The Glide Memorial Story

The Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco was the largest Methodist Church in the California-Nevada Conference. From 1964 to 2000, the church was led by Rev. Cecil Williams, who removed the cross from the sanctuary, stopped all celebrations of the Eucharist, and baptized people not in the name of the triune God, but in the “name of the people.” The church was reoriented to become a multi-faith center to provide assistance to the needy and to support various progressive causes. One of the most notorious moments in the life of the church was in January 1977 when Glide Memorial awarded Jim Jones the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award. Jim Jones would later become a household name after he led a mass suicide of 918 members of his church (including 304 children) in Jonestown, Guyana. It is also noteworthy that Rev. Karen Oliveto, the first lesbian bishop in the United Methodist Church, was the pastor of Glide Memorial before she became the bishop of the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences of the United Methodist Church in 2016. Glide Memorial sought to leave the United Methodist Church in 2018 and would not accept various attempts for United Methodist pastors to be appointed. The last several years have been tied up in a legal battle over the substantial Glide Trust and the building. It has now been resolved that the Glide Trust will be given to the California-Nevada Annual Conference to support the work of the United Methodist Church.

But, it is important that we remember the story behind this story. In other words, it is important for those who have been following this story in recent years to remember the original intention and founding of the Glide Memorial Church. In 1929, J. C. McPheeters published a book titled Sons of God, which was read by Lizzie Glide and inspired her to use her late husband’s wealth (beef and stock business) for the expansion of the kingdom of God. Her dream was to create an evangelical, evangelistic center in the heart of the city. It included a preaching hall, six-story apartment complex, and a restaurant. The preaching hall eventually became the sanctuary of Glide Memorial and J. C. McPheeters became the founding pastor. Over the next eighteen years, countless people were served through his ministry and the church grew to more than 3,600 members! Sixty percent of the members came on first time profession of faith. One of those who came to Christ was a young sailor named Ed Robb Jr., who would go on to be a great Methodist evangelist and start AFTE, a fund used to support doctoral students who are committed to evangelical faith. Ed Robb Jr.’s son, Ed Rob III, is currently the founder and senior pastor of The Woodlands United Methodist Church north of Houston.

Elizabeth Glide was also friends with H. C. Morrison, the founder of Asbury Theological Seminary. She encouraged J. C. McPheeters to invite him to preach at Glide Memorial. H. C. Morrison went to San Francisco on five occasions and preached at Glide Memorial. It was there that J. C. McPheeters first met H. C. Morrison. H. C. Morrison eventually invited J. C. Mcpheeters to become the editor of the Herald magazine, which is still the official magazine of Asbury Theological Seminary. Their relationship grew so strong that eventually H. C. Morrison (and the Board of Trustees) invited J. C. McPheeters to become the successor to H. C. Morrison by becoming the second president of Asbury Theological Seminary. McPheeters would serve as president at Asbury from 1942–1962. For six of those years, McPheeters continued to serve as senior pastor of Glide Memorial as well as president of Asbury Seminary! This background is important because it underscores the importance of remembering donor intent. In donor relations is it vital that any recipient of a gift honor the original purpose of the gift. The purpose of the Glide Trust was to create an evangelistic training center in the heart of San Francisco. Lizzie Glide was deeply committed to historic faith and was at the heart of the holiness movement. May we never forget her heart and how she intended for her money to be used. Now that the United Methodist Church has regained control of most of the Glide Trust, may they remember afresh the purpose for which that money was originally given.

Epiphany Is Here!

Epiphany is January 6th. It is one of the few fixed days in the life of the church (along with Christmas). It always falls on January 6th. Epiphany doesn’t receive quite the attention as other seasons do, like Lent or Advent, so perhaps this is a good time to pause and reflect on the meaning of the season of Epiphany. The word epiphany is a Greek word meaning “manifestation” and refers to the public manifestation of Jesus to the world when he begins his public ministry. This is the season where we mark all of the great acts of his public ministry, beginning with his baptism and continuing through to the transfiguration. The baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration of Jesus are like bookends, accentuating the truth that Jesus Christ is the pivotal event—the pivotal person—in the history of the world.

His baptism is the marker that this man, standing in the Jordan River, is the one true Israelite, who alone embodies righteousness and who alone has fulfilled the Law. You will recall that God began by electing Israel out of all the nations of the world. However, Israel proved unfaithful and fell into idolatry and unbelief. So God raised up a remnant within Israel who were called to be faithful and to keep the covenant. But they, too, were disobedient and failed to keep the covenant. It all came down to one Israelite, Jesus Christ, who was the spotless Lamb of God.

His transfiguration is the marker at the end of his ministry when Jesus fulfills all the hopes and expectations of the old covenant. Moses and Elijah appear at the transfiguration as the symbolic head of the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah), solidifying Jesus as the fulfillment of all the expectations and hopes of the ages.

What a great reminder to us as we start 2021, which promises to be one of the most disruptive years of our lives. We are facing an important political shift from a Trumpian version of Republicanism to a more socialistic version of the Democratic party. 2021 will bring us the transition from the tragedy of COVID-19 to the post-pandemic long-term impact of the social, economic, and psychological toll of the pandemic, which we are only beginning to understand. 2021 will also be the year that the United Methodist Church agrees to some form of a separation agreement.

Whatever we face in 2021 and beyond, let us not forget that sole figure standing in the Jordan River. The one who will someday be transfigured. The one who will someday be crucified. The one who will someday rise, ascend, and be seated at the right hand of the Father to judge the world. The one “desire of all nations.” Let us keep our eyes fixed on him. He is the Light of the World. That is the message of Epiphany.

The Incarnation and the Three Advents of Jesus Christ

One of my favorite Christmas hymns is by Charles Wesley titled, “Glory Be to God on High.” It is filled with the rich imagery and phrases that are characteristic of Wesley’s great hymnology: “He sojourns in this veil of tears,” “God the invisible appears,” and “Beings source begins to be.” Yes, this is the season we recall the great mystery of the incarnation. The world is quick to sentimentalize the whole message of Christmas, making it about “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” or “Jack Frost nipping at your nose” rather than the mystery of the incarnation—God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ.

Let us not forget that this is the season of the church year when we remember and celebrate the real, bodily incarnation of Jesus Christ. There are many dimensions of this Advent. It certainly refers to the coming of the second person of the Trinity as the Son of God. He comes into the lowly stable of Bethlehem as the exalted Son of Man, prepared to “raise the sons of earth” to their right status before God. It also refers to the Second Advent when Jesus Christ as the “Son of God and Son of Man” returns: 1) to receive those whom He has called, 2) to judge the world and set all things right, and, finally, 3) to usher in the consummation of the new creation.

However, as we all know, there is a big gap in time and space between the first and second Advents of Jesus Christ. God, in His mercy, has given to us a large redemptive space into which the church is to live out the future realities of the inbreaking kingdom into the present age. We are to be outposts of the new creation in Adam’s world. This happens in ten thousand small ways in tiny corners of the world as God—through His church—bears witness to His righteous rule and reign.

It is into such a world that we all are called to live as children of the light, bearing witness to that True Light which has come—and is coming—into the world. This is, of course, the third way the Advent of Jesus Christ happens in our world. The Advent of Jesus is not isolated to two points in history, the first Christmas and the second coming, but is an unfolding reality whenever the kingdom of Jesus Christ breaks in afresh to a new people.

Perhaps the best way to celebrate Christmas is not merely to look back on the first Christmas, or to look forward to the second coming, but look out into the world and discover new ways in which Jesus Christ can be presented or, in some cases, be re-presented, to the world. The witness of every church should be a little reenactment of the incarnation in seed form. These reenactments are only possible since God in Jesus Christ has set the stage and He remains the central player in this divine drama.

Our job is not simply to wait for the second coming, but to live out his first coming in the present age in countless ways until Jesus returns. If we knew that Jesus were coming back tomorrow, we should still get up and go to our places of work and study because we want to make sure that whenever He does return He finds us not idle, but in the saddle doing the works of Jesus each and every day.

For the Body: A New Resource by Timothy Tennent

Between September 5, 1979, and November 28, 1984, late Pope John Paul II preached a five-­year series of weekly homilies on the theology of the body, which constitutes the landmark exposition of this theme. As wonderful as this resource is, it is theologically nuanced and not easily accessible to ordinary Christians who are facing these struggles in their families or workplaces. Christopher West promoted John Paul II’s teachings to a wider audience through his books Theology of the Body Explained, Theology of the Body for Beginners, and more recently in Our Bodies Tell God’s Story. However, these books stand as an exception to the rule. Most popular Christian books focus on a Christian response to same-­sex marriage or offer advice on building positive marriages, but they have not been as robust in demonstrating how all of these issues point to a single theological problem that remains largely unaddressed. That single problem is that we do not have a coherent theology of the body.

In this book, I seek to demonstrate how a positive vision of the body that arises out of Scripture and the consensus of Christian teaching gives us a positive theological vision and, hopefully, a way forward for addressing the whole range of issues the church is facing today.

What the Church Has Believed, Taught, and Confessed

Traditionally, church doctrine referred to what was believed, taught, and confessed. However, the meaning of these terms has been largely lost as the church has become increasingly disconnected from its own history. Populist notions of Christianity must always be informed by the rich heritage we received from the New Testament witness and from those who have gone before us. The term believed did not simply refer to things you know in your head or trust in your heart; believed referred to all the ways faith extended itself bodily, whether through worship, service, or the morality of our own life and witness in the world. The word taught did not simply refer to the content of material taught in a new members class; it referred to the whole structure of Christian teaching, preaching, and proclamation that would resonate with biblical, apostolic faith. The word confessed referred to far more than a document such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed; it also referred to the church’s role in defending the faith against attacks, protecting the church from false teachings, and maintaining our unity with the historic faith (see Jaroslav Pelikan, A History of the Development of Doctrine, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100–600) [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971], 2–5).

This book seeks to address a doctrinal neglect in the church that has negatively influenced what is being believed, taught, and confessed. That problem has many manifestations, but the root problem is a deficient theology of the body. This is not some odd doctrine that dwells only in seminary classrooms or academic lectures but one that lies at the heart of many of the most pressing moral, cultural, and ecclesiastical issues of our day.

It is common today to hear of someone who has for most of their lives held to a traditional view of marriage, embark upon a journey that eventually led them to a new view concerning the definition of marriage or understanding of gender. These are often very powerful and moving stories. These stories normally involve getting to know someone personally who has struggled with their gender, or a happy lesbian couple who may have recently joined the church, and so forth. Like many who are reading this book, I have listened to these stories and reflected on them. But as I faced all of these new questions and issues, I also have been on a journey. I have spoken with friends, I have read books, I have studied Scriptures in a new way, and I have listened both to those who struggle with these issues and to the church throughout the ages, trying to better understand these issues. This book reflects some of my journey.

This excerpt is taken from the introduction of Timothy Tennent’s new book, For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body. Video companion and study guide forthcoming January, 2021.

This book is suitable for: 1) Pastors leading communities 2) Individuals seeking deeper study 3) Student ministers. In these pages readers will: 1) Understand why our bodies matter on a host of issues 2) Discover a positive vision for human sexuality 3) Be equipped to engage culture from a positive posture.

The human body is an amazing gift, yet today, many people downplay its importance and fail to understand what Christianity teaches about our bodies and their God-given purposes. We misunderstand how the body was designed, its role in relating to others, and lack awareness of the dangers of objectifying the body, divorcing it from its intended purpose.

In For the Body, author Timothy Tennent looks at what it means to be created in the image of God and how our bodies serve as icons that illuminate God’s purposes. Tennent examines topics like marriage, family, singleness, and friendship, and he looks at how the human body has been objectified in art and media today. He also offers a framework for discipling people today in a Christian theology of the body.

Is Confidence in Sola Fide Dropping or Is the Wesleyan Tide Rising?

I recently read an article with the following question as a title: “Are We Justified by Faith Alone?” The question in the title was asked in this precise form because it was intended to resonate with one of the great themes of the sixteenth-century Reformation: sola fide (faith alone!). The meaning is that we are justified by faith alone in Christ and no amount of good works can accomplish one’s justification before God. Trust me, whenever I hear any of the five great solas of the Reformation—faith alone, Christ alone, Scripture alone, grace alone, glory of God alone—I want to shout Amen and Hallelujah.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the article may have missed something. The article was written in response to a Lifeway and Ligonier Ministries survey as a part of their State of Theology Project. The survey found that only 84 percent of evangelicals agree with the following statement: “God counts a person as righteous not because of one’s works but only because of one’s faith in Jesus Christ.” Only two years ago, the article points out, 91 percent of evangelicals agreed with the same statement. The author laments this slippage from and writes the following summary of his anguish: “This shows that there has been an alarming decrease in the percentage of evangelicals who express clear views on how sinful man can be justified before God.” But, does this conclusion necessarily follow the results of the survey? Let’s just say, I have doubts. The question posed never uses the word justification. The question asked about whether God “counting a person as righteous” is related to “one’s works” or only “one’s faith.” If the question had been posed, Is a person justified only by one’s faith, or is it also by one’s works? then I would share the author’s concern about the slipping percentage, because when framed this way the question is more narrowly focused on what it means to be justified before God. That is not what the question actually asked. Therefore, to conclude that this slippage represents an “alarming decrease” in “how sinful man can be justified” is not warranted.

So, what is the difference between the question and the interpretation of the response? The difference is bound up with the biblical view of salvation. To put it bluntly and plainly, biblical salvation is about more than justification. Salvation involves our salvation by faith alone in the completed work of Jesus Christ, but it also involves our sanctification which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, makes us holy and actually produces fruit in us. In other words, as much as we laud the good news of alien righteousness (i.e., that our righteousness does not belong to us, but to Jesus Christ alone), no biblical Christian believes that this is the only thing we teach about righteousness. Yes, we are condemned sinners who flee to the cross with no hope in ourselves apart from Christ. Yet, and this is the point, once we flee to the cross, God begins a good work in us to conform us to the life of Christ and to make us holy.

In other words, sanctification is about making us holy—in our thoughts, our actions, or dispositions, our heart orientation. This process will not be complete until we come to yet another stage of salvation, namely, glorification when we will be made like Christ and fully conformed to his glorious image in the final Eschaton. But, the point is this: When God looks upon us who are on this side of the cross he should definitely see two forms of righteousness—the righteousness of Jesus Christ and the emerging righteousness of the increasingly sanctified believer. John Wesley’s theology was built around the confidence that salvation must involve both the work of Jesus Christ who alone justifies and the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies. Even Martin Luther’s theology of righteousness is built around the distinction between the coram deo (passive righteousness before God) and the corum mundo (active righteousness in the world).

Thus, back to the original question, When God looks at us should he not see righteousness that is not merely passive righteousness received from Christ, but also active righteousness that is based on the work of the Holy Spirit which joyfully and daily includes our wills and our actions? Thus, the dropping percentage by evangelicals is likely not a sign of the loss of sola fide and the sole centrality of Jesus Christ in justifying us, but, rather, a growing percentage of evangelicals who realize that when God looks upon us, he had better see both kinds of righteousness. As someone once humorously put it, as a play on the famous “Just as I Am” hymn: “God loves you just as you am, but he don’t want you to stay the way you am!” What we are experiencing among evangelicals is not the alarming loss of the Reformation message, but the growing realization that in an increasingly post-Christian world, not only must the world see our transformed lives, but God had better see it too!

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): From Religious Service Provider to Agent of Awakening

Read Part I of my convocation address here.
Read Part II of my convocation address here.
Read Part III of my convocation address here.

Paradigm Shift #3: Moving from Being a Religious Service Provider to an Agent of Awakening

The third storm, the COVID-19 pandemic, has disrupted one of the key features of Christian, and, indeed, human identity; namely, the life-giving power of gathered, human community reflecting the very nature of the communal nature of our triune God. On the one hand, we fully understand and embrace that the wearing of masks and keeping social distance is an expression of compassion for one another, and, in particular, our more vulnerable citizens as well as the well-being of our health care workers who serve on the front lines in this pandemic. Let me repeat, we affirm and resonate with this message. But, it is not the only message that Christians need to hear. Safety is a good value, but, for the Christian, it is not the ultimate value for us or, in our view, for a healthy society.

A culture that takes down diving boards from swimming pools because someone might get hurt is also a culture that will never send a man or woman to the moon. A culture that shines ultra-violet light on the bedsheets of 5-star hotels to show us what is lurking there is a culture that has lost touch with the real sufferings of this world. The church must get its hands dirty in the world. As I tell our new students every year, we are called to be street lights, not sanctuary lights. Millions around the world, and in our own land, struggle against what African theologian Akintude Akinade has called the “multi-headed Hydra” of poverty, illiteracy, ethnic tensions, colonialism, dictatorship, illness, disenfranchisement, and suffering. As a Christian, if my wife and I were to accept the prevailing culture’s hierarchy of values we would never have sent our daughter to live among the Alagwa in central Tanzania. She is five hours from any health care and even if she managed to get there, the clinic often has no attending staff and only meager medical supplies. It’s just too risky to bring the gospel to an unreached people’s group. As Christians we must understand that our culture is driven to make safety the highest good precisely because of their loss of the Eschaton and any eternal hope beyond the grave. If all you have is this life and the farthest extent of your vision is ninety years, then it is an expression of perfect cultural logic to end up where we are today as a society.

But our vision goes beyond the grave. Death has been defeated. We are an eschatological people. The early church understood, even in the face of immense dangers, that they stood in a sacred space, which is Jesus Christ. When Jesus saw the leper, he did not step back in fear, though it was the most infectious and transmittable disease of his day. He stepped forward, and touched the leper. COVID-19 is a call for us to reclaim the power of the gospel . . . not just the doctrines of it, but the spirit of it—to reoccupy that sacred space as we walk in confidence through the world, even as we wear masks and keep social distance. Fear is not a Christian virtue. We are not a people of fear, but of joy. For us, joy is an act of corporate resistance against despair. We walk through a COVID-19 world knowing that Jesus has the final word. He has defeated death, with all of its signatures: fear, disease, poverty, racism, etc. The world is a dangerous, risky place where we as Christians must learn again to walk into daily trusting the providence of God.

COVID-19 is, as noted earlier, a strangely wrapped gift of disruptive grace. It could be the very change agent to move us toward several important changes in how we understand ecclesiology. First, we should accept as a gift that we need to move from facility-focused ministry models to smaller, community-based churches. For too long we have nurtured and even promoted the idea of Christians commuting out of their own communities to attend large churches, many of whom have no meaningful connection to the communities they are in. For too long we have touted the size of a church as a measure of its health: the church with the most programs to meet our needs wins. However, what if COVID-19, racial unrest, and economic fragility call us to move toward smaller, community-based churches that serve as the primary agent of healing for the communities they are in? Second, what if COVID-19 breaks us from a Sunday-based ministry and gives way to a full-week engagement of the church in the world? Sunday morning gatherings for worship are wonderful, but we are not the church if our faith only finds a home one day a week. The church has always thrived the most when its members saw themselves as the church as they walked through the whole week in all of their various contexts. We must recapture our public witness, not just our private faith. Third, COVID-19 could have a transformative impact on how we understand seminary education. We have long lived and operated on the university model, which functions as a separate institution of learning that often is insulated from the churches we are pledged to serve. One of the most exciting ways Asbury is meeting this challenge is the launch of Asbury Global, which brings together our hybrid learning model, our online education, and our contextual sites that meet in local churches. It is not intended to replace our vibrant residential model, which emphasizes embodied communities of learning, but it supplements it by the whole of Asbury being reminded that we exist to serve the church and the church is a vital partner in the future of theological education.

I want to close with a story from my own family. My sixth great-grandfather was William Tennent. He was born in Scotland in 1673, went to the University of Edinburgh, as I later did, and migrated to the new world in 1718. In 1727 he founded a theological college known as the Log College, which provided pastors for the First Great Awakening (1730–1740). The Log College eventually became renamed the College of New Jersey and finally it was relocated in the first town that each merchant in the town would put up twenty dollars to support the university. A little town name Princeton rose to the challenge, and the rest is history.

William Tennent’s children all became part of what was known at that time as the New Lights, as opposed to the Old Lights. These were Great Awakening preachers and they were denouncing religious formalism, promoting revival, conversion experiences, direct experience with God, and pietism. These, of course, are themes we are familiar in the ministry of John Wesley, another one of the great streams of the Great Awakening.

William Tennent Jr. (my fifth great-grandfather) had just graduated from the Log College and was preparing to take his ordination exams. In those days, it was a deeply classical training and he was conversing in Latin with his theological tutor when suddenly, with a big heave and cry, he collapsed to the ground and died, though he was only twenty-six years old. In the eighteenth century there were four main ways to determine if someone was dead, and you are probably familiar with all four of these: pulse, death pallor, death dew, and rigor mortis.

William Tennent Jr. experienced all of this and so he was pronounced dead and the funeral was set for the next day. Later that day, another doctor came and examined the body and thought he felt a slight warmth underneath his armpits, so he called in another doctor. The other doctor examined him and couldn’t feel any warmth at all. This was a time before such things as EKGs, so he used the methods he had: no pulse, death pallor, stiff as a board . . . again, declared dead for the second time. The next day was the day of the funeral. People gathered for the funeral and just minutes before they were going to close the casket and bring him out for burial, another doctor said he wanted to examine him again. William Sr. (his father) and Gilbert (his brother) didn’t want to allow for it, because everyone had already gathered for the funeral and William Jr. had now been officially declared dead by two different doctors. But, there was a fifth test that was done—that was to shine a very bright light into someone’s eyes and see if their pupils restricted. They did this and the pupils remained dilated, but he saw at the last minute a little shimmer of the eye, and for just a second William Tennent’s body shivered, then fell dead again. They called off the funeral, took him out of the casket, wrapped the body in warm towels, and eventually he came to. He could not speak. He had to learn everything all over again over the next two years, though his Latin came back before his English. I am alive this morning because William Tennent woke up! Praise God. I was less than ten to fifteen minutes from not existing! If William Tennent Jr. had not woken up, I would not be here today, because he went on to get married, have a family (including my fourth great-grandfather), and serve a church for the next forty-three years until his actual death. I am here this morning five generations later because William Tennent Jr. woke up.

“Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you”

The culture has declared the church dead and has already called for our funeral service, but the God of resurrection is still at work. The culture is ready to close the casket on the church and declare that the Christian gospel is irrelevant to the needs of this world, but the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation and our God is still on the throne! The culture sees the church not as the solution to the culture’s dilemma, but part of the problem, but Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” This is our great hope. God is not finished with us and He has called us into the world, with all of its dangers and frightening problems that all seem unsurmountable. Be the agent of healing for our communities. Never forget the distinctive voice of God’s revelation to us. And, remember, even though Nebuchadnezzar heats up his furnace seven times hotter, God still has his Meshacks, Shadracks, and Abenegos who will not bow to the idols of this world. So, wake up, O church, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you! Get out of your caskets and get into the world—that’s why Asbury Seminary exists. Let us awaken to a new great awakening! Amen.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part III): From Cultural Echo Chamber to the Distinct Voice of the Church

Read Part I of my convocation address here.

We come now to the second storm, that of racial unrest in our country. The tragic death of forty-six-year-old George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis on May 25th with his last words, “I can’t breathe” on his lips has highlighted a long-standing wound in our land, which should not be ignored. There is a deepening despair that has brought our black citizens in fifty-seven years from the hopeful phrase of MLK in 1963, “I have a dream” to the desperate plea “I can’t breathe.” Willie James Jennings, former professor from Duke Divinity School, now Yale, has called this wound a “diseased social imagination.” Its roots are in our hearts. But, while sin is personal, it is never satisfied to stay there. It longs to infect all our institutions and social arrangements. Sin is personal and systemic; it is private and public; it is internal and societal; it is individual and corporate.

There is nothing wrong with our participating in peaceful protests to demand attention to this deep wound in our society. We share many of the same frustrations and anger that have erupted in our streets. Our message is not one promoting the destruction of communities, but the rebuilding of communities on the foundation of reconciliation. This is why we must reclaim our Christian voice in the midst of this crisis of our day, which addresses this “diseased social imagination” in deeper and more transformative ways. My 2019 Convocation Address focused on the work of Alsdair MacIntyre, who rightly argues that our society has lost the moral foundation to produce true transformation and we are only left with what he calls “emotivism” where we just shout at one another. It is the loss of the Christian worldview which is the very gap between the stirring hopefulness of Martin Luther King Jr. “I have a dream” and the desperate plea of George Floyd, “I can’t breathe.” It is a loss that the culture cannot name.

However, we have a message that is the only hope for our nation, or any nation, which seeks to honestly face up to a diseased social imagination. Our distinctive voice should not be silent. Four examples will be noted.

First, we affirm that Scripture teaches us that every person is created in the image of God. This is the great creational foundation stone that gives dignity and infinite value to all people everywhere.

Second, the Bible also teaches us that all of humanity, apart from Christ, is under the bondage of sin and needs to receive the grace of forgiveness. Apart from Christ, we are all “in Adam.” This is a universally shared experience because of the fall.

The culture does not recognize sin as sin, but only the effects of the sin nature, and seems unable to have the capacity to offer, or receive, forgiveness. We, as the people of God, know that we are the joyful recipients of the grace of God. Our culture needs to see forgiveness, reconciliation, and grace manifested in the church and offered freely to the world.

Third, as Wesleyans we believe in the power of Jesus Christ and His indwelling Spirit to transform and redirect hearts toward perfect love. His victory over death was also His victory over all sin, including the sin of racism, since He has “torn down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph. 2:14) and has created a new redeemed people, made up of every race, tribe, and tongue (Rev. 5:9; 7:9). Our theology has enormous implications that are both private and public; internal and societal; individual and corporate.

Fourth, we believe that the new creation is coming when God will present us in complete unity as the spotless bride of Christ. The future to which we are headed is not one of division and hatred, but of shared unity around the glory of God and of His redemption that has made us all adoptive children. There is no greater diversity in unity than the vision of John in Revelation 7:9 of people from every tribe, people, and nation worshipping the Lord. The church has not always been faithful to this vision. Albert Tate, the African American lead pastor of the multi-racial Fellowship Church in Monrovia, California, made the insightful comment that the evangelical church was far better in envisioning a multi-racial multitude “standing before the throne” in the new creation (Rev. 7:9), than they were with the races of the world “sitting around the table” in the here and now. We clearly have important unfinished business as a Christian community. Some sectors of the church resisted the biblical vision during the years of racial segregation in our country. We have not always been prepared to accept the systemic ramifications of sin. We must be honest about this and ask forgiveness for this. A new window of opportunity is before us as a community, and God’s grace has provided the possibility of this new engagement framed by being true to the Christian message.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part II): From Privatized Church to Public, Missional Agent of Healing

Read Part I of my convocation address here.

I hear in this hymn fragment a call to an awakening involving three paradigm shifts for the people of God, all related to the three disruptions we are facing.

Paradigm Shift #1: Moving from an Insulated, Privatized Church to the Church as a Public, Missional Agent of Healing

Miroslav Volf is a Croatian theologian who now serves as professor of theology at Yale University and formerly, where I first met him, of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia. Volf’s award-winning book Exclusion and Embrace captures the violence of three cities. (1) Sarajevo in the grip of the Bosnian war and the birth of modern-day ethnic cleaning; (2) the Los Angeles race riots in the wake of the beating of Rodney King; and (3) the rise of modern-day neo-Nazis on the streets of Berlin. Those particular conflicts are not in the headlines today, but you could easily substitute them for the conflicts of our day. He argues that today’s cultural conflicts cannot be understood unless we first understand the impact of post-modernity on modern thought. He points out that post-modernity embraces an autonomous self, which turns away from the values and identities that connect us and, instead, focuses on social arrangements rather than people as social agents. Identity politics becomes a new form of tribalism, spawning endless conflicts and power struggles. Volf argues that we tend to shift moral responsibility away from ourselves as moral agents and, instead, shift blame onto socially constructed and managed agencies that allows us to escape from our own moral responsibilities. This is where Volf introduces his famous double exclusion.

Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans, even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the Crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion—without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous into the sphere of shared humanity and herself/himself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness.

This is why the cross of Jesus Christ must be reclaimed as the central defining reality of Christian identity, because only there do exclusion and embrace meet. Christ does not exclude Himself from the company of sinners. He stands with the company of sinners at His baptism all the way to the cross. In that very refusal to exclude Himself from sinners, He freely embraces a world which has reviled and rejected Him. The arms of the cross create that sacred space, which alone makes forgiveness and true reconciliation possible. Volf goes on to say,

The difference between justice and forgiveness is this: to be just is to condemn the fault and, because of the fault, to condemn the doer as well. To forgive is to condemn the fault but to spare the doer. That’s what the forgiving God does.

But, this is not a cheap, “I forgive you.” This is not just justice, but actual reconciliation borne out of the full embrace of the pain of the other. The contemporary church in the West has insulated itself from the pain and suffering that is at the heart of the gospel and a crucified Savior. We need a wake-up call. We have embraced what Gregg Okesson in his book A Public Missiology calls a thin reading of Scripture and, therefore, we have been left with a thin Christian narrative, which has become, and I quote, “easy prey to the dominant narratives of this world, such as nationalism, tribalism, global capitalism, and progress.” I had the privilege of being in former Yugoslavia on many occasions in the 1990’s. I was in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Slovenia. The wars brought the entire economy to a halt, with little left but street bartering. Millions either had their home destroyed or became refugees. The church found the strength and grace to minister in the midst of a culture in great pain and the loss of hope written on their faces. I met dozens of men and women who were training for ministry in that context. My first trip there the Mostar Bible College met in a bombed-out building. I was inspired by their deep commitment to the hope of the gospel in the face of what seemed hopeless. The global economic downturn has unleashed despair and loss of hope, and every church in every community should relearn how to be a public outpost of grace, healing, and hope to their community. This is not the time to escape the world’s mess, but to wade into it and embrace it with the transforming power of the gospel! Your generation can awaken to this great call to be missional agents of healing.

Read Part III of my convocation address here.

My 2020 Opening Convocation Address (Part I): Wake Up, O Sleeper!

The year 2020 will go down as one of the most momentous years in a generation. Some years are shy and unassuming and easily blend into the others. But, there are some years that stand out as defining markers, challenging our assumptions, calling us to lean in to what God might be saying to us, and summoning us afresh to new discoveries about who God has called us to be as His church in the midst of a fallen world. 2020 is such a year. This year will not be easily forgotten, nor should it. This year is not about “business as usual.” This year is not about “steady as she goes.” Three events have converged on this year with an almost hurricane force. First, the COVID-19 pandemic bringing with it disease, masking, social distancing, and a major disruption of our life together as a community. Second, the global economic downturn, which has unleashed untold despair and loss of hope around the world. And, thirdly, the stark reminder of the festering wound of racial injustices in our country, which has been represented to us in poignant and tragic ways. The question before us at Asbury Theological Seminary is this: What does it mean for Spirit-filled, sanctified men and women to “spread scriptural holiness” in our day? Or, to put it another way, What does the mission of Asbury seminary look like for our time—this time, for our generation, in the midst of the challenges of racial disparity, economic instability, and a global pandemic?

As your president, I submit to you on this solemn occasion of our ninety-seventh opening convocation at Asbury Theological Seminary that the 2020 disruptions should serve as a wake-up call to the church of Jesus Christ! “Wake up, O Sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you!” This verse is a little fragment of poetry right in the New Testament. The language of this hymn fragment draws upon themes in the Old Testament. Perhaps you hear echoes of that great text in Isaiah 60:1, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon you.” Or, perhaps, you faintly hear Isaiah 26:19, “Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy!”

Put them together and you begin to see something of the power of this fragment from what is surely one of the earliest Christian hymns. Since this fragment has been found attached to the earliest Eucharistic liturgies, some of the Church Fathers concluded that this verse should be viewed through a spiritual lens: You were dead in your trespasses and sins, but through the gospel you have been awakened.

Clement of Alexandria wrote that this admonition was about the church being awakened from heresy. He says “He awakens us from the sleep of darkness and raises up those who have wandered in error.”

Archelaus said that this text was the transition between the law of Moses and the light of the gospel. Moses, he writes, was the guardian of law until the sun came up in Jesus Christ.

Hippolytus saw it as referring to the final call of Jesus on the day of general resurrection at His second coming. “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead and Christ will shine on you” is envisioned as the call that accompanies the great angelic trumpet at the return of Christ. He reminds us of that great truth that someday we are literally going to be raised from the dead. Like all good hymns, I am sure it has many facets of meaning. But, somehow, all of these meanings come together in harmonic resonance in a year like 2020.

Indeed, this verse just might be the call to the church of Jesus Christ in 2020 to awaken from our spiritual slumber. To realize afresh that He is Lord over death itself. It is a call to awake and rediscover afresh the power of the gospel for our time: the call to be a Spirit-filled church; a supernaturally empowered church. The wider culture has lost its way and is desperate for a word of hope in the midst of this crisis. But, the greater problem is that the church is asleep. The church must to awaken to the great harvest that is before us. Brothers and sisters, the crisis of a global pandemic, social unrest due to painful racial disparities, and economic fragility is nothing less than a call to a great awakening. This is our moment. This is our summons. This is our wake-up call!

The Case for Theological Education in the Post-United Methodist Church Rebirth

A well-trained clergy has always been at the heart of the Wesleyan vision of pastoral leadership. Wesley was deeply committed to theological training. He produced a steady array of serious training materials and insisted that they be mastered before someone could become a certified Methodist preacher. His Notes on the New Testament and his canonical sermons are still in print today. Wesley knew the biblical languages, was conversant with the patristic writers, and all of his writings reflect his commitment to the deep roots of historic faith. Proper theological education was the driving force behind the whole structure of the Methodist movement’s commitment to sanctification of both heart and mind. It involved trained clergy and a network of class meetings, bands, and societies, which were built on this foundation. Indeed, serious theological reflection stands as one of the hallmarks of Wesley’s capacity to unleash a new Christian movement.

Tragically, the contemporary church is awash with spiritual superficiality, biblical illiteracy, and theological confusion. It is vital that any new denomination that emerges out of the likely breakup of the United Methodist Church make this problem central to their vision. A few simple questions will clarify this point. Are pastors entering seminary with less biblical and theological literacy than they had thirty years ago? The answer is clearly yes. Are the theological and biblical challenges those same pastors are facing greater than they were thirty years ago? Again, the answer is yes. Therefore, it would be wise to not reduce our commitment to proper theological training. Indeed, precisely because we are entering a post-Christendom, post-Christian phase in our nation, there has never been a more urgent time to reclaim biblical and theological thinking and living.

Whenever a new denomination is formed it is not unusual to react against that which has caused so much dysfunction. Liberal theological education has wreaked havoc on our pastors. James Heidinger II’s landmark book The Rise of Theological Liberalism and the Decline of American Methodist (Seedbed, 2017) demonstrates profoundly how modern-day United Methodism has been ruined by faulty theological education. The answer, however, is not to diminish our historic commitment to theological education, but to strengthen it and put it on proper grounds. We have inherited poor theological education. The answer is not less theological education, but better theological education.

There is no better case study for this than the determination of so many United Methodists to normalize same-sex behavior and gender reassignment in the life of the church. I am sometimes asked if I am weary of our church’s seemingly endless debates over this issue for forty-seven years. I sometimes respond, “No, what amazes me is that as a denomination we have never actually had a proper discussion about it.” We have argued endlessly about it on cultural, and sometimes, pastoral grounds, but we have never had a proper biblical and theological discussion about it as a church. The reason for this is that we had already abandoned our commitment to biblical and theological moorings decades earlier, so we were left without the necessary grounds and language to properly assess the impact of these new proposals on our Christian witness. The debate could have entailed a serious discussion of the precise meaning of a range of Greek words, but, alas, no such discussion ever arose. If a new movement is launched without solid theological grounding, we will be easily vanquished by the next several waves of the latest cultural ideas which, supposedly, place us on the wrong side of history. We have been defeated once by our poor theological rootedness. Why would we plant the seeds for our future demise before we even get a new denomination started?

I would go so far as to say that while I am struck by the loss of Wesleyan distinctives in our movement, I am even more struck by the loss of our Christian identity. In other words, we have embraced only a domesticated caricature of Christianity, and central to any new denomination must be a vigorous reclaiming of historic Christian grounds. The watered-down pabulum of mainline Protestantism will not provide the nourishment we need to face what the rising generation needs to proclaim and defend the historic faith. I have argued for years that unless our movement reclaims our Christian identity, there will be no hope in our reclaiming our rich Wesleyan heritage. We must be attentive to the foundations upon which any new denomination will be built in the post-UMC witness of the “people called Methodist.”

Today, there is a door opening for a distinctive Wesleyan voice to bring leadership to theological education in North America in ways that were unimaginable even ten years ago. There is a something stirring in the church that could unite Christians around a deeper consensus, which is more ancient, more patristic, more conciliar, yet rooted in historic Christian confessions. In short, what is before us in August of 2021 is not merely an ecclesial moment, it is a profoundly theological moment. This is our opportunity to recapture our own history, as well as our place as leaders in the theological vision which could unfold in the twenty-first century and beyond. If we move into a kind of easy, generic, experienced-based evangelicalism, we will not have the ballast necessary to bring effective, global leadership to the church.

Let’s be honest, many of the contemporary forms of user friendly, minimalistic Christianity have not demonstrably proven that the faith is being effectively transferred to the next generation. However, if we recapture a deeper commitment to embody a truly transformative Christian worldview, which can only happen with a concomitant commitment to theological education, then will be poised to dramatically shape the future contours of Christian identity. This also means that theological education itself needs renovation to more adequately address the unique challenges of pastoral formation in a post-Christian society. But, we should not relinquish our historic vision for a well-trained clergy. The rebirth of class meetings, small band accountability, the emergence of thousands of new church plants, and a more articulate, faithful church can only be accomplished if our future clergy are prepared and trained at the highest level. To relinquish our commitment to theological education out of fear of students incurring debt is to name a problem and miss the obvious solution. We must actually stand with and financially support those who are called into full-time ministry. The answer to the problem is scholarships, not reducing our commitment to theological education. If we do, we will lose our most capable leaders who will, quite rightly, be attracted to other, more robust movements.

We must not forget the observation George Whitefield made as he looked back on his ministry and compared it to the ministry of John Wesley. Whitefield said, “The souls that were awakened under [Wesley’s] ministry he joined in societies, and thus preserved the fruit of his labor. This I neglected, and my people are a rope of sand.” There are no Whitefieldian societies now. But there are tens of millions of Wesleyan believers around the world. Let us not create a new rope of sand. I believe that the vast majority of those who will join a new denomination understand the importance of theological education. So, as we think and prepare for the future, let us join together and give birth to a well-organized, disciplined, theologically trained church with deep roots in our historic faith and rich theological heritage.