Charlottesville Has Revealed Our Moral Crisis

“I think our country sinks beneath the yoke. It weeps, it bleeds and each new day a gash is added to her wounds” (Macbeth, Act 4, scene 3). Those words from Shakespeare come the closest I can think of in capturing something of the anguish and pain of our nation during these heart-wrenching days since the tragedy unfolded in Charlottesville, Virginia. Our deepest condolences go out to the family and loved ones of Heather Heyer who lost her life. Heather was a bright, dedicated, 32-year-old woman brimming with passion and optimism to make our society a better place. Yet, while she was peacefully protesting, she was struck down and killed by a motor vehicle driven intentionally into the crowd by a 20-year-old neo-Nazi sympathizer. The pressing issue before America in these days is not fundamentally a political one, but a moral one. The political sphere will inevitably focus on such issues as free speech, the meanings conveyed by statutes, the responsibility of law enforcement to keep people safe, and so on. Those are important and vital conversations. But the real crisis is a moral one. The capacity to name any course of action as “good” or “evil” requires a moral judgment. It is important for our leaders to cast that vision and make the moral point unambiguously clear.

It is worth remembering that when tragedies like this occur, reporters, quite appropriately, do not lead off by asking questions about free speech, or the pros and cons of various strategies which city law enforcement officials make in responding to volatile situations. There will be plenty of time for all of that. In the immediate aftermath of such a tragedy the first (and most important) question is always the moral one. The moral question was actually explicitly “named” when the President was asked, “Are your statements creating a moral equivalency between the two sides?” On Saturday, and again on Tuesday, we got nothing but moral confusion. In fact, our President specifically stated, “I am not putting anybody on a moral plane.” But, that, of course, is precisely what must be done in these type situations. There can be no moral ambiguity which creates any kind of equivalency between a neo-Nazi and a young woman who was exercising her freedom of speech. Neo-Nazis, White Supremacists, KKK, and associated groups espouse beliefs which are repugnant and obnoxious to the American cultural fabric. As Christians, we must also state that ideas espoused by neo-Nazi, KKK, and White Supremacists are ultimately an attack on God the Father as creator, who created all men and women, of every ethnicity, in his image, and all are equal bearers of his providence and mercy. It is an attack on God the Son who died for every person, of every race. It is also an attack on the Holy Spirit who indwells men and women with his divine presence and empowers us to participate with him as His ambassadors to a world in pain.

700,000 Americans lost their lives in the Civil War. That war was about many important political issues such as states’ rights, economic disparities between the North and the South, etc., but, in the end, the Civil War, like all conflicts, will be judged on moral grounds. On the moral plane the Civil War was about the eternal dignity of all of God’s children. 400,000 Americans lost their lives in WWII. That conflict was also politically complex. But, there should be no doubt about the moral clarity in defeating the ideology of Nazism. There are many political issues which will be discussed in relation to what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday. However, we must not lose sight of the moral issues which are before us at this time in our history. It has been said, “strong people stand up for themselves, but stronger people stand up for others.” Jesus stood up for us by laying his life down for us. May His example be ours in these perilous days.

The Legacy of the Reformation

In October of 2017 we will celebrate the 500 anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. The legacy of the Reformation is profound and has resulted in over a billion new Christians around the world. The Reformation was, among many things, a major new church planting movement which created thousands of new faith communities which encircle the globe. Throughout history a repeated theme is that when the church goes through a crisis, it often spawns fresh re-discovery of the gospel message which, in turn, unleashes bold new evangelism and church planting.

The question I want to address in this blog post is this: Is the story of the Reformation the story of a cataclysmic division in the life of the church demonstrating that Christians just can’t get along and see themselves as “better together?” Or, is the Reformation about preserving the unity of the church and the re-discovery of that ancient apostolic faith? I want to say that the Reformation was, in the final analysis, about catholicity, or church unity, not about division. Of course, from a structural, ecclesiastical perspective we had a Roman Catholic Church and after the Reformation we had several new branches, including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and Anabaptist. This, in turn, has led to a narrative that the Reformation was about schism, unbridled individuality, secularization, and so forth.

However, the Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). The reformers believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical. They believed that there were acting on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel. To argue for the sole sufficiency of Christ for salvation is not a sectarian schism, but a contending for the apostolic gospel. The Reformers’ protest against the Roman Catholic Church was not against the concept of catholicity per se, only its unwarranted delimitation (“Roman”), as well as those unwarranted dogmas based on an appeal to authoritative Roman tradition rather than Scripture. What protests the Reformers made were ultimately lodged on behalf of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It is also important to remember that the Reformation sparked the Counter-Reformation within the Roman Catholic church which addressed many of the abuses which gave rise to the Reformation in the first place. There remain important differences, but we should thank God for the renewal which did take place which has enabled, for example, over 1 billion Catholic Christians to read the Bible in their own language.

What does this have to do with today? On the one hand, it is schismatic to contend for new doctrinal innovations which have never been believed or affirmed by the church of Jesus Christ. On the other hand, it is a sign of catholicity to contend for the faith “once for all delivered unto the saints.” A return to apostolicity is always an affirmation of catholicity. It also results in fresh evangelism and church planting. As Methodists, we are rooted in the Anglican tradition. We should never forget that hundreds of our forefathers and foremothers in the faith were burned at the stake for the Apostolic faith. It was said at the time that they were burned for being schismatic. But, looking back, they were actually put to death because of their deeper catholicity and faithfulness to the apostolic message. During Queen Mary the first’s short reign in England, over 300 Protestants were burned at the stake. Anglicans particularly remember the Oxford martyrs—all bishops—who were burned at the stake: Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer (the compiler of the Book of Common Prayer). These three died for sola fide (faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), sola scriptura (Scripture alone), and sola gratia (grace alone). They died for the deeper catholicity to which we have all been summoned by Christ. May we never forget.

Trinitarian Language and Gender

I have received several emails in recent weeks asking if the traditional Trinitarian language of God as “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” carries with it any tacit understanding that God is, biologically speaking, male. The short answer is “No,” “Nyet,” “Nada,” “Nei.,” There has never been a serious theological discussion in the church about the “gender” of the godhead. When the fourth Lateran council met in 1215 A.D. they did clarify this point, not because of any Christian debate on the issue, but because of false Islamic charges based on a statement found in Surah 5:116 of the Qur’an. The Scripture teaches that “God is spirit” (John 4:24) and therefore God is not a biological creature.

The modern attacks on Trinitarian language is not so much a serious theological discussion as it is a mirror reflecting our own cultural malaise. First, let’s talk about Trinitarian language. When the Scripture declares that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, these are eternal designations about his character and nature (not biology). The point is to demonstrate, among other things, the personal and relational nature of God, the intimate relationships within the Trinity, and the divine foundation of family which is designed to reflect the Trinity. The language we use for the Trinity is tied to God’s own self-revelation and self-disclosure of himself. The language of “Our Father” comes from the lips of Jesus himself who invites us to join him in the privilege of crying, “abba, Father.” To move to more gender neutral “functional” language such as “Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier” shifts the language to attributes of deity rather than the eternal nature of the godhead. Creation, Redemption and Sanctification refers to “works” or “functions” of the Godhead, rather than the eternal relationships which are independent of human creation or God’s redemptive response to the Fall which takes place within the framework of human history.

Second, in the incarnation God did become a biological male in Jesus Christ. He was fully God and fully man. However, the incarnation has always been understood as God’s redemptive action on behalf of the entire human race, rather than a biologically exclusionary act because he was a male instead of a female. There has been the occasional dissent from this view, as seen, for example, in the Shakers, the 18th century restorationist sect. They believed that since God became a man in Jesus Christ, the full redemption of the world would not be complete until he also became a woman. They believed that this happened with “Mother Ann” who they believed was the second incarnation of God and, as a female incarnation, would prepare the church for the final eschaton. However, Christians have long regarded such views as a fundamental misunderstanding of the holistic nature of the incarnation which envisions the church as the bride of Christ, rather than a single earthly “bride” as the Shakers believed was embodied by Mother Ann.

Precisely because Jesus represents male and female, he could not be both at the same time without losing the embodiment of both. Jesus’ representation of both genders is even reflected in the female imagery in the New Testament which portrays Christ as like unto a hen gathering her chicks. Augustine drives this point home when he says, “lest either sex should imagine it was being ignored by the creator, he took to himself a male and was born of a female.” ( Augustine, True Religion, “What was Achieved by the Incarnation of the Word” 16, 30.)

In conclusion, the church should continue to embrace traditional Trinitarian language as revealed in Scripture, and resist moving to generic “God only” liturgies. This commitment has little to do with the need for greater gender inclusivity and sensitivity in our language about the church which has, on the whole, been helpful.

The concern is that we not relinquish language specific to God’s revelation of himself. To drop all references to gender when referring to God because of a concern that it might affirm that God is a biological male not only defies centuries of Christian understanding of that language, but it ends up reducing our liturgies to sub-Christian affirmations because they could so easily become either Islamic or Hindu affirmations, or, even more troubling, language and phrases which rob God of his divine personhood and his personal relation with humanity.

My Charge to the Asbury Theological Seminary Graduating Class of 2017: The Church of Jesus Christ

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. There are countless observances unfolding throughout the year, culminating this October 31st when Christians all over the world remember the date 500 years earlier when Martin Luther nailed his famous 95 theses to the door of the church in Wittenburg. The Reformation unleashed a seismic change in the church which we are still experiencing today. At the last count, there are over 44,000 Protestant denominations around the world, comprising about one third of all Christians. The theological hallmarks of the Reformation have been summed up in the famous five solas—sola fide, sola scriptura, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo Gloria (faith alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, Christ alone, to the glory of God alone).

John Wesley and the Wesleyan revivals brought further depth to all of the five solas. “Christ alone” became more Trinitarian. “Faith alone” was understood more holistically by seeing it within the context of the entire doctrine of salvation. “Grace alone” was expanded to include many more dimensions than only the grace that justifies us.

The most glaring omission from the five solas is, of course, that there is no mention of the church. There is no sola ecclesia. I think it is clear to all of us why Luther did not include such a phrase in the Reformation. The ecclesiastical structures of the church had become more of a hindrance than a help and, as we know even today, the church can sometimes obscure, rather than illuminate, the gospel of Jesus Christ.

However, we must remember that central to the New Testament is the emphasis on community. You might be able to be justified alone at an altar, but you cannot be sanctified apart from community. When we are baptized, we are not merely baptized by faith, i.e. a solitary person putting his or her faith in Jesus Christ alone. We are also baptized into a community of faith which stretches back through time, and around the world.

This is why we must resist the popular notion to say “yes” to Jesus, but “no” to the church. The Church is what God is building in the world: “I will build my church” is one of the most formative and powerful statements of Jesus to his disciples (Matt. 16:18). The church does not have a mere instrumental purpose in the world. In other words, the church doesn’t just have the “function” of preaching the gospel or caring for the poor, or anything else which the church does. The church has an ontological purpose in the world, i.e. it is what God is building in the world.

Denominations may falter, or our particular local church may disappoint us at times, but the true church of Jesus Christ around the world will go on. We live in a day when there is rampant distrust of institutions coupled with an exaltation of the autonomous, free self. The true church is not some burdensome bureaucracy of oppression, but is the very bride of Christ which links heaven and earth together through the incarnation.

Graduates of the 2017 class, I charge you to go forth from this place and build the church of Jesus Christ! Resist the temptation to just give up on the church and embrace a more privatized faith which we can celebrate, if I can use the phrase, mihi soli, by myself alone. There is no mihi soli in our Christian identity. Let me encourage you to resist this, because the church is nothing less than our mystical participation in the body of Jesus Christ. We are, at times, forced, like the Pietists, to carve out a ecclesiolae in ecclesia (a true church within the structural church). But, in the end, the church must always take corporate, visible form as the community of those who belong to Jesus Christ. We may have to meet in catacombs, but we still meet together and share with words and songs our shared life together.

This is why Asbury Seminary is so committed to unleashing hundreds of new church planters and a wave of re-missionized churches. Church planting is nothing less than evangelism in community. It is the Apostolic way of evangelism. Every time you hear someone wring their hands and tell you how many millions of members have been lost, or worrying about the rise of a post-Christian America, remind them of how many more millions can be gained if we remember the gospel, remain faithful to the Word of God, and roll up our sleeves and start building communities of the New Creation—little outposts of heaven right here on earth—the church of Jesus Christ! Amen.

Perspectives vs. Positions of the Church

It is important to keep sorted out the difference between a perspective and a position as it relates to theological matters. Today, the word perspective has slowly advanced over the linguistic landscape until almost everything in Christianity is referred to regularly as a perspective. However, the word perspective should be carefully reserved for matters of legitimate differences within the church. For example, churches really do have different perspectives on the sacrament of baptism. A covenantal view, for example, embraces infant baptism and has a series of theological arguments to support it. In contrast, a confessional view of baptism rejects infant baptism, insisting on the public confession of a believer. This view also has theological arguments to support it. Historically, the church has not found common ground on every aspect of baptism. Similar examples could be cited related to forms of church government, the relationship of tongue-speaking to Spirit baptism, or views on the millennium. On all these matters, the church sees this or that issue from differing theological perspectives.

The word position, on the other hand, refers to matters where the church has historically spoken with a single voice. The church could never accept a situation where one wing of the church believed that Jesus Christ rose bodily from the grave, while another wing of the church believed that he merely rose symbolically in the preaching of the Apostles. Rudolph Bultmann may have believed that, but the church of Jesus Christ throughout time and history has never accepted that. The church would never accept such differing perspectives on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. On the contrary, the church has a position regarding the Resurrection; namely, Jesus of Nazareth bodily rose from the dead. Period. This is not a point of discussion. There are many things in this category such as the Christian prohibition against lying, the virgin birth of Jesus, or the deity of the Holy Spirit. On these things the church has spoken with a single voice.

There are, of course, endless examples of clever people who rise up from time to time and challenge core doctrines of the Christian faith. They inevitably create a big stir, sell a lot of books. Our mind quickly goes to such books as Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code or John Spong’s Why Christianity Must Change. When books like these appear and become best sellers, a whole sector of Christians get weak at the knees and starts telling the church that we should be ashamed of ourselves for believing this or that historic doctrine. We are told that we are “on the wrong side of history” and we should “get with the times.” We are, in particular, reminded that young people will never believe historic Christian doctrines, so the church had better adapt to the future realities now, or the church will go the way of the Dodo bird. Of course, these challenges always blow over, whether it be Gnosticism, Arianism, Constantinianism, Protestant revisionism, popular evangelical reductionism or the new atheism. They raise their ugly head for a season, but the glorious truth of the gospel has this habit of reasserting its power and glory into a broken world. Certain denominations hold to the new “gospel of John Spong” and within a few generations that church disappears and new vibrant expressions of the gospel re-emerge in other sectors and tens of thousands hear the gospel afresh and the gospel is renewed once again.

We are now in the midst of a half dozen or more new waves which are washing over the church. We are, of course, told that our differing views are merely matters of perspective. So, they argue, “let’s just agree to disagree.” We should make sure that we are on “the right side of history” and recast a gospel which is acceptable to the millennial generation, and so forth. We have heard this song so many times, even if the tune is slightly different each go around. However, this is a category error. We cannot pretend that an historic Christian position has somehow become a mere perspective. If your denomination, or my denomination, or any other goes down this route (as so many already have), fear not. God always raises up better hearers of His holy Word. There is no point in getting angry or fearful.

In 1548 after the death of Martin Luther, Charles V called for an imperial diet (major meeting) to finally put to rest this “Luther affair” and to put this whole Reformation thing behind us. However, the Protestants pushed back. They reminded Charles V that they really did believe the great themes of the gospel which the Reformation sought to restore. In the end, it wasn’t about Luther or any other personality. It was the church being the church, even when the whole weight of public opinion and imperial force stood against us. In just a few months we will be remembering the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Perhaps we should start preparing our own theses to nail on church doors across this nation.

United Methodist Judicial Council Ruling: So, Now What?

On Friday, April 28th the Judicial Council issued its long-awaited decision regarding the July 2016 consecration by the Western Jurisdiction of Karen Oliveto as a United Methodist Bishop. The Judicial Council ruled 6-3 that the act does, in fact, violate the clear language of the Discipline that no “self-avowed practicing homosexual” shall be ordained in the United Methodist Church. They made it clear that because Rev. Oliveto, through her own public statements, as well as her legal status (she has been legally married to a woman since 2014), constitutes being self-avowed and practicing. However, the Judicial Council did not remove her from her episcopal appointment over the Mountain Sky Area. Rather, they referred any action back to the Western Jurisdiction. So, now what?

United Methodist polity, as I understand it, has a separation of powers between the judicial and executive branches of the church. In the United States, law enforcement is located in the executive branch, not the judicial branch. In the same way, the Judicial Council can rule that a certain act is “unconstitutional” but it relies upon the Jurisdiction to exercise their executive authority and declare that her appointment was unlawful. The problem is, they will never do that. The reason is that the statements in the Discipline regarding same sex marriage have always been clear to anyone who knows and understands the meaning of English words. There has never been any real doubt that the intended meaning of the Discipline. It is true that many attempts have been made to find technicalities to get around the Discipline, but everyone knows what it says, which is why so many groups have worked so hard every four years to alter the language. The Western Jurisdiction will continue their disobedience to the Discipline in the post-April 28, 2017 period, just as they have disobeyed it in the pre-April 28, 2017 period.

If this is true, then has anything changed? Yes, something important has changed. We now have an important, legal ruling that we, as a denomination, are in schism. Before April 28th we had individual pastors who defied the Discipline, but now we have an entire jurisdiction of the church in open rebellion against the Discipline. Even when retired bishop Melvin Talbert from the Western Jurisdiction traveled to Alabama in 2013 and in explicit denial of the Discipline and his own ordination vows, performed a same sex marriage he was not formally representing the Western Jurisdiction. Now, the Western Jurisdiction will be officially required to respond to the Judicial Council. If they defy the Judicial Council, then our shared covenant will be legally broken. It has already been broken in practice, but those could be viewed as errant outliers. Such public fiction is now no longer possible. We will be in schism no less than when, in the Roman Catholic church, Rome and France set up rival papacies between 1309 and 1377.

For years, thousands of United Methodist pastors and laity have been discussing whether or not the United Methodist Church should or should not legally separate. Now it seems increasingly clear that this particular fork in the road may have already been taken. Even though I have been praying for and “prescribing” unity, there is a point where the “facts on the ground” may overtake us all. If so, then the only real option we may have in discussing a way forward is to focus on the terms of a separation which has already occurred, rather than keep pretending that our shared covenant remains intact.

Who is Gonzaga?

March madness is finally over, reaching its frenzied climax in the big NCAA men’s final. Even though North Carolina triumphed, many were amazed that Gonzaga had finally made it to the big NCAA show. This year was the ultimate showdown between the new basketball (Gonzaga) and the “blue bloods” (North Carolina). But now that the dust is settling, perhaps it would be worth looking back and asking, “Who in the world was Gonzaga?” By now, most people know that Gonzaga is a Jesuit university in Spokane. But, few know what the school was named after.

Aloysius de Gonzaga was the oldest son born in 1568 into an Italian aristocratic family. In those days it was customary for the oldest son to serve in the military, and Aloysius was inclined to follow that tradition from the earliest age. However, two things happened which began to turn him to the Lord. First, he witnessed the murder of two of his brothers. Second, he fell ill with a kidney disease. These experiences sent him searching until he eventually felt God calling him to be a Jesuit missionary.

Alousius’ father vigorously opposed his son’s desire to become a priest, because it meant the renunciation of his inheritance, title, land, and so forth. He was even offered a bishopric if he would only become a “secular priest” and avoid the full vows of “poverty, chastity and obedience.” However, Aloysius, after several years of training, took the vows and became a Jesuit. In 1591a plague broke out in Rome and Aloysius volunteered to serve the dying in a hospital in Rome. Aloysius himself eventually caught the plague and he died in 1591 at 23 years old.

He was venerated for many years and eventually in 1729 was declared by pope Benedict XIII to be the patron saint of young students. He was also regarded as the patron saint of plague victims and eventually became the patron saint for all those suffering from AIDS. He is usually shown either with someone suffering from a plague or in the presence of a skull, reminding us of his own early death in the cause of Christ. One of his most famous sayings is the line, “It is better to be a child of God than King of the World.”

Indeed, at this time of the year it will do us well to remember that being “king of the world” or NCAA champions pales in comparison to being a child of God.

The Benedict Option or the Liele Option?

The Benedict Option (Sentinel Press, 2017) by Rob Dreher is a new, best-selling Christian book which caught my attention when it became the cover story of the recent issue of Christianity Today. The subtitle of the book is “A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation.” What is the Benedict Option? The Benedict “option” is to follow in the path of the 6th century monk, St. Benedict, and set up separate religious communities which allow Christians to create counter-cultural enclaves to survive the “dark ages” which are descending upon western culture. Dreher says that the culture wars are over and, in case you haven’t gotten the memo, Christians lost. There is a rising fundamentalist intolerance among the new cultural elite and, Dreher argues, Christians will increasingly become marginalized in Western society. He goes on to say that “there are people alive today who may live to see the effective death of Christianity within our civilization.” Thus, the Benedict option is to create new micro-communities of hope and wait out the storm.

I am not entirely unsympathetic to Dreher’s thesis, and this article is not intended to offer either an endorsement or a sustained critique of the Benedict Option. I would only say that the church has been in this situation many times in history and there is a second option which is worth remembering. I will call it the George Liele Option. The story of George Liele is not widely known in our recounting of church history because he was an 18th century slave. He knew first hand what it meant to be marginalized and counted as less than a full person. He managed to work and “buy himself” out of slavery, and eventually became the pastor of the first African Church of Savannah. He later worked as an indentured servant and was able to pay for his wife and four children to relocate to Kingston, Jamaica in 1783, a hub of the transatlantic slave trade. Liele effectively walked right into the heart of one of the most degraded, fallen, and misery-laden places on earth and become a light for the gospel.

When the story of missions is told, it is not unusual to read that William Carey from England was the father of modern missions in the West, or, that Adoniram Judson was the first American missionary to leave the soil of America as a missionary (he went to Burma). However, it is actually George Liele, a former slave, who has the remarkable distinction of being the first American to leave the United States and serve cross-culturally as a missionary. He went to Jamaica a full ten years before William Carey departed for India. Likewise, Judson did not arrive in Asia until 1812, almost three decades after Liele arrived in Jamaica.

The Liele Option is the missional option.  This option is to face the full descent of darkness head on and to bear witness to the light in very public and prophetic ways. Liele formed the first African Baptist Church of Kingston and within ten years the church had grown to over 500 members (For more on George Liele [1750-1828] see, Clement Gayle, George Liele:  Pioneer Missionary of Jamaica [1982] and E. A. Holmes, “George Liele: Negro Slavery’s Prophet of Deliverance,”  Baptist Quarterly 20 [October 1964]: 340-351).

Of course, anyone who knows the history of the monastic movement knows that the Benedict Option is also highly missional. The most dramatic withdrawal from the world is probably associated with St. Simon Stylites the Elder who spent 37 years on top of a small platform on top of a fifty foot pillar in—amazingly—Aleppo, Syria. However, St. Simon became a magnet who drew hundreds to hear the gospel. Many bishops, and even the Emperor, came to him for advice, counsel, and prayer. Likewise, those engaged in overt missional work in the midst of a lost world, human trafficking, or cultural indifference, cannot survive long without being nourished by the Christian community which surrounds them and prays for them.

So, whether we opt for the Benedict Option, or the George Liele Option, we must always remember that we are following Christ himself who commanded us to be “in the world, but not of the world” (John 17:14-18). That command will take radically different forms as we lean towards the “in” side of the equation or the “not of” side of the equation. Yet, both are essential if we are to be faithful in our own time.

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 ).