I haven’t followed the news about Methodist minister Frank Schaefer as closely as I should have. For those who know even less, Frank Schaefer faced a church trail for going against the Book of Discipline by marrying two men (one of who happened to be his son). What I do know about the affair has led me to ask a few questions and make a few statements:
So much for diversity. Many liberal Christians (myself included) love to talk about how wonderful diversity is and how much we have to strive for all kinds of diversity: gender, racial and ethnic. The problem is that most liberal Christians tend to think that people of color share the exact same views that they deem important. Then they meet reality. The United Methodists are not as much a national body, but a world-wide body, made up of folks from everywhere. African Methodists are growing in number and they don’t have favorable views of homosexuality. North American Methodists are not growing and liberal Methodists are a small fraction. What this all means is that the rules on sexuality aren’t changing any time soon and no amount of protest is going to change that, at least not immediately. Diversity is a good thing, but the downside is that the person with a different skin tone might also have different views that you might not agree with.
Laws for Me But Not for Thee. Being a gay man who just recently got (legally) married, I totally side with the good reverend on this matter. That said, I am bothered by those on “my side” that seem to want the church to just throw the Book of Discipline aside and follow the law of love or something like that. I don’t come from a creedal background, so on some level, I just think these things are sort of silly. But the fact is, other denominations are set up around certain documents that govern their way of life. The Book of Discipline is the way the United Methodists order their life together. You can’t ignore the Book of Discipline just because you don’t like what it says. You might think that the ruling on homosexuality is silly, but the fact remains it is there. This doesn’t mean that my side of the isle must simply submit to what is considered an unjust law. There is a lot of room for civil disobedience, but people have to admit that they are breaking the law and be willing to face the consequences. You can’t wish away a law you don’t like.
What About the Love? I can understand defrocking someone if they have committed a grave sin, such as child molestation. I don’t understand the drive to not simply say that Rev. Schaefer violated church rules, but to humiliate him. What about restoring a fallen brother or sister gently and in love? Can we disagree without being mean? There really was nothing Christian about the sentence and it was rather cowardly too: they left it up to Schaefer to decide if he wanted to admit wrong or give up his ordination. Please. If you’re going to make someone “an example” at least have the guts to be upfront about it.If progressives are at fault for being too loose with the Bible and/or books of order, then conservatives tend to be guilty of using these tools for organizing as ways to exclude and shame.
The Center Cannot Hold. My time with the Presbyterians have had me thinking about two people, a man and a woman in their 80s who served the church in various functions. The man is liberal and the woman conservative. What was interesting about both is that while they had their views and held to them, they also had a belief in the institution, the thing that bound them together. Because they had this thing called the Presbyterian Church (USA) in common, they were able to function with some impartiality, trying to solve problems for the good of the institution. We no longer have that today, not in Washington or in our churches. Institutions, especially the church, have been weakened. In it’s place has risen the tribe, a group of people who share common concerns and views that is suspicious of those who are different from them. We see this in our politics, but it is also rife in our churches. Tribalism doesn’t give people the benefit of the doubt, but instead sees the different as a threat. What has happened with Schaefer is all about tribes than it is about church. The conservative tribe wants to make an example of the pastor, while the progressive tribe sees this as proof positive that the opposition is exclusive and backwards. Tolerance takes a backseat when it comes to the tribe, whereas in the institution, tolerance is a bedrock rule, because you can’t have people aim to something higher than base pursuits if they see the person next to them as evil incarnate. I don’t know how to heal the wounded center in American Christianity. We are engaged in a zero-sum game with the other side and demand nothing short of total surrender.
The Schaefer case is on one level about gay rights, which I totally support. But it also holds up how we as Christians in the United States fall so far short of being Christ in the world.