Billy Graham: Three Lessons He Taught Me

Over the last few weeks we have witnessed thousands of tributes from around the world expressing admiration for Billy Graham and his evangelistic ministry which had such a profound impact on the world. I would like to share a few memories and how Billy Graham helped shape my life.

1) The “Boston Photograph”

One of my favorite pictures of Billy Graham is one I saw at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where I once served on faculty (1998-2009). It was a picture of Billy Graham preaching in the Boston common in January, 1950. This was after the Los Angeles breakthrough revival which went on for weeks. But, his critics said, “anything can happen in southern California.” If Billy Graham was truly anointed by God, he had to prove it in a hard, cold place like Boston.

Preaching in the open air Boston commons during January was truly a test of faith. Remarkably, over 50,000 people gathered to hear the gospel preached. This crusade was before they had the organizational team fully in place, so there was no “center aisle” or roped off areas for people to come forward to respond to the gospel. So, Billy Graham told those gathered to wave their handkerchiefs as a sign of surrendering to God. It is that moment which is captured in the photograph—thousands of people waving handkerchiefs as they gave their lives to Christ. (Historical note: In 1950 men and women in the professional world all carried handkerchiefs. In fact, it is truly amazing to see this picture from 1950 with everyone wearing suits and ties, etc.).

That picture, for me, represents the life of faith. It has inspired me to step out in faith. If Billy Graham was willing to preach the gospel in the open air in Boston during January, then I can step out and trust God in my life.

2) Preaching in the Soviet Union

Billy Graham spoke at a peace conference in the Soviet Union in 1982 and later returned in 1984 for a full slate of revival services where he preached in dozens of churches and in Red Square. It is hard to imagine today how controversial this was. Rather than rejoice, the media was filled with bitter accusations that Billy Graham was being used and co-opted by Soviet propaganda to prove that there was “religious freedom” in the soviet-bloc countries.

I had the privilege of meeting Billy Graham when he flew back from the Soviet Union, because his first stop was in Boston where he spoke at Gordon-Conwell where I was a student at the time. The media was everywhere. I will never forget his response when asked about his being used as a part of Soviet propaganda. He said, “I don’t care about Soviet propaganda. All I know is that I preached the same gospel in Red Square that I have preached all over the world.” This was a defining moment for me. It taught me to not worry about all the naysayers and critics who will inevitably be there to discourage you. We must keep our eye on the mission. We must keep our eyes on Jesus. I have attended Billy Graham crusades. I have served in the “phone center” and had the privilege of leading dozens to Christ who called in on the telephone during his crusade. But I think his fearlessness in preaching in the Soviet Union despite all the critics did more for me than I can fully express in this short tribute.

3) Billy Graham’s Funeral

I was honored to receive an invitation to Billy Graham’s funeral which took place on Friday, March 2. We had to arrive early at the Samaritan’s Purse headquarters and go through security before being transported by bus to the revival tent on the grounds of the Billy Graham library in Charlotte, just a few miles from where Billy Graham was born. As I sat there and listened to the service I was reminded that Billy Graham had been intimately involved in the planning of his own funeral. The funeral was clearly not a tribute to Billy Graham. It was a tribute to the grace of God in Jesus Christ. Every speaker—including all of his children—emphasized the gospel. It reminded me of the saying which my mother always had (and still does) on the wall of the kitchen in the house where I grew up: “Just one life will soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.” This is the legacy of Billy Graham. It will soon be the test of our legacy as well.

It doesn’t matter what we do, or what we accomplish. What finally matters, is the glory of Jesus Christ. Even at his funeral, Billy Graham was still teaching us that great lesson. Praise God for a life well lived. Praise God even more for Jesus Christ, our Savior!

Catherine of Siena, Our Lenten Guide

During Lent, we all need mentors who can guide us down this twisting and arduous 40 day path. Let me suggest that you may have to look to church history to find those mentors. I have been helped immensely by Catherine of Siena as I walk through this holy season of Lent, because she models for us the pathway out of all kinds of temptations.

Catherine of Siena, or I should say, Saint Siena, lived in the 14th century. She was born in 1347, the 24th of 25 children! She was declared a saint by the church, and, in fact, was given the title Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI, the first woman to receive that honor in the history of the church. There are now only a handful of people in the Roman Catholic and Anglican tradition who have been formally given the title of “Doctor” of the church, huge, larger-than-life figures like Augustine of Hippo, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Thomas Aquinas—all men who were educated at the highest level in their day. But, Catherine of Siena was the first woman to be given this revered title, despite having no formal education. She achieved it through the sheer force of her life. Additionally, she is regarded, along with Francis of Assisi, as co-patron of the city of Rome. It is a remarkable story for a young woman with no formal education and who died at the age of 33.

If you were a woman called into full-time ministry in the 14th century, the only real option before you was to become what was known as a cloistered nun. This would involve a life of isolation from the world, so you could give yourself completely to contemplation and prayer. If you did not become a cloistered nun, then you were expected to marry and have children. In the 14th century, there was no ecclesiastical space for a single woman who rejected the life of a nun, but wanted to serve God actively in the world. Catherine of Siena would change all of that. At a very young age, probably around seven, she had a vision of Christ and felt called to celibacy, poverty and prayer, but without becoming a cloistered nun. She went on to become one of the great mystics of the church. This is the time of the Plague, or Black Death in Europe—the deadliest pandemic in human history. It is estimated that between 100 and 200 million people died of the Plague. To put a point on it, during the Plague, the Black Death killed almost half of the entire population of Europe. The Plague originated in Asia and it is estimated that world population actually decreased from around 450 million to 350 million. Modern day epidemiologists believe that the plague was a rat-borne organism which created an illness now known as Yersinia pestis—and they believe that this was actually the third major pandemic caused by this coccobacillus organism. But no one knew any of that. They just witnessed people dying at every turn. The suffering and fear was beyond our imagination.

Catherine wanted to care for these sufferers, and to listen to the voice of God in the midst of all of this suffering. She developed not an other worldly concentration, but the ability to have in world concentration on the Lord. Probably as much as anyone who has ever lived, she embodied the admonition, “pray without ceasing.” But she did it immersed in the world—living, acting and serving.

Lent is not about escaping from the world, but acting with holiness in the world. Catherine developed a strong sense of the mystical presence of Jesus. She managed to turn on its head the very notion of ecclesiastical power, which was not in Rome, nor in the bishops who were formally vested with power, but in the simplicity and deep spirituality for which she was revered by all who knew her. How can this amazing woman help us in our Lenten journey?

First, Catherine of Siena norms the unseen spiritual world for us. She breaks us out of our spiritual slumber to see the spiritual world. Sometimes we don’t know what to do with Jesus speaking with Satan, casting out demons, and Jesus’ affirmation of the reality of the spiritual world. It is a world we scarcely recognize because we are spiritually asleep.

Second, Catherine of Siena teaches us that the greatest ascent into the presence of God always leads us into the greatest descent into the sufferings of the world. Her communion with God led her to a deep engagement with the world’s pain, not as a cloistered nun who lives apart from the world, but as a saint fully engaged with the world. The cloistered nuns are, of course, magnificent models of prayer and devotion as well. But, Catherine was a pioneer in modeling for women an alternative path which is fully engaged in the world.

Third, Catherine of  Siena teaches us how to live with a single-minded awareness of the presence of Christ. Rise in the presence of the Risen Lord. We don’t read scripture alone—sola scriptura is about the authority of Scripture, but it is not about our solitude in the presence of Scripture. One of the great Trinitarian blessings of the church is, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.” This blessing goes back to 2 Corinthians 13 and finds its way into liturgies across the life of the church. It was a well-known blessing in the 14th century as well, but Catherine did not say it that way. She famously would say,

“In the Name of the Father, and of Thee, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

She didn’t use the phrase “and the Son” because that implied that Jesus was somewhere else. But, for Catherine, Jesus was right there—signified by “and of Thee.” What would happen if Lent was the season where we lived our lives in the presence of the Risen Christ—and He was right there with us all the time?

This is what Lent calls us to: Deeper awareness of the spiritual world, deeper into the sufferings of the world, and deeper into a single minded awareness of the presence of Christ.

The Temptations of Jesus

Lent, by its nature, is a desert time—a time of purification. This is why the lectionary starts Lent today with Jesus in the wilderness. There we meet all the elements of Lent: 40 days, fasting, wilderness and meeting the Devil face to face. We have an enemy of our soul, and Lent is the time we face it again, so that what is really fundamental rises to the top, and all that which distracts us falls away.

I think the church fathers were right when they asserted that Jesus endured many temptations, but these particular three temptations are highlighted in the Gospels because they represent different categories of the temptations we all face.

First, “turn these stones into bread.” At the most basic level, this is the temptation of the flesh. John Wesley taught the goodness of creation, and we know that food, drink, and sex are all God’s precious gifts to us. But, when food or other fleshly desires take on a deviant twist, they become evil. This would include all the ways our flesh becomes malformed or misdirected, whether it be lust or a desire for material things. God provides us with a family, and material possessions, but once we start trusting in our food and material possessions, or allowing any fleshly desire to be misdirected, then it can become an evil. We all can become preoccupied with our daily needs—bread, money, paying tuition, retirement income, etc. This is the temptation which lies at the base of our human existence.

Satan then takes Jesus and showed him all the kingdoms of the world, and promised them all to him. This is the temptation for position, for power, and name. It is the temptation for status, and glory. Ministry is no different from any other position in that it carries with it the temptation or the malformed desire to make a name for ourselves. We long for reputation. We long for status. Our affections get malformed and directed towards our own power or glory. Jesus, alternatively, points us worship the Lord alone. Notice that Satan controls all the kingdoms of the world. We cannot put our hope in Washington, D.C. or any other political system to achieve kingdom ends.

Finally, Satan takes him to the highest pinnacle of the temple and commands him to throw himself down and Satan quotes scripture—Psalm 91. Satan takes the verse out of context—“for his angels will protect you so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” It is a promise for those who have made the Lord their refuge. It is not a verse which should be used to test the Lord in some presumptuous way. This is the temptation to not trust the Word of God. It is that temptation to make the Scripture say what we want it to say, rather than what it actually says. This is why Jesus replies with Scripture, “you shall not test the Lord your God.” All three times Jesus brings the focus back to the Lord and the call for us to keep a single-minded focus on the Lord.

I pray this Lent that your life will be cleansed and renewed for the season ahead.

Sexual Harassment and Racism in America

C. S. Lewis made an important observation in his 1946 essay titled, “The Decline of Religion.” Many had cited the decline of attendance in the chapels of the various Oxford and Cambridge colleges as a sign of the decline of faith in Britain. But Lewis observed that the decline had not been gradual, but occurred at the very moment when chapel attendance was no longer required. The sixty persons who had attended became five attenders overnight. Lewis pointed out that those five had been the only dedicated Christians all along, but it was the dropping of the compulsory requirement which revealed what had, in fact, been the true situation all along.

In the past few months we have seen an avalanche of prominent people accused of sexual harassment throughout our country. It has spanned the entertainment industry (e.g. Harvey Weinstein), politics (e.g. Al Franken), news media (e.g. Matt Lauer), sports (e.g. Larry Nassar), and even the church (e.g. Andy Savage). It would be wrong to assume that there has been a sudden rise in sexual harassment in our country. Rather, these despicable acts have been taking place for decades in the shadows. Many women felt powerless to speak up and confront their abusers. Now, it is like the house lights in the culture have come up and we can see what has been taking place day in and day out throughout our land. The “compulsory silence” has been lifted and now we can see the vile and degraded nature of our culture in a way which has been kept hidden but was there all along. The #Metoo movement which was launched in October of 2017 has become a long needed cultural permission slip which allows the truth to be known, as painful as it is.

The screaming headline which we must read is this: We are a culture mired in deep sexual brokenness. This is not just a problem of the rich and prominent whom we have seen disgraced in recent months. This is a sin embedded deeply within the culture as a whole. The pathway to healing always begins by facing the truth, however painful it may be. As Christians, we welcome this because the Scripture teaches that this is the trajectory of divine judgment. Jesus taught that “what you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs” (Luke 12:3). In other words, in the final day of Judgment, there will be no more hidden sins, but all will be brought out in the open. Thus, the #Metoo movement represents a means of grace to us all, because it prefigures, however imperfectly, final judgement. Yet, by the lights coming on now rather than later, it allows space for repentance, forgiveness, and restoration before that great and terrible day. Our culture, of course, doesn’t yet understand the power of repentance and forgiveness, but we are learning something about the power of truth emerging in the midst of a long night of deception and acquiescence. The dramatic collapse of so many prominent people’s lives, marriages, and careers may serve as a warning to those who would contemplate such actions.

In the same way, recent racist comments from our President about Haitians, Salvadorians, and Africans in recent days is shocking, evil, and embarrassing. Yet, such comments have been said quietly in homes and offices all across our country for many decades. The houselights on racism have also come up. We realize afresh how naïve it may have been to think that the Civil Rights movement washed the root of racism out of our country. The Black Lives Matter movement, however imperfectly, turned on the cultural “house lights” to reveal systemic racism in our country which we have conveniently swept under the rug. Racist attitudes persist and must be confronted. Governments can change laws, but laws are powerless to address the root of the problem, which is found in the human heart. Jesus said, “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders” (Matthew 15:19). To change the human heart requires a divine initiative. As Christians, we believe that the only hope for our culture, or any culture, is in and through the power of the gospel which first establishes us as in bondage to sin and Adam’s “helpless race.” Only then are we able to see ourselves as we truly are and receive the power and the grace which comes through the ministry of the Triune God.

As a Christian serving at Asbury Theological Seminary, I believe that all cultures are uniquely contoured by God’s grace. Not only are all persons created in God’s image, but the cultures they inhabit also reflect many beautiful facets of God’s grace and handiwork. There is not a culture in the world which is void of many beautiful and admirable traits. Also, sadly, every culture is mired in sin and the brokenness which cries out for redemption.

There should be no place in our hearts, minds, or actions for racism or the degradation of women—anywhere, anytime, or any place. As Christians, we must categorically denounce it. We also understand that there is no hope for our culture, or any other, without the transformation which comes through Jesus Christ. We must model exemplary behavior in even the smallest detail. Paul says it well when he admonishes us: “But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3). Through our lives and actions, we must prove ourselves to be “above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15). Now, as much as ever, our culture needs the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ to be embodied by the people of God in every home, school, and work place throughout our blessed, but defiled, country.

The Second Reason Jesus Went to Egypt

There are eight different narratives in the New Testament highlighting various aspects of the Nativity of Jesus. Most of these narratives are well known to the church, such as the angelic appearance to Mary, the shepherds in the field, the innkeeper, the magi from the east, etc. The one narrative which is not spoken of as often is, of course, the flight to Egypt. It is clear that Matthew’s account and his quotation of Hosea 11:1, “out of Egypt I called my Son” that part of the early understanding of Jesus’ childhood involves returning to Egypt as a “second Moses” and re-tracing the steps of Israel in their bondage to slavery and, eventually, their coming “out of Egypt” into the Promised Land. Jesus embodies the New Israel and so this is clearly the main theme of the narrative as given in Matthew.

However, there is another, subtler, reason for the trip to Egypt. Egypt was an arch-enemy of Israel and was responsible for their earlier slavery and bondage. It would be natural for Egyptians to see themselves as outside of God’s plan of salvation. Indeed, it must be a difficult thing to read the whole Exodus account if you are an Egyptian and you see yourselves as a part of that great and ancient civilization. However, God’s deeper plan for Egypt and the Egyptians goes back long before their enslavement of the Hebrews. At the very origin of God’s covenant with the Jewish people when he revealed himself to Abraham, he declared that “in your seed, all nations shall be blessed.” This promise was repeated to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Psalm 87 even enshrined in the worship of Israel the promise that Israel’s enemies, including Rahab (a poetic name for Egypt), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, and Cush would all be regarded as “native born” members of Zion. This means that God would count them as his redeemed children—not even adopted children—but his children, because of the sheer expansiveness of his redemptive purposes.

The fact that Egypt, who once had enslaved God’s people, now becomes (through the flight to Egypt with the baby Jesus) the protector and the haven for the Messiah has enormous redemptive implications for all Egyptians. Jesus Christ, the Incarnate One, could never have been manifest to the world if not for the early protection afforded to the holy family through the Egyptians. They protected him from the wrath of Herod, who ended up slaughtering all of the babies in Bethlehem. Those babies became, in effect, the first Christian martyrs, rooting even the nativity story in the soil of pain and suffering. As Jesus became a refugee and entered into the pain of an arduous journey of over 400 miles, he was already beginning his mission of bearing the sins of the world. He was creating new narratives for those who doubt the reach of his redemption, and giving hope to all those who are disenfranchised. This lies at the heart of the nativity, which causes us to rejoice in this holy season.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part VII): Can We Receive Some Better Questions, Please?

This is the final article in this series on the Uniting Methodists document and the “local option” solution. The proposed solution to our conversations about same-sex marriage and ordination is to allow local churches to decide whether they will or will not perform same-sex marriages and allow the annual conferences to decide whether or not they will ordain homosexual, bi-sexual, gender non-conforming, and transgendered persons. The previous six articles examined this solution from various angles to discern whether this is a wise direction for our beloved denomination.

I know that there is a general weariness about this issue and a sense that because we have been discussing it for 45 years we should surely be able to decide one way or the other by now, and move on. However, the reason we cannot, and will not, be able to ‘move on” is that, despite 45 years of debate, we have never actually had a proper discussion about it. The driving questions raised in these articles about the nature of church unity, the authority of scripture, the exegesis of key texts, the Christian view of the body, God’s design for marriage, and so forth have all been silenced under much weaker questions.

We have all been subjected to endless vague questions which have been wearily imposed upon our beloved church: “Is it not time for the United Methodist Church to become more inclusive?” “Haven’t we been called to love all people?” “Just as we have evolved in our views regarding slavery and the role of women, is it not time to evolve our views regarding homosexuality?” We must insist that better questions be asked. There is too much at stake. Our church deserves our best thinking.

Sometimes questions wrapped up in the word “inclusive” have tacitly carried the assumption that the church has some moral obligation to embrace every conceivable view which is put forward, even if it is a new doctrine invented last Tuesday. Sometimes the word love is ripped from its biblical rootedness in God’s covenantal holiness, turned into a modern emotional disposition, and then used as a lever to convince us that we cannot “love our neighbor” unless we also embrace the sins of our neighbor. Sometimes we are asked to believe that the church, in disobedience to scripture (e.g. attitudes towards women, minorities, or slavery), is equivalent with the actual teachings of scripture. Sometimes we hear the phrase, “my experience teaches me”—as if experience is the final arbiter of any dispute, carrying more weight than Scripture itself. Sometimes we are given endless pragmatic arguments about how our empty pews will be filled with young people if we just “get on the right side of history.” Sometimes we are told that because same-sex marriage is not explicitly condemned in the Apostles’ Creed, this is all much ado about nothing, neglecting the point that no sins are listed or even mentioned in the Creed. Sometimes we hear statements which confuse the church’s glorious diversity with the accommodation of endless human preferences. Sometimes we are told that passages which have been abundantly clear to the church for 2,000 years are suddenly unclear and no one has a clue what they mean. We are not given an alternative solution to consider, and weigh on its merits. We are just lulled into the sea of what Michael Ovey ingeniously calls “imperious ignorance.” I could go on, but these are a few examples of the intellectually fragile position into which we have allowed ourselves to be pushed.

What we desperately need is a proper, nuanced conversation about church history, biblical texts, theology, and pastoral care. We must, frankly speaking, grow up and act like we are part of the church of Jesus Christ which stretches back through time and around the globe. We are not a human organization like the Kiwanis Club. We are the divinely commissioned church of Jesus Christ. We must have a rebirth of both catholicity and apostolicity. We must pray for a renewed encounter with our own vibrant tradition which continues to call us to be a people of “one Book” and to “spread scriptural holiness.”

Brothers and sisters, even if it takes more time, let’s insist on a better framework of questions. These weak questions have led to weak thinking, more divisiveness, and, at times, the shaming of those who adhere to the official position in the Book of Discipline. Weak questions have led to the incapacity to speak prophetically to a culture which is in deep malaise. We have become like the doctor who thinks that he or she cannot properly treat any of their patients until they catch every disease that they have.

Mirslov Volf, the well-known theologian, statesman, and author writes in his landmark book, Exclusion and Embrace, “Vilify all boundaries, pronounce every discrete identity oppressive, put the tag ‘exclusion’ on every stable difference—and you will have aimless drifting instead of clear-sighted agency, haphazard activity instead of moral engagement and accountability, and, in the long run, a torpor of death instead of a dance of freedom” (p. 64f). May the Risen and Exalted Christ wake us up from this protracted denominational slumber, for our only hope is in His divine action. This is not the time for either clinched fists or wringing hands. Rather, it is the time for open arms lifted up to the Lord of all who raised Jesus Christ from the dead. He can raise us up to new heights of proclamation, witness, and hope.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part VI): Is There a Divine Design to Marriage?

One of the areas where I find myself in agreement with the progressives is their exasperation that we, as a church, might be known as “those people who are opposed to homosexuality.” This is a valid point. We must be known for what we are for not what we are against. The progressive solution is to essentially agree with much of the culture on their views of sexuality and the human body. We have dedicated five articles in this series to demonstrating why this is neither wise nor prudent if one of our shared goals is to remain firmly within the bounds of historic Christian faith. The solution which would reinvigorate our church would be to re-cast the positive Christian vision of human sexuality and the theology of the body.

Our problem as a denomination goes back many decades because our vision for the very nature of Christian marriage itself has been lost. The whole notion that there might be a divine design to marriage is never addressed. In fact, many Christians, quite tragically, embrace the larger societal view of marriage. This is the popular narrative in broad form: Marriage is a way to find personal fulfillment and make you happy. Marriage is defined, so the narrative goes, as a legal arrangement which allows two people to fulfill each other’s emotional and sexual needs and desires, and find economic stability.

Accepting this narrative is the source of many of our woes.  Individual freedom, personal autonomy and fulfillment are very high values in the West and marriage has been domesticated to fit within that larger utilitarian framework. The culture has a utilitarian view which sees marriage as a commodity.  We should have a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant. The utilitarian vision sees the body of a man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car—is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not. Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color, or not; are your teeth shiny and straight, or not? In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

Since the church has unwittingly accepted the wider culture’s view of marriage, we have very little room to maneuver. Once a functionalistic, commodity-driven, utilitarian view of marriage is accepted, then we really have no solid ground to stand on in opposing a whole range of new kinds of relationships which might be called marriage. As the mantra goes, “Why should we care who someone loves as long as they are happy?”

We must remember what Jesus did when he was asked the burning question of his day: “Can a man divorce his wife for any reason at all?” (Matt. 19:3). Rather than answer directly, Jesus directs them to return to story of creation and remember God’s original design for marriage. Jesus does not answer their question, he re-frames the question. We must learn to ask the right question.  Unfortunately, the first right question is not, “should the church support same sex marriage?” or “should we permit the ordination of homosexuals?” Jesus’ reply teaches us that to answer that question without first understanding God’s original design tacitly ends up accepting all the broken presuppositions which gave rise to the question in the first place.  The first right question is this: “What is God’s design for marriage?” 

Jesus calls us back to the creational, covenantal and Eucharistic mystery of marriage. First, by creating us male and female God designed two different, complementary glories who come together as one. It is the primordial sacrament of creation which would someday become the grand metaphor for Christ and the church celebrated in the marriage supper of the lamb. In Ephesians 5 when Paul commands husbands to love their wives, he tells us that he is speaking ultimately about the mystery of Christ and his church. In the Scriptures, the body is primarily a theological category, not a biological one.

Second, marriage was designed to invite us into the mystery of creation by becoming co-creators with him. Through the miracle of childbirth, we actually participate with God in creation by becoming co-creators with him. Indeed, while honoring the special calling of celibacy, the church understands that the building of families is at the heart of God’s design. This is one of the many reasons why the church has never declared moral equivalency of marriage between a man and a woman and a homosexual marriage.

Third, the family unit has been designed by God to reflect the mystery of the Trinity itself. Husband and wife become, through the gift of family, father and mother, and they stand before God with their children as a sign and seal of the Triune God. The family is meant to be a reflection of the Trinity with mutual gifts, submission, joyful exercise of kingly and queenly authority, love, discipline, self-donation, and becoming co-creators with God.

The Bible begins and ends with a marriage.  It is one of the great threads which connects the great themes of creation, redemption, and even the Triune nature of God himself. We must reject the notion that marriage is merely a human institution which can be shaped or defined by a majority vote as we see fit.  I plead with our church leaders, there are many things we can vote on in the church, but the definition of marriage is not one of them.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part V): Are We Now Facing a New Gnosticism in the Church?

The purpose of this entry is to examine the sixth and final article of the Uniting Methodists “local option” document which focuses on Ordination. This article represents a dramatic, but largely unnoticed, shift in the 45-year debate going on in the United Methodist Church. The focus of the debate over the last twelve General Conferences (1972 to the present) has been over the normalization of same sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. I have already noted in the first two articles in this series that two of the deeper struggles we are engaged in, namely, the true nature of church unity and the authority of Scripture have been insufficiently addressed. However, there is a third deep issue, also neglected, which the final article of the Uniting Methodists document brings to light: The Christian view of the body.

The sixth and final article moves beyond the issue of same sex marriage and asks the church to permit the ordination of homosexual, bi-sexual, transgendered and gender non-conforming people. The sixth article does not compel any annual conference to do so, but would permit any annual conference in the country to “ordain LGBTQ persons.” This is mirrored by the November 9 letter from the Council on Bishops which calls for a “way forward” for “LGBT inclusion.” I assume that most of our readers are familiar with the designations behind these letters. For decades we have been discussing whether or not to normalize and affirm, with the church’s blessing, committed lesbian and gay relationships and invite them into the sacramental state of Christian marriage. However, this sixth and final article would allow any annual conference to ordain not only lesbian and gay persons (LG), but also bi-sexual (B), transgendered (T), and queer or gender non-conforming (Q) people.

This is entirely new ground and raises a new range of questions. It also demonstrates what I have pointed out for years; namely, that the normalization of same sex relationships was never the “end” of any debate, but just the beginning of a whole new range of affirmed states, the end of which we do not yet know. If LG, then LGBT, then LGBTQ—what possible objection would the church raise against LGBTQIA, as so on. The point is, once the church is prepared to relinquish the natural gender distinction established in creation, then no other boundary can possibly hold.

The Uniting Methodists document reserves ordination for its final article. Ordination for any ecclesial body is the highest and most sacred act of “setting apart” for ministry. Ordination is intended to embody and display holiness to the world through human vessels set apart for word and sacrament. Even though I have multiple higher degrees, including the PhD, which allows someone to call me “Dr.” my 90-year-old mother always addresses any letter she writes to me as “Rev. Timothy Tennent.” I asked her about it one time and she said, “even though you are a doctor, there is no greater honor than being called into the ordained ministry.” She’s right. It is surely among the most sacred honors a church bestows.

The Uniting Methodists document invites bisexual and gender non-conforming persons into ordination without a clear explanation of how, or if, this might challenge our traditional theology of the body and human sexuality. We have spent 45 years discussing gay and lesbian relationships, but not 45 minutes on this. I could explore these in more detail, but I would like to focus on the ordination of transgendered persons. It is here that we see with greater clarity that our struggle has never actually been about who can have sex with whom. Our struggle is over the Christian view of the body.

The affirmation of one’s decision to change their gender, either through hormonal therapy, or through various operative procedures, moves us towards a gnostic view of the body. Many of our readers will remember that one of the fiercest theological struggles of the early church was the struggle against gnosticism. Gnosticism refers to a wide range of movements which claimed that they had special “knowledge” about reality. The word gnosticism comes from the Greek word “gnosis,” for knowledge. One of the doctrines espoused by gnostics is that the material world is evil. The “spirit” or “inner light” of a person is trapped inside a body, which is regarded as untrustworthy or evil. The early Christians fiercely resisted gnosticism, as this struggle is found in many passages in the New Testament. The idea that a person might be a male trapped inside a female body, or a female trapped inside a male body reflects a low view of the body. The notion that someone who is biologically male or female can decide that they really are another gender, or no gender at all, because of some insight “on the inside” has enormous theological and ethical implications related to the Christian view of the body. Gnostics say, “You cannot trust your body, but your heart is pure.” Christians say, “Your heart is deceitful, but your body can be trusted.” Indeed, for the Christian, the whole physical world has been declared “good.”

Any disassociation of the “real you” from your biological, God-given, bodily identifiers has historically been regarded by Christians as a grave error because, in one stroke, it erodes two major Christian doctrines. First, it erodes the doctrine of creation. Creation, for the Christian, is good and can be trusted. This is what makes scientific inquiry possible. Christians have always believed that there are moral boundaries inherent in the created order and one of these is that God created us “male and female.” This is declared in the creation account (Gen. 1:27), and reaffirmed by Jesus himself in his discourse on marriage and divorce (Matt. 19:4-6). Christians have never accepted the notion that we can autonomously decide what gender we are, or declare that we have no gender. Second, it erodes the doctrine of the incarnation. Christians fiercely opposed the gnostic view of the body because, in the end, it disparages the doctrine of the incarnation: Jesus Christ has come “in the flesh” (John 1:14). The Apostle John is so strong on this point that he says that anyone who does not recognize that Jesus came “in the flesh” (not just a spirit inhabiting a fleshly creature) is not of God, but of the spirit of the Antichrist (I John 4:1-3).

This historic Christian view of the body has absolutely nothing to do with the increasingly popularized “regional view” of sin which is being propagated in our church today. This argues that what is regarded as sin in the southern USA may not be regarded as “sin” in California. However, this kind of teaching can only be sustained through a reader determined method of interpretation which assumes that every reader of the Bible has the right to shape multiple potential meanings of a biblical passage for himself or herself. This is to be contrasted with an exegetical approach, based on a careful reading of the original context and grammar of the Bible—on its own terms, which allows it to speak God’s revelation clearly to us.

Let us be clear. Transgendered people, like all people, have been created in the image of God and are men and women of infinite worth and should receive, like all people, the hospitality of churches who open their doors wide to all. There is nothing sinful about an attraction towards the same gender. Only our overly sexualized culture demands that all attractions culminate in sexual activity. Likewise, there is nothing inherently sinful about having a gender identity crisis. We all have struggles which the gospel addresses and which calls forth the wonderful pastoral gifts which Methodists are known and admired for. What must be opposed is any so-called solution which espouses a non-Christian view of the body.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part IV): Is Homosexual Practice Condemned in the New Testament?

We are finally prepared to examine the details of the most prominent “local option” proposal known as the Uniting Methodists Document.  The first three articles in this series focused on various foundational issues about the true nature of church unity and the primacy of Scripture in adjudicating conflicts, both explicitly stated in our Discipline, but insufficiently emphasized in the way this has been framed for the church.

The Uniting Methodists Document contains six articles, the first three of which would be embraced by the vast majority of Methodists: The commitment to make disciples for the transformation of the world, the role of evangelism and social justice in fulfilling the mission of the church; and the commitment to the Discipline of the church.

The last three articles (4, 5, and 6) represent the heart of the Uniting Methodists proposal and each of these articles will be the focus of the next several entries in this series.

The fourth article is titled, “Interpretation” and is expressed as follows: “We believe our differences on the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination stem from differences over biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.” This is an important claim. This statement is claiming that both sides of this issue are committed to “biblical authority.” This lies at the heart of one of the two foundational issues noted in the earlier articles. The New Testament contains numerous prohibitions against unauthorized sexual behavior. On this point, there can be no dispute. The question is whether any of these prohibitions would include homosexual acts, especially between consenting adults.

There are a number of passages, especially the so-called “sin lists” in the New Testament, which employ a range of Greek words and need exploration.  The primary terms are as follows: porneia, akatharsia, malakos, komos, and arsenokoites. As I understand the “progressive” argument, they insist that what is condemned in the New Testament sin lists is not consensual, committed sexual activity between two men, but exploitative sin such as pederasty (sexual activity between a man and a boy). This argument is not entirely false. The New Testament does condemn a practice reflected in the Greek word malakos which refers to “effeminate call boys”—a form of prostitution in the ancient world which was exploitative and would clearly fall under the category of pederasty. It is also true that there are some broad, more general words for sexual immorality used in the New Testament which do not specifically name any particular sexual behavior.

The two most prominent examples are the words porneia (from which we get our word “pornography”) and akatharsia. Porneia means “sexual immorality”—a broad term for a whole range of sexual sins without specifically naming what those sins are. The word akatharsia means “sexually impure” or “immoral sexual sins.” Again, it is a broad term without specifically citing what sexual sins fall into that category.  There are other broad words like komos which is used quite broadly to refer to everything from excessive eating, to general carousing, to sexual orgies, and so forth. Thus, the progressives are correct in noting that several of the terms in the New Testament do, in fact, refer specifically to pederasty or to broad terms which cover a range of sexual misconduct without specifically mentioning homosexuality.

The trouble with this argument is that it ignores a mountain of other biblical evidence which makes it exceedingly difficult for progressives to, in the end, offer a convincing case. First, the word arsenokoites is also used in the “sin lists” of the New Testament. Arsenokoites means “a man who practices homosexuality.” There are several reasons why it is difficult to argue that this word refers only to pederasty. Arsenokoites appears in the Pauline sin list right along with the other terms. In other words, in I Corinthians 6:9,10 Paul specifically condemns porneia and malakos as well as arsenokoites. It is clear that malakos and arsenokoites are not interchangeable words. Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived:  neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”

Furthermore, Paul would have been familiar with the Greek Old Testament (known as the Septuagint). It is this Greek word arsenokoites which is used in texts in the Old Testament such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which quite explicitly condemn homosexual activity. This happens again in I Timothy 1:10 where he identifies both the general word “sexual immorality” (porneia) as well as homosexual practice (arsenokoites).  (By the way, this passage is also where Paul condemns slave-holding, dispelling the other common argument made by some of our leaders that the Bible somehow endorses slave-holding and we now have better insights than they had). Of course, once it is clear that arsenokoites is forbidden by the New Testament, then it also would fall under the general categories of “sexual immorality” (porneia) and “sexually impure acts” (akatharsia).

Second, we also must not overlook Paul’s argument in Romans 1:26 where he states that “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” While there is legitimate debate about the full scope of the phrase “dishonorable passions,” it is quite clear that Paul is not limiting the discussions to pederasty since he is referring more generally to departures from God’s natural design. In short, the New Testament is consistently negative about normalizing same-sex behavior, and nowhere in the Bible are there positive or affirming portraits of same-sex behavior.

Third, we must not forget the positive teaching from Genesis 2 which is quoted by Jesus in Matthew 19:5-6: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife and the two shall become one flesh.'” The New Testament only explicitly condemns 67 “named sins” even though we realize that sin is a much bigger category. Just because the New Testament never explicitly condemns polluting a river does not mean that we have license to do it. The New Testament theologically enshrines biblical marriage between a man and a woman and, as shall be developed in a future article, all other sexual acts are disallowed. However, the theological case for marriage as between a man and a woman will have to wait.

But, for now, it is clear that the Uniting Methodists document requires that we consider all of the language around sexual immorality in the New Testament as either generic, non-specific or only referring to a very tiny slice of sexual immorality; namely, pederasty.  Yet, as we have seen, the exegetical case for this is not defensible. If we are being asked to sign off on this option and “agree to disagree” on this issue, then we will need to have a much better conversation about the biblical data which pertains to this question.

I, for one, remain completely unconvinced by the progressive argument and am actually disappointed that they would argue so strongly about their commitment to biblical authority and yet provide no serious exegetical argument for the dramatic changes they wish to usher into the life and faith of the church. To move a named sin from a New Testament “sin list” and declare that we are now to regard it as a sacrament is unprecedented. Christians have every right to resist this doctrinal innovation which is being embraced by a few declining mainline denominations in the western world.

Uniting Methodists Document and the Local Option (Part III): Experience, Scripture, and the Quadrilateral

This is the third installment in a series of reflections on the current crisis within the United Methodist church over human sexuality. According to the November 9th press release from the Council of Bishops, the “local option” is one of the three options currently under consideration to help resolve this debate. The local option would remove all language related to human sexuality from the Discipline and allow local churches to make decisions regarding membership and pastoral leadership, and permit annual conferences to make decisions regarding ordination. The purpose of this blog series is to explore the implications of this particular proposal.

From the outset, I have argued that unless there is broad agreement on certain foundational principles, then the final decision will not result in a flourishing church. In my opinion, our leaders have not been attentive to these foundational concerns. First, as noted in the earlier articles, there has been an insufficient attention to a proper theological and biblical understanding of the basis of church unity. Instead, unity is being interpreted as the institutional survival of the United Methodist denomination. But, we must first secure our Christian identity before we are in a position to properly rescue the denomination. It would be very helpful if the letter had simply repeated what is already in our Discipline regarding the definition of unity: “Church unity is founded on the theological understanding that through faith in Jesus Christ we are made members-in-common of the one Body of Christ” (par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task).

The second foundational concern we are exploring is the authority of scripture. The November 9th release from the Council of Bishops notes several “values” which are guiding the process. The three primary values noted were unity, space, and contextuality—all for the sake of mission. It is unclear whether this statement was just being descriptive, noting publicly that these were the values which were at work in the three proposals developed by the Commission, or if the Council was being prescriptive in stating that these are the values which should guide the process. The statement did indicate that the Bishops are not, at this point, demonstrating a preference for any of the three options. In either case, there is the notable omission that there is no reference to the value of the final decision being biblical, or that, in the end, Scripture has any role in deciding this crucial issue. Like I would expect from many of you, I found it scandalous the Council of Bishops would put out a pastoral letter about such an explosively contentious issue—which needs to be resolved and which threatens to tear our church asunder—and never mention the Bible or Scripture in the entire document.

Throughout my thirty-three years of ministry as an ordained United Methodist pastor there has been a notable and consistent lack of interest in scriptural references to matters of human sexuality, not to mention the deep theological structures which underpin marriage in the Bible (e.g. creation account, theology of the body, body of Christ imagery, marriage supper of the lamb, etc.). To be fair, theologians and biblical scholars have been invited to deliver papers to the Commission. However, the influence this has had on conversations, proposals, and blog posts, etc. in the wider church has been tepid. There are, of course, passing references to how certain broad biblical themes such as justice or mercy, but not the deep, thoughtful theological and biblical engagement with specific texts which is required. This will be addressed more in the fourth installment of this series.

The paucity of biblical engagement is due, perhaps, to a misunderstanding about the so-called “quadrilateral” which has been popularized in our denomination. The quadrilateral, rightly understood, is about the primacy of Scripture and the secondary role which tradition, reason, and experience should play in our theological and ethical deliberations. We are, after all, the “people of one Book.” What the quadrilateral is not, however, is a statement of four equal values. Yet, in our deliberations one sometimes gets the impression that the quadrilateral has been flipped on its head. In our conversations, pastoral considerations and anecdotal stories tend to rule the day. In other words, we have turned the quadrilateral on its head and we often end up using experience as the definitive lens through which we understand scripture and tradition.

It would be very helpful if our commitment to the primacy of Scripture as the final authority in the life of the church were to be made clear. Our Discipline says, “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (p. 83). There is nothing wrong with highlighting values like contextuality and space, but neither should be understood as primary values. The church deserves to see the biblical and theological evidence which supports whatever proposal is set forth. This, in turn, will enable us to have the proper discussion we need to have between now and 2019. For, indeed, whatever decision is reached by the Commission on the Way Forward, or any other proposals which warrant consideration, must be accompanied by a well-argued case which makes sense theologically, biblically, and historically—if it has any chance of being adopted by the General Conference in 2019.