Sevenfold Prayer

The greatest privilege of my life is the sacred calling to help in the training of men and women for places of Christian ministry. Asbury Theological Seminary is brimming with dedicated Christ followers who are training to serve Christ within the context of historic faith and, in particular, within the grand Wesleyan stream of the church. I have served Asbury for a decade now, so I have had the joy of seeing around 1,500 graduates walk across the stage, receive their diploma, and go forth to serve the church.

One of the great traditions at Asbury is a special chapel just for new students. Each Fall we receive over 500 new students, so it is quite a ceremony seeing so many of them packed into Estes Chapel, eager to begin their journey. I preach a sermon titled, “Scholars on Fire,” which has become a standard way of framing who we are and what defines us as members of the Asbury community. However, the real climax of the service is not the sermon, but what happens at the conclusion. We set up a large “Christ the King” cross at the center of the chapel. This is one which displays Jesus on the cross as the ascended Lord. The new students are asked to gather around and literally take hold of the cross as if their lives depended on it. Then several of our key leaders such as Jessica LaGrone, our Dean of the Chapel, Donna Covington, our Vice President of Formation, and Nicole Sims, our Director of Community Formation take turns praying for these students. I also join them in that prayer. Then, years later at the end of their seminary journey, we have a special chapel just for the graduates. They once again gather around the cross at the end of the service and lay hold of it as they had done when they arrived, and we commission them for service to Christ and his church.

This year I prepared a special sevenfold prayer which I prayed over them at the service which takes place the evening before graduation. The prayer I prayed this year is reproduced here. While it was written for graduates, it is a prayer which is fitting for any Christian who wants to serve Christ wholeheartedly. This is my prayer not only for them, but for myself, and for each of you.

May the Triune God fill every part of your being, which once was occupied by sin;

May your heart be fully re-directed towards holy love, where once was only the tyranny of the mis-directed heart;

May your mind be fully awakened to the light of the gospel, where once dwelled only the shadows of doubt, and the clouds of fear.

May the gravity of holy love be stronger than the gravity of the self-oriented life;

May all the means of grace flow abundantly in your life, so that the journey of your life may truly be the upward call of God in Christ Jesus;

May all you have learned in this course of study become another altar from which Jesus Christ is praised, the church strengthened, and the grand mission of the gospel extended!

May your hands and feet be linked seamlessly with your heart and mind; so that your whole life will be a sacrifice of praise, and an expression of God’s covenant love and mercy to a lost and dying world.

Amen.

Thoughts As the United Methodist Church Prepares for General Conference 2020

The church has always been misunderstood and maligned by the unbelieving world. But it is an added pain to live with both a broken world and a broken, hurting church. Leonard Ravenhill once said, “there is no greater tragedy than a sick church in a dying world.” The United Methodist church is hurting and sick. It is one of the few things that people across the various divisions all seem to agree upon. When the United Methodist Church, or any church, is walking through this kind of travail, it is important, in the words of the liturgy, to “lift up your heart” and regain clarity on a few points which have become obscured in all of the discussions.

Is the Church of Jesus Christ “exclusionary”?

It is common for voices within the so-called “progressive” wing to declare those who adhere to historic orthodoxy (whether doctrines such as the uniqueness and sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation, or historical ethical positions such as defining marriage as between one man and one woman for life) as being exclusionary. It has been said so often in recent blog articles and sermons and full page ads in local newspapers that it requires a response. This assessment has become exacerbated in recent weeks in the wake of the ChurchNext conference hosted by Adam Hamilton. Previously, we had three distinct “groups” within the United Methodist Church: traditional, centrist, and progressive. Now that the One Church Plan has been voted down at the 2019 General Conference, many centrists are abandoning the position of “let’s agree to disagree and respect that both views are honorable” to a firm alignment with the progressive cause which seeks to silence and shame those who adhere to the global and historic position of the church regarding the definition of marriage. Central to their agenda is the narrative that the church around the world is exclusionary.

However, it is important to remember that the church of Jesus Christ is the most diverse, inclusive, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic movement in the history of the world. More people, from more countries, speaking more distinct languages belong to the church of Jesus Christ than any other movement, whether religious or secular. The church of Jesus Christ is growing faster and becoming even more diverse today than at any time in the history of the world. The United Methodist Church is the outlier, not the center, of Christian global vitality. The very idea that the church is becoming exclusionary is a false narrative.

Second, the reason the church is able to take root and flourish around the world is because we share a common faith in Christ, a common commitment to the Word of God, including a shared ethic as set forth in the New Testament. The progressives within the United Methodist Church stand on neither historic nor biblical grounds by trying to introduce a unique set of ethical guidelines for one particular movement within the grand body of Christianity. Indeed, the very reason for the church’s diversity is that its message is not rooted in any one culture or people, but reflects the universal truths of divine revelation. The meager attempts by a few in our midst to try to demonstrate that this new ethic is actually consistent with Scripture have failed the most basic test of understanding Greek words; namely, the consistent way they are used by the authors and readers of the New Testament. In other words, original meaning is the gold standard, and recent attempts to narrow these meanings to conform to modern sentiments has no lexical support. (When you hear these new interpretations, you might want to ask, “Does Danker or Bauer support that?” [NT], or “Does Brown, Driver Briggs support that?” [OT]).

The word “inclusive” refers to the universal gift of salvation which is extended to all peoples in all the earth. The gospel, properly understood, is inclusive. However, the word is now being used to embrace the idea that we should be morally inclusive of a wide range of ethical positions within the church regarding human sexuality and gender identity. All peoples from all cultures throughout all times have come to Christ and submitted to the teaching of the New Testament. That’s what it means to be part of the church. Everyone is invited, but those who do come, must come to Christ on his terms, not ours.

Are those who uphold the biblical and historic view of marriage unleashing irreparable harm on people, particularly those within the LGBTQ community?

It is truly remarkable how a position which has been clearly held and affirmed by the church of Jesus Christ for the 2,000 years of our existence as a movement can, almost overnight, become regarded as hateful, harmful, and exclusionary. It is painful to be a United Methodist Christian and hold to a position which continues to be the official position of our denomination, but be held in such open contempt and shame by many even in leadership. The United Methodist Church has explicitly affirmed biblical marriage between one man and one woman for life since the union between the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968. From the 1972 General Conference onward, this position has been challenged. The General Conference has voted down a range of proposals to redefine marriage a dozen times over the years, and a thirteenth time at the recent General Conference in 2019. It is a safe bet that fresh challenges will be put forth in 2020 and it will be voted down a fourteenth time. I am not sure how many times it takes for a “no” to be heard, but we will eventually find out. We are probably getting close to that point now. But, several points need to be made. First, there has been no change in the United Methodist Discipline since the beautiful double affirmation of 1972 which declared all people of infinite worth but also affirmed the longstanding Christian position that homosexual behavior is incompatible with Christian faith. In short, there was nothing “new” in our actual position before or after the most recent General Conference in 2019. The only change has been an attempt to legislatively hold pastors and bishops accountable to a Discipline that they had already sworn before God to uphold. That is embarrassing. But, as it relates to the actual position of the church, no change to the position of the church has been made. So if there is “harm” it is not a new harm, but the harm which is inherent in this position for those who disagree. Which brings me to the second point.

There is an underlying assumption that the church must never hold a position which causes someone any pain or discomfort. This has been called the post-modern “tyranny of niceness.” This says that the church, above all else, must never say anything that offends someone, because it may cause them pain. However, I am reminded of Søren Kierkegaard in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”[1] So, when someone says that the message of the church has caused “harm” we should not put our heads down and apologize. Rather, we should say, “Yes, the gospel both blesses and bruises us all.” Every true Christian has been bruised by the demands of discipleship, the call to die to self, and to live holy lives, “taking up our cross to follow him.” We are all asked to give up our greed, our propensity to gossip, our jealousy, our disordered affections, our anger, and so forth. It is a long list which eventually encompasses every one of us with all the various sins we have a propensity to commit. Are we born this way? Yes, we are. It is known as the Fall. We are all members of a race full of sinners. There are no exceptions. Our hearts are deceitful and we need redemption. The list of our sins is quite long. But, no one gets a “pass” which allows their particular sin to be called holy, while all others have to lay theirs down. The gospel nails us all to the cross with Christ. But, once that happens, it raises us up with Christ and gives us new power for holy living. He rightly orders our affections. He takes away our greed and self-orientation. In short, those of us who have been bruised by the gospel, are now being blessed by the gospel. And the blessing is always greater than the bruising. Whenever God says “no” to us, it always feels like “harm” and “hurt.” But God’s “no” is always his deeper “yes” since the way of righteousness is always the path of human flourishing. Wesley’s phrase that we are to “do no harm” (cited endlessly) has nothing whatsoever to do with dismantling the call to holiness and the pain which we all must accept when our lives pass through the cross of Jesus Christ. This point, of course, provides no license for any Christian to speak in a hateful or mean way to anyone. We must be clothed with kindness, but we must also be resolute in defending the integrity of the biblical witness.

What lies ahead? In a recent pastoral letter from the Council of Bishops it appears that the bishops are searching for legislation which creates a “new way of embodying unity.” This probably means some form of restructuring or de-structuring which will allow for an amicable separation. I think the bishops are right to open this door and we should spend the next year focused on that, rather than simply repeating the pain and trauma of the 2019 General Conference. The progressive clergy, in contrast, are unleashing a widespread plan of resistance which will defy the Discipline. We should not dismiss this as an idle threat. We will be publicly and regularly shamed at every turn. This will be done in the hope that sufficient numbers of traditionalists will leave the church in disgust and the “progressives” will finally have the denomination they have been advocating for over these many years. However, the math just doesn’t work. Because of the growth of the church outside North America and the precipitous decline in the more “progressive” regions of North America, the 2020 General Conference will likely have even stronger traditional delegations than we have seen in many years. In 2016, and even 2019, there was widespread hope by traditionalists that we would be given a gracious exit plan. However, now there is no reason for traditionalists to exit the denomination as there would have been had the One Church Plan prevailed. Instead, the momentum has shifted and the United Methodist Church is clearly moving from being just another dying mainline Protestant denomination to becoming a vibrant member of the growing global Wesleyan movement. It was an astute observation that the day of the 2019 General Conference vote was the moment the United Methodist Church decided to move from being a mainline church to becoming a global church. Our focus now should be the legislative work necessary to present an “amicable separation” plan which creates two separate denominations. The names will have to be decided, but they will be some form of a Progressive Methodist Church and some form of a Global Methodist Church.

Throughout this process, let us take seriously the Council of Bishops call for “a season of deep listening.” But that deep listening should be first and foremost to the text of Scripture, the vibrancy of the global church and the never-dimming message of our Wesleyan heritage, rooted in the gospel and the call to holiness.

[1] Walter Lowrie, trans., Kierkeegard’s Attack Upon Christendom (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944), 258.

When Was the Last Time You Heard a Worship Song Like Psalm 94?

Andrew Peterson is one of the most gifted contemporary Christian artists of our day, and you should thank God for him. What I like about Peterson’s work is that his worship lyrics are theologically strong, and he is willing to bring to the church neglected doctrines, which is one of the great gifts of rightfully designed worship. One of his songs titled, Rise Up, actually highlights God as Judge, who pays back evil and sets things right. A portion of the lyrics goes:

If a thief had come to plunder when the children were alone;
If he ravaged every daughter and murdered every son;
Would not their father see this? Would not his anger burn?
Would he not repay the tyrant in the day of His return?
Await, await, the day of His return.

                        Chorus

‘cause He will rise up in the end, He will rise up in the end;
I know you need a Savior, He is patient in his anger, and He will rise up in the end.

Peterson’s song Rise Up sounds a bit like the opening words of Psalm 94:

“O LORD, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forth. Rise up, O Judge of the world pay back to the proud what they deserve.” When was the last time you heard a worship song like that? You see, for us, the word “vengeance” is a disquieting word. We are explicitly told in the Old Testament to not take vengeance. Jesus himself repeats this admonition in the Gospels. So, we don’t know what to do with actions which are the prerogative of God but which we are called to avoid. We have lost that whole category in our theology: Things that God does, that we are commanded not to do.

You see, we have been shaped by what I call the WWJD theology: What Would Jesus Do? In the 1990’s this became the most popular bracelet worn by Christians. The phrase is rooted, I think, in Roman Catholic piety of the imitatio Christi – imitation of Christ and Thomas a Kempis’ classic book, The Imitation of Christ. This later became popularized by Charles Spurgeon who was the first to pose it as an actual question, “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD). Later, it became a popular bracelet, screen saver, and bumper sticker. I wouldn’t spend five minutes criticizing the bracelet, but I will spend one minute criticizing it. The danger of the bracelet is that it assumes that whatever Jesus is doing, we should be doing. That, of course, is mostly good advice, but it does neglect the notion that there are some things Jesus does which we are not to do. There are certain divine prerogatives which He reserves only for himself. One of these is vengeance. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”, is a famous text from Deuteronomy 32:35. It is quoted in Hebrews 10:30 which calls us show restraint in the face of a world of unbelief. People trample the Son of God and disdain his redemptive work, but we are to patiently wait for divine retribution. It is quoted by Paul in Romans 12:19 where Paul says, “do not repay evil for evil” (v. 17), “do not take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath” for it is written, “vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord. Therefore, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”

These texts resonate with Jesus’ own words, “judge not, lest you be judged” or “pray for those persecute you” or “turn the other cheek” and so forth. But, the reason that we can live like that is not because there is no place for vengeance, but that it is a divine prerogative. Our “turning the other check” is not a doctrine of Christian niceness, it is a doctrine of Christian patience. God will, in fact, judge the world and he will set things right. It is actually our hope in that divine action which enables us to turn cheeks and to wait patiently and to leave room for the wrath of God.

Psalm 94 is a song which highlights the brokenness of the world and, like so many Psalms, boldly describes the presence of the wicked in the world. Did you know of the 150 Psalms only 26 make no reference to the wicked or enemies. 124 Psalms mention them.

Psalm 94 is representative of this theme: They are full of boasting words and arrogance (vs. 4). They crush or oppress your people (vs. 5). They slay the foreigner and the widow (vs. 6). They murder the fatherless (vs. 6). Then the Psalm asks the big question “who will rise up for me against the wicked?” “Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?” In other words, who will set things right? Who will vindicate us in the face of these atrocities? The Psalm gives the answer in the closing verse of the Psalm (vs. 23): “He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the Lord our God will destroy them.”

Brothers and sisters, I commend you to not neglect this part of your theology. Jesus Christ is coming again. He will come with fire and fury. Make room in your theology for 2 Thessalonians 1 when Paul writes, “God is just. He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen with the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . .

It goes on, but I think you get the point. This is why the Apostles’ Creed states with boldness: “He is coming again to judge the living and the dead.” There are some things which God does which we cannot do, and should not do, and don’t know enough to do. There is nothing wrong with wearing a WWJD bracelet on your wrist, as long as you have, at least, symbolically, another bracelet WWWND—What Would We Not Do. We are not to take vengeance. It is not our prerogative to set things right in the final sense. It is not our prerogative to judge the unbelieving world. These are divine prerogatives. But, make no mistake about it, it will happen. God will judge the world. He will vindicate the faith of his saints. He will set things right. And it is precisely that hope which enables us to walk through this world with love and mercy, even to our enemies.

Why Did Jesus Put Mud on a Man’s Eyes?

Joaquin Phoenix plays the role of Jesus in the newly released film, Mary Magdalene. It is one of these new, now predictable, “Jesus films” which takes its cues from one of the Gnostic gospels rather than the actual Gospels of the New Testament. This so-called Gospel is known as the Gospel of Mary and was discovered in 1896. This is no longer surprising or shocking. Once Dan Brown gave us The Da Vinci Code, we were off to the races.

However, what is shocking is what happened during the filming of one of those moments of the film which is actually found in the canonical Gospels. It is the account of Jesus healing the blind man and using mud and spittle, which he places on the man’s eyes and he is healed (See, John 9:6). The scene was largely intended to follow the biblical account, except that they have Jesus healing a woman rather than a man. Nevertheless, the actor Joaquin Phoenix refused to do what the script called him to do. Here are his own words (with the profanity omitted): “I thought: I’m not going to rub dirt in her eyes. Who the f*!# would do that? It doesn’t make any sense. That is a horrible introduction to seeing.”

This is where we realize that Joaquin Phoenix should never play the role of Jesus, even in a second-rate Gnostic film. We have all heard the stories about how the lead characters in films spend many months, sometimes over a year, learning and studying the character they are intending to portray. Daniel Day Lewis spent months pouring himself into the literature of the 19th century, reading hundreds of Lincoln’s correspondences, so that he could portray Lincoln in the award winning Steven Spielberg film, Lincoln (the film was eventually nominated for twelve academy awards). More recently, you may have seen the new film, The Best of Enemies, which portrays the unlikely reconciliation which happened between a civil rights’ leader and the head of the Ku Klux Klan. It is a powerful story of redemption based on the true story of C.P. Ellis (the Klan leader) and Ann Atwater, a well-known civil rights activist. Both actors spent many months carefully studying the civil rights movement and what it was like to live through the desegregation of the school systems. The film will likely win some significant awards.

This will not happen with Mary Magdalene. If Joaquin Phoenix had spent even a few weeks studying the Gospels, and in particular, the account of the mud on the man’s eyes, he would have recognized how symbolic this act was in the ministry of Jesus. In Genesis, we learn that we were created from dirt and dust: “The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” In John 9 Jesus’ healing of the blind man is highly symbolic of Jesus’ entire ministry of bringing light into the world. The coming of Jesus is like the dawn of a new creation. Jesus re-enacts the original creation account by placing mud on his eyes and then speaking the word to him, just as the first creation where God takes dust and then speaks/breathes His word into us that we might live. Jesus is the Lord of the “new creation” and the use of dirt in the healing account is central to our understanding of what is going on.

Rather than a profanity-laced dismissal of the stupidity of Jesus, Phoenix might have taken his cue from other notable actors who take time to enter into and understand the world of the character they are portraying. If this incident is any indication, that likely didn’t happen. While some films make the rounds for a season but quickly fade into obscurity, it’s the ones that invest serious attention to the world’s they are portraying that endure the test of time. Erring in this way, Mary Magdalene is likely to soon be forgotten.

Great Wesleyan Distinctives, Part II

In these challenging days, there is a part of us which wants to just throw in the towel and go and join some independent, Bible-believing church and put our pain in the rear view mirror. But the deeper impulse is to remember our heritage and to keep on faithfully preaching the gospel right where God as planted you. The early church did not have a “strategy” for transforming the pagan 1st Century Roman Empire—they simply kept winning more and more people to faith and that, over time, transformed the entire culture and society.

Last month I began a four-part series on rebuilding our Wesleyan heritage. The last segment focused on the Wesleyan view of grace. This month we will focus on the Wesleyan view of community. In the last two segments we will examine the Wesleyan view of holiness and the Wesleyan view of the world.

Wesley had the distinct advantage of living over 200 years after the Reformation. This allowed him to view the Reformation from a distance and to see not only the great strengths of the Reformation, but, frankly, the trajectories in certain areas which were not helpful—even revealing crucial areas the Reformation had neglected. So, just as he embraced the restoration of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith but saw that grace was far more expansive than that, we see a distinctive Wesleyan contribution regarding how we understand the cross. The Reformers rightfully positioned us as condemned sinners needing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. However, over time it became clear that even committed Christians were viewing the cross from the perspective of a solitary condemned sinner who needed to flee to the cross to be saved. Wesley saw that we must not only look forward to the cross as individual, condemned sinners, but we must also look back on the cross from the New Creation along with all the saints who have gone before us. To put it bluntly, the cross not only draws condemned sinners to justification, but it also empowers justified sinners into a corporate life of holiness as the church, the people of God. This not only gives Wesley a doctrine of assurance, but it is the basis for his whole understanding of ecclesial catechesis.

Wesley was committed to a form of community catechesis which is remarkably distinct. For Wesley, catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions, or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life within the context of the church. Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was catechesis after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians.

Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands. The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care. They would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins. Members in sin would be disciplined. They would also be instructed in the Apostolic faith. They would worship together and go forth to serve the poor (see The Class Meeting: Recovering a Forgotten and Essential Small Group Experience for an excellent contemporary treatment of the class meeting and how it can be adapted to our own time).

The community emphasis for Wesley is not a technique or program the way we understand such things today, but an insight into the very rhythms of faith and practice which re-orients us to the Triune God. Wesley never distanced himself from the Christocentric emphasis of the Reformation. However, he longed for us to see that salvation was the work of the Triune God! The ultimate community to which the church and family conforms and reflects is, of course, the blessed community of the Trinity. Remember, it was the Puritans who said “God in himself is a sweet society.” The Father creates us, calls us and send us; the Son translates God to us in human terms, redeems us, and embodies the mission of God in the world; the Spirit catechizes the church into the realities of the New Creation, sanctifies us, endows us with discernment and God’s wisdom, and empowers us for effective mission in the world.

Great Wesleyan Distinctives, Part I

Beloved, we are facing the long and difficult work of rebuilding the church and remembering our heritage. Perhaps it might be helpful to dedicate a little mini series on four of the great themes of our Wesleyan heritage. We will start out with the Wesleyan view of grace.

Wesley accepted the Reformation emphasis on justifying grace, but lovingly reminded the church that to equate salvation with justification was a great loss to the biblical doctrine of salvation. Wesley saw God’s grace punctuating the whole of our lives within an expansive understanding of biblical salvation. God’s grace comes to us before we even become Christians. It is prevenient grace which enables us to respond to the gospel. This is why although we describe this as free will, we really mean freed will, i.e. God has taken the first step and sovereignly acted to free us from Adamic guilt and sinful depravity, thereby enabling the whole human race to hear the gospel and respond.

For Wesley, all spiritual formation begins with God’s prior action on behalf of the sinner. Prevenient grace is the bridge between human depravity and the free exercise of human will. Jesus declared that “no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44). This clearly refers to a drawing rooted in the Triune God which precedes our justification. It is God’s act of unmerited favor. It is God’s light “which enlightens everyone” (John 1:9), which lifts us up and allows us to exercise our will and respond to the grace of Christ. Prevenient grace is God’s universal grace to the entire human race, situating Wesleyanism between Augustinian pessimism and Pelagian optimism. Because prevenient grace means that which comes “before,” some Wesleyans mistakenly think that this is grace which only comes to us prior to justifying grace. However, prevenient grace also includes all the ways God moves in sovereign prior action calling us to respond throughout our Christian experience. Again, Wesley manages to perfectly balance the classic tension between monergistic and synergistic views of salvation. Prevenient grace is a testimony to monergism, whereas the full collaboration with God through our freed wills is a testimony to syngergism.

In addition to prevenient grace, Wesley speaks of sanctifying grace. Just as God in Christ meets us to justify us, so the Spirit of God meets us to sanctify us and make us holy. Prevenient and justifying grace enables you to become a Christian, but it is sanctifying grace which enables you to be a Christian. We will dedicate a future article to saying more about this, but it is important for now to see how sanctification fits into Wesley’s larger view of grace. Finally, it is glorifying grace which enables you to be fully conformed to the image of Christ in the New Creation. So Wesley unfolds for us a great vision of God’s grace which is rich and textured and punctuates the whole of our pre-Christian and Christian lives stretching even into the New Creation.

Wesley developed a whole doctrine of the means of grace which he defined as “outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God . . . whereby he might convey preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace” (Sermon 16, Means of Grace). Like a trail of bread crumbs, Wesley saw that however far we stray God leaves little markers of his grace so we can find our way home and reorient ourselves to Jesus Christ. Wesley identified three primary “means of grace”: prayer (private or public), Scripture (reading or listening), and the Lord’s Supper. Now most Christians accept the general idea that prayer, Scripture and the Lord’s Supper are “means of grace” to help us grow in Christ. However, Wesley has a much broader understanding of the means of grace. What makes Wesleyan thought distinctive is that he sees these means of grace as a channel to convey not just sanctifying grace, but also prevenient, and justifying grace. In other words, Wesley understood that prayer, Scripture reading and even the Lord’s Supper can be used by God to convert someone to the faith. This is why we practice open communion. Wesley understood this because the “means of grace” only have power because of Christ’s presence in them. Christ is the only true “means of grace” and He meets us at the Table, in prayer and in the reading of Scripture.

Reflections on General Conference

Here are a few of my reflections on the recently completed meeting of the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.

First, we must be aware of how the wider global Christian movement who are not members of the United Methodist Church viewed this final vote. I realize that some may not fully appreciate the importance of these voices, but it is certainly part of our commitment to catholicity to remember that we are not just a struggling mainline denomination trying to become healthy—we are part of the glorious, indestructible body of Christ which stretches back through time and through space around the world. The global church has been overwhelmingly positive about what was decided at General Conference. The affirmation of an historic Christian view regarding marriage and the body is a huge encouragement to so many around the world who have become accustomed to the mainline churches seemingly inevitable march to re-position themselves outside the stream of historic faith.

Second, the vote was also an historic vote in the history of mainline Protestantism. There are five large “mainline” denominations in the USA: United Methodist, Presbyterian Church (USA), the Lutheran Church (ELCA), the Episcopal Church (TEC), and the American Baptist Church (ABC). The United Methodist Church is the only mainline denomination, to date, which has managed to maintain the biblical ethic on the definition of Christian marriage and the sanctity of our bodies as created “male” or “female.” If this vote holds, and, more importantly, it stimulates deeper renewal in biblical fidelity, then we could be a beacon of hope for all of these older churches who are continuing their precipitous decline at alarming rates.

Third, we must listen to what God is teaching us through the pain of those who were so bitterly disappointed in this vote. This is no time for triumphalism. The church is still as deeply divided as it was the week before the General Conference. C. S. Lewis once said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Perhaps we could agree on a slight amendment to the last phrase: Pain is also God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf church. We clearly have a lot of pastoral work to do to extend the love of Christ to those who struggle with their sexual identity or their assigned birth gender. It was right for the church to defend the biblical view of marriage between one man and one woman. To concede this point would have caused not only a fracturing division with the global church, but even more importantly, a serious erosion of the basic Christian commitment that the Scriptures will always be the authoritative and final witness to the faith, life and ethics of the church of Jesus Christ for all time. Nonetheless, the deep cries of anguish by those who were disappointed in the vote always remind us that we have much unfinished business in fully articulating a theology of the body and the grand vision of marriage which the Scriptures so nobly set forth, and to which we have not always been a vibrant witness.

Finally, we are all saddened by the divided nature of the United Methodist Church. I truly believe that this sadness is shared by the whole church. It seems intractable. In my view, it would be a mistake to simply return to General Conference in 2020 and re-fight this same issue all over again, though I have no role in those kind of decisions. However, as a United Methodist clergy person, The One Church Plan, called by different names, has now been voted down four times. I think it would be a poor strategy to expect different results in 2020, especially since the global delegates will have increased. A better approach would be to step back from this issue and try to focus on the underlying sources of our division as a church. From the perspective of how the United Methodist Church is situated within the Christian movement, it would be a tragedy if we were to accept de facto, as has been said quite a bit in recent weeks, that “the way forward” is to follow the teachings of Jesus and not the teachings of Paul and others in the epistles who set forth many of the ethical parameters which are being rejected by those who want to normalize same sex behavior. The idea that Jesus is timeless while Paul and the others are all culture bound and have no voice in the life of the church would be catastrophic in terms of our denominational future as a viable Christian movement. To separate “Jesus” from “Paul” in this way ends up not being true to Jesus or to Paul since both are now being used for our purposes rather than representing God’s revelation to us.

Let me be clear, there are no “winners” and “losers” in this struggle. It is the gospel which must prevail and call us all to die to ourselves and, through spiritual rebirth, be raised up and united with Christ. We all must do a better job listening to the whole of Scripture. We must all do a better job listening to our beloved Wesleyan heritage. We must all do a better job in listening to the voice of our Lord Jesus Christ who is Lord of the Church and has summoned us all as sinners into His glorious presence. For I know that we all agree—the last thing we want to have ringing in our ears at the end of this struggle is that terrifying word of judgment from Christ when He comes to look for fruit on the tree called United Methodism and says, “may no one ever eat fruit from you again.” We all hope for a day when fruitfulness will, once again, be the hallmark of our beloved church.

Final Thoughts Before the 2019 United Methodist Church General Conference in St. Louis

For those who follow my blog, you will be aware of the upcoming 2019 special General Conference of the United Methodist Church, called to respond to the report of the Commission on a Way Forward regarding human sexuality. I recently published six reasons why we should reject the so-called One Church Plan. I have also affirmed in earlier blogs the importance of the church standing with the global church and the church throughout time in affirming historic orthodox views regarding the definition of marriage and a Christian view of the body. However, now that this historic meeting is upon us, perhaps a few final thoughts are in order.

First, remember our love for the church. It is easy to be discouraged and disheartened by all of the dysfunction and brokenness in the church. It is demoralizing to even be asked to “vote” on the issue which is before us, since biblical authority is (or should be) the sine qua non of the church. But I cannot forget that the United Methodist Church was the means of grace for me to receive Christ, to receive a call into the ministry, and the place where I have had wonderful opportunities for preaching and pastoral ministry. To quote that beautiful hymn about the church by Robert Stamps, the United Methodist Church was “my waking place, of early call and signs of grace.” It is precisely because we love the church so much that those who are delegates must gather up their courage, go to General Conference, and protect the church from making more steps towards its own demise. There is no inevitability to “mainline decline.” The decline of all the mainline churches is linked to their neglect of biblical authority and theological stability. We can break that link in St. Louis.

Second, we must not be angry, or fall into despair. There is a real possibility that certain decisions (or the lack of decision because the presiding bishops cannot control demonstrations) would force hundreds of thousands of Methodists to find a new church home. Hundreds of thousands more will accept life in a protracted period of ecclesial exile within the denomination until a better day arises. This would be an extremely sad and disconcerting turn of events since most of us have never known any other denominational family, and the United Methodist Church, with all of its flaws, has historically stood on the side of historic orthodoxy. We have stayed and pastored, we have preached and prayed, we have tried to remember our ordination vows, even as we have watched millions leave the church. We are not prone to separation. We have prayed earnestly that we would not be torn asunder.

But, regardless of the outcome, we must not succumb to anger or despair. We must always remember that the deeper foundation of Jesus Christ will never fail us. We must remember that the faithful church of Jesus Christ is indestructible. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). We should have no fear of the demise of the Church. Absolutely none. Of course, particular denominations may rise and fall. Some remain faithful, and some disappear and are lost. But, the true Church of Jesus Christ, the Body of Christ, will last into eternity. Our prayer is that the United Methodist Church will remain faithfully connected to the glorious church of Jesus Christ.

Third, the One Church Plan is not, as advertised, the plan where everyone can have what they want. By this point, most of us have heard the well-rehearsed refrain: “The One Church Plan will not force anyone to change. If you want to stay as you are, you can.” However, in my view, that is a profound misunderstanding of the nature of this legislation. The One Church Plan does, in fact, require two massive changes for every single United Methodist in the country, and every person in every Central Conference around the world united to United Methodism.

First, this refrain obscures the fact that the One Church Plan is but one more step (in their view) in a long hard struggle for the liberation of the church from all sexual mores. It is being sold as the plan that will produce peace in the church, when it will actually be the most divisive act imaginable. The fighting will continue. We will still have fighting at every General Conference, but now it will spread to every conference, and every local church in the country. We used to know that these struggles would be limited to once every four years, and in some distant city in some distant state. Now, the fights will continue, year in and year out, right in our own churches and conferences until the progressives get the “church” they have envisioned.

Second, it requires all of us (regardless of what position we hold) to accept the moral equivalency of the opposing position. For me, this is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” It is one thing to argue about whether homosexuality is a “sin” or a “sacrament.” It is one thing to argue about whether same sex marriage is “biblical” or “unbiblical.” It is entirely another to actually embrace the view that it is both, depending on the majority vote of a local church or an annual conference. It is this postmodern view of truth which is so objectionable to our entire theological tradition, both as Christians and as Wesleyans. Truth has always been determined by good exegesis of Scripture, and an attentive listening to the theological tradition in which we stand. The One Church Plan forces us to embrace the notion that truth is socially constructed by the various factions and groups within society. Truth as truth has been deconstructed and all we have are endless personal preferences. The very fact that so many bishops, pastors, and delegates have embraced such a postmodern view of truth shows how far we have strayed. It is the formal embrace of this new view of truth which is actually the most destructive threat the United Methodist Church church faces in St. Louis.

Finally, I remain hopeful. I have the privilege of traveling all across the country and, indeed, the world, meeting and talking with those in our Methodist family. In the last three months I have been on every inhabited continent on earth. This spring I am preaching in United Methodist Church congregations and gatherings in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and Oklahoma. In the midst of the pain, I also hear strains of hope.

We are hopeful that those who gather in St. Louis will discover a fresh wind of the grace of God and a solid reaffirmation of historic faith. This could be the turning point for a new phase of evangelism, church planting, and discipleship. I still believe that all of the losses we have incurred over the last fifty years can be completely reversed. We need a national strategy for evangelism and church planting. We need a solid re-affirmation of our biblical and theological heritage. We need well equipped laity and clergy for the work which is before us. This vision of renewal and revitalization is still within our grasp. It will require a turn from the waywardness of our recent history. But, it is still possible that the turn could happen in St. Louis, and after the final gavel has sounded, we could break out and sing, “And Can it Be?” May it be so.

One Church Plan: Key Issues to Think About Before You Vote

The United Methodist Church will be meeting in General Conference on February 23-26 in St. Louis, Missouri. The General Conference has been called specifically to act on the report of the Commission on a Way Forward which was authorized at the 2016 General Conference. This 32 member commission has not produced a single “solution,” but have outlined three possible ways ahead.

The three plans are as follows:

Traditionalist Plan: This plan would affirm the current language about homosexuality in the Book of Discipline and seek to strengthen enforcement for violations of church law.

One Church Plan: The one-church model would allow different United Methodists in different places to make different decisions regarding ministry with or by LGBTQ persons rather than maintaining a single standard that operates everywhere throughout the worldwide church. This plan would remove all restrictive language from the Book of Discipline and give conferences, churches and pastors a “local option” to decide what they determine is best.

Connectional-Conference Plan: This plan would create three connectional conferences based on theology or perspective, each having clearly defined values (accountability, contextualization and justice). The three connectional conferences would function throughout the worldwide church and the five existing U.S. jurisdictions would be abolished.

The Council of Bishops has thrown their support behind the One Church Plan and they are actively supporting it through blog articles, websites (onechurchplan.org), and various video releases. The Traditionalist Plan has the support of a minority of bishops, who have struggled to have their voice heard. I endorse the Traditionalist Plan because it moves us closer to historic orthodoxy and has the most overwhelming support from Scripture, our Wesleyan heritage, and the global church. The One Church Plan, in contrast, has a number of serious problems. This essay seeks to highlight six of the key issues which are before us as we are asked to contemplate this solution as “the way forward.”

Issue #1: The Nature of Church Unity

The framers of the One Church Plan are clear that they are motivated primarily over a desire to maintain church unity. The One Church Plan is widely regarded as the only way to keep the church from hopelessly splitting into three or more factions. Therefore, this proposal is widely regarded as the greatest hope for “church unity.”

Our Episcopal leaders often remind us that they have sworn in their consecration vows to “uphold the unity of the church.” However, there seems to be confusion about what is meant by 
“church unity.” When some hear the phrase, “uphold the unity of the church” they think this is referring to the organizational and bureaucratic, churchly machinery known denominationally as the United Methodist church. This is not true. When Jesus said “I will build my church” He was referring to the people of God, the church of Jesus Christ throughout space and time of which He is the Lord and head. Our unity is rooted in that sacred unity. Our unity is in Jesus Christ. Our unity is in the gospel. Our unity is with the people of God around the world and back through time. If keeping the unity of the church was an organizational, denominational mandate, then there would never have been a Reformation. The Reformation was not fundamentally a schismatic movement – but the church’s greatest act of catholicity. It was a remembering of the ancient faith and a return to the apostolic message.

The word “unity” has a clear and compelling definition found in our Discipline which is quietly ignored. (See, par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task). Our unity is not found in our ecclesiastical structures, but in the gospel which is given to us in God’s Word. Every Bishop and Elder in the United Methodist church has promised before God to uphold the Discipline and to defend the church “against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.” That is the basis of church unity. We must not forget this.

Issue #2: Biblical Authority

The second issue at stake with the One Church Plan has to do with the nature of Scripture itself. In short, is Scripture authoritative in the life of the church, or not? This is not a question intending to nullify the role of tradition, reason or experience. The question is whether Scripture is one of several sources of authority, or if Scripture has a final voice in deciding doctrine among the people called Methodists. This leads to a second, but equally important question. If Scripture is authoritative, then how is the meaning of Scripture known and received in the life of the church? I am not convinced that the “crisis” within United Methodism is about who can have sex with whom. That is, of course, the leading presenting issue; but it has always been evident to many that the deeper issue has to do with the authority of Scripture and how we interpret and apply Scripture to the various issues which are before us.

The November 9th release from the Council of Bishops notes several “values” which are guiding the process. The three primary values noted were unity, space and contextuality. There is the notable omission that there is no reference to the value of the final decision being biblical or that, in the end, Scripture has any role in deciding this crucial issue. Am I the only one, or was anyone else absolutely stunned that the Council of Bishops would put out a pastoral letter about such an explosively contentious issue which needs to be resolved and threatens to tear our church asunder, and never mention the Bible or Scripture in the entire document?

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

The paucity of biblical engagement is due, perhaps, to a misunderstanding about the so-called “quadrilateral” which has been popularized in our denomination. The quadrilateral, rightly understood, is about the primacy of Scripture and the secondary role which tradition, reason and experience should play in our deliberations. We are, after all, the “people of one Book.” What the quadrilateral is not, is a statement of four equal values. Yet, in our deliberations one sometimes gets the impression that the quadrilateral has been flipped on its head. In our conversations, pastoral considerations and anecdotal stories tend to “rule the day.” In other words, we have turned the quadrilateral on its head and we often end up using experience as the definitive lens through which we understand scripture and tradition. It would be very helpful if our commitment to the primacy of Scripture as the final authority in the life of the church were to be made clear. Our Discipline says, “United Methodists share with other Christians the conviction that Scripture is the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (p. 83). There is nothing wrong with highlighting values like “contextuality” and “space” but neither should be understood as primary values. The church deserves to see the biblical and theological evidence which supports the One Church Plan. It is very disconcerting that the website which the Council of Bishops released to support the One Church Plan (onechurchplan.org) contains no section on how this proposal relates to our biblical, theological or historical heritage as Christians.

Issue #3: Biblical Teaching Regarding Homosexuality

The New Testament contains numerous prohibitions against unauthorized sexual behavior. On this point, there can be no dispute. The question is whether any of these prohibitions would include homosexual acts, especially between consenting adults.

There are a number of passages, especially the so-called “sin lists” in the New Testament, which employ a range of Greek words which need exploration. The primary terms are as follows: porneia, akatharsia, malakos, komos, and arsenokoites. As I understand the “progressive” argument, they insist that what is condemned in the New Testament sin lists is not consensual, committed sexual activity between two men, but exploitative sin such as pederasty (sexual activity between a man and a boy). This argument is not entirely false. The New Testament does condemn a practice reflected in the Greek word “malakos” which refers to “effeminate call boys” which was a form of prostitution in the ancient world which was exploitative and would clearly fall under the category of pederasty. It is also true that there are some broad, more general words for sexual immorality used in the New Testament which do not specifically name any particular sexual behavior. The two most prominent examples are the words “porneia” (where we get our word pornography from) and “akatharsia.” Porneia means “sexual immorality” – a broad term for a whole range of sexual sins without specifically naming what those sins are. The word akatharsia means “sexually impure” or “immoral sexual sins.” Again, it is a broad term without specifically citing what sexual sins fall into that category. There are other broad words like komos which is used quite broadly to refer to everything from excessive eating, to general carousing, to sexual orgies, and so forth. Thus, the progressives are correct in noting that several of the terms in the New Testament do, in fact, refer specifically to pederasty or to broad terms which cover a range of sexual misconduct without specifically mentioning homosexuality.

The difficulty with this argument is that it ignores a mountain of other biblical evidence which makes it exceedingly difficult for progressives to, in the end, offer a convincing case. First, the word “arsenokoites” is also used in the “sin lists” of the New Testament. Arsenokoites means a “man who practices homosexuality.” There are several reasons why it is difficult to argue that this word refers only to pederasty. Arsenokoites appears in the Pauline sin list right along with the other terms. In other words, in I Corinthians 6:9,10 Paul specifically condemns “porneia” and “malakos” as well as “arsenokoites.” It is clear that “malakos” and “arsenokoites” are not interchangeable words. Paul says, “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Furthermore, Paul would have been familiar with the Greek Old Testament (known as the Septuagint). It is this Greek word “arsenokoites” which is used in texts in the Old Testament such as Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 which quite explicitly condemn homosexual activity. This happens again in I Timothy 1:10 where he identifies both the general word “sexual immorality” (porneia) as well as homosexual practice (arsenokoites). (By the way, this passage is also where Paul condemns slave holding, dispelling the other common argument made by some of our leaders that the Bible somehow endorses slave holding and we now have better insights than they had). Of course, once it is clear that arsenokoites is forbidden by the New Testament, then it also would fall under the general categories of “sexual immorality” (porneia) and “sexually impure acts” (akatharsia).

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

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

But, for now, it is clear that the One Church Plan requires that we consider all of the language around sexual immorality in the New Testament as either generic, non-specific or only referring to a very tiny slice of sexual immorality; namely, pederasty. Yet, as we have seen, the exegetical case for this is not defensible. If we are being asked to sign off on this option and “agree to disagree” on this issue, then we will need to have a much better conversation about the biblical data which pertains to this question. I, for one, remain completely unconvinced by the progressive argument and am actually disappointed that they would argue so strongly about their commitment to biblical authority and yet provide no serious exegetical argument for the dramatic changes they wish to usher into the life and faith of the church. To move a named sin from a New Testament “sin list” and declare that we are now to regard it as a “sacrament” is unprecedented. Christians have every right to resist this doctrinal innovation which is being embraced by a few declining mainline denominations in the western world.

Issue #4: A Christian View of the Body

The 2016 General Conference established the Commission on a Way Forward to help the church resolve our differences over homosexuality. However, very quickly, the bishops moved the conversation beyond the issue of same sex marriage and broadened it to include allowing the church to permit the ordination of homosexual, bi-sexual, transgendered and gender non-conforming people. This appeared as early as the November 9 letter from the Council of Bishops which calls for a “way forward” for “LGBT inclusion.” By removing all prohibitive language from the Discipline, it renders the church silent on a whole range of issues. Indeed, the One Church Plan would allow any annual conference to ordain not only lesbian and gay persons (LG), but also bi-sexual (B), transgendered (T), and queer or gender non-conforming (Q) people.

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

Ordination for any ecclesial body is the highest and most sacred act of “setting apart” for ministry. Ordination is intended to embody and display holiness to the world through human vessels set apart for word and sacrament. It is surely among the most sacred honors a church bestows. The One Church Plan would invite bi-sexual and gender non-conforming persons into ordination without a clear explanation of how, or if, this might challenge our traditional theology of the body and human sexuality. We have spent 45 years discussing gay and lesbian relationships, but not 45 minutes on this. I could explore these in more detail, but I would like to focus on the ordination of transgendered persons. It is here that we see with greater clarity that our struggle has never actually been about who can have sex with whom. Our struggle is over the Christian view of the body. The affirmation of one’s decision to change their gender, either through hormonal therapy, or through various operative procedures, moves us towards a gnostic view of the body.

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

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

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

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

Issue #5: Is There a Divine Design for Marriage?

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

Our problem as a denomination goes back many decades because our vision for the very nature of Christian marriage itself has been lost. The whole notion that there might be a divine design to marriage is never addressed. In fact, many Christians, quite tragically, embrace the larger societal view of marriage. This is the popular narrative in broad form: Marriage is a way to find personal fulfillment and make you happy. Marriage is defined, so the narrative goes, as a legal arrangement which allows two people to fulfill each other’s emotional and sexual needs and desires, and find economic stability. Accepting this narrative is the source of many of our woes. Individual freedom, personal autonomy and fulfillment are very high values in the West and marriage has been domesticated to fit within that larger utilitarian framework. The culture has a utilitarian view which sees marriage as a commodity. We should have a biblical vision which sees marriage as covenant. The utilitarian vision sees the body of a man or woman as an object which can be assessed like a car – is it bright, new, shiny and full of power, or not. Is your body thin or fat; does it conform to the shapes we admire or not; is your hair the right texture and color, or not; are your teeth shiny and straight, or not. In the covenantal vision, the mystery and glory is that we have bodies and those bodies are beautiful to God because they are living sacraments in the world, an outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace, since all of the means of grace come through the physicality of the body.

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

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

Jesus calls us back to the creational, covenantal and Eucharistic mystery of marriage. First, by creating us “male and female” God designed two different, complementary glories who come together as one. It is the primordial sacrament of creation which would someday become the grand metaphor for Christ and the Church celebrated in the marriage supper of the lamb. In Ephesians 5 when Paul commands husbands to love their wives, he tells us that he is speaking ultimately about the mystery of Christ and his church. In the Scriptures, the body is primarily a theological category, not a biological one. Second, marriage was designed to invite us into the mystery of creation by becoming co-creators with him. Through the miracle of childbirth, we actually participate with God in creation by becoming co-creators with him. Indeed, while honoring the special calling of celibacy, the church understands that the building of families is at the heart of God’s design. This is one of the many reasons why the church has never declared moral equivalency between marriage between a man and a woman and a homosexual marriage. Third, the family unit has been designed by God to reflect the mystery of the Trinity itself. Husband and wife become, through the gift of family, father and mother, and they stand before God with their children as a sign and seal of the Triune God. The family is meant to be a reflection of the Trinity with mutual gifts, submission, joyful exercise of kingly and queenly authority, love, discipline, self-donation, and becoming co-creators with God.

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

Issue #6: Holy Conferencing, the Wesleyan Way

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

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

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

Brothers and sisters, we need to recover a far more robust understanding of holy conferencing. The weak questions we have been grappling with has led to weak thinking, more divisiveness, and, at times, the shaming of those who adhere to the official position in the Book of Discipline. Weak questions have led to the incapacity to speak prophetically to a culture which is in such deep malaise. We have become like the doctor who thinks that he or she cannot properly treat any of their patients until they catch every disease that they have.

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

Remembering Our Ordination Vows

Every Bishop and Elder in the United Methodist church has promised before God to uphold the Book of Discipline and to defend the church “against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.” Integrity demands, does it not, that those who can no longer in good conscience uphold the Discipline or defend the church against heterodox doctrines should gracefully step aside? If, on the other hand, they are confident that their new views are scripturally defensible then they are duty-bound to present their exegesis to the church for careful evaluation, holy conferencing, and a vote.This has, of course, not happened in relation to our struggles over human sexuality as we approach the General Conference in St. Louis in February. Hundreds of pastors and laity across the country have pleaded for the biblical basis for the one church plan, but none has been provided.

The authority of God’s Word as the normative rule of faith and practice in the life and witness of the church is the real unstated question which is before the General Conference in February. I do not know what has troubled me more: the fact that no biblical or theological case has been made for the so-called One Church Plan, or that none has even been officially asked for. It shows just how deep our malady is. The steady breezes of pragmatism blow across the church in almost every public statement, but any reference to the authority of Scripture is strangely absent. The newly launched website by the Council of Bishops to promote the One Church Plan (onechurchplan.org) provides no scriptural support for the plan and even the FAQ section addresses thirteen questions, none of which are “what is the biblical basis for this position?”

Our episcopal leaders regularly cite that they also promised in their consecration as Bishops to “uphold the unity of the church.” Yet, there is a persistent dust storm kicked up over the meaning of the word “unity” while the clear and compelling definition of unity found in our Discipline is quietly ignored. (See, par. 105, Doctrinal Standards and our Theological Task). Our unity is not found in our ecclesiastical structures, but in the Gospel which is given to us in God’s Word. We must not allow ourselves to lose our shock over this. The fact that the majority of bishops have embraced the One Church Plan and even launched a website and videos to promote it shows just how formidable our pathway back to orthodoxy truly is. However, having traveled across this country and spoken with dozens of United Methodist pastors, it is quite clear that many of the rank and file pastors and lay people understand exactly what this is all about.

I have to hand it to influential United Methodist Pastor pastor and well-known author Adam Hamilton who understood from the start what was really at stake for the church. He knew that progressive views regarding human sexuality could not more forward without an equally progressive view of Scriptural authority. He laid out the case for this as early as 2014 in his book, Making Sense of the Bible. One of the many stunning conclusions offered to the church by Adam Hamilton is the assertion that the inspiration of the Scriptures is no different from all the ways we claim to be inspired today, such as in writing a sermon, or a poem. Hamilton argues that St. Paul’s inspiration in writing letters to the Corinthians is “not qualitatively different from the way God inspires or influences today” (p. 143). The only difference Hamilton allows between the “inspiration” of the biblical writers and the “inspiration” we experience today is that they were historically closer to the actual events (p. 138). Yet, Hamilton’s own assessment of how we are to interpret scripture often overrules the assessment of those closest to the events (See, for example, p. 213).

We will hear quite a bit about the need to preserve the unity of the church. However, the best and most faithful way we can preserve the true unity of the church is to stand boldly against this so-called “One Church Plan.” Our unity within our global communion (or with Christians around the world and back through time) will only be broken if we fail to protect the church “against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.” I have been around long enough to remember when our leaders were all enamored with Bultmannian theology which was going to “rescue” the church and get us “up with the times.” We were all encouraged to endorse the idea that Jesus Christ didn’t actually rise bodily; rather, he “rose” in the preaching of the Apostles. How did that turn out? I remember in the early 1990’s when the Re-Imagining Conference invoked the worship of a female deity, Sophia. I remember when they gave “communion” with milk and honey rather than bread and wine, and Dr. Delores Williams stated, “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement” and, “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping, and weird stuff like that.” How did that turn out? Brothers and sisters, this is a long and protracted struggle and we should not forget what we are struggling over.

I returned recently from Brazil and witnessed first-hand the growth of the Methodist church in the sixth district of Brazil due to a courageous and godly bishop (Bishop Joao Carlos Lopes) who for over twenty years has led those under his episcopal care with a strong commitment to evangelism, church planting, and most importantly, the authority of the Word of God. We need to find ways to encourage and strengthen all Episcopal leaders who, even as a minority voice, are committed to Scriptural Christianity and Apostolic faith. That is the only true “way forward.” In contrast, the One Church Plan promotes theological pluralism, ethical relativism, and in the process, abandons our historic Methodist ecclesiology. Even though the One Church Plan allows me to remain personally orthodox, it requires me to say that the United Methodist Church now has two official, and contradictory, orthodoxies. The One Church Plan would force me to accept the moral equivalency between biblical marriage and a seemingly endless array of new arrangements, the full extent of which we do not yet even know. But, in my ordination vows I promised to defend the church “against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word” and that is what I intend to keep on doing because, as Martin Luther said in 1521 at the Diet of Worms in the face of the waywardness of the church in his own day which has lost its own catholicity and apostolicity, “my conscience is held captive to the Word of God.”