Christian Identity and Ethical Boundaries: The Case of Redeemer University

Are you a Christian just because you say you are? This question was actually at the heart of both the sixteenth-century Reformation as well as the later eighteenth-century Wesleyan revivals. We sometimes have the mistaken notion that the revivals and awakenings of these amazing chapters in church history were primarily directed to all of the unbelievers in the society who explicitly did not believe in, or follow, Jesus Christ. While this is undoubtedly true for certain groups of people, the far larger groups that were awakened in both the sixteenth-century Reformation as well as the eighteenth-century Great Awakening already belonged to the church. If asked, they would have considered themselves Christians. It was the genius of the Reformation to join experience, doctrine, and ethics into one seamless message to help people who happened to already belong to the church (and who claimed to be Christians) to actually hear the gospel and become true Christians. The broad road of nominalism is one of the specters that looms over any culture where Christianity is the culturally approved faith.

Now that this is evaporating in the West, we are forced to remember the true nature of Christian identity. The point is this: Being a Christian was specifically tied to real beliefs, historic confessions, and shared ethics that related the believer properly to Jesus Christ. As one early church father rightly commented after the post-Constantine influx of Christians into the church: “You cannot be ‘born’ a Christian, you have to ‘become’ a Christian.”

Various ecclesiastical bodies may disagree on exactly where these lines are drawn, but all churches have the right and responsibility to uphold their own boundaries and, if necessary, exercise church discipline. In fact, when the Reformation was pressed to define the church, they stated that the true church would be marked by three things: the gospel was preached, the sacraments administered, and church discipline was exercised, (See, for example, Belgic Confession, article 29.)

This may seem like a discussion from a distant era, but it all rushed back this week when I read about the dispute between a Christian university in Canada and the Canadian legal system. The dispute involves Redeemer University, which is a private, Christian liberal arts college located in Hamilton, Ontario. It is like hundreds of Christian colleges that are located all across the United States. Like most evangelical colleges across our nation they have an ethos, or community life statement, which provides ethical parameters to the community. Like countless private schools, no one can be admitted into the community unless they agree to abide by these community standards. This has long been a normative and accepted practice for all Christian universities, as well as churches, when they determine whether to admit someone into membership or enroll someone as a student.

However, the Canadian Bar Association is bringing a case against the University for discrimination against LGBTQ students. The statement by Susan Ursel, the lawyer who represents the Canadian Bar Association, is very telling. She said, “They’re not discriminating against [students] because they’re Christian, they’re discriminating against them because they’re LGBTQ by this code of conduct.” She went on to say, “You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Christians, sure, but once you’re inside your Christian community, you don’t get to pick and choose whether you like people who are gay or straight. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it.”

The underlying assumption of the legal statement is that being a Christian is self-defined, i.e. if someone claims to be a Christian, then that person automatically is one, with all the privileges which may come with that identity. Therefore, a Christian university must accommodate that person as a Christian insider. However, the gospel defines the community of those who are called by the name Christian as those who have submitted to his lordship. This is defined historically, through the revelation of the New Testament, the creeds and confessions, the ethical parameters of the faith, and so forth. The New Testament regularly exercised discipline against members who violated the ethical standards of the church (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 5:1–5).

As a community, we must be prepared to counter this post-modern approach, which somehow thinks that even the word “Christian” can be autonomously defined. We must recognize the inherent problem if this line of reasoning is accepted. If, for example, a person employed by Wendy’s were to decide that he or she can autonomously decide what it means to be a “Wendy’s employee” and they, for example, refused to wear a uniform, or thought that it was acceptable to make racial slurs against a customer, we would rightly expect that Wendy’s has the right to “uphold their borders” and apply their own standards to the workplace. They retain the right to define the terms of employment and, from a free speech perspective, no one can be compelled to become a Wendy’s employee. They are free to not accept the terms of employment. This very scenario happened in a McDonalds in 2019. A McDonald’s employee got into an argument with a customer and the employee used a racial slur (which was captured on video). After the incident, McDonald’s issued the following statement: “The disturbance with the customer prompted our management team to call the police right away; and we did an immediate investigation on this matter. This behavior goes against the values and standards that I expect from employees in my restaurants. This employee displayed improper and unacceptable conduct and is no longer with the company.” This has happened hundreds of times across this nation, even including employees who make offensive posts on their private Facebook or Twitter accounts from their own homes.

Let’s take a religious example to drive the point home. If a young man gains entrance into an Orthodox Jewish training program within the Yemenite tradition of Judaism, they are required to maintain a “payot,” which is to allow the lock of hair growing on the sides of their heads to remain uncut. For this religious community, this is an ethical matter that serves as a sign of their obedience to the Torah as well as one of the distinguishing marks which sets them apart as a community from non-Jews. Suppose a young man from this tradition wanted to cut his payot off, yet still insisted that he be granted entrance into a Yemenite training program on the grounds that he was being unfairly discriminated against because he still considered himself a Yemenite Jew. But, is it not the right of the Yemenite community to determine what constitutes the boundaries of that particular community? To illustrate the absurdity of the argument, let’s restate Susan Ursel’s point, but use my example: “They’re not discriminating against [students] because they’re Jewish, they’re discriminating against them because the Yemenite code of conduct forbids them from cutting the sides of their hair.” She went on to say, “You can discriminate on the basis of only wanting Jews, sure, but once you’re inside your Jewish community, you don’t get to pick and choose whether you like people who wear a payot or not. You take your community the way you find it and you serve it.”

It should raise serious concerns if a company like McDonald’s is allowed to apply ethical standards in defining someone who is called an “employee of McDonald’s” and yet the church or a Christian university is prohibited from defining who can be a member of their respective communities. Redeemer University has every right to uphold their community life statement as one of the defining parameters of what it means to be a member of the Redeemer University community. In short, Christian identity is both doctrinal and moral. If the Canadian government prevails over Redeemer University, then it will, in effect, be forcing Christians to accept a reductionistic faith which puts our entire identity into the small thimble of privatized beliefs that we are required to keep hidden in our hearts with no public, ethical witness.

Holy Desperation for Justice

In Christianity the phrase “holy desperation” refers to that tipping point in the process of sanctification when you become so discontent with your spiritual state, and so utterly desperate for change that you finally enter into a true surrender to God. These are rare moments and they become symbolic markers for transformation and change.

I think that this is a rough analogy to where our nation is today in regard to racial justice. We just may be entering into a state of such desperation that we finally accept the kind of deep change that is required. I want to highlight three racial moments, all in my lifetime, that gave us three iconic phrases, which collectively demonstrate the point of “holy desperation” we are in today.

Racial Moment #1: “I Have a Dream” This is, of course, the iconic phrase from the speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. It is a hopeful speech. He called upon Americans to remember our own founding documents that “all men are created equal.” King was blunt about the racial problems and the speech speaks openly about the “unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” Yet, the speech calls the nation to “not wallow in the valley of despair.” King optimistically said that he did not believe that the “bank of justice is bankrupt” and the speech ended with a seven-fold cry “I have a dream” which resonates as faith in a more hopeful future. In 1963 Americans dared to believe that we would pass down to our children a more just America, one which lived up to “the true meaning of its creed.”

Racial Moment #2: “Hands Up-Don’t Shoot!” This is the famous rallying cry which arose from the death of Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old African American man in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. Several witnesses testified (later unproven in the trial) that at the moment he was shot (twelve times) he had his hands up and said, “Don’t shoot.” Despite the lack of clarity about what actually happened, the phrase “hands up” became a rallying cry for racial justice. Raised hands are a symbol of submission and a posture of vulnerability. Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech spoke of “soul power,” but by 2014, many were feeling powerless to affect change in the face of injustice. The dream is dimming, and the posture is more of powerlessness than of hope. King told us to lift our heads high and hope. Now, we can only lift our hands up and say, “Don’t shoot.”

Racial Moment #3: “I Can’t Breathe.” This is the most recent rallying cry echoing those heard from the lips of George Floyd during the eight minutes and forty-six seconds Derek Chauvin, the arresting police officer, kept his knee on Floyd’s neck on May 25, 2020. As Floyd lay dying on the streets of Minneapolis he said, “I can’t breathe.” This cry had already been heard around the nation since the time Eric Garner was choked to death by a New York policeman back in July 2014. But, Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe” seems to have struck an even deeper chord of hopelessness. “I can’t breathe” is the symbolic cry of a people who feel that the smothering bonds of injustice have nearly snuffed out their hope.

Our nation has symbolically gone from “I have a dream” to “Hands up” to “I can’t breathe.” This might be the moment of holy desperation where we finally realize that the normal resources we draw upon for hope are bankrupt. The challenge of racism in our country cannot be solved by a political solution. The challenge of racism cannot be resolved by a new set of laws. The challenge of racism cannot be resolved by hoping that this whole incident will blow over and we can get back to normal. We, of course, need political courage. We may need new laws. But, none of that will address the depth of this wound. This is the opportunity which summons the church of Jesus Christ to rise up and be the church in the midst of human brokenness. It is the church that proclaims to the world that this is not merely a political problem, or a legal problem, or a problem of some bad cops. This is a heart problem. “This kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting” (Matt. 17:21). The bent knee of Derek Chauvin, as it turns out, is actually a sign for us. It serves as a kind of anti-sacrament. In other words, it was an outward and visible sign of death, rather than the true nature of a sacrament which is an outward and visible sign of a deep spiritual truth.

We have, as a society, been placing our knees on the necks of some of our most vulnerable citizens. It is now time—that moment of holy desperation—where we gather the courage to bend our knees, not in hatred, but in prayer. We need to bend our knees before the living God and cry out for him to change our own hearts. Of course we need to change police protocols. But that is mere window dressing if we do not get to the core problem, which is our own hearts. We need a great awakening in this country. We need a spiritual rebirth. We need to be changed from within. If the truth is told, George Floyd spoke for the whole human race when he said, “I can’t breathe.” There is no life in any of us unless and until we receive the breath of the Lord Jesus giving us new hope for a new birth and a new heart.

Lord, we are at that tipping point of holy desperation.

Was Andrew Cuomo Right When He Said, “God Did Not Do That. We Did That”?

Our hearts go out to the wonderful people of New York City who have been particularly challenged by the COVID-19 crisis. We were all delighted when we heard that New York was finally starting to “flatten the curve.” But, what startled me was Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statement about it. At his daily briefing, he was talking about how New York had flattened the curve and moved beyond the worst part of the crisis. In responding to the falling number of positive COVID-19 cases in New York he said (and this is a quote), “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that. We did that.”

Even by today’s degraded standards, that was a stunning public admission from a sitting governor. It is even more telling considering the strong Christian upbringing of Governor Cuomo. He was baptized as a newborn into the Roman Catholic Church by his faithful Roman Catholic parents (his father Mario was, of course, also the governor of New York). Andrew Cuomo graduated from a Roman Catholic high school named Archbishop Molly High School in Queens. He then went to a Roman Catholic Jesuit university in the Bronx, Fordham University. In short, Cuomo’s entire education has been shaped by the Roman Catholic tradition, and yet he says, “God did not do that. We did that.”

What does this say about how God is understood today? It says that in our day God is just one of many causative actors in the world. There are doctors and nurses and first responders and Jewish rabbis (this is New York), and congressmen/women and the police, and so forth. In the popular mind, God is just one being above all the other beings. Cuomo seems to think that God is the highest being who enters the cultural stage to do the really big things that no one else can do. Therefore, Cuomo reasons since God didn’t seem to show up in the emergency rooms, or labs, but nurses and first responders did, then he means no disrespect when he says, “God did not do that. We did that.” But, God is not competing for space in the great chain of being. God is not a being in the chain of being who is simply above the gnat, the grasshopper, the beaver, the horse, the tiger, the soaring eagle, the lion, and humankind. God is above the chain as the highest being not part of the created chain of being. But God is more than “being” as we understand it, since all of creation is contingent upon his being, whereas God is dependent upon no one.

God is not just a higher being who we insert into the gaps to explain things we can’t explain, or the man upstairs we call in when we find ourselves in over our heads. God is the very ground of all being. He is not just the highest being, he is being itself. He is the Great “I AM.” This is where Wesleyan theology is so rich. We do not view the world with the classic distinction, “We do our part; God does his part.” We do not say, “We do the stuff we can do, and God does the stuff only He can do.” Rather, we say, “Whatever work I am doing, God is at work in and through me.” This frames all of life—all of our hard work, including our Christian work—within the larger framework of God’s grace. To put it bluntly, without Him, nothing happens. All things are upheld by the word of His power! (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17). Even the nails that hung Jesus to the cross were themselves being held together by the word of his power! Whatever we do in life can be beautifully summed up by the words of the prophet Isaiah when he says, “O Lord, it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (Isa. 26:12). That is the biblical view. He accomplishes what we have done. It is His work in and through us, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we know Him or not.

The next time you meet someone who is an atheist and they began to pontificate how they do not believe in God, before you start any defense, ask them first to tell you what they mean by God. What comes out of their mouth will not be the God of biblical revelation, but some shocking caricature formed in the fires of a popular culture that needs a so-called God, which they create out of their own minds and that they can then dismiss as unbelievable. When you hear this, you should say to your atheist friend, “I do not believe in that god either.” We simply do not believe in the caricatured god of popular imaginations. It is the Roman Catholic Bishop and popular writer Robert Barron who pointed out that the modern view of God is a lot like that Russian cosmonaut in the 1960’s who went to space and then famously declared he had looked around and “there is no God out there.” It revealed how tepid and weak the modern understanding of God is. They think He is some being somewhere out there in our solar system. But all gods fashioned out of our minds are known in the Bible as idols. Modern atheism serves the higher purpose of showing us the latest array of idols that the current culture confusingly thinks is God.

Andrew Cuomo was simply stating (without realizing it) that idols did not help flatten the curve in New York. In that sense, Andrew Cuomo was right. The God of his conception did not flatten the curve, because idols cannot flatten New York’s curve, or any other. The deeper question is this: Is Andrew Cuomo, or your atheist friends, or anyone else you meet, interested in knowing the true God who has self-disclosed himself in Holy Scripture? That God is much bigger, and grander, and more glorious than anything they have ever imagined. If any curve is ever flattened, or antidote discovered, it will be by the grace of God working in and through His image-bearers working in the midst of a fallen world.

COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part IV)

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

Despite the fact that it is Holy Week, all the news still seems to be about the coronavirus called COVID-19. Everything else has faded from view. No NCAA tournament, the US election all but forgotten, fights over healthcare, climate change, or the impeachment all seem like distant memories. As Christians, we have to intentionally remind ourselves that this is Holy Week. It is times like this that people throw the problem of evil in our faces. How can God be both all-powerful and all loving? How could a loving God allow something like COVID-19 encircle the world? He must either be not all powerful, or not all loving; he cannot be both.

Scripture has long testified to the twin truths that God is both all loving and all powerful. Psalm 62:11 says, “Once God has spoken, twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love” (emphasis added). In the Hebrew it is oz and hesed—both power and love belong to him. But the psalm goes on to remember the other free agent in the world when it concludes, “for you will render to a man according to his work” (Ps. 62:11–12). Our actions are brought into the picture. The problem of evil is not just about God’s character, it’s about our own: the use of our power and the extension of our own goodness through the image of God and the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit through us.

God’s answer to the problem of evil is not to give us some amazing theological resolution or an intricate philosophical formula. God responds to evil by entering into the world, not in a show of power, but in a show of weakness and vulnerability. That’s the other mystery of God’s power and love. Sometimes his greatest power is manifested in weakness, and sometimes his love allows hard lessons to come our way that we might turn our hearts more fully to him and give up our false idols. In the incarnation, we remember that Jesus became a man and entered into this broken, sinful world. Jesus addresses the root of the problem: us. We are in rebellion against God and the whole world is reeling with groans. Jesus alone has taken on all this sin and pain, evil, and shame. If you want to understand the heart of God in the face of a world trapped by sin, then look into the face of the crucified Jesus. The cross is God’s answer to human pain for Jesus is the only truly innocent sufferer.

He doesn’t give us an answer; he bears it. Holy Week is one long caravan of sin: betrayal, cowardice, indifference, mockery, cruelty, and death, whether seen in Judas or the disciples or the soldiers, or Pilate . . . sin upon sin. Then, there is Easter. Easter Sunday reminds us that Jesus is victorious over all! Easter is God’s final victory over a lost and broken world. It is the risen Lord and the community of those who are called by his name who herald the victory of God over a broken world because we, too, have put our own fingers into the nail scarred hands of the risen one.

COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part III)

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

We are exploring how Christians have tried to resolve the problem of evil in different ways. The Puritans expressed a beautiful truth in their prayers, namely, the fleeting nature of this world. Everything in the world is passing away and every breath we take is a fresh gift from God. Yet, the Puritans were tempted toward determinism and sometimes failed to see that our actions really matter in the world. We are not called to simply be a city set apart, the city on the hill, but we have to wade right out into the world with all of its messiness and contingencies, even into its pain, and act and live with confidence and joy.

The Wesleyan view honors the view that life is fully contingent and every day is a gift from God. God does not owe us any pre-determined length of life (like the seventy, or “by reason of strength,” eighty years of Psalm 90). On the other hand, we believe that God has called us fully to engage in life, serving the poor and preaching the gospel, as long as we do it within the frame of deo volente (God willing). In fact, we believe that God calls some Christians to actively enter those places of disease and death. Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest (1840–1889) felt called by God to minister to the lepers on the Kalaupapa peninsula on one of the islands of Hawaii. He is now one of the two statues Hawaii is permitted to place in the National Statuary in Washington, D.C., just south of the Rotunda. Christians are called to be healthcare workers, to come to the side of dying people, to lay hands on the sick, to stand with bereaved families at the graveside. This is because illness and death is that liminal space in human existence where our transience is made manifest and we stand there as a testimony to the truth that only God is eternal, and that our eternality is only through being united with his eternal life.

We live in a world that regularly testifies to its own brokenness. Towers fall, active shooters shoot, viruses spread, and planes crash into buildings. But we know that someday this world will come to an end, and that the final enemy, known as death, will itself be killed by the eternal power of Jesus Christ. We live in the in-between time of a kingdom fully inaugurated, but not yet fully consummated. So, as it turns out, the problem of evil is more mysterious than we have made it out to be. Traditionally, this conundrum is couched in rather stark terms: If God is all loving, he would not permit evil in the world. If he is all powerful, he would act to stop it. Therefore, God must be either all powerful or all good, but he cannot be both.

To apply it to the coronavirus, it would go something like this: If God really loved us he would not allow COVID-19 to stalk the world and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Since it is stalking the world, either God is not good or he does not have the power to stop it. The problem with this conundrum is that this classic tension pits two attributes within God against one another: his love and his power. However (and this is the point), there is another actor in the world; namely, us, and the world, the flesh, and the devil who are arrayed against us. We have been granted a free will to act in the world God created.

God could have made us all automatons, like mechanical robots who did his every bidding and served him without question. This would have prevented any evil from entering the world, but, as Wesley regularly noted, the goal of salvation is not perfect obedience, but perfect love. You can make someone serve you, but you cannot make someone love you. Love is made possible through free will. Without free will there is no love. Though, the very possibility of love—i.e., the free will embrace of the divine life—also opens the door to the possibility of our rejecting God and disobeying him. The human race, of course, provides countless examples of both. But, we are created to be acting agents in the world.

In the fourteenth-century the Incans made amazing rope bridges, but they could rot and break. So, we have worked together and produced better bridges. That is an important Christian instinct. That is the image of God at work in us and through us. Countless diseases have stalked the world, because the world is broken and fallen. We have developed inoculations against many diseases and I am sure we will find an antidote to COVID-19 as well. Whatever team of scientist produces this will be bearing witness not only to a fallen world, but, whether they acknowledge it or not, to our longing for a healed creation that will only be fully realized in the Eschaton. Paul teaches that sin has “subjected the world to bondage” and, in fact, he says that “the whole creation is groaning . . . up until the present time” (Rom. 8:20–22). Apart from sin there would be no murders, terrorists, viruses, or any other signs that we live in a broken world. Meanwhile, we groan.

Holy Week is a week for groaning. We should feel deep within our being the brokenness of this world. We shouldn’t allow our anticipation of Easter rob us of really feeling the bitter gall of this world, and having the patience to walk through it. We are all walking through a particularly challenging time right now, but we must keep on walking. There is no pathway to Easter Sunday except through the cross.

COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part II)

Read Part I here.

Don’t you feel like you were living on planet Earth and one day you woke up and looked out and found that you were no longer on Earth, but on planet COVID? There are many things about this new planet which are familiar. Our family is here, most of our jobs are still recognizable, and the day is still twenty-four hours long. But, the rules of engagement are all different and everything around us feels toxic and we are trying to adjust to this new planet. In the same way, we are accustomed to walking through Holy Week with certain standard protocols. Maybe it is the stations of the cross, or the beautiful and moving Tenebrae service, or the Easter morning church-wide pancake breakfast. Suddenly, everything is changed. This is how we need to reflect more deeply on the COVID-19 virus, because it has been disruptive and has caused us to think more deeply about the problem of evil.

The church, in reflecting on natural disasters, whether a collapsed tower, a bridge that falls, or a virus that spreads across the world tends to inhabit two different mind-sets. On the one hand, there are Christians who emphasize that every day is a fresh gift from God and we have no claim on tomorrow. So, right out of the chute, this view points out that we can never say things like “their life was cut short” or they died an “untimely death,” because God only gives us our lives one day at time, there is no promise for tomorrow, and, therefore, you have not been robbed if you don’t live to see tomorrow. If you read the classic collection of the prayers of the Puritans known as The Valley of Vision, you will readily see this perspective. They faced intense persecution and martyrdom for their non-conformist faith. They regularly experienced, like all people before the days of modern medicine, the natural disaster of a very high birth mortality rate. In the face of this, they regularly remember in their prayers that each day is a gift from God and it is God’s prerogative to call any of us home on any given day. On the other hand, there are Christians who have emphasized the power of God to providentially protect Christians from harm and to preserve their life in the midst of these kinds of disasters. In its most extreme forms, this view holds that if we have sufficient faith, then God will protect us and any untimely death is robbing us of the full inheritance of life that is ours. This view is reflected in a wide range of popular Christian movements around the world and has been powerfully documented by Kate Bowler in her book Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. This theology is not only found in the United States, but in a wide range of movements throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Many of the proponents of this view have enjoyed a wide dissemination of their views through the medium of television.

The Wesleyan perspective on this, as I understand it, sees some truth in both views, but also offers a significant critique of both. On the one hand, however distorted and sometimes misguided the prosperity gospel can be, it is a reaction to a God-is-distant-and-remote view, which functions as kind of practical deism. This is a true error that also inflicts the church, but is often not so readily named. In fact, God does protect his people, and our bodies are part of the atonement covered by Christ. God can and does heal people in response to prayer. We can and should pray for the healing of those who are ill, including cancer, those who have contracted COVID-19 and any other ailment that may inflict us. We should not be passive or, in its worst form, fatalistic about life. Belief in the sovereignty of God should never be translated into some kind of raw determinism about your life. It is true that James exhorts us to not say, “today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money” (James 4:13). This is one of the texts which does emphasize that we have no guarantee for tomorrow. We also recall Jesus’ parable about the Rich Fool (Luke 12:15–21) who foolishly believed that his wealth would guarantee him prosperity and security. But, James does not say that we should not go to a city and spend a year there and try to make money. The text goes on to say that if we do make plans we should make them with the important addition “if God wills.” In other words, we are not to inhabit the world of Islam—en shallah—“if Allah wills,” but understood as an expression of fatalism. This is not the Christian view. We are encouraged to joyfully and actively engage the world, make plans, establish goals, pursue dreams, but always do everything within the larger frame of God’s purposes and will. God may call me home today, but, in the meantime, if God wills, I am to joyfully engage in my life as president of Asbury Theological Seminary.

I plan on being present at Asbury’s 100th anniversary in 2023, if God wills. My body has been secured by the atonement, and my healing and wholeness has been purchased by the atonement of Christ, but (and this is the fatal flaw of the prosperity gospel) his promise is mysteriously embedded in both the present and the future. He may choose to heal me today. But, even if he does not, I know, and every Christian should know, that there is no disease in the new creation. There is no coronavirus in the presence of God. Someday, he will raise up all of our bodies and give us resurrection bodies. So, yes, God heals. But, some he heals instantly or gradually in the present, but even if he does not heal us in this life, we will all be healed in the resurrection. So, speaking theologically, the error of the prosperity gospel is not in their confidence in the healing power of God; it is in an overly realized eschatology that insists that the only true sign of that power, or our faith, is if God heals us right now in this present world.

COVID-19 and Easter Sunday (Part I)

I remember the exact point when I fell in love with literature. Even as a small child I loved to read. Whenever I had a spare minute, my mother tells me she would find me curled up in a corner reading a book. But it was in 1972 (when I was thirteen years old) that I really fell in love with literature. My parents had given me a copy of Thornton Wilder’s classic novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, first published in 1927 and a best-seller ever since. It was like no other book I had ever read. I wouldn’t have understood it as a thirteen-year-old, but the book is actually about the problem of evil.

The fictional story takes place in Peru in the year 1714. There was a long rope bridge that stretched across a canyon. It had been woven together years before by the Incas. At noon on July 20, 1714, five people were crossing the rope bridge when it suddenly broke sending all five down the canyon and to their deaths. This horrible tragedy was witnessed by a Franciscan friar named Brother Juniper. He wonders why those five people were on the bridge at that particular time. There were several who were just a few feet from stepping onto the bridge when it broke, and several others who had just completed the crossing seconds before it broke. Why were those saved and the others lost? Brother Juniper spends six years interviewing everyone he could find who knew those five people, trying to discern some underlying reason or theme which would make sense of this tragedy. But, there was no common thread. Some were godly people, some were not; some were rich, others not; some were beloved, others, not so much, etc. Without giving away the plot, let me just say that Brother Juniper struggles in finding a satisfying answer.

The novel has come back to me in recent days as the coronavirus has swept across our nation and the world. It is amazing that the peak of the death toll will, more or less, hit during Holy Week. Daily stories pour in about the people who have died. We are now told that the number of dead just in the USA, even with complete adherence to stay-at-home orders and social distancing will be around 100,000 people, perhaps more. There are already quite a few examples of devout Christians who have died from COVID-19. There will surely be countless Christians who will someday praise God because they never caught it.

There are many examples of active shooters—like at Columbine or Sandy Hook—where multiple people are killed, but several close by were left unharmed. Why did those die and not the others? I have a friend from Boston who took American Airlines Flight 11 on the same day and time every week for his work, which took him to California each week. It was American Airlines Flight 11 that was that tragic flight Muhammad Atta hijacked and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center killing all passengers and crew. The day of that flight my friend got up and wasn’t feeling well and decided at the last minute to take a later flight to California. That decision saved his life. He asked, “Why me?” What about those who boarded the plane that day? Why were they not spared?

These kinds of experiences raise deep questions. The church has always struggled to know exactly how to respond because there is a mystery to all of this which cannot be resolved. Brother Juniper learned that in the novel.

Jesus himself addressed a situation like this in Luke 13. There was a tower in a neighborhood on the south side of Jerusalem known as the Tower of Siloam. It unexpectedly collapsed and eighteen people were killed. Jesus clearly states that those who died in the tower that day were not “worse offenders” than others who lived in Jerusalem. But, he uses the tragedy as a general call for all people to repent. What can we learn from this? First, we know that the collapse of the Tower of Siloam was not a sign of God’s particular judgment against those particular eighteen people. Second, we learn that all people need to be mindful of the brevity of life and Jesus himself reminds us of the importance to live each day with an attitude of repentance and humility. Tomorrow, we will continue this reflection as we walk through Holy Week together and move closer to Easter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reflections on the Proposed Protocol for Separation (Part V)

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

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

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

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

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

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