Honoring the Past. Forging the Future. Happy 90th Birthday Asbury Theological Seminary

In 1923 the Lord used Henry Clay Morrison to establish a school committed to spreading scriptural holiness throughout the world. From the outset it was clear that Asbury was not birthed to become merely another institution of higher learning that would grace the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education. Nor was Asbury established to be only a graduate theological institution, as noble of an endeavor as that may be. It was clear from the beginning that Asbury Theological Seminary was the birthing of a great Wesleyan vision. From our humble beginnings we were always enlivened by a mission that could not be completely captured by the word “education” alone. We were committed to sending forth Spirit-filled and sanctified men and women to the ends of the earth. We were both academy and church… we were both steeple and scroll… we were sound learning and vital piety… we were head and heart… we were mind and will… we were reflective scholarship and active mission… Never as two separate things…but as one grand integrated vision.

This is why H. C. Morrison, with only three students and a great vision, set the founding motto of the seminary as “The whole Bible for the whole world.” Yes, Asbury is a grand Wesleyan vision. Asbury is a God-sized, globally focused, biblically based, Wesleyan inspired vision of academic training and formation in holiness which 90 years later has not lost its sense of purpose and vitality.

Praise the Lord!

If you know anything about the history of graduate theological education in North America this is, in itself, one of the greatest miracles of all. This is not to say that we have not had our share of dark moments and difficult trials. But, even our greatest trials were shaping our vision in and through the cross of Jesus Christ and showing us anew the power of redemptive suffering, the urgency of prayerful dependence, the vitality of godly scholarship, and doing all of this by growing more and more into the grace of a joyful, generous community of faith and learning.

Tonight we stand one decade from 2023 and the 100th anniversary of Asbury Theological Seminary. We have a great and decisive decade ahead of us. In the decade ahead we will discover new ways to declare that “the world is our parish” as we train men and women from the ends of the earth and as professors from across the world stand in these hallowed halls to teach our students. In the decade ahead, we will grapple more fully with the reality that we live in a world where information flows horizontally, not vertically. The internet has fundamentally changed the way information flows throughout the world, and seminaries are not exempt from these forces of change. Every denomination that requires the MDiv is in decline and the profile of the pool of potential students is in a rapid state of change. In the decade ahead we must grapple with the growing reality that North America is one of the fastest growing mission fields in the world, even as we are simultaneously experiencing an exponential growth in Hispanic and Chinese and Korean and a host of other new church movements right here in N. America.

All of this requires fresh initiatives in evangelism, church planting and leadership development not seen since the days of Francis Asbury. But, as President of Asbury Theological Seminary, I want to say to every person here tonight: Asbury Theological Seminary is up to the challenge. I ask you, can Asbury advance its founding mission even when the church is global and the world is flat? I ask you, can Asbury advance its founding mission in the world of Google, Twitter, Facebook, iPhones, iPads and YouTube? I ask you, can Asbury advance its founding mission even when the church in N. America has mostly lost its courage and the Devil is roaring? The answer is yes, because God is still on the throne! The answer is yes because God has not lifted His divine anointing from this institution. The answer is yes because the gospel is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes! The answer is yes because never before has the world been in greater need of scriptural holiness than the broken world we live in. The answer is yes because we have always believed that the even the greatest No of the world is swallowed up in the greater Yes of Jesus Christ. The answer is yes because, as John Wesley said in his dying words, “The best of all, God is with us! Amen.

[This address was delivered on May 20, 2013, by Timothy C. Tennent on the Kentucky campus of Asbury Theological Seminary in celebration of the 90th anniversary of the founding of Asbury Theological Seminary.]

Psalm 87: Anomalous or Apostolic

Psalm 87 (see below) may strike a first time reader as an odd psalm. Why would an entire psalm be dedicated to people from various forgotten nations like Rhab (a name for Egypt), Babylon, Philistia, Tyre and Cush? Furthermore, why would they be found boasting that they were “born in Zion” as declared in verses 4, 5 and 6 of the Psalm?

We must understand that these nations represent the enemies of Israel. It is an early declaration that God’s global purposes will someday include “every tribe, language and nation” (Rev. 7:9). In one stroke the seven verses of this single Psalm demolish the widely held notion that the Old Testament is only about Israel or that the people of God in those days had a very narrow, parochial view of God’s wider redemptive purposes and that we must patiently wait for the New Testament to show us God’s deeper plan. God’s global purpose is revealed from the beginning of the covenant in Genesis 12:3 when he promises to “bless all nations.”

Zion here is symbolic of what it means to be counted among those embraced by the covenantal, redemptive love of God! He is the fountain of life for all nations and all people. This is why, we sing, even now, with the nations of the world that “all my fountains are in You!” (vs. 7). What would happen if next Sunday your church were to praise God for the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan and Chechnya – because God has redemptive plans for all the peoples of the world!

1 He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
2 The Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.
3 Glorious things are said of you,
city of God:
4 “I will record Rahab and Babylon
among those who acknowledge me—
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush—
and will say, ‘This one was born in Zion.’”
5 Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
“This one and that one were born in her,
and the Most High himself will establish her.”
6 The Lord will write in the register of the peoples:
“This one was born in Zion.”
7 As they make music they will sing,
“All my fountains are in you.”

The Voice of Anselm Rises again

Anselm was a well known 11th century Benedictine monk who has mostly been forgotten by the contemporary church.  He was the Archbishop of Canterbury and was known for his courage.  His ministry was marked by many conflicts with the power brokers of his day as he insisted on the truth of the gospel.  He was also known for his great theological mind.

I would like to focus on Anselm’s argument for the existence of God.  Today the church is standing against a headwind of atheism.  This wind of atheism cannot last long because it has no foundation and offers no positive vision.  Nevertheless, the gusts of atheism do kick up from time to time and, tragically, slay thousands in their path.

Anselm’s ontological argument is powerful by virtue of its simplicity.  If God exists, Anselm reasoned, then He is the source of our life and capacity to think.  Therefore, it would be impossible for us to think of a God greater than the one who actually does, in fact, exist.  Therefore God is “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.”   Anselm’s argument came back to me this week when I was reminded of an outspoken atheist named Bobby Henderson who a few years ago introduced what he called the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” religion as a parody against all religions.

Henderson’s basic point was that because it is impossible to prove that God exists, then, equally, no one could disprove his counter claim that the world was actually created by the great Flying Spaghetti Monster.  This, inevitably led Bobby Henderson to found the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and a religion known as, you guessed it, pastafarianism.  However, the Flying Spaghetti Monster has exercised no redemptive acts, and by Henderson’s own account, exists only inside his head.

It wouldn’t take even an elementary school child five minutes to “think” of a dozen ways that the God of their deepest longings and hopes is greater than the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  So, if Bobby Henderson wants to “invent” a God, he at least should stretch the limits of his own imagination.  For indeed, the God of Biblical revelation is truly beyond even our greatest conception of him.  This God is not only attested through Scripture, but through countless ages in the lives of those who have been transformed as well as those who have been eyewitnesses of his majesty.  This is, after all, transfiguration Sunday.

Thanks, Anselm, you have reminded all the jaded 21st century cynics that even the mind of Bobby Henderson testifies against his own argument.

Charge to December 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

From the iconic Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz we learn afresh of the importance of courage.  Who can forget those memorable words, “what makes the muskrat guard his musk?  What makes the Hottentot so hot, or put the “ape” in apricot? Courage.

Like the Lion, we may feel we’re not very courageous, but with God’s help we can be women and men of great courage and boldness tempered with honest, “truth-telling” humility.

There are few traits more needed by pastors and full time Christian workers today than that of courage.  As the church in the West moves from the warm “high noon” light of Christian cultural consensus, to the long “sunset” shadows of post-Christendom, it is easy to lose one’s courage – the moral nerve to stand with Christ and the gospel.  We would much rather occupy the cultural center than the prophetic margins.  It takes courage to announce the gospel even as it is being decried as outrageous and offensive.  We live in a society enmeshed in deep spiritual and moral chaos.  It takes enormous patience and courage to lead someone from the gutter of despair to the high road of holiness, through the power of the gospel.  It takes courage to confess Christ when even big swaths of the church have lost the patience to listen to him.  It takes courage to preach the whole gospel, not just the warm, fuzzy bits.  It takes courage to preach Christ, and not ourselves.  It takes courage to stand firm on the Word of God, when the prevailing winds of culture are blowing hard in your face.

The redemption of the world is hard, toilsome work and God has decided to not redeem the world without us.  So, December 2012 graduates:  go forth as men and women of courage!   Preach the Word with courage!  Pray with Courage.  Love with Courage.  Serve with courage.  Be courageous in your life of holiness.

There is a day in Wesley’s journal where he gets up in the morning and he preaches to a group while loud mocking noises and jeers are going on around him.  He travels on to the next stop, but before he finishes preaching he is pelted with stones and run out of town.  On his third stop he preaches, but some opponents let their animals loose which dispersed the crowd and caused a great commotion.  His final stop that day was an evening service where several thousand people gathered and the Spirit’s presence was sweet and powerful as God did his work, hundreds responding to the gospel.  It took a lot of courage for Wesley to get through that day.  You are going to have days like that.

It was the great 16th century Reformer Martin Luther who once said, “If I confess with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God, except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.  Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all other battlefields besides is mere flight and disgrace if you flinch at that point.”

Courage.  Go forth with courage, class of 2012, and don’t give the Devil a chink of light.

Why The Church Is So Concerned With Same-Sex Marriage and Homosexual Ordination

I occasionally hear someone make the case that evangelicals have invested far too much energy fighting against same sex marriage and the ordaining of homosexuals as pastors in the church.  There are some who have become convinced by weak exegesis and, feeling the winds of culture blowing, have convinced themselves that the Bible doesn’t actually condemn homosexual behavior.  Texts such as Genesis 19:1-11 and Lev. 18:22; 20:13 and Judges 19:11-24 and Romans 1:18-32 and I Corinthians 6:9-11 and I Timothy 1:8-10 and Jude 7, not to mention texts like Matthew 19:4-6 where Jesus himself clearly teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman, are all swept aside with some version of the question, “hath God truly said…?”   This is, of course, the well trodden response which first appears in Genesis 3:1 and has been a favorite wedge of the enemy against God’s Word.  I do believe that evangelicals must become more devoted readers of the Scriptures and less susceptible to specious arguments which erode thousands of years of faithful Jewish- Christian teaching.   But, I will need to devote more time in some future blog to address this problem.   In this blog I want to make a point of clarification about those who may agree that homosexual practice is wrong, but wonder why the church seems to be focused on this particular sin and not others.

Why, they argue, do we not seem to exhibit the same kind of righteous indignation against embezzlers or liars or landlords who oppress the poor, as we do against homosexual behavior?   Why, they go on to insist, do we single out this one sin when there are so many others sins we could – and should – oppose?  From this perspective, it seems like the church is doing the ecclesiastical equivalent of a “pile on.”

It is absolutely true that the church must take a stand against all manner of sin, whether it be shoplifting or rape.  All sin is, at its root, an expression of rebellion against God.  Therefore, the church must stand against anything which stands in opposition to His righteous rule and reign.  I think that sexual brokenness runs so deep in our culture that every pastor should take time to regularly address a whole host of issues along the “sexual brokenness” continuum, including pre-marital sex, fornication, adultery, pornography viewing, misogyny, etc.

However, the reason the issue of homosexuality has been highlighted so much in recent years is not, as is often said, because this sin is being singled out from all the others.  Rather, it is because this particular sin is seeking to be legitimized as normative in the life and experience of the church.  I expect the wider secular culture to embrace homosexuality as normative and, indeed, to be regularly bewildered by the strangeness of Christian teaching.  The point is, no one in the church has sought to promote the ordination of openly practicing adulterers or to legitimize the practice of usury.  If there was a movement among us to ordain oppressive landlords or habitual shoplifters, then I suspect that these issues would be regularly discussed as well.  No Christian is now saying that usury is a good thing, or that Christians should no longer consider it important to visit prisoners, or help widows in their distress.  However, we do have bishops who are telling the church that it is now permissible for someone to sodomize their neighbor.   The result is an attempt to legitimize homosexuality and same sex marriage, moving it from the “sin” category to the “sacrament” category.

So, to put in plainly, the church would rather not focus time and energy on homosexuality.   We actually don’t believe that homosexual practice carries a heavier moral weight than a whole range of other sins.  However, any attempt to relocate any sin from the New Testament “sin lists” to the celebrative, normative list must be addressed because it strikes at the heart of the gospel itself.

Missional Leaders for the Church

Demographics don’t lie, you just have to be willing to listen to them. For example, if China has 90 million believers, but the vast majority of those believers are under 30 years old and the United States has 90 million evangelicals and the majority of those are over 50, then there is a demographic story that is not “heard” when one is looking at the raw statistics of Christian affiliation.

The USA is one of the fastest emerging mission fields in the world, but Christians probably won’t “feel” it for another 20 years.  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA the more likely one will question the knowability of truth.  This means a likely rejection of anything that might be described as divine, objective revelation.  The loss of confidence in human reason is almost palatable.  The language of “I think” has moved to the language of “I feel” which is quickly moving to the language of“whatever.”  The younger the Anglo demographic in the USA, the more likely you are to discover a distrust of authority, institutions and, indeed, of all hierarchies. This includes a deep distrust in government, in churches and in church structures, including clergy. It also includes a rejection of any kind of metaphysical hierarchy which posits God as the sovereign Lord over His created order.

The younger the person, especially if they are white, the more likely one will find a growing skepticism about the reliability and trustworthiness of historical narratives. History is viewed as hopelessly mired in flawed and biased, agenda pushing perspectives which cloud any possibility of objectivity. Thus, all historical accounts  – whether the iconic account of George Washington crossing the Delaware River, or St. Luke writing his gospel, now lay beneath a new layer of skepticism and historical cynicism. According to quite a few Millennials, Bart Erhman and Dan Brown may have as much a bead on historicity as St. Luke and St. Paul.

On top of all this, we should not forget the gnawing loss of confidence in the inevitability of human progress, a belief cherished since the Enlightenment. The generation now in their twenties is the first in the modern period to not end their careers “better off” than their parents.  They will have less purchasing power, less post-retirement security and a shorter life expectancy (by as much as five years) than their parents.  This is the first backwards shift in life expectancy in the modern period. If you are under 25 years old you will almost surely live to see the day when the most Christian countries in the world will be China and India, whereas it will be quite difficult to find Anglo Christians in the pacific northwest. By 2050 the United States will probably have 329 million Christians (more than any country on earth) but the demographic of that Christian will be increasingly Hispanic, Korean, Chinese or India, and far less white Anglos of European descent.

These demographic facts are not easy to accept.  It is much easier to turn up the volume on our latest Christian CD, point to the hundreds of cars in mega-church parking lots, or pick up the latest Christian romance novel, rather than soberly face the fact that we are not passing the faith down to the next generation.   What should we do?  Here are three suggestions.

1.  Your church should plant at least two ethnic, non-Anglo churches in the next decade.  If you are in a major urban center, you will need to plant four.  This does not necessarily imply purchasing land and building buildings.  It may be as simple as starting a new service at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday focused on a nearby Korean or Hispanic populations.

2.  You must introduce rigorous catechesis for all members, young and old, enquiring and established.  We must re-teach the historic faith to this generation with a special eye to interacting with key objections and misunderstandings which are prevalent in our society.   Every pastor should insist on a course no less than six weeks long which introduces the candidate to the faith (historically, doctrinally and experientially).  After baptism, even more instruction, discipleship, and mentoring should follow, which brings people more fully into what it means to be a member of the church.  Incorporating members into small group discipleship settings must be the norm, not the exception.

3.  Evangelism must be at the heart of the church’s life.  The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news.  I will let others speak for their own denomination, but one of the most striking observations I have made of my own denomination (United Methodism) is how confused and inconsistent and muddled the whole thing is.  Enormous energy is spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers.  But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness.  I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least twelve years before we see the tide turned. Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowing coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But, the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.   Let me say it as clear as I can:  There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.   Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead.  This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.  We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age.

So, let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work, shall we?

 

My Charge to the 2012 Graduates of Asbury Theological Seminary

We live in a world which if it were reduced to a jar with a label on it, that label would probably include the word impossible.  We live at a time when almost everything around us is framed by impossibilities…

●  Peace among Israelis and Palestinians…impossible
●  An America where the threat of terrorism is a distant memory…impossible
●  A congress where Democrats and Republicans engage in healthy, respectful dialogue and work collaboratively across the aisle for the good of America…. impossible
●  A world marked by cultural stability where it is safe to walk the streets at night and crime is low…impossible
●  A society where a man and a woman in their twenties with their whole lives in front of them, stand at the altar of a church and pledge their entire lives to one another – to be faithful until death separates them – and actually do it… I’m afraid too many people would say, nah, …impossible

Most people live in a world of impossibilities… As Thoreau put it we live “lives of quiet desperation.”  Hope is low…expectations are lower… suspicion reigns…cynicism is on the throne…and truth itself is on the scaffold.

Yet, here you are, graduates, poised on this day to go out into this very world framed by such impossibilities.  I charge you, therefore, class of 2012, to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is what transforms the impossible into the possible.  Indeed, it is the incarnation and the resurrection of Jesus Christ which totally reframes the world and all of human history.  It is these two great singularities – incarnation and resurrection – which reframe a world of despair and cynicism into the larger frame of hope and promise.  This old creation is broken and wounded, but you know that the New Creation is already breaking in!  You are its heralds and ambassadors. You are capable of thinking thoughts that the world cannot think.  You are capable of sacrificial acts which the world cannot fathom.  You are capable of dreaming dreams in a world that only knows ever-maddening nightmares.  You can think about possibilities.

The whole ministry of Jesus was framed by impossibilities…incarnation and resurrection…a virgin birth and an empty tomb.  Someone once said, Jesus came into the world through a door marked “no entrance,” a virgin womb.  He left through a door marked “no exit”, a tomb of death.  Two great impossibilities made possible in Jesus Christ. Nobody had ever walked through those doors before.   In Jesus Christ, the world’s greatest impossibilities are made into possibilities.

Graduates, you would have under-heard the gospel if you believed that the incarnation and the resurrection are mere isolated historical events.  They are historical events, but they serve to re-frame and re-order the whole of human history even today.

You can go out into this world and in Jesus Christ see the impossible made possible.  You can work for peace, because the prince of peace is the Risen and Ascended Lord.  You can re-engage in government and live free of bitterness and cynicism, because the government rests on his shoulders.  You can wage holy war against crime, because God’s love for the world is always greater than Satan’s hate of it.  You can boldly rescue men, women, and children from human trafficking, and the downward spiral of drug addiction because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and all those who dwell therein.”  You can sit with husbands and wives who walk into your office and say “we have given up, our marriage has no hope.”  And you can say, without blinking, God still has the last word in your relationship.  You can preach the gospel to lost sinners and believe afresh in the power of God’s redemption because the cross is still the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes.  I charge you to go forth as ambassadors of hope!  Do not get caught in the net of despair.  Do not get trapped in the web of cynicism.  Do not get swallowed up by all the impossibilities.  Instead, be in Christ, where all impossibilities can be reframed by the hope of Jesus Christ.

 

General Conference and the Future of the United Methodist Church

In a matter of days delegates from all over the USA and the world will be arriving for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This gathering, occurring only once every four years, is intended to be a time of “holy conferencing” where the church focuses on theological, organizational, procedural and strategic matters so that the church might more faithfully serve Christ in the world. The last general conference which was characterized by a fresh wind of hope and optimism was the 1968 “uniting” conference held in Dallas, Texas which brought the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church.  The eleven general conferences since then (1972 until 2012) have been characterized by an increasing sense of despair and doom.  After all, 1968 was the last time the Methodist movement posted a net growth in membership.

We were once a powerful evangelistic movement.  Now, we are forever searching for new ways to manage our decline.  Endless studies and reports and commissions and re-structuring and new slogans (Open hearts, open minds, open doors) have ensued over the years.  None of these well intentioned initiatives have halted – or even really understood – the nature of this decline.  It will probably take a least three more cycles of general conferences before the following suggestions can be heard.  Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions to consider:

First, the University Senate of the United Methodist Church must insist that all United Methodist Seminaries (official and approved) embody a truly Wesleyan ethos and theology which is faithful to our history.  If you take time (as I have on many occasions) to talk to the pastors and lay people within the larger family of the Wesleyan tradition (e.g. United Methodist, Wesleyan church, Free Methodist, Nazarene, etc.) you will quickly discover that the United Methodist pastors and lay people are the least familiar with the core theological perspectives of John Wesley, including prevenient grace, sanctification, holiness, etc…  Most United Methodist Churches must reclaim what it means to be a Methodist church.  This begins in Seminary training and then must be reinforced in the life of the church.  Millions of dollars from the MEF fund goes to fund United Methodist Seminaries (Just for the record, not a penny goes to Asbury) without any concomitant insistence that the “product” of these seminaries is formed by a Wesleyan perspective.

Second, the bishops must certify that all pastors are historically orthodox.  It is essential that we remember that Methodism is a part of the great stream of historic Christian confession.  We resonate with Christians all over the world in our confession of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  We have permitted far too much doctrinal latitude within the church.  Men and women pastors who, for example, can no longer affirm the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and so forth should not be permitted to continue as ordained clergy.   We shouldn’t forget that Church discipline is one of the three historic marks of the church.

Third, the Seminaries who train United Methodist clergy must reclaim biblical preaching.  We were once known for powerful, biblical preaching.  Today it is not uncommon to sit in a Methodist church and hear very weak sermons.  They are weak theologically, intellectually, biblically and homiletically.  They are often based on bland moralizing and a few cute stories, but not the kind of robust Christianity of the New Testament which is powerfully proclaimed, intellectually compelling, theologically sound and biblically rooted.  Having spent most of my life in theological education, I am convinced that students can be trained to preach and teach well.

Fourth, United Methodist churches across the nation must learn how to engage a post-Christian culture. The Millennial generation self identifies as approximately 7% Christian.  This is only 2% from being eligible to be classified as an unreached people-group.  This means that all churches in North America must regain their missional footing.  We are a people on a mission.  North America is the fastest growing mission field in the world.  This, of course, involves social action, healing, evangelism, apologetics, radical service and much, much more.   But, we can no longer assume that we are at the center of Western culture.  We are now on the margins prophetically helping this new generation imagine the even greater realities of the inbreaking kingdom.

Finally, we must be a people of prayer and repentance.  The true church is always characterized by prayer and a spirit of repentance.  We have not been faithful to God.  We need His grace in our midst.  I was in Costa Rica in December and had the privilege of preaching at a general conference of all the Methodist pastors, District Superintendents and the bishop (Bishop Palomo).  It was truly inspiring to see all these men and women on their faces before God weeping for the sins of their nation, asking God to have mercy on his church.  I witnessed Bishop Palomo moving from pastor to pastor, praying for them and anointing them for renewed ministry.  I felt like I was in the middle of a movement again – it was the 18th century all over again, but in Costa Rica.

Return to our roots, remember the gospel, re-engage the world and stay on our knees – that is the simplest advice for the delegates of the General Conference to remember as they engage in the “holy conferencing” in Tampa, Florida.  It may be a few more years before the wider church can hear this, but keep planting those seed!   Let’s prepare for renewal today.  I, for one, have not lost hope.  Let’s expect God to do, as He did in Ezekiel’s day, a great miracle by breathing His life into these dead bones again.

Jesus Christ is Risen! An Examination of Creeds and Confessions

As we celebrate Easter we are all reminded afresh about what lies at the heart of Christian faith; namely, that Jesus Christ bodily rose from the dead, triumphing over evil, sin and death.  St. Paul declares that if Jesus Christ is not risen we are still in our sins and our preaching is useless (I Cor. 15:12-20).  This is why it is so important that Christians regularly confess the historic creeds of the faith (Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).  These creeds remind us of the heart of the Christian faith. I am amazed at the quiet disappearance of Creeds in many worship services today.

To see the value of a creed we must first understand the difference between a creed and a confession of faith.  A creed is a historic declaration of the faith which unites all Christians throughout the world and across the annals of time. It is, if I can use the word, an ecumenical statement, i.e. it is for the whole “house of faith.”  A confession of faith, on the other hand, may emphasize certain beliefs that a particular group of Christians want to emphasize but does not unite the whole house of faith.

Take, for example, the collections at the back of the United Methodist hymnal.  The UMC hymnal has nine “confessions” all under the general heading “Affirmations of Faith.”  What follows, more precisely, are the two creeds (Nicene and Apostles), four confessions of faith (United Church of Canada, Korean Methodist church, a Modern affirmation and the World Methodist Social Affirmation), and, finally, there are three affirmations from three passages of Scripture (from Romans 8, Colossians 1 and I Timothy).  It is rather unfortunate that no explanation is given as to the vital differences between these.

The United Church of Canada statement has a rather vague statement of the incarnation, is not explicitly Trinitarian, and totally omits the ascension of Jesus Christ.  The Korean Methodist church statement boldly confesses that Jesus Christ is the “redeemer and savior of the world” but curiously omits the crucifixion of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, and the ascension of Christ.  It would be hard to reconstruct the meta-narrative of the New Testament if one only had the Korean Methodist Church statement. The Modern Affirmation likewise omits the crucifixion, resurrection and the ascension of Christ.  The World Methodist Social Affirmation confuses the two uses of the word “confession.”  It begins as a “confession” meaning a declaration of faith, but then drifts into a “confession”  about how we have not lived up to the truth of the gospel through our sin, violation of human dignity, exploitation of people, etc.  It is, of course, a good thing to confess our sins publicly (see earlier blogs on this point), but a confession of faith is supposed to be about what He has done, not what we have not done.  The Scriptural affirmations are, of course, wonderful and should be used in public worship.  We need more Scripture read, not less.

Thus, my word of advice on this collection at the back of the United Methodist Hymnal is that United Methodist churches should politely avoid using any of the four confessions in public worship.  They are simply too weak theologically to sustain the faith of the church and they do not unite us with the church throughout the world and back in time. Instead, we should include as a normal component of worship a creed, Nicene or Apostles, or a Scriptural affirmation (Romans 8, Colossians 1, or 1Timothy).

When does a church cease to be Christian? Timothy C. Tennent

I have always appreciated the wonderful way in which historic Christianity is able to simultaneously embrace universality and particularity.  One the one hand, the great truths of the faith are embraced and proclaimed by all major Christian bodies.  The kerygma can be heard and recognized in movements as varied as house-church movements in China, African Independent Churches, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Pentecostal churches.  This is known as the great semper ubique ab omnibus – the faith which is confessed and proclaimed “always, everywhere by everyone.”  On the other hand, the Christian church is marked by amazing particularity.  There are beliefs, practices and emphases which are peculiar to Quakers or Presbyterians or Roman Catholics, and so forth.   Often, we tend to emphasize our differences more than our catholicity.  There are quite a few unresolved tensions in the faith which tend to be reflected in various ways by Christian movements, but this should not obscure the great unanimity of Christian proclamation.  The fact that all branches of the church have embraced the Nicene Creed, for example, reflects a deep and abiding sensus communis of the church which must be acknowledged before we discuss the particularities of being a Methodist, Lutheran or a Baptist.  It is this deep unity which is so important to recognize.  We simply do not have the authority to adopt any theological position and continue to call ourselves an expression of the Christian faith.  This is why we have the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  It represents the boundaries which define and mark out Christian identity.   If you study church history you will begin to hear that great shared resonance throughout the history of the church which has always affirmed the centrality of Christ, the authority of Scripture and the great saving power of the Christian gospel.  When the church strays from that – as it has done many times – the church begins to lose its power and it begins to wither and die.  Over time, God faithfully raises up better hearers of the gospel and the church is renewed once again.  This process has happened time and time again in the history of the church.

It is true, of course, that the church has not always been in unanimity as to the best way to defend the boundaries of the Church.  Some churches have tended to defend the common experience of being a Christian and living the Christian life in the midst of the world.  Other times, the church has tended to defend the institutional character of the church.  In other places it is the sacraments which must be protected, and serve as the historic link back to Christ and the original apostles.  Still other times, the church has focused on isolated doctrinal expressions.  However, we must not confuse the outposts which defend the borders (whether experiential or doctrinal or institutional or sacramental) with the core itself.  Despite the differences in how the church stays connected to the head, there is unanimity on the common worship of Jesus Christ and His Headship as defined by the Council of Nicea.  Thus, any expression of the church which ceases to worship Jesus Christ and identify Christ as its head as reflected in Nicean Christology has crossed the boundaries and ceases to be the true church.

One of the most important responsibilities of Christian leaders, whether pastors or superintendents or bishops is to make certain that the churches under their care are, in fact, expressions of Christian identity.  This is why it is so distressing to visit the website of St. Paul UMC in Denver.  Their website identifies the “church” as a “United Methodist, Reconciling, and Buddhist Christian InterSpiritual Community.”  Their “statement of faith” proclaims such affirmations as “We believe that love and compassion are the essence of Spirit,” and “We nurture the Sacred within us all.”

It is clear from many of the statements on the website that the members of this group have abandoned Nicea and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.  From my perspective, they are perfectly free to meet together and believe or not believe whatever they want.  However, they must have the courage to remove the phrases “United Methodist” and “Christian” from their name, website and public identity.  Of course, St. Paul UMC is not an isolated situation.  This is merely an example of dozens of such groups across the country who have abandoned Nicea but persistently want to hang on to their identity as “Christian.”

I can only echo the words of Grace Buford, a practicing Buddhist, who remarked, “If they are so taken by Buddhism, why do they hang on to Christianity?”