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.