Way back in seminary, my supervising pastor, gave me a phrase I’ve never forgotten, “I don’t think the Kingdom of God hangs on that.” His words came back to me after hearing a powerful sermon about the three parables Jesus tells in Matthew 12: describing the Kingdom of Heaven in terms of a treasure worth selling it all, a fine pearl worth all you have, and nets full of fish where the good are separated from the bad.
As I sat in the sanctuary of Asbury United Methodist Church on April 18, 2021 (surrounded by people who are so hopeful about what will rise from the ashes when our denomination is rent asunder) I realized that I simply have a different vision for the Kingdom of God than my brothers and sisters from the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It became clear to me 5 minutes after I found a place to sit, something was off. I sensed it. And then I realized there was not one person of color in sight, not one. I claim that I live in a white bubble, but I still felt uncomfortable. They were ALL white…actually, they were white, straight, middle to upper class and older than me. Working on a staff where many are younger than me and a few of them are at least a generation younger than me, it was strange to be surrounded by old white people. I realized that afternoon, I see the Kingdom of God through a completely different lens than they do.
Keith Boyette chronicled the demise of the Methodist Church from 1968 to the present. He never referred to it as the United Methodist Church except to lament the loss we experienced when we gave up our heritage to the seduction of religious pluralism in the merger. His presentation was clear and compelling. His demeanor was trustworthy and sincere. I can see why he has risen to prominence. He can explain their position as well as Tom Berlin and Adam Hamilton can explain the position of centrists.
For Keith, it all comes down to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Clearly, this is the only profession that has the potential to change someone. Without clarity around this doctrinal position, Christianity absolutely falls apart. So, a hedge of protection becomes necessary. Atonement must be substitutionary. Repentance must result in the moral categories: chastity, purity, and fidelity. If repentance results in: generosity, empowerment, and inclusion — it is not true repentance. From this place then, the authority of scripture must support the correct moral outcome. The United Methodist conflict over sexual orientation and inclusion is classified as a “presenting issue.” What is at stake are the core doctrines and beliefs of Christian orthodoxy. And that…is why this fight is worth so much to him, to those who follow him, and to how they see the future of the church.
Their position makes a lot of sense. There is nothing wrong with their logic and line of argument. But, what was painfully obvious to me: for those who subscribe to this position — the outcome will look just like that gathering: white, straight, nationalistic, and old. That doesn’t look like the Kingdom of Heaven to me. Instead the Kingdom of Heaven looks like a place where the hunt for hidden treasure never stops, where a pearl is worth looking for until you find it, where the point is to pull in as many fish as you can before you start separating the good from the bad. Personally, I don’t think the Kingdom of Heaven hangs on doctrinal litmus tests, assertion of Christ’s Lordship as justification for dispossessing whole people groups, alignment of the episcopacy across Annual Conferences, prosecution of clergy who choose same gender relationships when clergy who cheat on their wives is acceptable, and holding so tightly to the authority of scripture that the Holy Spirit is squashed by that same authority.
It was important for me to spend my afternoon with those who have shared the ministry of Christ with me. I wanted to hear their passions and try to put myself in their shoes. I can see the points of their arguments, arguments I would’ve once made and truthfully sometimes wish I could still buy. It would be so much easier. BUT…I don’t want to belong to a white, straight, nationalistic, old church. Still, I felt many pangs of sadness regarding the losses we face. There are colleagues I won’t speak to anymore. There are ministries we won’t be able to share together. There are churches I will never serve. There are people in every congregation I’ve served that won’t belong to church with me any longer. I won’t see them at Annual Conference. I won’t sit on Conference Boards and Committees with them. I won’t fuss with them which always made me think more deeply and argue more forcefully.
The lingering fear I feel after attending this meeting is toward the propaganda being promoted by this movement in Oklahoma. Our Annual Conference is one of 13 considered likely to go GMC on a Conference wide vote. Right now, Oklahoma United Methodists are meeting to decide if they want to take us lock, stock, and barrel — or whether what they would get is too much of a headache to deal with for them. Do they really want our assets? Do they really want our Conference staff? Do they really want our unfunded future pension liabilities?
They are leaving. They are just trying to decide which path is most financially advantageous for them. That makes me sick. They really underestimate the laity of our churches. Their assumption (as stated at the WCA meeting) is that laity either don’t know or don’t care about what is happening. Surely, if they were properly informed about the heresy of the majority of clergy, they would be shocked into action. Of course, the laity would all jump right on the bandwagon of doctrinal purity. I’ve done church long enough to know that it is never that clear cut when you push people into a corner, and they usually surprise you with their ability to read the situation more clearly than you did.
So, my last reflection is around the naiveté expressed by a respected colleague. He believes that the transformation Jesus can bring in people’s lives looks exactly like his definition of sanctification. Because he doesn’t insist on this from a place of exclusion or hate, he feels free from conviction when he hurts people or leaves them without access to the Gospel. Because we have always considered each other friends through the years, I find myself most sad that he is missing out on the beautiful banquet table of God that I imagine when we all get to heaven. I’ve often said, if the traditionalist are right, I’ll have to make amends for leading people astray. If they are wrong, they’ll have to made amends for placing obstacles in the way of grace. I will take the consequences for my mistake over theirs. They will probably take the consequences for their mistakes over mine. Here is where we diverge. But, I’ll take the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven where the banquet table is wide, the people are diverse, and the welcome is much bigger than we can imagine.