Who gets to be an "Orthodox" Methodist?

May 03, 2017
Editor's note: This commentary is in response to editorials submitted by the Revs. Paul Kottke and Bob Kaylor on the Wesleyan Covenant Association published in the May 1 edition of the Rocky Mountain Conference newsletter.

Submitted by the Rev. Daniel Klawitter
Deacon in the Rocky Mountain Conference and
Admissions Representative at Iliff School of Theology

I have very much appreciated reading the reflections of Rev. Paul Kottke and Rev. Bob Kaylor regarding the meetings of the Wesley Covenant Association and the differing approaches we have in our denomination to how human sexuality and orientation does (or doesn’t) jive with what it means to be a faithful Christian.

I feel compelled to write, however, as someone who does not identify as either a “liberal” or a “conservative” but as an Orthodox Wesleyan who nevertheless believes it is actually possible to claim that title and still come to a different conclusion about GLBTQ inclusion than do some in the WCA. I have clergy friends in the WCA that I have worked with in other contexts and for whom I have much respect. And I’m not saying that to be “fair” or “nice”, it’s just true. I can also recite the Nicene Creed without crossing my fingers and I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. I have a copy of John Wesley’s Prayer Book on my shelf and all 10 volumes of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, not to mention many volumes on Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. But Wesley is my guy. In fact, I became Methodist because it seemed to me that John and Charles Wesley, through the Methodist movement, were able to balance Catholic, Protestant-Pietistic, High Church Anglican Sacramentalist and Evangelical streams into a dynamic and Spirit-filled synthesis. And they still seem to have done it better in many ways than we as a church seem capable of in our General Conferences.

In John Wesley’s famous 1742 explanation of “The Character of a Methodist” he wrote:  “Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship ... as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.” The problem, of course, is that United Methodists disagree on what actually “strikes at the root of Christianity.” For me, our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith more clearly exemplify those traditional boundaries than the 1972 statement about homosexuality being “incompatible” with Christian teaching.

But despite having a high view of both Scripture and Tradition, I have ultimately found myself unable to affirm that the 7 verses in the canonical Scriptures or the numerous writings against (primarily male) homosexuality in the patristic fathers is actually the same thing as what we mean today when we talk about “homosexuality.” There has been tons of scholarly ink spilled on this point: that the primary outrage in the Bible is really referring to a specific cultural context of non-consensual relationships between men and boys, or links to cultic prostitution, exploitation of slaves, etc. But certainly there does not seem to be an awareness in either the biblical or patristic writings regarding the real possibility of a life-long partnership or marriage of committed, faithful Christians who are of the same biological sex. And yet, that is exactly what we witness today. And I have personally witnessed it.

The spiritual “fruits” borne out of such relationships are real and I have seen them. Love, peace, joy, hope ... these fruits are empirically present in the lives of faithful GLBTQ Christians and sometimes much more so than in the lives of their heterosexual Christian counterparts. And if “by their fruits ye shall know them” then it seems one must at the very least take pause to reflect on this and what we think we “know.” This is not a case of simply trying to set up “experience” against “Scripture” in the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral, but a matter of being open to the Spirit and the reality that Scripture isn’t always as clear as we might initially believe. I remain a little suspicious of my own pragmatism here ... but Wesley himself was not above such “spiritual” pragmatism in his own ministry/movement regarding field preaching, women preaching, and even ecclesial ordination for Methodists in America though he himself was not a Bishop authorized to ordain under the rubrics of the Church of England.

Compared to warnings about the dangers of riches and the commandments of working for justice for the poor and oppressed in the Biblical witness ... do the 7 verses in the Bible about “homosexuality” actually merit such a deep and un-crossable line in the sand for what it means to be “orthodox” or faithful today? And isn’t it just a tad bit convenient that some male, divorced and remarried heterosexuals in the WCA and elsewhere get to claim G*d’s forgiveness and acceptance of their ministries while they continue to deny that grace to their GLBTQ colleagues? I mean, I understand that they can go ahead and say something along the lines of “Well, it’s different. I am not a serial re-marriager. I repented. But GLBTQ folks in the church are persisting in their sin.” I have heard that argument. Still, it’s a convenient and privileged stance isn’t it? And it makes me hermeneutically (as well as psychologically) suspicious.

If there is something most of us can agree on, it might be this: For many Christians, including John Wesley, Scripture alone isn’t always sufficient to interpret Scripture.  In the same place where Wesley calls himself a “man of one Book” (i.e. The Bible) he goes on to quote Homer in Greek. There are verses in the Bible where the “plain meaning” might indeed be plain, but the early church fathers practiced a variety of forms of exegesis and came to different conclusions themselves on some matters. For example, for the first 300 years of the church after the death of Christ, there was broad consensus in the church that one could not serve in the military and be a follower of Christ. Tertullian argued this most forcefully among the early church fathers, writing that “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.” And I am unware of any serious scholars who specialize in the early history of Christianity, conservative or liberal, who would deny that the early church was almost overwhelmingly pacifist in its origins and in fact grew in numbers due to the persecution and martyrdom of the saints at the hands of a militarized Empire.

Much later, the Church came up with the “just war” theory and criteria as a concession to human sinfulness. It is a similar situation in regards to the evolving stance of many churches toward divorce and re-marriage as primarily a matter now for pastoral and spiritual care given the realities of human brokenness. But it seems to me that when you rule out of hand the ability of married GLBTQ Christians to faithfully serve the church as ordained ministers…you are saying that they, in and of themselves, are broken…are ontologically broken in their very personhood…are less whole and worthy than married heterosexuals of serving G*d and the people of G*d.

It is also not completely “unorthodox” to assert that there are different “levels” of Scripture in terms of their weight, urgency and impact upon a life of faithful Christian discipleship. No one actually denies this I don’t think. All Scripture may indeed be “profitable for instruction” but to state the obvious: the lessons we learn from the Bible and what we prioritize can (and does) differ. Jonathan T. Pennington is currently an Associate Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Southern Seminary (Southern Baptist) in Louisville, Kentucky. He argues in a recent interview for the priority of the Gospels as a canon within the larger Biblical canon, saying:

My point with the “canon within the canon” language is that we in fact all do have certain verses, biblical books, and concepts that are operative, formative, and weightiest in our theological constructions. I simply want to suggest that, based on the early church’s practice and for several other theological and canonical reasons, the fourfold Gospel book should serve in this lodestar role. (http://patrickschreiner.com/?p=8591)

If one accepts this argument (which is also made by many churches in the Anabaptist and peace church traditions), then it really does matter that Jesus, the incarnate Word of G*d, spent the majority of his ministry practicing a scandalous, outlaw table fellowship that broke some established religious laws in favor of human solidarity and committed himself to a preferential option for the poor and oppressed while remaining silent about the sexual orientation of those who would follow him and pledge their allegiance to the kin-dom of G*d.

All this being said, I do have some appreciation for the argument some folks make from the grand sweep of the Scriptural witness tending overwhelmingly toward a “male and female” figuralism and typology. I get it. I don’t think those textual realities can be dismissed out of hand. But just because there is a majority trajectory of typology in the Scriptures doesn’t mean ipso facto that there can’t also be a minority witness and deviations from the typology that are still wrapped up and sanctified in G*d’s mercy, grace, and fruitfulness. The G*d of the Bible is always calling “queer” and unexpected (often marginalized) folks into service. Folks like shepherds whose professions were considered “unclean.” That’s part of what makes the Bible so unique. The Bible is full of counter-cultural misfits speaking for G*d. It’s the sanctimonious religious leaders in the Gospels who most often get called to task for focusing on legal minutia and religious-juridical interpretation while ignoring “the weightier demands of the law” like love, justice, and mercy. I do not want to argue that all of the commandments in the Bible are up for revision based on some liberal/relativistic conception of inclusion as an absolute value above all others. But who gets included and who gets excluded (and why) is a real honest-to-G*d Gospel question. A Jesus question for all of us who claim to follow him.

Heresy hunting and finger pointing can be a nasty road to travel down my friends. It isn’t that we shouldn’t pay attention to questions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But it is a slippery slope toward the seduction of playing a far more dangerous game: the Purity Game. The Purity Game is always a risky endeavor that puts us in a position of being doubly-condemned for our own sinful astigmatism which we can easily ignore as we choose instead to focus on the perceived worse deviations of our “enemies.”

In closing, I reiterate that I am thankful for the charitable witness of the people in the Rocky Mountain Conference of The United Methodist Church and the Western Jurisdiction. I give thanks for the gifts and graces of both Rev. Kottke and Rev. Kaylor. I have learned much from both of them over the years. In the end though, I find myself agreeing with our Bishop (who has said again and again) that one’s gifts and graces for ministry, not sexual orientation as an end-of-argument yardstick, should determine fitness for ordination. The main thing I am concerned about is an orthodoxy that is generous enough to include our actual fruits in ministry and an ethics of recognizable, communal virtues as they are lived out “for reals” within the Body of Christ.

As Craig Uffman wrote not so long ago:

Arguing about the rightness of same-sex marriage distracts us from our theological task, and is the least fruitful way to cultivate the virtue of Christian community. If, in spite of this caution, we must engage the presenting question, the level of discourse ought not be on the level of acts consequentialism (which, in the current discourse presupposes a universality of ethics that is itself dubious), but on descriptions and celebrations of real marriages that are relational responses to the experience of grace. Rather than attacking same-sex unions, we ought to be describing and calling folks to a fidelity in their vows that signifies the covenant of grace, and showing how the Spirit uses such exemplars of fidelity to form the community of Christ such that we are sustained in our mission to the world. (http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2013/07/18/a-response-to-ephraim-radner/)