My prayer for this year’s General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been that Methodists will rediscover something that I believe has been lost, at least in the American and some other contexts. While some are admirably encouraging the United Methodist Church to explicitly and officially acknowledge the doctrinal authority of the Nicene Creed, I believe we also need to recover and reclaim an authority even more basic than that, namely the New Covenant.
Like the book of the covenant given to Israel was lost under a mound of Idolatry and forgotten, only to be ‘accidentally’ rediscovered and reclaimed in the days of king Josiah (1 Kings 22-23), I believe United Methodism, again, at least in some quarters, has lost and forgotten the New Covenant. Far too many just simply don’t understand what it is; others simply refuse to accept it.
This becomes painfully obvious when love is pitted against law, and when grace is redefined as forgiveness and/or acceptance without transformation. Then you have those who believe the two great laws to love God and your neighbor as yourself set aside the remainder of the law rather than fulfill it, negate it rather than activate it. It’s obvious that they just don’t understand the New Covenant, which I didn’t either for many, many years, and I realize I still have much to learn. It’s also sadly obvious when ceremonial and civil laws that only pertained to the ancient near eastern nation of Israel is used to negate the ongoing sexual prohibitions, which are clearly restated in the New Testament. When warnings about the dangers of sin to unrepentant sinners and calls to repentance and self-denial are labeled as hatred and bigotry, and despicable judgmentalism, or when any mention of obedience and good works is quickly dismissed as Pharisaic legalism, there is a serious misunderstanding of the New Covenant. And it’s not just liberals I’m talking about here; many evangelical traditions are run amuck with these types of misunderstandings as well.
With regards to the current crisis facing the United Methodist Church over how to be in ministry to the LGBTQ community and in response to the same-sex ceremony performed in a UM Church in Charlotte, NC, which the ministers involved called an act of ‘biblical obedience’, a couple of weeks ago I posted on social media a link to the book “Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition” with the following statement:
Was the recent ceremony at First UMC in Charlotte really an act of “biblical obedience”? Bible Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson (at Emory), who is LGBT affirming says the following: “The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says.” Later he goes on to say: “I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good.”
I also heard ultra liberal Phyllis Tickle say that it’s a fool’s game to try to prove from the Bible that same-sex relationships are not sinful. There are many other liberal scholars who would say the same, but like Johnson they just simply reject the Biblical commandments. As a matter of fact, this is what Adam Hamilton’s bucket # 3 is for. Donald Fortson and Rollin Graham in their book, “Unchanging Witness”, present an abundance of evidence from the ancient primary sources that reveals why liberal scholars in the church and outside the church would say something like what Johnson and Tickle have said. The Bible really is clear on this issue despite all the efforts to muddy the clear waters.
Professor Johnson, nonetheless, argues (article “Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience”) for the authority of experience over Scripture in a way that he still somehow believes is being liberal in the name of the gospel. It’s hard to see how that can be when the gospel is the fulfillment of the promise of the New Covenant in which the laws of God are written on His people’s hearts by the Spirit so they will obey. In Romans 8 Paul indicates that it is the mind of the flesh, being hostile to God, opposed to the Spirit, which refuses to submit to God’s law thereby pleasing God. The promise of the new covenant ratified by the blood of Christ is a healed heart and the gift of God’s Spirit so we can and will obey God’s commands not reject them (Deut 30; Jer 31; Ezk 36).
In spite of this, in response, some progressive clergy still tried to play the game of muddying the waters. One asked why I only referenced Old Testament scripture, apparently missing my reference to Romans 8, and asked me to tell her what Jesus said about it under the New Covenant. In addition to the reference to Romans 8, also lost on my colleague was the fact that the OT references I gave in parenthesis were in fact promises of the New Covenant, the new thing that God promised to do for His people after exile. Predictably, my colleague also made the fallacious argument from silence that since Jesus didn’t explicitly say anything about same-sex relationships it must be okay.
At any rate, so many of our arguments center around a failure to understand, or a disingenuous refusal to acknowledge the differences between the Old Covenant with Israel mediated through Moses, and the New Covenant mediated and ratified by Jesus and activated by the Holy Spirit. The Old Covenant foretold the New Covenant and indicated that there would be differences, although it didn’t spell out all of those differences exactly.
So we shouldn’t be surprised that the New Covenant is not exactly the same as the Old Covenant, especially since Jeremiah specifically tells us that it would not be (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The promise of the circumcised heart in Deuteronomy 30, for instance, is one of those differences, the result of which would be wholehearted love for God evidenced by obedience to God’s commandments. Jeremiah specifies that this would involve God’s laws being written on the hearts of His people and the forgiveness of sins to be remembered no more. Ezekiel also indicated that this would include the renewal of the heart and the transformation of the human spirit to be accompanied by the gift of God’s very own Spirit, again the end result being obedience to God’s commandments.
Yesterday was Pentecost, the time when the Church commemorates and celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, which Peter proclaimed to be a fulfillment of that which God had spoken through the prophet Joel, that he would pour out his Spirit on all flesh, male and female, young and old, slave and free (Joel 2:28-29). But we must understand the extraordinarily generous outpouring of the Spirit within the context of the promise of the New Covenant, which Jesus inaugurated.
The purpose of this outpouring of the Spirit of God wasn’t simply to give us warm and fuzzy feelings in our hearts and cold chills on our skin, but to transform us from the inside out to be an obedient people who gladly submit to God’s moral law from the heart, not just outwardly as arrogant legalists, but also not to use God’s grace as an excuse for lawlessness (i.e. antinomianism). The Bible has nothing good to say about legalism; neither has it anything good to say about lawlessness.
Of course the New Covenant is not a simple prescription of prohibitions; it is a promise with power. The Old Covenant could only reveal sin; the New Covenant deals with it once and for all and empowers God’s people to overcome it by the power of God’s Spirit to be gladly and joyfully obedient to God’s law, which is evidence of love for God and love of neighbor.
The Holy Spirit would certainly never lead God’s people to reject the straightforward commands of scripture, which are clearly stated and warned about in both the Old and New Testament. Instead, the Holy Spirit would enable us to submit to God’s law, which is an impossibility in the flesh, our corrupt sinful nature, as Paul says in Romans 8. This is the promise with power; this is the authority of the New Covenant.
Yet these truths have been buried under a mountain of misunderstanding, misinformation, misdirection, poor interpretation, reimagining, rethinking, and human traditions conformed to the reasoning of idolatrous minds and the sinful desires of a fallen world. The past few days of General Conference it seems there has been a full-court press to pile on to this mountain.
Countless have been the calls to love, but not love as it is defined in scripture. Love is keeping the straightforward commandments of scripture, the commandments of the living God, not rejecting them. Countless have been the calls to follow the Holy Spirit, but not as that is defined in scripture. The Holy Spirit would not lead us to fulfill the desires of the flesh and of the mind to please ourselves (Eph 2), but to fulfill the just requirements of the law and to submit to God’s law in order to please Him (Romans 8). The Spirit would inspire us to welcome all people from everywhere no matter what sins they have committed and how they may be uniquely tempted, as the Gospel is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham that in his seed all the peoples of the earth would find blessing, but not to try to sanctify any particular sinful desire and behavior.
Those cannot be calls inspired by the Holy Spirit. We need to be truthful. The New Covenant has been buried under a mountain of distorted reasoning and human tradition built thereon. Last Friday morning one of our bishops during a sermon misrepresented the position of our church as stated in our Book of Discipline. No person created in the image of God, who is of sacred worth, is deemed to be incompatible with Christian teaching, although certain behavior is. This same bishop, Bishop Sally Dyck, also implied that the church does not deem other sins, specifically in her sermon murder and racism, to be incompatible with Christian teaching. Of course we do, even though the term “incompatible” may not be used. With regards to murder we acknowledge the binding authority of the 6th commandment, which clearly indicates that we find murder to be incompatible with Christian teaching and racism is a chargeable offense for UM pastors, not to mention contrary to the vows in the baptismal covenant in our own hymnal. And in that context, apparently in a desperate attempt to justify homosexuality, she went on to say that she didn’t really want to add anything to the list. She said,“I want us to go learn mercy and not have anything declared incompatible with Christian teaching in our Church.” Early, however, she said that it was incompatible with Christian teaching to declare anyone incompatible with Christian teaching. What does this really mean? Although it really is a disingenuous, dishonest, and an incoherent straw man argument, I think it is quite revealing in another way.
The bishop’s rant actually reveals a competing covenant. It’s a covenant built around the liberal notion of love, which is defined by the liberal notion of tolerance and permissiveness, do what thou wilt as long as it’s consensual. It appears to be a virtually lawless love, save one, “Thou shalt not judge!” And the mercy offered seems to be defined as making people more comfortable with who they are as sinners rather than helping them to be set free from sin and its death-dealing consequences to become saints. I really wanted to believe that she simply misspoke when she said she did not want “anything to be declared incompatible with Christian teaching”, but in the context of her message it seems that is what she meant. That’s a lawless love, which is not really love at all according to scripture. It’s a covenant where sin is forgiven without repentance and sinners being transformed and empowered to resist temptation and to live holy lives it seems.
Bishop Harvey did much better this morning when she preached on the parable of the invitation to the wedding banquet from Matthew’s Gospel. She rightly said that we are invited to come as we are, but we are not welcome to enjoy the party by remaining that way. By accepting the invitation to the party we must also accept the proper attire, the robe, provided compliments of the host. Allowing God to clothe us in righteousness and holiness on His terms is required. Unfortunately Bishop Harvey mistakenly offered an exemption for the LGBT community by comparing sexual orientation with things like race and biological gender rather than other sexual temptations like consensual adultery (i.e. swinging), which, by the way, the founding father of the sexual revolution, Alfred Kinsey, deemed to be acceptable because he believed it was “natural” as he believed homosexuality and a lot of other things to be as well. Nonetheless, this is an exemption that is not authorized by either the Old or the New Covenants.
To truly be in New Covenant ministry for the salvation of sinners for the kingdom of God we must stay within the parameters of the New Covenant itself and remember that it’s not just a prescription of prohibitions; it’s a promise of God the Father with power because of the she blood of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Of course the gospel is not change so you can be saved. Sinners can’t change, any more than a leopard could change its spots (Jeremiah 13:23). It is impossible for any sinner to change themselves. The good news is that with God all things are possible and sinners can be changed, all sinners can become saints by the transforming grace and power of God. This is the promise of the New Covenant, often buried and forgotten, but a treasure nonetheless.
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NET)