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.

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.

Chick-fil-A and the Salvation Army

One of the headlines across the nation on November 18th was as follows: “Chick-fil-A will no longer donate to anti-LGBTQ organizations.” Another news outlet characterized the same story as “Chick-fil-A no longer donates to controversial charities after LGBTQ protests.” The story refers to changes Chick-fil-A is making to its charitable foundation to satisfy pressures from the LGBTQ lobby. In particular, Chick fil-A agreed to make no further charitable donations to the Salvation Army. (Chick-fil-A also discontinued their gifts to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, but that will need to be the subject of another article).

This latest round of protests against Chick-fil-A dates back to June 2012 when Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, publicly stated that, as a Christian, he was opposed to same-sex marriage. It is important to remember that same sex marriage was not universally legalized in the United States until June of 2015, but Dan Cathy’s comments sparked outrage resulting in boycotts of the restaurant across the nation, even though Chick-fil-A joyfully serves all who comes through their doors. No one has been refused service at any Chick-fil-A restaurant because of their sexual practices or gender identity. Remember that Chick-fil-A is a family owned restaurant which receives no government funding and is not even publicly traded. Nevertheless, since that time the company has struggled to regain its public image because it is relentlessly being characterized as “promoting hatred” because of the personal Christian convictions of the owners of Chick-fil-A.

The decision of Chick-fil-A to no longer make donations to the Salvation Army represents, in my view, a lost opportunity for the nation as a whole to learn how to live in a modern, pluralistic society. When the LGBTQ lobby challenged Chick-fil-A to another round of boycotts if they did not discontinue their support of the Salvation Army, the appropriate response should have been as follows:

“Dear friends in the LGBTQ community,
We have received your demand that we no longer make charitable donations to the Salvation Army. Are you not aware that the Salvation Army serves 60 million meals every year to hungry people? Did you not know that the Salvation Army provides 11 million nights of shelter for homeless people? Did you know that the Salvation Army operates in every zip code in America, without regard to race, religion or sexual orientation? Did you not know that the Salvation Army operates 142 drug and rehabilitation centers at no cost to the American taxpayer, relying solely on charitable donations? Did you not know that, because of the size and global scope of the Salvation Army, no organization in America (or the world) has fed, housed, clothed and assisted more Lesbian, Gay, bi-sexual, Transgender and Queer people than the Salvation Army, since they indiscriminately serve all who are in need? Tell me, again, why we should stop our donations to the Salvation Army?”

A letter like this was not written. Instead, Chick-fil-A capitulated to the demands of the LGBTQ lobby. The result has been the following:

1. The LGBTQ community has been harmed by the loss of donations to support selfless service which goes to all people, including their own community who are present in every sector of society, including those in need.

2. The LGBTQ community, by insisting, that Chick-fil-A discontinue its own free will donations to the charitable causes of their choice, has violated the freedom of religion and freedom of speech of both the owners of Chick-fil-A as well as the Salvation Army. Furthermore, a positive harm has been inflicted on the Salvation Army which has been so unnecessarily affected by this ongoing mischaracterization of them as a “controversial” and “hate-filled” organization. It is a loss of civil discourse to live in a country where someone does not have the right to advocate ardently in favor of same sex marriage. But that right granted to the LGBTQ lobby does not negate the rights of the Cathy family to advocate for a biblical view of marriage which arises out of their Christian convictions. Freedom of speech protects both parties.

3. By capitulating to the LGBTQ lobby, Chick-fil-A has inadvertently provided strength to the false narrative (as reinforced in the headlines) that the Salvation Army is “anti-LGBTQ” and is a “controversial” Christian organization. They are not. Since when has housing the homeless and feeding the poor become “controversial”? What is there to oppose about an organization whose motto is “Doing the Most Good?” What is “hate-filled” and “anti-LGBTQ” about feeding hungry people, or providing shelter and water in the aftermath of a hurricane? Has anyone ever seen a sign on a Salvation Army rescue center, or rehab center, or soup kitchen which says, ”LGBTQ not welcomed”? Of course not, but now these labels have been applied to the Salvation Army.

Chick-fil-A has, at least temporarily, survived another round of LGBTQ pressures by agreeing to change their charitable giving priorities. However, in the process, the Salvation Army has been maligned, and a false narrative about the Army has been allowed to spread in the wider culture.

Beloved, the Salvation Army deserves better, and so does our nation.

The Church as a Means of Grace

The Church is itself a means of grace to the world. The church extends this means of grace in two ways. One way is through extending the radical, universal, uncompromising call of the love of God for every person on the planet. The other way is through the call to transformation through the power of the gospel, the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit.

Someone recently brought to my attention a sign posted at a church. The sign, as well as any church I have seen, captures the radical call of the gospel. Here is the church sign:

This sign is an expression of the prevenient grace of God. It is an expression of the “whosoever” of John 3:16. It is an expression of that powerful text in Isaiah 55:1, “Come, all who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!” It is this text which Jesus himself draws on in John 7:37 when he cries out in a loud voice at the Jewish festival: “Let anyone who is thirty come to me and drink.” This is the theological point Paul is making when he says in Romans, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

In the language of Ephesians 4:17-5:20 Paul tells the church in Ephesus to joyfully embrace the Gentile converts who were pouring into the church, who had no background in Jewish holiness codes. It must have been shocking. As the sign in front of this church acknowledges, we come to Christ clothed in what Paul calls our “old self” i.e. with dirty clothes on. We come as we are. Paul says we are welcoming those who are deceivers (vs 23), liars (vs. 25), people with anger issues (vs. 26, 31), thieves (vs. 27), people who are bitter (vs. 31), sexually immoral (vs. 5:3), etc. It sounds a lot like this sign, just some of the examples are different. We do come just as we are – but Christ transforms us! Paul’s point is this kind of life is what you were, now you have put off those clothes and you are now clothed in Jesus Christ. The radical call of the New Testament is always tied to repentance and transformation. If we allow the radical, unconditional, inclusive call to be separated from the radical transformation through Jesus Christ, then we have fractured God’s work and slip into what is known as cheap grace. It is “cheap grace” to present a gospel which does not call for transformation. It is “cheap grace” which pretends that the first half of the gospel can be separated from the second half of the gospel. It is “cheap grace” which drives a wedge between justification from sanctification. It is “cheap grace” to presume upon the grace of God while we continue to live in sin. It is “cheap grace” to separate the radical call from the radical transformation.

If you type I Corinthians 13:1 with only the left hand of the typewriter, it looks like this:

f sea te tges f e r f ages bt d t ave ve a a resdg gg r a cagg cba

But, if you use both hands, it looks like this: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Cor. 13:1). The church must “write” with both the left hand of radical embrace, as well as the right hand of radical transformation. If we only extend the radical, inclusive call, we actually speak in gibberish. Even though every stroke of the left hand was accurate, it takes both to speak with gospel coherence. Alternatively, if we focus inward and become separatists and judgmental, we can lose our heart for a lost world. We too, then, speak gibberish and become a clanging symbol. Both of these must be brought together to speak coherently to the world about what it means to be a Christian.

The radical call of the gospel should never be leveraged against the holiness which characterizes the church of Jesus Christ. It is a false narrative that if we speak of holiness we are denying the radical embracing love of Jesus Christ! Paul makes it very clear that those who live in darkness cannot inherit the kingdom of God (5:5). We are a transformed community. As we cross over and become full members of the baptized community of the people of God we are a peculiar people clothed in righteousness and holiness. When we come to Christ we bring with us all the same muddled thinking and unholy lives which the world has, and Christ himself sets out to transform us by his very divine presence. He has chosen the church to be a key instrument, a means of grace, for that transformation. Transformation is not bad news, it is part of the good news, because it is a call to human flourishing.

So, I praise God for this sign posted at the church. What I don’t know is if there is anything on the back of that sign. If so, I hope it might say this: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (I Peter 2:9)

Looking Beyond Our Pain to the Future of the Wesleyan Movement

I just returned from New Room Conference which brought together around 2,600 pastors, leaders, and lay people in the church for renewal and crying out to God for awakening. It is truly amazing to see so many people who speak theologically with a “Wesleyan accent” from across so many different Christians strands all united before God with one voice, desperate to see the church renewed in our day.

One of the phrases from New Room which will stay with me for a long time came from Jon Tyson on Thursday night. Jon is an Australian and has no knowledge of what is going on within the United Methodist church. Nevertheless, the phrase which really struck me as applicable to our situation as United Methodists was the phrase, “crystallization of discontent.” This, Jon explained, is that point where you say, “Hang on a minute, this is not what church is supposed to be.” It is the point where you realize that it is time for a big change. It is that moment when you realize how wrong it has been to sit and watch the church be dismantled through false teaching. It is that “holy discontent” which comes over you when you realize that you can never again accept the prevailing narrative of decline which normalizes our sad state and blame it on the surrounding culture.

There is no need to rehearse how many of our episcopal leaders have not “held firm to the trustworthy word as taught,” nor have they “rebuked those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9). Tens of thousands of us across the nation have reached that crystallization of discontent. Let’s just name it: We are in chaos, the Discipline is not being adhered to, and we have been plunged into division, and an almost certain divide. It is heartbreaking. I meet people all over the country who were born and raised as faithful United Methodists who, with great anguish and tears, have moved to other denominations where the Word of God is more faithfully proclaimed. These United Methodists simply express their grief quietly, without fanfare, with their feet – 500,000 members per year. This has been happening year after year, after year, after year. They are leaving the church, and no one is telling their stories. It is wrong for a young person who is genuinely struggling with their sexual orientation, or experiencing some form of gender dysphoria, to be shamed by their peers. But it is also wrong for someone to be publicly shamed for seeking to be faithful to what the church has always taught. It has been painful for millions of Methodists around the world who are seeking to faithfully adhere to a position that continues to remain the official position of the church (and one which Christians have embraced since the first century), and yet be called a “virus” needing extermination, or the embodiment of “evil, injustice and oppression.”

It is increasingly clear that the 2020 General Conference will not be focused on “if” we will have a separation, but the “terms” of that separation. Across the denomination delegates are already reading the details of the Bard-Jones Plan, the Indianapolis Plan, and the UMCNext plan, all efforts to separate the United Methodist church into two or three different expressions or denominations. I will speak to the pros and cons of these various plans at a later time. However, for now, I would like to remind us to not forget the big vision which awaits all orthodox Methodists who will, at some point, wake up to the birth of a new church, the precise name of which we do not yet even know.

We have a wonderful opportunity which awaits us, but we must not be set free from one trap, only to fall into a new one. The new church cannot just be the old United Methodist Church with no more fights over a few lines in the Discipline. If we only emerge as a group of disillusioned post-United Methodists, we will miss the future opportunity which awaits us. Our future will depend on tens of thousands of new Christians who will have no memory of these sad, tragic days. The entire Discipline needs to be re-written, dramatically reduced in size, and cast to reflect a far more missional, apostolic mindset. (If we want to “start” with an earlier Discipline, then perhaps we should start with the original 81 questions and answers in the first Discipline created at the Christmas Conference in 1784!).

We must have a clear strategic map which sets forth what the first ten years of the new church looks like. We will finally have the privilege to plant new churches from one end of this country to another. We must also have a clear strategic plan to plant 4,000 new churches (approximately 400 per year) over the next ten years between 2020 and 2030. Those 4,000 new churches should also, from the start, be planting fresh expressions as well. From the dawning of our first day as a new church, we must not even think of ourselves as a new national church, but as a globally-networked church that is closely tied to our brothers and sisters in the Majority World (Africa, Asia, and Latin America). Those churches, in turn, will end up spawning tens of thousands of new believers (not just transfers) into the church of Jesus Christ. I envision a church where no one can serve as a bishop unless they are also the pastor of a church. In the early church, all the bishops were also pastors. In fact, all bishops should probably simply be known as presiding elders. I envision a church where most pastors are also overseeing at least one new church plant. This new post-2020 General Conference church must function more like a “network” or a “fellowship” than a denomination laden with bureaucracy.

In short, we must think differently. We have much ground to reclaim, so we must be nimble, looking more like a “movement” than a “denomination.” From the start we have been distracted into thinking that this was a struggle over human sexuality. This struggle, despite the presenting issues, has always been about revelation, Christology, and mission. So, our “goal” is not merely to re-affirm the biblical definition of marriage, as important as that is. I wish it were that simple. Rather, it is a re-affirmation of our entire Christian identity and all of the rich textures which have marked us as Wesleyan Christians. Our goal is nothing less than the complete revitalization of the global pan-Wesleyan movement. The greatest tragedy of the last fifty years of United Methodism has not only been the inability to articulate a biblical vision of the body and human sexuality, or even the inability to teach and preach out of our blessed tradition, but the full blown erosion of so much of what identifies us as Christians.

So, if you are feeling tired and beleaguered, or your hope has grown dim, please hold on a little longer. You are reaching that “crystallization of discontent” moment. There is a new chapter about to unfold. The “faith once for all delivered to the saints” will again be preached from our pulpits. The spiraling decline in membership is about to hit the nadir point, and there will be a day when every region of the country will be reporting how many new Christians have come to the faith and how many new churches have been started. Some of these new churches will be found in coffee shops, Home Depot break rooms, homes, store fronts, school cafeterias. These expressions reach beyond what will be happening in the buildings we may be able to retain. But, the main point is that we will have had a rebirth as a movement.

As one of my colleagues here at Asbury Theological Seminary said after the 2019 General Conference, “That cracking noise you hear is not just the sound of a church breaking up, but the cracking of an egg which is giving birth to something new.” May this hope sustain us through the days ahead. The last 75 years of Methodism has been challenging, demoralizing, and deeply disappointing, but we have reached the seam point. The next 75 years will be astonishing, multiplying and glorious. Buckle your spiritual seat belt!

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part IV): Deeper Ecumenism in Our Public Witness

In the first of this four-part blog series, I identified one of the central problems we face today in our society; namely, the inability to frame a proper moral argument. Our challenge is far beyond simply knowing what is right or wrong. We have slipped even further to the point where we are not even sure if moral categories exist independently of our own personal perspectives. Part one of this series explored this problem in some detail. The next two blog entries focus on the first two of three “solutions” or “ways forward” in addressing this problem. The first was to better understand the power of embodying the “means of grace” as a part of our public witness to the world. The second addressed the need to emphasize the formation of our minds, not just our hearts. We have a lot of sloppy thinking in our Wesleyan movement and it is time we recognize this and work to address it. Today we examine a third solution as we move forward.

The third shift which this generation calls for is the need to embrace a deeper ecumenism in our public witness. We must transcend the divides which have long characterized our understanding of our place in the Christian world. We know of the classic divides between Roman Catholic and Protestant; between Protestant mainline liberals and Protestant mainline conservatives, between evangelicals and fundamentalists, between charismatic and non-charismatics, between Reformed and Arminian, and between liturgical and non-liturgical, to name a few. These are the categories which have largely defined how we position ourselves within the body of Christ. So you come to Christ and slowly your identity becomes formed to mainline, or evangelical, or fundamentalist, or Pentecostal, or charismatic, or Arminian, etc. Brothers and sisters, without diminishing the importance of these distinctions, we must recognize how they are influenced, sometimes heightened, sometimes diminished, as we collectively find our new place in an increasingly post-Christian setting.

When I first went to North India there was at that time only one church for every 3,000 villages. So, naturally, we were quite generous with whatever Christians we found. Now, North America and Western Europe are the fastest growing mission fields in the world. This calls for fresh alignments and a deeper shared commitment, even while we hold to our cherished distinctives. This is not a call to some kind of generic Christianity, but a deep commitment to historic faith which recognizes that some of the boundaries which have divided Christians play out differently when the church finds itself in a culture increasingly hostile to malformed perceptions of what it even means to be a Christian at all.

Many churches across the whole spectrum of Christian identity have become co-opted in different ways by the surrounding culture. Our observations are too shallow if we think that only the “other Christians” have been co-opted, but not our group. In this re-assessment we as Wesleyans may have an advantage because we occupy as part of our DNA a conciliar tradition which has never been easily pigeon-holed into evangelical or mainline, or charismatic or non-charismatic, liturgical or non-liturgical, etc. Our distinctive Wesleyan identity will of course remain vital, but that very identity allows us fresh opportunities for new forms of engagement. But surely we must understand that an increasingly post-Christian culture no longer has a clue what it means to be a Baptist, or a Charismatic, or a Roman Catholic. In Kentucky, a drive from Wilmore to Lexington will bring you past dozens of churches, which says a lot of things to you, but seems confusing to the world. More importantly, the world finds it difficult to discern the basic Christian message is.

Historically, 17th century pietism, although it was birthed within Lutheranism, eventually had a profound impact on so much of what Protestantism as a whole now embraces. It created some very powerful alignments across the church. The holiness movement of the 19th century did give birth to several new denominations, but the deeper story of the holiness movement is far broader, as it ushered in a deeper appreciation for the consecrated life, sanctification, and holy living across much of the Protestant landscape. The 20th century neo-evangelical movement was neither birthed in, nor housed in any single denomination, but was a movement of theological cohesion which brought fresh alignments across 40 different denominations ranging from Assemblies of God to Christian and Missionary Alliance to the Evangelical Presbyterians to the Free Methodists, to the Wesleyans to the Presbyterian Church in America to the Salvation Army, all members of the National Association of Evangelicals. In short, the evangelical movement had a profound uniting influence across the whole Christian landscape.

Today, we need to find new forms of alignment with all those committed to historic Christian faith, the defining creeds of the faith, and the ecumenical consensus of the patristic fathers. Christians committed to historic Christianity who find themselves on the periphery of a mainline church, or within the Roman Catholic communion, and so forth, must find one another and strengthen one another. There are tens of millions of Christians around the world who are prepared to stand together for the historic faith, the authority of Scripture, the centrality of Christ, and our shared mission to serve the world and proclaim the gospel. We should not see ourselves as some fragile group on the fringes. Rather, we should see ourselves as part and parcel of the grand body of Christ which reaches around the world and across all time. We do not yet know what this will look like, but the categories which have long defined us are no longer fully suitable for the cultural and ecclesiastical terrain which we now face. The field of play has changed and we need to better understand the cultural space we newly occupy.

This past summer, for the first time in history, the New York Yankees played the Boston Red Sox in London. They realized too late in the process that a soccer field was not suitable to play baseball. But, they were already committed to the series. For example, British soil is too slick when wet to play baseball. Furthermore, the lights for a soccer field were too low to survive baseballs flying through the air. To rectify these conditions, 345 tons of dirt and clay had to be brought across the Atlantic by a company called DuraEdge from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. The lights had to be wrapped in chicken wire so they would not be destroyed. These are just a few examples of the changes which had to happen to make a soccer field suitable for baseball.

Today, we can no longer ignore that we are trying to play Christianity on a cultural field which is alien to the Christian faith. We must, symbolically speaking, bring in 345 tons of catechesis and protect things once thought assumed, if we are to flourish. We have a steep, uphill climb if we are to establish vibrant Christian communities who embody the means of grace, who have learned to think Christianly, and who better understand the role of the wider church as we face this challenge together. Christians have faced similar challenges in our long and checkered history, and, in the long run, the church of Jesus Christ will flourish once again, because Christ himself promised us that He will build His church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. Thanks be to God for that.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part III): The Mind as a Neglected Sphere of Spiritual Formation

This is the third part in this series taken from my Fall convocation message to the Asbury Theological Seminary community. In the first part I explored the problem we face with the loss of the ability to frame a moral argument in our culture, and sadly, within the church itself. I then went on to propose three “shifts” in our actions to address this problem. Today’s article highlights the second shift.

The next major shift which we need to be attentive to is the neglected sphere of the mind as one of the focal points of holistic spiritual formation. In a post-Christendom, increasingly post-Christian world, faith exists only in a diminished, domesticated, privatized form with its locus in the heart. Even we, at times, get lulled into the notion that spiritual formation is only a matter of the heart. When we look back over church history and think about explosive, divisive moments in our story one quickly thinks about the Great Schism of 1054 which marks the separation of the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church. One might think about the year 1517 which marks the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

Certainly these are momentous events in the history of the church. But, perhaps we have failed to recall the importance of the split or separation between theology and spirituality that occurred at the end of the 13th century. Before 1300 all of the great theologians of the church, whether Chrysostom, or Gregory of Nyssa, or Augustine, or Bernard of Clairvaux, were formed by spiritual disciplines and, yet, were at their core theologians. Clairvaux, for example, was the chief writer in drawing up the synodal statues at the Council of Troyes. He was famous for his theological debates with Peter Abelard, and yet he was also founding monasteries and giving us lectio divina. After 1300 none of the great masters of spirituality, Meister Eckhart (died 1328), Teresa of Avila (died 1582), Blaise Pascal (died 1662), or Thomas Merton, were academic theologians.

The division of theology and spirituality as two separate disciplines has ended up harming both. One of the restorations embodied by the Wesleyan vision is that great nuptial embrace which forms the head and the heart. Charles Wesley captured it in his hymn, the fifth verse which declares, “unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety: learning and holiness combined, and truth and love, let all men see . . . ” It is a singular tribute to the holistic Wesleyan vision that the late Thomas Oden, one of the premier theologians of our movement, also produced books such as Kerygma and Counseling and Contemporary Theology and Psychotherapy. John Wesley is sometimes wrongly accused of not being a “real” theologian because he was also interested in the disciplines which give rise to authentic spirituality. Yet, beloved, this was not a weakness of Wesley, but his very genius; he reunited what had been divided for over 300 years.

As the world is drawn to our wholeness and they ask us for the reason, we need to be able to give a well-reasoned defense for the hope that is within us. We cannot currently do this because we ourselves have gradually become tentative about the Christian proclamation. Divine revelation and self-disclosure has been, in our day, downgraded to nothing more than “our personal perspective,” or “what works for us.”

Christian ministers must embody afresh the deep commitment that central to formation is the formation of the mind; learning to think well about things and having the courage to articulate it. We must engage with the world’s ways of thinking about things, and respond with a thoughtful Christian alternative. We must recognize the powerful catechesis which unintentionally takes place in the wider culture which affirms a whole array of non-Christian assumptions. Therefore, we must counter that catechesis with a deep commitment to Christian discipleship which reclaims our distinctive voice in a myriad of competing voices and the loss of a moral center. We must reclaim the hard work of discipleship and forming the heart and the mind to occupy the newly emerging cultural landscape. We must reclaim the patristic tradition of the Apologists who engaged with rigorous fervor the intellectual climate of their day. Our struggles over same sex marriage and gender re-assignment are just two vivid examples of how much homework we have to do. We are experiencing the rise of a new Gnosticism. This challenge will force us to go back and do the difficult work articulating a Christian theology of the body and deeply understanding how these challenges relate to the grand theological life of the church. Many books have been released by people claiming to be Wesleyan leaders. However, their encouragement to abandon long-standing Christian views of the body, and of marriage, and the centrality and uniqueness of Jesus Christ are largely theologically empty and tepid. The church should roll up its sleeves and determine to do better, if for no other reason than to rescue our movement from perpetual public embarrassment.

Indeed, there is a whole spectrum of work to be done along many lines, and a myriad of other challenges, and it cannot be done until we fully give ourselves to the formation of the mind. Without this, we will end up like the schoolboy who refused to do his homework and then wonders why he failed the exam. The culture is testing us and we must do our homework in order to have coherent answers for the moral quagmires of our time. We must also recognize the many distractions which keep us from articulating the gospel in compelling and confident ways. The once congenial world of Christendom and broad shared cultural assumptions is now clearly in the rear view mirror and we must rise to the new realities we are facing.

Our next article will focus on the third solution to this quagmire we are in.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part II): Embodying the Means of Grace

I began this series by posing the central problem we face in our cultural moment, namely, the inability to frame a moral argument. Today, in Part II, I propose the first of three solutions to this problem.

John Wesley understood that there are times when you cannot “make an argument” to the surrounding culture. But, precisely when a culture cannot hear an argument, it cannot easily dismiss someone who quietly embodies it. The embodiment of truth, wholeness, and human flourishing is one of the most powerful testimonies to God’s existence in the world.

As Christians, we begin by remembering that moral values are intrinsic to persons, not to things. So when we talk about kindness, faithfulness, generosity, fairness, justice, etc. those are not simply values which are hanging out there in disembodied space, but are embodied in God himself and then in us as persons, created as those created in the image of God. Ethics, therefore, is personal, flowing from the very nature of God who created us in his image and made us image bearers in the world. Even Aristotle knew that there must be some external fixed point, the so-called “Unmoved Mover” or “First cause,” which later Aquinas identified as God in Aristotelian ethics. In classical Scholastic theology the Latin phrase described God as the norma normans sed non normata–the norm of norms which cannot be normed, i.e. an objective being who is objectively outside the material universe, but has personally entered it in the person of Jesus Christ as the full embodiment of truth and righteousness.

Even Aristotle understood that when we do not embody the virtues, there will be a gap between our lives and genuine human flourishing. In that gap is where we find depression, anxiety, fear, rage, and so forth. In the recent tragic shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California on July 28th someone, in the midst of the shooting, screamed the question to the active shooter: “Why are you doing this?” to which he reportedly replied, “Because I am very angry.” Active shooters leading to tragic deaths, as we have seen recently in Dayton and in El Paso, are just one of many signs that we are not flourishing as a culture. Therefore, as Christians, when we embody the virtues and the means of grace, we will flourish as a community. This is why Paul says in Philippians 2 that we are to be “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life . . . ” (Phil. 2:15, 16a). What does it avail us if we win a nasty political fight over the definition of marriage if our own actual marriages are falling apart?

Wesley taught that God has provided many ways, or “means” of grace, which enable us to grow and to incorporate the life of Christ within us on a daily basis. Wesley defined means of grace as “outward signs, words or actions, employed by God, and appointed to this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey . . . prevenient, justifying or sanctifying grace” (John Wesley, Sermon no. 16). Wesley suggests, for example, that the public reading of Scripture, receiving the Eucharist, prayer, obedience to God’s Word, denying oneself, and works of piety are all given to us by God as ways of promoting sanctification in our lives.

But, for our purposes here, I want us to see the means of grace not only in personal terms, i.e. helping us to mature spiritually and grow in personal holiness, but also we must see the larger missional power, the public witness, of the embodied means of grace when embodied by the church. If the world meets someone who is prayerful, who does works of piety—selflessly serving the poor, or on Sunday doesn’t just sleep in, but puts themselves and their families in the midst of the baptized community of those who follow Jesus, it has a powerful effect. It is missional. G. K. Chesterton famously said that even “those who reject the doctrine of the incarnation are different for having heard of it.” The very idea that God became one of us has a powerful force upon the human psyche. It challenges our imaginations and forces someone to reassess God’s whole relationship with the world. In the same way, a church which embodies the means of grace invades the imagination and forces the society to consider that there just might be a loving God who rules and reigns the universe, and has a true transformational influence on those who belong to him. If we are not ourselves transformed by the gospel, then the world has every right to simply see us as merely using religion as demagogues or charlatans serving a political agenda. We lose our witness when we embody so much of the brokenness which the world is experiencing.

Brothers and sisters, authentic embodiment is the necessary foundation for public proclamation. Our culture is very uneasy with strong moral statements. In today’s climate, ethical statements come across as inherently judgmental. To love someone today means, in the wider culture, to affirm whatever it is someone happens to say or believe. Likewise, to disagree with someone in today’s emotive climate is almost defacto to say that we do not love that person. This climate is actually yet another sign of our inability to frame a moral argument, because we now live in a culture of self-invention (i.e. nothing extrinsic to yourself can be used as a standard for evaluation of a right or wrong course of action). Richard Dawkins, the zoologist who has gained fame as an outspoken atheist, voices, without realizing it, the culture of self-invention when he refers to our existence as a “blind, unconscious process which Darwin discovered . . . and which has no purpose.” This new view seeks to separate the created order from any moral framework. Camille Paglia, the popular author and activist, wrote, “Fate, not God, has given us this flesh. We have absolute claim to our bodies and may do with them as we see fit.” Thus, we now live in a cultural climate where all meaning is subjective and is an arbitrary extension of human autonomy.

This culture of self-invention is unleashing objective, observable chaos, and the decline of human flourishing. The polls cited earlier prove that the wider culture is aware of it, but they have no idea why it has happened or what can be done to address it. This presents a huge opportunity for the church to embody the means of grace and thereby to truly embody human flourishing in such a profound way that the world will take notice. We were not designed for immorality. Brokenness is always, even unknowingly, attracted to wholeness. There is an inherent attraction to embodied holiness, order, light, and human flourishing. Therefore, we must understand that embodying the means of grace is not just about our personal spiritual growth, but is actually missional and a powerful embodiment of our public witness to the world. Indeed, it is the absolute prerequisite for gaining a cultural permission slip to, once again, engage in a moral argument.

This is why every reader of this article should consider becoming part of a Wesleyan band of discipleship (see so as micro-communities, we can more effectively learn how to embody the very presence of Christ in our midst.

My 2019 Opening Convocation Address (Part I): A Way Forward for Our Time

Every year, as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, I have the privilege of delivering a major address to the entire community which formally marks the kick off of a new academic year. I am going to be sharing this message (with some adaptations) with you in four parts. The first part is a diagnosis of one of the deepest problems we face in society, and the remaining days I will propose three solutions, or ways forward.

Since 2002, The Gallup polling group has been issuing an annual report regarding American perceptions of the moral climate in the country. Gallup tracks attitudes about 19 moral issues, ranging from abortion, to doctor-assisted suicide, to extra-marital affairs, as well as general perceptions about the overall moral climate.1 This year American overall perceptions about the moral climate of our country have slipped to its lowest point. In the Gallop Poll, more than 4 in 5 people (81%) now rate the state of moral values in the United States as only fair or poor.

A recent PEW study also asked Americans about their perceptions regarding the moral climate of the country. An astonishing 77% of Americans believe that the moral climate in the country is not only in decline, but they are either “very worried” or “fairly worried” about what this means for the future of our country.2 Studies have been conducted in other countries around the world with similar findings.

The decline in the moral fabric of our country is a serious concern for us all. However, it may not be the biggest challenge we face. Could it be that our dilemma as a nation is actually deeper than even our friends at Gallop or PEW fully recognize? Our problem, more fundamentally, has been the loss of moral categories and, therefore, the loss of a proper moral argument.

One of the more insightful philosophers who has thought about our situation is the Scottish philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his classic work, After Virtue. He argues that while there is plenty of evidence of declining morals in Western society, the more profound challenge is the inability to even frame a moral argument.3 We no longer have sufficient shared assumptions as a culture to reach any kind of consensus on moral questions, whether based on a broad Judeo-Christian ethic found in Holy Scripture, or even Aristotle’s account of virtues and human flourishing, in his Nicomachean Ethics. Therefore, with the loss of any foundation for moral argument, the only path for contemporary society is to find new ways to accommodate endless human preferences within an increasingly fractured society.

This loss of a moral framework means that, despite the ongoing use of moral language in various cultural arguments, there can be no final resolution, or what MacIntyre calls a “terminus” point.4 He cites various common moral debates within society, demonstrating that because there is no shared moral framework in these national conversations, they end up not being “conversations” at all, with pros and cons evaluated based on a shared moral framework. Rather, they end up as staged shouting matches where we just yell at one another. MacIntrye calls this descent of ethics into shouting in the 21st century Western world “emotivism.” He describes emotivism as the point you reach when “all morals are nothing but expressions of [personal] preference” or “expressions of attitudes or feelings.”5 Chastity, for example, was long held to be a shared virtue in our society. However, MacIntyre argues that chastity “in a world uninformed by either Aristotelian or biblical values will make very little sense to the adherents of the dominant culture.”6

Consider the sheer force of moral questions which are posed to our society today: Is it morally permissible for the state to execute someone for a crime? Are State Lotteries morally acceptable? What is the definition of marriage? Do we have a moral obligation to protect someone who flees a murderous regime and arrives at our border seeking asylum? Is profiling a legally-permissible method of law enforcement? Is it permissible to utilize the services of a doctor to end your own life? Should race be a determinative factor in college admissions? Should insurance companies pay for gender re-assignment surgery? Are reparations for past sins a form of just resolution? This list goes on and on. These are just a few of the questions which have presented themselves to our culture in recent years, and we know how these questions play out.

Quite tragically, our deepest moral questions today are “resolved” not through moral argumentation on either side at all, but through the exertion of my will over your will by means of power. This is probably best exemplified in our culture by the now all-too-familiar 5-4 vote on the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the church has not been immune to this loss of moral argumentation. Similar will-to-power votes have happened in churches under conflict. A recent, well publicized example of this can be seen in the 438 to 384 vote on human sexuality at the General Conference of the United Methodist denomination this past February. While I was pleased that the church stood for historic orthodoxy, I was disappointed that despite over two years of special study on the topic the church never engaged in anything remotely close to a proper moral argument where a case was laid out biblically, historically, exegetically and pastorally, etc. Instead, we only got what all moral argument has become in our day, namely, what MacIntyre calls the “clash of antagonistic wills.”7 This is the deeper malaise which I am highlighting; not merely the decline of morals, but the collapse of the very categories which might make any kind of moral argument possible. We are actually not simply in a crisis of moral epistemology, i.e. how do we know whether something is right or wrong, or the meaning of moral sentences and how they interact one with another which is the hard work of ethicists (that has always been with us). Rather, more profoundly, we are in a crisis of moral ontology. Moral ontology asks whether or not morals objectively exist independently of us. Or, as some might claim, are morals merely mental and societal constructs with no objective foundation? It seems, as a society, the retreat of the Christian worldview has left us in a deep mire, with no objective foundation for the very concept and framework of morality.

Certainly, part of the mission of Asbury Theological Seminary is to recognize the inherent problems with emotivism as a moral solution in our culture, but also to resist the temptation to simply accept this collapsed moral state and engage in some form of power politics, some Christianized version of Nietzsche’s “will to power.”8

Beloved, this is not some esoteric article which has nothing to do with your ministry. This challenge lies at the heart of what you are facing in your lives and ministries, because what goes on in the halls of congress, or the floor of your denominational national meetings, is also going on in Sunday School rooms and homes and schools and in the workplace across America and, in various degrees, around the world.

In future installments, I will explore solutions for addressing this dilemma.

1. Jeffrey M. Jones “Americans Hold Record Liberal Views on Most Moral Issues,” (Poll conducted, May 3-7, 2017 with 1,011 randomly selected adults 18 or older. (May 11, 2017).
2. Kim Parker, Rich Morin and Juliana Menasce Horowitz, “Looking to the Future, Public Sees an America in Decline on Many Fronts” (March 21 2019).
3. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd edition, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2007).
4. MacIntyre, 6.
5. MacIntyre, 12. The early chapters of MacIntyre’s book is dedicated to demonstrating the flaws in emotivism as a philosophical theory to provide moral guidance in a society. For example, in the early 20th century many people felt that racism was morally justified and it required a proper moral argument to convince the wider society that it was “right” to at least begin to dismantle the moral scourge of racism. The resurgence of racism in our own time reveals the deeper tragedy that the moral argument upon which the fight against racism was waged has become eroded and there is no longer a sufficient moral framework for addressing an issue as important as racism.
6. MacIntyre, 232.
7. MacIntyre, 9. McIntyre demonstrates the vast difference between the statements, “this is good” or “this is right” from statements like “I approve of this” or “I think this is best.”
8. Nietzsche’s so-called “genealogy of morals”, as it turns out, is not traced back far enough. The source of all morals is God’s own being, grounded in his existence as pure love and holiness.