Tag Archives: The United Methodist Church

When the Annual Conference Opposes the Global Denomination

Last week, at Lake Junaluska Assembly, the 2019 Western North Carolina Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church elected General Conference delegates and passed petitions related to the denominational debates on sexuality and gender identity. Overall, the votes of the Annual Conference body of clergy and lay delegates showed strong support for the progressive agenda, and corresponding opposition to the official position of the United Methodist Church. All clergy and lay delegates to the 2020 General Conference are progressive. Traditionalists only garnered three reserve lay jurisdictional delegates.cross

The Annual Conference also passed petitions to ask the General Conference to remove the statement that “the United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching” from The Book of Discipline. The rationale given was that there is no clear Christian teaching to which this statement applies and that there is teaching from some scholars that some homosexual relationships can be justified from the Bible. The truth is the “teaching” that the official statement refers to was the univocal teaching of the universal Church that was really only questioned by pagans outside the Church until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. This is a fact acknowledged by progressive scholar Dan O. Via in a book called Homosexuality and the Bible: Two Views (Robert Gagnon presents the other view). I heard progressive scholar Phyllis Tickle say in a lecture on her 500 year cycle theory of church history that it is a “fool’s game” to try to prove that any form of homosexual relationships are justified from the Bible. Yet people continue to try.

As I shared from the floor during the debate, even some of the best progressive/liberal scholars admit that the Bible is actually clear in its absolute prohibition. Most scholars like this end up rationalizing their rejection of “the straightforward commands of scripture,” as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, by dubiously pitting “Jesus” or “the Gospel” against the law and/or Paul. This is what Adam Hamilton does. Yet their vision of Jesus is not one that is actually in harmony with Jesus as he is revealed in the New Testament. There Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount no less, affirms the entirety of the law and the prophets and warns about those who might lead others to even “relax” the commandments (Matt 5:17-20). For Jesus obedience to the will of the Father revealed in his written word is the fruit to look for in godly teachers and his true disciples (Matt 7:15-23).

William Loader, a progressive scholar, who has written a few thousand pages on ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs about sex, acknowledges that the biblical teaching throughout the history of ancient Judaism and early Christianity was that marriage between male and female was the only appropriate place for sexual expression, which was the good gift of the Creator. The foundation of this view was the creation story in Genesis. The creation of male and female for what was intended to be a permanent, life-long marital union set the norm for what was only appropriate within the marriage covenant. Anything outside of that was seen as contrary to the commandments given in Torah, beginning with the summary found in the Ten Words (Ex 20; Dt 5). Homosexual practice, which clearly violates the “natural,” God-given male/female complementarity evident in the structures of creation, was seen as especially egregious (Loader, Making Sense of Sex (2013), 146). According to Loader it is not surprising that Jesus makes a point about the intended permanence of the marriage covenant based on the creation texts in Genesis (i.e. Mark 10; Matt 19) (Loader, 46). These texts were viewed by many as revealing God’s design for sex and marriage in a general sense that would have specific application to any number of specific issues that might come up.

Loader, nonetheless, believes that the prescriptions and proscriptions of the Bible are simply outdated for the modern world wherein there is access to effective birth control. He also assumes a modern absolute, essentialist nature argument for sexual orientation for which, however, there is not a modern scientific consensus. The evidence actually indicates that it is not entirely genetic like race, to which it is so often falsely compared. It is, nonetheless, simply historically untenable and absurd to insist that Jesus must have approved of some same-sex relationships, but failed to pass that message on to his apostles. But progressives continue to try to distance themselves from the Bible while claiming to still cling to Jesus for justification of their rejection of God’s commands.

One progressive lay delegate, who was elected to General Conference, made it a point to declare that she believes Jesus is the Word of God, the clear implication being the Bible is not. But what does she—or anyone else—know about Jesus apart from the Bible? According to Luke 24, on the first day of the resurrection Jesus led his disciples in a study of the entirety of the Bible to show them how it all pointed to him for its fulfillment. Without the Bible, we will never recognize Jesus for who he truly is; apart from the Bible we are likely to create an idol and call it Jesus really in order to worship Aphrodite.

When it comes down to it, it seems progressives do not really care what the Bible says. That’s why when they are pressed to justify their views from scripture, they will often begin by maligning scripture by taking the most harsh sounding passages out of context. This is clearly the modus operandi of Adam Hamilton and his followers.  And that is what actually happened on the floor of Annual Conference when progressives were pressed to justify their position from the Bible. The Bible is clear and Jesus insisted he was in harmony with it. Moreover, it is not justifiable for progressives to declare that the Holy Spirit is leading them to something new, because the Bible clearly indicates that the Holy Spirit brings obedience to the just requirements of the law (Rom 8:4), which was one of the central promises of the new covenant (Ezk 36:27). If there is a spirit leading progressives to reject the straightforward commands of the Bible, it cannot be the Holy Spirit.

The Western North Carolina Annual Conference also passed a petition “Endorsing the Commitments of UMC Next and Supporting the Full Inclusion of All People.” This petition declares the traditional plan, which reaffirmed and reinforced the longstanding official position of the United Methodist Church, to be evil, unjust, and oppressive to the LBGTQIA+ community and to be “inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” It also commits the Western North Carolina Conference to actively work toward the “full inclusion” and “full participation” of LGBTQIA+ persons in membership and leadership of the church. In the context of the progressive movement this undoubtedly means regardless of whether such persons are living within the framework of the United Methodist and Christian standard of fidelity within the covenant of opposite-sex marriage or celibacy in singleness. From the floor progressives acknowledged that gender-identity can include multiple different genders and that the sexual identities along the entirety of the spectrum of the LGBTQIA+ acronym can be virtually endless. Progressive activist and lay delegate to General Conference, Hellen Ryde, explained, what all the letters and the + mean: there are many, many possible expressions of sexual and gender identity and the + stands for those things that we haven’t yet found a name for.

In other words, this petition declares the teaching that God created sex for marriage, and marriage to only be between a man and a woman, to be “evil, unjust, and oppressive” and “inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.” And it commits the Annual Conference to resist the implementation of the traditional plan, which reaffirms and reinforces that view. It also declares that the church is to include and affirm the expression of the entirety of the  LBGTQIA+ spectrum, at least among all consenting adults. This must of necessity include polyamarous relationships (like open marriages) and pan-sexualism, where a person is attracted to people of multiple gender identities and sexual identities. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that a free-for-all of sexual “liberation” is exactly what they demand.  Note that I personally was called a liar in February for saying this is where the progressive movement in the church was headed, despite the fact that I provided plenty of evidence.

What this means is the church is being asked to reject not only the straightforward commands in the word of God concerning homosexual practice, but to renounce as “evil, unjust, and oppressive” the entirety of the biblical and traditional Christian sexual ethic set in place by Jesus himself. It was clearly Jesus himself that raised the bar and tightened the restrictions on sexual conduct for his disciples. The progressive petitions completely reverse the trajectory set by the teachings of Jesus and the apostles in a way that even goes far beyond what the early Marxists did by promoting the “free love” movement. They say they are fighting for justice, but they are moralistic sexual and cultural revolutionaries, who, like the revolutionaries in the novels of Dostoevsky, are hell-bent on bringing down the two pillars of western society, the orthodox Christian Church and the traditional family. Both of which, they see as main pillars of the “evil patriarchy” they so despise. But I do know that some are caught up in this movement, who do not realize what they are actually supporting in totality. May God open their eyes!

So it seems pretty obvious that the Western North Carolina Conference has declared its opposition to the global United Methodist denomination. It is also obvious that the Annual Conference has been, is, and will continue to use conference resources not only to promote the acceptance of homosexual practice, but to vilify the traditional and official position of the United Methodist Church, and to promote sexual licentiousness in all of its consensual expressions. Most of the conference leadership has worked to create an atmosphere of intimidation for traditionalists. The deck is certainly stacked against traditionalists when it comes to going before the board of ordained ministry. The conference summer youth event, Spirtus, had to be canceled due to controversy because the main speaker chosen was an LGBTQIA+ activist. During the opening worship service of the Annual Conference there was a choral hymn that was obviously promoting “justice” for LGBTQIA+ persons. The chorus used the tagline “For Everyone Born” straight from the progressive caucus groups that proclaim they are fighting against the “evil, injustice, and oppression” of not affirming the entirety of the LGBTQIA+ spectrum.

They have falsely argued for decades that because people are born with fixed sexual orientations therefore the church must accept committed same-sex relationships, when in reality it really seems they just think people ought to be free to have sex with whoever and however and whenever they want without restrictions and negative judgment. The Bible teaches that fallen humans are born with sinful desires, but by the grace of God do not have to be slaves to them. Progressives seem to share the philosophy of Alfred Kinsey that unfettered, mutually-consensual expression of almost any sexual desire is natural, good, and healthy and that sexual repression is bad and, as one of the petitions (Petition 21) put it, “has been the source of tremendous harm to countless people within The United Methodist Church and beyond.”

Progressives have declared the traditional teaching of the Church—what is clearly biblical teaching—to be evil, unjust, and oppressive. Isaiah 5:20-24 (ESV) warns:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and shrewd in their own sight! Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine, and valiant men in mixing strong drink, who acquit the guilty for a bribe, and deprive the innocent of his right! Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as dry grass sinks down in the flame, so their root will be as rottenness, and their blossom go up like dust; for they have rejected the law of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.

During the discussion on the floor regarding the UMC Next petition, an elderly African American gentleman, Coley Hooker, who was a lay delegate to the 2016 and 2019 General Conferences, basically asked who are we to tell God his word is wrong? Mr. Hooker also insisted that when he voted for the traditional plan that he did not vote for evil and hate, he voted for love. He said sometimes the most loving thing God does is to say NO! to what we want. Indeed, getting what we want, when it suits the sinful desires of the flesh, is a dangerous thing.

Conservatives, individuals and churches, must say NO! to the progressive agenda. We must stand firm for what is right and stand against and resist the resistance as we submit ourselves to God.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. ~James 4:1-10

The Place of the Written Word of God?

The debate over sexual morality in the church today is about more than sex. It is also about more than simply Biblical interpretation. The debate is really about the nature and authority of the Bible. Is it really the infallible word of God, revealed from God to God’s people? Or is it just the product of humans’ fallible attempt to interpret their experiences of ultimate reality?

Of course, I know there are some who sincerely believe the Bible is the revealed word of God, but the church has misinterpreted it with regards to sexuality. Yet, I think those folks are much more scarce than the growing number of others who just believe the Bible is simply wrong on the issue. These types of folks try to argue that they still value the authority of Scripture, but the reality is they mean something very different from what conservatives mean. As with many traditional terms, they qualify the meaning in such a way as to greatly diminish the actual authority of Scripture. They may be happy to say God can speak through the Bible, but not that God has clearly spoken in the Bible.

For people like Adam Hamilton, the Bible is a record of some people’s best, but limited and confused interpretation of the character and will of God. It is not, to them, the clearly revealed word of God. I have noted that progressives seem to be as committed to the notion of Scripture as a vague, diverse, and contradictory witness to people’s experience of God as the most ardent fundamentalist is to the notion of Scripture as a clear, reliable, and unified one. Both camps seem to also value wooden, literal interpretation; one to defend to the authority of Scripture and the other to undermine it. For similar reasons, both seem to be prone to prooftexting too.

In a discussion on the authority of Scripture with David Watson at United Theological Seminary, Mike Slaughter, for example, quoted a passage from Numbers that he described as “Taliban theology.”  But the passage he quoted, which to modern ears sounds incredibly harsh, is not really just a random and isolated text in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Those kinds of passages are quite pervasive and even integral to the overall narrative of the Bible. For example, the so-called Genocide that really wasn’t of the book of Joshua (see book Did God Really Command Genocide? by Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan), was clearly foreshadowed as early as Gen 15. It is also alluded to throughout the Pentateuch. These seemingly harsh passages that progressives evoke are not isolated and random. The Bible is not written in a string of isolated verses; there is a pervasive and unifying underlying narrative in which each verse and passage must be interpreted.

To modern readers, who, ironically, in many cases are perfectly fine with something like partial birth abortion, it sounds crazy to execute someone for breaking the sabbath in the Old Testament. It also probably sounds crazy to them that God would strike dead Ananias and Sapphira for lying about their offering in Acts 5. There is a lot of harsh judgment in the Bible, Old and New Testaments, from Yahweh in Gen 19 and from Jesus in Matt 5 and Revelation. God in the Old Testament does not take human sin and rebellion lightly; neither does Jesus in the New Testament. But the God described in those seemingly, overly harsh passages in the Old Testament is the same God revealed in Jesus Christ, who will come again to judge the living and the dead, in the New Testament. And whether we are talking about the Old or New Testaments, we are talking about a God who says “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezk 33:11 ESV). Either way we are still talking about the God who “did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

I know there are many things about the Bible that are hard to understand. Moreover, I understand that not every verse and passage applies to us in the same way. But progressives like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter may say they value the authority of Scripture, but it’s quite obvious to me that they don’t prooftext what they might call “Taliban theology” passages to bolster the authority of Scripture in the ears of their listeners!

So the debate in the church today, is really one about the place of the written word in the church. For some the written word is the revealed word and will of God that serves as the primary source and ultimate criterion for Christian faith and practice. For others it may be a conversation partner that holds some possibly helpful opinions that for all practical purposes is just other people’s opinions among many. What else could it really be for those who describe the Bible as a flawed book written by flawed people? What else could it be for someone who says the Bible is inspired in the same way as books by other Christian authors like C.S. Lewis? Should the Bible just take a seat in the pews as just another opinion in the crowd?

When it came to the tablets of stone on which God wrote his word and will, he had Moses place them in a much more prominent place among the people of God. God had them place the written word in the Ark of the Covenant in the inner sanctuary of the Holiest part of the tabernacle (Ex 25:10-22), and later in the temple. The Ark was also called the ark of the testimony; the tabernacle itself was called “the tent of the testimony.” The Lord said,

And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. ~ Ex 25:21-22

We don’t have the ark or the tablets of stone, but God has not left us without a tabernaclerelaible testimony; God has not left us without a witness—a sure, reliable, and trustworthy word. God has also not left us without a temple. The people of God are the temple of God under the new covenant. And the written word, the Scriptures are our testimony to the word and will of God, most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ. The written word of God still deserves to be in the most holy place among the people of God.

The real question for the people called United Methodist is what place will Scripture have among us? Will we trust the testimony of those who see Scripture as the fallible musings of men? Or will we trust the testimony of the apostles like Peter?

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. ~ 2 Pet 1:16-21

Making Sense of the Bible? Rightly Handling the Word of Truth

I watched an hour long talk that Rev. Adam Hamilton gave at a conference of The Uniting Methodists in Dallas a few weeks ago (See HERE). Rev. Hamilton rightly said the controversy over sexuality in the United Methodist Church really comes down to differing views regarding Scripture. He insists that despite claims of conservatives to the contrary he does indeed have a high view of Scripture. As with many terms, however, Hamilton has a different definition than conservatives of what that means. But he does seem convinced that he has the view of Scripture that Jesus and Paul had; he also believes he employs the same method of interpretation that they did. In Scripture Hamilton apparently believes he finds a precedent and a trajectory of interpretation for rejecting the binding authority of some straightforward commands of Scripture in light of new experiences. He places himself in the position of Jesus and Paul and conservative United Methodists in the position of the Pharisees and Judaizers, the latter being those Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised for salvation.

Rev. Hamilton insists that the Pharisees and Judaizers also had a high view of Scripture and were understandably concerned when Paul set aside the clear commands of Scripture regarding circumcision. He believes Paul did this primarily in light of the experience of Gentiles receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit because of which he interpreted Scripture differently so that circumcision was no longer binding. I get the impression that Hamilton believes Paul went in search of a few prooftexts to “theologize” in order to justify his new position.

But from Hamilton’s talk it’s not all that clear that he thinks Paul came to completely Spirit-inspired conclusions. Rather awkwardly and quite arrogantly, he also suggests that Paul could have handled the circumcision question in a more conciliatory way so that more Jews would have remained in and come into the Church. I suppose he would have had the church agree to disagree over the necessity of Gentile circumcision so that some would preach salvation by grace through faith alone, and others would preach salvation by grace through faith plus circumcision. Though it’s hard to see how that would have resolved the confusion and strife rather than intensifying it even further, but …

The problem with Hamilton’s line of reasoning is that it renders much if not all of Paul’s letter to the Galatians to be misguided at best. And what does it say about the actual decision reached by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? It was not an agree to disagree middle way position. Hamilton’s reasoning here also brings Paul’s reasoning in Romans 9-11 into question. There Paul concludes that the Jews by and large as a whole people have not responded to the Gospel because God has allowed a temporary hardening of Israel so the Gentiles could be grafted into the family of Abraham too. According to Paul this was all in fulfillment of Scripture in accordance with the mysterious will of God.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ~ Romans 11:33 ESV

So according to Adam Hamilton’s reasoning is Romans 9-11 the mysterious wisdom and knowledge of God or the mere rationalization of Paul who should have been more gracious with Judaizers?

At any rate, it’s really not all that clear that the Pharisees and Judaizers actually had a high view of Scripture. Like Adam Hamilton they may have claimed to, but Jesus thought the Pharisees had a higher view of their own traditions that they developed through a poor interpretation of Scripture. Jesus did not chastise the Pharisees for taking the law too seriously; he chastised them for taking their extra-biblical traditions so seriously that they ended up using them to find loop holes around keeping the true spirit and intent of the law.

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! ~ Mark 7:5-9

In fact, Jesus said the Pharisees made the word of God—specifically in this case the commandment to honor father and mother—void through their traditions (Mk 7:10-13).

Rev. Hamilton is right that the Bible has to be interpreted, but it should be rightly interpreted on its own terms. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). While Rev. Hamilton sees the apostles simply making a decision to set aside the straightforward commandment regarding circumcision for Gentiles primarily in the light of a new experience, they clearly did not see themselves doing that. So what was going on at the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15?

Well, they discerned from the Old Testament that Gentiles who were coming into the church through faith in Christ did not have to first become Jews through circumcision and be required to keep all of the ceremonial laws required of Jews under the Old Covenant. As Old Testament Professor Bill Arnold argues, the elders in Jerusalem led by James, the brother of Jesus, discovered from the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles who were becoming Christians could abide by the few regulations required of Gentiles living in Jewish communities according to Leviticus 17-18 (see specifically 17:8, 10, 12, 13 and 18:26, which pertains to sexual immorality). The key is that these verses from the holiness code found in Leviticus pertained to what was also expected of the resident aliens living in Israelite communities. These would be uncircumcised non-Jews who were content to live among the Jews without becoming Jewish. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church at the Jerusalem Council found guidance for what should be expected of Gentile converts in terms of basic behavior as they lived among Jews and had fellowship with Jewish Christians. Nevertheless, the main point again is that even at the Jerusalem Council the elders of the Church decided the questions before them in this transitional period with the guidance of the Spirit and from the law and the prophets, the latter made obvious with James’ quote from Amos 9:11-12 (Acts 15:12-21). Here the council was far from rejecting the straightforward commands of Scripture in the Old Testament. Instead they were trying to discern how to best understand the implications of the fulfillment of its promises in Jesus Christ and how best to apply the intent of its principles and precepts as Gentiles were welcomed into the family of God while remaining Gentiles. Adam Hamilton simply does not fairly represent what actually happened at the Jerusalem council. As Bill Arnold says, “James and the apostles gathered for the Jerusalem Council would have been shocked to learn that some today are suggesting they overturned Mosaic law.” It’s far worse to use the Jerusalem Council as an example for rejecting some of the prohibitions against sexual immorality that very same council commended to be of ongoing significance for Gentile Christians.

As is evident in the letter to the Galatians, Paul did not interpret Scripture prooftext by prooftext; rather he interpreted each text and passage from the wider perspective of the grand narrative of Scripture. This is what John Wesley called the overall tenor of Scripture. Paul identifies the Gospel being preached by Scripture as it records the promise to Abraham that in him “all the nations shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3 as quoted in Gal 3:8). The law of Moses given to Israel was meant to serve that greater promise and blessing, according to Paul (Gal 3:15-29). Israel living in obedience to God’s law was always intended to be a witness to the rest of the nations (Dt 4:5-8). The prophets, as the Jerusalem Council saw, testified to the eventual blessing of the Gentiles that was initially promised to Abraham (Gen 12:3). The mystery was that this would turn out to mean they would be blessed not by becoming Jewish through accepting the symbolic identity markers that set Jews apart from Gentiles; rather they would be welcomed into the covenant family of Abraham while retaining their ethnic identity as Gentiles. Based on Amos 9:11-12 (from the Septuagint–Greek Old Testament), this is the conclusion reached by James, as the spokesperson for the apostles, during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). That’s the same conclusion Paul gives in Galatians and Ephesians. These are very subtle and difficult-to-detect distinctions that the Church saw in Scripture not in spite of it. And it was not without mystery and some paradox.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. ~ Ephesians 3:1-6 (see also Eph 2:11-13)

From what Paul says in Romans it is seems quite evident that he saw by revelation Gentile inclusion among the elect people of God as Gentiles in Scripture not apart from it.

even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” ~ Romans 9:24-26
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. ~ Romans 16:25-27

In light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures, Paul and the church saw clearly in those same Scriptures what was once obscure so as to be hidden. These are the incredibly fine and subtle distinctions in the Old Testament Scriptures that became clear in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hypothetically speaking, even if Paul was mistaken in his interpretation of the Old Testament, he certainly didn’t see himself as declaring certain Scripture no longer relevant simply in light of a new experience as Adam Hamilton suggests. By not recognizing these distinctions and by not making reasonable distinctions himself, Rev. Hamilton, does not “make sense” of the Bible; he makes mincemeat of the Bible. And as a result he ends up in the awkward position of criticizing the apostle Paul and arrogantly suggesting that he might have handled things better himself in addition to using as Gentile inclusion as an analogy that is incredibly dubious at best. Moreover, there is no way that he can search the law and prophets to find anything that would even come close to a hint that homosexuality should at some point be accepted by the Church; there is certainly nothing in the New Testament remotely close to that. As I have repeatedly shown even some of the best liberal scholars admit this. Gentile inclusion is a horrible analogy for accepting behavior that the Bible consistently and unequivocally condemns.

From Rev. Hamilton’s talk it seems quite clear to me that he is more interested in rationalizing behavior that the Old and New Testaments both clearly condemn as immoral. He fails to rightly handle the word of truth. He conflates rather than making proper distinctions; he creates false dichotomies; he argues against straw men, and even seems to set up Scripture itself as a straw man, all while claiming a high view of Scripture.

During one portion of his talk he quotes a slew of verses out of context from the Old Testament where the death penalty is commanded such as the one in Deuteronomy about stoning a disobedient son (Dt 21:18-21; see my effort here to put that passage in perspective). He also brings up the so-called genocide of the Canaanites in Joshua that really wasn’t (the language of total annihilation was an ancient near eastern idiom common among the Canaanites themselves and the Egyptians) to make the God described in those passages look as bad as possible. The Bible itself makes clear that the language of total annihilation of the Canaanites was hyperbolic because the Canaanites continued to maintain a strong presence and a persistently negative influence on Israel, as well as being a military threat, as the full context of Joshua and Judges makes clear (see also Paul Copan & Matthew Flanngan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God—Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004 to really “make sense” of these texts). We also might want to consider that our modern culture that by and large stands by as unborn children are slaughtered by the thousands daily mainly for reasons of personal convenience, may not really hold the moral high ground it seems to think it does.

Some people, nonetheless, wrongly prooftext to defend Biblical authority; others prooftext to undermine it. Likewise some resort to wooden literalism to bolster the authority of Scripture, others again to undermine it. Hamilton is obviously engaged in the latter as he suggests that certain Old Testament passages do not reflect the God revealed in Jesus. He posits those texts tell us more about those primitive human’s misunderstanding of what God is like rather than what God is really like. But there is more than one way to play the misleading game that Adam Hamilton likes to play with Scripture.

I could easily pull sayings of Jesus out of context to make him seem overly harsh and vindictive and then compare them to prooftexts from the Old Testament that make the God revealed therein seem more gracious and merciful.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ~ Matt 13:41-42
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ ~ Mark 9:42-48

But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me. ~ Luke 19:27 (Cf Luke 20:9-18)
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. ~ Revelation 2:20-23

I could then take these prooftexts and compare them to the way God is described as being so merciful and compassionate in Psalm 103 and the book of Jonah, for example, both of which are based on the revelation of God given in Exodus 34:6, and say this Jesus doesn’t reflect the merciful and compassionate God revealed in Moses and the Prophets. Either way it is a deceptive exercise. The God revealed in Jesus is none other than the God whose full character as a God of mercy and justice is revealed in Exodus 34:6 and 7.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Exodus 34:6-7

Instead of pitting prooftext against prooftext and throwing our hands up and saying we all just pick and choose, which seems to be Adam Hamilton’s definition of “interpretation,” we should seek to understand each verse, passage, and story within the overall framework of the grand narrative we find in the overall sweep of the Bible. We should also work hard to make the proper distinctions to the best of our ability. There are difficult passages and things hard for us to understand, but as Augustine and John Wesley taught we should seek to understand the difficult passages in light of the plethora of the clear. Adam Hamilton, however, seems determined to use the difficult verses to muddy the waters of the clear passages of Scripture in order to exert self-will over the authority of Scripture as an objective standard. As Peter warned there are some who will twist the hard-to-understand portions of Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). Adam Hamilton, albeit for different reasons, quite clearly seems to be employing tactics similar to the teachers that Saint Irenaeus wrote against. Regarding these teachers, whom Irenaeus says they also boasted that they were “correctors of the apostles,” Irenaeus said:

But when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying that they are not correct or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them by those who are not acquainted with the tradition. (Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2.1)

The tradition of which Irenaeus’ rivals boasted included a tradition of Biblical interpretation where they felt free to correct the writings of the apostles and to declare certain portions of Scripture to be a false representation of the the Supreme God of their worldview and of that God’s actual will. They pitted certain passages of Scripture against others and developed at least an implicit unofficial canon within the canon. Marcion, however, was more explicit with his deconstruction project. In all cases they failed to make the proper distinctions in context, and failed to rightly interpret the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). They brought a foreign worldview to Scripture and twisted and distorted Scripture to fit their worldview rather than adjusting their worldview to Scripture.

We can, however, detect how best to make the proper distinctions through clues within the Bible itself. For example, Jesus spoke about the “weightier” or more important matters of Scripture that the Pharisees neglected in favor of lesser issues (Matt 23:23). In the Old Testament law we can detect what are weightier matters through the differing degrees of punishment we find in the penalties that were to be imposed under the Old Covenant. We also see this reflected in Jesus’ statements that there would be greater degrees of punishment in the judgement for some towns over others for their rejection of the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 10:5-15).

Based in 2 Corinthians 3, Saint Augustine detected a distinction between symbolic laws for Israel that were types and signs of a greater spiritual reality that we enjoy through faith in Jesus Christ to whom they pointed. As Paul said, as Christians Christ is our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor 5:7), for example. Through faith in Christ we keep the spirit of Passover. We also need to make distinctions between literal and figurative language. In some cases it is more subtle than others—there are dozens and dozens of different types of figures of speech, all of which point to something very real. And while considering that the distinctions we find in Article 6 of the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church between the ceremonial, civil, and moral law in the Old Testament are not absolute with no overlap, we should seek to understand the nuanced distinctions to which they point and stop trying to find loop holes around the moral prohibitions that are unequivocally stated in both Testaments. There are plenty of legitimate distinctions to make and we can make them in a principled fashion as difficult as it may be. We can do better than pretending like we all just pick and choose more or less arbitrarily.

Article VI — Of the Old Testament

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.

Rather than doing the admittedly difficult work of making the distinctions that we need to make, Adam Hamilton works hard to stir up as much doubt and confusion as he can to justify rejecting the straightforward command of Scripture regarding homosexual practice. I know from personal interactions with Adam that he will throw everything he can, including the kitchen sink, at you to ward off criticism. It would take more than a long blog article to deal with every objection he throws out.

The bottom line is this: his arguments clearly show that he has a view of Scripture that is not compatible with our own doctrinal standards. His view of Scripture may be higher than Richard Dawkins’, but that doesn’t make it a high view. In his talk Adam also went to great lengths to distance Scripture itself from the concept of “the word of God.” Ironically he used Scripture to argue that “the word of God” is something more than Scripture itself. With that general statement I actually agree, but I disagree that Scripture as a whole is something far less than the “word of God.” According to Rev. Hamilton’s view only some of Scripture is the inspired word of God. He reduces Scripture to a medium through which God may speak, rather than seeing it as a trustworthy and reliable record of how God has spoken first through his prophets and finally through his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Whereas for the apostles and Christians in Acts Scripture was used to judge the authenticity of the verbal proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 17:11), Hamilton sits in judgement over Scripture according to another standard, the spirit of this postmodern age. Ironically he also uses 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to try to justify his view, but not without trying to bring its meaning into doubt too.

The context of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is pertinent. There Paul warns Timothy about times of apostasy when many “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). It’s in the context of warning about apostasy and rebellion against the truth that Paul tells Timothy,

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. ~ 2 Timothy 3:14-17

In the face of those today who are arguing that some Scripture actually may have never been inspired by God, that’s still a much needed admonition for Christians today. Do not be deceived. We will not be judged by what we are able to know with certainty, but by what we are willing or not willing to believe with conviction. People can make seemingly plausible arguments for anything. You can use uncertain

light through gray clouds

ty of knowledge as an excuse for doubt and unbelief; or you can see it as an invitation to faith. Indeed, “for we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Perhaps God is inviting us out of the cloud of gray and into the light.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:1-6

That They May Be One? The Misuse of John 17

John 17 records a prayer of Jesus in which he prays that his disciples, present and future, “may be one” (v. 11 & 20-21). Those who are determined to liberalize the church’s official stance on sexual morality and marriage through incremental steps if necessary repeatedly quote this short phrase removed from the context to convince those with traditional leanings that unity through compromise is the supreme Christian virtue. The idea is that Jesus is praying for his disciples to be united around some vague agree-to-disagree principle of absolute tolerance when it comes certain moral issues. They want the church to believe that the most virtuous thing we can do is to allow contradictory and competing visions of sexual holiness to be officially sanctioned in the church in order to be a witness to the world. But the phrase that immediately follows Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:11 reveals the folly of that misinterpretation, as does the context of the rest of the prayer.

And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, EVEN AS WE ARE ONE. ~ John 17:11 ESV (emphasis mine of course)

Note the qualifying phrase for the unity for which Jesus prays for his disciples, “even as we are one.” The oneness for which Jesus prays is the kind of oneness that he has with the Father. Of course this is not in terms of their essential being. But it is the oneness they share in terms of will, purpose, and mission. In that regard Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34). He said, “I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 5:30). Moreover he said, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). You get the picture? This is a picture of perfect submission to the will of God, not an agree-to-disagree moment on contradictory and competing visions of what is morally right while clumsily still trying to work together rather than against each other. Trinity-Symbols

Jesus submitted to the will of the Father in perfect obedience. In his human nature he resisted the excruciating temptation to exalt his will above the Father’s even in the face of crucifixion. Remember how intensely Jesus prayed in the garden? ““Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). What kind of unity does this sound like to you that Jesus is praying for? It’s certainly not a unity at the expense of truth and holiness that would result in trying to work together in mission with contradictory messages about what God expects of disciples!

In John 17, Jesus also prayed that the Father would keep his disciples in his name (v. 11). That could mean guard them by the power of your name; it could also mean keep them under the authority of your name. The latter would still have the effect of the former meaning. Hence Jesus’ prayer that they also be sanctified in the truth, which he says is God’s word.

Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.And for their sake I consecrate myself,that they also may be sanctified in truth. ~ John 17:17-19

In light of what Jesus says about Scripture in John 5:30-47, it is clear that Jesus viewed Scripture (i.e. the Old Testament) as the word and revealed will of God, which was in complete harmony with his own message and mission. He says to the religious leaders who doubted him, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words” (John 5:46-47). It is believing God’s word, written and incarnate, that sanctifies us. To sanctify means to set apart by making holy. Holiness sets us apart from the ways of a corrupt and fallen world that cares more about the fulfilling the lust of the flesh than the will of God (1 John 2:15-17). We cannot have the unity for which Jesus prayed apart from the holiness that comes from believing the truth that is God’s word!

I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.  ~ John 17:20-23

This perfect oneness that Jesus prayed for? Does that really sound like the kind of “unity” that the progressive Uniting Methodists want to impose on the whole denomination? In the name of postmodern relativism they have made “unity” apart from a common and complementary vision of holiness, truth, and Scripture the supreme virtue. And to justify it they proof-text out of context one phrase from John 17. That is not what Jesus prayed for; and it is certainly not what he died for.

Many commentators have been struck by the parallels between John 1 & 13 and Philippians 2:5-11. There are also some parallels with John 17 and the unity there that Jesus prayed for. Paul puts it this way:

 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. ~ Philippians 2:1-11

When we admit that we are of two minds—and we are—we might also want to consider that we might not have the same love or the unity of the Spirit for which Jesus prayed. And how then can we “with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ”? (Romans 15:6). I DO want to be in the same Church with my progressive colleagues. I just don’t want to be in the same church on their relativistic, latitudinarian terms—”speculative” or “practical,” both of which John Wesley called a curse, not a blessing (Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” . – III: 2 & 3). I want to be a part of a Church that seeks and prays for the kind of unity for which Jesus actually prayed. All are truly welcome on those terms.

At the Jerusalem Council, as recorded in Acts 15, the Church did not come up with some agree-to-disagree compromise on whether circumcision was necessary for salvation in addition to faith in Christ. Through the guidance of the Spirit and searching the Scriptures they came to an agreement that it was not necessary. They did not decide to preach salvation by grace through faith alone AND salvation through faith plus circumcision. The Church came to an agreement and preached the same message. Galatians makes it clear that a compromised and confused message was no longer tolerable in the Church. How much more important is it for us to hold a common faith and share a common witness regarding sexual morality when that same council commended the same? Yet progressives have also twisted this passage to support their campaign.

I’ll close with another oft misused passage on unity with more context than progressives will give. See how it complements what Jesus actually prayed for in John 17. Jesus invites us into the unity of the Trinity, not a nominal unity forged in the name of relativism through the ways of a wayward world.

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, 

“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

Ephesians 4:1-16

The UMC: Talking about the Future With Your Church

The future(s) of the Untied Methodist Church hangs in the balance awaiting a special called session of the General Conference scheduled to meet February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis, Missouri. The hope is this General Conference will be able to approve a solution to the current impasse the denomination faces over the presenting issue of sexual morality. If a solution is reached or not—many including me are doubtful that the UMC is functional enough to reach a consensus on any proposed solution—each  local church faces the reality of an uncertain future for which they need to be prepared. The time to start the conversation has long past, but if your church has yet to talk about it wait no more.

In my conference (Western NC) a delegation has been assigned the task of leading “Healthy Conversations” regarding the current state of the church and the possible future(s) of the UMC. I attended the session in my district on April 22nd.

The moderators of the discussion were two progressive women, one a lay delegate to the 2019 General Conference, the other a deacon and clergy delegate to the General Conference, who also works in our Conference office. The lay delegate shared the history of the additions to the Book of Discipline regarding the practice of homosexuality since 1972, and the more recent open declarations and acts of “ecclesial disobedience” among progressives, such as the Western Jurisdictions election of an openly lesbian Bishop shortly after the 2016 General Conference. She just stated the facts without adding her own commentary. Likewise, the clergy delegate explained the development and the stated goals of The Commission on a Way Forward (COWF), which consists of representatives from across the theological spectrum and from around the global connection.

The COWF was tasked by the Council of Bishops to propose possible solutions to the current impasse in the UMC over issues regarding sexual morality. She explained the three possible sketches given by the Council of Bishops last fall:

  1. Affirm the current Book of Discipline language and place a high value on accountability. The church policy book says the practice of homosexuality “is incompatible with Christian teaching” and lists officiating at a same-gender union or being a “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy member as chargeable offenses under church law.                                                                                              **(Presently it seems the COB will not propose this model, but it could still possibly be proposed from the floor of the General Conference.)**
  2. Remove restrictive language and place a high value on contextualization. This sketch also specifically protects the rights of those whose conscience will not allow them to perform same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  3. Create multiple branches that have clearly defined values such as accountability, contextualization and justice. This model would maintain shared doctrine and services and one Council of Bishops.

*Each possibility includes a way to exit for those church entities that feel called to leave the denomination.*                                                              http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/bishops-consider-3-models-for-church-future

The gathered group at this district meeting, clergy and one lay representative from each church, were also shown a video of Rev. Tom Berlin explaining the current factions in SugarPacket_Blogthe denomination as he sees it using sugar packets. Rev. Berlin, who is in favor of the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ people, describes four factions. From left to right they are:

1. Progressive Non-Compatibilists, who see anything less than full inclusion (i.e. full acceptance including LGBTQ+ beliefs and behavior) as a intolerable injustice.

2. Progressive Compatibilists are those who prefer full inclusion without exception, but are willing to live with the second sketch above, sometimes called “the local option,” where pastors and churches would not be forced to participate in same sex weddings, for example.

3. Traditional Compatibilists are those who hold the traditional view regarding Christian sexual morality, but again would be willing to remain in the denomination that allowed for “the local option.”

4. Finally, there are the Traditional Non-Compatibilists, who could not in good conscience remain in a denomination that allowed for the acceptance and promotion of what they see as sin according to Scripture.

While somewhat helpful in terms of general descriptions, Rev. Berlin’s presentation is misleading in a number of ways. (see Rev. Berlin’s Video Presentation HERE)

  1. It is too America-centric. The United Methodist Church is a global denomination. General Conference representation is made up of people from around the world. Representation from very conservative areas of the world continues to increase while representation from the United States is on the decline. Membership in Africa has grown significantly since 1968, while membership in the United States decreased from about 11 million to around 7 million today. Rev. Berlin, himself, says in his presentation that on the current trajectory membership in the United States is expected to drop below 1 million over about the next thirty years. Barring a miraculous reversal (and a miracle is exactly what it would take) General Conference representation will eventually be predominantly African. In Rev. Berlin’s presentation he literally marginalizes the African voice and talks about it only as an afterthought. That is a mistake and seriously misleading.
  2. It is also too centrist-centric. That is, Rev. Berlin’s presentation makes it seem like the “compatiabilist” camp is the overwhelming majority. In fact, the clergy moderator of our district conversation sent out a social media message several months ago promoting the centrist “Uniting Methodist” movement essentially saying that 90 percent of the church agreed with them. If that really is the case then why did our own annual conference in 2015 vote down a petition to call for the removal of the restrictions against homosexual practice in the Book of Discipline? The lay delegates from my own church were appalled that so many clergy voted in favor of it, but because of the lay representation the measure failed. I have no doubt that if it was up to the American representatives alone across the United States a measure like that would pass, but it is not up to the United States alone! Moreover, Rev. Berlin’s presentation has the effect of painting those in the non-compatibilist camps om either end as extremist. Being on the end of a spectrum on a particular issue doesn’t make one an extremist. As someone else said, no one wants to be identified with the lunatic fringe, so a presentation like this has the tendency to make people want to to identify themselves somewhere in the middle even though it may not accurately reflect their true views.
  3. Another problem with Rev. Berlin’s presentation is the lack of specificity. His model is based on conjecture and anecdotal evidence not hard data. And each faction should be defined much more specifically, especially, I think, the so-called traditional compatibilists category. What is it that these folks actually believe? Are these people who believe the practice of homosexuality is sin, along with other sexual activity outside of the marriage covenant between a man and a woman, which if engaged in unrepentantly would exclude one from the kingdom of God as in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10? If so it’s hard to see how they could be comfortable treating it as an indifferent matter anymore than they would treat any of the other sins listed there in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 that way. In fact, Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, in his assessment of Rev. Berlin’s model, believes traditional compatibilists are a rare breed indeed. In his view the centrist category is populated almost entirely by progressive compatibilists. (Read more about that HERE).
  4. The way Rev. Berlin describes progressives’ and traditionalists’ views of the authority of Scripture is also problematic. He implies that both value the authority of Scripture equally, but just emphasize different portions of the Bible. He does this by implying a greater tension between the law and the prophets and and the Gospels and the letters of Paul than actually exists. Rev. Berlin says traditionalists emphasize the laws regarding personal holiness found in the Pentateuch whereas progressives emphasize the message of the prophets and concern for the marginalized in society. I assume, like many progressives, Rev. Berlin also believes Paul wrote some things in his letters like the aforementioned passage from 1 Corinthians that the Jesus of the Gospels would not necessarily have condoned. While I do understand that different passages in Scripture present us with tensions and paradoxes, I do not believe it does so to such an extent that the prophets, for example, give messages that are blatantly contradictory to the law. The ministry of the prophets was to call God’s people back to faithfulness to the law not to progress past it. Jesus certainly substantiates this in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17-20 (see also Luke 16:16-17). In Jesus’ parable of the rich man and the marginalized poor beggar, Lazarus, Abraham from paradise tells the rich man in hell that the law and the prophets are enough to keep his brothers from ending up in hell too (see Luke 16:19-31). Jesus certainly didn’t see any major contradiction between the law and the prophets, and there is none between Jesus or Paul either. In fact two of the great prophets, Jeremiah (31:31ff) and Ezekiel (36:25ff) foretold the promise of the New Covenant that Jesus came to fulfill wherein God would write the law on his people’s hearts. Rev. Berlin unnecessarily and unjustifiably pits Scripture against Scripture to confuse. The historical position of the Church has been, following the analogy of faith, that Scripture is mutually illuminating not hopelessly contradictory. Moreover, when progressives like Rev. Adam Hamilton are arguing that not all of the Bible is inspired by God contrary to 2 Timothy 3-4 (see context) and to the teaching of John Wesley (see his Preface to his notes on the NT, section 10), it is more than a stretch to argue that progressives value the authority of Scripture just as much as traditionalists.

During the second half of the district conversation we were also given some questions to discuss with those sitting at our round tables. It seems Rev. Berlin’s video presentation and the discussion questions were designed to promote, subtly at least, “the local option.” One of the questions was on whether we thought of diversity as a strength or weakness. At my table there were six people, including me, and the views spanned the full spectrum. One person was very progressive, one leaned progressive, one said she was right in the middle and three of us were traditional non-compatibilists, or at least leaning heavily in that direction. Concerning the question about whether diversity is a strength or weakness, we all seemed to agree that it depends on exactly what one means by diversity. If the diversity is complementary and directed toward the same common goal then it is a strength; if it is contradictory and competing with people whose ultimate goals are contradictory then it is a weakness.

A related discussion question was whether our common mission outweighs our differences. At our table, there seemed to be agreement that our common mission was to make disciples for the transformation of the world. Yet we also agreed that when it comes to specifics we probably have very different visions of what makes a Christian disciple a disciple. We also agreed that we may very well have contradictory and competing visions of who Jesus is and what he really desires of us.

Another question was about what we think the church needs to do to reach the non-religious and those who have stopped attending church. The very progressive person at our table said the church should truly have “open hearts, open minds, and open doors” and accept all people for who they are.  I asked, “Do you think the church in any way should expect and call for transformation, a change of heart and lifestyle, for people who become members of the church?” She said she wasn’t sure. I said, “well let me give you a specific scenario.”

“Let’s say I have a married couple, a man and a woman, attending my church. After several weeks they decide they would like to become members. When I as the pastor talk with them about faith in Christ and what it means to be church members, they inform me that they have an open marriage. They say they have thought a lot about it and do not see anything wrong with it. They believe their desires to be with other people sexually are a good gift of God and perfectly natural. And as a matter of fact they would like to have their swingers club meeting in the fellowship hall of the church and invite other church members to participate.” Then I asked, “what should I tell them as the pastor?” Again, my progressive conversation partner wouldn’t commit one way or the other.

Think about that in light of the progressive “Denver Statement” made in response to the conservative “Nashville Statement” last summer regarding sexuality.

 WE AFFIRM that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices. (emphasis mine)


The kind of diversity that some are so eager to sanctify and ratify is not a strength. We we have contradictory and competing visions of who Jesus is and what he expects of us. We have been operating with these contradictory and competing visions in America for quite some time, even though the progressive vision has never gained official General Conference approval. The results prove that John Wesley was right that doctrinal indifference is “a great curse, not a blessing” (Sermon 39:3.1 “Catholic Spirit”). More doctrinal indifference (i.e. contextuality) is not really the blessing that some would have us believe.

Walter Fenton and Rob Renfroe ask in their new book regarding the current state of the United Methodist Church, Are We Really Better Together?   As do they, I think the overall results in America already show that the answer is clearly no. I highly recommend Rev. Fenton and Rev. Renfroes very succinct book to get an inside view of how we got to the point we are at today.

The “local option,” also called “the one church contextual model,” (sketch 2 above) will not bring a truce. It will only prolong the battle and intensify it by localizing it. It will bring the heat of the battle from the General Conference level down to each annual conference and each local church. You can’t bring unity through attempting to sanctify division!

Regardless of what happens at the special General Conference next year, each local church needs to be prepared one way or another. The leaders of our district’s “Healthy Conversation” emphasized this too. Each church needs to decide where it stands. As a church who are you? What do you value and why? You need to be specific. This is not the time for vague platitudes. Some fallout is unavoidable no matter what. Avoidance hasn’t helped us avoid fallout either, has it? Every church I have served has already lost people on all sides. The church I serve now was on the verge of losing dozens of people just a couple of years ago. Over several months we had discussions about the current state of the denomination, and the possible future(s) given in those three sketches above. We talked about the presenting issue and the deeper divide. We also opened the conversation up to the whole church. After much consideration our church council decided that we stand with the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The conversation has not been easy, but it has been absolutely necessary. Where does your church stand? Have the conversation to find out. It needs to happen and soon. May God give you wisdom and courage.

(Here are some of my thoughts about how to go about it from a traditional perspective).


Uniting Methodists: A Catholic Spirit?

Earlier this week a group called “Uniting Methodists” convened in Atlanta. The stated purpose? To “be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.” The movement is purported to be a centrist one to allow space for traditionalist, moderate, and progressive United Methodists to continue together under the proverbial bigger tent. But I don’t think there is really anything new here.

For a movement that’s supposed to unify both traditionalists and progressives, they still seem intent on alienating, marginalizing, and negatively labeling those of us who hold to traditional views regarding sex and marriage. For instance, they continue to compare the debate over sexual ethics with past debates over slavery, race, and women in ministry. How is it unifying to continue to compare traditionalists with proponents of slavery, racists, and misogynists?

The Uniting Methodists movement shows few, if any, signs of actually respecting those with opposing views on Christian sexual morality and marriage. One prominent advocate for the supposed centrist position in my own conference talks about the LGBTQ movement as if it is just a forgone conclusion that the church just needs to accept in light of the cultural and political changes that have taken place in the United States. He also continued the comparisons to race, slavery, and women in ministry, and said the only reason conservatives won’t go along is because of fear and ignorance.  I’ve heard these kind of arguments for years from the upper echelons of leadership, most of whom claim to be centrist. Either the progressive~centrists really don’t understand why traditionalists believe what they believe, or they just don’t want to lend any credibility to traditionalist views and, thus, seek to caricature them.

Bishop Ken Carter, who is supposed to be a moderator of The Way Forward Commission charged with presenting possible solutions to the Council of Bishops, also took on the role of a progressive advocate while claiming to be centrist. In a video he released he made pretty much the same arguments that Uniting Methodists are making. He implied that unity is the only absolute non-negotiable. He even argued that’s because it is Biblical as he rattled off a few proof-texts. He then went on to talk about the LGBTQ movement as a forgone conclusion and implied that the only way the church can be in ministry with all people is to accept the beliefs and practices advocated by the LGBTQ movement (find summary here). He also continued the fallacious race comparison in an interview with Bishop Woodie White, posted on the Facebook page for the “UMC Commission on a Way Forward.”

Bishop Carter’s role as a moderator has certainly not been a neutral one. He doesn’t even indicate that conservatives have any objections to the race comparison, much less plausible ones.

Why is “unity” a non-negotiable because the Bible says so, but Biblical sexual holiness isn’t? Have centrists considered the possibility that not only do we have contradictory visions for holiness, but also of unity. Unity is not something that we can create through waving a legislative wand, it is a gift of the Spirit. Conservatives do not believUnitye real unity can be achieved apart from a unified vision of what it means to be a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. As David Watson argued recently, it seems “we lack not only a common vision for the church, but a common vision of the church. Put differently, it’s not just that we disagree over what the church should do. Rather, we disagree over what it means to be a church.” (see my thoughts here for why unity must not be separated from the other marks of the church).

I see a lot of contempt, not much respect, for the views of traditionalists like me coming from the centrist~progressives. If you really want to be a unifying voice that makes space for conservatives and progressives under the same tent, you might want to stop comparing conservatives to defenders of slavery and racists. Neither is it unifying to accuse conservatives of killing people with their views. This kind of labeling and accusation makes it really hard to believe that it’s remotely possible for conservatives and centrist~progressives to peacefully co-exist under the same tent.

As far as being a clarifying voice, I don’t really see that either. It still looks like the same old smoke and mirrors game. The centrist~progressives claim to represent 80% to 90% of United Methodists, who supposedly don’t think views regarding sexuality should divide the church. I’d like to see the research methodology that revealed those numbers. I doubt they were derived from a random, representative sample of United Methodists, clergy and laity from around the globe. Polls of United Methodists who can easily access email and social media would hardly be representative of the global church. If 80% really do believe we should remove the restrictions regarding sexuality from the Book of Discipline, then the petition that my own conference put forward in 2015 to have General Conference remove those restrictions should have passed easily. But, in fact, it failed. But majorities in terms of numbers of people is not the best way to gauge faithfulness to the one who calls us to follow the narrow path to begin with (Matthew 7:13-14).

Moreover, it’s not clarifying to continue to put forward the idea that issues regarding sexual morality are indifferent matters like whether or not one eats certain foods or observes particular Sabbath days as Paul writes about in Romans 14 (see article making this fallacious comparison on the Uniting Methodists website here). I suppose it’s better than comparing views regarding sexual morality and whether a clergy person wears robes and stoles or not as one retired Bishop did a few years back or comparing it to people in the same family who support different sports teams as did another prominent pastor. It’s still, nonetheless, a confusion of categories that the apostle Paul himself would not recognize. Just look at what comes right before Romans 14.

“Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”                       Romans 13:13-14 ESV (compare Galatians 5:16-24 and the dire warning there)

How can you on the one hand compare conservative views to the support of slavery and racism, and also say that views regarding sexual ethics are indifferent matters? That’s not clarifying; that’s confusing to say the least. At my own Annual Conference in 2014, during a panel discussion where James Howell advocated for the indifferent position, a progressive layperson, the wife of a pastor, said she could not understand how the status of homosexuality could be treated as an indifferent matter. To her it would be like treating racism or slavery as an indifferent matter. There is nothing new about this position; neither is there anything really clarifying about it. And to suggest that our view of the nature of God is all that we need for unity belies the call of that same God for us to be holy as he is holy (1 Peter 1:15-16).

It’s also not clarifying to continue to suggest that homosexuality is the only issue that divides us. To be sure that has drawn the most attention because of the specific restrictions found in the Book of Discipline. But conservatives are not just concerned about sexuality. Just take the case of Karen Oliveto, for example. She is married to another woman and has performed dozens of same-sex weddings in defiance of church law. In 2016 she was elected bishop out of the Western Jurisdiction, even though she is not technically qualified to even be a pastor. Conservatives are rightly concerned about the fact that she flouts our official standards for sexual morality. However, we are also concerned that she feels free to set herself up as a corrector of not only the apostles and prophets, but Jesus himself. She argues that the Bible has benefits and flaws. She says the Bible’s language about election and separating the sheep from the goats is wrong because it is exclusionary. This she says in spite of the fact that Jesus himself talked about the elect and that he himself would separate the sheep from the goats at the final judgment (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Seeing Jesus as sometimes needing to be corrected is apparently no big deal at all to Oliveto.  A few weeks ago she drew criticism for suggesting that the Syrophoenician woman who asked Jesus to deliver her daughter from demon possession, actually corrected Jesus and helped him to change his mind to let go of prejudice and bigotry. Instead of seeing a divine test of faith from the sinless God-man, as John Wesley did, Oliveto sees Jesus here as an example of  someone repenting of bigotry. But at least she didn’t criticize him for casting the demon out of the woman’s daughter as she did with the apostle Paul who casts a spirit of divination out of a young girl as recorded in Acts 16:16-24. Here Oliveto echoed the same criticism leveled against the apostle in a sermon delivered by the progressive former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori. Schori, in addition to criticizing Paul for depriving the young girl of what she called a valuable spiritual gift, said:

“Paul can’t abide something he won’t see as beautiful or holy, so he tries to destroy it. It gets him thrown in prison. That’s pretty much where he’s put himself by his own refusal to recognize that she, too, shares in God’s nature, just as much as he does – maybe more so!”  (See report here)

For her part Schori stood by her criticism of Paul and the Bible in general as sometimes needing to be corrected by postmodern readers like herself (See NY Times report here). Oliveto also stood by her assessment of Jesus as needing correction initially, although her controversial Facebook post was eventually removed. John Lomperis, however, did save a copy of her post in his own report (here).

What some have called a generous orthodoxy has just turned out to be a clever, albeit misleading, name for heterodoxy, and what Wesley would call a “speculative latitudinarianism” (Sermon 39, Catholic Spirit 3:1). One of the leaders of my conference posted a promotion of the Uniting Methodists movement followed a little later by a promotion for an event featuring the ELCA pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber. I noticed that a lot of the centrist~progressives were ecstatic. As I have written before, I read Bolz-Weber’s book, “Pastrix” in which she says she sometimes needs to hang out with God’s aunt, the Wiccan goddess, among other troubling things.

As a matter of fact, about three months ago Bolz-Weber responded to the release of a conservative Christian statement regarding sexual morality called “The Nashville Statement” with a very detailed statement of her own, which she called “The Denver Statement.” Bolz-Weber’s Denver Statement not only denied that homosexual practice is sinful, but also affirmed and denied the following:

“WE AFFIRM that God created us as sexual beings in endless variety.
WE DENY that the only type of sexual expression that can be considered holy is between a cis-gendered, heterosexual, married couple who waited to have sex until they were married. But if you fit in that group, good for you, we have no problem with your lifestyle choices.”
Read more at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2017/08/the-denver-statement/#oWc7oDYElmsDIoTe.99

As far as I could tell there was nothing but contempt for the Nashville Statement coming from the centrist~progressive types, and an abundance of praise for the Denver Statement.

So is it really clarifying to suggest that our views regarding homosexuality are the only obstacles to unity? Perhaps the most prominent leader among the Uniting Methodists, Adam Hamilton, argues that the Bible is no more inspired than the writings of other Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, Hamilton believes there are certain portions of Scripture that were never really worthy of God as revealed in Jesus (see Brent White’s analysis here and here). Whereas Psalm 19:9b says “the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether,” Hamilton says they are true and righteous for the most part. Our differing views on the authority of Scripture alone are a major obstacle to unity, not to mention, to use Bolz-Weber’s words, those who would push for the legitimization of the “endless variety” of sexual expression. As for me, I’ll stick with John Wesley’s assessment that:

“The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”  ~ Preface to New Testament Notes

**I would recommend David Watson’s new book, “Scripture and the Life of God” on why this is still important, especially if you’re wrestling with how to make sense of the more difficult parts of Scripture.**

I would suggest that it is the centrist~progressive view of what unity is itself that stands in the way of real unity. We have different views of unity. The centrist~progressive view of unity is inextricably tied to their commitment to theological diversity, the pluralism that got us into this mess to begin with (see Drew McIntyre’s assessment of that here). The traditionalist view of unity is tied to a commitment to the other marks of the church, namely holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Centrist~progressives seem to be committed to a view that makes room for just about any view other than the traditional orthodox view of a unity firmly grounded in the other marks of the church.

And quoting Wesley out of context to support a view of unity grounded in a commitment to a theological diversity that Wesley himself would call a “speculative latitudinarianism”, an “indifference to all opinions”, which is “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven” (Sermon 39: Catholic Spirit, 3:1) simply won’t do. It is neither unifying nor clarifying. For Wesley the main branches of Christianity include not only our views on the nature of God, but also holiness grounded in the holy and perfect moral law of God revealed in Scripture (Sermon 39:1:16).

In short, the centrist~progressive view of unity is not Biblical, not matter how many proof-texts from the Bible or Wesley they line up. I would say it is a unity conceived in the flesh with a commitment to theological diversity, not one born of the Spirit with a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as he is revealed in Scripture. The proof is in the fruit (see again Galatians 5:16-24).

I’ll conclude with the wider quotation from Wesley on what he did NOT mean by the phrase “the catholic spirit.”

“One inference we may make from what has been said. We may learn from hence, what is a catholic spirit.
There is scarce any expression which has been more grossly misunderstood, and more dangerously misapplied, than this: but it will be easy for any who calmly consider the preceding observations, to correct any such misapprehensions of it, and to prevent any such misapplication.
For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”    Sermon 39: 3:1


Unity and the Other Marks of the Church

In these days of crisis within the United Methodist church, many are the calls for unity. Many are also the condemnations of even the mention of schism, understood as a formal separation. To compromise the church’s unity is to compromise the church’s witness to the world according to some. According to others schism will reveal a failure of leadership and love. The unity of the church, the mark of identity that the church is one under the headship of the one Lord and one God, is vital and essential. Unity, however, is not the only vital and essential mark of the church. The four traditional marks of the church are that the church is: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. These four marks are together stated in the Nicene Creed. Each of the three other identity markers of the true church are also vital and essential. Each is integral to a people’s connection to the head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the church’s witness to the world. True unity can only be a reality and understood correctly within the context of these other marks of the church.


The church is called not only to be one, but to also be holy. In the Apostles’ Creed this is the first of two marks of the church mentioned therein, the other being catholic. To be holy is to be set apart by God the Father through faith in the Son and to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to live holy lives that reflect the image of God in the world. The church is called to make a difference by being different and living differently in the world by the grace of God. A beautiful summary of the holiness for which the church is saved from a decaying and darkened world is found in Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount.

There, after the sermon’s introduction called the Beatitudes, Jesus says to his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth” and “you are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:13-14 ESV). The saltiness of the salt and brightness of the light are determined by the extent to which the holy characteristics as defined by Jesus are evident in the lives of his followers. The righteousness to which disciples of Jesus are called is a higher righteousness that includes the right motives of heart to go along with the motions of obedience. It is a righteousness that is in harmony with the intent of the law and the prophets and each and every commandment found in scripture, as summed up in the Ten Commandments (5:17-20). Among other many vital aspects of holiness, Jesus highlights the importance of sexual holiness and the integrity of marriage to the highest degree and with the sternest of warnings about the danger of temptations to compromise that holiness.

The content of the holiness for which the church is set apart can be found in the moral law, which has ongoing relevance for the church. The moral law, revealed in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, reflects the heart and character of the Law-Giver. Being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28) humans were created to reflect God’s holy love and righteous character into the world. Sin disrupted that vocation; grace restores it. Hence, Jesus’ call for his followers to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” As the perfect human being, Jesus embodies as the first perfect image-bearer since the fall the content of the very character of God revealed in the moral law.

Through the forgiveness available through his sacrificial death and the enabling power of the Holy Spirit we too are called to saltembody the character of the God who sets us apart. To compromise the holiness for which we are saved is for the salt to lose its saltiness and to hide the light that is meant to bring blessing and healing to the nations of the world. This too constitutes a compromised witness of the church and reveals a failure of leadership and love. A church that has lost its flavor is “no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” A church that compromises the moral commandments of God is a church that refuses to shine the light of God in all its fullness by doing good works (i.e. living a life in harmony with the commandments as taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount) for the glory of God. And a church  like that stands the risk of Jesus removing its lampstand. To such a church Jesus’ message is:

“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent.” Revelation 2:5 ESV

Unity does sometimes require compromise, but only on non-essential matters. The integrity of the moral law, summed up in both tables of the Ten Commandments, is not an indifferent matter. If Jesus says we shouldn’t relax even one of the least commandments, how much more serious to relax his call to sexual holiness which comes with the sternest of warnings about the severest of judgments? It is evident that even in his sermon, “Catholic Spirit”, which is often misused to justify treating differing opinions on sexual morality as an indifferent matter, that John Wesley saw the moral law as a non-negotiable, essential matter for true Christianity. For Wesley the true catholic spirit would include a hatred of “all evil ways”, which he describes as “every transgression of his [God’s] holy and perfect law” (Sermon 39 section I:16).


The word catholic means universal. It does not refer to just one branch of the universal church that uses that title in their name, but includes that branch and every other Christian body throughout the world and throughout history. The catholic (universal) church is not limited to any one ethnicity or nation as it is made up of Jews and Gentiles, and it is not limited to any particular geographic area, as it spans the globe. The catholic church also is not limited to any particular time, as it spans all of history. Neither is the church confined to those who are presently alive in their body on earth, but also includes the saints who are absent from the body but present with the Lord in heaven. In other words, the catholic church includes the church militant (against sin and the forces of evil on earth) and the church triumphant who worships before the throne of God in heaven and pray for justice to be carried out on earth (Rev 4-6).

It must also be noted that the catholic church, made of of Jews and Gentiles in one body, stands in continuity with Israel, the descendants of Abraham through Isaac. The unity of the church cannot be conceived apart from its catholicity. We are to be one in the essential matters of the Christian faith around the globe and throughout history. A presentism and cultural-centrism is not a recipe for unity when understood within the context of the catholic nature of the church.


The apostolic nature of the church refers to the church’s foundation upon the witness and teachings of those called and appointed by Jesus to be his apostles. With the exception of Paul they were as his disciples witnesses of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, his crucifixion and burial, and, along with Paul, of his appearances after his bodily resurrection. The New Testament bears witness to the teachings of the apostles and their reports regarding the teachings of Jesus and the meaning and significance of his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension as the fulfillment of the new covenant promise found in the law and the prophets. The apostles affirmed the ongoing authority of the Old Testament as Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount indicates (Matthew 5:17-20; also see Luke 16:16-17). Hence Ephesians 2, which shows the continuity of the church with Israel, says the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.” Although there is discontinuity between the church and Israel in terms of ceremonial, civil, and symbolic laws for Israel as a distinct nation among the other nations of the world no longer being necessary for the church as their purpose was fulfilled in Christ, one of the most important areas of continuity is the universal and timeless moral law of God.

While in Ephesians 2, for example, Paul can speak of laws being abolished, it is clear in Ephesians 5:1-14 that by this he does not mean the moral law, which remains the standard of obedience and judgment for the new covenant people of God . As N.T Wright says, for Paul the outward markers of Israel’s national identity are “no longer required, but the moral standards which were supposed to distinguish Israel from the nations were if anything intensified” (Paul and the Faithfulness of God, p 1048). And for Paul, as well as Jesus as indicated in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew 19, sexual holiness, celibacy in singleness and fidelity within the lifelong covenant of  marriage between a man and a woman, is a vital component of the moral law to be lived out in the life of the church together.

The teaching of the apostles reveals the ongoing authority of the Old Testament, particularly the moral law revealed therein. The testimony and teaching of the apostles as revealed in the New Testament also show how Jesus fulfilled the promise of the new covenant found in the law and the prophets, in which God’s people receive forgiveness and a new heart empowered and guided by God’s Spirit for obedience to God’s law.


We are called to maintain the unity of the Spirit, but not apart from the call to “walk in a manner worthy” of our calling (Ephesians 4:1-6), and not apart from the call to “put off” “the old self,” which “corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). Holiness and the other two marks of the church cannot be tossed out in the name of unity. Neither can unity be achieved through compromise with “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). That is not a recipe for unity, but is the very act of schism itself because it is to dilute the ingredients of the church’s saltiness, to separate from the church universal, and to break from the witness and teaching of the apostles. This would be to move away from the foundation of the New Testament apostles and Old Testament prophets.

John Wesley said that schism biblically speaking is not separation from a church, but division within a church through the failure to remain united in word, mind, and judgment (“On Schism” Sermon 75 section I:1-2). According to this understanding of schism, it is obvious that we already have schism internally in the UMC. This is really the result of the failure of leadership and love to maintain the unity of the Spirit, which scripture describes as being united in the same mind and judgment and of the same mind, love, spirit, and purpose in full accord (1 Corinthians 1:10;  Philippians 2:2.). When we admit that we are of two minds, we admit that there is schism. It is those who insist on revising the moral law to accommodate modern, western sexual sensibilities who are causing division and compromising the church’s witness, not those who insist on upholding the church’s scriptural standards.

While Wesley did indicate that a believer should not separate from a religious body frivolously, he did indicate that separation would be necessary if a believer would be forced to sin by remaining within a compromised Christian community (Sermon 75: section II:17). If the United Methodist church does officially compromise the biblical standard of sexual holiness, even by treating it as an indifferent matter, which it clearly is not, or if the denomination fails to hold covenant-breakers accountable, then in order to remain those of us who hold to the traditional Christian teaching would be forced to break the clear command of scripture to “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesian 5:11). This would be true if the terms of communion included being forced to either accept and celebrate sin, or to treat it as an indifferent matter when it clearly is not. Either scenario of possible compromise will be unacceptable.

The bottom line is that any church or denomination that would allow itself to be conformed to the world by deliberately rejecting a straightforward command of scripture, would fail to be one with the holy, catholic, and apostolic church. Regarding the presenting issue of whether or not to affirm same-sex relationships, which has brought every mainline denomination to the point of schism, in the scriptural or traditional sense of the word, the theologian Wolfart Pannenberg said:

  “Here lies the boundary of a Christian church that knows itself to be bound by the authority of Scripture. Those who urge the church to change the norm of its teaching on this matter must know that they are promoting schism. If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Wolfhart Pannenberg (see full article in Christianity Today HERE)

Can Martin Luther Help Methodists Find Unity?

We United Methodists find ourselves deeply divided, on the surface, over issues of sexuality. However, as I argued in my last post I believe the division runs much wider and deeper, as many others have long argued as well. Ceaseless, however, are the calls for unity, especially from many of our top leaders. Vague, though, are those calls when it actually comes to how we may find ourselves united specifically.

From the stage of General Conference relentless were the calls to love, the implication that this is where we should find unity. Nonetheless, that would require agreement on how Christian love should actually be defined, and it was obvious that most of the calls to love were from progressives who believe that means fully accepting same-sex attraction and sexual relationships as good. Conservatives would obviously see this as affirmation without the gospel call to repentance for transformation for holy living.

Then there are those who seem to think that we can find unity in the mission of making disciples for Jesus, but this too is defined quite differently. What makes a disciple? What does a disciple of Jesus believe and how should they live? Conservatives and progressives would obviously answer these questions very differently.

Still others seem to believe that we can be united in doing all the good we can for as many as we can, such as helping the poor. I think we can work together in this regard, but only in terms of alleviating the symptoms by addressing immediate needs, because conservatives and progressives would probably find themselves deeply divided with regards to what they believe to be the root causes of those symptoms. We could work together to do good, but still work against each other when it comes to what we believe to be the underlying causes of the bad. For instance, does promoting gay marriage promote the good? What about abortion? Is it a blessing from God as some believe, or is it murder, as others of us believe? Does abortion promote societal good or is it an evil that leads to more societal ill? On another note, working together to do good in terms of providing immediate relief to those who suffer, such as providing mosquito nets to protect children in the third world from malaria laced mosquito bites, is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t really require religious unity at all, as believers from various religions and non-believers alike can and do work together for such good things.

So where can we really find Christian unity in the bond of a deep and abiding peace and harmony withing the same household, so to speak? We can’t manufacture it through human ingenuity or cleverness; we can’t legislate it and magically make those who disagree agree. We must receive it as a gift, a gift of God, a gift of grace, by the Spirit of God, through faith. In other words, we can ultimately only find true unity in a common salvation.

Ephesians 2:8-10 says in a nutshell that we are saved BY grace, THROUGH faith, FOR good works. As hard as it has proven to be to not overemphasize one aspect of salvation at the expense of the others, we must hold these three aspects together. If we emphasize grace at the expense of faith and good works we may end up with a licentious universalism. If we thus overemphasize faith we may end up with what John Wesley called the faith of devils, a mere acknowledgment of God’s existence without obedience to his will. And an emphasis on works at the expense of grace and faith leads to self-righteous legalism and practical atheism. Salvation is first and foremost by God’s initiative and action in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Faith is the human response, itself a gift of God, which receives God’s grace, which in turn forgives our sins and transforms our hearts; and genuine faith manifests itself in good works, the byproduct or fruit of real faith.

In a sermon that turned into a small book, Martin Luther, in his “Treatise on Good Martin LutherWorks”, wrote about the importance of good works to correct those who took his teaching on justification by faith to mean that all good works were of no account or to be avoided. He also wrote to clarify just what the good works we are saved FOR are so as not to be confused with certain rituals of penance promoted by the medieval Catholic Church. In short, Luther taught that the good works FOR which we are saved BY grace, THROUGH faith are to be discerned in the Ten Commandments.

For Luther, faith exercised by grace, fulfills the first commandment, to worship no other gods other than God the Creator, revealed to Israel as Yahweh, the One who is Who He is. Obedience to the first commandment is the fruit of genuine faith in Christ and as such the first good work from which all other good works flow in obedience to the rest of the commandments. In fact, without genuine faith there is no genuine good works at all, because without faith doing what is in itself good is still sin, according to Luther. So doing good for our own glory rather than God’s, for instance, would be something along the lines of what he had in mind.

Now Luther obviously understood the Ten Commandments to be summary statements of the much broader moral law revealed elsewhere in Scripture. For example, he taught that the commandment to honor father and mother included obedience to all God-ordained authorities, such as church and government authorities. For a child to obey a teacher at school, for example, would be to keep that commandment as obeying mom and dad at home would be. Likewise he considered the commandment against adultery to include all sexual immorality as it was delineated in the rest of the Old Testament and recapitulated and more stringently specified in the New Testament in terms of God’s original intent in creation. So the commandment against adultery isn’t just about adultery, but all “unchastity”, as Luther expressed it.

Now the book of James, which Luther had to warm up to a bit after he discovered justification by faith, shows that the law, what we would call the moral law particularly, comes as a unified whole, to break one law is to break the law as a whole (James 2:8-13). In Jame’s case he is talking about showing partiality to the rich, which he says is a violation of the law to love your neighbor as yourself, which is itself a summary of what has been called the second table of the Ten Commandments dealing with relationships between people (The First table are the commandments that deal with our relationship with God). James goes on to show the unity of the law with the example of two of the Ten Commandments, name those against adultery and murder. The unity of the law comes from the fact that the same God gave each commandment as a reflection of his very own character, not as arbitrary rules that have no correspondence with reality, the reality of the Creator and the creation. To break one command is to break the law as whole, and to break the heart of the One whose heart it is a reflection of.

Likewise to reject one commandment is to reject the law as a whole, and to reject the law of God is to reject the God who gave the law. In other words, to reject the seventh commandment (the sixth according to Luther’s reckoning as he worked from a tradition that saw the prohibition against idolatry to be part of the first commandment), would be to also reject the first. We are not saved BY the law, but we are saved FOR the law, to live by it, in order to be holy as the One who saves us is holy. As Wesley reminded those so prone to antinomianism (lawlessness, about which the New Testament has nothing good to say, See Sermon 35), the apostle Paul taught that faith should not be construed in any way to make the law void, but that true faith establishes the law (Rom 3:31). Here is where we must find unity.

Last week I was discussing the state of the denomination and the results of the General Conference with some other United Methodist pastors. They all seemed to think that we could somehow still find unity even though we disagree over sexual ethics. When I probed a bit further, I asked whether we could really be “of the same mind, having the same love, being of full accord and of one mind” (Philp 2:2), as we are called to be, when some among us believe things like the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt. This is a belief expressed by ELCA pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is wildly popular among many of our younger clergy, but also among progressives in general, young or old. My colleague, who clearly views himself as a moderate, and clearly sees me as being on the extreme conservative side of things, said, without hesitation, yes we should be able to be unified with people like that.

I probed further, “so you think we can worship together and be in unified mission together as Christians with some who believe something like that and that we are all just worshiping the same God?” Again, my colleague who considers himself clearly within the moderate camp said, without hesitation, yes. He alluded to Paul’s preaching of the “unknown God” in Acts 17 as justification, which is really not even close to being a justification as Paul’s point was for the Athenians to stop practicing idolatry and trust in the Creator of all who will judge the world by Jesus, whom he raised from the dead.

Nonetheless, if the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt, then what does this say about the Trinity, and how can such faith be a fulfillment of the first commandment? Are all gods really the same God and are all gods worthy of worship? Was Elijah misguided to demand the Israelites choose between God and Baal, after all? Is this where we are to find unity? If so then we have to “reimagine” the first commandment to mean  something it obviously does not and cannot mean, or we must reject it altogether, which would really be what the former reimagining does anyway.

Obviously we are not united on the particulars of the seventh commandment; but when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t look like we are really even united on the particulars of the FIRST COMMANDMENT!

Luther said, one good work that fulfills the commandment to not take the name of the Lord in vain is “to oppose all false, seductive, and heretical teachings and any abuse of the clerical office and its power,” to stand against teachings that “use God’s name to contend with the holy name of God” (p.55). A syncretistic faith open to the worship of other gods along with Yahweh, is not “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3 ESV). For the Lord is God alone, and there is none other beside Him! (Isaiah 45:5)  He says, “Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22). Here, and here alone, is where we can find genuine Christian unity born of the Spirit of the Living God in the bond of peace!

Some talk as if we are like a married couple, one of whom just can’t stand a night light (or a sleep mask), and the other who just can’t sleep without it, the night light that is. What if we really are more like a married couple, one of whom absolutely insists on an open marriage (Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors??), while the other insists on an absolutely exclusive relationship, forsaking all others, till death do them part? The former can stay married in the same house, even if they do have to sleep in separate rooms; the latter will need more than separate rooms, don’t you think? Unless one party converts to the other’s way of thinking.

The God revealed to and through Israel, and most fully in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, demands that we have no other gods before Him to bow down and serve them. Why? Because He is a jealous God, Who wants us for an exclusive relationship in worship of Him and Him alone, forsaking all others, and clinging only to Him through faith forever, and ever, and ever! Amen. From this faith will flow obedience to all of God’s good law and righteous requirements for a holy people. This is the obedience of faith to which we are called, and in which we will find unity.

“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (I Cor 8:5-6).


How Wide the Divide? #UMCGC2016

The United Methodist Council of Bishops proposed more discussion at a later date to try to resolve differences over human sexuality. But what if the controversy over sexuality really is just a presenting symptom of a much wider divide? Maybe this is and has been such a big deal for so long because it really is a much bigger deal than some want to admit.

Of course there are those who are genuinely unsure about these issues that we could honestly identify as in the middle. If confusion and uncertainty about what to believe is really the issue, then why would we be so rash to haphazardly abandon the existing and longstanding, universally accepted until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s, teaching of the Church, which is still the teaching of the vast majority of the Church universal.

But as for those on the left, including those who call themselves centrists but are obviously and clearly progressives in alliance with progressives, and for those of us on the right the issue is not really confusion and uncertainty. By certainty I’m not talking about an absolute epistemological certainty that God alone has; I’m talking about clarity of convictions, an assurance of faith. We believe what we believe firmly, even though, as Alister McGrath has argued, as Protestants we may intuitively hold our beliefs provisionally. And our differing beliefs run much wider and deeper than what we think about sex.

When I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry (BOM) in my conference a few years ago for provisional membership, based on a conversation that I had with one person along the way, I was deemed to not be quite “theologically diverse” enough, although I was passed for provisional membership on the Elder track anyway. I was passed but not without extra requirements. One was a reading assignment. The conference approved psychologist I had to meet with before I could go before the BOM recommended to them that I read a book, “Six Ways of Being Religious”.

This was because when the psychologist asked me to tell him how I would handle conflict in the church, I gave the example of when I led a Bible study and discussion around the controversies concerning marriage and sexuality in response to questions from both liberals and conservatives in the church I was pastoring at the time. I told him we had people in the middle who were confused by it all, and some on the right and some on the left. I told him that I had come through a lot of confusion myself after reading and listening to people on all sides of the issue along with much prayer and Bible study. I had come to a traditional viewpoint and did not hide that fact from the group or my church. We had a great, even if sometimes intense, discussion during that group study. I did my best to accurately present viewpoints from both sides, and people within the group on both sides felt and were free to share theirs. No one left the group and we all remained friends, even though I clearly shared my view, which includes the belief that this is not an indifferent matter. Everyone was thankful and appreciative for the discussion.

For sharing this the psychologist deemed me not to be “theologically diverse” enough and after explaining that he believed himself that all religions really point to the same ultimate reality, he recommended the book I mentioned above, although that is not what that book actually argues. In addition to that reading assignment the BOM also recommended – in writing – that I read Harvey Cox’s book “The Future of Faith, wherein he argues that orthodox confessional faith was actually a corruption of the original more “diverse” form  of Christianity, which he seems to believe is captured in the Gospel of Thomas and apparently Gnosticism. He considers confessional (i.e. the development of creeds) orthodoxy to be a corruption of the original faith, which he believes was more “diverse” and “open”, conveniently, kind of like progressive Christians like him. He even seems to throw John Wesley into the mix of what he believes to be the problem. I wonder what Wesley would think of a Methodist BOM recommending such reading?

I didn’t have a problem reading the book, I have learned the hard way of the importance of considering other views, but when I complained to some colleagues that it seemed quite suspect that the BOM would require me to read such a book that bashes orthodoxy, including Wesleyan orthodoxy, some said the BOM probably just wanted me to consider other views. Okay. Well my experience through provisional membership (I have self-delayed interviewing for full-ordination for the past couple of years) has proven otherwise.

The BOM also required me, for other reasons, to take another Christian education class on teaching Bible study after I had already completed the MDiv. So I took a class, which had undergraduate and graduate students in it. The professor overtly bashed evangelical conservatives and explicitly deemed evangelical Bible study curriculum to be “theologically problematic” but gushed over the theology of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, pantheists, who deny the bodily resurrection of Jesus . She also had students look up Bible verses where Jesus seems to speak negatively about family to argue that Jesus didn’t really care about family values like ‘some’ Christians do today. Another time she had us look up verses in the epistles that mention the “gospel” (singular) to argue that those verses were telling us that the four “Gospels” were more important, I suppose to try to neutralize some of the unpopular messages of Paul in the epistles. At any rate, those verses in the epistles are obviously talking about the general content of the Gospel message not the four Gospels specifically. Both were shameless, egregious exercises in proof-texting and eisegesis, which I challenged to little avail.

I also participated in a special RIOM (official provisional clergy mentor group) that made it available for us to go to special meetings and conferences, including a trip to the Holy Land. In all cases, with the exception of one meeting at a conservative UMC that I wasn’t able to attend, the progressive bias was incredible, outrageous really. I was subjected to meetings where conservatives like me were called “Pharisees” or worse, one where it was openly questioned, after what was basically a reconciling church promotion, whether an African American candidate for Bishop should be seriously considered because she is theologically conservative. How bout that for a commitment to ‘theological diversity’?

The conference that was almost the last straw for me was when our RIOM group and a couple of others were taken to see the future of the church, at least according to the theories of the ultra-progressive Episcopal theologian, Phyllis Tickle, whose view are similar to those of Harvey Cox. It was a conference featuring Tickle, who ended up not being able to attend for personal reasons, and the Lutheran (ELCA) “Pastrix” (title of one of her bestselling books), Nadia Bolz-Weber, the main speaker.

I read most of her book, “Pastrix”, on the way to the conference. In it she talks about how she believes the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt as she promotes syncretism, and how she used the baptismal covenant to bless and rename a transitioning transgender, an experience she compared to the conversion of the apostle Paul and Martin Luther. At the conference she bragged about how she used the baptismal font as a chocolate fountain for a party after a worship service as an example of her many intentional acts of “holy irreverence.” She also made fun of the Methodist notion of “going on to perfection” and said in terms of the means of grace, she doesn’t do sh&#. Talking about a prominent conservative figure, she called him “bat sh%# crazy”. She does believe in the bodily resurrection though! Whatever that may really mean to her.

I seemed to be the only one who didn’t think she was the greatest thing since sliced bread in the auditorium of the Methodist retreat, Epworth by the Sea, in St. Simons Island, Georgia. On the way home though, one of our leaders did, however, question whether the Pastrix cussing every other breath was really in keeping with a holy life! Of course that was the least of my concerns.

How wide is the divide? Much wider and deeper than many want to admit. This crisis issue of human sexuality is such a big deal, because it is a much bigger deal than some will admit.

When it comes right down to it, we not only have competing visions of Christian sexual ethics; we have competing visions of the Christian faith, really two different religions as has been argued since the first half of the 20th century. Although some at the 2016 UMC General Conference voted down making the Nicene Creed a doctrinal standard because they may have thought it unnecessary in light of our Articles of Religion and Confession of faith which explicate further many of the same truths, I wonder how many voted it down because they have the faith of Harvey Cox who sees the creed as a corruption of a supposed more original faith.

We are of two minds because we are, in the main, of two different spirits. When it comes down to it, one vision of the faith seems to be an open-ended syncretism where it is Jesus by addition, thrown into the pantheon, if you will. The other is a monotheistic Trinitarianism where it is Jesus by submission, surrendering to the One true God who has revealed himself most fully in the person of Christ by the illuminating and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s not enough that we consent to the same terminology when we have diametrically opposed meanings and beliefs. The so-called commitment to theological diversity is really just a commitment to theological progressive-liberalism, which is apparently open to all things, except those who aren’t.

The bias should be obvious, and the marginalization and demoralization of conservative evangelicals in the American context is real. It is true that were it not for our African brothers and sisters this discussion would have been settled in favor of the progressive view long ago. And as the church seems to be moving in a more conservative global direction despite what looks like a progressive full-court press at this year’s GC, now they want to prolong the debate even further. Does anyone really believe that if things were going in the other direction, in favor of the left, that calls for delay and further discussion, would be taken seriously? When the committee for General Conference who put together the “Handbook for Delegates” assumed the new theories of gender neutrality to be settled reality and advised all delegates to “.. not assume anyone’s gender identity, even if you have met them in the past” and to ask everyone what pronouns they prefer, he, she, or something else (p. 39), I wouldn’t count on it.

bridge-across-chasmHow wide is the divide? We are of two minds because we are of two spirits. There is a mighty gulf between us that God did span at Calvary, but we can’t pretend like we can live together on both sides as one church. We have to choose one side or the other. I know this is stark, and for some, harsh language, but it is true. Why don’t we admit it and take action accordingly to allow for an amicable separation? This is much more gracious and generous than anything we’ve seen in the other mainline denominations, which have gone in favor of the progressive view. It would just be an official acknowledgement of what is a present reality made more evident by progressives defiance. The divide is great and it is real. Let’s get real and do something real about it.


Have United Methodists Lost It?

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.

Heart on Fire

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)