A friend of mine pointed me yesterday to a tweet that states flatly, “‘Orthodoxy’ is code for white privilege, homophobia, racism and sexism.” There you have it. One group of United Methodists thinks another group of United Methodists (1) stubbornly persists in holding to long-discredited beliefs and (2) uses those long-discredited beliefs to exclude others. Clearly, as one who claims the orthodox label to identify my own commitments, it pains me to realize how much people like me are seen as enemies to some in our own denomination. It’s impossible not to take this personally.
Let me try to unpack the sentiment. If a person honestly thinks that we orthodox believe things that simply are no longer believable, then she is left trying to figure out why. Perhaps we are just ill-informed and simply don’t adequately understand what is at stake. (I’ve heard this one many times.) But even here one can detect a moral implication. If we ought to be well-informed and we are not, then we have at some point shirked our responsibility to be well-informed. Ignorance implies moral laxity.
It’s more likely the case, then, that we orthodox actually do understand what is at stake, and, realizing the threats to our privilege, we misuse position and power in order to suppress or, if possible, exclude those by whom we feel threatened. Hence the tweet.
It should come as no surprise that we take issue with this characterization. We do not think that the beliefs we hold have been conclusively discredited, nor do we think they are dangerous. On the contrary. In fact, we’re prepared to argue that the church’s central beliefs – as summarized in, say, the Nicene Creed (there, I said it) – are not only relevant for today, they are intellectually bracing, compelling and worth our lives. More importantly, those beliefs matter for the sake of all life as God intends it.
In the heat of General Conference debates, tweets and social media spats (going on long before General Conference), please notice the asymmetry to the arguments. We (orthodox) are very happy to talk about ideas and the practices that go with, come from, and embody those beliefs. We want to talk about our opponents’ ideas, too. We want to understand our opponents’ claims, but we also want to explain why we think the orthodox faith is intellectually and morally bracing and critical to living the Gospel. Some of what gets called Gospel doesn’t look like Gospel to us. We think getting this clear matters. A lot.
But what do we do when, every time we orthodox talk about beliefs, our opponents change the subject and charge us with the abuse of power? Yes, I get how language gets used to exercise power. I agree completely. Everybody exercises power when they use terms to define, characterize, explain and evaluate. Everybody. Go back to that tweet.
So, what do we do? We have two options. We can go back to basic theological questions and start exploring them with each other again. What do we mean with talk about the Trinity? The nature and work of Jesus Christ? What is the Gospel? The Christian life? The transforming power of the Spirit? The mission of the Church? The goal of creation? How do we define justice? Love? How do we understand the nature and function and authority of scripture?
Yes, I know. This suggestion sounds like “been there, done that.” Our denominational pragmatism makes us impatient to do this work, but this is the problem and it is a fatal one. I’ve been a United Methodist clergy for more than thirty years. I have known and loved a denomination that has been nothing but divided on basic theological matters. I have witnessed numerous times our impatience with doctrine and haste just to go do something good in the name of Jesus. It’s the mission, stupid! But our differing understandings of mission tie right back to differing understandings of Gospel, of God’s nature and action in the world. Our impatient pragmatism has wasted a lot of time, effort and resources.
We desperately need honest, basic, theological discussions to find our true doctrinal Center and mobilize for mission. We need theologically competent leaders to lead us in this most crucial of works. We need leaders of character to guide us in this hard theological/spiritual work. And we need participants who are willing to lay their theological cards on the table and have it out until we get some things clearly settled, until our hearts are once again united in love for Christ and his mission. This obviously does not mean settling every question or dispute, but it does mean settling some of them.
Or we can admit that we are too far gone, face the facts, and decide the next steps accordingly. What shall we do?
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open and all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy holy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.