does not honor our living tradition. I would love to re-claim this important word for all of us rather than letting it be co-opted to describe one segment of the church and for the only purpose of judging some among us as incompatible. That seems so unconstitutional to me – not to mention unchristian.

The abuse of the Book of Discipline (BOD) in times of contention is similar to the abuse we see with scripture – proof-texting, selective literalism, and focusing on the letter of the law rather than the spirit.  It is used too often to announce the speck in the eye of some while ignoring the ways that others do not follow our discipline and doctrine.  That list is long for all of us.  We hear cries against disobedience when we could acknowledge that principled resistance is a legitimate approach within our covenant and our democratic process of discernment.  Where some practice this kind of resistance by pushing through a plan known to be unconstitutional, others resist rules and language believed to be exclusionary and incompatible with both the spirit of the BOD and the living tradition of the church,  Our covenant can honor this tension as we continuously strive for unity around the values of faithfulness and love.

Rather than using the BOD against one another, we could see it as a resource to help us build a church that truly glorifies God.  As we approach another General Conference, I would encourage us all to prayerfully read the constitution before we get too involved in all the legislation that will come our way.  There is something to be said about putting first things first.