In any relationship when two people vehemently disagree about something for a long period of time ultimately entrenchment happens and the argument is no longer about the issue they disagreed about in the beginning, it’s just an open wound; a highly sensitive and often tread-upon point of contention where battles are fought incessantly. For the United Methodist Church this battle has been the issue of sexuality. As one among many United Methodists, I am tired of the battles simply because of the futility. Neither side is really influenced by the arguments of the other anymore and as the battles are fought, an obscene amount of money and resources is wasted, and all the while we are distracted from what we should be about. Most importantly to me, as we fight these battles, the hurt among LGBTQ people is only magnified. Hurting people and keeping an ineffective, top-heavy hierarchy in place is hardly worth all of the endless fighting. So, let's just stop it.
It should come as no surprise then that I favor splitting the United Methodist Church. I suggest we follow the example of Paul and Barnabas, genuinely bless one another, and go our separate ways. I think for everyone, splitting will be tough but necessary. As someone with dear friends on both sides, I have to know not only what I opting for in this separation, but also what I am leaving behind and why.
I have heard from many conservatives – again, many of whom I dearly love – that as long as the Book of Discipline defines homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching” then we either must abide by it or leave the church to find another denomination where LGBTQ people are more accepted and welcomed into leadership. I am willing to say that these words are said by most conservatives (definitely not all) with sincerity and good intentions. Well-intentioned or not, it sounds to me a lot like “Love it or leave it.”
Again, I would say most conservatives in the United Methodist Church would not hold to the harshness of this tone, but it comes down to the sentiment, “You are either in or you’re out. Yes, we have some nice parting gifts for you on your way out, but if you stay, abide by our rules. If you don’t like the rules, feel free to leave.”
It reminds me of something I learned in seminary (yes, Asbury Seminary no less!) and have used in countless trainings I led for the past ten years in my work to advocate for just and humane immigration reform. This idea originated with Paul Hiebert, but also has been used by Michael Frost, Alan Hirsch, and Darrell Guder in their books on the missional church movement. It is the concept of the boxed set versus the centered set. For me, this helps define not only what I am opting for – an inclusive, Christ-centered Body passionately pursuing Jesus – but also what I am leaving behind.
The image for the boxed set is a rectangle. The focus of the boxed set approach to evangelism, to issues like immigration, or to ordering church life are the sides. They are the boundaries within which we live and share life together. They define who we are for those who are both inside those lines and those who are outside. It is relatively easy to decipher (at least most of the time) who is in the box and who is out. There are agreed upon truths that must be agreed and adhered to in order to enter into the boxed set, but they are usually fairly evident. Boxed sets are popular because they are easily articulated and do not present a lot of nuance. This is why boxed set people are a little mystified and even frustrated when those of us do not abide by the “you’re in or you’re out” approach. It just makes sense to them.
I have tried to describe this approach without harsh judgment though I clearly disagree with it. I again truly believe that most boxed set folks are good folks passionately pursuing their faith with the deepest sincerity. The problem is the focus – it’s on the sides. This devolves easily – and sadly, quite often – into legalism. Around immigration, it devolves often into blatant racism and a harsh enforcement-only approach that separates families and creates tremendous fear and terror in immigrant communities.
Now, boxed set folks are not necessarily boxed set on all issues. I know many conservatives who approach the issues of evangelism and church order with a boxed set approach while addressing issues like immigration with more of a centered set approach. I want to suggest that very few of us are entirely boxed set people or entirely centered set people. But I do believe that centered set is certainly a more faithful way to live out the gospel. Here’s why.
The centered set has no lines but rather, has a dot in the middle representing Christ with other dots scattered across the page, like the stars in the sky, representing all of humankind. The goal is not to see which star is closest to the center. The goal is to see how the stars in the sky are orbiting around the center. Are we moving closer or farther away? As ambassadors of Christ, our mission is to come alongside those stars and love them, nurture them, and walk with them as we, in community, seek to come closer to the center who is Jesus.
It’s a beautiful picture isn’t it? Its chaos and disorder to many boxed set folks, but they do raise a good question – how do we define life together? Who exactly is “in?” I would suggest that the underlying need to “define life” or to “set boundaries” is the wrong focus to have. This most often emanates from trying to revive a dying, irrelevant institution desperately in need of staying in business than in helping move people closer to Jesus. But to answer their question directly, I would say that the thing that defines us is that the center remains the center. The one absolute; perhaps the only absolute is that Jesus is Lord.
Now, I know full well that there will be some in the centered set who do not want to hold to even that. That’s fine by me. I feel no need to kick them out or file a complaint or hold a damn trial for the world to see (which is utterly shameful) in order for them to be forced to accept my absolute. It is not up to me to define for them how they view, comprehend or implement in their daily walk the lordship of Jesus. If they are moving towards the center, what is it to me what theological or doctrinal views they have? I frankly, my dear, don’t give a damn. There are simply too many people who are yearning for someone to walk alongside them and love and nurture them as they desire for something more meaningful for me to waste time on forcing someone else to abide by what I believe.
So, to my fellow somewhat disorderly, sometimes confused, but crazy-in-love-with-Jesus progressive friends, let’s celebrate our centered-setness. Let’s stop feeling like we are less than a fully devoted follower of Jesus just because we don’t lift 6 verses in the Bible on sexuality above the rest of the canon. That simply does not define our faithfulness and those who claim it does are frankly foolish. Just because the words of the Book of Discipline aren’t written on our hearts, or tattooed on our lower backs (gross, I know), doesn’t mean we are not serious about discipleship.
Better yet, when our boxed set friends tell us how that they are proven right because the fastest growing churches in the United Methodist Church are conservative and hence, take a boxed set approach to matters of sexuality, please feel more than free to tell ‘em, “Hey dude, congrats on being popular! I know that feels good, and perhaps you even feel justified in believing that defining who is in and who is not in is the way to grow. A lot of movements are built that way in the early stages. But I just prefer to be serious about loving people where they are and then moving together towards Jesus than in being popular.” Bless ‘em and move on. God knows it is time to move on.
The truth is the boxed set approach is popular. Nuance, context, and a long-slow arc of discipleship just isn’t popular. Fellow progressives, let’s quit trying to be what we are not. We are meant to be small bands of Jesus followers coming alongside people, particularly people experiencing injustice, and then following after Jesus together. The long, slow arc of the universe bends, but it bends towards justice and love. And that is what we are on. We were meant to be small bands of sold-out freedom fighters, loving the poor and marginalized incarnationally, and organizing and advocating for change. Somewhere along the way we got sold that we should have a big shiny institution with all of the titles and positions that reflect the pride of the world. But it is the institution – not conservatives – that is keeping us from being effective change agents. Let’s rid ourselves of the captivity of institutional relevance and move on.
You see, I believe Jesus himself was a centered set guy. Yes, he said he did not come to replace the law, but to fulfill it. And in doing so he repeatedly taught (“you have heard it said…but I say to you”) and he practiced (“where are those who condemn you? Then neither do I condemn you”). In fulfilling the law Jesus set aside the power of the law to condemn and he freed us to accept that love and then do all we can to share it. Jesus clearly did not focus on the sides of the box. He focused on God and on people. And he drove the boxed set people of his time nuts. Our focus should be the same. The only thing that matters is loving Jesus and loving people. That is our mission. Man, literally nothing else matters. So, let’s quit apologizing for who we are. Bless the boxed set folks and move on.
It is indeed time for new dreams, new connections, and new leaders.