Photo Courtesy of Morgan Guyton
I wish I could have been at the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Chicago earlier this month. I was a few hours away that week at the OPEN Faith conference in Indianapolis. From everything I’ve heard, the WCA was a contagiously euphoric, spirit-soaked space packed with thousands of people. But then there’s the Chicago Statement, the most prominent representative document of the WCA, which presumably speaks for everyone there. As expected, it’s focused entirely on standing up to the gays. So when I’m confronted with the juxtaposition of these informal reports of the Holy Spirit’s power at WCA, and this cold, political document, it hurts my heart deeply, and a pointed question forms itself in my mind: would you have gotten the goose bumps if you weren’t standing up to the gays?
I’ve never been part of a contagiously euphoric, spirit-soaked space before. I dream about it. I long for it. But my journey has mostly been a desert journey. I’ve spent my entire adult life in dying mainline churches where I pulled together bits and pieces of spiritual alternatives to my toxic evangelical upbringing that made me really want to be hopeful. That was how I felt at the OPEN conference. I really wanted to be hopeful. But there were only a couple hundred people there. There were moments that were thought-provoking and inspiring, but on the whole, I definitely didn’t leave feeling like I was part of a robust, contagious spiritual movement with great momentum. I felt like Cain trying to start a fire with grain that won’t catch while my brother Abel’s juicy pile of sheep fat is blazing with tongues of fire.
Looking at the newly released names of the United Methodist commission on “the human sexuality problem” (a.k.a. gay people), I see several representatives from the WCA, who are bound by their Chicago Statement not to negotiate what is not negotiable (a.k.a. everything they’re meeting to talk about). So how will the Holy Spirit move in that space? Will there be any goose bumps? Or does that only work when you’re in a room with thousands of people who are standing up to the gays?
I often ask God why he breathes rich life into gatherings of people whose gospel is so different from the gospel I received from a dying queer United Methodist church in 2002. If they’re the ones who have eternal life and I don’t, then why won’t God help me figure out where I’ve gone wrong? My hunch is that the Holy Spirit inspires and encourages Christians all over the theological map not to validate our ideologies, but to bring us into deeper reconciliation with God. We’re the ones who spin our goose bumps into an endorsement of everything we believe and make sure that our Facebook feed knows about it.
1 John 4:1 says, “Test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” Maybe I’m a false prophet who has been chasing after the wrong spirit. Really. I might be. But if I am, then I think the Calvinists are right. I’m predestined to perdition. Because I can’t find any way to unsee what I’ve seen. What I believe has been embedded into me through so many years of what I thought was genuinely prayerful, actually bible-led spiritual pilgrimage. Even though I feel cursed and uninspired and unsure of myself, I just can’t jump into the euphoric, spirit-soaked Jesus party where people are standing up to the gays.
The Bible has one place that models the kind of discernment process the United Methodist Church is going through right now: the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. I’ve of course made the same argument many people make that queer people are analogous to the Gentiles who are being discussed in that story. But setting that aside, I do think one uncontroversial claim can be made about how the Spirit moves in Acts 15. When the Spirit moves, God’s word speaks in a way that is entirely unpredictable. People who already know what God’s going to say before he opens his mouth don’t get moved by the Spirit.
In Acts 15, the Spirit showed the apostle James a way of reading an ancient Hebrew prophecy that had never been done before. According to conservative evangelical standards for biblical interpretation, James would have no legitimate exegetical basis for claiming that a prophecy about Jerusalem’s restoration for the evangelism of the Gentiles could justify not requiring Gentiles to be circumcised. The evidence of the Spirit’s presence in James’ discernment is precisely the distance between what the prophecy literally says and how James uses it. If James were shackled to conthe tyranny of grammatical-historical exegesis, he wouldn’t have heard the voice of the Spirit.
Anyone who gathers for the United Methodist commission and leaves entirely confirmed and validated in every aspect of what they believed before has been tragically immunized against hearing the voice of the Spirit. If that’s the case on every side, then our church is spiritually moribund and the sooner it dies, the better, no matter how many people get goose bumps at our weekly Jesus parties. My prayer is that every member of the commission will be drawn into humble repentance and acute attentiveness to the spiritual fruit of each other’s testimonies. I hope desperately that the Holy Spirit will show our church something that surprises us and utterly transforms our hearts so that we can be revitalized for God’s mission in the world.
I will be utterly shocked and tremendously inspired if an actual compromise is brokered. What’s most likely is that the commission will figure out a means of separating peacefully with the least possible harm, if those words can even be put together with any semblance of integrity. But if it’s God will for there to be more trials and crucifixions, then I will follow where God leads in my pastoral relationships and take up my cross when it’s my turn.
The Rev. Morgan Guyton serves as the director of the NOLA Wesley Foundation, which is the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA. This post is republished with the author's permission from his blog, Mercy Not Sacrifice on Patheos.com.