4 Things United Methodists can learn from the Episcopal Church

Asbury Theological Seminary had the recent honor of hosting Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).  He preached in historic Estes Chapel from the book of Esther and reminded us all that Haaman’s gallows are being built for all those who stand for righteousness, but we have been called to persevere and to be faithful for “such a time as this.”

For decades we all have witnessed the slow and demoralizing decline of the Episcopal church as it has followed that well trodden path from vibrant faithfulness which joyfully embraced historic Christianity to a place of increasing hostility towards historic doctrines such as the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scriptures, the atoning power of the death of Christ and the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those committed to orthodox faith watched in dismay as they increasingly heard statements from bishops and pastors and read decisions which were made by denominational bodies which revealed that many of their own leaders were no longer adhering to historic faith.   The tipping point came in 2003 when Gene Robinson from Fayette County, Kentucky became the first openly declared homosexual to be ordained bishop.  (He became the bishop of New Hampshire).  This became the presenting issue for decades of frustration with a church which had lost its way.

Tens of thousands of Episcopalians rose up and exercised what is known as Anglican realignment.  This is a process where a church recognizes that its bishop is no longer faithful to the gospel so the episcopal “seat” is recognized as being effectively empty.  The church then has to come under the authority of a new bishop.   What occurred was truly remarkable.  Thousands of Episcopalians gathered up the courage to leave their churches.  They were like sheep without a shepherd.  However, the African church saved the Episcopalian church in the USA.  Bishops from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, among others, began to extend episcopal oversight to new “mission” churches in the United States.  By 2009 this movement had grown enough so the Anglicans in North America could stand on their own.  In June of 2009 most of these mission churches were brought together under a single umbrella known as the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).

When Robert Duncan was ordained as the archbishop of the newly formed ACNA he electrified the assembly by boldly challenging the church to plant 1,000 new churches in five years.  The ACNA is doing just that, and will easily surpass the goal which, at the time, seemed impossible.  All across America Episcopalians (who for generations had given millions of dollars to build some of the most beautiful worship spaces in America) have been forced to walk out and leave it all behind.  Entire congregations had to start all over again in schools, storefronts, homes, or renting space from other churches.  Within a single generation the ACNA will easily surpass the Episcopalian church in numbers.

Archbishop Duncan has effectively led this new movement by challenging his flock to be faithful to the gospel and to remember that the church is not about buildings, but about people and about reaching those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.  “Courage begets courage” is one of the most important words of advice from the Archbishop to his flock.  What he means by this is that if the people of God take a courageous stand, then it spreads and others are encouraged to take a stand.  The result is a new Reformation.  Because of their courage, Anglicanism in North America has been saved and is being transferred from one wineskin (Episcopalianism) to another wineskin (ACNA).  More importantly, they have also sparked a new reformation within the church as a whole and provided a pathway for others to follow.  What can United Methodists learn from the last ten years of turmoil within the Episcopalian church?

– First, those of us who are committed to historic Christianity must have the courage to speak out and unflinchingly take our stand with Jesus Christ and the gospel.  We simply cannot be silent when pastors, District Superintendents, Bishops or other denominational leaders make statements which are in variance with our own historic witness as a church.  We must do it in love, but we must do it.

– Second, we should not hold out hope that at some point those holding these so-called “enlightened” liberal views will pick up their stakes and leave the church and go start their own church and build their own seminaries, and so forth.   That is not going to happen.  History teaches us that Christians committed to historic faith build churches and Christian institutions.  Those who forsake the core teachings of the faith, generally speaking, do not build churches or Christian institutions.  Instead, they attach themselves to vibrant movements and then take over the structures which were built by the faithfulness and sacrifice of others.

– Third, we must earnestly pray that our denomination will re-discover its own past and be awakened to a new period of faithfulness, evangelism, church planting and societal witness.  The United Methodist church has millions of members who have kept the faith, so we should pray for our church and work earnestly for its renewal.

– Fourth, those of us committed to historic Christianity must deepen our ties to the global church.  While we hope and pray it does not happen, the day may come when we, too, might be forced to leave our beloved denomination and find episcopal oversight in Africa.  Many of our faithful brothers and sisters in New England and the Pacific Northwest may need to act sooner rather than later.

A university President recently commented to Archbishop Duncan that because of the determined faithfulness of the ACNA, his grandchildren will someday hear and believe the gospel.  This testimony is true.  We must recognize that we are fighting for the faith of our grandchildren.  May we have the kind of courage which befits the people of God.

 

What is the Book of Discipline?

One of the beautiful and cherished features of the Methodist tradition is the way in which the pastors are brought into a shared covenant with one another. The whole appointment system under an episcopal form of government (bishops and district superintendents) is made possible because of a shared covenant. We pledge to stand together. We all live as those under authority. If, in the wisdom of the bishop’s council, our services and ministry is needed in another location, we pledge to go – and do it with joy – because we believe in the shared covenant which undergirds the wonderful biblical principle that ministry is not about “us.” It is about building the church of Jesus Christ. A covenant, both in the biblical tradition, as well as in modern day United Methodism is not some vague notion, but it is rooted in specific agreements which, in our case, is outlined in the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is what binds us together and provides the “grammar” of that covenant. This has served us well since 1784.

It is, therefore, with dismay that Bishop Mel Talbert has called upon United Methodist pastors to defy the Book of Discipline regarding homosexual practice as being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and, instead, begin to marry homosexual couples. Yet, to do this defies the very covenant we have all agreed to follow. For a bishop to openly declare his defiance against the Book of Discipline and to receive no rebuke from the Council of Bishops is truly startling.

I am not writing this to focus on the homosexual issue per se, though that is the presenting issue which Bishop Talbert has thrust upon us. It applies to pastors who raise doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, or the efficacy of the cross, or a whole host of other examples which also break with the Book of Discipline. Bishop Talbert’s open defiance of the Book of Discipline is particularly worth noting because he is a bishop of the church. If a bishop is allowed to openly defy our discipline, then our covenant is broken and no minister can be held accountable. When a bishop is consecrated they take a vow before God to “uphold the discipline and the order of the church.” If this covenant is broken, then the Methodist church becomes a sea of independent churches with no shared faith or doctrine or experience. I applaud the Asbury Seminary graduates who pastor some of the largest churches in the country who initiated the open letter to the bishops asking why Bishop Talbert has not been held accountable (see www.faithfulumc.com). We eagerly await a response from the Council of Bishops. I was not a part of the letter which these pastors wrote, but they must have felt almost ashamed to write it. It is like people from a small town gathering together and pleading with the duly elected sheriff of the town to please uphold the law.

What many in the church long for is a church which is faithful to historic Christianity. What we long for are pastors and episcopal leaders who once again share in a common covenant. What we long for is a growing confidence in the Word of God, the supremacy of Christ and the power of the preached gospel in our ranks. What we long for is a faithful church, even as we recall the words of John Wesley when he said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

How long, O Lord, must we wait? Have mercy upon us and deliver us in this hour of need.

The Black Man in Our Sacred Dreams

It has become almost a stock image, especially in missionary circles:  During a fitful night trying to sleep, an African man has a dream of a white man coming to him telling him that a message of salvation or healing is on the way.  The missionary then arrives, the gospel is preached, people gladly receive the good news and the church is born anew.  You don’t have to go far to find such a story.  In fact, the most recent issue of Christianity Today (May 2012) tells the story of an Islamic farmer in Mozambique named Feliz Talibo who had this very dream a few years ago and is now a devoted Christian, freed from sickness and demonic oppression.

I rejoice over this story and the dozens like it I have read over the years.  It reminds us that God is the greatest evangelist of all.  We see God showing up in the dreams and visions of Joseph  (Matt. 1:20; 2:19), the magi (Matt. 2:12), Pilate’s wife (Matt. 27:19), Ananias (Acts 9:10), Peter (Acts 10:10), Cornelius (Acts 10:3), and Paul (Acts 16:9, 18:9), among others.  Nevertheless, I see a day dawning when the “man in the dreams” will be an African, and the man or woman who has the dream will be white.  Paul once had a vision of a Macedonian Man and, in obedience to God, crossed the sea and found Lydia.  We need the message of Christ, of salvation, of healing, of demonic deliverance and of hope here in the West too, especially as North America is emerging as the fastest growing mission field in the world.  I am praying that God would start sending Africans into the dreams of white men and women.

This prayer may have already been partially answered in the 2012 General Conference of the UMC.  In the midst of leadership failures, stunning disconnects between the mission of the church and the work of the Conference, and attempts by protesters to hijack the Conference, the African delegation kept showing up.  Not only did the Africans bravely remind us that the church is the most diverse movement in the history of the world, but that great inclusiveness must be found in Jesus Christ.   The Africans showed up in our dreams to boldly remind us of the imperative of the gospel to preach good news, to heal the sick and to share the love of Christ.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to gently remind us that Jesus Christ is Lord.  The Africans showed up in our dreams to lovingly remind us that the Scriptures are the Word of God to us.  There were many in this delegation who remembered General Conference 2008 when some wanted to silence their voices and take away their vote.  Today, no one can silence the African church.

It is easy to cite disappointments in the recent General Conference.  But, looking back a decade from now, this conference will be remembered as the time when the African delegation really found their authentic voice to speak prophetically to the church they love so dearly. They showed up in our dreams.  They spoke to us.  If we listen, we just might hear the voice of the Lord calling us to a better day.

Re-Imagining the Gospel

Many of us will remember the 1993 Re-Imagining conference held in Minneapolis which drew so much national attention.  The central purpose of the conference, as I recall, was to help the wider church more fully support the role of women in leadership in the church.  This was, and continues to be, an important conversation in the church and I, for one, support the full participation of women in the life and work of the church.  However, the conference (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) quickly became a time to “re-imagine” the doctrines of God, church, salvation and so forth.  So what could have been a careful reading of Scripture and the history of the church in light of new and real challenges, became an open denunciation of historic Christian faith.  Songs were sung to a God/dess Sophia.  One of the plenary speakers was famously asked about the doctrine of the atonement.  She replied that we “don’t need a theory of atonement” and then went on to say that “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping and weird stuff.”  That statement speaks for itself.

It is perhaps time for a new Re-Imagining conference, but this time a call to re-imagine a church faithful to the gospel and historic faith. Perhaps this General Conference, or a future one, could truly become a re-imagining conference.  I would like to re-imagine a few things by invoking our collective memory of the following:

First, let’s remember that the United Methodist Church is the greatest church planting movement in the history of the United States.  No other denomination in our history has planted a church in every county in the country.  That is an astonishing feat.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great new church planting movement?

Second, let’s remember that our movement has produced some of the most effective, reproducible models for Christian nurture and discipleship in history.  Our very name, ‘Methodist’ was a reflection of the strict ‘method’ we used for discipling new believers.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great discipling movement?

Third, let’s not forget that the Wesleyan doctrine of salvation was fully Trinitarian.  It wasn’t enough to be justified by Christ.  One must be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t enough to be “declared righteous” (alien, imputed righteousness), we must be “made righteous” (imparted righteousness).  The linking of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and glorifying grace in the writings of Wesley remains one of his great legacies.  We have a message of transforming grace.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a movement of grace and life?

We live in a day when the church seems to work overtime to erase every possible distinction between the world and the church.  However, the world needs Jesus Christ.  The world needs to hear the gospel.  The world needs the wonderful ministry of the church as an embodied community living out all the realities of the New Creation in the midst of a broken world.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves with a prophetic imagination.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves as a gospel proclaiming, church planting, disciple making, grace filled movement bringing life and hope to all!

Is this possible?  Do I have hope for the United Methodist Church?  Yes it is.  The very Christ we proclaim in the gospel is the greatest impossibility made possible. In fact, the gospel emerges in the context of two “impossibilities.”  As someone once noted, He entered the world through a door marked “no entry” (a virgin womb).  He left through a door marked “no exit” (a tomb).  Two “impossibilities” made possible in Jesus Christ.   Yes, we can imagine the “impossible” made possible 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).

Deeper Issues Behind the Same-Sex Marriage Discussion

According to the United Methodist Reporter more than 900 United Methodist clergy have pledged to perform same-sex unions in open defiance of the Scriptures, of our ministerial tradition of holy conferencing, and of the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.  In response, a group of Asburians (either Asbury Seminary graduates or member of the Board of Trustees of Asbury) who pastor some of the largest churches in America (Tom Harrison, Charles Kyker, Ed Robb, III, Ken Werlein, and Steve Wood) have prepared a petition asking the Bishops of the United Methodist church to issue a statement that the Discipline will be respected. I support this petition because these petitioners understand that this is far more than a debate about human sexuality and marriage. View the petition here. http://www.faithfulumc.com/index.html

What is at stake is more than just a re-affirmation that Biblical marriage is between a man and a woman (though that is, in itself, a vital objective). The issue of marriage and human sexuality is but the “flashpoint” presenting issue.  There are two deeper underlying issues which we need to always keep in mind.  First, this is a struggle about Biblical authority and the great stream of apostolic orthodoxy. I have written  many blogs on this point, so I will not elaborate that point today.  Suffice it to say, we cannot even begin to reclaim our nearly lost heritage as Methodists if even our clergy advocate positions which are at variance with historic faith.  Second, this is a struggle about ecclesiology, especially the role of the episcopacy in our church. For clergy to do something in open defiance of the Book of Discipline is a serious breach of our unity, regardless of the issue involved.  There are many churches whose clergy are not under episcopal authority and are not bound to one another by a covenant. The Methodist church is not supposed to be among them.

Bishops must rise up and do what Bishops have been elected to do. Bishops are called by God, and ordained by the church, to defend the Gospel, shepherd the church and exercise church discipline. This shouldn’t require a petition.  It should be the normal expression of episcopal authority. A decade ago, Bill Hinson called for a special task force to create a process which would lead to an “amicable separation” between those called United Methodists.  This would not be a defiant church split, but a solemn process whereby the church allows those who are committed to historic orthodoxy, the Wesleyan heritage and secure episcopal authority to live under such a covenant. Tens of thousands of faithful Methodists (including myself) are not yet ready to pull the “amicable separation” lever, but this is the inevitable trajectory if our Bishops will not exercise their God-given, episcopal resolve to enforce our Discipline. Our eyes are on the Council of Bishops praying that God gives them strength for this hour. I hope that the Bishops issue the espiscopal letter which has been requested.  It will be a great affirmation that our covenant is still in force and that the “people called Methodists” can focus our energies and resources on spreading scriptural holiness throughout the world.

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?”


Harold Ockenga, Church Renewal and the United Methodist Church by Timothy C. Tennent, PhD

One of the most interesting books I have read recently is by Garth Rosell entitled, The Surprising Work of God: Harold John Ockenga, Billy Graham, and the Rebirth of Evangelicalism. Rosell, a church history professor and leading expert in revivals, explores the life of Harold J. Ockenga and his relationship with Billy Graham.  Ockenga is widely regarded as the founder, chief architect and leading thinker of the 20th century revival and renewal movements which are collectively known today as neo-evangelicalism.  It was Ockenga who helped Christians see that there was a third choice between narrow, defensive fundamentalism and the mainline liberalism which was sweeping the country.  The result was a major movement which was embodied publically by Billy Graham’s ecumenical, socially engaged evangelism and spawned the planting of thousands of new churches.  It also produced a number of major evangelical seminaries including Fuller Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, both co-founded by Harold Ockenga.   Ockenga also served as the President of both Fuller (1947-1954) and Gordon-Conwell (1969-1979).  He was also the founder of Christianity Today magazine.   The magazine was designed to promote thoughtful Christian reflection on contemporary culture.  It was no mistake that the first editor was none other than the great thinker Carl F. H. Henry, the author of the multi-volume work God, Revelation and Authority.  Oh, did I forget to mention, Ockenga is also the founder of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and served as its founding President (1942-1944)?  In short, the book makes a convincing case for what many of us have long argued; namely, that Harold Ockenga was arguably one of the most influential Christians of the 20th century, and certainly a leading voice for church renewal.

I am sharing this because there is an interesting, little known, Methodist connection with Harold Ockenga.  He was born in a devout Methodist home.  His parents raised him in the Methodist church and he came to Christ in a Methodist camp meeting.  Ockenga even experienced a second work of grace which he subsequently described in a way which was precisely in line with Wesleyan thought.  Ockenga graduated from Taylor University (a Methodist related school) and eventually answered the call into the ministry and became ordained as a deacon in the Methodist Church.  He decided to go to Princeton because he longed for a classical education and Princeton was on the approved list of Seminaries by the Methodist Church which to this day certifies which seminaries United Methodist students may attend in order to be ordained.  Near the end of Ockenga’s time at Princeton (and as he was preparing for full ordination as an Elder in the UMC) the Seminary decided to embrace modernism and separate themselves from their long-standing commitment to the authority of scripture.  Princeton turned its back on its long standing commitment to historic orthodoxy.  Its heritage goes back to 1727 when William Tennent founded what became known as the Log College.  This is a history I know well because William Tennent is also my great (times six) grandfather.  Princeton eventually became known for great stalwarts of the faith such as Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield.   J. Gresham Machen led a separation from Princeton which resulted in the founding of Westminster Seminary near Philadelphia.  Although Ockenga was about to enter his final year at Seminary, he felt compelled to switch to Westminster because of his abiding faith in the Word of God.  When Ockenga switched to Westminister, the Methodist church informed him that he could not be ordained unless he remained at Princeton.   Even though he had completed two years at Princeton and had already pastored two Methodist churches in New Jersey, his graduation from Westminster would make him ineligible for full ordination in the Methodist church.  Ockenga was in deep distress.  His entire orientation was Wesleyan.  He knew no other tradition.  After a long struggle he decided sadly to leave the Methodist church and join the Presbyterians.  It is from this platform that his amazing ministry unfolded over the next five decades.  By denying Ockenga ordination in the Methodist Church, we lost his voice and missed much of his influence.  To this day most Methodists have never even heard of Harold Ockenga.  What a missed opportunity!

However, Ockenga never lost his love for “the people called Methodists.”  In the early 1980’s I met Ockenga while I was a young student at Gordon-Conwell.  He was the most respected Christian statesman I had ever met in my life.  He had recently retired as the President of Gordon-Conwell and had been named as President emeritus.  As a young, budding theologian and future pastor, I was awed by the presence of God which I sensed when I was with him.  He was a man who had walked with God his entire life.  He never lost his love for Christ, his confidence in the Scriptures and his devotion to the church (he also pastored the historic Park Street Church in Boston for several decades).  I told him I was a United Methodist and asked him if I should stay in the denomination even though many of its leaders and churches had lost touch with orthodoxy, or should I go join another denomination.  I was truly prepared at that moment to do whatever Dr. Ockenga told me.  He told me, “son, stay in the Methodist church, and be faithful there until they ask you to leave.”  Because of that conversation I stayed in the Methodist church.  I am still ordained in the UMC, with a membership in the North Georgia Conference.  Today, I am the President of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Ockenga died on February 8, 1985, about nine months after I graduated from Gordon-Conwell.  I was the pastor of a United Methodist church in Georgia at that time.  Someone close to Ockenga, who had been with him in his final days, told me something which later Garth Rosell confirmed for me. Above the bed where he died hung a portrait of John Wesley.  It was the same portrait that had hung in his office all the years of his remarkable ministry.  Ockenga never lost his love for Wesley.  One can only wonder how history might have been different if the Methodist church had received 50 years of leadership under a man like John Harold Ockenga.