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Rest in Peace Thomas Oden

thomas-odenOn December 8, 2016, Thomas Oden joined the Church Triumphant.

A longtime pillar of Drew University’s seminary, Oden wrote many influential volumes spanning the breadth of Christian thought and practice.  He famously had a theological conversion mid-career, and was an active leader at the national level of the United Methodist Church for much of his life.  His teaching and writing influenced thousands of United Methodist and other pastors.  Oden is perhaps best known as the general editor for the Ancient Christian Commentary series from IVP, a unique resource seeking to help bring the treasures of early Christian writers and preachers to today’s exegetes.  I was introduced to Oden by reading his Pastoral Theology while preparing to write ordination papers. His classical, holistic vision of ordained ministry has remained foundational for my own self-understanding as a pastor.  I also refer frequently to his encyclopedic three-part systematic theology Classic Christianity.

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Oden’s work, here are a few quotes culled from his many volumes to give you a sense of his intellect and wit.

On the Historical Jesus:

The biblical historical criticism that has pretended to be an objective investigation of the history of Jesus has often turned out to be a highly biased account that imposed the values of nineteenth-and twentieth-century naturalistic reductionism upon the New Testament texts. Jesus Christ has been reduced to human hopes, aspirations, myths, class interests, and social influences.

Modernity demanded that the history of Jesus be submitted to all the canons of interpretation prevailing in alienated modern consciousness. Jesus was refabricated, remade into a political or social or psychological advocate. his words were squeezed, massaged, and reshaped into correspondence with the interpreter’s current viewpoint. (After Modernity, What?, 101)

On Ministry:

How odd that it is apparently not God’s purpose to minister day by day to the world by direct revelation. Rather, the surprising fact is that God has chosen to minister to humanity through a scandalously visibly community, the church, and to minister to the church through human agency, by calling ordinary, vulnerable, pride-prone person into the ministry of word and sacrament. However vulnerable ministry may be to wretched distortions and abuses, curiously enough it seems God’s own idea. (Pastoral Theology, 13)

On Preaching:oden-classic-christianity

Preaching at the end of the first millennium focused primarily on the text of Scripture as understood by the earlier esteemed tradition of comment, largely converging on those writers that best reflected classic Christian consensual thinking. Preaching at the end of the second millennium has reversed that pattern. It has so forgotten most of these classic comments that they are vexing to find anywhere, and even when located that are often available only in archaic editions and inadequate translations. The preached word in our time has remained largely bereft of previously influential patristic inspiration. Recent scholarship has so focused attention upon post-Enlightenment historical and literary methods that it has left this longing largely unattended and unserviced. (“General Introduction,” Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture)

On His Legacy (Describing the dream he once had where his epitaph read, “He made no new contribution to theology.”):

In my dream I was extremely pleased, for I realized I was learning what Irenaeus meant when he warned us not to invent new doctrine. This was a great discovery for me. All my education up to this point had taught me that I must be compulsively creative. If I was to be a good theologian I had to go out and do something nobody else ever had done. The dream somehow said to me that this is not my responsibility, that my calling as a theologian could be fulfilled through obedience to apostolic tradition.” (From this Christianity Today article)

Oden’s influence will live on in the church and in countless Christians whose lives and ministries have benefitted from his work.  Well done, good and faithful servant. I look forward to conversing with you and other Doctors of the Church in that Kingdom not made with hands, illumined only by the light emanating solely from the Lamb’s throne.

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our
prayers on behalf of your servant Thomas, and grant him an
entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of
your saints; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and
reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for
ever. Amen. 

(Book of Common Prayer)

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Christian Living & Christian Believing

sayersDisciples of Jesus are not allowed to choose between living the Christian life and believing Christian teaching.  This is, and always has been, a both/and, and not an either/or. To divorce Christian morality from Christian doctrine is to separate stem from root, or creek from ocean.  Decades ago, Dorothy Sayer made this observation:

“It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not now matter; it matters enormously.  It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe.” (28)

To name just a few examples of how Christian morality and Christian dogma are intertwined:

  • Opposition to slavery is based on theological anthropology which views each person as a precious creature made in God’s image.
  • A belief in human freedom and autonomy is grounded in a God who is free, and a God who grants human beings free will.
  • Opposition to abortion and the death penalty are based in a vision of life as a sacred gift from God, who alone determines life and death.
  • A disdain for adultery and appreciation for marriage is finds its origin in a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God of Israel and the Church, who alone is always faithful.

As Wheaton’s Beth Felker Jones recently put it, both “deeds and creeds” matter.  To choose between them is to miss the mark completely.  One way of viewing the 21st century West, in fact, is to see it as the attempt to prop up human rights and other ethical precepts derived from historic Christian commitments without any undergirding dogmatic claims.  The other temptation, to emphasize creeds and not care about deeds, is also not without its concerns.  This, per Professor Jones, is deeply flawed:

To dismiss deeds in favor of creeds in an enticing lure. It promises to attend to real life, to stuff that really matters, to bodies. But that dismissal turns out to be one more way of dehumanizing our neighbors, reducing them from image-bearers to projects. That dismissal is one more bifurcation, one more failure to remember that God created and loves the whole world and the whole of people and that God calls us to share the goodness of the Gospel with all that we are—heart, hands, mind, and soul.

This false divide wreaks of what Kenda Creasy Dean and others have called “moralistic therapeutic deism,” a belief system unconciously followed by many Western young people in which a basic belief in decency and is combined with a vague sense of a distant God who simply wants us to be happy (in a happiness grounded in our own sense of flourishing, at that).  As Sayers later puts it, “you cannot have Christian principles without Christ.” (31)

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From the 1914 minutes of the NC Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church. Personal Photo.

Earlier generations of Christians knew this to be the case.  Note the above picture from a 1914 journal of the North Carolina Conference of the Methodist Protestant Church.  An elder is approved and ordained “so long as his life and doctrines” remain sound and in accord with the Bible.

Hear that? Life AND doctrine.  We are not permitted to choose. Deeds and creeds matter – because they are ultimately inseparable.

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Church is a Miracle: Reflections on General Conference 2016

umh-545 lyricsI’m not certain what I think about General Conference.

The usual rundowns from secular media – quoting a progressive, a conservative, and then maybe a moderate bishop or academic – reflect the problems of General Conference as much as they describe them. Both “sides” are, in different ways, claiming victory and crisis.  Most statements from denominational leaders seem to me the kinds of things one has to say when one is in leadership, not honest assessments of where we find ourselves. They fail to take seriously, at least in public, to degree to which wilfulness and division – major ingredients in the unholy concoction called evil – were everywhere on display in Portland.  Bishop Swanson’s powerful homiletic exorcism was a refreshing bit of honesty. Let’s go ahead and ask him to do that every morning in 2020.  The low point, at least to this live stream viewer, was watching a presiding Bishop, widely respected by both conservatives and progressives, get spoken down to like a school boy that had just forgotten his hall pass.  As David Watson points out, such a lack of trust is disturbing.

Regardless, the Church goes on.  I do not necessarily mean the United Methodist Church, whose institutional life is frayed. I mean that whatever happens to our particular part of the Body, the work of Christ’s family goes on.  And the true Church, wherever it is found, is based around table fellowship with diverse people. (Look to the Articles 13, 16, & 18 for the centrality of the Table.)  This has been true of the church from the very beginning, even in the church in utero, represented by the disciples.

In a wonderful section of his ecclesiological tome Does God Need the Church? titled, ‘Table Manners in the Reign of God,” Catholic theologian Gerhard Lofhink reflects on the how the church, seen in the figure of the twelve disciples gathered around the Eucharist, reflects such diverse people that only God’s Kingdom could bring them together:

Certainly the common meal, and therefore the common table, played a crucial role simply because a wedding is being celebrated. We can even say that the profane table at which Jesus eats with his disciples becomes the new place of salvation. Jesus dares to effect the eschatological renewal of the people of God with the simplicity and intimacy of a table around which is disciples gather as a family.

These disciples were by no means “like-minded people.” There is a good deal of evidence that Jesus chose the Twelve from the most diverse groups in the Judaism of his time in order to make it obvious that he was gathering all Israelites. The Twelve were a colorful mixture: from the former disciples of the Baptizer (John 1:35-40) to Matthew the tax-collector (Matt 10:3) to Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15).  In a tax-collector and a Zealot the most bitterly opposed forces that existed in Israel at the time were joined within a single group, for the tax-collectors gathered revenue for the Romans while Zealous utterly rejected the Roman occupation as incompatible with the reign of God.

We should try to imagine how such different people could sit at one table. They were like fire and water. But just there began the miracle of the eschatological people of God. If each one were to remain in his or her own corner and individual house nothing of the reign of God could be seen.  Its fascination can only appear when people of different backgrounds, different gifts, different colors, men and women sit together at a single table – and when they join their lives so that together, undivided, they can serve God’s cause. (Lofhink, 174-175)

We wonder how different folks – Zealots and tax collectors, natural enemies! – can sit together at the one table of Christ.  The truth is that it is a miracle.

The church is always a miracle.

thereforegoThis is because the church is most herself when she points towards the reign of God.  It is easy for the church to reflect the world: its division, strife, discord, and polarization. United Methodists know too much of this.  But if and when the church reflects God’s Kingdom – when folk of different opinions and ideologies, life experiences and social locations, come to the one table – it is a gift of God.

As an Arminian, I believe that we can be open to or closed off to God’s gifts. God, in God’s radical freedom, grants human image-bearers a similar freedom.  As such, His gifts can be accepted or rejected.

When and where God’s people depart their “own corner and individual house[s]” and come to God’s table, there the miracle of church is enacted.

But when we refuse to leave our own huts and enclaves, when we try to keep one foot in my way and another foot on the narrow way, or if we come to God’s table with prejudices and ideologies that are more determinative than the Word of God, we have refused to receive the gift called Church.  We we make God’s table our table, we have rejected the very nature of Christian community.

I believe God’s desire is for a United Methodist Church that, like the eschatological feast that is at the heart of our faith, brings different people together to praise, serve, and witness to God’s grace.  But God has given us freedom in this. And while the Spirit binds us together and equips us for ministry, we are capable of following other spirits.

But unfortunately, the principalities and powers have been having their way with us.  The bishops’ post-Portland letter closed, cryptically, with words from John Wesley’s deathbed.  That’s the definition of cold comfort.

But God is in the business of making rivers in the desert and raising the dead to life.  It is not too late for a miracle.

I will be praying for one, and I invite you to join me.

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3 Theological Reasons the #UMC Should Reconsider its Stance on Same-Gender Relationships

essentialsThe debate we have been having for over 40 years as a church has been decidedly un-theological.  Below are three ways to enter this conversation that force us to think a bit more theologically, channels that deserve more attention than they usually get.  Here are three theological reasons the United Methodist Church Should Reconsider its stance on same-gender relationships.

3) Divorce

All churches, in formulating their teachings on marriage and sex, are faced with a variety of questions.  These are interrelated.  What you think about sex impacts what you think about marriage; what you think about marriage impacts your view of divorce; views about a host of other matters like abortion and contraception also must cohere within this web.

The fly in the ointment of conservative United Methodists who argue that it is impossible for the church to change its stance on same-gender relationships is divorce.  On one hand, we are told it is impossible for the church to “compromise” the clear teaching of Scripture about divorce, but in the other, we see evangelical leaders getting divorced and remarried with hardly the bat of an eye.

It makes no sense to threaten schism over same-gender relationships and remain almost silent on divorce.  We have come to see, as most Protestants now have, that divorce is sometimes a necessary option – not just in cases of adultery but particularly in situations of abuse or neglect – and that remarriage is often a blessing.  This is against the clear teaching of Matthew 19.  Why can we reinterpret (or ignore) Scripture here, and not elsewhere?  I do not agree with the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox on everything, but their practices vis-a-vis marriage, divorce, and same-gender relationships are coherent.  On the other hand, I’ve known many couples who have their second marriage to be a profound blessing.  If this is a possibility, despite Scripture’s teaching, might not there be room for a conversation about same-gender marriage?  (Note: we already let individual conferences make policies about divorce.)

It makes no sense to argue we cannot bend on sexuality while in practice being silent on divorce.  It is incoherent for our clergy who are in the closet to have to remain there when we say nothing to heterosexual clergy who are serially monogamous.

2) The Keys

“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” -Matt. 16:19-20

If you have read my work elsewhere, you probably guessed that I take ecclesiology (the nature/study of the church) very seriously.  I believe this is because Scripture and tradition treat the church as an entity of utmost importance.

Jesus gave the church “the keys of the kingdom,” and promised to honor whatever the church bound and loosed. (Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox differ over who precisely Peter represents here.) We see a clear example of this in Acts 15 over the question of dietary laws.  I’ve often thought that Acts 15:10, about “placing a yoke” on the neck of disciples that neither they nor their ancestors could themselves bear, applies to the UMC’s treatment of gay and lesbian persons.  To call people to lives of celibacy, without lifting that up as an honorable vocation and providing resources and community to make this a life-giving possibility, is indeed a heavy and unjust yoke.

The church has authority, given by Christ, to bind and to loose – to come together in prayer and humility – and discern these matters. We’ve been doing it since the earliest church.  God, amazingly, trusts us and honors our discernment.  On ecclesiological grounds, I believe that anything that is not core doctrine (say, what is contained in the historic creeds), is subject to the binding and loosing of the community.  “In non-essentials, liberty,” as the saying goes.

1) Holiness

Methodism is a holiness movement. Even the most cursory reading of  Wesleyan history shows that holiness is at the core of our mission and ethos.  This is perhaps the most neglected, most fruitful avenue for discussion in the long-simmering debate over same-gender relationships in the United Methodist Church.

In the church, marriage is not a right but a rite, not a ceremony but a vocation.  The best reason Christians marry is because they find a partner who will draw them nearer to the triune God.  If the whole of a Christians’ life is to be directed towards a greater love of God and neighbor, then the deepest purpose of marriage must align with this end.

United Methodists would do ourselves a favor if we took seriously the work of Eugene Rogers, a lay Episcopal theologian of uncommon nuance.  His Sexuality and the Christian Body is a hefty read, but you can read more succinct versions of his work here and in this Christian Century piece. In the latter, he argues explicitly for a holiness view of marriage and suggests that we

…take marriage as an ascetic discipline, a particular way of practicing love of neighbor. The vows do this: “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” Those ascetic vows—which Russian theologians compare to the vows of monastics—commit the couple to carry forward the solidarity of God and God’s people. Marriage makes a school for virtue, where God prepares the couple for life with himself by binding them for life to each other.

Marriage, in this view, is for sanctification, a means by which God can bring a couple to himself by turning their limits to their good. And no conservative I know has seriously argued that same-sex couples need sanctification any less than opposite-sex couples do.

I am moved by this vision of marriage as “a school for virtue.”  Re-discovering this sense of marriage as a calling directed towards sanctification could do much to sanctify our own conversations within the United Methodist Church and beyond.  Let us not treat as a piece of paper what God has given as a gift and a vocation.

Conclusion

Too much of our denominational conversation devolves into categories imported from outside the church.  To be frank, there are better avenues for debate, three of which I have outlined above.

I long for us to argue better.  I long for us to seek holy ends by holy means.  How we go about this conversation matters; I do not believe coercion is a legitimate strategy for intra-church debate. We are not utilitarians, and “anything that works” is not Christian logic.

So let us argue as sisters and brothers in Christ, both in form and content.  By re-narrating this debate in terms of our views of divorce, binding and loosing, and holiness, we might find a more fruitful debate.  We might even find a surprising unanimity among otherwise disparate factions.

I yet hope that our decades-long fight can be over. I hope we can find a way to welcome our LGBTQ neighbors more fully into the life of the church.  I likewise hope that this can be done in a way that does not drive away folks who are evangelical or traditionalist.

To that end I shall continue to study, work, and pray.

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Premeditated Abdication: A Rejoinder to James Howell

Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

Byzantine icon of Ignatius of Antioch from Hosios Loukas Monastery, Boeotia, Greece. Public domain image via Wikipedia.

Premeditated abdication is a strange way to run for Bishop.

Going back to 1784, American Methodists have been guided by a Book of Discipline. Though it has changed over the years in response to new laws, splits, and mergers, the Discipline has been a staple of Methodist life here in the former colonies.  For as long as there has been an entity called the United Methodist Church, the Discipline has also been a source of controversy.  Since 1972, questions about sexuality have led the agenda for many Methodists.  With increasing fervor, arguments about the clauses related to LGBT persons have raged as the decades rolled on.  Rev. Dr. James Howell, senior pastor of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, NC, has recently offered these pre-Portland thoughts (high-fived by Bishop Willimon here) on our meddlesome book:

A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?”  This is code language. Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in.  The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.

I wish we wouldn’t speak in code.  Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced.  But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all.  Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive.  Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.

It seems strange to argue that enforcing church law “sounds punitive” when it is bound between two covers with Book of Discipline on the front. If what we have is church law, and many churches (along with non-profits, states, cities, and middle school student councils) are governed by laws, then said law can be broken or maintained, defended or flaunted, enforced or ignored.

I also think it’s important to note that Dr. Howell is himself speaking in code. The issue is clearly not whether or not “enforcement” is a positive or negative practice.  The real issue is that he disagrees with some parts of the Discipline and, in a coded way, is arguing for ignoring them.

It may sound shocking, but there are times when enforcing the Discipline is wholly uncontroversial.

For instance, when a Virginia pastor was removed from ministry because he refused membership to a gay man, I do not recall progressives decrying the worldly, legalistic culture of “enforcement.”

Moreover, when a pastor runs off with the Sunday offering or with a partner who is not their spouse, we not only expect, but we hope for enforcement of clergy standards.  If you’ve ever been in a church wounded and riven because that enforcement came too late, you learn to appreciate it.

In the Christian tradition, discipline can actually be a means of grace, or even an act of love.  Augustine argued that it was loving to rein in the Donatists, because their apostasy was ultimately destructive to themselves and others.  Dr. Howell rightly notes the example of the eccentric St. Francis, but we might also mention the more ancient Rule of St. Benedict, in which we discover that correction includes not just public excoriation but excommunication and even corporal punishment.

Can enforcement be an act of love?

Earlier this month a judge in Fayetteville, NC sentenced a veteran to 24 hours in jail.  The veteran, Sgt. Serna of the Special Forces (retired), spent twenty years in the Army including four tours in Afghanistan. He was almost killed three times, and has one Purple Heart and many other awards to his credit.

His life post-service has been difficult. Like so many combat vets, he’s struggled with PTSD in the ensuing years.  Serna turned to alcohol for relief, which has led to several DUI’s.  Though he’s been working a treatment program, he confessed to Judge Lou Olivera recently that he had lied about a recent urine test, which led to the 24 hour sentence.

But what came next was astounding. Judge Olivera himself drove the veteran to jail, and then joined him in the cell.  Worried that Serna’s PTSD might rear its hideous head if left alone in a cell overnight, he stayed with him.  They spent the evening talking about military service. Olivera, you see, is himself a veteran of the first Gulf War and knew Serna’s pain better than most.  An overwhelmed Serna had this to say:

I cannot even put into words how I feel about him…I look at him as a father. I’ve seen a lot of things, and this by far is the most compassionate thing I’ve ever seen anyone give to anybody. I will never let him down again.

broken chaliceCompassion and enforcement are not of necessity opposites.  As Christians who have tethered ourselves by sacred vow to a church whose foundational doctrine is grace, governed by laws together compiled as the Book of Discipline, this should not be surprising.  Grace and discipline. Love and order.

It is fashionable to decry those who are in favor of church order as Pharisees and fundamentalists – cheap attacks are easier than relationship and engagement, sadly – but this of course ignores the many positive references to correction in Scripture. To name just two:

Those who ignore instruction despise themselves, but those who heed admonition gain understanding. (Prov. 15:32, NRSV)

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. (Gal. 6:1, NRSV)
Scripture values correction, and so does our own particular church history. For those following Jesus in the company of the Wesleys, discipline should not a four letter word.  John Wesley and later Francis Asbury held their circuit preachers to high standards of accountability. Likewise, band and class leaders who formed the skeleton of the Methodist movement also maintained serious (though loving) boundaries. (Remember, it is not unheard of in our tradition to have to receive a ticket from one’s spiritual overseer to receive Communion!)

I am especially concerned about the outright rejection of enforcement because Dr. Howell is my conference’s nominee for Bishop. Going back to ancient precedent, Bishops are in fact to be foci of unity for the church. Thus, St. Ignatius wrote in the 2nd century, “For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop.” If one were to imagine the church as a house, Bishops are charged with ensuring there are not termites in the wall or cracks in the foundation. If there are, some action will be necessary.

Elsewhere, Ignatius argued that the unanimity of the bishops and the priests was to model and reinforce the singleness of the one Lord Jesus Christ:
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent.

The United Methodist Church operates in like manner. We “come together in one place” and decide how to order our common lives. No one is forced to be a United Methodist, but if you have decided to be a lay or clergy member, the results of these quadrennial gatherings shape our mutual life. If some decide instead to follow what is “reasonable and proper to [them]selves apart,” if the oneness of the church is broken, we have a process for restoration that must be followed. The hope is that this can be done short of something punitive or drastic, like de-frocking. But more severe corrective measures are certainly on the table.

To say otherwise, a priori, is an abdication of a crucial apostolic duty that belongs to bishops alone.

The Book of Discipline is an imperfect document by and for imperfect people. In that, let us grant each other grace. But let’s also care enough about our life to not shy away from this sacred bond.

I would hope that someone called to the office of Bishop in our particular corner of Christendom would see that our covenant, warts and all, is a sacred bond: a bond worth preserving where it is eroding, worth defending where it is threatened, and worth enforcing where it is violated.

While I greatly respect Dr. Howell as a preacher, a theologian, and a leader not just in my conference but across the denomination, I cannot support a candidate for episcopal office who has already signaled a premeditated abdication of duty.

This is a path to increased chaos, not coherence.

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When Will the Tail Stop Wagging the #UMC Dog?

by Drew 9 Comments
Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

Courtesy of Smallbones via Wikimedia Commons.

When will the tail top wagging the dog? When will the whole United Methodist body cease to be driven hither and thither by what is really a small appendage?

I’m a longtime critic of the various caucus groups in the UMC.  While I don’t think they are all equally villainous, I do believe that on the whole they serve to draw resources from United Methodist pews that are better spent elsewhere.  Moreover, they form a sort of self-reinforcing system that goes something like this: RMN organizes to change the Book of Disciplinee; Good News fundraises to counter their efforts; Love Prevails then bounces off the “harmful” rhetoric of evangelicals and announces ahead of time that they plan to make sure nothing gets done in Portland which they don’t explicitly condone; then, finally, the IRD fills their coffers by reporting on the adolescent shenanigans of Justice’s Storm Troopers.  The caucuses have a sort of symbiotic relationship and form a vicious cycle.

These groups, in many ways, lead our denominational conversation – though I’m not at all convinced that, even all combined, they remotely represent the views of a majority of United Methodists.  I’m reminded of this quote from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, who noted that the bluster of radical groups often far outstrips their real influence:

“The vanity, restlessness, petulance, and spirit of intrigue, of several petty cabals, who attempt to hide their total want of consequence in bustle and noise, and puffing, and mutual quotation of each other, makes you imagine that our contemptuous neglect of their abilities is a mark of general acquiescence in their opinions. No such thing, I assure you.”

Despite the noise, there is no “general acquiescence” to the caucuses.  They are merely the loudest voices in the conversation.  If the Trump living nightmare candidacy has taught us nothing else, we’ve sure learned this: being loud, rude, disagreeable, loose with the facts, quick to attack, and light on nuance can actually get you a lot of attention.  It will even get you a seat at the table.  The committee in charge of organizing General Conference even met with the leaders of these groups last year.  Now, really, do we think this will placate the caucuses or embolden them?

Burke again would urge us not to take such tactics seriously:

“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring…whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number; or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.”

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Portrait of Edmund Burke by Joseph Reynolds, public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Most United Methodists do not share the priorities of the divisive caucuses.  A representative sample of over 500 parishioners was taken in 2014 to get a sense of the real priorities of the people who sit in our pews.  Sexuality did not even crack the top 5.

I see no future for us unless we stand up to the denominational hostage-takers and refuse to let the tail way the dog.  Much like Americans are experiencing in the national arena, denominational politics are not well served by letting the loudest, most divisive voices lead the conversation.  They don’t represent us.  They have every incentive to increase outrage and bend the truth to fund their own projects.

For the United Methodist Church to have a healthy and vital future, we cannot allow the most brutal voices to dictate the conversation.  We can do better.  We must do better.  But make no mistake: it’s up to us.  We, the vast majority of Methodists who love each and every one of their neighbors and want to make disciples of Jesus for the transformation of the world, decide this future: the ways that we engage one another, the things we read and share, the delegates for whom we vote give away whether we are directing our mental, emotional, and other resources towards victory or agape.

The tail does not have to wag the dog. But that’s up to us.

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The Center of the Christian Faith

by Drew 6 Comments
Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from the before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator, from Mt. Sinai. One of the few icons to survive from before the iconoclastic controversies. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What is the center of the Christian message?

That’s the question that Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, one of the leading Orthodox voices in the West, was asked a few years ago by Christianity Today.  His response?

I would answer, “I believe in a God who loves humankind so intensely, so totally, that he chose himself to become human. Therefore, I believe in Jesus Christ as fully and truly God, but also totally and unreservedly one of us, fully human.” And I would say to you, “The love of God is so great that Christ died for us on the cross. But love is stronger than death, and so the death of Jesus was followed by his resurrection. I am a Christian because I believe in the great love of God that led him to become incarnate, to die, and to rise again.” That’s my faith. All of this is made immediate to us through the continuing action of the Holy Spirit.

NT Wright, professor at St. Andrews and former Bishop of Durham, relates a story of a cabbie in London whose simple statement of faith made it into his Easter homily: “If Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, the rest is just rock n’ roll.”

The resurrection is the center, the hub of the wheel, so to speak.  Everything else follows from this point; it is the vindication of Christ’s incarnation, faithful life, and horrific death.  If Christ is still in the tomb, there is no Trinity, and the church has nothing to proclaim.  St. Paul does not mince words when he reminds us that if Christ is not risen, we are of all people to be pitied.

What do you think the center of the Christian faith is?

If you had asked me a few years ago what all Christians agree on, I would have said the two basic Christian doctrines: Trinity and Incarnation.  God is three persons and one essence; the second person of the trinity took on flesh and was born of Mary.  This is, I believed, a simple foundation for a faith with a variety of expressions.

But that was before I talked to a lot of different Methodists and other mainliners.  For the love of the Holy Trinity (which is who I mean when I speak or write of God), we have Presbyterian pastors who are openly atheist! (And before you ask, I’m linking here to Charisma because I’d rather they get your clicks than Patheos.)

The worst.

The worst.

I can’t speak to heresy in other tribes, but I can tell you a bit of what it looks like in my own.  The myth persists that Methodists are non-doctrinal, that we have no particular beliefs or creeds to which we assent.  How anyone who has even a passing familiarity with John Wesley’s corpus can believe or teach this, I will never understand.  He was vehement that the “Catholic Spirit” which he encouraged was not an indifference to all Christian teaching:

“For, from hence we may learn, first, that a catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

If we agree on the center, there is a lot of room various ways of living out the faith.  But we don’t know if we actually agree on the center, because most UM (and most Protestant) arguments these days are adventures in missing the point.  The martyrs did not die defending a particular view of sexuality or a particular political ideology. They died confessing the Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

If we can agree on that center, a world of possibilities is open to us.

But if we cannot agree on something so basic as the resurrection, which is constitutive of Christian faith and practice, all of our efforts to hold together may well be a sin.

The center is Jesus, crucified and risen.  Full stop.

Everything else is rock n’ roll.

Anything less is not only un-Wesleyan, it is sub-Christian.

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Martin Luther Roundtable (#ICYMI)

What do you think of Martin Luther?conciliar post

That’s the question that a group of us have addressed for a recent Round Table discussion over at Conciliar Post.  I’m really humbled to be a part of such a healthy and deep conversation among Christians of different traditions.  In case you missed it, I wrote the Methodist response, but all of them are well worth a your time (especially the others).  Here’s a sample from my contribution:

Representatives of the UMC, mostly bishops and ecumenical officers, are making plans to take part in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in Germany, hosted by the Lutheran World Federation.  I am a bit unenthusiastic about Luther, myself.  The reasons are twofold.  For one, Luther, for all his many gifts, remains a Christian firmly in the Western tradition.  Eastern Christians regularly point out that Protestants and Catholics sound more alike than they would like to admit; for all the Protestant-Catholic infighting, we forget too easily how similar we truly are.  Secondly, I am not sure that the Reformation should be celebrated.  It should be remembered, of course.  Brave folks like Luther, Hus, and Tyndale should be honored for their bravery.  But can we say, in 2015, that the Reformation has been a net gain?

The full article is here.  Thanks again to the CP team for letting an amateur Wesleyan theologian hang out with such a sharp group of talented, bright folks.

Is Reformation Day worthy of a celebration? Is Luther a hero or a villain? Leave a comment below!

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Covenantal Individualism & UMC Clergy

obedience memeA recent Reconciling Ministries blog, in which a UM pastor tells her side of the decision to conduct a same-gender wedding contrary to the Book of Discipline, was shared on Facebook with the following tagline:

“Rev. Pam Hawkins shares what led her to officiate Doug and Frank’s marriage ceremony. She will be suspended for 90 days without pay after a complaint was filed because she fulfilled her clergy vows to be in ministry with all people. ‪#‎BiblicalObedience‬

It is neither a secret nor a surprise that the recent Supreme Court decision has added heat to an already-boiling debate.  In truth, both progressive Christians, who celebrated it as a victory, and conservative Christians, who decried it as a loss, were wrong.  Allan Bevere clarifies this helpfully:

“There is a difference between the way the state views marriage from the church. According to the state, marriage is a right not to be denied, which is now extended across the U.S. to gay and lesbian couples. The church has never viewed marriage as a right, and those Christians who believe it should be so understood by the church need an introductory course in the theology of marriage. For Christianity marriage is a gift from God given to two people. No pastor is required to officiate at any particular marriage ceremony. I have the authority, which I have exercised more than a few times over the years, not to officiate at a wedding. I do not even have to have a reason why I might refuse to perform a particular marriage (though I always have). The point is that Christian marriage is not a right owed; it is a gift received.”

In a Christian grammar, marriage is a gift (some say a sacrament), not a right.  It is chiefly a spiritual, covenantal reality and not a legally binding contract (as it is for the state).

For better or for worse, the UMC has had a consistent position about same-gender sexuality (I would argue, not identity) for over forty years.  United Methodists pastors have been forbidden from conducting same-gender weddings specifically since 1996, for nearly twenty years. (Thanks to my friend and RMN board member Dave Nuckols for correcting me here). Anyone who has been ordained within that time frame, like yours truly, has had hands laid upon them and pledged to serve within a church with these particular rules on the books.**

But RMN and other progressive caucuses in the UMC have taken an interesting tack in recent years, arguing that church teaching is contradictory, that, as the tagline above implies, pastors must disobey some rules in the BOD to fulfill their calling.  Notice how individualistic the logic is:

“But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God prepared the way for me, as an ordained United Methodist minister, to be present in ministry with them, and that with the help of God I was able to stay focused on the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – and not be distracted by a few gospel-less rules of The United Methodist Church that call us, the ordained, to choose harm and discrimination above love.”

A couple of things stick out here:

Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.

  • The relationship is “me and God,” reminiscent (as so many poor Protestant decisions are) of Luther’s “Here I am, I can do no other.”  But UM Clergy are ordained as members of bodies called Orders and Conferences.  We are never on our own. It is always “Here we are,” not “Here I am.”  Draw the circle wider and realize that UM clergy represent not only themselves, but one another, and indeed the whole church.
  • There’s that overused word again: “harm.” The author ignores the community that ordained her, we are told, because she is choosing “love” over “harm and discrimination.” But she admits that the couple could have gotten married elsewhere.  Moreover, many clergy have been present at and even participated in same-gender weddings without doing the full ceremony themselves. (Even many of our bishops have clarified that this ministry is not against the BOD.)  The word ‘harm’ in UMC circles no longer has any identifiable definition, it is instead used to shut down conversation and justify anything controversial.  If your intent is to prevent ‘harm’ (notice the utilitarian logic), anything is permissible.
  • Clear church teaching for decades is dismissed as “a few gospel-less rules.”  Now, I am not necessarily a fan of our current language. It is inelegant and imprecise, especially by 2015 standards.  But the BOD is the voice of the whole church, and these particular “rules” have been the most hotly debated – and affirmed – for years.  To decide individually what rules represent the will of God and which can be flagrantly ignored represents a sad capitulation to the individualist spirit of our age and a direct insult to Methodists around the world, the majority of whom wish to see church teaching as it is currently constituted. I don’t have to agree with church teaching to abide by it, especially since the clergy covenant is always entered into willingly (and can be exited willingly).

One last point. I am troubled by the faux self-sacrifice of this piece, in which the author identifies with Noah and Jesus, and goes on to say,

“I will find my way through an imposed season of ministerial drought. I expect to face temptations of a hardened heart and dark nights of my soul. I anticipate discouragement and doubt from time to time while suspended from the work that I love.”

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

The greatest irony is that contemporary progressive UM advocates play the martyr while intentionally violating the clergy covenant, knowing full well they will likely face few consequences from their superiors (and in some cases, outright support, like Bishop “Grow Up” Carcano wearing a Love Prevails pin to Connectional Table meetings) and will be lauded by their peers.  Frank Shaefer and Mel Talbert are conference-circuit heroes now.  The author – whose church has on its web page information on how to support her financially despite the suspension – will no doubt be welcomed into that Rogue’s Gallery now, as well.

So there you have it.  Today’s progressive Methodists can enjoy the benefits of the clergy covenant without accountability, pick and choose which aspects of the Book of Discipline to follow, and simultaneously build their personal brands by playing both martyr and hero, all for the price of a slap on the wrist. (See note at bottom for more.)

To conclude, a word about the title.  “Covenantal Individualism” sounds like nonsense because it is.  I believe Jesus-loving United Methodists disagree on how to move forward, and I am open to finding ways to honor those disagreements within the covenant.  But we must find that way together.  It’s not up to me or you.  It’s up to the whole body.  Continued covenantal individualism (which makes as much sense as “biblical obedience”) will only make the house of cards fall faster.

*Note: I actually do respect the decision by Nashville Area Bishop Bill McAllilly; in calling for significantly more consequences than most of his Council of Bishop peers have, he has gone against a troubling current and deserves praise for actually doing his job, however distasteful and unfortunate I’m sure it has been.

**Edited after correction by Dave Nuckols.

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Our Hope for #UMC General Conference 2016

GC 2016 banner

                      The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord;                  she is his new creation by water and the Word.
       From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride;
                   with his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.                        – “The Church’s One Foundation”

“Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” -Pope John Paul II

Something broke inside me during the 2012 General Conference.  I watched the proceedings via live stream and followed the conversation on social media.  I read the reports and stories.  I lamented and pulled out what little hair I had left.  But my Rubicon was not legislative in nature, despite the horror of watching the Judicial Council’s determination to guarantee gridlock.  Oddly enough, what affected me so strongly (and from so far away) happened at the Lord’s Table.

A group of people, in protest, seized the Communion table and held a kind of mock Eucharist.  The reasons do not matter, for it would have been as problematic to me no matter the motivation.  This was, to me, a signal that something was deeply wrong.  The means of grace that is our most cherished gift from Christ was abused.  We tried to use God rather than enjoy Him, to employ an Augustinian formula. It was an embarrassment, a low point during a gathering that would become famous for doing nothing.  The blog post I wrote in response was the first really significant piece of writing I ever published about denominational matters.  I wasn’t ordained yet. I was concerned that speaking out might cost me.  But I couldn’t be quiet any longer.  Much of my writing, my subsequent motivation for in the Via Media Methodists project and WesleyCast podcast began with that schismatic Eucharist.  Whether you enjoy my work or despise it (or something in between), you can blame that malformed psuedo-sacrament as the genesis for what has come after.

Several years and many shenanigans later, I remain committed to the denomination that sometimes vexes me.  At the wonderful church I serve here in North Carolina, we sang the lyrics above last Sunday before I preached on 1 John 4:12b: “If we love another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (NRSV)  With Christ as our sole foundation, the church is called to a mutuality of love, in imitation of the love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As a denomination, such mutual love can be hard to spot.  In the midst of Annual Conference season, temperatures are running hot as delegations are being elected and legislation being recommended to General Conference, taking place in 2016 in Portland.  Depending on who you think should “win” in 2016, some of the delegations look promising, and some look horrifying.  I don’t think it’s about winning, though I confess to a degree of dread about what is ahead.  But I do not believe the Spirit permits me to distance myself from the ugliness.

I recently told a friend of mine, who finds it difficult to stay in his own ecclesial home and wondered about the pathologies of my denominational family, that this is the church in which I have been led to Christ, nurtured in faith, and called to ministry.  This church, our embattled UMC, is who has supported me despite my failures, and given me opportunities to serve that have been deeply humbling and formative.  I cannot abandon her simply because the road ahead is fraught with difficulty. As we say in the South, “You gotta dance with the girl who brought you.”  R.R. Reno puts slightly more eloquently:

“However chaotic and dysfunctional the institutional and doctrinal life of the church, we must endure that which the Lord has given us.” (14)

All of us have our own ideas of what the church should look like, how it should function, and what she should teach and exhort.  There is no sense in pretending otherwise.  We have competing visions.  That is okay, so long as those competing visions don’t become anvils on which we hammer the Body of Christ.  That’s how a vision becomes an idol:

“Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.” (Bonhoeffer, 36)

Those competing images, though they are usually genuine in nature, make it tempting to either 1) retreat into enclaves of the like-minded, or 2) withdraw from the fray altogether.  But to avoid the dissension in favor of echo-chambers and indifference is to do exactly what Christ has asked us not to do: to distance ourselves from his body.

“We need to draw ever nearer to the reality of Christian faith and witness in our time, however burdensome, however heavy with failure, limitation, and disappointment. The reason is simple. Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to us in the flesh. We can draw near to him only in his body, the church. Loyalty to him requires us to dwell within the ruins of the church.” (Reno, 14)

Distance is tempting.  But, to paraphrase Peter, to whom would we go?  Methodists have always known that we cannot hope to grow nearer to God absent companions on the journey.  That is why the church, the community of faithful, is a gift from God.  We neglect this too often.  Thus, Bonhoeffer reminds us:bonhoeffer lt

“It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.” (30)

If he is right, our neighbors who are sometimes exasperating are yet a means of grace.  The fellow United Methodists whom I sometimes long to throttle are beloved children of God, with whom I am called to be in community.  That community is not based on our shared vision for the future of the church, on mutual agreement on this or that question, but solely on Jesus Christ.  Again, Bonhoeffer notes,

“Our community consists solely in what Christ has done to both of us….we have one another only through Christ, but through Christ we really do have one another. We have one another completely and for all eternity.” (34)

As the Confessing Church leader hints at, the church will endure, and we shall be graced with one other forever, not based on anything other than the fact that Jesus, in his life, death, and resurrection, has been pro nobis.  I do not need to agree with someone to recognize that Christ is for them just as Christ has been for me.

My hope for Portland in 2016 is not based on this-or-that plan, or in the “right” delegates being elected. My hope for Portland is in Jesus.

“Though with a scornful wonder, we see her sore oppressed,
by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,
yet saints their watch are keeping;                                                       their cry goes up: ‘How long?’
and soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.”

Brokenness and discord are perishing.  They have no future in God’s Kingdom.  One way or another, God’s church will endure.  Her foundation is upon Christ, and though the winds blow and the rains beat down, the Christian family is not going anywhere.  Despite all our efforts to tear asunder the Body of Christ, we will feast at his heavenly banquet together one day.

I suggest, if you’ll permit a bit of realized eschatology, that perhaps we should go ahead and learn some table manners now.

This beautiful rendition of “The Church’s One Foundation” comes from the choir of Clifton College, Bristol, United Kingdom.

Sources:

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together & Prayerbook of the Bible: Works Volume 5 (Minneapolis: Fortress Press 2005).

R.R. Reno, In the Ruins of the Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos 2002).

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