The dangerous idea at the center of the new Methodist “centrist” movement

November 4, 2014
No "centrist" Methodist ought to claim that the Holy Spirit will reveal something that contradicts scripture.

No “centrist” Methodist ought to claim that the Holy Spirit will reveal something that contradicts scripture.

Please note: Whenever I write on the divisive issue of the UMC’s doctrine on sexuality, I do so as a sinner who stands in solidarity with my fellow sinners, regardless of the sins with which they struggle. As for me, I struggle daily with any number of desires that tempt me to sin. As I become aware of sin in my life, I do my best to confess, repent, and, by the power of the Spirit, change. And when I do, I’m deeply grateful that our Lord is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”—a promise that holds for all penitent sinners. 

My point is, like every other human being, I’m a sinner who needs God’s grace and mercy at every moment. And like all who seek to be faithful to Jesus, I am a work in progress.

A while ago, I wrote about an important “hostile witness” for me and my fellow United Methodists who believe, alongside the unanimous verdict of nearly two millennia of Christian reflection on the subject, that God intends the gift of sex to be shared only by a man and a woman within the context of marriage. This witness’s name is Luke Timothy Johnson, perhaps the most prominent New Testament scholar at my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology.

He’s a “hostile witness” because Johnson is otherwise on the LGBT-affirming side. But he isn’t on that side because he believes scripture in any way endorses homosexual practice. On the contrary, as he wrote in Commonweal several years ago:

I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says… I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.

Notice in that last sentence he conflates “homosexuality,” about which scripture says nothing, with homosexual practice, which is indeed a “freely chosen” sin. To be clear: the church has never taught that experiencing same-sex attraction is a sin, only one’s decision to act on it, either by lusting or through more overt sexual behavior.

Nevertheless, Johnson, a liberal New Testament scholar, concedes that homosexual practice contradicts the “straightforward commands of Scripture,” and to argue otherwise is to “make Scripture say something other than what it says.”

In spite of scripture’s clear teaching, however, he argues in his essay that it’s possible that the Holy Spirit could be showing the church something new. He cites Acts 15 as a precedent: there, he says, the Holy Spirit showed the church something new—that Gentiles don’t first have to become Jewish in order be part of God’s covenant people. I’ll leave aside the question of whether that thing that the Spirit revealed to the church contradicted the Old Testament (I certainly don’t believe it did) to say that citing Acts 15 is beside the point: We know that Gentile Christians don’t have to be circumcised or follow dietary laws in order to become part of God’s covenant because the Holy Spirit has revealed this truth to us in scripture—in Acts 15 and elsewhere. In other words, the church wasn’t left to guess whether or not the Holy Spirit was showing us a “new thing” because this new thing is found in God’s inscripturated Word.

Do you see the difference?

Inconveniently for Johnson’s case is the fact that the Jerusalem council reaffirmed in that same chapter a few aspects of Torah that Gentiles had to follow, including the avoidance of porneia, sexual immorality, which in the Jewish Christian context of Acts 15 would have certainly included homosexual practice.

Again, Johnson would have us believe today that the Holy Spirit is revealing something new, which, by his own admission, contradicts scripture’s clear teaching. And that’s fine for Johnson. He isn’t Methodist.

We Methodists who are true to our convictions aren’t allowed to do what Johnson does. If Johnson is right about scripture’s clear teaching, then that alone would be a sufficient reason for holding fast to our United Methodist doctrine.

Am I wrong? Am I misrepresenting our Wesleyan doctrine of scripture? Please tell me how.

I mention all of this again because the new statement from the “United Methodist Centrist Movement” affirms, in at least three places, this same dangerous idea: that the Holy Spirit can reveal something that contradicts what this same Spirit has revealed in God’s Word.

In the opening paragraphs describing the importance of our remaining together and avoiding schism, despite our disagreements over homosexual practice, the authors state (emphasis mine):

Relationship is at the center of Biblical Prophetic Call and Witness as expressed in many other texts in addition to the ones mentioned above.  This call was and will always be connected within the context of community and covenant, even when the covenant community is being self-critical and certainly when the Spirit of God is doing a new thing.

In other words, we should “certainly” avoid schism if “the Spirit of God is doing a new thing”: not that the church was wrong for nearly 2,000 years in its interpretation of scripture, but that in spite of the fact that the church was right, the Holy Spirit is doing something new—in this case doing something that contradicts what the Spirit did for thousands of years in revealing God’s will through his Word.

Why would God the Holy Spirit do that to us? Does it make any sense that the Spirit would change course like that—and fail to reveal it to us in God’s Word? Yet, this is what these “centrists” would have us believe.

Later in the document, the authors write:

Many of us – while sensing a new movement of the Spirit may be at hand – are uncomfortable with the dynamics involved with the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the marriage of gay and lesbian persons in our local churches. We serve congregations that are by no means of one mind on this issue, in communities where Christians from other tribes are warning our people of the “dangers” of our denomination’s “precarious disunity.” We are tired of seeing the United Methodist Church in the national news only when a few in our ranks engage in a public dispute over homosexuality.

We also are aware of changing attitudes in our culture, particularly the young, as we serve congregations that are on the average, 20 years older and much more homogeneous than the general population. We are torn both by scripture which addresses issues of what is acceptable sexual practice and by the call of the prophets to love justice, offer mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord.

Here, these “centrists” are once again affirming that “a new movement of the Spirit may be at hand,” even a movement in the opposite direction of the Spirit’s movement in the past. Regarding the fact that they’re “torn” between God’s Word regarding sex and the word of the “prophets,” I wrote in my original post on the topic:

Why are they torn? Weren’t the prophets always the ones calling us back to being faithful to God’s Word? In which case, the only question that should concern us is, What is “acceptable sexual practice” according to scripture? If we get that answer right, I trust the prophets will also support us.

Notice that many of these “centrists” have no problem with the “ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the marriage of gay and lesbian persons in our local churches”—mais non!—but only with the “dynamics involved.” These dynamics include the fact that many (older) church members are uncomfortable with it. No worries, though: Attitudes are changing, “especially among the young,” and those people who still have a problem with it will be dying off soon anyway. Then of course, those “discomforting” dynamics will no longer exist. Right?

In my original post, which was hastily written, I called the statement “disingenuous nonsense.” Upon further reflection, I not only affirm my original verdict but add that it’s disingenuous and dangerous nonsense.

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