A recent article for The Federalist argues that woke politics is not necessarily the motivating factor for those United Methodists who supported the plan that would have allowed congregations to choose their spot on the LGBT Inclusivity Index, be it “St. Legion of Many Genders” on the progressive end, “actually believes the Bible” on the traditionalist side, or somewhere in between.
“From my point of view,” Adam Mill states, “there is a conservative case to be made for letting local churches deal with this explosive issue so we can move past this topic and not get bogged down in identity politics.”
A Naive Assessment
With regard to the UMC’s ordained leadership, Mill’s assessment is a bit naïve. As liberal clergy in numerous church bodies have shown throughout the years, the sequel to “make room for progressives” is always “submit to progressives ” as soon as progressives have 51 percent of the votes. Likewise, if you’re not convinced that identity politics reigns supreme in many mainline seminaries and congregations, you’re not paying attention.
With regard to the perception of Methodist laity, however, Mill is not terribly off target. It is entirely possible that, for the average UMC pew sitter, “Don’t make LGBT people feel bad about themselves” is not a sentiment born from progressive politics masquerading as theology. Rather, it’s a statement that is perfectly consistent with the core creed of good old-fashioned American Christianity: “When Papa God is being too strict, have Mama Church talk some sense into him.”
For the average American who is somewhere on the church-going spectrum, his understanding of Christianity is something like this: God has promised to be our father, and we have promised to be his children. But the caveat of this covenant is that both parties must behave reasonably for it to remain unbroken. God will give us his kingdom if we are reasonably obedient to him, and we will give him our obedience if the things he commands seem reasonable.
The church’s job in all of this is to ensure that both parties keep their respective ends of the bargain. If ever Papa God gets too strict, or if ever we get too rebellious, Mama Church is there to talk sense into the offending party.
Christian Morality’s Influence On Culture
Throughout most of our history, American culture has been highly influenced by Christian morality. On account of this, societal judgments against sexual immorality kept things like divorce and licentiousness out of the public eye, which caused most Christians to conclude that those living in opposition to the Bible’s teachings on these issues were the unreasonable ones who needed to hear Mama Church say, “Your father isn’t asking for too much when he tells you not to have sex before marriage or keep our wedding vows. So ask Jesus to grant you the forgiveness necessary to start over in your quest to lead a holy life.”
However, as our culture has grown more secular, certain forms of immorality have become more common in the public eye, which has made societal judgments against them wane, which has dulled our consciences to the guilt those sins bring, which makes those sins far more tempting, which makes us more likely to commit them, which makes it more difficult to imagine living without them, which makes God seem like the unreasonable one when he calls us away from those sins.
When this happens, we then expect Mama Church to rebuke Papa God for his unreasonable devotion to his unchanging word, telling him, “I know you’ve always said these things were wrong, but everybody does them now. So cut the kid some slack.”
Likewise, when God’s children have run away from their overly rigid father into the land of unbelief, we also expect Mama Church to invite them back, saying, “Don’t worry. I talked to your father. He’s not going to ask you to give up something that’s so important to you.”
Parish pastors encounter this kind of thinking all the time. Frequently we have to tell members things like, “No, I won’t confirm your child who is never in church or catechism class because you have him worshiping at the altar of youth sports instead” or “You and your fiancée are living together, so no, I won’t officiate your wedding.”
While some respond with repentance and a desire to live according to God’s word, more often than not, people respond with “Everybody does this nowadays. It’s not that big of deal. So why are you being so strict? Why are you driving people away from God instead of being more accepting?”
In other words, “The church exists to make it as easy as possible to be a Christian. So get out of the way and let Mama Church do her job by telling us that she talked some sense into Papa God and now we don’t have to choose between our souls and our idols anymore.”
The Vicious Cycle of Double Standards on Sexual Morality
Mill’s article also demonstrates this mindset when he discusses his pastor’s justification for blessing gay marriages. Mill states that his pastor “pointed out that the congregation includes a large population of single and divorced members who may not strictly observe teachings prohibiting sex outside of marriage.” In other words, “Mama Church convinced straight people that they could still be Christians and continue pursuing the illicit sexual encounters that appealed to them, so why can’t we do the same for gay people?”
Here we see the failure of American Christianity. In order to make God’s law seem more reasonable, congregations refrain from condemning the sins embraced by the secular culture, which gives the secular culture more influence over us, which makes whichever bits of God’s word that seemed reasonable a few minutes ago now seem unreasonable, which makes congregations refrain from condemning the next batch of sins we’ve made an indispensable part of our life. And so on and so forth.
Those who wouldn’t speak against Sin A yesterday won’t speak against Sin AA today, and they won’t speak against Sin AAA tomorrow. A few more spins of this vicious cycle and devotees of nicer-than-God American Christianity will be insisting that the best way to get Jason Voorhees back in church is to let him swing his machete as he approaches the communion rail.
What Really Should Be Happening Here
How, then, do we break this vicious cycle? How do we convince the prodigal sons that they, not God, are the ones at fault? The answer is simple—we ditch American Christianity in favor of the orthodox version.
The union between God and his children is not, as so many believe, a covenant built on mutual promises of reasonableness. It’s not a covenant where we promise to make ourselves holy by obeying God’s commands and he promises to make the highway to heaven relatively easy. Rather, it’s a covenant of grace—one where God the Son earns eternal life for us sinners who could not earn it and where God the Father gives that salvation as a free gift to all who believe.
In this covenant, the church’s role is not to keep both sides acting reasonably, but, through the power of God the Spirit, to keep both sides united by delivering this free gift through the word and sacraments that create faith in Christ our savior. But in order to believe that Christ is your savior, you have to believe that he has saved you from something, which is something sinners will never understand if Mama Church keeps telling Papa God to have a Snickers every time he’s acting a little too Old-Testamenty.
The Severity of God’s Law
If we want to bring the lost, the wounded, and the marginalized into the kingdom of God, therefore, the best thing we can do for them is make the severity of God’s law perfectly clear to them, to tell them, “As He demonstrated in the days of Noah and Abraham, God does not lose even 1 percent of his wrath even if 99 percent of us have lost interest in avoiding his wrath. No matter how unreasonable you find his jots and tittles, quite simply, if you want eternal life, God does not require you to be approximately as righteous as the average person around you. He doesn’t even require you to be as righteous as the holiest person around you. He requires you to be as righteous as he is.”
“But all of us have failed to do this. All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. All of us deserve nothing from God but condemnation. Yet out of his undying love, God sent his only begotten son to die for us. Out of his love for sinners, God sent him who knew no sin to be sin for us, to bear our sins, and declare that his worthiness is now ours, and that we are now worthy of eternal life because of this.”
In Matthew 13, Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven “is like a merchant in search of fine pearls who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” There is some debate among theologians as to the meaning of these words. Some say that Christ is the merchant who gives up all he has, meaning his life, to make us sinners his own. Other say it’s the other way around—we are the ones who should give up everything in order to make Christ and his salvation our possession.
As 1 John 4 shows us, however, this needn’t be an either/or interpretation: “We love because He first loved us.” Christ suffered everything to forgive us. The more we understand this, the more we will gladly suffer anything to keep his forgiveness. But the less we understand his sacrifice, the less willing we are to sacrifice any earthly pleasure or peace for his sake.
In a recent article for the Washington Post, self-described “queer clergywoman” Hannah Adair Bonner tells the story of a young gay man who addressed those in attendance at the recent UMC General Conference. “We have brought people to Jesus,” he said, “because they say they have not heard this message before. They didn’t know God could love them because their churches said God didn’t.”
Despite this appeal, traditionalists could not be convinced to support the proposed One Church Plan––something Bonner sees as a sign of the church’s failure. In a way, she is right about this, albeit for the wrong reason. The problem is not that Mama Church has failed to convince Papa God to make room for gay Christians. It’s that Mama Church has failed to convince sinners of every sexual orientation that eternal life with their father in heaven is more valuable than the occasional moment of masturbatory pleasure on earth.
Christ has invited every sinner in this world to receive forgiveness, life, and salvation from his church. When sinners can’t possibly imagine that freedom in Christ is better than slavery to Eros, you can’t help them by being nicer than God. You can only help them by asking them to look at their chains long enough to know what it means when Jesus melts them with his mercy.