More Thoughts on Christian Public Discourse

To understand one another, we at least have to attempt to model traits such as honesty, carefulness, rigor, and empathy. These are values I was taught in seminary and during my doctoral education. As an educator, I try to instill these intellectual virtues in my students. I value the free exchange of ideas, which is one of the reasons I went into academics to begin with. The academy does not always exemplify such virtuous discourse, but at its best it does, and when that happens, the outcome can be quite wonderful.

There are many enemies of the free exchange of ideas. Outright censorship is one, though we don’t often see this in the United States. Dishonesty is another. We see this quite often. We compromise our ability to grow spiritually and intellectually by dialoguing with one another when we are less than honest in our assertions. Yet another is a refusal of real engagement, opting instead for the political advantage that comes by shaming our opponents. This strategy can be extremely effective in the short term in helping us win points in the court of public opinion, but over the long haul sows the seeds of misunderstanding and heightened discord.

Three people I know have lately found themselves on the receiving end of some less-than-virtuous discourse. They wrote a letter to officials within the West Michigan Conference regarding a same-sex wedding performed by Ginny Mikita. Whether or not this letter directly resulted in any punitive action against Ms. Mikita, I don’t know. Regardless, Ms. Mikita was later informed that she was no longer a member of The United Methodist Church.

The question is, why is she no longer a member? Is it because she performed a same-sex wedding? To answer this question, we have to bear in mind that she was not ordained in the UMC. The kind of disciplinary action that might be taken toward a UM elder who broke his or her ordination vows is irrelevant to Ms. Mikita’s actions because she is not an ordained United Methodist clergyperson. It appears that Ms. Mikita’s removal from membership in the UMC had to do with the fact that she was ordained by another denomination, the Universal Life Church. When you unite with another denomination, you are by that very action forfeiting your official membership within the UMC:

If a pastor is informed that a member has without notice united with a church of another denomination, the pastor shall make diligent inquiry and, if the report is confirmed, shall enter “Withdrawn” after the persons’ name on the membership roll and shall report the same to the next charge conference (241 of the 2012 Book of Discipline).

To read the response that came out from RMN, you would think that Ms. Mikita was excommunicated from the UMC. In fact, the response uses that very term more than once. The response goes on to state,

Reconciling Ministries Network is aghast at the bureaucratic action undertaken not only by Rev. Bill Haggard, Bishop Deborah Kiesey, and the West Michigan Conference, but also by the pharisaic efforts of clergy from North Carolin, Texas and New Jersey whose commitment to the letter of the law has outstripped what used to be known as a “religion of the heart.” We wish this were simply a matter of poor leadership, a lack of nerve, or failed compassion on the part of a few, but what we know is that a denomination that enshrines discrimination and sin into its own policies and practices must bear the weight of this extraordinary injustice.

This kind of rhetoric has one goal: to shame. Its purpose is to shame the pastors and denominational leaders who were involved in this matter regarding Ms. Mikita. But the fact is, she withdrew herself from the denomination. The response from RMN may be rhetorically effective, especially to like-minded readers, but it is inaccurate. The spirit of the RMN response was picked up by blogger Jeremy Smith, who has developed a network of conspiracy theories regarding the attempted expulsion of progressives from the UMC. Apparently, the pastors who wrote the letter to the West Michigan Conference officials were attempting to expel one more progressive. The funny thing is, they didn’t have to. She expelled herself.

Misinformation, inflammatory rhetoric, the idolatry of “winning,” the subordination of truth to ideology, the politics of shame… These kinds of tactics ultimately serve no one. And yes, I know that this is not simply a progressive tactic. I have seen evangelical, conservative, and self-described centrists do this, too. I lament what our discourse has become. I don’t know what the future of our church is, but I pray that whatever it is, we can find better ways of talking to one another.

10 thoughts on “More Thoughts on Christian Public Discourse

  1. Thank you for this post. Excellent. My prayer is that we could find a way to speak in God-honoring ways to each other and about each other.

  2. Did her “pastor” do this, as the discipline paragraph noted above instructs? Was it done after “diligent inquiry?” I see the unintended consequences she suffered here. Was there any graceful effort to bring pastoral reconciliation and restoration to the member by clergy and mentors? Or was it what it sounds like: the male boot given an uppity woman?

  3. Have read the statement made by the RMN. Was not aware of her ordination in the ULC. Understand the quoted paragraph and its application. Appreciate your post which serves to clarify this matter. Agree that is this issue all concerned need to give attention to what they say and how they speak. This is critical if there is to be any positive result reached.

  4. A church should not be able to remove a person from membership for any reason. The only Person qualified to remove someone is God, and He ain’t talkin’. When church authorities decree it, it’s simply about trying to control a member’s behavior (as in the example above) or about money.

    Add to aforementioned example the following: my UMC church routinely removes people from their membership rolls if the person who happens to be keeping the books at any given time “hasn’t seen you around in a while.” It’s happened to me, even though I’d been an active member. I was told it’s done regularly because the church has to pay dues to the national organization based on the number of members, so purging the rolls regularly is done to save dues money.

    There are disciplinary, doctrinal, and financially greedy reasons that church authorities manipulate people’s membership. It is all wrong. A church shouldn’t even maintain a list of who’s in and who’s out. Only God knows who’s in and out.

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