Last week I was ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church along with many other Elder candidates and a few candidates for the office of Deacon. The process to becoming an Elder in full connection is a long one. I began this journey 10 years ago. The earliest I could have been ordained was two years ago, but I self-delayed the intense written and oral examinations required to be approved due to some challenging life circumstances and a few qualms about the dubious state of the denomination. At any rate, I wanted to share a few thoughts about some of the vows I took during the process of being accepted into full connection during the clergy session and in the ordination service during our Annual Conference in Western NC. And piggy-backing on what others have shared about what the “next Methodism” should be like, I also want to share some thoughts on how these vows should be and can be taken more seriously in the future. (See others’ thoughts about the next Methodism here: Kevin Watson, David Watson, David Watson again, Scott Fritzsche, & Stephen Fife.)
During the clergy session at the beginning of our Annual Conference the Bishop invites the candidates for ordination on stage to answer historical questions of examination for Methodist preachers that go back to John Wesley himself. Some of the questions also seem to be a bit hysterical too as they often evoke chuckles from candidates, colleagues, and family and friends, such as the one that asks: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” With the exorbitant cost of higher education, including seminary, nowadays the debt question always evokes some chuckles.
I think the next Methodism certainly needs to find more ways to help ministerial candidates fund theological education and to train students on strategies to get by with less and reduce the amount of loans. Ministry is hard enough without the added strain of a mountain of debt. Thankfully, I was blessed that I didn’t have to borrow very much for seminary. What I did borrow to help with the transition from full-time gainful employment to a part-time local pastor salary while I was a full-time seminary student I, I was able to pay off entirely last fall. Nonetheless, as we find ourselves in an evermore missionary type environment, I think we need to seriously consider finding ways of educating and training ministers more efficiently, economically, and effectively. How is it in a day when we have the most educated clergy since Pentecost, we also seem to have some of the most Biblically illiterate congregations in history? With the technology we have today, surely we can train and equip clergy more efficiently and effectively.
More importantly, however, one of the other questions, actually the very first question asked of candidates in the clergy session is: “Have you faith in Christ?” That may sound like an odd one considering it’s being asked of candidates for ministry. But we must remember this comes from the Rev. John Wesley who wasn’t sure if he had genuine and complete faith in Christ even years after being ordained in the Anglican church.
In March of 1738 – about 13 years after he was ordained a deacon! – he wrote in his journal “I was, on Sunday, the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of faith whereby alone we are saved.” Wesley went on to contemplate quitting preaching. He asked himself, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” His friend and mentor Peter Bohler insisted that he continue to “Preach faith til you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
Wesley took his advice, but for many weeks continued to struggle with heaviness of heart over his lack of saving faith. He consulted the Scriptures and the description of faith and the experience of salvation described therein and compared them to his own experience. He remained in a state of feeling weighed in the balances of the word of God and found wanting. Wesley understood faith in theory, but he knew he did not have it in his own experience. Rather than redefining faith to match his experience, he continued to seek faith as defined and described in Scripture. He sought a change in his own heart rather than denying the truth and changing the word.
On May 24th that year, still with heaviness of heart, he hesitantly attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. That evening upon hearing Martin Luther’s description of “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ,” Wesley wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Interestingly, the very next thing he describes is how he then began to pray with all his might for those who had especially despitefully used him and persecuted him.
From that moment on, although he was tempted to doubt, Wesley never again doubted that he had real faith, even as he recognized the need to continue to grow stronger in that faith. And that was the moment that really ignited the fires of Methodism as a movement and the Wesleyan revival across England that spread to America and around the world.
If Methodism is to really become a movement again, and if we are really going to see revival again, genuine faith and a call to real faith will be at the forefront. Wesley realized that knowing about faith doesn’t guarantee an experience of it in the heart as the real work of God. As he listened to the message of Luther on Aldersgate street, he finally received that precious gift of faith. Interestingly, it is Martin Luther who can also help us to ensure that our candidates for ordained ministry today have genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation and how to discern what specific shape it should take.
In his “Treatise on Good Works,” to correct misunderstandings of the doctrine of justification by faith alone which are still common today, Luther explained that genuine faith will be evidenced by the fruit of good works. He said faith in Christ is first a fulfillment of the first commandment, which is: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). In the context of the storyline of the Bible this is because there is only one true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and all other gods are really just pretenders. The gods worshipped by the nations are not really worthy of worship. Only, Yahweh, the God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who rescued Jews and Gentiles, all of humanity, through Jesus Christ, from slavery to sin and death, is worthy of worship. Hence, we are to love him with all of our heart, soul, and strength (Dt 6:5). From here Luther said obedience to the rest of God’s commandments would flow. He used the Ten Commandments to explain what are the good works for which we are saved (see Eph 2:8-10). It’s also important to note that John 14:6, where Christ claims to be the only way to the Father, is a direct corollary of the first commandment, as Jesus Christ was the manifestation of the one true God in human flesh (see also Acts 4:12; Acts 17:30-31).
A person of genuine Christian faith should display a serious commitment to the first commandment and the first of the two greatest laws according to Jesus (Matt 22:36-40). Moreover, John 14:6, shouldn’t be considered controversial or embarrassing or in need of reinterpretation among those of genuine faith. So if there is a candidate for ordination who agrees with the modern day Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, that the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt, and that other gods and goddesses are legitimate manifestations of the divine, can we really say they have faith in Christ? As I shared before, I was taken to a conference to listen to Bolz-Weber speak with many other young pastors who were also provisional members (i.e. commissioned but not yet ordained). Virtually, all of them thought she was a wonderful role model for United Methodist ministers. I do not!
We need to take the original intent and spirit of that historical question that Wesley asked more seriously. “Have you faith in Christ?” doesn’t mean do you believe in Christ as you define and imagine him. It means do you believe in Christ as he is revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture. Do you trust in him and him alone for salvation?
We have pastors in some of our churches telling their congregations that they don’t really need to believe in Jesus to be saved because everyone is saved already. We have some who are telling their churches that Jesus really didn’t rise bodily from the dead. We have others who are telling their churches that Jesus really wasn’t divine. A Facebook friend of mine, stopped attending his United Methodist church in California when the pastor said the Sunday after Easter that Jesus was not really divine, and planned to preach a sermon series from the Gospel of Thomas (a heterodox non-canonical text). In 2003, in spite of denying Christ’s virgin birth and his bodily resurrection, Bishop Joseph Sprague was cleared of heresy charges by Bishop Ough, the current president of the Council of Bishops, who obviously didn’t see Sprague’s heterodox beliefs as a big deal. Have they faith in Christ? Well not in the historical sense in which that question was originally asked. Not even close!Which brings me to some other questions I was asked about doctrine and Scripture.
We were also asked: “Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?”; Do yo believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?; Will you preach them and maintain them? In that same spirit we were reminded by the Bishop in the liturgy during the ordination service that we are called “to proclaim the faith of the church and no other” (p. 675 UM Book of Worship). Additionally, we were asked if we believe the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, “to contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life” and if we would be loyal to the church, “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.”
In all of the above there is an echo of the call found in the book of Jude to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). The reason for Jude’s call to defend the faith is because of people who had crept into the church and perverted the grace of God into an excuse for sensuality, which the context clearly indicates involved sexual immorality. As the story of Balaam in Numbers shows, the promotion of sexual licentiousness is sometimes the lure into the trap of idolatry (Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16; see also Jude 1:11 & Rev. 2:14).
In our current climate in the United States, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a candidate who would answer that historic question in the spirit of its original meaning might be penalized or viewed as in need of correction for not being “diverse and inclusive” enough in their thinking. Through the commissioning process I was deemed by at least one person to be too rigid in my thinking because I expressed my conservative views on sexuality in particular. That person also began to talk to me about how all religions are really just manifestations of the same divine ultimate reality. He used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate his point. Gods of other religions are just as valid as the god of Christianity he said. He recommended two books to “help” me. One was “Six Ways of Being Religious”, which really doesn’t argue what he was arguing, although it obviously leans in that direction. The other was “The Future of Faith” by the liberal Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox. In that book, Cox argues against orthodoxy and the creedalism that has attended it. He argues for a more “diverse, open, and pluralistic” faith rooted more in a mystical experience of an apparently more impersonal ultimate reality. He actually includes John Wesley in his criticism of orthodoxy and its historical proponents, which he views as corrupting what he believes to be the original, “more open and diverse” version of Christianity. He also argues for a faith based less on specific content than experience; in reality Cox just presents an experiential faith with a different specific content. The diversity and inclusiveness so often promoted in Mainline circles is often just another version of the syncretism that both the Old and New Testaments warn God’s people against.
This one persons recommendations to me, which he included in his official report, were meet with approval by those on the discipleship committee and were put on their report of my interview as official recommendations for me. “Have you faith in Christ?” answered according to its original intent actually might put a candidate going before a board of ordained ministry in the U.S. and some other places in the category of “needing help and correction.” These things out not be!
The next Methodism, whatever that ends up being, if it is to become a Holy Spirit fired movement again, will have to take those historical questions more seriously according to their original meaning and intent. The faith required will require more than – albeit not less than – orthodox content. The faith required will be the kind that John Wesley, himself, received as the free gift of God on Aldersgate street a little over 279 years ago!
Click on the link below to listen to a powerful song by the Mark Swayze Band and let’s pray for that holy fire to fall upon the people called Methodists once again. Come, Holy Spirit! Bring us the faith to ignite the fire of revival once again!
7 thoughts on “Ordination and the Next Methodism”
Very cogent; I have noticed these attitudes among UMC ministers and youth ministers at times that constantly made me wonder what was going on. There is much inconsistency and ‘open mindedness’ about what is basically heresy to most Christian orthodoxy. In seems we have to fight Nicea council debates all over again.
Thanks for your comment, Keith. The way I see it the actual schismatic actions of conferences, BOM’s, and an entire jurisdiction have already made the “next Methodism” a reality as they refuse to abide by the covenant as it has repeatedly been approved by GC. They are operating under another unofficial covenant in defiance of the UMC. The differences as my post should make clear run much deeper than any one issue. I think the case with Bishop Sprague actually reveals that “theological diversity” became a higher priority than commitment to Christ as revealed in Scripture. I do agree with your final paragraph, but I suspect we have very different understandings of what that actually means. I do not believe Christ calls us to unity at all costs apart from Scriptural holiness and catholicity. There is room for theological diversity, but there has to be limits if we are to be Methodist Christians and not Unitarian Universalists.
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I would take issue with you on a number of points in this essay, but its length makes a comprehensive response impractical. So, I will confine myself to asking one question and offering one observation, both of which I intend as representative of numerous other points on which a thorough discussion could touch.
First, the question. You write, “I think the next Methodism certainly needs to find more ways to help ministerial candidates fund theological education and to train students on strategies to get by with less and reduce the amount of loans.” Better funding of ministerial education and avoidance of crippling debt for those who undertake that education should certainly be high priorities. But, shouldn’t they be priorities NOW, for the “present” Methodism?
The group of you who are writing extensively on the subject of the “next Methodism” (you name Kevin Watson, David Watson, Scott Fritzsche, and Stephen Fife) seem to be operating under the assumption not only that schism is inevitable, but also that United Methodism has a terminal illness and will kick the proverbial bucket soon. For how can there be a “next” Methodism (i.e. a successor to the present form) unless and until the current Methodism is gone? Otherwise, wouldn’t it be called “another” form of Methodism, rather than the “next” form? Before you object that I am merely quibbling over terminology, hear me out.
To me, at least, it feels like you and many of your compatriots have already moved on–had the garage sale, hung up the closed sign, pulled up stakes, and hit the road. If this were a case of marital infidelity and divorce, the complaint would list as its primary cause “alienation of affection.” Your hearts have wandered away from the real, actual form of Methodism we currently have to a fictional, idealized, future form of Methodism (i.e. “next”) of your own imagining and design. You may technically still be part of the connexion, but that is in name only. Your love and loyalty have already left and gone elsewhere. At least that’s how I feels to me when I read your words and those of your compatriots.
And now the observation. Your representation of the heresy complaint brought against Bishop Sprague 14 years ago and especially of the supervisory response to that complaint made by a 4-bishop panel from the North Central Jurisdiction (Bishop Ough did not act alone, as you seem to suggest) is shallow, one-sided, and self-serving. You take an immensely complex event and reduce it to a straw man for you to pummel in view of your readers, presumably to open the door for your devastating critique that Bishop Ough, current president of the Council of Bishops, “obviously didn’t see Sprague’s heterodox beliefs as a big deal.” Everything about how you use this event as an example of why we need a “next” Methodism is disingenuous. You would have done much better to have read and meditated on these fine words from the conclusion of the Supervisory Response to the Complaint:
“The United Methodist Church’s powerful message of grace, and equally powerful mission of making and equipping disciples of Jesus Christ for the purpose of transforming the world, is being diminished, squandered, and sacrificed, in part because factions in our beloved Church do not talk to each other across theological lines. This situation often leads to us focusing on the wrong issues and undermining one another. . . .
Many in our Church believe the threat is doctrinal impurity and heresy. Others in our Church believe the threat is the narrowing of Wesleyan doctrine to a static, rigid formulation. It is the humble, but considered, opinion of the supervisory response team that the real threat may well be our arrogance and parochial attitudes. The Evil One is surely enjoying our folly!
Only surrender to Christ Jesus will move us beyond our addiction to schismatic attitudes and litigious behaviors and toward the unity of mission we profess, but do not practice. Only a deep, abiding, persistent listening to the Holy Spirit will remind us of what Christ would have us be and do.”
Pardon me if I am a lay person, but did Sprague not say that he believed “the myth of the Virgin birth was not a historical fact”? I doubt that John Wesley would agree with that statement. I certainly do not agree with that idea. I would think that his beliefs are reason for him to be removed from his office… but maybe my lack of seminary training should be reason to discount my thoughts.
You missed an important part of the great Wesleyan Myth of Alsdersgate:
“In one of my last [letters] I was saying that I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen…
And yet, to be so employed of God! And so hedged in that I can neither get forward nor backward! Surely there was never such an instance before, from the beginning of the world! If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other evidence of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray. I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal.”
“And yet I dare not preach otherwise than I do, either concerning faith, or love, or justification, or perfection. And yet I find rather an increase than a decrease of zeal for the whole work of God and every part of it. I am borne along, I know not how, that I can’t stand still. I want all the world to come to what I do not know.”
– Quoted in Stephen Tomkins, John Wesley, A Biography [Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2003], p. 168; italics mine)
The other Drew
The difference may be that you are reading the rest of Wesley through that one letter to Charles, and I am reading that one letter to Charles through the rest of Wesley. I would suggest he was having one of those bad days and temporary bouts of doubt that he himself wrote about in his sermon “Marks of the New Birth” and other places. If Alsersgate was a myth it was a myth of Wesley’s own making. I don’t think it was a myth though.
Grace and peace to you!