A Response to the Rev. Matt Miofsky’s Open Letter to the United Methodist Church

By Walter Fenton

February 19. 2019

I do not personally know the Rev. Matt Miofsky, lead pastor at the Gathering United Methodist Church in St. Louis, Missouri. However, I have heard he is a great leader and an effective preacher with a pastor’s heart. Clearly, he has grown a multi-site campus church that does great ministry in the St. Louis area and beyond. As he points out, the Gathering is “the third fastest growing large UM Church in the country.”

Unfortunately, I think his recent, “An Open Letter to the United Methodist Church,” fails to make a serious argument for changing our church’s sexual ethics and its teachings on marriage.

First, Miofsky breezily makes a presumption about people in general that I do not think is fair or correct. In his opening sentence he writes: “Human beings have a strong preference for ‘either/or’ thinking when often ‘both/and’ thinking better represents the truth.”

For starters, I am not sure how he would know this in general, and second, I am afraid what he actually means is something more like: “Human beings who disagree with me on a matter I think they’re wrong about have a strong preference for ‘either/or’ thinking when I think they’d be better off if they adopted my ‘both/and’ thinking approach.”

I’m not picking on Miofsky for holding this view. The fact is we are all both/and thinkers on many matters, but all of us, including Miofsky, are definitely either/or thinkers on other issues. And for the truths we find most sacred or important for a community of faith, we all tenaciously defend those truths, allowing no room for a both/and approach. The hard part is discerning which truths require an either/or approach and which require a both/and model. In the church, we have always attempted to make this discernment together through the work of holy conferencing. And we all acknowledge that sometimes articulating or discerning a truth involves a both/and approach, and sometimes it requires an “either/or” model.

This is fairly easy to demonstrate. In the church all of us would agree an important truth is that we should regularly worship the Triune God. And yet we do not dictate that everyone follow a particular style of worship. We are both either/or and both/and people on the issue. Local churches, we maintain, should definitely worship God (it does not yield to both/and thinking), but we’re not going to dictate precisely how they should worship God (that is a both/and issue).

However, regarding the sacrament of infant baptism we require our clergy to be “either/or” people. Either you embrace and celebrate the sacrament of infant baptism or you find another church in which to do ministry.

With all due respect to my colleague, he’s inadvertently created a straw man in the very first sentence of his letter by presuming that people “have a strong preference for either/or thinking,” when it is closer to the truth to say that nearly all people are either/or thinkers on some issues, and more than happy to be both/and thinkers on other matters. In short, they’re more like him than he gives them credit for. His presumption that his fellow “human beings” are mired in either/or thinking, rather than being a both/and thinker like himself, gets him off on the wrong foot.

And so as his letter unfolds it goes something like this: “I have adopted a sexual ethic and understanding of marriage at odds with the church that ordained me. But I’ve decided it’s fine for me to do so because unlike other human beings who have a strong preference for either/or thinking, I’ve developed a more enlightened both/and approach to these matters.”

In addition to his faulty assessment of his fellow human beings, his approach comes off as a tad arrogant. I don’t think he intends it, but I imagine it is hard for people who disagree with him not to think so. It’s hard not to hear him saying something like: “If you’d be a both/and thinker like me, rather than an either/or person, you’d see the wisdom of my attitude to our church’s sexual ethics and teachings on marriage.”

I could be wrong (I certainly hope not), but I doubt Miofsky would be so cavalier about adopting a both/and approach if the subject was the ordination of women. I hope he would not be comfortable with a UM pastor who said, “I’ve adopted a both/and model regarding women in ordained ministry. My congregation is growing under my leadership, and now most of the people who attend agree with me that girls and young women should not set their sites on ordained ministry. Therefore, my congregation should have the right – under my enlightened both/and approach – to tell a bishop we reject the teachings of the larger church so we will not accept an ordained clergy woman on our staff.”

Again, like infant baptism, ordaining women is an either/or issue not a both/and one. Together, the church has discerned that we embrace and celebrate the gifts women bring to ministry and therefore we ordain them to serve at every level of the church. We do not allow clergy to defy the teaching just because “it happens… to work” in their local settings.

And finally, I regret Miofsky’s own decision to violate the church’s teachings on same sex marriage. I am sure most United Methodists appreciate and applaud his outreach to “queer people” and people who identify as part of the LGBTQ community. Contrary to what some think, I believe many United Methodist local churches, like the Gathering, welcome LGBTQ people to their worship services, small groups, and Bible studies. And I am aware that some congregations, again, like the Gathering, are actively reaching out to the LGBTQ community beyond the walls of their churches.

Having said that, the only arguments Miofsky advances for defying our church’s teachings is that he is a both/and guy, and in any event, “it also happens to work” at his church. With all due respect, those are not serious arguments. If he is going to go to the trouble of writing an open letter to the whole church on these matters he needs to make a sustained, biblical theological and ethical argument for why we should change our teachings, and why it is appropriate for him to defy them while they still are our church’s teachings.

Again, if Miofsky is willing to grant himself the latitude to defy the church, is he willing to allow others to defy it as well when they think an issue he regards as an essential either/or matter is a both/and one as far as they are concerned? Is there any room in Miofsky’s ecclesiology for corporate discernment and then personal deference to the discernment of the whole? Or is he fine with advocating an ecclesiology that would invite all of us to do what we think is right in our own eyes?

Again, I have a great deal of respect for Miofsky. And I find no contradiction in saying I am very thankful for his proclamation of the Gospel, the making of disciples that happens at the Gathering, and all the good work the church does in the community.  However, I do not think United Methodists will be persuaded by his assumption about people in general or his willingness to defy our church’s teachings because it happens to work at his church.