Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Christology, Not Just Sex

"Both conservatives and liberals shy away from debating the real issues that have divided United Methodism for decades: scriptural authority and the identity of Jesus Christ. Conservatives believe that the Bible is God’s wholly reliable, revealed authority. They believe that Jesus Christ is the unique Son of God, the supernaturally born son of a Virgin, who was boldly resurrected, the Savior of the whole world, who was dispatched by God the Father to redeem fallen humanity. Liberals, in contrast, see the Bible as human stories that illustrate humanity’s search for God. For them, Jesus is a social liberator, giving hope to oppressed peoples, much as Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi did.

“Conservatives see homosexual behavior as a consequence of humanity’s innately sinful nature. For conservatives, Jesus Christ is the Good News, who can break the bondage of all sin. Liberals see people as basically good, and therefore sexual preference is God-ordained and meriting affirmation. For liberals, good people do not need salvation from a Savior so much as affirmation from a Liberator.”
- Mark Tooley,
Taking Back the United Methodist Church (2008)


I completely agree with the first sentence of this passage from Mark Tooley: the current debate in The United Methodist Church is Christological; sex and connectional covenant issues are simply manifestations of this debate. The fundamental problem we face has to do with how we affirm (and if we affirm, I suppose) the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and what it means to do that.

I would take issue with Mr. Tooley's depiction of conservatives viewing Scripture as divine while liberals view it as a human document. We affirm that Jesus is both divine and human; surely, we can do the same for Scripture, without losing sight of the fact that it is our primary authority. Jesus, then, is both Savior and Liberator. For conservatives or liberals to forget this would be (and has been, at times) painful for the Church.

That said, in all honesty, it is my opinion that in recent years it has more often than not been the theological Left which has forgotten these truths. Many on the theological Left (not all) seem to be more agenda-driven than mission-driven, doctrine-driven, Scripture-driven, or Christ-driven. I believe the reason for this has to do with a failure to craft a Christology which is faithful to the authoritative truth of revealed Scripture and the Great Tradition of the Church, favoring other models with foundations that are less sure.

United Methodists affirm a variety of Christologies; not all are compatible.

The prescription for our current illness, it seems to me, must derive from sincere, painful Christological debate. Every pastor should lead Christological discussions in their appointed parish; every Conference should be engaging in these discussions. Talk and planning about goals, visions or hopes will ultimately prove fruitless if we do not first clarify what tree we are part of and determine what is the taste of the fruit we hope to help produce.

8 comments:

Jeff Kahl said...

Excellent thoughts, Keith. I agree with you that the polarization of liberals and conservatives is a modernist "either-or" that doesn't do justice to the various nuances that exist accross the theological spectrum.

Thanks for articulating what I have long suspected: So much confusion and turmoil in the Church today results from its inability to come to terms with Jesus' simple question to all of His disciples, "Who do you say that I am?"

Eric Park said...

I share your conviction, Keith, that the real matter is a christological one.

I suppose that we should not be surprised by truncated christology, given the fact that we have been confronted with a Christ who, in his teaching, sets his Lordship above two of the institutions that we Americans hold most dearly:

First, the institution of family ("Whoever loves mother or father more than me is not worthy of me")...

and, second, the institution of government ("My KINGDOM is not of this world").

Since Jesus treads upon the sacred ground of family loyalty and governmental primacy, it is a perpetual temptation for the church to hide behind one agenda or another, since the agenda is often what shields us from the starkness of a Lord who would dare to demand the complete subordination of every segment of our living to his transformational Lordship.

Therein lies the struggle, I suppose.

Thanks for keeping it before us.

Craig L. Adams said...

Thanks for your thoughts. It's nice to hear you find something worthwhile in Tooley's remarks (which seem to me to be over-stated). Yes. Christology is the issue.

Jeff Frost said...

"That said, in all honesty, it is my opinion that in recent years it has more often than not been the theological Left which has forgotten these truths. Many on the theological Left (not all) seem to be more agenda-driven than mission-driven, doctrine-driven, Scripture-driven, or Christ-driven. I believe the reason for this has to do with a failure to craft a Christology which is faithful to the authoritative truth of revealed Scripture and the Great Tradition of the Church, favoring other models with foundations that are less sure."

I found your post on Metho Blog a few posts after one by Tina Seitz, a transgender woman. After reading Tina's post, it struck me that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are fighting for their lives because of the teachings and the hypocrisy of the church. You talk about being Christ-driven. Unless I am reading the gospels incorrectly, Jesus rebuked the ordained elders and ate with the outcasts. I encourage you to read Tina's post and to linger on the statistics and allow the compassionate heart of Jesus to form in your heart.

http://www.rmnblog.org/2008/09/what-does-relig.html

Keith McIlwain said...

Thanks, Jeff. I did read Tina's post and am appalled by the way society has treated many homosexuals. Indeed, the Church needs to stand up and do what we can to see that all people are treated fairly, justly and with love. When the Church has failed to do so, or when it has actually participated in ostracization, we have failed to be our most faithful selves.

At the same time, the Church does - with the support of Scripture and 2000 years of Christian tradition - consider homosexual behvavior to be "incompatible with Christian teaching", and sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do as Christians is to name sin. Tina's post says, "Many (not all) organized religions teach society that all LGBT people are sinners...", a statement with which I would agree. Yes, LGBT people are sinners in need of God's grace; the same is true for heterosexual people. We are all sinners on the road to perfection; most of us (myself included) are a long way from that hallowed state.

I appreciate the teaching of the Church, which teaches us that "homosexuals, no less than heterosexuals, are persons of sacred worth". This is a beautiful truth, and we should treat all people with loving care, helping to build up a person's self-worth while trying to reduce some of the stats Tina cited, such as homelessness and suicide rates.

But we also serve a Lord who asks us to help folks find him that we all might be saved from our sins and liberated from lifestyles which are "incompatible with Christian teaching". Naming a behavior as sinful, whether or not that behavior is sexual, is not necessarily uncompassionate. Leaving folks in sin - which alienates us from God - can be a far less compassionate practice than failing to deal with an issue, and one we as the Church should avoid. To be loving, we must first be honest. Jesus spoke the truth in as loving a way as possible, even when the truth hurt.

Sorry for the length of my response. I pray that we as the Church can continue to be truthful regarding this difficult issue, even as we struggle to be as merciful as possible.

Antony Hebblethwaite said...

Dear Keith,

I've been following the conversation that you've been having with Jeff and wanted to respond to your comment.

1) I'm not sure you've grasped the connection that Tina is drawing between the UMC's view that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people. This official teaching by the UMC bolsters and sustains systems of oppression that result in suicide, homelessness, hate crime and the spread of HIV/AIDS. You're saying that the church should stand up and make sure that LGBTQ are treated fairly, justly and with love, and in the very next breath, you support the very teachings that ultimately cause the unfairness, injustice and hate.

2) You state, "At the same time, the Church does - with the support of Scripture and 2000 years of Christian tradition - consider homosexual behavior to be "incompatible with Christian teaching", and sometimes the most compassionate thing we can do as Christians is to name sin." I attended General Conference and watched the votes on Paragraph 161g. The incompatibility clause remained in the Book of Discipline by a margin of about 80 votes. Almost half of delegates disagree with the incompatibility clause. If you were to factor out the Central Conference delegates, the US would have removed it. The majority report that was reject stated, "We know that all are of God’s children and of sacred worth and yet we have been, and remain, divided regarding homosexual expressions of human sexuality. Faithful, thoughtful people who have grappled with this issue deeply disagree with one another; yet all seek a faithful witness."

As someone from an Evangelical background, I can assure you that even with your view of Scripture, homosexuality is not a sin. I came to that conclusion from careful study of the Scripture. I had to study it carefully because I discovered that I was gay at the age of 12. I wonder what motivation you have for doing the hard work of studying the Scripture on this issue? There is much more than meets the eye in this study but the automatic assumption that you're correct will blunt your ability to do the faithful work of interpreting Scripture.

3) You stated, "Leaving folks in sin - which alienates us from God - can be a far less compassionate practice than failing to deal with an issue, and one we as the Church should avoid." Because sexual orientation and gender identity are qualities of being, when you try to suppress them in another human being, it results in alienating them from themselves, their community and God. I encourage you to read the entry, "Razer Blades and Reconciliation" for a personal perspective. http://www.rmnblog.org/2008/09/make-way-for-th.html

I don't doubt your sincerity for a moment and I'm glad we're having this conversation between our blogs. In my last semester in Seminary a local pastor in Saint Louis committed suicide because he was gay. I wanted to share with you something that this pastor wrote before he died:

"I will not speak about a Jew if I don't know any Jews. I will not speak about a single mother without knowing a single mother. I will not speak about gays without knowing gays."

Compassion does not grow out of theological missives from the pulpit. Understanding does not grow out of pronouncements of truth. Compassion and understanding grow when you visit an HIV/AIDS patient, hand out food to LGBTQ homeless youth on the street, listen to a parent cry for justice for their LGBTQ kid, answer phones at an LGBTQ suicide hotline, go to a gay bar and ask people to tell their stories and how they feel about the church. Can you do that? Does your compassion extend that far?

Also posted at rmn
http://www.rmnblog.org/2008/09/what-does-relig.html#comment-131602056

BruceA said...

Some good thoughts here. I agree that we need to be more Christ-driven than agenda-driven, but it seems very ironic to me, in a post beginning with a quote from Mark Tooley, to say that it's the theological left that is more agenda-driven. Can you name anyone on the left who is as agenda-driven as Tooley on the right?

Michael said...

A very good post that has been redirected, I respectfully submit, by Antony who can "assure" us by his own careful study that homosexual behavior is not considered sinful. All respect to Antony, but this is the very reason why the UMC must call it what it is and then let the chips fall where they may. We will never agree, not fully. A split already exists; we just lack the gonads to say it out loud.

As surely as Antony is convinced in one way, I am equally convinced in another way. And I agree with the post: we cannot ignore what seems to be clearly stated in Scripture lest we rile the Holy Father, betray our calling and ultimately betray the "sheep" (Jeremiah 23 and Ezekiel 33).

Each of us is free to live our own lives or dig our own graves, but we possess no right to demand anything of the Church nor should the teachings of the Church be subject to a majority vote of man. And this issue will continue to haunt us as long as this issue is fair game every 4 years at GC.