By Thomas Lambrecht –
In a sermon preached in the run-up to the 2019 General Conference, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky (Greater Northwest Episcopal Area) promoted the One Church Plan and her vision for the inclusiveness of the church. That vision reflects the understanding of the majority of centrists and progressives in United Methodism. Her sermon is not a systematic treatment of the idea of inclusiveness, but it contains some perspectives and assertions that illustrate the theological gulf existing in United Methodism today. (Thanks to Scott Fritzsche , United Methodist blogger, for pointing out this sermon.)
Stanovsky outlines how she believes we ought to read and use the Bible in our theology. “When it comes to the Bible, people make choices about how they listen to what they find there; which stories they let shape and inform their lives, and which they let fade into the background of timebound inscrutability. … People are looking for a biblical story to emerge that deserves to be called ‘good news.’ And when they go searching in the Bible, some passages speak to them, and others they set aside. … The challenge for people like you and me is to find the Good News in the Bible. When we find that, we can let the rest recede into the background.”
There is no question that some passages of Scripture speak more clearly and meaningfully to our current circumstances than other passages do. That is why we can read the Bible today and find something fresh and relevant to our lives that we never saw before, or at least that never spoke to us in the same way before. God’s Word is truly “living and active!”
At the same time, we cannot let our personal, devotional reading of Scripture be the end of our theological engagement with the Bible. Stanovsky notes that the Bible “is so thick and has so many stories, you can find almost any message there.” Reading it only for “what speaks to me” runs the risk of finding in Scripture only what we want to see. Reading it “to find the Good News in the Bible” puts us in the position of determining what “good news” is. We become the arbiters of what the Bible means and teaches, which means we have just created our own personalized religion.
Throughout the history of the Church, it has been recognized that the Bible cannot be simply the property of individuals to make of it what they will. Rather, the Bible is to be interpreted and understood by the Church as a whole, in community. A good example of that is the first Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). The apostles and elders gathered together to discuss and determine what the teaching and moral stance of the church would be, based on Scripture as understood collectively. And the “collective” that interprets Scripture is not limited to just certain Christian scholars and leaders of the church in one nation at one time. Rather, the collective extends back 2,000 years through the history of the church and across the globe.
Stanovsky’s and others’ approach to Scripture makes it easy to “set aside” biblical teachings we do not want to hear or that do not fit our preconceived idea of what the Christian faith is all about. In this case, it enables her to set aside the passages in the Bible that speak about the meaning of marriage and sexuality because they do not agree with her understanding of inclusiveness. She and others can put aside 3,000 years of consistent biblical understanding by both Judaism and the Christian Church in favor of whatever they define as “good news” for today. Our different approaches to Scripture yield a deep difference in theology and moral teaching, particularly in this area of inclusiveness.
All Means All
Stanovsky states, “Some leaders in our Church are asserting that homosexuality is a sin, and that people who choose a life of sin should not be fully accepted in the Church.” She sees the Traditional Plan that was eventually adopted by the 2019 General Conference as “a desperate attempt to define once and for all who is ‘inside’ and who is ‘out.’”
This is a misunderstanding of the traditional position. For traditionalists, it is not a matter of people being accepted in the church or not. Rather, it is a matter of what behavior promotes God-ordained human flourishing and what does not. By performing same-sex marriages, blessing same-sex unions, and ordaining partnered gays and lesbians, the church would be sanctioning relationships that the Bible does not.
Stanovsky goes on, “But in the Bible, in the ‘good news’ section of the Bible, Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them.’ … He invites tax collectors, a woman with a flow of blood, a lame man, a blind man, raving lunatics, lepers, women of questionable reputation, people on their death beds, Samaritans, … a Roman military commander, an Ethiopian Eunuch. … In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’” (emphasis original). In keeping with her approach to the Bible, Stanovsky accepts these “good news” parts of the Bible, while setting aside other parts of the Bible that might contradict or at least temper this message of inclusion.
Stanovsky’s application of these parts of Scripture confuses welcome and invitation with discipleship. Jesus (and by extension the Church) does and ought to welcome and invite all people to come and follow Jesus. The front door of the Church ought to be wide open to everyone.
Once in the door, however, the invitation is to a life of transformative discipleship. The cliché expression is that Jesus accepts us as we are, but he loves us too much to leave us that way.
The provocative illustration of this insight is the parable of the wedding banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). In the story, a king invites many people to a wedding banquet for his son. But the people invited do not show up, despite repeated invitations and pleading. So, the king tells his servants to “go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” They “gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests.”
“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. He asked, ‘How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ For many are invited, but few are chosen.”
The first group of potential guests refused to come and thereby excluded themselves from God’s reign. The second group, both bad and good, came to the feast as they were, where the king provided them with wedding clothes to wear. But one guest refused to put on the provided wedding clothes. He was unwilling to change. He was good enough as he was, he thought. But he excluded himself from God’s reign by his reliance on his own goodness. “For many are invited, but few [show by their response that they] are chosen.”
The invitation to come to Jesus is all-inclusive. None of us is able to come on our own, apart from the grace of God. We do not rely on our own goodness or merit, but only on the grace and mercy of our crucified and risen Lord.
Entering God’s reign, however, is for those who respond to the invitation in faith and obedience to the way of discipleship. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
I make no judgment here about any individual person’s standing with God. Thankfully, the Lord determines who is “in” and who is “out.” The point is that not everyone will be saved – a tragic reality that ought to spur our motivation to share the faith with everyone in both word and deed. It is the Church’s job to teach and proclaim the faith, realizing that not everyone will respond. To focus in that task on inclusion without fostering obedience to God’s will is to miss a big part of the Gospel. An essential element of faith is striving to do God’s will and live in a way that pleases him.
Of course, it is nearly impossible perfectly and consistently to do the will of our heavenly Father. One of the most popular Methodist sayings is that “we are going on to perfection.” (Translation: we just blew it!) Stanovsky acknowledges this when she says, “In this way, God works in us and through us, to guide us toward loving with a perfect love. To be made perfect in love in this life.” Striving toward perfect love is required of all who would name the name of Christ.
That perfect love is made manifest in obedience to God. As Jesus said, “If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love” (John 15:10). Or as John puts it, “If anyone obeys [Christ’s] word, love for God is truly made complete in them” (I John 2:5).
The Point of Our Disagreement
We somewhat agree on the goal: everyone is invited, and we ought to strive to be made perfect in love by doing God’s will. The disagreement is not over inclusion – who is “in” and who is “out” – but over what God’s will is. Centrists and progressives believe it is God’s will for same-sex attracted persons to be able to live out and express their sexuality as they feel inclined with persons of the same sex. Traditionalists believe that we ought to all live out our sexuality within the boundaries of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, according to God’s will expressed in the consistent teaching of Scripture.
I could respond further to other aspects of Stanovsky’s sermon. Fritzsche in the post linked up above demonstrates how Stanovsky (and many progressives and centrists) do not take proper account of the doctrine of original sin and its effects on human sexuality.
But I think the core of the disagreement over inclusiveness is confusion between hospitality and discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German pastor and theologian during World War II, famously wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The Church’s job is not to be hospitable and make us comfortable with the way we are or to feel content in our sin. Rather, it’s job is to invite us to be crucified with Christ – putting to death the old person with its sinful habits and shortcomings – and be raised to a new life in Christ – by his grace putting on a new self that is clothed in the fruit of the Spirit and living in perfect harmony with God’s intention for a life of human flourishing.
No one ought to be under the illusion that it is easy to be a Christian. We all have our sins and wounds to overcome (hence, the importance in holding to the doctrine of original sin). As another cliché puts it, we are all on level ground at the foot of the cross. None of us can make this discipleship journey by our own strength. We need the supernatural power of God at work in us, and we need the encouragement and accountability of each other in the Body of Christ. It is simply our failure to agree on the standards we are to be accountable to that is leading us to the need to walk separately in different denominations.