My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Graduating Class of 2014

In 1904 William Borden graduated from high school. He was the heir to the great Borden milk fortune. For his graduation gift, his parents sent him on a trip around the world, hoping it would stimulate his global business interests. Instead, for the first time he realized how many had never heard the good news of Jesus Christ, and he committed himself to becoming a missionary. When one of his closest friends heard this news he was outraged and confronted William Borden telling him that he was throwing his life away. Borden made a note of the date and wrote these two words in his bible: No Reserves.

He then went to Yale University and was a top student, the President of the honor society, Phi Beta Kappa. Upon graduation he was offered several high paying, influential jobs. He turned them all down, saying he was committed to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He made a note of the date in his Bible and wrote the two words: No Retreat.

He eventually set off for China to work with Muslims there. He decided it would be best to learn Arabic before he arrived, so he stopped in Cairo, Egypt, to do language study. It was while he was in Egypt that he contracted spinal meningitis and within a month he was dead, still in his twenties, never having even arrived in China. The news of his tragic death was carried by newspapers across the country. Eventually his belongings were shipped back to the US and his parents opened his Bible to find a date written just weeks before he died with two words: No Regrets.

2014 Graduating class of Asbury Theological Seminary…This is my charge to you: Go forth as William Borden did: No Reserves, No Retreat, No Regrets. That is your posture. Don’t waste your time trying to build a professional ecclesiastical career… that’s building political reserves. Don’t waste your time second guessing the truth or power of the Word of God, or the centrality of Jesus Christ, that’s creating a retreat in case the winds of popular culture turn against the church. Don’t end your ministry on any other note but faithfulness, for that will create regrets. As God’s Word says and the presence of our Golden Grads testify: It is not the one who starts the race who will win the prize, it is the one who finishes it.

William Borden had no reserves and no regrets because he was not seeking the praise of men, but was consumed with the only words which will finally matter: Well done, thou good and faithful servant! The cultural wind is already blowing against you. You might as well get used to it. The church itself has become so compromised that it is becoming rare to hear the gospel of Jesus Christ clearly proclaimed from the pulpits of many of our churches around the world. Pastors falling into sin, disgracing the gospel, and embarrassing the faithful has become tragically commonplace. You must chart a different course. You must be captivated by holiness. There is nothing more revolutionary than that, because the skeptic believes only in themselves, but you believe in the gospel. You must hold fast to that which is good. You must be a faithful minister of the gospel, whether you are going forth as a pastor, a teacher, a counselor or a missionary.
This is why the Apostle Paul gives the advice to young Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” As G. K. Chesterton said over 100 years ago about the same time that William Borden was graduating from high school, “The orthodox church never took the (safe) tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable… It is always easier to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own.”

Borden kept his head, even as he lost his life. Never allow your God given, gospel inspired love for people slip into cheap sentimentality and not be guided by clear headed thinking. Brothers and sisters, a lost world will not be saved by pastors who play it safe. Don’t confuse church growth techniques or balanced budgets, or strategic plans, (however helpful they all may be) with the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit can do more in five minutes than you can do in five years. So my charge: Live a life of No Reserves, No Retreat, no Regrets. Amen.

The North American Church in a Post-Christian Society

A blog is, in my view, a kind of open, public conversation. I normally use my blog to stimulate reactions, poke at and flag issues which I believe are important in the life of the church. My blog should not be taken as a kind of formal position paper, or as an academic address. This is why I (with one exception) have never allowed any of my blogs to be “published” in print.

As one who writes and publishes across a broad spectrum of mediums, I have a certain view of the genre of blogging. I believe the medium enables one to be more provocative at times. It can “shake the tree” a little bit if necessary. I have no idea how many “followers” my blog has, so I can’t be too optimistic with alluring speculations about the the breadth of its influence. I don’t think any of us knows – or can know – what really carries weight and influence in the church. Only God knows about things like “influence” and “weight.”

Occasionally one of my blog posts will get forwarded or copied to someone who gets really angry and becomes agitated alleging I am a dangerous voice which should be stopped, or that I am clearly out of step with the “church,” or obstructing the clear “signs of the time” or, even worse, standing against “God’s will.”

I have learned from Thomas Aquinas to not listen too much to either praises or criticisms. This is not because I am so confident that I am right in whatever I say in blogs, or sermons, or books, etc. Quite the contrary, one of the things I am sure about is that when I stand before the Lord on Judgment Day, there will be plenty of things which I thought I was right about, which will turn out to be wrong. There will, likewise, surely be quite a few examples of issues which I should have spoken up about, but I was silent. There will probably be endless examples where I may have been right, but my motivation was skewed in some way.

When St. Paul tells us in I Cor. 3:13 that all our works will be tested by fire to see if they were true to Jesus Christ and the Word of God, I can only imagine that my life will be engulfed in a bright blaze as mountains of chaff and stubble are being burned away. However, I pray that once that purification takes place, He will find in me true faith in Jesus Christ. That is my prayer.

In the big picture, little else matters (Rom. 14:23). I am confident, in Christ, that once all is said and done, God’s Word will be found to be true, “though every man a liar” (Romans 3:4). So, I must keep on seeking to be true to Christ and His Word as best I can, knowing that He alone will finally judge me.

I remain convinced that we live at a time in history when the denomination I belong to (United Methodism) has not successfully made the transition to a prophetic witness in a post-Christian society. Many still seem to believe that with a few changes we can, once again, return to those days when the United Methodist church was at the center of North American culture. Those days are gone. (We are good at knowing where the culture is, but very poor at articulating where the culture should be)

The current strategy seems to be about more and more cultural accommodation with whatever happens to be blowing through the culture at the moment and this so that the society will, once again, embrace us and sing our praises. This strikes me as ecclesiastical insanity. The church cannot be co-terminous with society, or the church ceases to exist. At some point, boundaries must be drawn. The doctrinal innovations which are rampant today will continue to impair our communion with one another. The gap between the cultural mainstream and the prophetic margins will continue to grow in unimaginable ways. We are actually in a situation which is emerging to look more like the first century than the 21st century.

A number of our churches have nobly led the way in making this transition, sometimes with the help of some brave leaders, sometimes with precious little support from those in authority over them. In the end, God will sort the whole thing out. But, in the meantime, we must act with robust faith knowing that one of the great promises of Scripture comes from Jesus himself who said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Denominations come and go. Movements which were once vibrant falter and are replaced by new ones. Some groups experience a renewed touch from God and live for another generation (e.g. Anglicanism in early Methodism or Anglicanism in the ACNA today). Others will lose the faith, even though finely clothed in robes and stoles. The great eschatological fire of Jesus Christ will alone separate the gold from all the wood, hay and stubble. In the meantime, let us all eagerly await the “blessed hope” of His glorious return.

Orthodoxy vs. Heterodoxy: The Fundamental Divide in the United Methodist Church

Many of us are watching with sadness the emerging, seemingly inevitable, separation (however amicable) between the so-called progressives and the so-called conservatives in the United Methodist Church. By any read of the situation, the UMC of the 21st century stands in grave peril. It would be too simplistic to say that it is in peril because of the precipitous decline in membership, the challenge of redefining human sexuality, gridlocked leadership, budget woes, or the public defiance by some bishops of the Book of Discipline. Those are all symptoms of the real issue which is at stake.

The UMC is not fundamentally in a fight over homosexuality, or how to get the church to grow. Our basic struggle is not even over how to get the church to live together, or whether or not certain lines in the Book of Discipline should be enforced or not. Those are merely the presenting issues. We are in a fundamental struggle over the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the issue which is before us. Paul called Timothy to “preach the Word!” because a time is coming when “people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3,4). This testimony is true about the UMC today. We are constantly being told that we have two factions in the church, both of which believe that they are being faithful and who sincerely hold certain positions which have been labeled “conservative” and “progressive.”

There are two main reasons why I do not like the term “progressive” to refer the faction within the UMC who are pushing for an ongoing re-imagining of the gospel, the debunking of biblical authority and a radical new morality in step with contemporary culture. First, the term “progressive” calls to mind the word “progress” and implicitly suggests that the “progressive” positions, if embraced, will move the church forward, rather than backward. Second, using the two terms “progressive” and “conservative” tends to portray the idea that we are roughly divided between two groups who are each the moral and ecclesiastical equivalent of the other. Therefore, (so the argument goes) we just need to find some creative way to make both groups happy. I have heard many UM leaders say, “Why can’t we all just get along? Why can’t we just agree to disagree?”

However, the two groups should never be called “conservative” and “progressive” and they should never be viewed as equivalent groups. What we actually have is a group (however imperfectly) which is committed to historic Christianity. The second group (however imperfectly) is committed to a re-imagined church. One, however flawed, is committed to the recovery and defense of historic Christian orthodoxy. The other, however nice and erudite, has not demonstrated a robust commitment to historic Christian orthodoxy. Thus, we actually have two groups; one orthodox and one heterodox. I will be the first to concede that even orthodoxy in North America has become so weak and bland that is has become hardly recognizable. Likewise, I believe that many in the heterodox camp are driven by important “branches” of the gospel, even if they have lost touch with the Christian “root.” But, this should not confuse the deeper point I am trying to make.

The orthodox group stands with the Apostles, the prophets, the martyrs and the biblical witness as revealed in Scripture. The orthodox have the whole of the church throughout the ages standing with them. The orthodox are contending for the faith “once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3). The heterodox come and go with every generation. They rise up, make a big noise, cause a huge stir, and tell the church that we are no longer “relevant.” However, in just one generation the faith of the heterodox has withered away until the next challenge comes. We are now over 2,000 years into the Christian proclamation. The orthodox message is still here. In fact, from a global perspective, it is alive and well. It is robust and flourishing. The heterodox are sweeping in for another assault. We’ve endured the gnostics, the Arians, the Marcionites, the Montanists, the Pelagians, the Manicheans, the neo-liberals, the “prosperity” gospel, and the populistic reductionists, to name a few. But, take heart, in a generation this group will be long gone and orthodoxy will still be preaching the gospel, baptizing new believers, believing the Bible, worshipping the Triune God, planting new churches and looking for the return of Christ. So, be encouraged: Do not lose heart. Keep the faith. Keep Loving. Remember the Gospel. Preach the Word. This present storm will pass and the gospel will prevail.

I, for one, am going to stand with the Apostles.