Psalm 121 and Flattening the Mountain: Gaining Perspective through COVID-19

Psalm 121 is part of a wonderful mini collection within the Psalter known as the Songs of Ascents. It is a collection of fifteen psalms from Psalm 120 to 134. These are the pilgrim psalms that were sung by the Israelites as they journeyed up to Jerusalem.

Psalm 121, along with all others in this collection, is very helpful for us during this time of national and global crisis with the coronavirus. It envisions the people of God traveling through a dangerous, hostile, and arduous trek from their home up to Jerusalem when they would enter the gates with joy and worship the true and living God. The national call to social distancing and the restrictions on travel, and the very real dangers of this disease, have created considerable anxiety across the world. We are on an unknown journey with unforeseen challenges.

The opening verse of Psalm 121 is one of the most familiar verses in Scripture, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” The hills and mountains of the ancient world had two connotations in the Old Testament—one of fear and anxiety; the other, inspiration and awe. Traveling was a source of fear and danger in the ancient world, especially traveling through hills and mountains. Robbers would hide in the midst of the ragged rocks on those very sacred, pilgrim paths to rob and harm people. It was a real fear. Remember the setting of the parable of the good Samaritan was the very trip from Jerusalem down to Jericho, which was so dangerous that the traveler was beaten, robbed, and left half dead.

But, in Scripture, hills and mountains are also signs of God’s beautiful creation, his awesome power, his steadfast solidity, and his glorious majesty. Let’s keep both of these views of mountains in mind for a few moments.

Today, there is great anxiety about where things are going in terms of this COVID-19 health crisis that has engulfed the world. The news coverage of the Coronavirus has been overwhelming. Other stories have been pushed off the headlines and this has dominated the news. One of the most dominant images is the famous COVID-19 curve that shows the rise of the disease, its spread, its spike in transmission infection rate, and eventually the end of the virus. We don’t know exactly where we are in the curve or when we will crest it and begin to get to the other side of it. You hear a lot of talk about “flattening the curve,” i.e. to make this mountain smaller. You see, looking at the ever-growing number of transmissions of COVID-19 across our land, they are going up and up each day. It looks like a very high mountain. We are hiking up this mountain together as a community—like pilgrims—but we don’t even know how high this mountain is. We wonder if we can get over it. We have anxiety about whether this invisible enemy might reach out from behind some craggy rock (or maybe from an unsuspecting cough or a solid surface that has not been deep cleaned) and cause us harm. When we see the curve go up and up we wonder if the pathogen might strike down someone we love, or even ourselves.

In the midst of fear and possible unseen danger, like the coronavirus, Psalm 121 delivers the decisive answer: My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth! What a great and bold declaration. I also love how this psalm gives us a beautiful verb to describe God’s action—what he does in this time of fear, anxiety, and danger. The verb in the Hebrew is shamar. It is used in verse 3, verse 4, verse, 5, twice in verse 7, and finally in verse 8 (six times in eight verses). Some translations use a range of words like “keep” and “watch” and “guard,” but it is the same word all six times. When the Bible says that God “keeps” you, it means that in his sovereignty he has the power to keep you from some danger, he can deliver you from or out of any particular danger which you may face. But “keep” can also mean that he keeps you through danger—he walks with you in the midst of danger. Remember that other familiar psalm . . . “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, because you are with me.” He walks with us through the valley or “over the mountain.” I will fear no evil, for you are with me. God will sustain you through this time.

The church has faced this before, especially during the great plagues such as the black death. Martin Luther once wrote to a friend about the plague, which was raging in Europe in the sixteenth century and this is what he said—which I think is a good word for us:

“I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it . . .” (we would say, I shall wash my hands, keep social distance, and not touch my eyes). Luther goes on . . . “I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance to inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence . . .” (this is Luther’s version of social distancing and not going on Spring break to Florida beaches). Luther goes on . . . “If my neighbor needs me, I shall not avoid either place or person, but will go freely.” We are never exempted from service; we cannot just pass by on the other side if a neighbor is in need. Finally, Luther concludes . . . “If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me.” This reminds us that our lives are always in his hands. He is our keeper and if he chooses to take me, I am ready to go because, brothers and sisters, there is no COVID-19 in heaven. There is no coronavirus in the presence of God. That is the gospel.

I want to conclude by returning to the opening question, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?”

We want to return to those other mountains—the mountains that inspire hope and presence and power. I lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? This is the central question in the midst of fear, of CDC reports, of someone coughing in your presence, of social distancing. The psalmist sees through the eyes of faith that there is something—no not something, he sees that there is someone greater than the hills and mountains. God’s presence is what transforms every mountain, whether the mountain of fear or the awe-inspiring mountains of his day or ours. You see, for our Jewish forefathers and foremothers, God met his people on mountains, didn’t he?

God met Abraham on Mt. Moriah and provided the sacrificial substitute for Isaac: Jehovah Jireh and the birth of substitutionary atonement in the midst of a great crisis. God met Moses on Mt. Sinai where there were flashes of lightening, and the earth trembled, and God gave Moses both the Law and promises.

God met Elijah on Mt. Carmel and revealed himself as the true and living God, not like the idols of the nations. There is no greater crisis than a nation that trusts in idols. Jesus met us on the Mount of Beatitudes and taught us the ways of the kingdom. Jesus met us on the Mount of Transfiguration and revealed at the very threshold of his passion and suffering, his coming glory. Finally, in the greatest act of all, Jesus climbed Mt. Calvary for us. There in the midst of suffering he revealed his greatest glory right there on Golgotha. If the cross teaches us anything it is that God sometimes does his greatest work under a cloak of failure.

We are facing the mountain of coronavirus. We don’t know how high it is or how long it will take to get to the other side of it. What we do know is that there is someone greater than the mountains—even this mountain we are facing now—because he walks with us. He can flatten any mountain. He can quell every fear. He can help us to live and act with wisdom. We can face hard things because we are not alone. He transforms every mountain; he is here. God requisitions all things for his purposes, even as we bear witness to his sufferings in the world. God will use even this pandemic to reveal his purposes, declare his glory, and draw people to himself.

The “Crown” in the Coronavirus: A Theological Reflection on the COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 virus has dominated the news unlike anything we have ever seen. Thousands of schools across the country have closed, followed by restaurants and other public locations. Air travel has almost ground to a halt. Entire cities, and in some cases, entire countries, are on lockdown with many normal movements around the city prohibited. Some grocery stores have experienced “panic buying” and, of course, the phrase “social distancing” has been introduced to our vocabulary. Many of you have had to cancel your worship services. At the time of this writing (3/18/20), more than 216,000 people have contracted the coronavirus, leaving almost 9,000 dead around the world. The virus has not left any continent (except Antarctica) untouched.

I do not think any of you need much more “public” information about the virus or any need for a reminder from me to wash your hands or be particularly sensitive to those who are in high-risk populations or areas. However, we may not have had sufficient theological reflection on the coronavirus. Therefore, I would like to provide five reflections from a theological standpoint:

First, we are a people of faith, not fear. The gospel is, among other things, the triumph over fear. The apostle John says in 1 John 4:18 that “Perfect love casts out fear.” That verse is often quoted without reference to the context where John states three times that we have been “perfected in love” (vv. 12, 17, and 18). It is precisely that sanctifying work of God’s love in us which enables, through his empowering presence, for all fear to be cast out. The apostle Paul admonishes us in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power and love and self-control” (ESV). This means that even if we have canceled our classes, or your church has canceled public services and postponed many events, it is not done out of fear, but out of love. It is because we have compassion and love for those who are most vulnerable among us. Even if our seminary is filled with mostly vibrant young people who are the most resistant to any serious effect of this virus, we know that anyone can be a vector for transmission to someone else. Therefore, Asbury, or your local church, has taken this action—not out of self-interest, but out of compassion and love for others. For us, whatever social distancing we do is an act of faith, not fear.

Second, reaching out and touching is a sign of the incarnation; therefore, the knot in your stomach about social distancing is actually tied to the temporary loss of this. It is only when you feel compelled to not touch someone or come within six feet of someone, are you fully cognizant of just how much we touch each other. Hugging, kissing, and holding hands are at the heart of all healthy family life. Hand-shaking is at the heart of friendship exchanges, and professional hand-shaking is an important way we interact with our constituents. When I became President, I talked to past Presidents to get a feel for what the job was like. I read several books about it. I even went through a three-year training program between 2005–2008 to prepare me for executive academic leadership before I became President of Asbury Theological Seminary in 2009. But no one ever told me how much hand-shaking is involved in the job. Over the next two weeks there will be many hands I will not shake, which I would have shaken, if not for COVID-19. Graduation Day was the real surprise. Over the course of one week, I shake hundreds of hands, on both campuses and multiple graduation services. When it is all over, my hand is swollen from the hand-shaking, because when someone graduates, they do not just casually shake your hand, they really shake it—and in our case they shake and hold it for a photograph! Post-graduation hand-rehab had never dawned on me before I became President.

But, I have thought a lot more about the theology of hand-shaking. That personal touch is a sign or a pointer to the very incarnation. God did not save us with a decree from heaven. He did not send us an email to tell us he loved us. God did not just think good thoughts about us. No, God loved us so much that he sent his one and only son to dwell among us. John 3:16 more precisely says, “This is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son . . .” (NLT). It was about embodiment. It was about touch. Jesus touched lepers. If we touch lepers, we catch leprosy, but when Jesus touched lepers, they caught his healing and wholeness. Therefore, whenever Christians reach out their hands to touch the face of the dying, to hold hands and pray with the grieved, to hug those in distress, it is fundamentally a Christian act. The absence of all of this hand-shaking and personal touch creates a godly ache in your gut, because we were meant and designed to touch. So, give yourself space to lament during this time. Let this time of social distancing remind us afresh how central and important personal touch is in the Christian community—it is the root of the incarnation, and all the ways we reflect the incarnation for the sake of the world.

Third, the coronavirus has reminded us anew of the fragile nature of the world system. Just a few weeks ago we heard boasting about how strong the economy was and how good trade was. The stock market was booming and all was well. Then, in a matter of a few weeks, it seemed like overnight, everything was changed. It is like a hurricane blowing through, or a tsunami hitting our shores, or an earthquake which suddenly shakes a city. God allows these phenomena because they serve a larger redemptive purpose. They force the world to look straight into the eyes of our own frailty. James makes this very clear when he says to us,

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15 NIV)

It is an important reality check in a world of pompous boasting about our strength, our capacities, our will to do this or that. Book 3 of the Psalms is filled with very troubling questions, mostly from the Psalms of Asaph, and climaxing in Psalm 88 from Heman the Ezrahite (brother of Asaph) and Psalm 89 from Ethan the Ezrahite. These are two of the five unresolved psalms: “darkness is my closest friend” is the closing line of 88, and 89 ends with “taunts” being heaped upon us. Book 3 opens with Psalm 90 from Moses (the only psalm from Moses in the Psalter). Famous phrases like “dust we are and to dust we return” and a “thousand years are like a day in your sight” and “our length of days is but seventy or eighty if strength lasts” and “our days pass quickly” and “I’ll fly away” come from Psalm 90, culminating in this word of advice: “Teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v. 12 NIV). It is a great wisdom psalm. It is considered the great re-set button of the Psalms—that important reminder to not forget who we are, and who God is. The coronavirus is like a global “re-set” button, reminding us of our frailty and his sovereign grace in our lives.

Fourth, the church is a people, not a place. Most of you have had your church canceled for at least two weeks. It is a strange thing for a Christian to wake up on Sunday morning and not be in the fellowship of God’s people. But, from a theological perspective, it is impossible to “cancel church.” Because, as the famous church nursery rhyme goes, “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church of God is people!” We are the church whether we are dispersed in the world, inside our homes, or watching our services on livestream. The church cannot be “closed,” only buildings can be closed. Your parking lot may be empty for a few weeks, but you—my beloved Asburians—are still the living embodiment of the gospel wherever you are or wherever you go!

Fifth, the “white space” in your calendar may be a means of grace. It is important for Christians to remember that this coronavirus spread has been taking place during the season of Lent. Lent has always been designated as a time for deeper reflection. However, in the busyness of the season and the planning of services, we may not have taken time to stop for times of extended prayer. The growing number of postponed meetings, canceled flights, and services stopped may actually provide more time to “keep Lent” well. Calendars, which once were filled with meetings and appointments, have been suddenly cleared, freeing up time. Many meetings are happening through Zoom or Skype; but the point is, there has been whitespace created in most of your calendars. This is a means of grace. Take time to pray. To seek God’s face. To listen to the voice of the Lord. To keep Lent well.

One of the central symbols of Lent is the thorny crown. It reminds us of sacrifice and self-denial. It is a symbol of the cost Jesus paid. The term “corona” in “coronavirus” is a word meaning “crown.” It is because the virus, under extreme magnification, actually looks like a thorny crown; therefore, it is—quite literally—the thorny crown virus. The coronavirus reminds us that as Christians we always—even when there is no virus in our midst—embody the sufferings of the world. Lent is the time when we are particularly reminded of that great truth.

So, in conclusion, brothers and sisters, be bold in your faith. Allow yourself space to lament. Remember the fragile nature of this world and long for a better one. Never forget that the church is always the church in the world. Take time to pray more and reflect more. Finally, during this holy season, remember that we bear in our bodies the blessed marks of Jesus as we retrace his passion in the world. Amen.

Reflections on the Proposed Protocol for Separation (Part V)

May, 2020 will almost surely go down in history as a remarkable development in the history of the United Methodist Church. This will be the time when legislation will be presented to the General Conference adopting a separation agreement between those United Methodists adhering to historic orthodoxy and those who are seeking to move the church towards a wide array of novel doctrines. This tension has been with us for many decades, but it has finally reached a point where no other resolution or solution is tenable. It is doubly sad, not only because it means the fracturing of our beloved denomination, but especially because in the end, it will be the traditionalists who will exit the church and begin one or more new denominations in the wake of the break-up. Divorce is almost always a messy affair, ecclesial ones no less so. Although it will take four years for all the options present in the Protocol to be fully implemented, the trajectory will be set. As Julius Caesar said when he led his army across the Rubicon, “alea iacta est”—the die is cast.

I have been reluctant to endorse the Protocol because I felt it was necessary that we first hear from our African brothers and sisters who have so faithfully stood by us all of these years. The African delegations have met in Johannesburg and have released their statement. (See their statement here). They are prepared to endorse the Protocol, even though they believe certain aspects of the Protocol disadvantage their life and witness across the African continent. They are perplexed that annual conferences in the United States can exit the denomination with a 57% vote, while they must have a 2/3 majority to exit. This seems unfair to them—because it is unfair. The African delegations do not understand why they must relinquish the name United Methodist, because they are the only sector of the United Methodist Church which can, by any stretch of the imagination, still be called “united.” Nevertheless, despite these and a few other objections, the African delegations are prepared to endorse the Protocol. Therefore, I am now endorsing the Protocol as the best way ahead.

In my last article I outlined the three options we have. None are good ones. But, the Protocol is the best choice of the three bad options before us as traditionalists. It is a sobering thought to realize that in just a few months I will no longer be a United Methodist. I know I speak for hundreds of thousands of Methodists who are in the same boat. It is the only ecclesial family I have ever known. I learned about and met Christ in a United Methodist Church. I was baptized in the United Methodist Church. I am an ordained United Methodist elder. I have pastored many wonderful United Methodist churches over the years. In a few months the passage of the Protocol will put many of us in a kind of ecclesial wilderness. We will be officially in exile. We are of course all weighing our options. But the shape of that future remains unknown as the alternatives are still being formed and fashioned. Future articles will spend more time explaining the various options which are emerging.

I am praying that several annual conferences around the country will be able to leave as a whole, as outlined by the Protocol. There will be thousands of churches who will be sadly forced to hold a potentially contentious vote so they can remain faithful to historic faith and biblical orthodoxy. The seminaries who sowed into future pastors that the virgin birth was an impossibility, has now come to full fruition. The future pastors who were taught that Jesus Christ did not bodily rise from the dead, but that he only symbolically “rose” in the preaching of the disciples has finally put us on this road to separation. The instruction of our pastors which taught them that they must deconstruct the Bible and not accept it as the actual Word of God has all finally brought us to this point. The notion that we can take a behavior which is repeatedly found on Paul’s sin lists in the New Testament and declare it to be not a sin, but a sacrament, has led us to this moment in our troubled history. In short, this has been a long time coming. Seeds sown for generations have finally relentlessly worked their way from Seminaries, to pastors, and now to congregations. This has been the story of all the so-called “mainline” denominations. The United Methodist Church will be the last to fall. It too will now join that doleful train.

But lament is the mother of hope. Joyfully, whenever this has happened in history, God always raises us better readers of his gospel. All across this country there are hundreds of new, vibrant Christian movements springing up. According to a recent Pew study, 57% of all Protestants in the United States now belong to newer denominations who affirm historic orthodoxy. The breakup of the United Methodist Church will only accelerate this trend. For every person who has “voted with their feet” and left the United Methodist Church, there has been someone who has been brought to faith in another, more vibrant expression. Even those churches who vote to embrace this progressive Christianity by, for example, a 60%-40% vote, should factor in that they will likely lose 20% of their membership. So the movement into more orthodox churches will be fed by both churches who leave, as well as by those at the local level who lost a vote in their particular church and, therefore, choose to leave. Jesus Christ promised to build his church (Matthew 16:18). He does it over and over again all across the world and all through time. Churches who remember the gospel flourish. But, sadly, the mainline has now finally, and fully, become the sideline of American Christianity. Alea iacta est.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.

United Methodist Church Africa Initiative Consultative Meeting on the Future of the Global United Methodist Church

The following is a press release from the Africa United Methodist Church Initiative, released 27th February 2020.

UMC Africa Initiative Consultative Meeting on the Future of the Global UMC

Clergy and lay leaders from the three Central Conferences of Africa, representing the UMC Africa Initiative from thirteen annual conferences, gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa, from 24th to 27th February 2020 to discuss the future of the global United Methodist Church. Our discussion was centered on the proposed Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation that is expected to come before the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota, in May 2020.

After vigorous discussion and critique, the leaders of the UMC Africa Initiative have decided to support the passage of the implementing legislation of the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.

Our discussion on the Protocol became necessary because of the concerns it had raised among members and delegates from the three central conferences. Following a critical evaluation of the proposed Protocol and its implications for the UM Church in Africa, we felt deeply disappointed that Africa was not adequately represented at the negotiating table to present the concerns of the African church. We also felt that the Protocol, in its current form, is unfair to United Methodists in Africa due to its alignment of us with the post-separation UM Church by default, its attempt to deprive the traditionalist church in Africa from maintaining the “United Methodist” name and the cross and flame, and its allocation of resources.

Despite these concerns, in the common interest of the global church and the church’s need for an amicable separation, we decided to support the passage of the implementing legislation of the Protocol at the forthcoming 2020 General Conference.

At the same time, the UMC Africa Initiative urges the following amendments to the proposed protocol.

1. That the traditionalist church in Africa may maintain the “United Methodist” name and cross and flame, with modification. For United Methodists in Africa, the name “United Methodist” and the cross and flame have indelible history and legacy. They have become a great symbol and witness to our ministries across our continental connection and bear significant spiritual and legal impact on our missional activities in Africa. The ability to continue using a form of the name and logo would greatly benefit the mission and ministry of the church in Africa.

2. That a vote of 57 percent be the basis for determining the decision of a central conference to join the new traditionalist Methodist Church. We consider it unreasonable for United Methodists in Africa to have to vote to maintain our traditional beliefs. Nevertheless, for the sake of furthering amicable separation, we urge a 57 percent vote to determine a central conference status. This change would yield consistency with the annual conference threshold and place the central conferences on an equal footing with annual conferences in the United States.

3. That the Protocol implementing legislation ensure that every central conference, annual conference, and local church be permitted to vote when it desires to do so under the processes of the legislation without any form of suppression or coercion by anyone.

The leadership of the UMC Africa Initiative reiterates its support for the passage of the implementing legislation for the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.

1. Rev. Dr. Jerry P.Kulah, General Coordinator
2. Rev. Dr. Kimba K. Evariste, Congo Central Conference Coordinator
3. Mr. Simon Mafunda, Africa Central Conference Coordinator
4. Rev. Dr. John Pena, West Africa Central Conference Coordinator
5. Dr. Muriel V. Nelson, Women’s Wing vice- chair
4. Dr. Pacis-Alarine Irambona, Active secretary Women’s Wing and Young People Representative
5. Rev. Forbes Matonga, Member, Zimbabwe West Annual Conference
6. Rev. Dr. Julius Sarwolo Nelson, Member, Liberia Annual Conference
7. Rev. Dr. Henriette Lokoto Okele, Member, Central Congo Annual Conference
8. Mrs. Khuliswa Masiso, Member, South Africa Annual Conference
9. Rev. Philip Adjobe, Member, Cote D’Ivoire Annual Conference
10. Rev. Lazare Bankurunaze, Member, Burundi Annual Conference
11. Mr. Louis Aboua, Member, Cote D’Ivoire Annual Conference
12. Mr. Rukang Chikomb, Member, South Congo Annual Conference
13. Mrs. Dorothée Abedi Tulia, Member, North Katanga Annual Conference
14. Rev. Odongo Wilton, Member, Kenya-Ethiopia Annual Conference
15. Rev. Bartolomeu Dias Sapalo, Member, East Angola Annual Conference
16. Chief Prosperous Tunda, Member, East Congo Annual Conference

Reflections on the Proposed Protocol for Separation (Part IV)

For the United Methodists readers of this blog, you are all aware that these are momentous days of decision, which will determine the future of a major slice of the Wesleyan/Methodist movement in the USA and the world. The United Methodist Church is facing a separation that will have consequences for our witness and our future. Therefore, it is important that we think through our position carefully.

On a personal note, I appreciate so much the many phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and blog comments that have poured in this last week in response to my articles regarding the Protocol. The last one (read here) very plainly listed the pros and cons of this separation plan known as the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (read here). There is no doubt that the Protocol has become the leading piece of legislation to resolve our denominational struggle over historic orthodoxy and issues related to human sexuality.

After extensive interaction with many United Methodists, including clergy and lay delegates to the General Conference, the support for the Protocol is not based on any consensus that it represents a just resolution of our conflict, but rather that it is simply the best of the options that are before us.

Essentially, this is where things currently stand for those who adhere to historic orthodoxy, including the biblical teaching regarding gender and marriage. There are three options for the traditionalists.

Option One is to continue the struggle. This means fighting for the theological and missional integrity of the United Methodist Church, voting to uphold the Discipline, and seeking to legislatively close the loopholes that have been used to make a mockery of the will of the church by the rogue bishops and pastors who refuse to abide by the very Discipline that they pledged to uphold when they were ordained. This is the road the traditionalists have been on for decades. While it has given the United Methodist Church some incremental advances, the latest round of open defiance has left traditionalists exhausted and the witness of the church has been publicly shamed. The traditionalists are tired of winning General Conference votes that are subsequently ignored. This has become a cycle of conflict that no one sees a way through.

Option Two is to change the constitution of the United Methodist church to allow some form of mutual disassociation. While I think all traditionalists agree that this would be a more just resolution, it has been abandoned because it would almost certainly require a constitutional change. It might pass General Conference, only to be declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. (Constitutional change is a complicated process. It involves a two-third majority vote of the General Conference, and two-third majority of the total aggregate votes of every annual conference around the world.) If our recent history is any guide, it is not easy to get two-thirds of United Methodists to agree to anything, much less a change to the constitution. The conclusion is that there is no point in pursuing anything along these lines, however noble it may be. As an example, the Bard-Jones Plan proposed the creation of three separate denominations labeled conceptually as the Progressive Methodist Church, the Open Methodist Church, and the Traditional Methodist Church. These three new denominations would have gathered the progressives into one church, the centrist into another, and the traditionalists into yet another. By 2025, the United Methodist Church would have no members. Everyone would be required to vote and join one of the three expressions. This plan would only have worked if it could be launched using section 9 of the 90041 petition of the Traditional Plan. However, this petition was not adopted by the special called General Conference. Therefore, the energy has shifted to finding a solution that does not require a constitutional change.

Option Three is the Protocol. As my last article outlined, this proposal gives the denomination to the progressives and creates numerous barriers, both financial and procedural, for leaving the United Methodist Church. The main advantage of the Protocol (from the perspective of the traditionalists) is that the Trust Clause would not be enforced, allowing churches to leave the denomination with their land and property, avoiding all lawsuits and financial payments.

If the Protocol passes, it would be optimistic to expect that all the churches that leave will land in the same place. The most likely scenario would be that a significant group of traditional churches would leave and join a new denomination, which will emerge out of the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). In addition, there is a possibility that a few annual conferences might vote to leave, but it is unclear whether those annual conferences would join the new denomination started by the WCA. Furthermore, there are clearly a number of traditionalist United Methodist churches who would prefer to be independent churches linked with others in some form of a network, Wesleyan in theology, but not in polity. Thus, the Protocol could result in several, not just one, new denomination. We should also mention that some churches might choose to affiliate with already existing denominations such as the Wesleyan, the Free Methodist, and the Anglican Church of North America. Finally, there will be many United Methodists who are traditionalist in their theology and ethics, but will remain in the United Methodist Church for a wide variety of reasons. Some will remain because they love their local church, their families are buried in the church graveyard, or they simply don’t have any alternative local Wesleyan congregation. Others will drift to other evangelical options such as the local Baptist church, or the local community church, and so forth. Thus, we should expect that the Protocol would produce a splintering, not merely a simple divide, of the United Methodist Church. And, let’s not forget that this will not happen quickly. It will take years, many years, for all of this to sort itself out. This may be unfortunate, but this is the likely reality that we should understand upfront as the Protocol is being discussed.

The rationale in support of the Protocol is as follows. The first option only gives us more conflict, will not coax the church to embrace orthodoxy, and, if we keep dragging this fight out, the traditionalists may likely begin to lose many evangelical churches who are tired of these battles and want to move on. This kind of attrition has been going on for decades, but will likely increase if nothing is resolved this year. The second option, while attractive, and more just, is not practically possible. So, there is no point in pursuing a path which we know at the outset would require a lengthy constitutional process with virtually no chance of success. Thus, the Protocol, with all of its flaws, is the only option left standing, according to the reasoning of many. That, in my view, is why the Protocol is receiving the support of a sizable number of traditionalist leaders. I have not received a single response to my previous articles that stated that they believed the Protocol was a fair and just settlement. What I have overwhelmingly received is either outright opposition to the Protocol or, at best, a sigh which says, “What other option do we have? This may be unjust, but it is the best we can do. Let’s take the deal and get on with the mission God has called us to.”

While I understand this rationale, there is a serious flaw in this reasoning, namely, it is a North American rationale. This line of thinking previously outlined makes complete sense if you are a beleaguered pastor or lay person in North American Methodism. However, this makes no sense to our brothers and sisters in Africa who, unlike us, are situated in one of the most dynamic, vibrant, growing Christian movements in Africa. In all of these struggles they have pleaded with us that, whatever is decided, they want to keep the name “United Methodist.” For the traditionalists, the name “United Methodist” is just another reminder of the mainline malaise. But for Africans, it represents vitality, vibrancy, and biblical fidelity. Retaining the name United Methodist is important to them because of their legal registration with various government agencies, as well as the positive, missional reputation of the United Methodist Church in Africa.

The Protocols design, perhaps unintentionally, will harm the traditionalist in Africa in three ways. First, the only way the Central Conferences can retain the name United Methodist is if they remain with the Progressive Methodists. Second, they are given the highest voting bar for leaving the denomination. If they do not have a 67-percent vote, they cannot leave the denomination, whereas any North American conference can leave with only 57 percent. Given the aforementioned legal ramifications for leaving, coupled with the African episcopal reluctance to leave, this will not be easy for the African traditionalists even though theologically and ethically they are overwhelmingly traditional. Third, the financial agreement of the Protocol places the funding for Africa into the hands of the progressives.

Bishop John Yambasu of Sierre Leone (who convened the group that negotiated the Protocol) has promised that the African Central Conferences will support the Protocol 100 percent. Well, let’s wait and see if that is true. Many of the African delegates to General Conference are meeting in Johannesburg later this month to discuss the Protocol and to give us their response to it. I think it would be wise if we waited patiently until the end of this month and see what the African response will be. They may, like those in North America, be so exhausted with the struggle that they are willing to accept this unjust settlement. On the other hand, they may have a counter-proposal that is worth consideration. So, let’s wait for the official response from the African delegations. Only then will the traditionalists be in a position to evaluate whether the Protocol is worthy of support or not.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.

Reflections on the Proposed Protocol for Separation (Part III)

In May, 5-15, 2020 the United Methodist Church will be holding a General Conference in Minneapolis which will likely be the time when some agreement will be made to resolve our denominational struggle over historic orthodoxy and issues related to human sexuality. The agreement which is being hailed as the best legislation for resolving our crisis is known as the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (read it here). This agreement has no official sanction from the church, but it did manage to get a diverse group of 16 leaders to sign on. The Protocol includes 8 shared principles, followed by six articles outlining the terms of the agreement, definition of terms, proposed timeline, financial considerations, and so forth.

The purpose of this article is to set forth plainly the pros and cons of the Protocol. After a careful reading of the document, here is a quick summary of the “good news” in the Protocol for each group.

Good News for the Traditionalists

First, the agreement provides a one-time $25 million allocation of seed money over four years so the traditionalists can start a new denomination.

Second, the Trust Clause will not be exercised, meaning that there will be no legal battles over property and land. Every church which leaves can keep their property and land without any claim from the annual conference.

Third, there will be a clean break from decades of fighting and chaos allowing a vibrant, historically orthodox movement to emerge.

Good News for the Progressives

First, the progressives will gain full control of the United Methodist Church, including the name, the logo, the cross and flame, and all the agencies and considerable assets which currently belong to the United Methodist Church. The agreement is silent about numerous Methodist related ministries such as Wesley Foundations, retirement communities, children’s homes, and so forth who are not afforded any “vote” for re-affiliation. What is clear is that this agreement is not any form of “mutual disassociation” where both wings of the church go their separate ways as equals. The Protocol gives the denomination to the progressives, and the Traditionalists are shown the door. The one request we have had from the African delegations is that the Africans would like to keep the name, United Methodist. Under this agreement, they can only retain the name if they remain with the progressive side of the church.

Second, the United Methodist Church will be the “default” denomination in any of the voting which may take place. Contrast this this with the Indianapolis Plan which had two “default” churches. Under the Indianapolis Plan, churches in North America who do not vote (or do not have sufficient votes to pass) would go, by default, to the progressive United Methodist Church. Likewise, any of the Central Conference churches who do not vote, or fail to have sufficient votes to pass, would, by default, be members of the traditionalist Methodist Church. The Protocol rolls that back and makes progressives the default denomination in all voting, in all places. Any church, annual or central conference which does not explicitly vote to leave the denomination will automatically remain in the United Methodist Church. The threshold to depart the denomination requires that 57% of the Annual Conference vote by July 2, 2021 or they will, by default, remain in the United Methodist Church. Local churches will have until the end of 2024 to vote, but each church can decide whether the threshold for departing is 50% or 2/3. If such a vote does not take place within the allotted time, or cannot make the voting threshold for departure, then those churches will remain in the United Methodist Church. Central Conferences will require a 2/3 vote by the end of 2021 or they will remain, by default, in the United Methodist church.

Third, the Protocol requires that all current charges against progressives who have violated the Discipline be dropped immediately.

Fourth, the United Methodist Church will instantly be free to change the Discipline to conform to the full agenda which they have been unsuccessfully advocating to implement for nearly fifty years. This involves, among other things, the full ordination of practicing homosexuals.

Fifth, the financial settlement disproportionately favors the progressive wing of the church. Although the traditionalists are given $25 million to start a new denomination, the traditionalists will be responsible for giving $13 million back to the United Methodist Church as a part of a larger $39 million package to assist in churches historically marginalized, as well as to the Africa University in Zimbabwe. These funds will be completely controlled and allocated by the United Methodist Church and the traditionalists will have no voice in how or where those funds are invested.

So, there are advantages for both sides. Nobody said this was going to be easy. I think everyone of us should express a word of appreciation to Keith Boyette and Patricia Miller for working so hard to represent traditionalists in the midst of a very diverse group of people. We are all indebted to their sacrifice of time and energy and no one doubts for a single moment that they have not given their heart and soul to help us find a way forward which will help us come to a place of ecclesial flourishing.

Likewise, the Good News movement has as their byline: Leading United Methodists to a more faithful future. Who could argue that they are not seeking to do that? I remain confident that we will arrive at General Conference with a shared vision for our future. Although, in the big picture, the financial seed money is rather modest ($25 million given, $13 million forfeited), the relaxing of the Trust Clause does bring us substantial relief. More importantly, it will keep us from fighting endless legal battles which, by all accounts, would damage our already weakened witness before the eyes of the wider culture. But, to be clear, the concession is only required if we are pursuing a path of exiting the denomination, rather than some form of mutual disassociation. I have already written a previous article on the Trust Clause which you can read here. From the perspective of United Methodist churches across the country, the progressives are giving churches what they already own and have purchased with their own sacrificial tithes and offerings.

One of the ways to judge whether an agreement has achieved equality is to re-read the agreement, but substitute the word “progressive” for “traditionalists” and then substitute “traditionalists” for what the agreement calls the “post-separation United Methodist Church.” When that is done, one has to ask the following question: Is this a just settlement? I invite and welcome your comments.

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.
Read Part IV here.

Reflections on the Proposed Protocol for Separation (Part II)

Like many United Methodists, I have been reading various reactions to the Protocol for Separation, which is being widely heralded, for the moment, as the leading hope for our future as a way out of the chaos we are in as a denomination. You can read my initial reflections here. I have noticed that some articles have stated that I am in favor of the Protocol, whereas others have stated that I am against it. I hope to clarify my stand by offering several articles on the issue. I do not speak for Asbury Theological Seminary, nor any of our beloved graduates who have been so valiantly fighting for orthodoxy in our denomination. My article only reflects my personal views on the matter.

Undoubtedly, May 5–15, 2020 promises to be one of the most historic General Conferences in the life of the United Methodist Church. The delegates have been chosen and the delegations are even now considering various proposals that will be brought before the General Conference. This is supposed to be a time of honest dialogue and debate as we assess the various plans, particularly the Protocol, and seek to understand the implications of it. This installment of my mini series will state two of the challenges which the traditionalists face as General Conference approaches. Second, a few points of clarification in the current dialogue will be offered.

Challenges Faced by Traditionalists

First, Are There Three Groups or Two?

The traditionalists have suffered in the negotiations because the church has accepted the idea that we have three, not two major factions within the church. It is very common to hear the statement that we have traditionalists, centrists, and progressives. However, Jeff Greenway made a very compelling case in a Wesleyan Covenant Association article that we actually do not have three groups, but rather two groups. The centrists may not be as far along the progressive road as the progressives, but they remain consistently and adamantly opposed to the traditionalists. Therefore, when it comes to negotiating, a three-group format always places the traditionalists in a distinct minority at the negotiating table since there are no public examples of centrists voting with the traditionalists. Just to give this some perspective, the traditionalist view represents slightly more than the majority of all United Methodists. Yet, the Protocol negotiating team had only two or three traditionalists out of sixteen.

Second, Are “Stay and Fight” or “Leave and Start Over” the Only Two Options?

The second problem that has plagued the traditionalists is that we have been caught in a situation where we feel there are only two options. The first option is to stay and keep advocating for orthodoxy within the church. This has been the leading strategy for the last fifty years. This strategy has had incremental success over the years since the church has experienced a slow resurgence of evangelical witness among grassroots Methodism, even though it has faced stiff headwinds (especially among the Council of Bishops and several prominent United Methodist pastors). This, coupled with the explosive growth among African Methodists, has put us in a situation where we were reasonably comfortable that over time we would be able to consistently uphold orthodoxy in the church.

The progressive wing of the church has been doing the math too. By 2013, they realized that they had no clear strategy to defeat the traditionalists because in each General Conference, the progressive wing of the church receives fewer delegates and the African delegations receive more delegates. To be fair, the 2020 General Conference delegation appears to be more progressive, but the overall trajectory of future delegates to General Conference does work against the progressive cause. For example, in the allocation for the 2020 General Conference, the African delegations received 18 additional delegates while the American delegations were reduced by 22. By the time of the 2024 General Conference, the African Methodists will likely outnumber the American Methodists.

By 2013, the progressives realized that they were likely not going to achieve a victory through voting on the floor of the General Conference. Thus, we experienced the birth of the disobedience movement, which called for open defiance of the Discipline and any General Conference decision that was not consistent with the progressive aspirations for the church. This has caused such a crisis and turmoil in the church that many traditionalists have thrown up their hands in frustration. What is the point of following the strategy of “stay and fight for orthodoxy” when whatever is voted on in General Conference can be just ignored? Entire annual conferences have endorsed disobedience. Dozens of same-sex marriages have been performed. Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian bishop to be consecrated in the United Methodist Church, remains in her post despite the Discipline, Judicial Council, and the vote of General Conference. Therefore, option one became more discouraging for the traditionalists.

This leads us to option two. The second option is to negotiate some kind of separation. This has been the source of much debate as various plans have been presented. Of the various plans, the Indianapolis Plan and the more recently released, Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation seem to have attracted the most support among traditionalists. There are positive aspects in both of these plans, but there are some serious problems with the Protocol, not the least of which is that it reinforces the perception that the United Methodist Church will be given to the progressives to be redefined and reshaped as the default denomination, whereas the traditionalists would be the ones who are exiting the denomination. The traditionalists will have won thirteen consecutive General Conference votes—and yet the traditionalists will be the ones who are exiting the denomination. The Discipline will be changed approximately five minutes after traditionalists are shown the door.


I do not think the Protocol represents a just resolution of our disagreements over the last fifty years. Nevertheless, I do believe that after all is said and done, a new orthodox Wesleyan/Methodist denomination is going to emerge. And yet I still need convincing that the Protocol should be supported as the best way forward for traditionalists. Before we rush to quickly declare that the Protocol is the best way forward, we should ask the following questions:

1. Is it a victory if the Protocol passes General Conference but the majority of traditionalists do not vote in favor of it?
2. Is it a victory if the Protocol passes with an odd coalition of support between the progressives and the USA traditionalists, but the African delegations are not supportive?
3. Is there really no option to make a few simple amendments to the Protocol that would represent a more just resolution? (A future article will suggest possible amendments).

My intention in raising these questions is simply to stimulate a healthy debate among the traditionalists so everyone is clear what is being agreed to. I know that the overwhelming feeling is one of exhaustion and a deep longing to be free from this long and difficult struggle. But we want to look back on these days with no regrets, knowing that we did the best we could. It is in that spirit that I offer my reflections. The next installment will discuss the pros and cons of the Protocol.

Read Part I here.
Read Part III here.

Reflections on the Proposed Protocol for Separation

Quite a stir has rippled out across the country because of reporting by Christianity Today, CNN, New York Times, among others, with headlines like this: “Methodists Agree to Split Denomination” (Christianity Today headline), “United Methodist Church Proposes Historic Split over Gay Marriage and LGBT Clergy” (CNN headline), and “United Methodist Church Announces Plan to Split over Same-Sex Marriage” (New York Times). In case you were wondering, the United Methodist Church has actually not agreed to split, and none of those who met and signed this agreement were authorized to make such a decision. Any possible separation of the UMC cannot be made until May 2020 when the next General Conference of the UMC convenes to consider various petitions, since that body alone has the power to officially represent the denomination.

What the articles were talking about was actually an unofficial agreement on the terms of a proposed denominational separation signed by 16 leaders in the UMC who are regarded as representative of the various “conservative,” “centrist,” and “progressive” wings of the church. The agreement is known as the Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation (read it here). It includes eight shared principles, followed by six articles outlining the terms of the agreement, definition of terms, proposed timeline, financial considerations, and so forth. In the UMC, it is newsworthy whenever clergy and laity across such a wide theological divide find agreement, especially with a statement as detailed as this one. I want to commend them for the time and effort it took to create this document (and the stellar work performed by Kenneth Feinberg, esquire who led the mediation). I am confident it was done out of a genuine love for the church and heart for reconciliation. They did what was supposed to be done years earlier by the “Commission on a Way Forward,” which was officially authorized by the 2016 General Conference in Portland to come up with a solution but ran aground by supporting a plan which had already been rejected three times by previous General Conferences. We are now in 2020, and this new “Protocol” has been placed on the table and will probably end up before the General Conference in May of 2020. The “Protocol” carries particular weight because, even though it has not been authorized, the leaders involved have agreed to not support any other legislation which contradicts any portion of this agreement. However, before any actual delegates to the 2020 Conference endorse this plan, we should have a robust conversation about some of the possible implications of this Protocol.

The “Post-Separation United Methodists” Remain the Default United Methodist Church

The Protocol envisions the church separating into two main groups. The first group is referred to as the “Traditional Methodist Church” and represents those who are committed to retaining the current Discipline regarding homosexual practice; namely, that all persons are of infinite worth, but that the practice of homosexual behavior is incompatible with historic Christian faith. The second group is named the “post-separation United Methodist Church.” This group is set forth in the document as the continuance of what remains once the Traditionalists leave the denomination to form the “Traditional Methodist Church.” This default is obvious for several reasons:

First, this is explicitly stated multiple times in the official “Q and A” release about the Protocol when it states, for example, “if a local church or Annual Conference wishes to remain within The United Methodist Church, there are no actions required” or in reference to the church after the split when it says, “the United Methodist Church will be smaller.” We should, therefore, presume that the “post-separation” United Methodist Church will continue to be legally and officially called the United Methodist Church.

Second, if any central conference, annual conference or local church fails to vote to “leave” then they automatically—by default—remain in the “post-separation United Methodist Church.” This is a remarkable concession. In fact, even if 65% of a Central Conference voted to leave the denomination, they would not be permitted to leave, but would remain in the “post-separation UMC” (since the protocol requires a 2/3 vote for Central Conferences). If even 56% of an annual conference voted to leave, they would not be permitted to leave (the protocol requires a 57% vote by annual conferences). Furthermore, there are, of course, thousands of small Methodist churches scattered all across the country who have not been actively engaged in all of these struggles and who will likely not organize any kind of official vote. All of these churches would, by default, find themselves in the “post-separation UMC.” Contrast this, for example, with the Indianapolis Plan which states that if a Central Conference UMC does not vote then they, by default, will belong to the Traditional Methodist Church.

Third, the financial understandings in the Protocol underscore that the “post-separation UMC” is the default main denomination. The separation makes several financial agreements, including 25 million for the Traditionalists to start a new denomination, again underscoring which group is “leaving.” The separation also creates a 39 million dollar fund for supporting groups historically marginalized by racism. However, 13 million of this will be funded by the Traditional UMC Denomination and paid to the post-separation UMC, which the progressives will control and administer. This creates an enormous economic advantage to the progressive UMC, euphemistically named the “post-separation UMC” in the document. Many marginalized groups, including the Africa University in Zimbabwe, are theologically conservative and will feel pressured to not leave the denomination and join the “traditionalists” for fear of losing funding that will be dispersed by the progressive church. For fifty years, orthodoxy has been upheld in United Methodism because of a close coalition between those committed to historic faith in Africa with those with similar convictions in North America. The Protocol, because of the high bar placed on Central Conferences for departure, as well as the financial arrangements, could threaten that alliance. We are very close to the African United Methodists becoming larger in number than all of North American Methodists. This is the time to strengthen the ties between historic orthodox Christians all over the globe.

The Real Root behind Our Separation

This Protocol, if adopted by the 2020 General Conference, seems to be weighted in favor of the “post-separation United Methodist Church” (Perhaps this is understandable since the “progressives” and the “centrists” vote together). I am concerned that the language of the document refers to the traditionalists as the ones who are leaving the denomination, and those who remain as the default United Methodist Church. The progressive Methodists have never been interested in starting and building a new denomination. Instead, they want to follow the pattern of the PC (USA), the ELCA, and the Episcopalians – adopting increasingly progressive theological agendas, further and further away from the parameters of historic faith until a breaking point is finally reached and the conservatives are forced to “leave” the denomination. (This is where newer denominations like the Presbyterian Church of America, the North American Lutheran Church, or the Anglican Church of North America came from.) But, in the case of the United Methodist Church, the traditionalists have not left. Great credit is to be extended to the Good News Movement, the Confessing Movement, and more recently the Wesleyan Covenant Association, for so nobly leading this struggle all these years. They have remained strong under relentless attacks, and orthodoxy has prevailed in vote after vote after vote. The progressives in the United Methodist Church have been exceedingly frustrated that the UMC has not followed the normal pattern of every major mainline denomination in the United States. The 2019 General Conference was the progressives’ “last stand,” and it did not go as they had planned. The church stood firm. Let me repeat, the traditionalist view is not a minority view held by a smaller and smaller margin of United Methodists, but a majority view which has been re-affirmed thirteen times by General Conference votes. Yes, the vote is 13-0. Yet, the entire structure of the Protocol envisions the traditionalists as the ones who are “leaving” the denomination.

Let us be clear about what makes the United Methodist Church different from every other mainline denomination in the US who has struggled over these same issues. The traditionalists in the UMC, unlike other mainline churches which have divided, are not leaving the denomination because the church no longer affirms historic orthodoxy and they find themselves in a church on the wrong side of orthodoxy. Quite the contrary, the votes to support historic orthodoxy have gotten stronger over the last several General Conferences. The traditionalists in the UMC who are part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) are, indeed, prepared to start a new Methodist “traditionalist” denomination, but it is only because of the sustained rebellion against the clear and decisive decisions made by the General Conference. This rebellion has been made more difficult because it was led by many of our own episcopal leaders who hold the decisions of both the General Conference and the Judicial Council in contempt. The WCA is considering forming a new denomination because of the unwillingness of the episcopacy to maintain church discipline in the church.

The Protocol, if adopted, would open the door for the current United Methodist Church, which all these years has remained faithful to historic faith, to become the default progressive church, and the traditionalists would be left to start something from scratch. The Protocol calls for the traditionalists to leave and form a new denomination (which is like the one they currently already have, save for the rebellion), while the progressives, after that departure, will finally get the United Methodist Church given back to them on a silver platter to reshape according to all the proposals they have been making without success since the 1972 General Conference.

Moving Forward

I would prefer that we keep holding our ground as we have done for fifty years. However, I understand the good reasons given by the courageous traditional leaders for why a church separation in 2020 may be necessary. There are just too many people’s lives at stake for us to be stuck in an ecclesiastical quicksand for another generation, while United Methodism keeps losing members at such a precipitous rate. So, although it is has not been my first hope, I am prepared to join with those who are leaving and start from scratch and build a whole new denomination. Count me in. I’m ready to get to work.

But I do think that it is important that those interested in the history of the United Methodist Church have a clear narrative about what has actually happened. We may have lost our beloved denomination, but we went out having successfully defended historic orthodoxy each time we were called upon to vote. Our General Conference never let us down. Our story is different from other mainline denominations. In our case, we were defeated by our own leaders. That began long ago and entered yet a new phase on September 3, 2013 when Bishop Melvin Talbert officiated at a gay wedding in Birmingham, Alabama, with no repercussions. That began a rebellion which, while never able to change the UMC doctrinally, still ended up destroying the denomination. So, let us turn the page in 2020 and start afresh, remembering our beloved brothers and sisters throughout the history of the church who have fought their own battles, and found, as we will, that Christ always renews his church and makes good on his sacred promise to build his church.

Read Part II here.
Read Part III here.
Read Part IV here.

Five Offices of Christ: A Reflection for the Year 2020

Regular readers of this blog will know that my wife and I dedicate a certain portion of each day reading and singing the Psalms. We work through other biblical books (for example, we just completed the book of Revelation), but we always focus on one psalm per day.

The psalms are valuable as a daily study for many reasons. One of the most important is that the theology of the entire Bible meets in this ancient prayer book. When reading the Old Testament, have you ever felt that whatever passage you are in seems to be headed somewhere or pointing to something further down the road? Likewise, if you read the New Testament, you cannot help but realize that these texts do not arise out the blue, but came from somewhere and are now being fulfilled. The Psalms, therefore, serve as a kind of “Grand Central Station” where texts from the Law, Prophets, and Writings pass through the Psalms on their way to the New Testament to find their final fulfillment in Jesus Christ. Old Testament texts become songs and prayers and those songs and prayers, in turn, get quoted as texts in the New Testament.

Recently I was struck afresh by the power of Psalm 132. It is not a psalm we normally think of when we reflect on “messianic” psalms, and this particular psalm is never directly quoted in the New Testament (although there are three possible allusions to this psalm in Luke 1:69, Acts 2:30 and Acts 7:46). Yet, this psalm prepares us for five of the offices of Christ which are fulfilled through his birth, life, death, and resurrection.

1. God makes his dwelling with us. During our recent Christmas celebration, we remember that one of the titles of Christ is Immanuel, meaning God with us. Psalm 132 recalls David’s longing to “find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Ps. 132:5). David, of course, understood this primarily as the Temple which he would prepare for, and which his son Solomon would build. However, we know from the New Testament that ultimately the only fit dwelling place of God among us was in and through the incarnation. Jesus Christ is the place where all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form (Col. 1:19).

2. Ark in Bethlehem. After David became King he brought the ark of God from the house of Abinadab to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:1-12). However, it rested for three months in his hometown of Bethlehem, also known in the prophetic writings as Ephrathah. Psalm 132 recalls this time when people heard that the ark was resting in Bethlehem: “Behold, we heard of it in Ephrathah” (Ps. 132:6). The ark symbolizes the presence and redemptive power of God, as reflected in the stock prayer that the people of God would pray when they went into battle: “Arise, O Lord, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might” (Ps. 132:8; 2 Chron. 6:41). The prophet Micah prophesied that the messiah, the true sign of God’s presence and power, would come out of Bethlehem. Micah 5:2 said, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me One who is to be ruler is Israel, whose reign is from of old, from ancient days.”

3. The Throne of David. In 2 Samuel 7:16 David was promised that his house and his kingdom would endure forever and that his throne would be established forever. Psalm 132 places this promise into an act of worship when it declares: “The Lord swore to David a sure oath from which he will not turn back: One of the sons of your body I will set on your throne (Ps. 132:11). This promise had a messianic fulfillment and is the source of the multiple allusions which are drawn from the promise to David which are understood by the early church to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ (Acts 2:30; 7:46). Jesus Christ sits on the throne of David and fulfills the kingly messianic role.

4. The Anointed One. Psalm 132 also contains a beautiful prayer that God would not “turn away the face of your anointed One” (Ps. 132:10). It was probably originally intended as a prayer for God to listen to the prayers of King David who served in a kind of representative role on behalf of the people. However, one of the leading terms in Hebrew for the Messiah is the word for anoint. The Messiah was the “anointed one.” This is the term which in Greek is christos where the word “Christ” comes from. In a final way, only Jesus “the Christ” is the one who intercedes for us and who stands in the gap on our behalf.

5. The horn of God. In Psalm 132:17 we are told that God will “make a horn to sprout for David” and prepare “a lamp for my anointed.” The messiah is pictured as a “horn.” The word “horn” is frequently used metaphorically in Scripture to refer to “strength” or “power” or even “honor” (See, for example, Ps. 18:2; 89:17; 92:10; 112:9; 132:7; 1 Sam. 2:1; 2 Sam. 22:3). This explains why Zechariah prophesies in Luke 1 saying, “Blessed by the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (Lk. 1:69). Jesus is the great “horn” of God who embodies the strength, power, and honor of God in the world as he rescues us from the dominion of darkness and delivers us into His glorious kingdom.

All five of these offices, or titles, which would someday be fulfilled by Christ are embedded in Psalm 132—even though it does not figure prominently in the New Testament. As we go into 2020, let us remember that Christ fulfills our deepest hopes and longings. Christ alone remains the hope of the nations and the source of all redemption and peace. Our hope will not be found in the deliberations of Washington D.C., or any political leader, or the outcome of any church denominational debate. Our hope remains in Christ alone.

How the Trust Clause Got Turned on Its Head

May of 2020 will be a momentous General Conference for those in the United Methodist denomination. This could likely be the Conference where the denomination formally divides into two or three separate expressions of Methodism.

Central to the negotiations of a possible split are issues centered in the Trust Clause of the United Methodist Church. The Trust Clause legally establishes that all buildings and properties do not belong to the local congregation, but to the United Methodist denomination itself (specifically, the annual conference). Thus, the discussions about “leaving” the denomination are important because the group that “leaves” has to accept the fact that they must leave all of their property and buildings behind unless some concession is made by the denomination to allow them to keep their property and buildings if, for example, certain financial payments are made.

However, it is important for all United Methodists to not forget the original purpose of the Trust Clause. When John Wesley had the first house of Methodist worship built in Bristol, he established rather hastily a Trust Clause after the prevailing pattern practiced by Presbyterians. This essentially gave the local church Trustees the rights over the building, property and appointment of preachers. Once George Whitefield saw the Trust Clause that John Wesley had established, he immediately wrote a letter of warning to John Wesley that if this Trust Clause prevailed, it could mean that local congregations could appoint their own preachers and even prohibit Rev. Wesley himself from preaching from the very church he had helped to establish. In response to this, Mr. Wesley made major changes to the Trust Clause so that it resembled what we have today; namely, the denomination owns and controls the building, land, and pastoral appointments of all local United Methodist churches.

This much of the history is fairly well known by Methodists. However, what seems to be lost in the discussion is Wesley’s own reason for why he made this change. Wesley made it clear that the whole reason for this very strict Trust Clause was to protect and preserve orthodoxy in the church. If a pastor failed “in the exercise of their ministry” or in the “proclamation of the gospel” then Wesley did not want his hands tied in removing that pastor from the pulpit of a Methodist church. The Trust Clause was very explicit that only authentic Methodist doctrine should be preached in Methodist pulpits. By 1763 it was required that all Trust Clauses follow the pattern of the Birchin Lane Preaching House in Manchester. In this pattern for all Trust Clauses, it is explicitly required that in order for a local congregation to retain control of the land and buildings, . . . “those so appointed should preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes upon the New Testament and four volumes of sermons” (Works of John Wesley, vol. 9).

Thus, the purpose of the Trust Clause was to protect the church from heterodox teaching which was inconsistent with the Scriptures and the received interpretation of the Wesleyan message as found in Wesley’s canonical sermons. Those churches who are refusing to abide by the United Methodist Discipline are the ones who have actually violated the Trust Clause and should be the ones who lose their land and buildings and be required to go and start their own denomination if they wish. However, just the opposite is happening in the United Methodist Church. Our Episcopal leaders continue to appoint and affirm clergy who will not abide by the Discipline and will not teach and preach historic faith. Furthermore, those who long to remain United Methodist, and who long for churches to abide by the express will of the General Conference and the historic doctrines of the Christian faith are faced with losing their land and buildings. The Trust Clause was designed to protect churches from false doctrine. Today, the Trust Clause is being used to pressure churches into embracing false doctrines. The Trust Clause, founded to preserve Wesleyan teaching, is now being used to threaten those who hold to historic faith, so that they will risk losing everything if they do not embrace novel doctrines which stand in clear violation of church tradition and our Discipline. The Trust Clause has been turned on its head.