Missio Alliance

April 3, 2019

Christian Anthropology vs Identity Politics

(Here are my remarks to IRD’s board on April 2, 2019 in Washington, DC.)

Last weekend I attended the Missio Alliance annual convo. It’s a network of mostly left-of-center but not necessarily liberal Evangelicals. They are non-Calvinist, egalitarian, mostly nondenominational, youngish, mostly hip and urban, enthusiastic, entrepreneurial and not overtly very political. They met in one of Northern Virginia’s great historic black congregations, whose pastor addressed the convo, and who’s staff and volunteers helped facilitate the convo. The roster of speakers was very ethnically diverse, but the audience was at least 95 percent white. There were many wonderful gospel proclamations and exhortations to faith.

One speaker, known as Bruxy, was a fifty-something year old man in very casual dress with scraggly beard, shoulder length gray hair and wearing a scarf hat over his head while preaching from the pulpit. He was a former Pentecostal turned Anabaptist who leads what’s called The Meeting House in Toronto. Based on my preconceived biases I was prepared to despise him! He started out with the famous saying falsely attributed to St Francis, “preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words”. But he admitted the saying was erroneous and also very wrong theologically. The Gospel must be spoken and persons must be evangelized with words. He preached an inspirational evangelistic message. My superficial projections had been unfair. (Although men should not wear hats in church!)

There were other aspects of this Missio Alliance event that were potentially alarming and illustrate wider challenges in USA Christianity including Evangelicalism. Many speakers were preoccupied with “white privilege” and divesting from it. Others focused on rejecting “patriarchy.” Racial prejudice and misogyny of course are sinful yet many of these rote appeals seemed to echo the assumptions of secular identity politics positing that society is inextricably divided between oppressors and oppressed. In this vision there’s no real escape much less redemption, just guilt, constant reparation, conflict, resentment and endless jockeying for power. Over such a cosmos Christ is not truly lord but just one contender among many.

At IRD’s Racial Reconciliation and National Covenant convo at Beeson Divinity School in February we tried to respond to this grace-deprived cosmos with a message of social redemption, recalling MLK, Lincoln and the Puritans, who called the nation to repentance. This example needs much further amplification. But many other creative initiatives and arguments are urgently needed to counter the acidic power of divisive identity politics within USA Christianity, which rely on self-preoccupation and offer no hope.

The Missio Alliance event, amid its many biblical appeals full of hope, often seemed to lack a strong sense of Christian anthropology and ecclesiology. The institutional church was often condemned for its failure to confront social inequities. But the Body of Christ as an ongoing teaching authority was frequently minimized or ignored. Our society’s current battles over sexuality, gender and the human body were also largely ignored, though these threats to human prosperity are arguably equal to if not greater than the latent historical impact of racism and discrimination based on sex.

Of course, sexual and gender identity politics are all the rage in Mainline Protestantism even more than in parts of Evangelicalism. Disgruntled churches and clergy upset over the recent United Methodist General Conference posted newspaper ads nationally pledging solidarity with LGBTQIA+. The plus signals the endlessly growing acronym for so-called sexual minorities. It should offend any Christian or believer in human dignity to definitively define any person based on particular sexual preferences or lack thereof. And yet this dehumanizing lexicon is boastfully pervasive.

The United Methodist General Conference was of course enormously good news overall, provoking widespread shock and horror among all who assumed every mainline denomination must surrender to abstract forces of history. But history is more unpredictable than often supposed because it belongs not to abstract forces but to a dynamic Divine Personality. A delegate clergywoman in St. Louis shared a vision transmitted to her of angels descending on the convention center with an angel protectively guarding each orthodox delegate during the intense political and spiritual warfare. Abstract forces of history cannot explain much less resist such angels.

Renewing United Methodism was at the heart of IRD’s founding so the progress of that project is cherished by us not just as vindication but as instructive to all that such battles are not always lost. The globalization of United Methodism offers the opportunity after a century of folly to reconstruct a positive social witness for America’s third largest religious body that is rooted in the historic church and is instructive for all Christians, not just Methodists, most especially for increasingly rootless ahistorical Evangelicals.

Methodism’s recovery might showcase a recovery of Protestant anthropology and political theology that firmly rejects atomization of humanity into subjective identities constantly at war with each other. What if Methodists with Anglicans and orthodox Presbyterians and Lutherans could model for USA Evangelicals a restored pathway for proclaiming personal and societal redemption? And what if IRD were at center in that wonderful recovery? There’s much work to do and so much to which we can look forward with hope amid God’s endless undeserved blessings.


16 Responses to Christian Anthropology vs Identity Politics

  1. JD says:

    Everything we need to know about gender is in the Bible. There are only two. Everything we need to know about the sin of sexual perversions is also in the Bible. Homosexuality and these other recent perversions are sin. Pledging solidarity with sexual perversion is like pledging solidarity with alcoholism or adultery. It is to accept sin in violation of what God’s word is about these sins. It is to cease to be Christian, and reject God.

    • Pudentiana says:

      The seeking meaning in a personal unique sexual identity is evidence of self worship, not Christ worship. We have gone back to the garden and once again be charmed.

  2. Lee Cary says:

    I respectfully offer another opinion on several points.

    1- “But many other creative initiatives and arguments are urgently needed to counter the acidic power of divisive identity politics within USA Christianity, which rely on self-preoccupation and offer no hope.”

    Besides not knowing what constitutes a “creative initiative,” the antacid – following the metaphor – to “divisive identify politics” both in the UMC and in the nation of American, is to deny the validity of identity politics – not yield to its wishes. To apologetically and self-consciously engage in continual debate is a prelude to accommodation via compromise. I.e., a path to surrender.

    2- “Of course, sexual and gender identity politics are all the rage in Mainline Protestantism even more than in parts of Evangelicalism.” (What “parts of Evangelicalism” are those?)

    Yep, identity politics are all the rage – in vogue. The question is: What makes it so? What is driving this preoccupation with matters new to the spread of the Gospel in Christian history? And, furthermore, why is it most intense in “Mainline Protestantism.” (Which grows less “mainline” by the year.) Might it be a sequential episode to the early 20th Century Modernism that successfully disunited and brought atrophy to other Mainline Protestant denominations? A new virus with an old impact?

    3- “It should offend any Christian or believer in human dignity to definitively define any person based on particular sexual preferences or lack thereof. And yet this dehumanizing lexicon is boastfully pervasive.”

    It should offend, but seldom does. The question is: Why “pervasive” now – at this point in Christian history? What’s the agenda of those spreading that “dehumanizing lexicon”? What’s their end game”? And why is what is offensive generally tolerated with feckless and timid resistance from those who fundamentally disagree?

    4- “The globalization of United Methodism offers the opportunity after a century of folly to reconstruct a positive social witness for America’s third largest religious body that is rooted in the historic church and is instructive for all Christians, not just Methodists, most especially for increasingly rootless ahistorical Evangelicals.”

    I was cheering a “yes” until the “increasingly rootless ahistorical Evangelicals” part. I’m guessing that refers, in part, to the most conservative churches (e.g. Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God) and the rapid expansion of independent, nondenominational churches. If I read that statement correctly – then it’s wrong. (And if I’m wrong in reading it that way, please enlighten me.)

    • betsy says:

      Your 4th comment helped me to realize that I don’t quite get the term “evangelical” and exactly what that means within an historical context of the Church. It is certainly not a specific branch of Christianity as I have crossed paths with UMC pastors who identify as “evangelical”. So what gives?

      • Lee D. Cary says:

        Right – what gives?

        “Evangelical” alone is not derogatory on its face. But when one adds “rootless ahistorical,” I take it as a reference to the proliferation of “Bible churches” that are intentionally and unashamedly detached from any well-established, ecclesiastical legacy – AKA history.

        My four youngest grandchildren attend a local “Bible Church” with their parents. I’ve visited there out of curiosity. They congregation likes it. I don’t know if the comment refers to this growth edge in US Christendom. But I wonder if it does.

        I do know that some UMCs have adopted a “contemporary worship” style, using “praise music” supported by a variety of instrumentation (drums, guitars, w/singers), visual aids – all clearly modeled after “Bible Churches.” Don’t know how well they do it, though.

        • John Smith says:

          For all the hype about regaining “Wesleyan” tradition its still always cut and paste:

          Wesley said, “I have no objection to instruments of music in our worship, provided they are neither seen nor heard.” (Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Vol. 4, p. 685)

          • David says:

            It is interesting to look at the late Sir Kenneth Clark’s description of Anglican services at the time of Wesley:

            “To a good protestant of 1830 the least suggestion of symbolism—a cross on a gable or on a prayer book—was rank popery. All forms of ritual were equally suspect. The clergyman wore a black gown and read the communion service from his pulpit; no one knelt during the longer prayers, or stood when the choir entered; indeed, the choir, if it existed at all, was hidden in a gallery, where it performed to the accompaniment of violins and a ‘cello.”

      • John Smith says:

        Originally Evangelical was what is called Lutheran or Reformed today. (Evangelische).

        Then it got caught up into 2nd Great Awakening (Methodist being a or the major force), pushed for foreign missions in addition to stressing the traditional Wesleyan combination of “Bible, cross, conversion, and activism”, the revivalist movement sought a universal appeal, hoping to include rich and poor, urban and rural, and men and women. Special efforts were made to attract children and to generate literature to spread the revivalist message. And this is where it really started splintering.

        Evangelical does have a historical foundation but today is has mainly cast that off. (old is bad, new is good, we must relate to today’s people,….) Today if someone is Evangelical they focus on, stress, fixate on “conversion”. After all what more is there after that?

        I would like to point out the disregard of historical continuity is endemic to most. Engage the average pew sitter in the UMC Talk about Whitefield, Ashbury, or anything not related to John/Charles strange warming while afraid of drowning on a ship while writing O For a Thousand Tongues on horseback and see what you get.

        • Lee D. Cary says:

          “Engage the average pew sitter in the UMC Talk about Whitefield, Ashbury, or anything not related to John/Charles strange warming…”

          Thank you for that very relevant observation.

          I suspect those children who are enrolled in a typical UMC “Sunday school” hear as much about Whitehead and Asbury (their church history) as public school students learn about G.W. and T.J. – not much more than a fly-by, if that.

          • td says:

            if…and only if…their local UMC has a sunday school or religious ed classes anymore. They are going by the wayside in many areas.

    • Loren Golden says:

      By “parts of Evangelicalism” and “increasingly rootless ahistorical Evangelicals”, Tooley is referring to what has become of much of the movement, begun over a half century ago, called “Evangelicalism”.
       
      A quarter century ago, Gordon-Conwell Theology Professor David F. Wells, in his book No Place for Truth; Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology, and (then) Wheaton Church History Professor Mark A. Noll, in his book the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, sounded a warning to the Evangelical Church of dire consequences that would arise from Evangelicalism’s increasing inability to think theologically (Wells) and intellectually (Noll).  Wells, in particular, noted that seminary students coming into his Systematic Theology class for the first time had been increasingly inadequately prepared by the churches sending them to think cogently about the doctrines of Biblical Christianity, because most Evangelical preachers were shying away from developing and teaching a full-orbed, robust theology of the Christian faith, and then to bring that theology to bear on the most pressing issues of the day.  Instead, Evangelical pastors were turning increasingly to secular solutions to boost attendance at their churches and minister to their flocks, such as marketing the faith (that is, special programs, music, gimmicks, etc.—spectacles, really—to draw people into their churches) and psychotherapy (a branch of pseudo-science that focuses attention on the SELF as a purported means to help individuals cope with the pressures of [post]modern life), rather than engage in the arduous task of preaching Scripture to open the eyes of the congregation to the spiritually destitute condition of fallen man and his absolute need to know God intimately, to repent of his sin, and to turn to the Crucified and Risen Savior for forgiveness and restoration, and then to prepare the congregation with the intellectual and practical tools needed to minister to the men and women in the world around them.
       
      Fast-forward to today, and you have a rising generation of young Evangelical leaders who see the ineffectuality of the Evangelical movement and are, like mid-20th Century Mainline Protestant Liberals, identifying the Bible’s command to love one’s neighbor in tangible ways with the world’s emphasis on helping the destitute through social work, adopting as their own the world’s views on sexuality as a means to be “relevant” in the postmodern context (which Mainline Protestant Liberals have done over the past half century to devastating results), and yet wholeheartedly believing the ancient Creeds (Apostles’ & Nicene), which coincidentally do not mention anything about Biblical sexual ethics, and doing eisegetical backflips in an attempt to persuade others that God is really in-line with the world’s idea that the only form of sexual immorality to be opposed is sexual abuse, and that to oppose forms of fornication sanctioned by the doctrines of Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity is to oppose the will of God.
       
      To be sure, not all Evangelical churches have gone this way, especially not churches that have remained in a denomination.  This shift in thinking within Evangelicalism is happening largely (but not exclusively, as the current “Revoice” controversy in the Presbyterian Church in America has demonstrated) in nondenominational churches where theology is, at best, anemic, and there is no denominational accountability to keep maverick pastors and congregations from straying.  This is not to say that all nondenominational churches are this way, but a lot of them are, and the churches in which this is happening are capitulating “the faith once delivered to the saints” to the popular culture, in an unwitting mirrored reflection of what the Mainline Protestant churches did a century ago, in capitulating “the faith once delivered to the saints” to the cultural elite.
       
      As has often been said, those who fail to learn from history’s mistakes are bound to repeat them.  So, too, with the American movement known as Evangelicalism.

      • Lee D. Cary says:

        Thank you, Ms. Golden. Food for thought.

        “…in nondenominational churches where theology is, at best, anemic, and there is no denominational accountability to keep maverick pastors and congregations from straying…”

        Yet, is there much “denominational accountability to keep maverick pastors and congregations from straying” in the UMC these days? Specifically with regard to conducting same-sex marriages and married gay clergy?

        Here’s a short glass house story: I recently met the outgoing pastor of a UMC I once served in the 80’s. He’s moving to NY because his husband got a new job there. (no pronoun typo)

        • Loren Golden says:

          Admittedly, there has been little theological accountability in denominations like the UMC that have been overwhelmed by Theological Liberalism over the past one and a half centuries.  In the PC(USA), from which both of the two previous congregations (one in Wichita & one in Kansas City) of which I had been a member had disaffiliated (both are now EPC, and my wife and I are now members of a PCA congregation in Denton, TX) after that denomination voted in 2010 to change its ordination standards, the last heresy trial conducted was the Mansfield Kaseman case in 1981, when the denomination’s Permanent Judicial Commission upheld his presbytery’s decision to approve his call to serve a small Maryland church, despite his unwillingness to affirm the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.  The last time someone was defrocked in the PC(USA), it was a prominent Evangelical pastor who had served as interim pastor for a large congregation in Dallas that went through a season of discernment earlier this decade and ultimately voted to seek dismissal to the ECO.
           
          The UMC is in similar straits, except that with the growing Evangelical membership in Africa (and elsewhere in the Global South), there is hope that pastors in your denomination that preach a message other than the Gospel of the Lord Jesus will be held accountable before they stand before His Judgment Seat.
           
          Grace & Peace,
          Loren James Golden
           
          P.S.—There is a typo in the title you appended to my last name.

  3. Lee D. Cary says:

    “He’s moving to NY because his husband got a new job there. (no pronoun typo)”

    That no-typo comment was in reference to the sentence above, not your name. I understand the UMC NY Conference is all in for the LGBTQAI+ agenda.

    As for “there is hope that pastors in your denomination that preach a message other than the Gospel of the Lord Jesus will be held accountable before they stand before His Judgment Seat”: There a line in the 2003 movie (a remake of an earlier version) “Monty Walsh” where Tom Selleck (Walsh) plays an aging cowboy watching the decline of the open range in the West. A friend asks him, “Howya doin’ Monty?” and Monty says, “Better, since I gave up hope.”

    • Loren Golden says:

      You misunderstood my comment regarding the typo, sir.  I was referring to the fact that you addressed me as “Ms.” Golden (which would apply to my wife or either of our two daughters), rather than as “Mr.” Golden.

      • Lee D. Cary says:

        Understood, Sir. Apologies. Gender is so confusing these day. I should have recalled Loren Eiseley, my all-time favorite writer.

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