Tag Archives: United Methodist Church

New UMC Separation Plan: “Winning” the Church?

News broke late last week that an agreement had been reached to divide the United Methodist Church. Some news outlets wrongly reported that this was an “official” decision to divide the denomination over conflicts about LGBTQIA+ issues. The agreement reached through the help of a world class mediator was an agreement among United Methodist leaders representing people from a very wide swath across the ideological spectrum. This was an agreement among these diverse leaders to support this particular plan of separation together at the General Conference in May this year, giving it wider overall support than plans previously submitted. The General Conference will have to consider, debate, and vote on the plan of separation once presented. Amendments and modifications to the plan are also a possibility. The General Conference vote in May alone will determine whether the plan becomes official.

The new proposal incorporated elements from some of the other plans previously with modifications and additions representing a broader compromise between the differing factions: traditionalist and progressive. Some of the significant compromises that were negotiated involve the voting thresholds needed for annual conferences and local churches to reaffiliate with the traditionalist denomination that would be formed without having to relinquish property and other assets.

Generally speaking traditionalists have asked for simple majorities (50% +1) for annual conferences and local churches to make those decisions. Progressives, on the other hand, have fought for higher thresholds. In fact, up until last year’s special General Conference, they made it clear that they did not want a consistent plan of disaffiliation for local churches to be able to separate from the denomination and keep their local church property at all. Progressives desire as much leverage as possible. When they reluctantly came to provide for disaffiliation plans for conservative churches that do not desire to be affiliated with the increasingly radical progressive movement, they set the threshold for disaffiliation much higher. Their disaffiliation plans required a two-thirds vote threshold as well as other high cost hurdles for local churches.

Conservatives have generally wanted to make the process as painless as possible, but progressives want the decision for local churches to be more difficult. Again, as late as last February, they insisted upon being able to force congregations to have to choose between remaining faithful to their convictions or possibly walking away from their property altogether. Progressives used many noble sounding reasons about the importance of unity to justify the coercive tactics to be sure; but a coerced unity is not really unity at all. And their preferred “One Church Plan” with no disaffiliation option was defeated.

Nevertheless, the newest proposal reaches some middle ground between the simple majorities that traditionalists prefer and the higher thresholds that progressives prefer. By a vote of 57%, annual conferences (Methodism’s version of dioceses) may vote to affiliate with conservatives. Conferences that fail to meet that threshold, or that choose not to vote at all, will remain with the UMC as it now is (but if this separation plan is adopted will quickly allow for same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy without the current constraints of traditional marriage and probably even celibacy in singleness).

Local churches will have to officially call for a churchwide vote to affiliate with the conservative side. There will be an incentive for progressives to try to avoid having churches vote. Conservatives in local churches will need to be aware of the options and push for a discussion and vote in the local church. No vote means no chance of affiliating with the new conservative denomination where there will not be a trust clause, which means local churches will own the local church property.

Conservatives want a fellowship of the committed rather than a coalition of the coerced where the denomination can hold local churches hostage by threating to seize church property. Conservatives want churches free to focus on the mission of making disciples without the current confusion about what a disciple is really supposed to be. And conservatives want to be free to voluntarily work together to sow for a great awakening and see another mighty move of God in our day.

Nonetheless, for a local church not to vote will leave it by default with the progressive denomination, which will retain the United Methodist name and the trust clause (I seriously doubt the progressive denomination will give up the trust clause). If a vote is called, the church council, however, would have the power to set the threshold at a simple majority or at a two-thirds majority. This means a church council that is disproportionately progressive relative to the congregation as a whole could require a higher threshold and vice versa.

Again generally speaking conservatives want the decision threshold to be easier to achieve, and progressives want a higher threshold. Progressives seek as much leverage as they can get. They want to use property as leverage to put individuals and congregations in a position of having to choose between their traditional Christian convictions and remaining in a local church, that in many cases, they and their families have been a part of and helped build for generations. That is a horrible position to put individuals and local churches in, but that’s very well a position in which many local churches may find themselves.

In some cases a mere 34% of a congregation will be able to force a local church into remaining in the progressive affiliation where there will be more going on than many have really considered. Not only will the progressive UMC have same-sex marriage and practicing LGBTQIA+ clergy, there will also be progressive churches having drag queen children’s sermons promoting the early sexualization of children and potentially encouraging children as young as seven years old to begin gender transition treatments. These are real things and real debates happening in progressive circles already, including in progressive churches. There’s a lot more in that acronym than an L and a G! Progressive Mainliners have made it clear that they see an endless spectrum of sexual orientations and gender identities, virtually all of which should be celebrated and affirmed. People in the pews and local congregations should not be fooled by those who will employ the terms “centrist” and “moderate” to lure people into remaining affiliated with the progressive radicalism.

The real tragedy here is that many people and conservative leaning congregations will be forced to choose between church property and what is right according to the Bible. In some cases people very well may have to decide between walking away from a local church property and remaining in fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:1-11). It’s a terrible position to be in.

We know Jesus talked about how horrible it would be for someone to gain the whole world but lose his or her soul, but we may never have imagined that local church property might be included in the admonition. We need to pray that local churches will have discernment and courage. If it comes down to it, church property is not worth losing one’s soul over. This doesn’t mean that people should rashly walk away, but we must count the cost. Some are going to gain church property and denominational assets by almost any means necessary, but at what ultimate cost? That’s the worst tragedy with this whole mess. Too many have walked away too early, but some will hold on far too long. May God give wisdom.

The other confusing thing in this new proposal for a lot of people is why it seems the traditionalist side has to “leave” the denomination when the traditional position is still the official position of the United Methodist Church. That position was actually strengthened at last year’s special General Conference! It is strange. But the reality is that progressives are in control of the mother ship so to speak. Although the progressive position is not official, most of the leadership of the denominational institutions and boards and agencies in the United States is progressive. Progressives have created an overall  denominational leadership culture in the United States that operates under the assumption of theological pluralism. There’s really no serious commitment to the historic doctrinal standards of Methodism. Liberals and progressives have played fast and lose with the historic doctrines for a long time. Most of the time they use the traditional vocabulary but with liberal/progressive definitions.

Sometimes they use the term “generous orthodoxy” but really mean a license for heterodoxy and heresy. There is little will or desire among leadership in the United States to enforce commitment to our doctrinal standards despite the very serious vows we all take at ordination about teaching and defending them. In fact, the opposite often happens. Heterodoxy is given a pass or even celebrated, while a serious commitment to orthodoxy is punished as being too narrow or inflexible. In my own case, the board of ordained ministry expressed concerns about my conservative views. One person insisted that I should understand that all religions really lead to the same place. The board also officially required me to read a book that promotes the idea that genuine Christianity is radically diverse in terms of doctrine and that orthodoxy, including that found in the historic creeds and even in the teachings of John Wesley, was a corruption of the Christian faith. True story; I have it in writing.

Just a few months ago I was at a conference, sponsored by Duke Divinity School and the Duke Endowment with two bishops and several district superintendents present, where one of the main speakers not only denied the doctrine of original sin, but denied that Adam and Eve sinned at all in the garden of Eden. Many in attendance were concerned, but not enough among the leadership of two annual conferences and Duke Divinity School. They were indifferent at best, if not openly praising the false teaching. If this is true for two conferences in the Bible Belt, what do you think it’s like across the United States as a whole? Bishops and pastors can not only deny the virgin birth and bodily resurrection and get away with it, they can also deny the divinity of Jesus and the Trinity without any serious concern. For that matter, some can bring monotheism or possibly even theism altogether in question without any serious concern of accountability to our doctrinal standards. If anything they might receive a tap on the hand and a wink and a nod to be more subtle.

So, as strange as it seems, even though the official position of the denomination is the traditional position, most of the leadership of the denomination in the United States will not enforce accountability to that position. For many decades now, the operating assumption in the United States has been a commitment to theological pluralism and doctrinal indifferentism, which ironically involves a hostility to a serious commitment to orthodoxy and traditional morality.

That’s why we have the strange phenomena of it looking like the “winners” at all of the General Conferences since the 1970’s have to “leave” the denomination. The new proposal, however, is actually an agreement to divide the denomination into two separate denominations. One of the concessions though is the progressive side gets to keep the United Methodist name and almost all the denominational assets with the exception of local church properties and annual conference properties that vote to align with the conservative side, which will also get $25 million. At any rate, it will be hard to avoid the perception that Traditionalists were just allowed (forced?) to “leave” with the short end of the stick. If this new proposal in some from passes, denominational property and assets will be gained and lost by both sides, even if some will gain more than others. Everyone involved should pray not to lose their soul in the process.

We all need to count the cost. As strange as it may seem, Jesus just might say, “what good is it to gain a church and lose your soul. God, grant us wisdom and courage!

There are major decisions ahead for local churches. Local churches must call for a vote if they will have a chance to choose which side to align with. Not voting at all is a vote to align with the progressive movement. The potential decisions ahead are quite stark, a broad way of being a church or the narrow way (Matthew 7:13-14). Choose wisely.Broad Path Narrow Path

God be with you!

(Listen to Billy Abraham describe the clear choice that will have to be made)

See News Release from Council of Bishops Here.

Why It’s Hard Being a Preacher Today; Why God is More than Enough

It’s not easy to be a preacher in the United Methodist Church these days. Not that it ever was easy, but right now it’s as hard as it’s ever been. The fault line that has been there from the beginning of the denomination in 1968 has erupted. Fall out is every where, and it seems it will get worse before it gets better.

It not easy to be a preacher in the UMC for anyone. The fault line runs right through every single local church in the U.S. The majority of our pastors are progressive (the majority of Bishops even more so); the majority of our laity in the pews are traditionalists. But those majorities are not overwhelming and they are mixed. The day of judgment is upon us in more ways than one.

Undoubtedly our denomination is under the judgment of God. At best, overall we have been lukewarm; at worst we have been in flat out rebellion against God’s word. And if Scripture is true, God is displeased either way.

I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. ~ Rev 3:15-22 ESV

In many ways things are as bad as they were in Jerusalem during the ministry of Jeremiah.

“But in the prophets of Jerusalem
I have seen a horrible thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers,
so that no one turns from his evil;
all of them have become like Sodom to me,
and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.”

Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets:
“Behold, I will feed them with bitter food
and give them poisoned water to drink,
for from the prophets of Jerusalem
ungodliness has gone out into all the land.”

Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” ~ Jeremiah 23:14-17

Still, many of our leaders will refuse to acknowledge the pattern. Like the leaders of Judah, they will bury their heads in the sand, refuse to call the denomination to real repentance, encourage the rebellious, and condemn the righteous like they did with Jeremiah.

It’s not easy to be a preacher in the UMC right now. For fear of losing significant numbers of people over the years, many have opted to ride the fence. In trying to sustain a certain number of people in the pews, many have failed to provide the sheep a diet substantive and steady enough to sustain a healthy faith. A focus on numerical growth at the expense of spiritual growth has left churches weak and malnourished, vulnerable to wolves, including those in sheep’s clothing. Indifference to doctrine in the name of a pseudo unity has brought us nothing but division and strife, and left the people in the pews to be blown about and tossed to and fro by every wind of false doctrine and deceitful scheming (Eph 4:14). As a result we have lost in both quantity and quality.

The current environment is hard on everyone. The tangled web of conflict and strife has pulpits pitted against the pews, bishops and district superintendents pitted against certain pastors and churches, boards and agencies and seminaries pitted against local churches, pastor against pastor, bishop against bishop, etc., etc., etc. . . . In many cases pastors on the very same staff are actively working against one another, and bishops and district superintendents are actively working against pastors that they have appointed. Progressive students at Duke Divinity School apparently see neutrality as rejection. Nothing less than full acceptance of the full LGBTQIA+ spectrum and agenda will do.

Yet we still hear the repeated assertions of those who insist we can all just get along, even while they insist that traditional views are doing great harm by promoting at least injustice and oppression, and probably even evil. For good reason these types of assurances ring hollow. At best they are incredibly naïve; likely they are disingenuous.

Some churches have pastors who are angered by other pastors on staff referring to the congregation as “sisters and brothers” because it is not “inclusive” enough. For some progressives the only possible explanation that someone can’t clearly see that there are dozens and dozens, maybe even an infinite number of possible genders and pronouns to go with them, is that they are backward bigots. In other churches there are progressive senior pastors who honestly feel like they have to protect the congregation from an associate who has traditional views. There are also lay leadership teams in churches that have felt like they had to protect the church from the views of progressives pastors that deny the warning of eternal judgment in hell or that the Bible is in its entirety really the uniquely inspired word of God, or that deny Jesus as the incarnate Son of the one true God, Yahweh, is the only way to the Father. As a matter of fact, progressives are unhappy about masculine nouns and pronouns for God, like Father and he, and seek to ban their use. Moreover, boards of ordained ministry are under fire because they uphold the standards for ordained ministry or because they refuse to. And annual Conferences and jurisdictional conferences are vowing to defy the General Conference.

Churches have been losing people on all sides of the issues that divide us for decades. That has only accelerate since the 2019 General Conference. These are definitely difficult days to be a pastor in the UMC.

Within the past week I learned that a local pastor in North Georgia has been removed from his church by the bishop and cabinet. Apparently his crime was allowing a WCA event to be held at his local church and working in agreement with his congregation to take advantage of a newly added disaffiliation plan in the Book of Discipline. Although there has been some question about whether the disaffiliation plan is valid, it seems that the disaffiliation plan was upheld by the judicial council. At any rate, it seems for supporting the WCA, which has called for faithfulness to our doctrinal standards and discipline and/or amicable separation, and for working with his church in what at least appears at this time to be a legitimate disaffiliation plan, this local pastor was summarily removed from his church. The reality is that his bishop would probably do back flips to avoid punishing any progressive pastor who would lead their church in open defiance of the General Conference.

It’s really is hard to be a pastor in the UMC right now. It’s hard for people on all sides. It is also painful to the point of deleteriously affecting the health and well-being of our pastors. Some pastors feel like John Eubanks in Jerry Clower’s story of “The Coon Hunt.” Feeling like they are trapped in a tree with a wildcat, some pastors may feel like it’d just be better for somebody to shoot up in the tree amongst ’em because somebody’s just got to have some relief!

In addition to the normal and inevitable stresses of being a pastor, we also have the added stress of possibly being at odds with leaders, who have a lot of power over us, and with a significant number of people in our congregations. In some cases it may only be a significant minority; in others it may be a significant majority; in others it may be split right down the middle. And this is not to mention the increasing pressure from the secular culture on churches and other organizations that espouse traditional Christian views. It is a pressure that many churchgoers and church leaders succumb to and personally bring to bear in their own local churches. In any scenario the fault line has erupted. People must find at least temporary relief on one side or the other; the fence has vanished in the chasm.

The progressive Baptist theologian, David Gushee, said a couple of years ago:

I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door. I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable. https://www.theaquilareport.com/david-gushee-differences-unbridgeable/

Gushee was right. He was also right to say that the only possibility that remains is that one side might convert to the other, as he himself did. The fissure has become a great chasm. Trying to hold both sides hostage in the same church will only bring more chaos, confusion, and calamity. It’s downright painful to be a pastor in the UMC right now, but not hopeless.

God called the prophet Jeremiah to preach to a wayward Jerusalem that had become like Sodom and Gomorrah (Jer 23:14). It was a painful time for Jeremiah. He’s not called the “weeping prophet” for no reason! When God called him, he told him the people would fight against him (Jer 1:19). As a matter of fact, throughout his entire ministry, it seems Jeremiah only won two converts (i.e. Baruch and Ebed-melech). For his preaching, Jeremiah was sorely mocked and severely persecuted. At times he was so weary he wished he had never been born. At times he felt like giving up altogether on preaching the truth; but the fire of God’s word burned too powerfully within his soul! (Jer 20:7-18). Undoubtedly, the vision of hope of better days to come (3:15-18; 23:5-6; 29:10-14; 31:31-40; etc.) sustained him.

Jeremiah by Michelangelo
The Prophet Jeremiah by Michelangelo – Sistine Chapel

It’s hard to be a pastor in the UMC right now. It is painful, but others have experienced far worse. Although God told Jeremiah that the leaders of Jerusalem and the people would fight against him, God also promised him that they would not prevail, because God said, “for I am with you” (1:19). No matter how many may be against us, God being with us is always more than enough. We have to believe that, and hold on to the promise that better days are sure to come.

Reflections on General Conference and the Aftermath

The events of General Conference and the aftermath have been painful. Some, like me, are thankful for the outcome, that the historic and what we believe to be the Biblically faithful position has again been reaffirmed. The thin margin between opposing sides reveals the depth of the division though. Many, many people are deeply saddened, disappointed, frustrated, and extremely angry. I can understand that. I can’t say I haven’t felt that way when things haven’t gone the way I thought they should. I take no pleasure in the angst and pain of others. This General Conference has been revelatory in many ways.

One clergy colleague said, this General Conference has revealed that the denomination is “a nasty, mean rat bastard.” While I do not appreciate the language, and do not agree, I do appreciate the honesty. Emotions are running high, of course, but we do need to be completely honest about the nature of our differences.

gc2016-plenary-floor-584x388
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

In response to another conservative colleague’s statement affirming the traditional position, but also insisting that all people are still welcome in the church, a progressive clergy colleague said it was nothing but a hurtful and hateful statement. She insisted that unless she as a gay person is accepted completely, including the goodness of her sexual behavior, then it is just a message of hate. I disagree, but I appreciate the honesty. Other pastors who have tried to present what they see as more moderate and balanced messages have been severely rebuked for making excuses for great, even grave, harm done to the LGBTQIA+ community.

This type of rhetoric didn’t just start. Long before General Conference 2019, promoters of the liberal One Church Plan and the more progressive Simple Plan said similar things. They insist that the church needs to change to be more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people because the traditional position is doing harm, greatly and even gravely. As I shared before, these kinds of statements were made repeatedly at two listening sessions in my own conference in early January (See my reflections HERE). During the General Conference and after, that refrain has only grown louder, stronger, and more explicit. Progressives and Centrists clearly believe the traditional position of the church is doing great harm; that it is egregiously unjust, even evil. Many American bishops have themselves repeated this refrain.

Bishop Will Willimon, a One Church Plan supporter, basically framed General Conference as a battle between the pure-hearted, pious progressives and centrists, and the conniving and calculating conservatives. One Church Plan supporters like him, many American bishops among them, were calling “for generosity and openness from the podium, [while] Traditional Plan politicos were busy on the floor counting votes and making deals,” he said. I’m not sure if Bishop Willimon is subtly alluding to the false rumors that were being spread that Africans were bribed by American conservatives to vote their way, but it could be taken that way. Bishop Willimon does appear to double down on the idea at the heart of the One Church plan that the church should be more inclusive of LGBTQIA+ people, but the enlightened Western liberal elite just need to provide a measure of tolerance for conservatives until they eventually come around. His disdain and contempt for supporters of the conservative position was thinly veiled (See article HERE).

The disgust, disdain, and contempt of others, like Bishop Bruce Ough, was not really veiled at all. He seemed quite comfortable framing it as a clear-cut case of good verses evil, the traditional position of course being on the latter side and doing great harm to the LGBTQIA+ community. For Bishop Ough conservatives are “the problem.” He also doubles down on not allowing churches to exit the denomination with their property for conscience sake. (See his video HERE).

Bishop Ken Carter was more diplomatic, but not entirely coherent. He reiterated the refrain that the church has done great harm to the LGBTQIA+ community. He also expressed appreciation for the passionate faith of conservative evangelical United Methodists. And he also doubled down on the idea that remaining together in the same church together despite these deep differences are what it means to be the body of Christ. He is quoted as saying, “We are a church that includes people with different visions of the kingdom of God,” and “I believe that’s the body of Christ” (See article HERE).

I agree with Bishop Carter; we do have different visions of the kingdom of God. But I do not agree that is what it means to be the body of Christ. Unity at all costs, no matter how serious the contradictory and competing views are, is not a recipe for unity at all. We need at least a reasonably similar and complimentary vision of the kingdom if we are going to have unity. It appears that what Bishop Carter perceives to be theological diversity is his highest priority. But I think it is the very attitude of doctrinal indifference that John Wesley called confusion and a curse as he alluded to Ephesians 4:13-14 (See the oft misquoted Sermon 39 Catholic Spirit).

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. ~ Eph 4:13-14 ESV

Exaggerating our differences is wrong; downplaying our differences is wrong too. Both cloud the truth. General Conference and the aftermath has revealed just how stark the differences are. I’m not saying there aren’t sincere people on both sides, and truly in the middle trying to figure things out. But the truth is for a great many on the progressive/centrist side, this is a matter of grave injustice and hate. I know if they sincerely believe that, they cannot help but to fight tooth and nail to keep people from expressing views they find hateful and harmful, and trying to convert people to their vision of the kingdom. But that’s also why conservatives were not buying the assurances given in the One Church Plan. Bishop Ough again reiterated that the One Church Plan was imperfect but a stepping stone to a church of perfect inclusiveness, which would inevitably exclude the expression of traditional beliefs. Richard John Neuhaus put it this way:

Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. Some otherwise bright people have indicated their puzzlement with that axiom but it seems to me, well, axiomatic. Orthodoxy, no matter how politely expressed, suggests that there is a right and a wrong, a true and a false, about things. When orthodoxy is optional, it is admitted under a rule of liberal tolerance that cannot help but be intolerant of talk about right and wrong, true and false. It is therefore a conditional admission, depending upon orthodoxy’s good behavior. The orthodox may be permitted to believe this or that and to do this or that as a matter of sufferance, allowing them to indulge their inclination, preference, or personal taste. But it is an intolerable violation of the etiquette by which one is tolerated if one has the effrontery to propose that this or that is normative for others.

https://www.firstthings.com/article/2009/03/the-unhappy-fate-of-optional-orthodoxy

Yesterday a progressive leaning colleague, whom I don’t really know, messaged me and graciously asked what I would say to the LGBTQIA+ people. Here’s a slightly edited version of my response (edited for my fumbling thumbs mainly).

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I have offered clear and specific teaching and guidance to my congregations for years, not only on this issue, but on the traditional Christian position on sexual morality in general. I have never talked about it in a way that singles out any particular class for special condemnation or for special exemptions. I have had members from all walks of life, who struggle with many different kinds of temptation. I have had church members who have disagreed, but we listened to each other very closely. Some have shifted to my viewpoint; others still aren’t sure, but they know they are much more informed.

What I would say today to anyone who is LGBTQIA+ is that God loves you and I love you. You are created in the image of God, but as with us all, that image has been distorted by sin. Sin corrupts our desires and makes us want and want to do things that are not good. The power of sin enslaves us all beyond our own ability to choose otherwise apart from grace. But grace by the blood of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit can set us free through forgiveness and transformation. Transformation, however won’t be consummated in this life; it will be consummated in the new heaven and earth (see Rom 5-8).

In the meantime we will all have to struggle together against powerful temptations and forces that will seek our conformity to the ways and corrupted desires of a fallen world (see 1 John 2:15-17). Whether it be pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, or sloth, we all have to be on guard against the devices of the enemy. The grace of God in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit makes salvation possible, but not easy. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and enter into a life of self-denial to follow Jesus on the hard path that leads to life. Christian faith is not just measured by what we gain, but also by what we are willing to lose and give up. There is a serious cost to discipleship, but not to be compared to the glory of the New Creation. Christ calls us to die to our old way of life corrupted by sin to be people of the New Creation. The New Creation is not something we are called to create ourselves, but a reality that has been created for us to enter into by the grace of God through faith in Christ.

“Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.'” ~ Matt 16:24-25 ESV

There are many people from the LGBTQIA+ community who have accepted that kind of invitation. One is my friend Angy, who was same-sex attracted and acting on those desires. She says she realized that it wasn’t really preachers like me who were condemning her. She says she came to believe it was actually those who were affirming her in sin who were condemning her. She has been outspoken to share her testimony, but the voices of people like her are not provided with the same platform.

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For some the message I shared above is pure hate; for others, like my friend, Angy, it is genuine love. That is the contrast that is at the heart of our dilemma and lack of unity in the United Methodist Church. The truth is we are not in the dilemma we are in because we have talked about this too much; the truth is we have not talked about it openly, specifically, and honestly enough.

We do have different visions of the kingdom of God, very different visions. The kingdom that Jesus proclaimed requires repentance and self-denial on the part of everyone, no special condemnation, no special exemptions. The grace of God makes it all possible; and we all need it.

Augustine and Wesley on the “One Church” Plan

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around. ~ G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

When considering major decisions for the Church, Christians can’t merely look to the opinions of those who live in only one geographic area. Neither should a body of Christians only consider what those who are presently alive have to say on any major issue. The Church is a communion of saints (holy people set apart by faith) throughout space and time. The Church consists of Christians around the globe and throughout history. The importance of tradition, as Chesterton noted, is that it enables us to listen to the voice of those who though dead still speak.

Progressives in the United Methodist Church are advocating that we change the definition of marriage and loosen the standards for sexual ethics. One major rationale given is that morality is “contextual.” This is what proponents of the so-called One Church Plan have insisted. Apparently the UM judicial council concurs. At least they say there is nothing in our doctrinal standards that would require uniformity of moral standards when it comes to marriage and sexual morality. Make note, however, that the One Church Plan doesn’t assume that there would be wide distance in terms of contextual standards for morality.

The assumption is not that moral standards may vary between continents or countries, or other large geographical areas. The assumption is that moral standards regarding marriage and sexual ethics may vary within local communities from local church to local church. The assumption is that different UM churches within the very same community, perhaps just on opposite sides of the street, can operate with contradictory definitions of marriage and different teaching regarding sexual morality, one of the most controversial issues of our time religiously and politically, and still somehow maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I wouldn’t bank on it!

The assumption that morality can easily be considered separately from theological doctrines is seriously flawed. One of the most essential distinguishing features of the Judeo-Christian worldview from a pagan worldview is the connection between religion and morality in the former. Nevertheless, proponents of the ironically named One Church Plan insist that separation should be made, at least with regards to sex and marriage. There also seems to be the assumption that modern times necessitate doctrinal and moral relativism because of competing interpretations of the content, nature and authority of Scripture. The idea seems to be that at our current place in history we now know that doctrinal and moral relativism is an obvious necessity, something of which our ancestors were unaware. Sometimes progressives simply refer to the current year to seal the deal. “Hey it’s 2018! Get with it! And leave that outdated morality in the past where it belongs!”

That being said, I’m not really sure that proponents of the One Church Plan are as committed to their own idea of contextuality as they say. I think they really believe in the universal rightness of their vision of human sexuality for all people every where. They are just willing to make exceptions for traditionalists as a stepping stone. That’s what Bishop Palmer said at the Uniting Methodist conference in Dallas a few months ago as he compared the views of traditionalists regarding marriage to apologists for slavery in the past. Nevertheless, for now they are using their idea of contextuality to make space for different, and competing and contradictory, standards of marriage and sexual ethics within the same denomination to gain ground.

But there is really nothing new under the sun! I think we should and we can consult our ancestors to get their opinion on the underlying premises of the One Church Plan.

I’m in a DMin focus group at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio called “Living the Historic Faith: Christian Wisdom for Today’s Church.” We seek to study Scripture and mine the great tradition of the faith to apply ancient wisdom in the modern Church. This semester we read and discussed Saint Augustine’s book called Teaching Christianity. Augustine’s basic method of teaching the faith was to help church leaders in understanding the Scriptures correctly and to communicate their meaning clearly and effectively. For Augustine to teach Christianity is to teach the Bible. I know there are those who say the Church had faith before it had a Bible. But they are usually only thinking of the New Testament canon. From the beginning the church had Scripture as a standard of the faith proclaimed, the Old Testament (see Acts 17:11). Augustine well knew that there is an inseparable interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments. He said, The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.”

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Although Augustine’s method of finding symbolic meaning in seemingly mundane passages of Scripture is odd for most of us, he did not take liberties at the expense of the literal and plain meaning of Scripture. He didn’t just interpret the Old Testament figuratively. He also gave very practical instruction in terms of understanding the plain meaning of Scripture. For one thing he recommended that people begin by reading through the entirety of the Bible to get as familiar with its contents as possible. He also assumed that Scripture as a whole was clear (perspicuous) enough that one could understand God’s general will revealed therein. He believed there was enough clarity to prevent an honest person with the help of the Holy Spirit and the Church from being led astray by misinterpreting obscure and difficult passages in a heterodox way. He believed the clear passages of Scripture revealed the rule of faith by which all else was to be interpreted. For Augustine the intent of Scripture is to lead people to the love of God and neighbor, which also serves as a primary guide for interpreting Scripture. But to be sure, for Augustine the meaning of love should be derived from the plethora of plain passages from Scripture.

Augustine did warn about the danger of interpreting things literally that should be interpreted figuratively in accordance with the rule faith; but he also warned about the danger of interpreting things figuratively as a cloak for rebellion and self-will. In one such warning I believe Saint Augustine, though dead, yet speaks directly to the folly inherent in the One Church Plan.

The human race, however, is inclined to judge sins, not according to the gravity of the evil desire involved, but rather with the importance attached to their own customs. So people frequently reckon that only those acts are to be blamed which in their own part of the world and in their own time have been customarily treated as vicious and condemned, and only those acts to be approved of and praised which are acceptable to those among whom they live. Thus it can happen that if scripture either commands something that does not accord with the customs of the hearers, or censures something which does not fit in with them, they assume they are dealing with a figurative mode of speech—if that is, their minds are bound by the authority of God’s word. Scripture, though, commands nothing but charity, or love, and censures nothing but cupidity, or greed, and that is the way it gives shape and form to human morals.

Again, if people’s minds are already in thrall to some erroneous opinion, whatever scripture may assert that differs from it will be reckoned by them to be said in a figurative way. The only thing, though, it ever asserts is catholic faith, with reference to things in the past and in the future and in the present. It tells the story of things past, foretells things future, points out things present; but all of these things are of value for nourishing and fortifying charity or love, and overcoming and extinguishing cupidity or greed. ~ Teaching Christianity, Book III:10.15

It seems pretty clear to me that Saint Augustine would be against the “One Church” Plan and the moral relativism—however selective it may be—on which it is based. Wooden literalism can certainly be harmful, but so can unwarranted figurative interpretation. As Augustine suggests, those whose minds are still bound by the authority of Scripture, will sometimes appeal to alternative interpretations to justify what Scripture actually calls sin. It’s important to note that Augustine defines charity or love as “the urge of the spirit to find joy in God for his own sake, and in oneself and one’s neighbor for God’s sake.” He defined cupidity or greed as “any impulse of the spirit to find joy in oneself and one’s neighbor, and in any kind of bodily thing at all, not for God’s sake.” In other words, Biblical love is to do all to please God; cupidity is to live to please self. One of these motivations can help us interpret Scripture faithfully, the other will lead us to distort Scripture in a self-serving and culturally accommodating way.

Augustine’s warning here resonates with John Wesley’s warning about speculative latitudinarianism (i.e. doctrinal indifference).

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 “Catholic Spirit” 3.1

For Wesley morality was not an indifferent matter. Earlier in the same sermon he speaks of the moral law as one the essentials of the faith. Neither did Augustine see morality as an indifferent matter subject to revision according to place and time. Augustine would certainly agree that we have to adjust language from place to place and from time to time in order to communicate the truth of the gospel more effectively. But he would certainly not go along with the idea that we also have to change the truth to which language and symbols refer from place to place and from time to time as well.

Will we be swayed by the prevailing winds of the customs and sinful sensibilities of the modern western world, “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around” in a particular time and place? Or will we listen faithfully to Scripture with the help of tradition, the voice of the saints from the past? Augustine and Wesley have spoken. Are we listening? Will the United Methodist General Conference heed their warnings? Let’s pray it does!

On A Change of Mind Indeed

In a recent address the current president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough, implored his colleagues to be open to having Christ change their minds. Some major metanoia (Koine Greek for repent which more literally means “a change of mind”) is certainly in order. Unfortunately, Bishop Ough’s idea of a change of mind seems to only go in one direction as his use of the common progressive buzz words would indicate. According to Bishop Ough, if we would only be open to Christ changing our minds we will find ourselves “freed to replicate Jesus’ pattern of expanding the boundaries of whom God loves and includes in the Kingdom.” It’s no mystery that he thinks that of necessity would involve the Church accepting and even celebrating everyone under the rainbow, so to speak, including the behavioral expression of what he sees as God-given sexual orientations and gender identities.

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The truth is the true Church already welcomes and includes everyone from any background and has since Jesus gave the great commission, although the Spirit, as Bishop Ough alludes to in his reference to the Book of Acts, had to guide the church into the full meaning and implications of the mission to the Gentiles. As the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 indicates, the blessing of God’s election of Israel was always meant to include the Gentiles, that is all the peoples of every nation on earth. By its very nature the Church commissioned by Christ Jesus and set apart by the Spirit of God is inclusive of all people of every nation and background, including those whose sexual desires have been corrupted by sin (i.e. all of us).

This certainly does not mean, however, that every set of sexual desires, proclivities, and practices will be included, commended, or recommended in the church. The genuine inclusive nature of the church is summed up well by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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 ESV

Because of God’s great love for the world and everyone in it, we are all invited to come as we are, but not to stay as we came!

Now I know some are going to continue to argue that sexual immorality here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, does not really condemn all sexual activity outside of natural marriage traditionally understood as a covenant union of one man and one woman. And I know some are going to argue that the Bible, Old and New Testaments, never really condemned committed same-sex unions (although it is becoming impossible to believe that sex confined to monogamous marital unions is a satisfactory norm for progressives as I and others have demonstrated before–see here and here). The official position of the so-called “centrist” (“contextualist”? see Dr. Chris Ritter’s assessment of the re-branding here) movement, the Uniting Methodists, is: “We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.”

Some sincerely believe this, I’m sure. But undoubtedly there are others who know this is not true, but will go along with it because it is obviously more marketable than just admitting that they are in fact rejecting the authority of Scripture. One of their leaders, Adam Hamilton, certainly one of the most influential United Methodist pastors in America, is clearly on record saying that he does not believe that all Scripture is inspired by God. He also diminishes the special inspiration of the Bible in general when he says the Bible is inspired “in the same way and to the same degree as many contemporary preachers and prophets and even ordinary Christians have been inspired by the Spirit in every age” (Making Sense of the Bible, 294 as quoted by David Watson in Scripture and the Life of God). It is just not credible that the progressive “centrists/contextualists” have the same view of the authority of Scripture. How far we have fallen from John Wesley’s view of Scripture!

In his introduction to his notes on the New Testament Wesley said:

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. It is the fountain of heavenly wisdom, which they who are able to taste, prefer to all writings of men, however wise, or learned, or holy.

As always the question is not whether someone says they too believe in the authority of Scripture, the question is, what exactly do they mean by the authority of Scripture? I don’t think traditionalists and progressive/centrists mean the same thing at all.

Nevertheless, some are still going to make the more marketable argument that they really do still have a high view of Scripture but simply believe the church has historically misinterpreted the Bible to condemn all forms of homosexual relationships. They will insist the Bible says nothing in condemnation of committed same-sex relationships. Some, I do not doubt, are genuinely sincere in this belief, although I sincerely believe they are sorely deceived. As Dr. Tim Tennent says in his assessment of this claim, “the exegetical case for this is not defensible.” (see full article here)

Although I know some sincerely believe the revisionist arguments, it’s not a given that everyone making these arguments is sincere.

In their book, Unchanging Witness: The Consistent Christian Teaching on Homosexuality in Scripture and Tradition, Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams relays the following regarding the revisionist arguments of the now deceased Yale professor, John Boswell:

Commenting on Boswell’s book, Homosexuality, Intolerance and Christianity, gay author John Lauritsen writes: It is not surprising that Professor Boswell has been enthusiastically hailed by the gay Christians, to whom he appears as a new Savior who will rescue them not only from queer-hating religionists, but from gay liberation secularists as well, by demonstrating historically that it’s all right to be a gay Christian. . . . I cannot remember reading a more frustrating book. Undeniably, it is a formidable work of scholarship. . . . On the other hand, Boswell’s arguments, his use of evidence, are fatally flawed by his doomed attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable. . . . It is regrettable that one must be harsh on a work with such considerable merit, but willful dishonesty in a scholar must not be condoned. . . . We should invite John Boswell to join gay liberation wholeheartedly; he has skills and knowledge that we need. To join us, Boswell must first extricate himself from the impossible position he’s in: attempting to reconcile Christianity and homosexuality. It would be an act of maturity for Boswell to graduate from Christianity to secular humanism….. (Unchanging Witness, location 7734-7745 Kindle edition).

Revisionist arguments that find support for homosexual relationships in the Bible have repeatedly proven to be untenable. Despite the vitriolic epithet given to traditionalist Christians above by John Lauritsen, we are not driven by hatred of anyone. Rather we are driven by a love for the God who washed us, sanctified us, and justified us, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God and a desire to live faithfully with integrity according to God’s word.

I agree with Bishop Ough that we do indeed need to be open to change. But the change I envision goes in a different direction. As I’ve said before, the way forward is the way backward—the old fashioned way of repentance! United Methodists do indeed stand at a crossroads.

Thus says the Lord: “Stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths,
where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls….” Jeremiah 6:16

Will United Methodists respond as the majority in Israel did at the time as the rest of Jeremiah 6:16 reveals? “But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'”

The way forward is the way back! For those with ears to hear, you “shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it’ …. (Isaiah 30:21).

Ordination and the Next Methodism

Last week I was ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church along with many other Elder candidates and a few candidates for the office of Deacon. The process to becoming an Elder in full connection is a long one. I began this journey 10 years ago. The earliest I could have been ordained was two years ago, but I self-delayed the intense written and oral examinations required to be approved due to some challenging life circumstances and a few qualms about the dubious state of the denomination. At any rate, I wanted to share a few thoughts about some of the vows I took during the process of being accepted into full connection during the clergy session and in the ordination service during our Annual Conference in Western NC. And piggy-backing on what others have shared about what the “next Methodism” should be like, I also want to share some thoughts on how these vows should be and can be taken more seriously in the future. (See others’ thoughts about the next Methodism here: Kevin Watson, David Watson, David Watson again, Scott Fritzsche, & Stephen Fife.)

During the clergy session at the beginning of our Annual Conference the Bishop invites the candidates for ordination on stage to answer historical questions of examination for Methodist preachers that go back to John Wesley himself. Some of the questions also seem to be a bit hysterical too as they often evoke chuckles from candidates, colleagues, and family and friends, such as the one that asks: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” With the exorbitant cost of higher education, including seminary, nowadays the debt question always evokes some chuckles.19576256_1788153057866681_480327071_n

I think the next Methodism certainly needs to find more ways to help ministerial candidates fund theological education and to train students on strategies to get by with less and reduce the amount of loans. Ministry is hard enough without the added strain of a mountain of debt. Thankfully, I was blessed that I didn’t have to borrow very much for seminary. What I did borrow to help with the transition from full-time gainful employment to a part-time local pastor salary while I was a full-time seminary student I, I was able to pay off entirely last fall. Nonetheless, as we find ourselves in an evermore missionary type environment, I think we need to seriously consider finding ways of educating and training ministers more efficiently, economically, and effectively. How is it in a day when we have the most educated clergy since Pentecost, we also seem to have some of the most Biblically illiterate congregations in history? With the technology we have today, surely we can train and equip clergy more efficiently and effectively.

More importantly, however, one of the other questions, actually the very first question asked of candidates in the clergy session is: “Have you faith in Christ?” That may sound like an odd one considering it’s being asked of candidates for ministry. But we must remember this comes from the Rev. John Wesley who wasn’t sure if he had genuine and complete faith in Christ even years after being ordained in the Anglican church.

In March of 1738 – about 13 years after he was ordained a deacon! – he wrote in his journal “I was, on Sunday, the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of faith whereby alone we are saved.” Wesley went on to contemplate quitting preaching. He asked himself, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” His friend and mentor Peter Bohler insisted that he continue to “Preach faith til you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”

Wesley took his advice, but for many weeks continued to struggle with heaviness of heart over his lack of saving faith. He consulted the Scriptures and the description of faith and the experience of salvation described therein and compared them to his own experience. He remained in a state of feeling weighed in the balances of the word of God and found wanting. Wesley understood faith in theory, but he knew he did not have it in his own experience. Rather than redefining faith to match his experience, he continued to seek faith as defined and described in Scripture. He sought a change in his own heart rather than denying the truth and changing the word.

On May 24th that year, still with heaviness of heart, he hesitantly attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. That evening upon hearing Martin Luther’s description of “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ,” Wesley wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Interestingly, the very next thing he describes is how he then began to pray with all his might for those who had especially despitefully used him and persecuted him.

From that moment on, although he was tempted to doubt, Wesley never again doubted that he had real faith, even as he recognized the need to continue to grow stronger in that faith. And that was the moment that really ignited the fires of Methodism as a movement and the Wesleyan revival across England that spread to America and around the world.

If Methodism is to really become a movement again, and if we are really going to see revival again, genuine faith and a call to real faith will be at the forefront. Wesley realized that knowing about faith doesn’t guarantee an experience of it in the heart as the real work of God. As he listened to the message of Luther on Aldersgate street, he finally received that precious gift of faith. Interestingly, it is Martin Luther who can also help us to ensure that our candidates for ordained ministry today have genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation and how to discern what specific shape it should take.

In his “Treatise on Good Works,” to correct misunderstandings of the doctrine of justification by faith alone which are still common today, Luther explained that genuine faith will be evidenced by the fruit of good works. He said faith in Christ is first a fulfillment of the first commandment, which is: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). In the context of the storyline of the Bible this is because there is only one true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and all other gods are really just pretenders. The gods worshipped by the nations are not really worthy of worship. Only, Yahweh, the God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who rescued Jews and Gentiles, all of humanity, through Jesus Christ, from slavery to sin and death, is worthy of worship. Hence, we are to love him with all of our heart, soul, and strength (Dt 6:5). From here Luther said obedience to the rest of God’s commandments would flow. He used the Ten Commandments to explain what are the good works for which  we are saved (see Eph 2:8-10). It’s also important to note that John 14:6, where Christ claims to be the only way to the Father, is a direct corollary of the first commandment, as Jesus Christ was the manifestation of the one true God in human flesh (see also Acts 4:12; Acts 17:30-31).

A person of genuine Christian faith should display a serious commitment to the first commandment and the first of the two greatest laws according to Jesus (Matt 22:36-40). Moreover, John 14:6, shouldn’t be considered controversial or embarrassing or in need of reinterpretation among those of genuine faith. So if there is a candidate for ordination who agrees with the modern day Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, that the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt, and that other gods and goddesses are legitimate manifestations of the divine, can we really say they have faith in Christ? As I shared before, I was taken to a conference to listen to Bolz-Weber speak with many other young pastors who were also provisional members (i.e. commissioned but not yet ordained). Virtually, all of them thought she was a wonderful role model for United Methodist ministers. I do not!

We need to take the original intent and spirit of that historical question that Wesley asked more seriously. “Have you faith in Christ?” doesn’t mean do you believe in Christ as you define and imagine him. It means do you believe in Christ as he is revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture. Do you trust in him and him alone for salvation?

We have pastors in some of our churches telling their congregations that they don’t really need to believe in Jesus to be saved because everyone is saved already. We have some who are telling their churches that Jesus really didn’t rise bodily from the dead. We have others who are telling their churches that Jesus really wasn’t divine. A Facebook friend of mine, stopped attending his United Methodist church in California when the pastor said the Sunday after Easter that Jesus was not really divine, and planned to preach a sermon series from the Gospel of Thomas (a heterodox non-canonical text). In 2003, in spite of denying Christ’s virgin birth and his bodily resurrection, Bishop Joseph Sprague was cleared of heresy charges by Bishop Ough, the current president of the Council of Bishops, who obviously didn’t see Sprague’s heterodox beliefs as a big deal. Have they faith in Christ? Well not in the historical sense in which that question was originally asked. Not even close!Which brings me to some other questions I was asked about doctrine and Scripture.

We were also asked: “Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?”; Do yo believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?; Will you preach them and maintain them? In that same spirit we were reminded by the Bishop in the liturgy during the ordination service that we are called “to proclaim the faith of the church and no other” (p. 675 UM Book of Worship). Additionally, we were asked if we believe the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, “to contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life” and if we would be loyal to the church, “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.”

In all of the above there is an echo of the call found in the book of Jude to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). The reason for Jude’s call to defend the faith is because of people who had crept into the church and perverted the grace of God into an excuse for sensuality, which the context clearly indicates involved sexual immorality. As the story of Balaam in Numbers shows, the promotion of sexual licentiousness is sometimes the lure into the trap of idolatry (Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16; see also Jude 1:11 & Rev. 2:14).

In our current climate in the United States, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a candidate who would answer that historic question in the spirit of its original meaning might be penalized or viewed as in need of correction for not being “diverse and inclusive” enough in their thinking. Through the commissioning process I was deemed by at least one person to be too rigid in my thinking because I expressed my conservative views on sexuality in particular. That person also began to talk to me about how all religions are really just manifestations of the same divine ultimate reality. He used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate his point. Gods of other religions are just as valid as the god of Christianity he said. He recommended two books to “help” me. One was “Six Ways of Being Religious”, which really doesn’t argue what he was arguing, although it obviously leans in that direction. The other was “The Future of Faith” by the liberal Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox. In that book, Cox argues against orthodoxy and the creedalism that has attended it. He argues for a more “diverse, open, and pluralistic” faith rooted more in a mystical experience of an apparently more impersonal ultimate reality. He actually includes John Wesley in his criticism of orthodoxy and its historical proponents, which he views as corrupting what he believes to be the original, “more open and diverse” version of Christianity. He also argues for a faith based less on specific content than experience; in reality Cox just presents an experiential faith with a different specific content. The diversity and inclusiveness so often promoted in Mainline circles is often just another version of the syncretism that both the Old and New Testaments warn God’s people against.

This one persons recommendations to me, which he included in his official report, were meet with approval by those on the discipleship committee and were put on their report of my interview as official recommendations for me. “Have you faith in Christ?” answered according to its original intent actually might put a candidate going before a board of ordained ministry in the U.S. and some other places in the category of “needing help and correction.” These things out not be!

The next Methodism, whatever that ends up being, if it is to become a Holy Spirit fired movement again, will have to take those historical questions more seriously according to their original meaning and intent. The faith required will require more than – albeit not less than – orthodox content. The faith required will be the kind that John Wesley, himself, received as the free gift of God on Aldersgate street a little over 279 years ago!

Click on the link below to listen to a powerful song by the Mark Swayze Band and let’s pray for that holy fire to fall upon the people called Methodists once again. Come, Holy Spirit! Bring us the faith to ignite the fire of revival once again!

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=mark+swayzee+band+come+like+a+fire&view=detail&mid=96D4663D00D2EDBBD2E996D4663D00D2EDBBD2E9&FORM=VIRE

 

 

Pastors, It’s Time to Have ‘the Talk’ with Your Church

As the father of five, I’ve already had to have “the talk” with two of our kids. I’ll do the same again for our next rising middle-schooler this summer. It is uncomfortable and awkward for both parties, no doubt. But it’s necessary if they’re to avoid the pitfalls and dangers of our hyper-sexualized, permissive society. Pastors, it’s time to have the talk with our churches too.

Every Mainline church has been brought to the point of schism over sex. It has proven to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg -and the tipping point – of much larger differences between those on opposing sides of the debate. This is not to say that the debate about Christian sexual morality and the definition of marriage is insignificant. The tip of the iceberg is still part of the iceberg, and is significant enough it has proven able to sink the ship of even the largest Mainline denominations, including the United Methodist Church.

I don’t think we got to this point because the church has talked about it too much. We got here through one little compromise at a time over the course of many decades. Silence to avoid controversy has contributed to the build up of danger that has been lurking in the dark waters underneath all along.

We’re not in danger of hitting the iceberg that will lead to schism; we already hit it. We have been at least two churches pretending to be one for a while now. The ship hasn’t sunk, but it is taking on water. God will provide a rescue boat, but we have to be prepared to board it when it arrives. Pastors, it is time to prepare your churches. We have to have the talk.

I’m not happy about any of this. The division is heartbreaking. I weep, quite literally, for the church in which I was baptized, confirmed, and will soon be ordained, the Lord willing. After wandering away from the Lord, and the church, sinning egregiously, developing an alcohol problem that was dangerous to me and others, dabbling into drugs, being sexually promiscuous, and getting involved in a cult in college, by the grace of God, I came home to the Lord, and returned to the church and denomination of my upbringing. I renewed my baptismal vows and, among other things, I once again committed to “do all in [my] power to strengthen its ministries.”

There have been times when I seriously doubted – very seriously – whether I could remain in the denomination in good conscience. Nevertheless, I decided if I was to remain, I would do my best to fulfill that vow by speaking the truth in love to the best of my ability. My ability may not be much, but, by the grace and mercy of God, I have tried. I have committed myself to being as open with my congregations as I can be about what is going on in the denomination and why. It has not been easy. But I believe it is necessary. The time for beating around the bush has passed – not that there really ever was one. Having the talk is uncomfortable and awkward for the preacher and the congregation. But it has to be done, and we’ve got to get started somewhere. So where do we begin?

(Re)Introduce People to the Triune God of the Bible

Recent research led by the Barna Group indicates very few professing Christians actually have a Bibical worldview. We must help our congregations get reacquainted with the God of the Bible, who revealed himself most fully in Jesus of Nazareth. This can be hard. A couple of years ago one young woman, who grew up in a UM church, after participating in a Bible study which was designed to get people reading through the entire Bible, admitted that she wasn’t too sure whether she really liked the God of the Bible, which she was reading through for the first time in her life. The portrait of God in the pages of Scripture challenged her conception of a god that is the essence of non-judgmental niceness.

As is typical, she first thought it was just the way God is depicted in the Old Testament, but soon realized that the seemingly overly harsh judgment of God doesn’t really go away in the New Testament, even with the preaching of Jesus. She discovered that in many ways the preaching of Jesus about coming judgment only intensified the matter. She found no quarter in Acts, which early on tells the story of a married couple being struck dead for attempting to deceive (Acts 5), or in the writings of Paul, the other epistles, and certainly not in Revelation. Of course, God graciously and mercifully offers a way to escape judgment, but not by promising there will be none.

A few years ago I caught a news report of some type of a nudist group parading around New York City. A reporter asked one of the marchers, who was blurred out on screen by the way, why she was marching. When he asked about whether she thought what they were doing might be questionable morally, she revealed that she considered herself a Christian, but she said, “God doesn’t judge, so neither should we.”

So many churches, even in the evangelical world, have been so steeped in a conception of God as the ultimate “nice” guy, who just wants us to be comfortable with who we are, however we are, at least in terms of culturally fashionable sins, that they are shocked and even appalled by God as actually depicted in Scripture. So we have to begin addressing the idol in the room. This idol represents what Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton identified in 2005 as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). It is an unofficial religion that has inundated many modern churches in recent times, although it has roots and variants that go back a long way in the American church. At its core, however, it is hostile and inimical to Biblical Christianity. (Look here for a little more about MTD)

Once while delivering a sermon on the Trinity, I contrasted orthodox views with those of Jehovah’s Witnesses and some other groups. After the service, a gentleman in his eighties approached me and said that it was “un-Christian” of me to disparage the views of other people because who are we to say we are right and others are wrong. The irony was not lost on me that I was being told I was wrong for saying I believed Jehovah’s Witnesses were wrong about Jesus, although it was lost on him. Nonetheless, we must persist and preach and teach about the Triune God who is revealed in Scripture, Old and New Testaments, as,

“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 will by no means clear the guilty …” (Exodus 34:7 ESV)

We have to address the idols in the room. And remember, Paul shows in Romans 1 that idolatry is the ground from which the poison berries of sexual immorality grows.

Now, Let’s Talk about Sex

We have to talk about the MTD idol in the room; we also have to talk about the elephant in the room that has brought us to the point of schism. In the past I was squeamish at evening uttering the three letter word that begins with s and ends with x from the pulpit. Semi-jokingly – very semi at first – I would actually say it that way rather than fully enunciate the word. But to avoid the topic altogether is ministerial malpractice. What people don’t know can hurt them.

The church should have been fully engaged in the conversation, but for the most part we took a back seat to the culture that has driven us off the cliff. Some will say that the church has talked about this too much, but even some of the most conservative evangelical pastors will tell you that they have not addressed it from the pulpit in a very thorough way, if at all. Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, a leading United Methodist evangelical, said he has only preached on the topic of homosexuality from the pulpit one time in 28 years of ministry, and only then because people were asking. I’ve heard many others say the same. I asked a close friend and a member of another UM church a couple years ago if they were having any conversations about the controversy over sexuality in the church. She quickly responded, “Oh no, we don’t talk about it, because we would never want to hurt anyone’s feelings.”

One lifelong and very gifted lay member in another area, who decided to leave the UMC not that long ago said, “In 40 years in the UMC I can not recall any serious mention of sexual ethics, other than in the youth Sunday school class I taught for a time when I taught it. There were a few vague references to traditonal marriage or the like, but that’s it.” He said he was saddened, but also incredibly frustrated by the silence. There are many other gifted laity who have left their churches or who refused to support the churches financially because UMC leadership never seemed to take a clear stand one way or another.

One former member of one of the churches I served said he drove all the way to UM offices in D.C. to try to get some straight answers, but was not given the time of day. Frustrated he left for another denomination, and wrote an op-ed in the local paper explaining why. I know for a fact we have lost church members on the progressive side of the debate as well because of the dithering. Time for dithering is running short. Sooner or later everyone is going to have to make a decision one way another. The liberal Baptist scholar, David Gushee, recognizes this reality.

“I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door.

I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable.”  http://religionnews.com/2017/05/09/changing-our-mind-still-christian/

The time to stop dithering is now. I just saw where another very frustrated lay person asked: “Why are our pastors not talking about these things?!” It’s time to address the controversy head-on and clearly. But how?

Although some who know me would find it hard to believe, I have never delivered a sermon where the sole focus was on homosexuality. But I have not shied away from talking about Christian sexual morality and what constitutes sexual immorality in general. But I endeavor not to single anyone out. I approach it from the positive prescription and beauty of God’s design for human sexuality according to Jesus, which is celibacy in singleness and fidelity in the lifelong covenant union of a man and a woman called marriage (Mark 10/Matt 19). I state that this is God’s will for humanity and that any sexual expression outside of those God-given parameters is sin and harmful to self, neighbor, church, and community.

You have to start somewhere, and that seems to me a good place to start. Virtually everyone within earshot will recognize that they are falling short or have fallen short of God’s standard in some way. We should never single out one particular expression of sexual sin, or in any way hold up any particular set of temptations to condemnation while ignoring others. We should also call everyone to repentance and proclaim the good news of forgiveness in Christ and empowerment for a holy life of self-denial through the Spirit. I think we should only talk about homosexuality in the context of sexual sin in general, even if we do deliver a message focused mainly on that topic. (See a good example of how Rev. Chris Ritter addressed the topic in a sermon here)

We should also be clear that all are welcome in the church regardless of their past, or how they may currently be struggling with temptation to sin sexually in any way, except in extreme cases of abuse. I once had someone express concerns about a person teaching in the church who supposedly had in the past engaged in same-sex relationships. I refused to treat that person differently than I would expect myself to be treated for the past sexual sin I engaged in with the opposite sex. I also refused to treat people any differently because of the particular way they may be tempted sexually than I would expect to be treated because of the ways I am tempted sexually. As long as people love the Lord and seek to live according to God’s will without insisting on creating special exemptions for themselves or rejecting certain moral commandments they should be welcome to fully participate in the worship and ministries of the church.

There should be no special sanctions, but also no special exemptions. Nonetheless, we must address the issue of homosexuality specifically from time to time. As it is the presenting issue that has caused so much controversy for so long that has led to actual schism we must address it head-on, if ever, now.

Many in our congregations will wonder if people don’t choose their sexual-orientation, in other words, if they are “born that way”, then how can we say that homosexuality is wrong. Young people who got their theology from Lady Gaga, and older people, who watch the nightly news or Oprah or Dr. Phil, may actually believe that people are born with a homosexual orientation like people are born with a certain eye color, sex, race, or ethnicity. Indeed, these are the most prevalent comparisons, but they are false. We must point out that even the American Psychological Association, although they are in full support of the LGBTQI+ movement, admits that there is no consensus among scientists as to the cause of homosexual or bisexual orientations and no particular factor or factors, including a genetic one, has been discovered to explain it. 

The truth is any particular set of sexual desires is best explained in comparison to other sexual desires. Comparisons to sex/gender (although how convoluted has this become now!), race, and any other obviously immutable biological trait, like eye color, is misleading at best. Of course no one chooses their desires, but we do have a choice about whether or not to act on them. Who is prepared to say all one’s desires must of necessity be acted upon?

In the UMC, the debate has centered around the topic of homosexuality, primarily because of the specific language in the Book of Discipline regarding “the practice of homosexuality” being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and the other restrictions regarding marriage and ordination. But the truth is it involves so much more. During recent demonstrations during the judicial council hearing, one group there to protest the church’s official positioLGBTQ+n and to show support for Karen Oliveto, the woman married to another woman, who was elected Bishop by the Western Jurisdiction despite church law, held up a sign saying they support “LGBTQ+ Ordination.” Rev. Tom Berlin, who considers himself a moderate UM, recently clarified his support for full LGBTQ+ inclusion, specifically acknowledging the addition of the Q and the PLUS to the conversation.

We haven’t really had an open and honest debate about the L and the G, much less the implications of the B, T, & Q. And what about that + ?!! What all is included in that?

You can imagine that the folks who have discovered dozens and dozens of different gender expressions within that T, will find an exponential number of sexual orientations to pour into that plus! If it is wrong to expect those attracted to the same sex to not act on their desires, how can we expect it of those with other unchosen sexual desires? It’s naïve to believe there will be contentment with monogamy as some would have us believe. I personally know ministers who think it is unfair that only married clergy can have sex. I doubt they are few.

Before I became a pastor, one UM pastor in my area said he believed what the Bible says about sexual morality is antiquated. The truth is the ancient teaching of the Bible about sex is no more ancient than the updated versions of ancient pagan sexual practices the Bible condemns in the Old and New Testaments. If you take the ideas of the famed sexologist of Indiana University, Alfred Kinsey, and compare them to the unbridled sexuality that God prohibits in Leviticus 18 and what was practiced among the ancient Greeks and Romans, you won’t find much difference (see “Sexual Sabatoge” 2010 by Judith Reisman).

I’m not arguing a slippery slope, I’m saying we are already at the bottom of the slide with the LGBTQ+(PLUS!) movement, and it was all in the seed planted by Kinsey like a time-bomb to begin with. So we should talk about this broader context as well. What all are we really being pushed to accept? If you think the gender controversy, for example, is just about bathrooms for transgenders, you don’t understand the larger agenda. Even at the last General Conference of the UMC, the instructions given to all delegates included “do 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). Try that at your church this Sunday!

Don’t fall for the misleading way these things are often framed narrowly. Put the conversation back within the framework of the bigger picture. We are not really just talking about homosexuality.

Is it Really that Serious?

There are a couple reason why some won’t see why this should be taken so seriously. One is some see Christianity as their preferred self-help program (MTD), but not something that really has eternal implications. Sadly some choose their wardrobe with more care than they choose the church they attend. Others will continue to argue that what we think about sexual morality is a secondary issue at best and that we can and should just agree to disagree, which will ultimately lead to a tacit acceptance of behavior that the Bible repeatedly warns if practiced in a willful and unrepentant fashion will exclude one from the kingdom of God (i.e. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-11; Rev 21:8). It just doesn’t make sense to treat behavior that could potentially land someone in hell as an indifferent matter. A lot of our pastors and theologians are really universalists though.

Others will continue to argue that the issue is not all that clear. If that is really the case then all the more reason to stick with the traditional teaching of the church until there is clarity. But I have never heard anyone who insists that the Bible is unclear say that. They always seem to argue in favor of changing the teaching of the church. They misuse “mystery” and “uncertainty” as a license to condone what the church has always called sin until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s.

As I have shown before, others will argue that the Bible is clear, but say we just know better today and deem the Bible wrong. You have to admire their honesty if not their hubris. There are some pretty prominent names in this category such as Luke Timothy Johnson, and Walter Brueggemann. William Loader, who has written thousands of pages on ancient Jewish and Christian beliefs about sex also acknowledges that in all cases homosexual practices of any kind were considered “abhorrent” (p. 146 “Making Sense of Sex” 2013). Loader just believes the modern understanding of sexual orientation renders the Bible’s restrictions obsolete, or “antiquated” as the UM pastor mentioned above said. I think he underestimates the understanding of the ancients and overestimates the understanding of modern western progressives.

At any rate, this is essentially what UM pastor, Adam Hamilton argues. He says, contra 2 Timothy 3:16-17, there are some passages of the Bible that never were inspired by God, among them the passages prohibiting homosexuality. Similar to Brueggemann, he argues that some of the Bible does not reflect the heart and character of God revealed in Jesus, and should therefore be ignored. Listen to the way Brueggemann puts it:

“It’s not a matter of obeying the Bible — it’s about obeying the gospel. The gospel is about God’s saving love that wants to restore all of humanity to full communion. To reach back to an ancient text that has now been corrected by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ is simply a bad maneuver and poor methodology and theologically irresponsible. Those texts are not the determinative texts.” (emphasis mine)

Too bad the apostles and authors of the New Testament missed that “corrective” revelation in Christ! What he and those like Hamilton and Johnson, have done is to create a cannon within the cannon to nullify the commandments they don’t like. They have created a tradition with a truncated notion of the gospel and a partial and, therefore, distorted, image of Jesus they use, in the words of Luke Timothy Johnson, to “reject the straightforward commands of Scripture.” In response I can imagine the actual Jesus of the Gospels saying something like, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God to establish your tradition” (Mark 7:9 ESV). The people in the pews deserve to know what they are really being asked to do.

We are really back to where we started: idolatry. Ultimately in order to justify behavior Scripture clearly condemns, people must create their own traditions that nullify the commandments of God (see Mark 7:13), and thereby carve out their own idol of a Jesus without judgment, who is acceptable to the world. You can’t really fiddle with the commandments against sexual immorality without fudging on the commandment against idolatry.

Pastors, it really is time to have the talk. And sex really is just the tip of the iceberg.  Be gracious. But be truthful. Get informed and inform, and pray for you and your congregation to be transformed by the renewal of the mind (Rom 12:2). Your efforts will be greatly appreciated by some, not so much by others. You will face resistance. And you will be tempted to remain silent. But if we are going to prepare people for the rescue boat that God sends we must resist that temptation and speak the truth in love.

“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

 Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

Ephesians 4:11-16 NIV