Conditional Christianity and Contextual Integrity

By Bill Mefford

Occasionally on my Facebook news feed, even though I am definitely not signed up to get these, I see videos put out by the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The Wesleyan Covenant Association is the new group created by ultra-conservative United Methodist organizations in response to a handful of United Methodist conferences opting to ordain individuals regardless of their sexual orientation who are called to vocational, ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church.

Apparently, a gay or lesbian United Methodist pastor in Boston or San Jose prevents United Methodists in Alabama or Georgia or Sierra Leone from faithfully engaging in mission. The backlash against progressive United Methodists deciding to ignore a few lines in the United Methodist Book of Discipline (something that ultra-conservatives do far more than liberals do when you consider the Social Principles) has been so intense that not only did ultra-conservative United Methodists create yet another organization, they are actually asking for folks who to join to pay membership dues and people are! Wow, I never knew what United Methodists were doing in the Northeast or West mattered so much to people in the Southeast United States. But man, it does.

So, now come the slick videos to explain who they are and to recruit new members. I find the videos to be both nauseating and effective. They are nauseating because they are slick. They are have that mega-church feel; they are so close to sincerity that they almost pull it off. After I watched a couple of the videos I didn’t want to join the club, but I was ready to buy some Amway products.

But they are effective too. The speakers all smile and passionately invite people to join them in this latest organizational creation. But as I watched I got the feeling the invitation was as much about who is not invited than who is. I listened to one video as the speaker described who he is inviting to join the Association. This is who he wants: “like-minded, warm-hearted, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled, Wesleyan, evangelical, orthodox, covenant-keeping” Christians. Wow! That was all in just one sentence!

Now, I am sure to many of those who are watching the video, they are resonating with this list. But I just kept hearing this as a list of qualifying descriptions; a conditional checklist that one has to meet in order to enter the door. But this is how we use qualifiers when we issue invitations to people we want to join us. We think we are describing who is welcome and perhaps we truly mean it, but we are also listing all those who we are shutting the door on. People on all sides of the spectrum do it. And it didn’t take long in the evolution of the New Testament church for this to happen. In Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth he accuses them of becoming sectional according to specific teachers (“Some among you are saying ‘I am of Paul,’ or ‘I am of Apollos’…). We have always placed conditions on who we most intimately relate to.

Still, it is somewhat confounding to me that it is no longer sufficient to say you are a Christian, or more appropriately, a follower of Jesus. We have to apply all kinds of qualifiers to that statement, even just to identify and define who we are and what we mean by “Christian.” Biblical Christianity is understood and lived out in such diametrically oppositional ways that we are forced to preface our statement of faith with qualifying and conditional statements. I am not just a Christian, I am a flaming liberal, born-again, kind of evangelical, institutionally suspicious, mostly smart-ass follower of Jesus.

So, what if I was to make my own Wesleyan Covenant Association video? Well, I am not as good-looking as the people in the WCA videos and I probably would just wear my favorite Cubs baseball hat and my Cubs hoodie so it would be a major downgrade, but I would love to invite all of my fellow “flaming liberal, institutionally suspicious, smart-ass” fellow Christians to join me (I wouldn’t condition being born-again or even remotely evangelical because frankly, I could not care less about either).

The challenge for all of us, no matter what qualifying descriptions we use, is to be as faithful to the biblical Jesus as we possibly can. And this is precisely why I find the list spoken by the speaker in the Wesleyan Covenant Association video to be so nauseating. Coupling the list with the reality that this new organization is created for the sole purpose of excluding LGBTQ people and their allies creates a twisted understanding of what these descriptive conditions actually mean and who the biblical Jesus is.

Truthfully, when I hear “like-minded, warm-hearted, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled, Wesleyan, evangelical, orthodox, covenant-keeping Christians” removed from the context of the Wesleyan Covenant Association, I can honestly say I aspire to be many of these descriptions (though not all!). But when contextualized, all I hear is: “like-minded, warm-hearted, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled, Wesleyan evangelical, orthodox, covenant-keeping Christians are people who will exclude LGBTQ people and their allies unless LGBTQ people agree to change their sexuality for the sole reason that it makes us feel uncomfortable and we cannot be like-minded if you intend to be unrepentantly gay.”

This message is, of course, offensive; not good video material. In fact, it is biblically and missiologically indefensible. If you really want someone to be transformed and if you honestly believe that only God is able to author that transformation (both often associated with “orthodox” beliefs), then distance is the last thing you want. You want relationship. You want intimacy. If you don’t, then you aren’t really interested in transformation and certainly not mutual transformation which is what biblical liberation is entirely about. Instead, you are solely focused on institutional control. Hence, the central purpose for the existence of the Wesleyan Covenant Association is missiologically bogus.

Thus, while the conditions we assign to our invitations will always be less than ideal, it is crucial that our conditions or qualifications at least have some contextual integrity. And it is true that there is none with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Our invitations will indeed always be conditional even as we strive after being perfected in love. Even though I am a like-minded, warm-hearted, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled, Wesleyan, (sometimes) evangelical, (selectively) orthodox, covenant-keeping follower of Jesus, I know I am not good enough for the Wesleyan Covenant Association, but hey, four and a half out of eight ain’t all bad, is it?

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