Will ‘Better’ Catechism stop LGBT Inclusion?

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A few months back, it was requested that our community define two things:

  1. Under what scriptural authority do progressives determine that women can be ministers, that divorcees can be leaders, and that LGBT persons can be clergy or be partnered? We addressed this in the post “The Church, not the Bible, determines Sin.”
  2. If authority is given to the Church to determine what is sin, how do you serve within the Church when you believe it is wrong? We outlined two such ways of living in the post “What if the Church is Wrong on Sin?

Those are both excellent additions to the conversation as they give scriptural warrant to a faith tradition to loosen traditional Christian stances on minority groups, while also negotiating how to live within a faith tradition that isn’t in sync with your values.

However, there’s still a lingering aspect that bears examination in light of the previous two posts: How do you get more alignment in the church along ethical teachings in a systemic way? If what the corporate body believes is so important, how do we get more uniformity along ethical questions?

Mark Allan Powell, a New Testament professor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, wrote an article in Ex Auditu (19:2003, 81-96) that we’ve been using for our conversation. Let’s see what he has to say on this topic.

The Need for Catechism

Powell addresses this question of how to systematically deal with changing ethical considerations in a faith context:

“The divisive ethical issue is symptomatic of a fundamental problem, perhaps a failure at entrance (catechetical) level to articulate its confessional theology as a hermeneutical approach to ethics.” (pg. 94)

In a similar vein, United Methodist superintendent Sky McCracken, in his Facebook comments replying to the Schismatic 80, claimed several times that “poor catechism, and failure to make disciples who make disciples is the root cause” of the United Methodist Church’s troubles. I’ve seen similar comments elsewhere as conservative evangelicals seek to see how it is there is so much diversity on this topic in their heretofore uniform churches.

Catechism refers to the ways how a faith tradition articulates and transmits its values, methods, and beliefs. In early Christianity, the beliefs were memorized by the devotees as a prerequisite for baptism. Our Creeds work very well as question and response test before baptism, which they might have been used for. Today, parents go through catechisms before they baptize their children, newcomers to a faith tradition go through new member classes, youth go through confirmation, and Mormon high schoolers go through seminary. There’s a process by which any faith tradition molds and shapes devotees so that when they become “part of the whole” they reflect the whole’s values.

So for Powell and others, the problem is on the Church’s desk: the Church isn’t keeping the doorway narrow and effective enough to maintain a common theology to address ethical questions. If the catechism process of baptism and membership was strengthened, then we’d have less of these ethical debates within the Church. As a recent evangelical Catalyst article says:

If baptism is no longer a journey into death and resurrection, if baptism is merely a symbolic ritual tacked on to worship at the end of a perfunctory “membership class” — and membership in a declining institution at that — then we no longer have a functioning catechumenate. Instead, we simply have a series of failed educational programs.

Catechism and LGBT Identity

Throughout this series, I’ve found Powell’s hermeneutic to be powerful (binding and loosing) but some of his conclusions rub me the wrong way. This particular point about catechism falls short when it come to the debate about the full inclusion of LGBT persons in the life of the church.

Catechism is less applicable when people enter into a faith community before they have determined their orientation, or perhaps are partway through denying it. No matter how rigid the doorways and how robust the self-examination, an intrinsic identity like orientation or gender identity will always go through, not left behind like a baptismal garment. It carries through, and then forces the ethical question later in life.

In this context, the reason why the LGBT question is so powerful and important in the church is that it changes the ethical question. The decision is how a faith’s hermeneutic applies to “us” not to “them.” No matter how strong our confessional theology is–the result of the catechumenate process–the ethical question will still come up regardless. We are not automatons who never change after we walk through the door: our identity in Christ is forever, but our beliefs about how Christ would act change over time.

When it comes to sexual orientation and gender identity, a stronger catechumenate process and confessional theology will not eradicate the LGBT debate from our churches because it is an intrinsic identity that endures and forces the church to determine what to do with “our” people who are hurting from an oppressive polity towards LGBT persons.

LGBT Inclusion Because of Confessional Theology

Or will it? Could a better catechumenate process actually help with this conversation? Here’s one last Powell quote:

“Disagreement with the church’s ethical teaching might be symptomatic of fundamental disavowal of the confessional theology in which the ethical teaching is supposedly grounded.” (pg. 94)

Absolutely not. It is through my confessional theology of knowing Jesus Christ and believing that God interacts with the world through a Wesleyan model of grace that I can affirm an ethical teaching in opposition to the Church’s. It is through my seeking orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthokardia (right heart) that I can affirm LGBT inclusion. It is through my robust examination of Wesleyan theology, Methodist history and doctrine, and classic Christian theology that I do affirm LGBT inclusion.

Huh. Maybe Powell is onto something. Like my take on Powell’s work, it’s the hermeneutic that I believe is enduring and powerful in my Wesleyan tradition. The confessional theology and application of that theology on ethical stances yields my embrace of full inclusion.

Maybe Powell is right, but the catechumenate pedagogy needs to change. Like the goal of college isn’t depositing knowledge but teaching people how to think qualitatively. The goal of a math class isn’t to remember logarithms but to know how to reason quantitatively. Maybe catechesis is teaching how to live holistically, body and spirit. By teaching how to think and see and feel, we’ll have a robust church that can stand the test of time and can properly weather any ethical questions from inside or outside.

In that sense, perhaps I do stand with Powell and McCracken and hope for a better catechism. I hope for one that seeks to teach how to live rather than simply what to believe…and that could truly be a way forward for churches seeking LGBT inclusion.


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  1. says

    Maybe catechesis is teaching how to live holistically, body and spirit.

    Yes, that would be extremely helpful. “Catechesis” is such a loaded term, however. It conjures up too much “classroom” and not enough “community.”

    Disagreements over the so-called “LGBT question” appear to me to have more to do with “identity” and how identities are formed according to social “norms” than it does with “ethics,” “scripture,” and “authority” (church, Book of Discipline, tradition, bishops, etc.).

  2. says

    A couple of thoughts come to mind. One is that quoting Facebook comments strikes me as a bit out of bounds. I’ve had folks throw my Facebook comments around on their blogs before and it just strikes me as underhanded, especially if done without permission.

    Secondly, you seem to have a limited understanding of baptism, which is odd because usually progressives are big fans of Galatians 3:28, often thought to be an early Christian baptismal formula. In being incorporated into Christ’s death and resurrection, all of our identities – our citizenship, our ideology, our status as slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile – become relativized “in Christ.” To suggest some kind of magical fixity to orientation or gender – which even most gender theorists now reject – that cannot be touched by the Holy Spirit, catechesis, or the church is quite strange. This is not a suggestion of re-orientation or ‘praying away the gay,’ but simply a recognition that most of my gender studies training suggests a fluidity where you see hard and fast categories which cannot be touched once one has decided for themselves where they stand – aside from the witness of centuries which suggests people can and often do give up all kinds of “intrinsic” things about them to come to Christ.

    Lastly, I would welcome progressive Christians to start taking catechesis seriously, if indeed it teaches orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthokardia. I am less convinced that such training should be more about the process than the outcome; yes, converts need training in how to think theologically and how to pray and read Scripture, but ultimately there are some “must-haves” that need to be affirmed by the end if one is to be baptized into the community that exists under the Lordship of the Triune God. If your commitment to exploring and deepening your theological and doctrinal understanding is indicative of some kind of sea change in progressive Christianity, which is too often a social program with a thin veneer of Christian convictions, then I welcome the change.


    • says

      Drew, thanks for your comment.

      1) Facebook comments that are marked to friends only, like yours, are not for public retransmission. Facebook comments made that are marked public, like Sky’s, are fair game. If you don’t like it, change your settings.

      2) I accept your gender theory critique (and I’m a bit surprised at you being a source of that, but perhaps I don’t know you as well as I thought). I would adapt my statement to say that since our understanding of gender and identity and orientation is beyond the biblical depiction of a binary, then it requires a change in our catechism as well from biblical times.

      3) Again, as I’ve said before, I really don’t understand your depiction of progressives. I would wonder who you meet because the people I know have a deep spirituality that is the driving force behind their actions for social change and support. Make your circle wider and perhaps fewer progressives will fall into your caricature.

      • says

        Thanks for a thorough reply, Jeremy.

        1) I would disagree that access means it is in good taste to freely quote something. But you probably know more about propriety vis-a-vis social media.

        2) You’ve not addressed the liturgical and Biblical significance of baptism; in dying and rising with Christ, how can we say anything is is not up for grabs in that process?

        3) I interact with a lot of progressive Christians through social media, reading, etc. (alas, there are not very many in my town). Few show an interest in doctrine, orthodoxy, catechesis – or if they do, it is much more about reforming these things through the lens of Mainline Protestantism (or Unitarian Universalism). Many of our seminaries, which are dominated by some form of progressive Christianity, bear this out. But again, I hope what I’m reading from you is indicative of a change.

        Thanks, as always.

  3. says

    I think your took my quote a little out of context, Jeremy. What I said was, “I still maintain, however, that poor catechism, and failure to make disciples who make disciples is the root cause of our decline, and is a CRISIS.” I wasn’t pointing to homosexuality – indeed, I was pointing to something a whole lot larger and, to me, more crucial.

    And to quote me, and in the next paragraph to say, “I’ve seen similar comments elsewhere as conservative evangelicals seek…”

    Well, I’m *still* giggling about being lumped with conservative evangelicals, as will others who know me when they read this!

    • says

      Sky, thanks for your comment. In that section, I wasn’t referring to homosexuality and I think I honored your intent. Indeed, I expanded it because if I included your reference to “decline” and not my summary of “the UMC’s troubles” then that would have depicted you more as into institutional maintenance than mission, and I believe you are more about the mission.

      I don’t know you, Sky, but I was lumping you more with Powell as a thinker (hence the term “in a similar vein” as a precursor) than with conservative evangelicals. I know my conservative evangelical friends enjoyed reading your commentary on Methodism until you became a DS, so I wouldn’t know whether you identify with them or not.

  4. Creed Pogue says

    Now that we have heard from Sky we can see that quoting out of context on Facebook or other places is the same as proof-texting in the Bible.

    You really aren’t doing any rigorous reasoning when you start from your conclusion and continue to construct purported logical paths for others to follow to the same conclusion you already had.

    I don’t need to say this if we are actually discussing matters on the merits instead of our identity validating our statements, but identity seems to trump reason here. So, I am a very progressive Democrat and I have been a national convention delegate. I know friends who are gay and I favor equality in civil society. My analysis leads me to the conclusion that the true bottomline issue is the status of gay non-celibate ordained clergy who wish to serve openly. There aren’t any compromises or middle ways that would be acceptable to those who desire to change our ordination standards. None of them would maintain our connectional polity either. Many can disagree but for the majority their analysis leads them to believe that Scripture is completely opposed to homosexual practice, tradition is opposed to homosexual practice, experience shows us that other denominations have not seen growth or even a slowing of decline but instead are melting even faster when they changed their ordination standards (that includes the Western Jurisdiction as well), so reason would dictate that change is inadvisable. Considering that the African conferences and the Southeastern Jurisdiction alone will command 51% of the votes in Portland while revisionists continue to believe that 2016 will finally be “the year” then we are headed for a General Conference that will make 2012 look like a model of production unless responsible people take steps toward accountability.

    • Martin says

      Interesting comment: “the true bottomline issue is the status of gay non-celibate ordained clergy who wish to serve openly”. It’s a very specific issue, for something fundamental. If I understand the thought here, none of the following are the bottom line:

      -> Gay non-celibate ordained clergy who serve in secret
      -> Gay non-celibate laity who serve openly
      -> Gay celibate ordained clergy who serve openly
      -> Straight non-celibate ordained clergy who serve openly
      -> Possibly implied: equal marriage, divorce, other items?

      That opens up a wide space for potential changes that do not impact this bottom line. Do you think that is a common stance among those who believe that scripture and tradition oppose homosexual practice?

  5. todd bartlett says

    I can only imagine the Rabbis scratching their heads about where they went wrong with this Jesus fellow, if only their teaching had been better, if only their creeds had eliminated such heretical actions, and that their tradition, timeless and God-given, would prevent such people from getting out of line…

    • Nathans says

      Seriously. People used to drinking old wine won’t want to drink newer, unaged wine.

      I agree with much of what Jeremy writes, but this post and the other two linked at the top seem to include a lot of hoop jumping to reconcile some of Jeremy’s progressive beliefs with parts of our traditional theological systems. It reminds me of the many times on the recent Cosmos that a scientist would create complex systems of equations to explain some new discovery without changing the traditional and popular model, even if that discovery proved parts of that model were wrong (circular vs elliptical orbits, for example).

      In an earlier comment, Drew said he’s met “few [progressives who] show an interest in doctrine, orthodoxy, and catechesis.” Why do you think that is?

      I do not think a new catechism is going to fix anything. Patching an old, cracked wine skin will not fix the wine skin. God’s spirit is moving this younger generation in new and exciting ways, and these spirit-filled young people are uniformly rejecting the old skins of the traditional, institutional church.

  6. says

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