Due Diligence in the UMC: Not just to be understood, but to understand

Not long ago, I sat in on a discussion between two seminary professors who presented opposing views on the biblical interpretation of marriage. The discussion was hosted by an Atlanta church (you can watch it here) and was attended by hundreds. Earlier in this season, I attended another event held in the Atlanta area hosted by a progressive coalition. We heard stories of those who have found their home in the LGBT community when it wasn’t available to them inside the church. A third experience has been more personal. A queer, married pastor in the UMC has reached out for conversation with the mutual understanding that neither of us will change the mind of the other. We trade texts, compare news stories with what we know to be more true, and try to listen.

I’ve appreciated these opportunities. Beyond these, I’ve also been reading the research, because I know I need more understanding. We need to learn how to hear each other not in order to “win” or persuade or even find common ground but so we can genuinely understand the depth of our differences on key issues like human sexuality, Christology, ecclesiology and biblical interpretation.

Can I say that again? We need less lecturing and more listening so we can actually understand the depth of conviction most of us hold around the crucial theological issues that divide us. In the gentle work of hearing and understanding, I believe we’ll discover not how alike we are but how much we ought to respect the differences. And how wise it will be for us to create space for those differences to prove themselves.

A huge part of understanding for me has been intentional exposure both to events and research especially around human sexuality and gender identity. This is a kairos moment for pastors, an opportunity to teach people in our care what we believe so we can guide them into deeper theological waters. Folks in our care deserve not only a fair account of the gospel but a clear and educated understanding of where the leadership of their church stands. How else can they make an informed choice about their spiritual care?

In the list that follows, I offer a few resources that have helped me begin to get acclimated toward greater understanding where issues of human sexuality are concerned. I’ve learned from these teachers how to more sensitively articulate both my position and how it contrasts with other worldviews. I’ve also learned how to better pastor my people, particularly youth and young adults who desperately need an orthodox, Wesleyan vocabulary. I encourage you to explore this list (and share it) and get started on your own journey toward greater understanding:

Mark Yarhouse — Understanding Sexual Identity. This book is written especially for youth leaders, offering an exceptional teaching on how identity forms in young people. I lead off with this book because I believe today’s youth pastors have an incredibly challenging call and need a whole new vocabulary for meeting students where they are. Every youth leader ought to read this book. Yarhouse has authored a second book to equip parents for the conversation: Homosexuality and the Christian: A guide for parents, pastors and friends.

David Bennett — A War of Loves. Bennett tells his own compelling story of navigating the church world as a gay teen. He eventually makes his way into the classroom of N. T. Wright, where he finds a context for his circumstances that is life-giving. He spends the second half of this book making recommendations of reform to the Christian church in light of national conversations about human sexuality. Bennett has helped me understand just how we idolize sex, even inside the church. Exceptional read.

Mark Ongley — Into the Light: Healing Sexuality in Today’s Church. What I love about Ongley’s contribution to the conversation is that he widens the net to include a wide range of sexual wounds — “infidelity, sexual abuse, incest, emotional adultery, and sexual addiction, to name a few.” Ongley reminds us (as do critics of the conservative position, and rightly so) that sexual brokenness is not the property of one group of people. The church desperately needs an openness to addressing the whole range of unholy behaviors we bend toward to feed our cravings.

Preston Sprinkle — A People to Be Loved. Sprinkle is a theologian and solid Bible scholar who deals in depth with every Bible verse (and every word of every verse) up for debate in the human sexuality discussion. He is very upfront about his desire to engage the scriptures objectively with fresh eyes and vulnerability. His work answers too many decades of insensitive exegesis. From my perspective, he treats the scriptures, the issues, and people affected by the conversation with great sensitivity. If you have not done your own complete and objective exegesis of the passages under debate, this should be required reading. Sprinkle’s website contains all kinds of articles and resources on the topic. Start here.

Wesley Hill — Spiritual Friendship. Hill has written and spoken extensively on issues related to human sexuality and has produced a lot of solid resources. Personally, I’d have you start with Spiritual Friendship simply because I believe Hill champions an important topic for the Church. Until we reclaim the value of spiritual friendship and begin to emphasize the importance of biblical communities, we will miss our opportunity to minister in compassionate ways to those who choose celibacy as a holy response to same-sex attraction. Hill’s book on spiritual friendship should be required reading for every person joining a church. He also gives a brief overview of his thesis in a talk at Biola University. Well worth the half-hour it takes to listen. Hill’s Washed and Waiting is a classic defense of celibacy in singleness (you can hear an overview of it here).

Grant Hartley — Redeeming Queer Culture: An Adventure. Hartley gave this (somewhat controversial) talk at a ReVoice conference to both educate his audience on some of the more recent history of the LGBT movement in America and also pose some evangelistic possibilities. I believe the themes of this talk if taken seriously could help us shape a whole new way of treasuring community life, and for that reason I think the talk is worth your time. In general, we all need a more robust theology surrounding what it means to be the Body of Christ on earth. For Christians, community is essential.

Jackie Perry — Gay Girl, Good God. Perry is a rap artist turned preacher and spoken word artist who tells her own story of transformation. She writes with remarkable authority on issues of human sexuality from a biblically orthodox perspective. You’ll find a lot of other good material from Jackie on YouTube. Start here.

Ryan Anderson – When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment. Anderson was widely criticized for undertaking this study of gender dysphoria and gender identity in the U.S., but his work is well researched and presented with great compassion. This book will give you a starkly different view of gender-identity issues than what you’ll find in media stories.

Pope John Paul II — The Redemption of the Body and Sacramentality of Marriage (Theology of the Body). Pope John Paul’s seminal work building a comprehensive theology of the body ought to be required reading for every seminary student, and the good news is that you can read it here for free. Dr. Tim Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, has taken the themes of Pope John Paul’s work, and turned them into both chapel talks and blog posts. His series of articles reflecting on those themes can be found here. I found Dr. Tennent’s work to be accessible and helpful as I developed my own sermon series around these same themes.

Ravi Zacharias — Years ago when I was just returning to the faith, I happened across Dr. Zacharias’ radio show and distinctly remember being amazed to hear a Christian talking intelligently on such a wide range of issues. He is both bold and loving in his apologetic. Listen to his well-reasoned defense of an orthodox view of human sexuality here.

N.T. Wright — As a theologian, Wright stands in the company of such contemporary greats as C. S. Lewis. Listen to his position on same-sex attraction here.

Let me offer these brief articles as one more resource for those attempting to shape a pastoral approach to these delicate issues. Centered-set thinking was a concept first formed on the mission field, and I’ve found it useful in framing discussions about controversial theological issues. I discuss it in two blog posts, here and here. Centered-set thinking has been most helpful in shaping a theologically rooted ecclesiology in a pluralistic world.

Finally, let me acknowledge the obvious. This list is both incomplete and unapologetically biased. I realize it omits a progressive perspective, but that returns us to my initial point. I have deeply held convictions from which I teach and preach and those are the positions I champion. As a pastor, it is not my charge to remain neutral (Jesus had strong warnings against settling with “lukewarm”). If your view contrasts with mine, please compile and share your resources. You’ll be better informed than I at creating such a list. I hope you’re helped by my list; I’m sure I’ll be helped by yours.

Let’s encourage understanding. I believe our path through may just be not in minimizing theological and ecclesiological differences but in understanding and respecting just how real they are.

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The Truth About John Wesley’s Famous Line

John Wesley, the driver behind the Methodist movement, was raised in the Church of England. His father was an Anglican priest. His brother was, too. Wesley was surrounded by churchmen.

He became a priest himself but early on, experienced a restlessness with “church as usual,” finding himself frustrated with what he saw as lifeless religious rites that lacked power to transform lives.

To Wesley’s mind, the Church of England was stuck. It had somehow lost touch with the Holy Spirit. Wesley was a popular preacher, so he began to preach about what he was seeing as he traveled throughout England from church to church. Preaching against dead religion and in favor of the Holy Spirit got him kicked out of every church in his country.

Literally kicked out. Banned.

Once he ran out of buildings to preach in, Wesley began preaching in open fields to thousands of people. He saw mass conversions, living out Paul’s exclamation: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!”

Even preaching in open fields garnered the ire of other pastors. The Church of England was divided into parishes, after all, and those fields in which Wesley preached were in someone’s parish. Pastors would write to him, demanding that he stay out of their parish. Wesley returned fire on one such pastor, writing a letter in response in which he said (in effect), “I have an option. I can obey church law, or I can obey God’s law. Since I have no parish, then the world is my parish.”

It has become one of Wesley’s most famous lines. The world is my parish. It graces seminary walls and serves as a byline for mission organizations. We want to claim that line over our call to be on mission to all the world, in the spirit of Acts 1:8.

The world is our parish! Let’s take the gospel to the ends of the earth! No rest until every ear has heard, every heart has received, every knee has bowed.

All great aspirations, only that’s not what Wesley meant. In the context of his circumstances and that letter, Wesley’s sentiment was not primarily a statement about missions. This was his stand against dead religion. He refused to be jerked around by lifeless forms that keep people stuck in their spiritual numbness. He refused to let rigid structures and hard hearts determine for him to whom he would preach this gospel. Like Paul, Wesley had decided he would become all things to all people so that by all means he might win some.

True, our mission field is the world. In fact, we ought to insist on a global gospel. But Wesley’s point when he penned that line is that our mission is not to cater to dead forms of religion.

We simply don’t have time for that.

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Are you going on to perfection? (and other strange questions I said yes to)

Every United Methodist pastor since 1773 has answered nineteen historic questions as a way of agreeing to how we will live into this ministry life. I looked at these questions for the first time since ordination about this time last year and was deeply helped and encouraged by seeing them in light of nearly twenty years of ministry.

Maybe an annual evaluation of ministry in light of the questions I agreed to on day one is a good idea. Here is my take on what these questions mean for service in the Kingdom of God through the United Methodist Church:

1. Have you faith in Christ?

Faith in Christ is to believe who he himself claimed to be: the way, the truth and the life. He claimed to be the singular path to the heart of the Father and did not give us another option.

Methodists are not universalists. No one answering this question in the affirmative has a right to soften its meaning for convenience’ or conscience’ sake. Which is not to say a person doesn’t have a right to believe a universalist theology; they just don’t have a right to believe that and call themselves Methodist.

2. Are you going on to perfection?

Only inasmuch as Jesus has asked it of all of who follow him on the narrow road. This call to Christian perfection is a cry to be something more — more love, more joy, more peace, more Presence, more perfect. Not in the sense of gaining perfection on our own strength, but in the sense that in the fullness of the Holy Spirit we can find abundant life.

C. S. Lewis wrote,

“The command ‘Be ye perfect’ is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. [God] is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. … He meant what he said. Those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect — perfect in love, wisdom, joy, beauty, and immortality.”

3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?

Methodists believe entire sanctification is the trajectory of authentic discipleship. The question is not whether we have reached it or even if we can. The question is, are our lives pointed in that direction? Sanctification is costly; it is, simply put, a call to die to self. But this question is also an invitation to freedom — freedom from mediocrity and the tyranny of tolerable. It is an invitation into the good life in its most vivid and faithful form.

4. Are you earnestly striving after it?

The repetition of this theme makes it all the more meaningful for Methodists, whose contribution to the Body of Christ is their commitment to sanctification. When you say you are going on to perfection, is this your intention? Will you be ruthlessly opposed to stagnation in your life with Christ, in your ministry, in your care of the Church?

This commitment to sanctification is ultimately a call to defeat the spirit of fear. “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?

There is no such thing as “part-time” in church work (can I get an “amen”?). The work of Jesus isn’t meant to be carried out with our leftover time or leftover money. Jesus never gave us that option. He calls those who follow earnestly to take up crosses, to die to self.

6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This question is particularly meaningful for this season in the UMC. It is good to be reminded that we follow a Book of Discipline, a set of standards that guide our life together. When we enter into connectional ministry, we stand before our peers and make a commitment to living by those standards. We need to be reminded that we were adults when we answered these questions. Living them out is a holy responsibility. Otherwise, what connects us?

7. Will you keep them?

Connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC. If, at our ordination, we answer this question in the affirmative, then are we not accountable for that? If not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way (and we ought to drop the question from the list). If we are, then whether we agree with every point or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside an agreed-upon set of expectations. And when we can’t, we have an obligation to find another tribe that more closely aligns with our values.

8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?

It has been erroneously said that the UMC is not a “creedal church.” How one could reach that conclusion after reading the Articles of Religion that introduce our Book of Discipline is beyond me. Here is our doctrine, clearly spelled out in twenty-five statements. Combined with our social principles, Wesley’s sermons and notes, and a denominational commitment to both the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, we are far more doctrinal than not. Our uniqueness is in our emphasis on social holiness; doctrine without community and compassion is dead.

9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?

A world of people disagree with our Wesleyan theology on issues like predestination, the exclusive nature of Christ, the authority of the scripture, the leadership of women — just to name a few. Within our own tribe, there is quite the controversy over the interpretation of scripture where human sexuality is concerned. This question calls us to transparently examine our own minds and consciences and ask ourselves what we most deeply hold true before we commit to this tribe. Otherwise, we find ourselves too quickly frustrated with every disagreement on lesser things. The product of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole is an anxious spirit. That doesn’t have to be.

10. Will you preach and maintain them?

Wesley called the church not merely to the letter of the law but to the spirit of it. “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? he wrote. “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?

They don’t call us Methodist for nothin’. Our structure is designed to create community and it has done a remarkable job for 244 years. Bearing the weight of the world’s second largest mainline denomination proves its brilliance. This structure stood our church well from its fiery days of revival in early America to its current global membership of 12.5 million. I am not at all convinced, however, that our historic structure is designed to withstand our current diversity. It may well be that the lack of understanding of this structure has only exacerbated the strain. What we are sure of is that is was not built to withstand the pressure of pluralism.

12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often 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?

13. Will you support and maintain them?

See above.

14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?

This is a commitment to the next generation. In every decision, in every investment of time and resources, is the spiritual care of the next generation being considered? Or merely the comfort of the present one?

15. Will you visit from house to house?

Will you know people personally? Will you do more than use them as volunteers? Will you die to self as you care for the souls of your people, counting them as precious (not just as “present”)? Will you set your phone down and sit and listen? Will you hear their failures through the filter of their stories? If you love Jesus, will you feed his sheep?

16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?

If you at any point in your life solemnly and publicly agreed to these nineteen questions and the principles beneath them, I challenge you to stop here and deeply consider whether or not you have kept faith with question #16. Have you? And if not, why?

Maybe Wesley chose to single out this spiritual discipline because it represents the deep end of a healthy list of practices he firmly believed would draw down the grace of God. Those who know how to fast will find the rest of our recommended works of piety and works of mercy much more do-able.

17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?

Wesley said, “Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing!”

18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?

When these questions are asked of ordinands in the opening pastor’s session of Annual Conference, this one always evokes a wave of titters throughout the audience. I suspect that is because many of us, years into ministry, continue to carry stressful debt in the form of student loans. We feel the tension between our tithes and our desires for comfort. We are all too aware that financial stress depletes us and keeps us from wholeheartedly going where Jesus sends. Those who fit that description would do well to heed Dave Ramsey’s challenge to go after a debt-free life with gazelle-like intensity. Nothing purifies motives like a life free from care for money.

19. Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

These are weighty commitments. They remind us that we are no longer our own. Our responsibility is to a community and our personal discipline breeds trust in that community.

Discipline breeds results. It is the foundation of effective ministry which is what we who serve this Church must hunger after.

In the most freeing of ways, Jesus knows us. He hears our hearts. We are passionate about the work of ministry, but our fierce loves and anxious thoughts and wounded hearts are only useful for the Kingdom as they are bridled and broken. Running rampant — no discipline, no boundaries, no direction, no limit, no guiding edges — we only hurt ourselves and others and lose all effectiveness as followers of Jesus.

So Lord, bridle us. For the sake of the Kingdom of God, bridle these servant-leaders in the UMC who long to lead the Body of Christ into the unhindered presence of Christ.

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