Monday, July 18, 2016

An Open Letter to the Traditionalists on the Election of Bishop Karen Oliveto

Bishop Karen Oliveto and her wife, Robin Ridenour

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Dear Friends,

As I read the commentary by traditionalists on the election of Karen Oliveto, an openly gay clergy person, as a bishop in the United Methodist Church, I have a confession: I don’t get it.

I was going to use the traditional salutation, “Sisters and Brothers in Christ,” but I am trying to move beyond the gender binary.

I generally dislike the genre of the “open letter” because open letters aren’t really letters at all, they are opinion pieces and they are typically snarky while pretending to be sincere. In this case, I am hoping to be more ironic and satirical than snarky, and I make no pretense of sending a sincere letter.

But I am serious.

And I do have a very real question for you (the traditionalists).

It’s not the question about why anyone would think that “traditional” and Christianity would go together in the first place. Wasn’t Jesus always at odds with the traditionalists?

But that’s not my question today.

The question is, “Why do you care so much about same sex relationships?”

I get it that you care about the authority of the Bible. So do I. But why is that part of the Bible so important to you? 

Honestly, I just don’t get it.

Progressive Christians (I don’t like that label. I thought we were just garden variety ordinary Christians, but I guess we are stuck with it) tend to focus on the Sermon on the Mount, and the prophets, social and economic justice, and everything else that Jesus (and Paul) proclaimed as the Kingdom of God on earth. We are focused there because Jesus was focused there, and we are also committed to that agenda because we are concerned about human beings who are marginalized and oppressed.

For some traditionalists (not all) that probably looks like politics. I get that.

But I don’t get the emphasis on same sex relationships.

What about keeping Sabbath? Keeping Sabbath is an order of magnitude more important to the biblical writers than same sex relationships. It is a core principle in Hebrew Scripture, and although much is made of the ways in which Jesus disagreed with some traditionalists on how one ought to keep Sabbath, he consistently kept it. The disciples even kept the Sabbath after Jesus was crucified.

It is interesting, by the way, that in the Exodus version of the commandment it is related to the order of Creation (God rested on the seventh day of Creation), while in Deuteronomy it is related to the notion that even slaves must have a day of rest. In the nineteenth century, Progressives used this as part of the argument against a seven day work week.

Biblically speaking, breaking Sabbath is a major sin. Although we know that the death penalty pronouncements in Leviticus were not meant to be taken literally, Sabbath breaking is punishable by death.

And we know that human beings need Sabbath.

So why isn’t that even a blip on your radar?

Shabbat Shalom,


  1. Charley TrovillionJuly 18, 2016 at 10:42 AM

    I first begun to recognize What I considered cultural Christians as opposed to Christians of convictions I think back in the 70's Amoung other things you may remember the wide white belts and printed pants that men started wearing and that other thing polyester pants. The culture Christian jumped right in with the crowd while the Christian with convictions held back until the trend was basically over before they joined in. I think that is really what is happening in our churches today, the culture is driving the theology of the Church. In light of that I would like to just mention the Church of Thyatira in Revelations 2: 18/29 that had become culturilized and the incident in Timothy where Paul warned Timothy about letting the women take over his church. It wasn't because they were women but rather because they were coming over from the other Church in town were they practiced immorality in the worship services including intercourse. Thanks to the Supreme Court all churches are naot at risk because the culture demands that the church leaving its first love to embrace the love of the culture.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      I think the culture issue cuts the other way. The condemnation of same sex relationships from Leviticus through to the traditionalists today is a reflection of culture rather than an authentic expression of Jewish or Christian faith.

  2. Hi Bill, thanks for your thoughtful piece. Like you I don't like the label I'm given, neither "traditionalist" nor "conservative" really fits what I’d like to be called, but I suppose as you say we’re stuck with it. You ask why homosexual relationships are “so important” to us. I’d like to make an attempt to offer your question. First off I’d like to recognize that we’re from different worldviews and I’m not trying to convince you of mine, only to answer your question as someone from the other side of things, so to speak.

    Primarily, in reference to the concerns you’ve stated here, I’d say that the question of the propriety of Homosexual relationships is important to us because it seems to be important to you, that is to the more liberal side of the church. You make a totally valid point in saying that keeping the sabbath Holy is discussed a great deal in scripture, but it is not as controversial of a topic as ordination of Gay clergy is today. I am not aware of any lobbying group who is actively contesting the passages regarding the sabbath. I haven’t heard of any parades celebrating people who do not observe the sabbath. I’ve never seen a debate about whether observing the sabbath is genetic. To the best of my knowledge the issue of one’s right to observe the sabbath, and the church’s right to acknowledge it hasn’t been challenged in court. And so on a so forth. In short, while there are individuals who don’t hold to the sabbath, they’re not actively working together to fight against the concept of observing the sabbath; if they were we would be arguing with them.

    Most notably, there hasn’t been, to my knowledge, any effort in our general conference to change any language in our book of discipline regarding the Sabbath, or the way it should be kept.

    So the question as to why it is important to us, is simple: it is the standard that is being challenged. If there were another part of scripture being challenged actively and systematically by our culture we’d be more concerned on that front.

    Also, I do feel that it must be pointed out that being concerned about the proliferation of one sin in our culture does not preclude someone from being concerned about others. In my eight years at my current church, we’ve actually spent more time addressing the issue of the sabbath to our own people, though in the past year we have spent a little more time addressing the topic of human sexuality as it has been requested as a topic by our people, and because the events in the public require a response from the church one way or another. Having had a few sermons on this doesn’t negate the fact that we care about keeping the sabbath, caring for orphans, feeding the poor, maintaining healthy marriages, or any other problems, or social justice issue, all of which we spend a great deal more time with on a weekly basis.

    All in all, we are like I expect you also strive to be - we address the thing in culture that we see people embracing that we believe to be counter to the Christian life and challenge people to care for others and be the person Christ calls them to be.

    1. I think his point is that Methodists (especially clergy) don't actually observe the Sabbath, rather than whether it's a touch point for debate, and yet it's a far more significant point in Christian culture.

    2. Thanks for your comment, Todd. Yes, that was my point.

    3. Thank you, Will Adams, for your thoughtful response.

      You write:

      “So the question as to why it is important to us, is simple: it is the standard that is being challenged. If there were another part of scripture being challenged actively and systematically by our culture we’d be more concerned on that front.”

      I would say that there are several teachings of Jesus that are currently being challenged, in addition to the keeping of Sabbath.

      Our cultural embrace of war and violence is a direct challenge to Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the mount and elsewhere.

      We are a world leader in incarceration. Our severe punishment of even non-violent offenders runs counter to Jesus’ calls for reconciliation and the biblical advocacy for restorative justice. Ditto on the death penalty.

      We celebrate wealth and blame the poor for their plight. This is in direct contradiction to the biblical view. We support a system which for many years has been enriching the richest among us at the expense of the poorest among us.

      I realize that those issues (obviously, there are more) are often understood to be “political,” and that’s why I chose the issue of Sabbath keeping/breaking.

      It is also important to point out that when the discriminatory language on same sex relationships was first introduced to the Discipline, it was very much in line with the predominant cultural view. In fact, the original language of 1972 suggested that we needed more study on the issue and only recommended that we not bless same sex marriages. In that sense, the original language was mildly counter-cultural, and those of us who wanted to move farther were going against the predominant view. Over the years, of course, the culture has shifted.

    4. Thanks for the Reply Bill, and the respectful response (earnestly). The word I believe you haven't addressed in the passage you quoted of mine is "systematically." That is to say, there is no lobby, nor is there any effort to change the language in the discipline in regards to keeping the Sabbath. Individuals, even a large number of individuals may not keep it, but no organized group is trying to make that the norm nor is there a group trying to say that doing so would not be a sin. That is the main reason why these issues are currently different. As for the other issues you mention I would say the same and reiterate, we do care about those things, but those things are not being challenged in our church disciple. Also many of us are involved in prison ministry, prison reform, and do question the death penalty - if you know of a systematic lobby against the Sabbath, please inform me of them and I will be ready to argue with them as well. We can care deeply on multiple issues, but because this is the one we happen to disagree with about the most vehemently the divide has drawn attention to the issue. If we disagreed on another issue - that would be the one we'd be talking about.

  3. Why? Because Jesus specifically says it is among the things that makes one impure (Matthew 15), and none of the other things he lists are being pressed by lobbyists in the UMC to be celebrated. Thus it is revisionist voices who have made it a "big deal" and put emphasis on it for over 4 decades.

    Why? Because Jesus' Spirit-inspired Apostles specifically said it is among the things that bring spiritual death and will exclude one from God's Kingdom in the end (Rom.1,1Cor.6, Rev. 21 respectively), and no lobby groups are trying to get the other practices listed alongside it to be celebrated for over 4 decades now.

    Why? Because unlike specific Sabbath Day observance, the call to refrain from sexual immorality was extended to Gentiles (Acts 15) and never subsumed by the New Covenant's inclusion of those outside the Sinai Covenant.

    Why? Because sin destroys life, and Jesus came to save his people from our sin. He called us to deny ourselves in following him...including our deeply ingrained desires for sexual fulfillment in ways that he prohibits.

    Why? Because the Bible is more than the Sermon on the Mount and the Prophets (both of which speak strongly against sexual immorality, by the way, along with the other causes you care about).

    Why? Because humanity has become expert in rationalizing our own desires over God's difficult commands...ever since that first "...did God REALLY say?" voice arose to enslave us.

    1. thank you Disiciple Dojo!!!! That will preach!

  4. What has Matthew 15 got to do with forbidding same sex marriage?

  5. Why is sexual orientation and/or same-sex act the only sexual sin or the last prejudice. There are many sexual and non-sexual sins listed in the Bible that calls for condemnation and regarded as abomination.

  6. The Biblical case against homosexuality is directed toward heterosexuals who engage in homosexual acts supposedly for erotic thrills. The Bible does know of caring homosexual relationships...David and Jonathan. Naomi and Ruth. These relationships are about intimacy...whether or not they include erotic expressions or not. The stereotypical gay relationship as a brief sexual encounter is no different than a heterosexual one night stand. Just as Traditional Christians do not condone one night stands and do not confuse thosewith life long marriages so they should not confuse same sex marriage with gay one night stands. At the heart of marriage is a spiritual friendship which may or may not include sexual relations. Once you get that right there isnt a gay vs marriage problem.
    Sarah Flynn in VT

  7. Question about the SCJ request for declaratory ruling. I believe it passed 56% to 44% which is a lot closer than I would have anticipated (correct me if I'm wrong). Why, in what is a arguably a more traditional jurisdiction than the West, was the vote not 80/20 or more? Was there confusion? Does 44% of the SCJ just not want to deal with this? Is this indicative of how strong our division is, even in the South Central area?

    1. The vote in the SCJ was closer than I would have expected. I think it represents the shifting tide on this issue. I think the UMC in the US is moving strongly toward inclusion.

    2. That is kind of my take as well. I know that a popular message from this is that the rogue Western Jurisdiction -- small and insignificant -- fired a shot across the bow of the more traditionalist jurisdictions of the church who are much bigger and more faithful because they take the Bible (at least the part they interpret about homosexuality) more seriously. That's a message that might play well but is not completely accurate. It's similar to political discussions that paint states as all "blue" or all "red" when really we're just different shades of "purple". All this is to say that, across the denomination (at least in the US) we are not of one mind.