By Bill Mefford
The heart of a biblically-centered missiology for the church that best reflects the heart and character of God is at its very foundation a relational one. God’s own missiology, which is God’s desire for all of creation, is based in who God is, in God’s very character, and we see what this is in the very beginning of the biblical story. In Genesis 1:26, in the midst of God’s creative process, God says, “let us make humankind in our image.” This reveals the trinitarian nature of who God is: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. And it also shows that our trinitarian God was in the beginning in relationship with God’s self. Thus, in creating humankind in God’s image, God creates humans to be relational because God is relational. Everything we do must mirror God’s relational, reciprocal, and mutual nature.
The rest of Scripture is therefore not only about humankind’s relationship with God, but also about humankind’s relationship with all of creation, and with one another. Mistreatment of creation, oppression of the most vulnerable, marginalization of the powerless - all of these actions negatively impact and indeed, even shut off God’s relationship with God’s people who commit these actions. As Wesley suggests, the sanctification of humankind comes with being perfected in love; when we love others, including God, with all of who we are, we have moved closer to entire sanctification. Our goal as humans on this earth is to be in loving and serving relationships with one another. Our goal is not social, cultural, economic, political, or spiritual colonization. Our goal is to do justice and love vulnerably, experiencing mutual and reciprocal transformation as we more fully give ourselves for others.
I begin with this because when we are looking at the various plans that have been put forward for the future of the United Methodist Church as they get ready to meet in February for an emergency General Conference I believe we must first ask of these plans, which of these moves us closer towards God’s missional love for the world; a missional love that is gives all of ourselves for the sake of others, particularly those directly impacted by injustice. As a decision which I will explain, I believe wholeheartedly that the choice for this General Conference is clear: the delegates to General Conference in 2019 must choose the Simple Plan as the only viable and missional way forward.
One popular plan among conservatives that is almost entirely antithetical to a biblically-based missiology is the Traditionalist Plan. The Traditionalist Plan strengthens and enforces current prohibitions within the United Methodist Book of Discipline against same-gender marriage and gay ordination. There has been a concerted and coordinated effort among conservatives in the United Methodist Church (UMC) to hound LGBTQ people out of the church through a constant barrage of bringing people up on charges. They literally have made life hell for LGBTQ United Methodists who serve in leadership positions in the church, which has reached the stage now of generating death threats against high-ranking LGBTQ officials in the church.
But for supporters of the Traditionalist Plan, the hell they have created for LGBTQ people is not good enough - they want to ramp it up even more. There is no attempt to reconcile theological differences. It is their way or the highway. They have determined that if people do not ascribe to their very rigidly-held doctrines they are viewed as being in sin. Followers of this plan are so focused on a very few particular “sins” that they fail to see the glory of God and the beauty of God’s creation in ALL who God has created. Even more, the Traditionalist Plan is supposedly named as such because those who cling thoughtlessly to it believe that marriage between one man and one woman is the only form of marriage in Scripture. Of course, there are multiple forms of marriage practiced in Scripture that could be called “traditional” and those pursuing such Puritanical mandates deceive themselves and create a standard they themselves have failed to live up to.
The Traditionalist Plan utterly fails to be a biblically-centered missiology and thus, it should fail to be passed at General Conference in February.
So, we come to the weirdly named One Church Plan, which carries the idea that individual churches and conferences will choose for themselves whether or not they want to practice inclusion of all people or to continue the harmful language currently in the United Methodist Book of Discipline targeting LGBTQ people. In good United Methodist tradition, this option seeks to take no stance and allow people to stand in the middle.
Thus, if you are a LGBTQ person in Alabama you will have very few options to attend a local United Methodist church where you will feel entirely welcome, though your options expand the further north or west you travel. On the other hand, if you want to practice discrimination and not be looked at askance, then you will probably be more drawn to travel south and east. Eventually, it seems that the goal will be to have two separate but equal churches - one inclusive and one committed to narrowly held doctrines of exclusion. While at the same time, no matter where you choose to attend, the prohibition of United Methodist agencies “advocating” for any acceptance of homosexuality will remain in place. In other words, if you want to be gay under the One Church Plan, we have specially-made areas for you to exist on, but please do not try and mix with the rest of the UMC.
Does anyone else see that this is totally unsustainable? The problem with this plan (well, one of the problems) is that it is actually popular! I could be wrong, but I am guessing it is popular among straight people because it creates a very slightly better place for LGBTQ people in the UMC than they currently have and God knows we straight people LOVE the idea that we can do a little bit of justice for gay people through some restructuring without ever having to actually be uncomfortable. And for LGBTQ people I understand it can be seen as a step forward and a helluva lot better than the neanderthalic Traditionalist Plan. But all in all, if we really want to follow Jesus and manifest his love of people and love of justice the One Church Plan is simply not good enough.
And that is why I asked at the beginning of this post, not what is most politically acceptable in the current dysfunctional atmosphere of the United Methodist Church. Instead, what I asked is what is the most missional option before the UMC; what is the way forward that is based on creating just and righteous relationships among humankind and creation as well as between humankind and God. And to me at least, the way forward is clear and without question: it is the adoption of the Simple Plan.
The Simple Plan removes entirely ALL discriminatory and punitive language from the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The Simple Plan will require no massive structural changes (though in a separate General Conference these changes must be looked at because the top-heavy, arcane, overly institutionalism is as unsustainable as the Traditionalist Plan!).
All people are free to be and to remain United Methodist and, more importantly, the Simple Plan allows the church as a whole to more quickly jump back into the call God has placed on all those who follow Jesus - to love and serve the world. The Traditionalist and One Church Plan will require endless amounts of time and energy of the church to focus inwardly - on either purging members from their ranks or to spend enormous time figuring out which sideline churches with more mixed memberships will stand. Both of these will be painful experiences and are entirely unnecessary if we would only commit ourselves to do justice and love for ALL people.
Either way, the Simple Plan cuts through a dysfunctional and morbid fascination with our institutional selves (institutional naval gazing) and gets us to loving and serving the world more quickly and more empathetically. And that in itself makes the Simple Plan the only viable missiological way forward.
Thus, I ask you to join me in asking all delegates to General Conference to passionately support the Simple Plan.