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Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Holding Covenant

I always find it fascinating how narratives are formed. An action or event by one group is framed by another group in a particular way and it gets repeated so often that even the group that committed the action or participated in the event begins to adopt that framework, often to their own detriment. Messaging is powerful and the way things are framed often decides, more than the action itself, whether the action is deemed acceptable or offensive.

Such is the case regarding the various United Methodist annual conferences that voted to ignore the mandates of the Book of Discipline that marginalize LGBTQ+ people by calling them “incompatible with Christian teaching. ” Instead, these conferences faithfully and prayerfully chose to “do no harm,” allowing LGBTQ+ people to openly serve in positions of leadership and not to punish those who officiate same-gender weddings. These conferences, churches, and individuals are simply being faithful to the gospel in the best way they know how; nothing more, nothing less.

The well-organized strength of conservative networks set in motion a fierce backlash that has effectively framed these actions as “breaking covenant.” Though conservatives are responsible for effectively blocking attempts in recent General Conferences to stop the harm being done to LGBTQ+ people through holding onto the harmful language in the Book of Discipline, conservatives have turned the tables and have framed themselves as the ones being harmed by the actions of the annual conferences. Like I said, this is really good framing and messaging. As a result, LGBTQ+ people who respond positively to God’s call for ordination are “without integrity” because they have “broken covenant.” And those of us who are not LGBTQ+ and support these conferences and individuals to serve openly as God created them to be are “without integrity” as well. Faithfulness has effectively been reframed as godless anarchy and destroying covenant.

It is a good thing my self-worth is not dependent on the opinions of conservative groups that invalidate my integrity and that insinuate that I lack “a high view of Scripture, Wesleyan vitality, orthodox theology, and Holy Spirit empowerment” simply because I am not included in their latest organizational creation. Ironically, these are descriptors I have always valued as a follower of Jesus. But because they have been framed as distinctive to the effort to maintain institutional marginalization of LGBTQ+ people it is now commonly accepted that none of these descriptions apply to me. All because I question the validity of six verses in the Bible and one sentence in the Book of Discipline. You can ignore thousands of verses on caring for the poor, welcoming the sojourner and advocating with and for the most vulnerable, but ignore 6 verses and one sentence in the Book of Discipline and suddenly you are “without integrity.”

The truth is that I do have a high view of Scripture. I believe in vitality in the church founded on Wesley’s teachings. I have an Orthodox theology. And I pray daily to be empowered by the Holy Spirit in all I do. You see how powerful framing is? It almost convinces some of us that working for inclusion means we forfeit these characterizations, not to mention our own integrity!

The charge being regularly flung at those of us who are progressive is that we have broken covenant. This seems like a fairly serious charge to me. When we look at Scripture covenants play a serious role in the formation of God’s people and in maintaining relationship with God. In fact, it seems impossible to be in right relationship with God and with others without covenant. I want to highlight some of the covenants in Scripture, though I won’t go into detail on each one. Here are, briefly, a few for us to consider:

  • The Edenic covenant that occurred in the Garden of Eden in which God commands Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and to not eat from the tree of knowledge. Of course, Adam and Eve do exactly what God tells them not to and thus the first covenant is broken, though a new covenant is established.
  • The Adamic covenant is given where God pronounces the implications of their sin as well as how God will continue to provide for them. God does not shut them off because they have broken covenant.
  • The next covenant comes after God sends a flood because of the continued sin of God’s people, particularly in their mistreatment and marginalization of vulnerable people. Therefore, the Noahic covenant is established where God again promises to not punish in this way again. The rainbow is given as a reminder of this covenant with God.
  • We then see the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant where God promises, among many things, the founding of nations through Abraham’s descendants, one of whom will be the Messiah to the world. This covenant is regularly addressed through the prophets who accuse God’s people of breaking covenant with God through disingenuous worship of God and mistreatment of the most vulnerable in society.
Sadly, covenants were broken, but they were broken mainly because of mistreating the most vulnerable people in society and engaging in disingenuous worship. God does not excuse or ignore the sin of God’s people, but God refuses to withhold the possibility of intimate relationship between God and God’s people. God is often deeply angry over their sin, but even in the midst of intense anger God continually desires relationship and creates new covenants to facilitate a new intimacy.

Now, what can we learn and perhaps even apply to the issue at hand? There are those of us who believe that LGBTQ+ people should be recognized as leaders in the church and share in the recognition of entering into marriage. Does that mean that we have somehow broken covenant? One thing that is obvious is that covenants are created by God. To charge someone with breaking covenant is a fairly serious charge to make and must be done in the absolute certainty that one speaks for God, as did the prophets when they made this charge historically towards God’s people.

The prophets often delivered the message to God’s people that their behavior – again behavior which centered on mistreatment of the most vulnerable people in society and a refusal to genuinely worship God – was grieving God to the extent that covenant between God and God’s people was no longer possible, or at least was being seriously undermined. I do not reject the premise that conservatives today who are making the charge against progressives for supposedly breaking covenant cannot speak prophetically, but I do absolutely reject that they are speaking prophetically in this case. Progressives have not broken covenant because our highest motivation is actually located in defending the most vulnerable and it is done in genuine worship of God. We want all people to serve God in the fullest way God has called them and not just those who profess to be straight. Therefore, the conservatives – particularly the organizations that generate the messaging of “breaking covenant” – are simply way off base and clearly not speaking for God in any kind of prophetic way. They are speaking what they passionately feel and believe, but for them to claim they speak for God is idolatrous.

Now, I must say that I do believe that there has been recent conference action that might entail the charge of having broken covenant in the way shown to us above. It happened during the North Georgia annual conference when they passed a resolution urging care for at-risk youth. During the debate the conference voted to take out any and all references to LGBTQ+ youth even though LGBTQ+ youth are the most at risk of suicide and homelessness. The Book of Discipline specifically states

We affirm that God’s grace is available to all. We will seek to live together in Christian community, welcoming, forgiving, and loving one another, as Christ has loved and accepted us.  We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons.

It seems fairly clear that North Georgia chose to at least ignore the suffering of the most vulnerable in society – a breach of the commands of Scripture and the mandates of the Book of Discipline written above. So my question is, why aren’t the leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association hurling accusations at the North Georgia annual conference for breaking covenant? Not one of the conservative organizations that I know of has “prophetically” accused North Georgia of lacking integrity or breaking covenant.

You see, this whole hubbub has really nothing to do with holding covenant. It has everything to do with well-funded conservative organizations intent on taking over the United Methodist institution and having really good messaging and communications machines in order to do so.

So, be at peace my fellow progressives. We have not broken covenant with anyone, and especially we have not broken covenant with God. But let’s not follow into what I fear is the trap my conservative brothers and sisters have fallen into. Let’s not get haughty. Let’s follow Jesus passionately. Let’s make room in the Body of Christ for ALL people and support ALL who are called to serve the church. Let’s continue to take stands against injustice, both inside and outside the United Methodist institution. Let’s be the Body of Christ!

And I, for one, will not allow someone else’s smart messaging and framing to define who I am. I will continue to hold to a high view of Scripture. I will continue to dream and live into vitality of the church founded on Wesley’s teachings. I will hold on to my understanding of an orthodox theology, though I strive for my orthodoxy to be invitational and not so rigid and exclusive. And I pray I will live empowered by the Holy Spirit. That’ll beat the best messaging and framing any day of the week.


  1. Awesome. Powerful. Amen -- and thank you.

  2. Awesome and powerful, thank you Bill

  3. Thank you for this clear message.

  4. An excellent piece, Bill. May I have your permission to republish this on United Methodist Insight? Please respond to Thanks! -- Cynthia Astle

  5. This commentary illustrates we are talking past each other using the same terms and concepts. The nub of this issue is tthe emotional response to homosexuality and gender variance. That isnt going to lessen by argument, but rather by meeting real people who are LG BTQI. That takes time. Meanwhile the UMC needs pragmatic institutional arrangementsto avoid damaging confrontations, specifically for the South which historically has been slower than other parts of the country to accept change. Rev. Sarah Flynn. Vermont

  6. You are absolutely and completely correct Sarah. Good missiology corrects bad theology. Thanks for commenting