And to the angel in the church of Laodicea write: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.”
Revelation 3:14a, 15-16
Long ago and far away, when I was in seminary, we were sure of almost everything and one of the things about which we were most certain was that the principle problem with the church was that it was lukewarm.
And nothing could be worse than lukewarm.
The Laodiceans lacked commitment. They were middle-of-the-road moderates. They were the ancient equivalent of modern cultural Christians, observing the forms of Christianity without the content. They had no passion.
Today I take a more tolerant view of that church.
And sometimes when I consider our current impasse over the issues of LGBTQ inclusion or exclusion, I think that in the United Methodist Church we could use a little more of Laodicea.
When the first talk of schism began in earnest a few years ago, I believed that it would not happen. Not because I expected that we would have a sudden epiphany, but because I thought our lukewarm bureaucratic polity would move so slowly that the issue would be settled long before we ever got to schism.
That now appears unlikely.
One of the things I have loved about the United Methodist Church is that historically we have always had a big tent. We could accommodate George Bush and Hillary Clinton, George McGovern and Dick Cheney. At our best we worked together toward common goals. Sometimes we worked both sides of the same issue and at other times we focused on very different concerns. But in all of that we respected each person’s commitment.
Some of us wanted to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and others wanted “Once to Every Man and Nation,” but we agreed on “Jesus Loves Me.”
In our current conflict there is a sense in which the very visible issue of LGBTQ exclusion or inclusion serves as a proxy for a conflict that is really about doctrine and biblical interpretation. The Wesleyan Covenant Association, Good News, and the Confessing movement all want to take a much more literal approach to the Bible and to the ancient creeds.
And they want everyone to agree with them.
More than two decades ago I mentored a young man in our church who wanted to be a United Methodist Pastor. When he was turned down at one point in the process, I wrote to the Board of Ministry and pressed hard for his inclusion, arguing that we needed diverse theological positions and that this was an essential part of who we were as United Methodists.
A colleague applauded my efforts and then added a cautionary addendum: “You know, Bill, that’s great that you want Tom to be included. But you need to understand that if they get the majority they will want to have you thrown out.”
And that’s basically where we are.
I’m not sure whether the traditionalists are hot or cold in the sense we see in Laodicea, but they present a faith that is brittle and narrow. And they want me to see it all the same way that they do.
For more that forty years we United Methodists have been doing harm to the LGBTQ folks in our midst, and we have contributed to the broader “Christian” cultural condemnation that surrounds them. We need to stop harming folks. But beyond that we should not expect everyone to conform to the same point of view.
The traditionalists fret about the church “condoning sin” when we elect a gay bishop, ordain LGBTQ clergy, or marry same sex couples.
But what traditionalists experience today is certainly no worse than what progressives went through fifty years ago when we saw churches and clergy within our denomination perpetrating the sins of racism, segregation, and voter suppression, contrary to positions we took as a church in our Book of Discipline. Today in our Social Principles we support a living wage, gun control, collective bargaining, universal health insurance, immigration reform, and we support programs to combat global warming, but we tolerate opposition by churches and clergy and we do not sanction those who advocate antithetical positions.
Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter proposed an amendment at the 2012 General Conference that ultimately failed, but it described our choice this way:
“We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.”And then they concluded:
“We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and above all, we pledge to seek God’s will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who once said, ‘Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.’”I know that many United Methodists reject the possibility of “respectful co-existence” as no better than that lukewarm church in Laodicea, but I see it as an affirmation that we are held together by something more than the Book of Discipline.
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