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 http://discipleshipbands.com) 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. www.news.gallup.com (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” www.Pewsocialtrends.org (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.

Remembering Our Roots

I recently returned from ten days of preaching at Indian Springs Holiness Camp Meeting in Georgia. It is one of hundreds which will take place across this nation during the summer. If you have never experienced a Camp Meeting, then you should attend one because it is a vital reminder of an important chapter in the history of Christianity in the USA. Camp Meetings were one of the leading avenues of renewal, revival, and, interestingly, partaking of the Eucharist, during the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840). A typical format would be people coming and living in tents or makeshift shelters for ten days of preaching and revival. These gatherings were called “camp meetings” or “protracted meetings.” The setting was originally a simple “brush arbor,” but as the meetings became an annual event, they began to construct permanent open air “tabernacles.” Itinerant evangelists would come and preach the gospel and call for repentance. There would be a time of singing and worship.

One of the most influential Camp Meetings on the frontier occurred from August 6 to August 13, 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky which drew as many as 20,000 people. Cane Ridge exemplified the Camp Meeting “standard” with three additional features: the altar, the mourning bench, and the communion table. The altar was the place where you came for prayer to receive Christ or receive special ministry. The mourning bench was a place to sit and travail before God if you were under conviction. Finally, at the climax of the Camp Meeting, communion would be offered since many avoided taking communion during the year for fear that they were not spiritually prepared.

In our tradition, the Camp Meetings grew out of the holiness movement. In these meetings, there would be a special emphasis on the second work of grace and the doctrine of holiness and sanctification. As with all great awakenings, there were hundreds of new hymns which were written to give expression to the vibrancy and theology of their experience. We sometimes forget that, for them, these were contemporary, popular songs written in a style which reflected the exuberance and joy of the gathering. Songs like, “The Comforter has Come,” “Higher Ground,” and “Down at the Cross” are a few examples of the hundreds written during the 19th and early 20th century. Francis Asbury was a great supporter of the Camp Meeting format, because he believed that it was well suited to provide an atmosphere for spiritual transformation.

As noted earlier, this year I was an evangelist (along with Dave Ward and Chris Bounds) at Indian Springs Holiness Camp Meeting. We preached for ten days in the main Tabernacle. In addition, Joe Dongell taught a Bible study each morning. There were other leaders and evangelists who preached and ministered in a large youth Tabernacle, a “tweens” Tabernacle (middle school), and the Glenn Tabernacle (children). There was also a vibrant nursery. Hundreds of people lived on the grounds during those ten days, and others come in from the surrounding area for the meetings. Every service concluded with an altar call, and hours were spent each day praying alongside people for salvation, sanctification, healing, or other needs on their spiritual journey.

It is difficult for those who have not been a part of these kind of meetings to fully appreciate how deep and vibrant this tradition is. The whole tenor of the event is one of joy and fellowship, yet wrapped in the larger envelope of the seriousness of why we had gathered. Very few gatherings in America today feature the kind of transgenerational experience of a Camp Meeting. It is not unusual for four generations of a family to be living in one of the cabins during the encampment. The spontaneous choirs which come forward to provide special music regularly included children as young as 8 or 9, all the way up to men and women in their 80’s—all singing with a full heart. The deep “belonging” that a Camp Meeting produces is perhaps best illustrated by an experience I had in the “tweens” tabernacle. I casually asked two thirteen-year-old girls how many years they had been coming to Indian Springs Camp Meeting. They both beamed and one said “thirteen” while the other, at the same time, said “fourteen.” At that point, the one thirteen-year-old turned to the other thirteen-year-old and said, “how can you have come here for fourteen years when you are only thirteen years old?” The other responded, with a smile, “because I first came here inside my mother’s womb!” That fairly well sums up the power and formation of a Camp Meeting. There are few gatherings of people left where the primary and driving “identity” is that of repentance, renewal, and the deeper life.

Henry Clay Morrison, the founder of Asbury Theological Seminary, preached at Indian Springs for fifty years. No single person has ever preached more sermons at Indian Springs than Morrison. There is a granite monument on the campus of the campground to commemorate his lifelong contribution to Indian Springs. In 1942, Morrison died in Kentucky. He did not die at his residence on the campus of the seminary, but at a camp meeting after preaching. What a legacy and a heritage for us to remember as we seek, in our own way, to raise the “banner” of holiness in our own day.

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.