Bishop LaTrelle Easterling’s Perspective on the One Church Plan

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An interview with Bishop LaTrelle Easterling for the One Church Plan Podcast

What is it about the One Church Plan that gives you comfort that you can say, “You know what, I’m gonna stamp it with my approval, and that I’m in favor on the One Church Plan.”?

In my estimation we’re already living the One Church Plan, and we’ve been doing so for quite some time. I think we have not wanted to admit it for various reasons. I think that some persons have attempted to live in denial. But we have been living the One Church Plan for years. And certainly if you look at the local church context, there is no congregation that has 100% agreement on anything. I don’t care if it is the hour in which service is held, or if it’s the color of carpet they’re going to buy for the sanctuary, or if it’s how often Holy Communion should be celebrated.

There is not unanimity of thought around anything, and yet they can work together. They can serve together. They can make disciples together. So we have been living this out as Methodists and then United Methodists for decades. We simply need to confess that that’s who we are, and then continue to live that out boldly to the world.

What I hear you laying out there is this idea, or this word that we keep talking about when it comes to the One Church Plan, contextualization. What does that mean to you? And what does it mean specifically maybe in your area?

And so for me contextualization is what’s appropriate for the community in which you find yourself situated. We often want to lift up one model as the model, and the everyone else is supposed to make that work for them.

Contextualization says we have concept that we all agree upon. But then we’re able to modify that, not at its core, but in a way that makes sense for that particular community.

And so, again the way that persons celebrate Communion. Some do it every Sunday, some only want it once a month. Whether they have bread, whether they have wafer, whether they’ve gone to gluten free to not cause those persons that might have an allergy to only to be able to go to one station. We have been doing things contextually for a long time.

At some churches, when someone comes down that aisle and says I want to join, they’re called into membership right away. They’re read into membership immediately.

Others say, nope, you’ve gotta go through an extensive new members class before you can join. So we have been living with great contextualization for a long time in our churches. And so I think that, as I’ve said before, if we simply admit that and say with the issue of human sexuality we will address it as we have other things in our polity, in our history, then I think that that will take us where we need to be.

 There are some who may say there’s a difference between maybe the contextualization of communion and the contextualization of human sexuality because they may read the Bible and say the Bible says so. With that being said, what is your Biblical lens that you are using to read the One Church Plan?

Certainly the logical interpretation has many strands, many threads, right? There was a time when I could not be sitting before you as Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling. I would not have even had been able to sit before you as Reverend LaTrelle Miller Easterling, because the Pauline Corpus was read to say that I could not be an ordained minister in the church. That was theologically understood to be the appropriate approach to women being present in the body of Christ. We were supposed to not have any authority over men, there were certain things we could do.

We could teach. We could certainly work with music, but we were not to have authority. Well, many persons no longer read that scripture in that way. And so we have evolved. There are those passages certainly that persons lift up to say unequivocally that homosexuality is a sin. But there are other great scholars and theologians who say, “Mmm, that was the way those scriptures were interpreted at one point in time, but as we have understood more, as other of our sciences have progressed and evolved, we now understand that those scriptures were not necessarily interpreted appropriately.”

And so there’s been evolution of thought around human sexuality, just as there has around gender and race, because again, as an African American, at some point in time I would not have been able to sit before you as Elder or Bishop.

 How toxic is the situation now in the United Methodist Church?

I really think that depends on where you are, I’m sure in some areas it’s very toxic. In others, it is certainly at the forefront of persons’ minds, but not necessarily toxic. I think in the places where it devolves into almost hatred, then of course it’s extremely toxic. Hate is toxic to the soul, and so anytime that we find ourselves in the condition of hate, yeah, I think then it’s an affront to God, it’s an affront to the spirit, and tears at the fabric of what is even means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, where we’re supposed to be able to see Christ in one another.

 I have often said that I believe that the enemy has us right where the enemy wants us. Specifically relating to the toxicity of the denomination. We are fighting, we are distracted, we’re gonna spend a lot of money, and a lot of time. We already have for forty plus years on this issue. We’re going to spend a lot of money and a lot of time going to St. Louis to potentially do nothing. How does that feel to you as a Bishop to know that enemy has us right where the enemy wants us? And how do we wrestle away from that?

So the scripture that has guided the Baltimore Washington Conference, and is guiding us for this quadrennia, is Ephesians 4:1-16. And if I could read just a couple of these passages.

“You are all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together. Both outwardly and inwardly. You have one master, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with oneness. But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each one is given his or her own gift.”

That’s the word of God for us. And yes, anytime that we are not able to live out that scriptural mandate, if you will, of who we’re called to be, that I do think that the enemy, the low one, Satan, has confused and confounded us so. That we have turned on one another, right? We’ve turned on one another instead of being the united body of Christ. Going out and speaking to the sin and evil that’s in the world and together praying, worshiping, making disciples serve and being in mission together to bring the kingdom of God further into the realm of the world.

Anytime that we can be so inwardly focused in fighting that we’re not doing that, then yes, I agree with you, the enemy has us just where the enemy wants us.

 What message could it send to the rest of a very divided world that cannot see gray in a black and white world. What message could it send that we say, “We agree to disagree. That I will hold arm-in-arm with a brother or sister inside this denomination who may have completely different views and we are going to stay together and do the work of God.” What kind of message is that for the rest of the world?

I think it’s an excellent message, and it says that we’re going to not major in minors and minor in the majors. But that we are going to keep the overarching message, the one that we are unified on. We’re unified in Jesus Christ. And that work that Christ has called us to do. Some of these other things for me, they’re more minor. And so let’s not dwell on those, let’s not settle on those as the litmus test or the defining aspect of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

But that meta-narrative of Christ and the fact that he loved all, died for all, works in all and through all, that’s where we need to have our focus. And for me that’s the major and not the minor.

 Do you think that this issue, going back for a minute to the Biblical interpretation, do you think that this issue is more about Biblical interpretation than it is about human sexuality?

I don’t even think it’s necessarily about Biblical interpretation, I think it’s about power. I think it’s about power.

There’re certain segments in our society who have enjoyed power. And how that power then is held or given away, and the accoutrements that come with power. And if humanity has begun to be understood in different and more nuanced ways, perhaps some of those same persons in our society won’t hold all the power and the control. And so I think ultimately it has more to do with that even than it does with human sexuality. I think that’s just a symptom.

The One Church Plan, the thing that I think gets lost is that the One Church Plan gives a tremendous amount of freedom, right? It gives enough freedom for those who may be opposed to a same-gender wedding … the branding of the One Church Plan, if you will, it’s got a branding problem. Because people think that somehow when the One Church Plan is passed that they’re gonna be forced to do a gay wedding. What would you say to someone, a pastor, or someone in your conference or across the denomination, who may say to themselves, “I am opposed to gay marriage, and I understand that the passing of the One Church Plan is perhaps the best way forward for the denomination, but I just can’t in good conscience vote for it because I may have an issue with my conscience going forward.”?

And so, that’s when I would say that I think part of the way that some have attempted to bring fear into this process is to say even if they tell you now that you won’t have to perform those marriages, somewhere down the road you may have to. That is never been true in the history of the Methodist Church. It won’t be true in February of this passes, and I don’t think it’ll be true two years from now if it passes. Pastors have always been able to discern and decide whether they will perform a marriage – of any sort. In the sanctuary or outside the sanctuary. Nowhere in our book of discipline does it say you must perform the right of marriage. It doesn’t say that. Everyone has the right to say I will perform this wedding, I will not perform this wedding. And that will not change.

 What is your hope for St. Louis?

My hope for St. Louis is that persons will approach that time as holy conferencing.

What does that mean to you?

That means to me that you come, having prayed earnestly even before you pack your suitcase or board the plane. That you remain in prayer as you’re traveling. That you remain in prayer even as you are dialoguing, discussing and listening, and that you are open to the spirits movement.

I know that we’re not Quakers, and we don’t sit and wait for a movement through the body, we do operate under the democratic process, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if persons were open enough? And listening deeply enough to one another that as that spirit is speaking the body begins to move organically together, and they say, “It’s not what I want, and it’s not what you want. We have felt together.” This is what God is speaking into our spirit right now, and this is the will of God for the United Methodist Church. For me, that’s holy conferencing.