Along the Way: At the Bottom of “The Slippery Slope”

When I wrote ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ in 2014, I received immediate pushback and censure from colleagues at Asbury Theological Seminary, and from the larger conservative Wesleyan world.  One parachurch group described me as “the latest evangelical to go down the slippery slope.”  As it turned out, there was an exodus by many people from evangelicalism in 2014, orthodox Christians who saw the movement becoming increasingly fundamentalistic/legalistic in theology and judgmental in temperament—an exodus which still continues six years later. [1]

The recent dismissal of two Asbury University professors for being LGBTQ+ affirming has taken me back to “the slippery slope,” which they have now surely gone down in the eyes of some of their colleagues and others for whom being an LGBTQ+ ally is the new unpardonable sin in the “one strike and you’re out” game being played in some denominations, educational institutions, and parachurch organizations. [2]

The phrase “the slippery slope” has become the  indication of someone’s abandonment of faith (as defined by the group leveling the charge), a stigma akin to being “unclean” in the Bible, so that offenders are henceforth placed outside the camp.  “The slippery slope” is the icky exit offered to those who once were found, but now are lost—a means that relegates offenders to persona non grata status.

Having been alleged to have gone down that slope, I want to send back a report from the bottom of it.  I offer it to the two Asbury University professors, who now find themselves on the slope—and to any others who may be on it in the future.

Interestingly, critics only speak of the slope, leaving the bottom to a speculative nether-world status akin to the lake of fire in the Book of Revelation. [2]  But the fact is, going down the slope is not only survivable, there is abundant living at the bottom—something critics don’t want folks to know.  At the outset, there is pain.  No one sets out to be rejected. But as the initial wound heals, it becomes a place of  expanded wellness and wholeness.  Here are some things at the bottom of “the slippery slope.”

First, there is an expanded understanding of friendship.  Jeannie and I have some longtime friends with us at the bottom, but a plethora of new friends now added to the list–a lot of them are LGBTQ+ people.  At the bottom of the slope, we experience friendship not contingent on secondary (and often invisible, fleeting) factors. We have found community created not by institutional ethos statements that are required to be signed by those who want to be students, faculty, or employees.  We have friendships that are not subject to being lost at a moment’s notice or by a declarative act. 

Second, there is an expanded vision of humanity and the oneness of the human family.  Recognizing the nonbinary nature of creation (revealed in Scripture and confirmed by the sciences), we recognize the sacred variety of people (Psalm 139:14), and we are enriched by the love they show and the gifts they brIng.  At the bottom of the slope, Joseph’s coat of many colors is our clothing, and the imago dei is the basis of our life together.

Third, new passages of Scripture create the vantage point.  The one that has become my North Star is Colossians 3:11, “Christ is all and in all.” [4]. The first three words (a statement of Christ’s Lordship) has been at the center of my faith for nearly sixty years.  The last three are words I see better now in the last six years.  This verse has become a window for seeing other passages in a new light (especially the Covenant, the two great commandments and the fruit of the Spirit), and for understanding that Jesus (the Word made flesh) is our lens for interpreting Scripture, because in the final analysis, he is the Gospel. [5]

Fourth, there is an expansion of community.  I now understand in new ways that there is a wideness in God’s mercy, a breadth of faith not just a depth.  A host of fully-devoted Christ followers (living and dead) have become mentors, opening onto a grander vision of the Kingdom of God.  Christians across the theological spectrum (and some from other religions) have increased the size of the great cloud of witnesses (Hebrewsv12:1) beyond what it once was for me.  There is indeed light from many lamps.

Fifth, at the bottom of the slope, I find God’s new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17) and I recognize that I am alive at a time when God is doing a new thing, as God has done in the world and church before.  We are in a new pentecost, with a fresh wind blowing and new wineskins being made to hold God’s new wine. [6]  More than anything else, at the bottom of the slope, I find the path of an ongoing journey into the new heaven and new earth (e.g. Ephesians 1:9-10, Colossians 1:15-20).  And I say with E. Stanley Jones, “I am a Christian under construction.  God isn’t finished with me yet!”

The past six years, at the bottom of the slope, have yielded these treasures and more. The bottom of the slope enables me to understand that you have to be outside the box in order to realize it’s a box.  As long as you stay inside, it looks like a room, and fellow insiders decorate it so as to make you believe it is the only room worth living in.  By their words and deeds they say, “You need not go elsewhere; indeed, you must not—or you will head down the slippery slope.”

Don’t believe it….get out of the box….come on down!  The bottom of the slope is a place of fresh air,  where you can drink freely of the Living Water.

[1] David Gushee, ‘Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism’ (WJK, 2017).  David’s experience of pushback and rejection is very similar to mine.  We have compared notes.  He will publish a book in August that will further describe the validity and vitality of a post-evangelical Christian faith.  I tell my story in chapter one of ‘Holy Love: A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality.’ (Abingdon Press, 2019).

[2] The U.S. Government allows private Christian institutions to be exempt from Title IX  anti-discrimination laws.  Both Asbury institutions have been granted exemptions.  This post is not about the legality of their actions (based on ethos statements that are not LGBTQ+ affirming), but rather about the morality of their actions.  Christians always distinguish between legality and morality.

[3]  This is exactly the image Franklin Graham used in the July/August 2014 issue of Decision magazine, with the cover title, “Cowards Destined for the Lake of Fire.”

[4] E. Stanley Jones wrote, “Nothing in all literature can compare with this” in his book, ‘In Christ’ (Abingdon Press, 1961), Saturday, Week 40.  

[5] Today, this is referred to as The Jesus Hermeneutic.  Richard Rohr describes major features of it in his book, ‘What Do We Do With The Bible?’ (CAC Publishing, 2018), 41-56.  I write similarly in my book, ‘Holy Love: A Biblical Theology for Human Sexuality’ (Abingdon Press, 2019), 23-28.

[6] I write more about this in my book, ‘Fresh Wind Blowing’ (Cascade Books, 2013.

Posted in Along the Way

Love: New Testament Style

​Our first step into love in Christian history occurs before we leave the Bible itself.  It happens in the New Testament.  In this post I will illustrate love from three vantage points found in the New Testament.

First, the priority of love.  Jesus established it in John 15:9-17, calling love “my commandment” and enjoining it as the ultimate task of the apostles.  Paul carried the principle into the Greco-Roman world, making love “the greatest of these” in his message (1 Corinthians 13).  In doing this, Jesus’ was fulfilling the Law (Matthew 5:17) and Paul was establishing it as the cornerstone of missiology.

We have already noted the priority of love in our look at the Trinity.  Here is the opportunity to see that the first Christians “got the memo” and wove the thread of love into the tapestry of the Church as its golden thread.  For them, love was the core of their theology—the sign that they were living for God alone. The priority of love moves right into the next point. 

Secondly, the practice of love. The commitment of early Christianity to love was seen on the first day of the Church.  Immediately after Pentecost, the first Christians had the daunting task of organizing the believers whose numbers had swelled in one day from 120 in the Upper Room to at least 3,000. The administrative challenge alone was breath taking, but in Acts 2:42-47 we see that the effort was as much about substance and spirit as it was about structure, if not more.  It’s a biblical confirmation of the principle that form follows function.

And clearly, as these verses in Acts show, the church’s function was to manifest the two great commandments.  Their design gave expression to worship and service, and in so doing it was a fellowship of love.  The truth of this was not in their naming themselves a loving church, but in the surrounding society’s declaration as captured in Tertullian’s ‘Apology’ (chapter 39), It is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. “See how they love one another, they say.”  As we say it today: the proof was in the pudding, or as Jesus put it, “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:16)

The first two points of this post lead into the third one: the preservation of love.  The Church did not exist long before it faced the temptation to make its theology of love a principle without practice.  In his old age, and likely as the last living member of the Twelve, John made it is mission to call out the counterfeiting of love by making it a dangling doctrine divorced from behavior. 

He wrote succinctly, yet powerfully, about the problem in 1 John 4: 7-21.  Cutting through all the rhetoric, John simply said, “Those who don’t love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen” (4:20).  [1]  Professed love without expressed love makes our witness a lie, John said, in the same way James had said earlier to the Church, “Faith is dead when it doesn’t result from faithful activity” (James 2:17)—activity clearly that of love.

The trajectory of Christian history is set before we leave the New Testament.  It continues from then until now: love abides.

[1] Some have alleged that the phrase “brothers and sisters” limits the expression of love to fellow Christians, but there is nothing in this passage to support that.  In fact, the context (e.g. 1 John 3: 18-24 and in 5:4) shows the victory of love is a world victory, not just one inside the Church.

Posted in Love

Love: Eager to Love

​Far from being an abstract concept, the Trinity is what makes us us eager to love.  We are motivated to love because we are made like God, Who is Love. We love, as John put it, because God first loved us (1 John 4:19).

I wish you could have known Clyde Latimer.  I met him during my college years, and I imagine Clyde was at least forty years my senior.  He was a retired rough-neck worker in East Texas oil fields, and he lived many years with no faith in Christ.  In fact, the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” image only made Clyde less interested.  I remember Clyde saying that a lot of Christian art turned him farther away from Jesus because “it looked like one gust of wind would blow him away.”

But as with so many others, the Hound of Heaven was on Clyde’s trail, and his “come to Jesus” experience happened when, during a time of depression, Clyde read the 23rd Psalm.  His response was, “I can love a God like that!”—a response that changed his life.  Clyde lived his remaining years loving God and loving others because in the Shepherd, he had found love (or better, been found by love) as never before.

If we keep the Trinity locked in a conceptional/doctrinal prison, we will never understand why we believe in it in the first place.  But when we recognize the Godhead as a passionate Lover, we will find ourselves eager to love, saying through our words and deeds, like Clyde Latimer did, “I can love a God like that!”

This is why the image of fire has been used in Scripture and tradition to describe someone filled the Spirit—the fire of love. The next round of posts in this series will move through Christian history looking at selected people whose hearts burned with love.

Posted in Love

Along The Way: Tending the Flock

​“Tend the flock of God among you” (1Peter 5:2)

During the course of my thirty two years as a seminary professor, I taught courses in United Methodist history, theology, and polity in two theological schools and one Course of Study program.  In doing so, I came to see the differences between these three strands which weave together to create a denominational heritage.

In particular, I saw the distinction between theology and polity, and how in an operational sense, polity often consumes more time, money, and energy.  And while this is a kind of chicken/egg reality where theology and polity are never completely separated (and where one can generate reflection on the other), it is still fair to say that institutional Christianity is given over to polity more than to theology.  Our United Methodist Book of Discipline is a documentary illustration of that fact.  Sociology of religion takes precedence over theology of religion, sometimes leading to more consideration and conflict over the container than the content.

That reality is once again playing out in the dynamics directing the discussions and debates swirling around the future of Methodism as it has been institutionalized in The United Methodist Church since 1968, and before then in pre-UMC days. [1]  

All this came to focus for me in a conversation with an LGBTQ+ person who said, “What’s happening in the UMC has ceased to be about people like me, it is about power and control.  Sometimes I wonder if it has ever been about us.  But whatever the case, LGBTQ+ people have been eclipsed by what the institution is going to look like in its various expressions.”

Part of me wanted to say, “No, you are  still what it’s all about,” but I did not respond that way.  I have been trained to know that in times of oppression, it is the voice of the oppressed that needs to be heard.  And in this case, it was a voice speaking from seeing thing like the following questions increasingly taking center stage in the futuristic controversy…

               –what happens to pensions?

               –how do congregations and Conferences decide whether to stay or go?

               –how do those who leave maintain their church property?

               –how many regions will there be, and what will they look like?

               –how much money will departing entities receive?

               –if there are bishops, what tenure will they have?

               –how will boards and agencies need to be restructured?

Let me be clear: I understand that institutions must deal with the sociology of religion.  I am not trying to create an either/or dynamic in this post.  All I want to highlight is that it is possible to become so institutionally focused that we lose sight of the reason we’re doing all this in the first place.  The Church is people, and the institutional side of Christianity dares not lose that.  

The person’s words, “It’s no longer about us….sometimes I wonder if it has ever been,” cleaned the lens of my mind, returning me to the center.  His remark hit home against the backdrop of the questions above, and many others like them.  And in the revelation that his words provided, I asked myself the question, “How do we prevent LGBTQ+ people from being lost in the shuffle….from becoming grist for the institutional mill…..from becoming invisible in something alleged to be about them?”

And from the soil of that question arose the sprout of an answer—a sprout emerging from Peter’s words, “Tend the flock of God among you.”

Let the institutionalists give themselves  to the sociological task.  We have a process and delegates chosen for this task. They will come up with something, and each of us will know where and how to locate ourselves in what they create.  

Instead, give yourself to the pastoral task.  Peter’s words describe it.  So do words from Paul, “Watch yourselves and the whole flock, in which the Holy Spirit has placed you as supervisors, to shepherd God’s church” (Acts 20:28).

More recently, Eugene Peterson formulated what he called the pastor’s question, “Who are these people, and how can I be with them in such a way that they can become what God is making them?” [2]  His question is a gift and guide for ministry in general but it is particularly useful in preventing LGBTQ+ people from being forgotten in the institutional process.  Played out for them, it means things like this…

(1) Visiting with LGBTQ+ people in your congregation.  Ask them the Wesleyan question, “How is it with your soul? “—that is, how do they feel about what’s happening?  Where do they feel encouraged?  Where are they discouraged?  How can the congregation be more loving to and caring of them?  These are the folks who have not left the church.  Befriend them.

(2) Attend and become active in community groups made up of LGBTQ+ people and allies.  A lot of people you never see in church will be there, and if you care for them or ever intend to hear from them, you must go where they are.  Some groups will be faith-oriented; others will be civic in nature.  Become familiar with both.  Together they provide a panoramic view of your locale.  The world is your parish.

(3) Utilize existing resources to increase your understanding of LGBTQ+ people, the challenges they face, and how churches have been in ministry to them.  Reconciling Ministries Network has an excellent resource list of organizations and materials on their website.  I have also placed a resource list on my Oboedire site.

(4) As you do these things, prayerfully “ask, seek, and knock” to discern how you can deepen your personal involvement and how you can engage your congregation on behalf of LGBTQ+ people.  Turn your affirmations about inclusion into actions.

In calling these things pastoral acts, I am not limiting them to the clergy.  Anyone can do these things.  

“Tend the flock of God among you.”   It’s the means of insuring that LGBTQ+ people do not become invisible to you.  It is the way we answer the question “Lord, when did we see you?” as Jesus intends.

[1] Ashley Boggan-Dreff, ‘Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (New Room Books, 2018).  She offers the definitive work today to show how we got to be where we are today.

[2] Eugene Peterson, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ (Word Publishing, 1989), 11.

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Along the Way: Real Love

It’s not even noon, and my email box, facebook page, and related social media have presented a host of people and groups, all espousing love as being at the heart of what they are saying and doing.  And not surprisingly, some go on to solicit financial contributions, appealing for would-be donors to “support love.”

Well…yes.  What else would anyone in their right mind want to support?  And if we factor Jesus into the picture, the obvious becomes even more so.

But the moment we make Jesus the portrait and pattern of love, the momentum shifts from the espouser of love to the recipient.  Jesus reframes the narrative away from the giver to the receiver.  For him, the question is not do we allege to be lovers, the question is do people feel loved by us?

Do children feel loved by their parents?

Do wives feel loved by their husbands?

Do LGBTQ+ people feel loved by Christians–or any others, for that matter?

Do non-whites feel loved by white people?

Do non-Christians feel loved by Christians?

Do co-workers feel loved by their colleagues and employers?

Do the “dreamers,” immigrants, and refugees feel loved by this nation?

Do the poor feel loved by the rich?

Not every context uses the word love to define things.  Sometimes the word is ‘respected’….’safe’….‘cared for’….’treated fairly’…. ‘befriended’….’protected’….etc.  But love is the word we all like to claim because we know “the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).  So, every group claims to be loving.

But Jesus does not let us get away with that. For him, the story does not end with what we say. He predicates the reality of love not on those who claim to love, but on those who are the said to be loved.  To say, “I love you” means nothing if the other person does not feel loved.

Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matthew 5:16).

Whenever I claim to love someone, Jesus immediately invites that person into the room and says, “Steve claims to love you? Do you feel loved by him?”  That’s the moment when allegation become authentic, or dies on the vine.  That’s the moment when words become Gospel, or just remain words.

The “Jesus Test” of love is whether the words of our testimony land in the hearts of those we claim to love, or hit the ground in front of them with a deadening thud.  The historical principle is this: don’t ask the sender about love, ask the receiver.  Until others feel loved by us, we are only using the word love as a salve to cover over reality and make ourselves feel good.

Jesus loved in word, and deed.  He told people he loved them, and they felt loved by him.  He defines the reality of love for the rest of us.

Posted in Along the Way

Love: Spirit Love

​Galatians 5:22 is an awkward sentence: “The fruit of the Spirit is…” and then we read nine words.  At first glance, it seems that the sentence should read, “The fruits of the Spirit are…” but it doesn’t.  The reason is significant.

The sentence is singular because the fruit is singular.  The fruit of the Spirit is love—what John Wesley called “the root of all the rest.” [1]  The other eight words are expressions of love…

          Joy—love’s celebration

          Peace—love’s wellness

          Patience—love’s endurance

          Kindness—love’s compassion

          Goodness—love’s being

          Faithfulness—love’s trustworthiness

          Gentleness—love’s tenderness

         Self-control—love’s humility

The phrase “fruit of the Spirit” means that the Spirit makes us what God is, which is love.  Inwardly in character and outwardly in conduct we are made to be loving.  The Holy Spirit, as the third person of the Trinity, is the mediator of love.  Growth in love is what it means to mature. [2]

We are familiar with the phrase, “You are what you do.”  It communicates the truth that our actions pattern us.  But there is a deeper truth, “You do what you are.”  Our actions emerge from our essence—at least they’re meant to.  It is the indwelling Spirit, who is love, who produces the fruit of the fruit of the Spirit, which is love.  The Holy Spirit is the spirit of love, and when we are filled with the Spirit, we are filled with live—and  thus, most like God.  Through the Spirit, the love of the Trinity comes alive in and through us.

[1] John Wesley, ‘Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament’ (1755).  His comment about Galatians 5:22.

[2] E. Stanley Jines’ book, ‘Christian Maturity’ (Abingdon Press, 1957) is the best study I know of that connects love and maturity.  His book, ‘Growing Spiritually’ (Pierce & Washabaugh, 1953)  explores the fruit of the Spirit in depth.

Posted in Love

Shepherd’s Care: The Jesus Pattern–The One We Need

Jesus had a clear pattern for his life and ministry.  Luke described it in 5:15-16,

“Huge crowds gathered to listen and to be healed of their illnesses.  But Jesus would withdraw to deserted places for prayer.”

His pattern was a rhythm between pastoral ministry and personal formation–between the public and private aspects of his life–a pattern which actualized the larger pattern of working and resting, doing and being, engagement and abstinence which is at the core of the spiritual life. [1]  In short, Jesus knew he could not sustain a vital public ministry if he was running on empty in his soul.

There is a need for a recovery of this pattern in the lives of ministers today.  We clergy are not good at self-care.  We are very familiar with Luke 5:15 (public ministry), but strangers to Luke 5:16 (private prayer).  Moreover, institutional ministry, by its very nature, leans toward the public side (with a host of criteria for it practicing it and related reporting mechanisms for assessing it), with a comparative lack of attention to the private side.

The consequence of the imbalance is a low-grade malaise, described this way by a young pastor, “I know what to do, I just don’t want to do it anymore.”  When this acute sense becomes chronic, we become dropouts, even if we remain in ordained ministry.  

We clergy are good at asking for some things: money, people to hold church offices, etc.  But we are not so good at asking our laity to help us establish the Jesus pattern in our lives, so that both dimensions described by Luke are alive in us.  In fact, most laity don’t even know about the pattern; most of what they’ve been shown is a corporate pattern.

Nevertheless, I believe our laity are as willing to help us live well as they are to assist us in being institutionally  successful.  But the fact is, they don’t know how do that unless we bring them into the picture.  I offer these thoughts for doing so.

First, invite into conversation several people whom you know to be spiritually mature in general, and suppotive of you in particular.

Second, share the Jesus Pattern (Luke 5:15-16) with them, telling them you want his pattern to be real in you, but being honest to say that it is not in the kind of balance (on the personal side) as you’d like it to be.

Third, have a Rule of Life ready to share with the folks–one that includes a weekly sabbath day (not your day off), a monthly retreat day, and a sustained formation experience that enhances spiritual vitality over the long haul. There may be other aspects of your Rule besides these.  [2]  Ask the group to offer their ideas about how you can make this vision a reality.  

Fourth, invite these people to be your support group, not just your idea-gathering group.  Ask them to pray for you as you take action to realize the Jesus Pattern in your life.  And develop a process (e.g. periodic meetings, social media messaging) to turn their initial help into spiritual companionship.

This formative process is not secretive, but neither does it have to be voted on.  A weekly sabbath and monthly retreat day are things you can implement without any diminishment in your public ministry.  Jesus’ periodic withdrawals were integrated into his public responsibilities.  Yours can be too.  In fact, the more natural you can make it, the better.  

With respect to a sustained formative experience, consider having a spiritual director. [3]  And explore formation programs that unfold over an extended period of time. [4]. If the costs for either of these things exceed a budgeted amount for your Continuing Education, ask your support group for suggestions regarding increasing that budget, or funding these things in other ways.  

The point of this post is twofold: there is a Jesus Pattern for ministry, and laity are willing to help you incarnate it.  But you will have take the initiative to bring the two realities together.

The relevance of this post lies in the context of the church’s institutional decline, the increasing none/done phenomenon, etc—and your wellbeing in such a time.  The simple fact is, the church must have a vision for its clergy larger than “religious CEO” or “institutiinal shopkeeper,” and you must have an experience larger than that for the sake of your soul.

[1] Dallas Willard, ‘The Spirit of the Disciplines’ (HarperSanFrancisco, 1988). This is the best book I know of in describing the engagement/abstinence rhythm of the spiritual life.

[2] Stephen Macchia, ‘Crafting a Rule of Life’ (IVP Books, 2012).  Macchia draws on the Benedictine Rule to offer concrete guidance in making a personal rule today.

[3] A directory of certified directors is available online from Spiritual Directors International.  Also, if there are retreat centers, monasteries, or convents in your area, leaders there will likely know directors to recommend. Your denominational office may have suggestions as well.

[4] I am familiar with these programs: The Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation, the Renovaré Institute (part of the ministry begun by Richard Foster), the Apprentice Institute (begun by James Bryan Smith), the Living School (begun by Richard Rohr), and the newly-established Spiritual Leadership Certification Program (begun by Matthew Fox).  Each one nuances spiritual life and formation differently; what they have in common is that they are sustained experiences in community, not one-time events.

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