Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

(Following is an excerpt from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The book addresses each of the nineteen questions asked of United Methodist ordinands since the days of John Wesley. This reflection is based on question #12: “Do you approve our Church government and polity?”)

Hannah Whitehall Smith says it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. And it is true, isn’t it? We always like our own ideas better than other people’s ideas. God knows this about us, so his way of working in us is to get possession of us so he can make his ideas our ideas. This is why Paul could say with confidence, “Christ in you is the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27, italics mine). Without the indwelling Christ, we are just another human being who knows the rules.

That difference between head-level rules and heart-level rules is the difference between life and death in ministry. Just as knowing the law but not owning it was death for the Israelites, so too it is death for us. We are designed for a “religion of the heart” (Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism). There is something to be said for signing on at the heart level, for embracing first our theology, then our polity, and allowing them to shape us from the inside out. We may not approve of every “jot and tittle,” but we can affirm the spirit of our tribe. In fact we should affirm this spirit, if we are going to be part of this connection.

Let’s be honest. No job is everything we love and nothing we don’t. Every job has its plusses and minuses. I didn’t come into United Methodist ministry because I fell in love with its discipline and polity. I came into the ministry because I love Jesus, and I sense that within the UMC’s system of connection and covenant I can serve him well. I complain with the best of them about Charge Conference and end-of-year reporting, but I manage to accomplish those tasks because they are part of a bigger ministry life I love dearly. I love healing prayer and preaching and the stunning miracle of seeing someone embrace Christ. I love seeing people get filled with the Holy Spirit. I love the countless hours spent listening and praying, and I love thinking strategically about how to extend this work as far as possible. At its best, United Methodist polity and discipline serves these other causes well. I am well aware that polity is not a matter of salvation, but I know that supporting and maintaining it is the only way our connection and covenant will function. If we all pick and choose which parts we like and which we don’t, it won’t work. Anarchy ensues.

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these [19] questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often with ministers who were weak in the spiritual discipline of letting their yes be yes and their no be no. How much confusion is caused by well-meaning people who have not counted the cost before building the house, who have signed on without letting the spirit of our tribe sink into their bones? Can I say this with complete respect and love? You don’t get to decide what it means to be United Methodist. That has already been determined. Any decision to change that must go through proper channels, covered with massive amounts of prayer. Do you approve that? Can you approve the spirit of our discipline and polity while maintaining a generous heart?

Obviously, I made it out of seminary with a degree because here I am as a pastor. To my absolute surprise, I found myself back in school a few years ago completing a doctorate. In our first session together, my doctoral cohort tackled a ropes course. One of our challenges was a two-wire exercise. The wires, about three feet above ground, were stretched between two trees. As they traveled from one tree to the other, they gradually spread apart from each other. One person balanced on one wire and a partner balanced on the other wire. Our task was to lean into one another while we slowly scooted down the wires, even as they spread further and further apart. The trick was to lean equally on each other (remember that) as counter-weights to hold each other up. It won’t work if one leans and the other doesn’t, so we both had to lean in and surrender all our weight.

We discovered through trial and error that the best way for two people to scoot down the wire was to listen to each other. We would ask, “What do you need? What does this look like from your perspective? How can I help?” Without verbalizing it, it was hard to know the other person’s challenge in that moment. Our teammates on the ground were also there to tell us what we couldn’t see. They would say things like, “Straighten up! Push in!” And I’d think, “I AM pushing in!” when evidently I wasn’t. It was almost impossible when I was wobbling on that wire to know my own position. It took all of us working together to get two of us from one tree to the other.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we need each other. This is the point of our connectional system. It is designed for people who trust each other enough to lean in. But it only works if everyone leans in. It won’t work if one leans and another doesn’t. The key to the whole system is vulnerability. It is in keeping my heart soft toward the people God places in my path so that they become the priority rather than the institution. The clearest way I’ve seen to maintain vulnerability is to speak honestly out of my own experience — even my own brokenness. The guy who said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” got a mention in the most-read book of all time (John 9:25). The guy who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” is my favorite unnamed person in the Bible (Mark 9:24). Both displayed the heart of flesh necessary for spiritual connection to happen.

As you make your own personal inventory of what you believe about our polity and discipline, ask yourself if you are sufficiently healed and whole to lean in — to give yourself wholeheartedly to a connection of Christ-followers who are bent on spreading “scriptural holiness over the land” (Wesley, Large Minutes). This is the great need. It is for people ready to partner in both covenant and connection for the sake of a lost and hurting world.

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God in the darkness

Another guest post by Angel Davis, my friend and collaborator in ministry. In this blog she shares how a friend (whose story is told with permission) experienced the grace of God in a desperate season:

“Why? How could this happen?”

This was the broken-hearted cry of a woman sitting on my couch. Her heart literally felt like it was breaking and for very good reason. Her decade-long marriage which had begun centered around Christ had now dissolved, and not by her choice. She had entered into marriage believing it was a covenant with God that was not to be broken. Despite the years of subtle abuse and unloving treatment, she desperately prayed her marriage would be saved. She wanted her children to grow up in an intact family. She wanted to honor and keep the vows she had made to God.

And yes, she still loved her husband.

She had spent a solid year seeking counseling and receiving inner healing. She allowed God to heal the wounds of her heart and help her forgive. She prayed and asked others to pray — fervently — that the marriage would be saved. She prayed right up to the last minute, but her husband’s heart never softened. They divorced, and now the custody of their children hung in the balance.

And now she sat in great distress, true agony; the judge had ruled in favor of the father. Her children’s father, now her ex — this man who had treated her badly, who had lied, who had broken some of the separation agreement guidelines — this man would get “favor” financially from the judge and “favor” regarding the custody of their children.

“How could God allow this to happen?”

“Where is He?”

“Does He not even care?

“I just don’t see Him working.”

“It’s not fair!” 

My friend was devastated, not to mention legitimately concerned for her children’s well-being. She was desperate now to realize she wouldn’t be able to mother them daily. She’d miss out on developmental milestones. She’d be separated from them at such tender ages. The pain was beyond words.

Fast-forward several months. The ache was still there and depression had settled in around the sadness of having to split time with her kids with their father. There was still hurt over the unfairness of the settlement … but the pain was lessening. She was more ready now to process her situation through healing prayer.

As we prayed into her pain and concerns, what can only be humanly described as feeling like a lightning bolt from heaven, came down — first downloaded into my brain, and then into her heart. A flash of understanding: “God had to allow the ‘unjust’ settlement in order to soothe the anger of your ex-husband!”

I have to say that humanly, this didn’t settle well. It seemed … well … unjust. And it was, by any earthly standard. I can say with certainty that God didn’t cause this man’s hard heart, nor did God cause the divorce. But as I searched within for some scriptural anchor for this word about how God used the circumstances of fallen people, I saw it.

It was the unjust cross of Jesus Christ. 

He who committed no sin was slain and buried for three dark, bleak days. He who did not deserve that penalty became the very sacrifice that freed us from the penalty of sin. His willingness to do a very unfair thing allowed us to finally see the darkness for what it is. That unjust settlement bought us new life and paid for our sins while it negated the power of the enemy’s weapons against us.

Think about the death of Lazarus (Luke 11). When they brought news to Jesus, Lazarus was already arguably dead, but Jesus waited three days after he was pronounced dead to visit. Nothing seemed to be accomplished in that waiting, as far as Lazarus’ loved ones were concerned, except they got mad with Jesus. After all, Martha had asked him to come, and he waited … almost like he didn’t care. But when he finally did show up, he entered into their suffering and then did the impossible. He called forth life from a dead man, out of a tomb where unfair death resided. The effect? The witnesses to this miracle saw God in ways they couldn’t or hadn’t before. The glory of God was exposed.

The waiting time, where “nothing” was happening, became the soil for the greater revelation. 

And my friend? After this unexpected revelation from God, she started seeing … really seeing. She saw God do the impossible as He provided tangibly for her in ways that were totally unexpected — money for a car, down-payment on a house, extra days of visitation — exceedingly and abundantly more then she thought could happen (Ephesians 3:20). She began to get it that justice wasn’t dependent on “fair” or “unfair” treatment. Justice was dependent solely on God and His promises.

If you are waiting for Jesus to show up in an unfair situation, take heart, my friend. God is working in the darkness. The “nothing” days, the “unfair” treatment, the waiting time … in God’s care it all becomes a breeding ground for slaying the enemy, raising up redemption and exposing in His glory.

Take heart and hold on …

Angel H. Davis is a Christ follower who lives in Athens, Georgia and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read more from Angel in her book, The Perfecting Storm: Experiencing God’s Best Through the Trials of Marriage. This is an exceptional resource for those who want to see transformation in their marriage.

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Holiness and the African UMC: An open letter to the U.S. Church

I have stated in other posts (here and here) that it has taken me a while to understand exactly how to posture myself within the current United Methodist Church. While at times I’ve been more content to wait for an exit door, in this season God and global Methodism have been drawing me toward the UMC, not away from it.

The hook is the global church. I am convinced that a globally connected church leads to a more faithful expression of the gospel. Early on, John Wesley displayed his commitment to the heart of a missionary God by traveling from England to Georgia for the cause of spreading the gospel.

It is in our DNA. Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. Today, we seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the world, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith.

Given that commitment, I am grateful for the following word from UMC Africa Initiative. Their expression of bold faith at General Conference inspired us and their continued engagement in this season is prophetic and wise. Disagree with their theology if you must, but have an appropriate respect for their right to reflect back into the UMC the very faith carried to them through Methodist missionaries.

Keep in mind: African United Methodists don’t have to engage our American problems. Their jurisdiction is sufficiently removed, both geographically and politically, that they could easily extract themselves and move on independently with little reverberation. They have enough of their own tensions and complicating issues to deal with without having to take on ours. And yet they stay connected, passionately defending orthodoxy and the covenant we all accepted. Their commitment inspires me to do the same.

This letter from UMC representatives in Africa deserves our attention. I share it with the hope that it will help the reader better understand and honor their perspective and even more, that it will inspire you to pray for a more globally focused, Kingdom-oriented approach to the gospel and the Body of Christ.

A MESSAGE TO GLOBAL UMC FROM UMC AFRICA INITIATIVE

5th August 2016

Over the past weeks we have been following the events and activities of the five jurisdictions of The United Methodist Church with mixed emotions and serious concerns about the future of our beloved church. We have read of actions taken by some in gross disobedience to the Bible and our Book of Discipline, and of others who have written to express their disagreements. We are deeply concerned. However, we are praying for God’s intervention as we discern God’s plans for the future of our church.

It is shockingly amazing that in the communication of “Love Prevails” to the Council of Bishops there was no mention of a specific reference to any passage of the Holy Scripture, our primary authority for doctrine, faith, and Christian living as the Church of Jesus Christ, to support any of its claims, arguments, and demands and justifications for the actions it has taken in recent times. This attitude and behavior has the propensity to embarrass, ridicule, and blur the message of the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, which alone has the power to save and transform society.

In light of the commitment we (African delegates to the 2016 General Conference) made to the request of the Council of Bishops by our support to have them set up a special Commission to inquire into all human sexuality issues contained in our Book of Discipline, many of us are deeply saddened by the actions of some of our brothers and sisters to attempt to derail the unity of global Methodism. Their actions to grossly disrespect our Bishops and disobey our global decision at the recent 2016 General Conference are incompatible with fostering unity within global Methodism.

Furthermore, their actions seem to confirm the fears of our founding father, John Wesley. About five years before his demise, John Wesley had expressed his fears about the future of our church in regards to its continued commitment and submission to the Scripture and discipline that govern us. He said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America [in Africa and the rest of the world]. 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 to the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out”. When we abandon the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of some philosophies and ideologies of contemporary society, we cease to exist within God’s parameter of grace.

We are left to wonder, why are we not identified as Muslims, Buddhist, Hindus, etc., but Christians? It is because every religious faith has a doctrine and a religious code of conduct that distinguishes it from all other religion. In the case of Christianity, it is the Bible, the Holy Word of God, as the Quran is for the Muslims. One’s religious identity is not found in the most appealing cultural or political system of the day, for that is fleeting. Loyalty, obedience, and submission to the teachings of these “divine writings” of the faith to which one belongs defines, distinguishes, and truly identifies adherents. One cannot claim to truly be a member of any of the world’s religions and live in gross disobedience to its teachings. (John14:15; Psalm 119:9-11,105; 19:7-11). Let the church be the church; and let not the culture of the day define the global Christian community called United Methodist, but the Bible (Joshua 1:8; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Christian Church, bought and birthed with the blood of Jesus Christ (Isaiah 53:1-13; Matthew 27: 32-61; John 10:10-11; Hebrews 10:1-39) is not and cannot be a social club; it cannot be directed by any form of political activism that contradicts the teachings of Scripture. And it is not a social or political system based on humanism or secular ideologies and philosophies (2 John 2;15-16; Colossians 2: 8-15;1 Samuel 8) that seeks endorsement for a kind of “human rights” to the detriment of human existence as God our Creator has designed it. Instead, the Church of Jesus Christ is a global community redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ, who lives in loving relationship with their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. They are a people called out from the world and yet sent into the world (John 16:7-11; Acts 1:8; Genesis 6:5-9; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 28; Judges 2:10-13; 17:6) to share the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit in order that persons might come to faith in Christ and become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We cannot in any way be “bad news” by our decisions, actions, and attitudes, and yet attempt to proclaim the good news.

It is time to return to the faith of our fathers and mothers (the Holy Scriptures) and be the church. In spite all that is going on, there is hope for the continued growth and development of the Church of Jesus Christ because Jesus is still the LORD of His Church. We will remain committed and determined to live in loyalty and obedience to the teachings of the Holy Scriptures, and to our Book of Discipline. We will also remain supportive of the unity of the global United Methodist Community as long as the Bible remains our primary authority for faith and Christian living. We shall remain loving of members of the UM Church who have chosen to tread the cultural path of contemporary society that is inimical to the teaching of Scripture, in the hope that we will reconcile our differences and submit to the Lordship of Christ. They are our brothers and sisters for whom Christ also gave his life. However, we shall not compromise our Christian faith on the altar of what seems to the minds of some to be “socially acceptable and politically correct” cultures and practices of contemporary society.

We are confident that God is in sovereign control of His Church. He promises to continually build it until He returns to receive us unto Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18b). We need to only be still, yet vigorously prayerful and discerning in such a time as this, and we will see the deliverance of the Lord.

We must admit that global United Methodist Church is at the crossroads (Jeremiah 6:16). We have choices to make. On one hand, we can choose to obey God and His word, and thereby repent of the sin of gross disobedience and abandon the quest to be like the rest of the world. On the other hand, we can choose to continue in pursuit of what the cultural practices of the day dictate that denies God’s sovereignty over God’s creation and accepts what feels good, what seems politically acceptable to society, etc. The choice is ours.

But as Joshua, at the close of his ministry in Shechem, said to all of the Israelites, and by implication to all United Methodist at the crossroads today, we wish to challenge all born again believers in Jesus Christ (John 3:3-5), in the words of this great general of God’s people, “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness…But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…But as for me and my household (the UM Community in Africa, in particular, and all faithful Christians everywhere who are committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the undiluted Word of God for belief and practice), we will serve the LORD” (Joshua 24:14-15). Together, we shall make it for God’s glory (Joshua 2:17-18; 2 Samuel 10:9-12). God has wonderful plans for the prosperity of His Church on earth (Jeremiah 29:11). Let us be firmed and very courageous in prayer and in discerning God’s will for the future of our church, always abounding in the Word of the Lord; for we know our labor in the Lord is not in vain (Joshua 1:4-6; 1 Corinthians 15:58). May God bless the people called United Methodist.

For His Glory,
Rev. Dr. Jerry P. Kulah
Central Conference Coordinator
UMC Africa Initiative on behalf of the UMC Africa Initiative
Liberia Annual Conference
The United Methodist Church
13th Street, Sinkor
Tel.: +231(0) 88 652 0399
Email: jerry.kulah@gmail.com

(Find this letter here.)

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