I’ve long been a fan of Bishop Will Willimon. He’s a terrific writer and preacher who has spent his career calling the mainline church and its members back to its primary mission of worshiping God, proclaiming the gospel, and living lives of sacrificial discipleship. I guess it’s my previous admiration for his work that makes me wonder just how bad a day Willimon was having when he wrote on the blog of the North Alabama Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church:

Knee deep in the church’s response to the crisis in Haiti, overwhelmed by the determination of United Methodists to respond to the suffering there, I received an unsolicited email from the folks at the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) complaining about the President’s health care plan. (Victims of Obamacare, By Mark Tooley, 1.28.10)

I’m not sure why he would have received this particular item from the IRD just now–it was from a January column in the American Spectator. Anyway….

Thousands of you are on the IRD’s unsolicited email list. From time to time I hear from you, upset about something that the IRD is upset about. They tend never to be concerned about anything that concerns the church – like the suffering of sisters and brothers in Haiti, the content of our preaching, the quality of our discipleship, the orthodoxy of our theology.

This is where it starts getting bizarre. If Willimon thinks that the IRD is not concerned about “the orthodoxy of our theology,” then he knows next to nothing about what they’ve been doing for the last couple of decades, which has been far more focused on combating the growing heresy and politicized theology within the mainline churches than anything else. As for the alleged lack of concern for the suffering of Christians, I don’t know how involved, if at all, IRD has been with Haiti, but it certainly has been doing all it can to bring the plight of persecuted Christians in places such as Sudan to the world’s attention for many years.

The email tirade was fairly typical for the IRD – snide, caustic, right wing conservative, devoid of any reference to the Bible or Jesus. Mr. Tooley is a good enough writer but he is utterly innocent of any theological interests. And so is the IRD. Note their title: Religion and Democracy. They never talk about Christ and they seem to think that politics and government is the answer to everything.

Actually, it’s their left-wing opponents in the mainline churches who tend to think that “politics and government is the answer to everything.” It’s exactly that mindset that the IRD was founded to combat. And again, if Bishop Willimon thinks that the IRD is “utterly innocent of any theological interests,” he clearly has not been paying attention.

The IRD seems to be a group of people who worship “religion” and “democracy” whereas the United Methodist Church is trying to worship and to obey Jesus.

Uh, “snide” and “caustic,” Bishop? And where exactly is the worship and obedience to Jesus in the UMC’s support of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Rights or the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation or the hyper-politicized National and World Councils of Churches?

Emails from the IRD could as easily be released by Mormon Glen Beck or some Islamic Society as by any Christian church. Though their main function is to attack mainline churches, “church” is not in their name. Right wing politics appears to be their church.

“Church” is not in the name of Samaritan’s Purse, World Vision, Habitat for Humanity, Bread for the World, Campus Crusade, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, or Duke Divinity School, either. I guess that means that something other than Christian faith is what they’re all about, too.

Of course, I’ve been critical when left wing politics plays a greater role in our conversation as a church than scripture or Jesus. But standing there, trying to get those water purification systems out of Alabama and into Haiti, wading through the hundreds of health kits that Alabama Methodists produced in one week, with our Conference website jammed with Methodists attempting to give money to Haiti, I was once again reminded of the irrelevancy of the IRD. They may have generous funding from a few right wing fanatics, they may have some interesting things to say about politics, and Mr. Tooley may be (in certain moments) a good satirist, but they don’t have much to do with being the church. Jesus Christ ought to control the church’s imagination – not politics left or right.

I don’t agree with everything that comes from the IRD, but I don’t have to. I’ve had more than enough contact with its employees to know that they are Christians of deep convictions, whose motivations stem from their love of Christ and His church, and who are seeking to bring the mainline churches of which they are members back to some semblance of theological orthodoxy. Before Bishop Willimon fires off another snide, caustic, uninformed, and frankly embarrassing screed about a fellow Methodist (Mark Tooley) and his colleagues, he ought to take a few minutes to get past his own political prejudices and learn something about them.

(Via IRD, but the opinions are all my own.)