Playing the Whole Field

It is not unusual to hear statements which tend to pit social justice concerns against evangelistic concerns. Do we have to choose between “saving souls” and “saving society”? Evangelism, in this usage, is about the proclamation of the good news that through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, sinful people can be forgiven and reconciled to God. Social action, in this usage, refers to the church’s cultural mandate to express God’s love practically through tangible acts of compassion and justice for the poor, the homeless, the sick and the disenfranchised.

Sometimes, though not always, the phrase “social action” vs. “social justice” is distinguished between those who focus on immediate needs (e.g. housing the homeless) and those who focus on larger structural evils and laws which mitigate against the poor (e.g. world bank policies, laws which inadvertently protect sex trafficking, etc.) Is there room in the church for both Mother Teresa and Billy Graham?

Most Christians agree that we must embrace both. The problem comes in the relationship between the two. To put it plainly, is social action a bridge to evangelism? Is social action a natural consequence of evangelism?  What, exactly, is the relationship?

The gospel embraces the in-breaking kingdom and the New Creation claims the whole sphere. Christians can’t simply choose to play in one small corner of the chessboard. We must work strategically on the whole board, or we will lose something precious in the gospel. The gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, and wrote theologically-laden hymns for the church, etc.

You see, they were capturing every sphere with the gospel. The New Creation does not simply break into one little square on the chess-board—it crashes into the whole of life! If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us—the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history.

Another way of putting this is that in the New Testament there is a fundamental unity between word and deed. This is most seen in and through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.

So, let’s not talk about either one being a bridge to the other, or about one being the natural consequence of the other. Let’s talk about a complementary unity whereby the church of Jesus Christ reflects the very incarnation itself.

Re-Arranging Chairs on the Titanic

The 2016 General Conference expressed its will in no uncertain terms that the majority of United Methodists affirm the historic view of Christian marriage as a divinely sanctioned means of grace between a man and a woman. Other marital arrangements, even if sanctioned by the State, do not constitute, in the view of the majority, Christian marriage. This is the overwhelming view of the church throughout the world, and all through church history. Nevertheless, the General Conference authorized a special commission to study the matter over the next few years in the hope of finding a way to secure the unity of the church in the face of an issue which has severed many denominations.

I know that thousands of Methodists around the country are praying earnestly for God’s blessings to be upon the Commission. One of my prayers is that the Commission will recognize that the episcopal mandate was actually too small. Indeed, the deepest flaw of the commission is in the very question which has been posed to the Commission. They have been charged to look at every sentence in the Discipline related to human sexuality and recommend possible changes which might restore unity in the church. The problem, however, is that those of us committed to historic faith in the wesleyan tradition believe that the question before the Commission is way too tiny to actually address the deep ecclesial angst we are in. My deepest longing is not for the United Methodist Church to merely reaffirm an historic view of marriage, or find some “middle way” which will pacify all groups. This issue, after all, is but a symptom of a much deeper issue.

We are not divided, in the final analysis, over the issue of homosexuality. That is merely the presenting issue. The real question before the church is whether or not we intend to align our life, witness and mission to historic faith, biblical fidelity, Christ centered mission and vibrant church planting. This is not about “going back to the 1950’s” when we were equally compromised with a privileged, white middle class view of the world. The challenges we faced in the 1950’s are different from the challenges we face today. We need now what we needed then; namely a return to our roots than anything in the living memory of any of us.

Such a dramatic turn only emerges out of the fires of crisis. That crisis is now upon us. We have bishops (e.g. Bishop Melvin Talbert and Julius Trimble) who have openly defied the Discipline which is the very symbol of our connectionalism and doctrinal unity. We have other churches, like the Orchard United Methodist Church and Getwell Road United Methodist Church in Mississippi who recently voted overwhelmingly to leave the denomination. The Getwell vote was 95%. The Orchard vote was 99%. We all see the tsunami coming.

The General Conference has, in effect, charged a group of United Methodist leaders to re-arrange chairs on the Titanic, and failed to address the deeper reality that the United Methodist ship has been struck by a fatal blow which, if not addressed, will sink the ship. Our deepest prayers should be far more expansive. It begins with a commitment to biblical and historic fidelity. We must first restore our orientation back to historic Christian faith. Second, we must remember our wesleyan heritage which has also been lost. Third, we must devote our energies to missional vibrancy on behalf of a world without Christ. Without these great pillars of strength restored, all other discussions are merely addressing symptoms of a deeper malady. I am, of course, aware that the progressives in our denomination are convinced that they are being biblically faithful, true to Wesley and, above all, missional to this generation. We are, indeed, at an impasse. This is precisely why the larger conversation is so important.

My prayer is that the Commission and the sheer magnitude of the crisis we are in will result in a “moment of truth” for us which could, in the end, result in our rebirth into Christian vibrancy and missional clarity. As I travel across the country, I am seeing vibrant signs of pre-revival. I am hearing the early strains of a great awakening. The great lesson from the 18th century is the importance of travailing prayer during this crucial time. One of the lessons from the 20th century is that no amount of doctrinal concessions to the voices of an increasingly godless and shrill culture will make us “attractive” to the world. The gospel has power for a lost world precisely because it offers a stunning alternative to the world’s madness. We have nothing to offer the world but a bloody cross, which remains a stumbling block in every generation.

One of the ironies of the Commission is that they met this past week at Grace United Methodist church in Atlanta. There are few greater symbols of our plight than the history of that historic church. It was once a place where evangelical faith rang forth under the ministries of faithful pastors such as Cecil Myers and Sam Coker. I know, because I came to personal faith in Jesus Christ in that sacred sanctuary. It was my home church growing up. In the last few decades it has dwindled down to a mere shell of its earlier vibrancy. It is a story which has been repeated across our nation. The Commission was, quite literally, seated in a case study of the decline of the denomination as a whole.

I am praying for the Commission. I just hope that as they discuss how the chairs might be rearranged, someone will have the courage to notice that the entire ship is tilting to one side.

Our “problem” is not limited to a few paragraphs in the Discipline. We are in a struggle for nothing less than the historic faith. Jude prophetically spoke when he said, “I found it necessary to write to you appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who…pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3,4 ).