This is my third and final article on the Gather at the River conference. In Methodist Protest Caucuses: “We Are Coming For the Institution” I covered the progressive UMC caucus leaders’ harsh and angry words for the institution of the United Methodist Church. My second article, The Coming Train Wreck, dealt with progressive plans to disrupt General Conference 2016.
Gather at the River boasted 700 plus attendees, most of which appeared to be middle aged or older, white, married and possibly just sympathizers of the LGBTQ movement in the church. Of the few young people in attendance, the majority were presenters and staff. Although there is no reason to believe changing the church’s biblical teaching on human sexuality will draw millennials, nevertheless, the caucuses and those who support them have a loud and strong voice in the United Methodist Church.
In this final article, I will examine where the progressive United Methodist caucuses hope to go from here and take a brief look at the revisionist biblical teaching they use to support their agenda.
One theme that will no doubt define and guide the future work of progressive caucuses is that of “transgenderism.” Trans, queer, non-binary, and gender non-nonconforming are just a few of the many terms employed at this conference to describe transgenderism, which was celebrated as an emerging frontier. The term transgenderism refers to a growing phenomenon of persons whose gender identity, expression or behavior does not conform to that associated with the sex to which they were assigned at birth. Some use the phrase “biblical obedience” to describe a transgendered person’s faithfulness to submit to their truth or understanding of what God created them to be even if it defies their biological reality.
Transgenderism was celebrated at the gathering in worship, dance, preaching and the sharing of personal stories. Name badges displayed the preferred pronouns of all participants. So that all transgendered persons felt comfortable at Travis Park UMC, where the gathering was held, all restrooms had been designated “gender neutral” on the bottom three floors of the church. Only the top floor had separate facilities for women and men. Eliminating “transphobia” and combating “heterosexism” are emerging justice issues for progressive United Methodists.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court legally redefined the institution of marriage to include same-sex couples. Strikingly, this was hardly mentioned at the conference.
The lack of attention to this victory for LGBTQ activists highlights the fact that no longer are we discussing heterosexuality vs. homosexuality or mere gay rights. The biblical and biological distinctions of male and female have expanded to a smorgasbord of gender options.
Another theme that ran throughout the gathering was one of “intersectionality.” This is the word that has been given to describe the fusing of all “justice issues.” The term refers to a seamless struggle for justice against the “self-preserving forces of pride, exclusion, power and bureaucratic legalism.” “We are not single-issue people,” declared one pastor.
Reconciling Ministries Network used the term “intersectionality” to describe their coalition with eleven liberal United Methodist organizations known as the Love Your Neighbor Coalition (LYNC). The coalition speaks about the intersections of injustice around all issues. Notable was the coalition’s mention of a new “justice issue,” “alternative methods of pregnancy.”
From the beginning, there has been the claim that the struggle to obtain LGBTQ rights was the same struggle as that of the civil rights movement. For the most part progressives have been successful in making this connection regardless of the profound differences. Currently, two staff members of Reconciling Ministries Network are working with leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, which RMN says includes other “queer people of color.”
Today the LGBTQ movement within the UMC has gone beyond the supposed civil-rights-movement connection, now claiming that all justice issues are LGBTQ issues. By appropriating all social-justice concerns as LGBTQ justice issues, they appear to strategically strengthen their cause and make it difficult to separate legitimate justice issues from those that are not.
In keeping with the “intersectionality” mantra, this conference also promoted some other very different causes. Amidst the variety of workshops offered were a couple appearing to make the move of equating Israel with apartheid-era South African and promoting singling out the world’s lone Jewish state for Boycotts, Sanctions, and Divestment (BDS). One of these workshops was co-led by a co-founder of a group called “Black Laundry—Queers Against the Occupation.” The BDS movement within and beyond the UMC has been extremely callous in its willingness to resort to anti-Semitic rhetoric and completely dismiss concerns about victims of anti-Israel terrorism.
Conference organizers also hosted a workshop on “Reproductive Justice” (a slogan for unrestricted abortion on-demand through all stages of pregnancy), which was led by Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (RCRC) official Kathryn Johnson. The workshop was advertised as exploring “intersections between the struggles for LGBTQ justice and reproductive justice.” It is striking that a conference that so vehemently marched under the banner of “inclusion” made clear that their vision of “inclusion” involves acting as if unborn and Israeli lives do NOT matter.
The most striking intersectional remarks were those of Jason Redick, a youth minister in Carrollton, Texas. He stated that, “All intersections point to Jesus. We don’t know about His personal life – I believe that Jesus was Queer, Black and Poor.” He was given thunderous applause.
Underlying the LGBTQ demands for justice in the church is the vague concept of “biblical obedience” which is broadly defined as disobeying the alleged injustices of parts of the UMC’s covenantal Book of Discipline, out of professed faithfulness to a variety of subjective personal understandings of marriage, gender and other justice concerns currently popular among progressive United Methodists. It was first coined by Bishop Melvin Talbert at the 2012 General Conference.
At Gather at the River, Talbert explained that this phrase was intended to counter the idea that the Bible belongs only to the conservatives. “The Bible is our book, too. We can read and interpret, too.” One presenter used the term, “biblical obedience” to describe queer people who live out their lives in obedience to whom they believe they are created to be. RMN’s CEO Matt Berryman added, that they put loyalty to God’s justice before institutional power. They follow “a queer Christ to the margins of life and the intersections of injustice.”
When trying to make sense of their use of the term “biblical obedience” or the revisionist interpretations of the Bible which are offered to support the LGBTQ agenda, it is important to keep in mind certain principles. First, progressives read the Bible through a liberationist lens where overcoming injustice and obtaining rights are paramount. The focus is on the institution and not the individual heart. Secondly, creative story telling that conveniently supports their pre-conceived political agendas serves as a substitution for sound biblical exegesis. Thirdly, their appeal to the Holy Spirit is an appeal to a spirit who is revealing new evolving truth, which contradicts previous biblical revelation. In the words of the Rev. Peter Storey, “The Spirit is showing us what once was revered as ancient truth has become uncouth and untenable.”
The lack of sound exegesis was seen throughout the plenary Bible studies led by the Rev. Grace Imathiu of the Northern Illinois conference, formerly of Kenya. She retold well-known Bible stories to support the LGBTQ struggle for justice in the church. When teaching from Luke 3, she mimicked and mocked those who think they are saved and say to themselves, when they see an African baby, or a LGTBQ person, or someone in prison, “if only they knew Jesus.” She invoked John the Baptist’s words to call them “children of snakes.” She added, “Don’t think you are saved,” because you are American, or white, or live in the white suburb of Chicago.
After sitting through four days of Bible study, preaching, and reports at Gather at the River, it was painfully clear that what orthodox believers see as good – the progressive UMC caucuses see as evil; what they see as light – the orthodox see as darkness. While everyone is looking for a way forward characterized by clarity and moral fortitude, no one agrees how that should be defined.
Many in the church still hold on to the idea that shared ministry, continued dialogue, and a strong commitment to unity can hold this doctrinally fractured denomination together. Meanwhile, the agitation of a minority of United Methodists who reject biblical standards for sexual self-control has become increasingly militant, pushing our church to the breaking point. But in a day when many believe that truth is relative, when a prominent Methodist pastor can say time honored biblical truth is “uncouth and untenable,” will the truth of our situation be faced? And if it won’t be faced at General Conference 2016, then when?