A Layperson’s Primer (part three): A Gracious Exit

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Part two is an overview of the four plans being considered at the called General Conference that begins this weekend. This post is about the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made, so that people who have invested heavily in their local ministries can continue their work whatever the outcome of GC2019. Portions of this post were published by the Religion News Service on February 22, 2019. 

For forty years, the United Methodist Church has developed its waiting muscles. We’ve been waiting for decades for a decision around issues of human sexuality to stick — a decision that will release us to move on from this conversation. The last three years have been an especially intense time of waiting. With General Conference now upon us, I sense that none of us has any certainty about how this will shake out. There seems to be a split opinion around three outcomes — either one of the two more likely plans up for consideration will succeed (One Church or Traditional), or no decision will be reached at all due to a bureaucratic logjam (please, Lord, deliver us from this fate!).

My deep hope — more than which plan wins the day — is that an exit ramp will become part of any plan approved. Right now, only one of the three plans proposed provides for an “exit ramp” — a way out for pastors and churches that does not punish them for their choice to leave the “connection” with property and position intact. A “gracious exit” was recommended for all plans by the commission that proposed the three options up for debate; but with one exception, the exit ramp option has been removed (and even that one is so narrow as to be unhelpful). That is discouraging. I so want our tribe to do this differently than others who have gone before us. There is no winning if we are all biting and devouring each other on the other side of this. No one, regardless of their theological position, should be held hostage by a system they cannot live in wholeheartedly.

A gracious exit would allow local churches who find themselves unable to support United Methodist teaching and polity to leave the denomination with all their property and assets in tact. Rather than removing our theological center for the sake of preserving the institution, I want the delegation to remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer in good conscience support.

Why should laypersons insist on a gracious exit provision?

This seems just. How is it possible to change the rules then penalize those who disagree with that change by asking them to surrender assets they’ve poured so much into?

This seems like the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its theological task, not control assets. Freedom suggests we can disagree in love, and hold one another with an open hand. Freedom suggests we can hear one another and hold one another as treasures, not hostages.

This seems like the best way to witness positively to a watching world. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and prove ourselves gracious by refusing to bite and devour one another in the wake of whatever choice is made. This offers a solid public witness while maintaining a clear theological center.

This seems like grace. And grace is what Wesleyans do best. Let’s trust God with how a divestiture might affect the resulting institution(s) while we keep the main thing the main thing.

There are a lot of questions we cannot yet answer because General Conference contains the very unpredictable variable of human emotion (not to mention the winds of the Holy Spirit). It is impossible to know (and probably unhealthy to prognosticate) where we’ll end up. I know we are all more than ready for the process to play itself out and are praying for those we’ve voted in as delegates to get the job done.

Delegates, hear us: we want you to decide something. Many of us would consider it both demoralizing and spiritually disastrous to find we could not lead ourselves out of this crisis.

While we wait, these are my personal prayers:

  • that God will “pluck the brand from the fire.” In other words, that God will do such a miraculous thing in the UMC that we become a revived and renewed evangelical movement as a result of our holy conferencing.
  • that God will turn hearts and enlighten minds.
  • that God will move powerfully at GC2019, speaking healing grace and peace over our leaders.

I hope you will join me in these prayers. I also encourage you — before the closing prayer on Tuesday — to answer this question for yourself: What connects me to the United Methodist Church — institutional loyalty, or a passionate commitment to our theological task? Your answer to that question will go a long way toward helping you know how to personally respond once a decision has been handed down.

Between now and the closing prayer of GC2019, be encouraged not to allow the pressure of the moment to craft your convictions for you. Spend time on your knees, in prayer. Search the scriptures. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where the lines have been pleasantly drawn so you don’t default to what is most convenient, and so you don’t find yourself blown about by every wind of doctrine.

Finally, I encourage you not to allow the spirit of fear to whisper threats or doom into your spirit. My friends, we have been given a spirit of power, love and sound judgment, and now is exactly the time we ought to call on that higher nature. On the other side of this denominational crisis, Christ will still be King. The Kingdom of God will still be forcefully coming. All over the globe, people will still be drawn to the good news about Jesus. We may not know how General Conference ends but we most certainly know how The Story ends.

Jesus wins.

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A Layperson’s Primer (part two): The Choice

These posts are written especially for laypersons and those coming late to the conversation currently stirring within the UMC. Part one focuses on the heart of our current debate: connection. Is it the institutional values and structure that connect us, or is it our theological task? With that question in mind, this post reviews the four plans considered.

Three years ago, the United Methodist General Conference met in Portland, Oregon for its regularly scheduled quadrennial meeting. At that conference, our Bishops called into being a Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) to corporately study and debate our official position on human sexuality. Last summer, the COWF completed its work and made recommendations to the Council of Bishops and General Conference for how a deeply divided denomination might move forward. After a good bit of political wrangling and an internal judicial review, versions of three plans will be deliberated February 23-26 at a special session of General Conference.

A couple of things to note:

  • There are actually four plans being promoted by various groups and concerns within the UMC. Keep reading.
  • A provision for a gracious exit is currently attached to only one “official” plan, and that provision is so narrowly defined as to be unhelpful to those who want to move on after the vote.
  • Consequently, other petitions have been submitted asking the Conference to consider some kind of workable provision for a gracious exit for those who cannot abide whatever decision is made at General Conference.
  • Three of the four plans have been reviewed by the United Methodist Judicial Council (the fourth plan was not reviewed because it was not part of the Commission’s recommendation), which means we can hope a vote taken at General Conference will not be overturned.

As mentioned, three plans were recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. A fourth plan, The Simple Plan, has also been submitted as a petition to be considered. Here’s a snapshot of each plan:

The One Church Plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine their own guidelines on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Connectional Conference Plan divides United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan.

The Traditionalist Plan (now modified after action by the Judicial Council) maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, calls for greater accountability, and provides a gracious (but narrowly defined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language.

The Simple Plan — not crafted by the COWF but petitioned by United Methodists for the Simple Plan — removes all language from the Book of Discipline pertaining to human sexuality and gender, clearing the way for same-sex marriage ceremonies, the ordination of LGBTQIA+ persons, and their inclusion at every level in the life of the church.

Filter these four plans through the question posed in the opening paragraph of this post: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? Both the One Church and Connectional Conference Plans focus more on institutional preservation at the expense of theological clarity. They call for United Methodists to set aside personal values for the sake of institutional unity, making our shared structure the foundation of our connection.

Ironically, the plans on either end of the spectrum have much in common in terms of what they represent. Both the Traditional and Simple Plans are crafted around the idea that what matters to a United Methodist is what we believe. Both plans emphasize a particular (though opposing) biblical interpretation. Both provide theological clarity on the other side of a vote. While I disagree with the theology around the Simple Plan, I have to respect the integrity of those who are committed to a clear theological position.

So I ask again: What connects us — institutional values and structure, or our theological task? I am convinced that it is our theological task that binds us together. Methodism’s great contribution to the world is our brand of systematic theology — our approach to grace, the spiritual disciplines, our classical interpretation of scripture, our gathering of souls into sanctifying communities (promoting the process of sanctification all the way through to being made perfect in love in this life), our insistence on personal and social holiness. This is our distinctive. This is what makes all the rest of it worth it.

What’s more, I believe theological clarity around this historical expression of faith can breed revival. This is not hopeful emotionalism. Look around the world. In those places where clarity of conviction has been demanded of those who follow Jesus, Christianity is growing. We praise God for the explosive growth of Methodism in Africa, for example. Meanwhile, in those places where moral relativism and pluralism are the prevailing culture, Christianity withers.

I am praying that at the end of the day, our General Conference body will hear that global resonance and choose a resounding and renewed commitment to our theological task. Those who cannot abide this task as it stands should be free to find or establish another tribe, so we can get back to the work of welcoming and advancing the Kingdom of God.

The world is waiting for a clear and fair account of the gospel, my friends. Let’s give the world nothing less.

(Part three of this series of blogs deals with the grace that needs to be attached to whatever decision is made at GC2019.)

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A Layperson’s Primer for 2019 General Conference (part one): The Connection

If you are a United Methodist coming late to our current conversation, you may not be aware of how our structure fits together. Here is a brief UMC primer on how we are connected, from your local United Methodist church to this month’s gathering in St. Louis.

The local church is the heart and soul of Methodism and the basic unit of our structure. We are not a “congregational” tradition like, for instance, the Southern Baptist Convention. We are connected to each other and our decisions impact one another.

Every United Methodist church is part of a district. Districts gather three or four times a year and are presided over by District Superintendents, who function as an extension of the Bishop’s office.

Every district is part of an Annual Conference, a term representing both a geographical area and an annual gathering. An Annual Conference gathering is made up of equal parts laity and clergy who vote on matters important to their connection. Both the gathering and the geographical area are presided over by a Bishop.

Every Annual Conference belongs to a jurisdiction. A jurisdiction is a larger geographical area that encompasses a number of annual conferences. Jurisdictional conferences meet every four years. The most important thing jurisdictional conferences do is elect bishops. There are also what is known as Central Conferences, areas beyond the U.S., including Africa, Europe and the Philippines (don’t ask me about South America; it’s complicated).

The Central and Jurisdictional Conferences, along with a host of boards and agencies, together make up the General Conference. Every four years, delegates from every conference area come together to discuss the structure, doctrine and missional focus of the UMC. The General Conference is presided over by a Council of Bishops but decisions are made by the body itself, not by the bishops. Our last regular General Conference was held in 2016. Our next regular conference will be in 2020. The one held this year is a “special session of the General Conference.” This has only happened one other time since the UMC formed in 1968.

Ours is a global connection. Remember that we’ve said that the local church is the basic unit of our structure. “Connection” ends up being an important term for how all our churches and conferences relate. Being connectional means that none of us who lead in the UMC can up and make decisions in a vacuum. We belong to a global family held together by a covenantal structure. As with families, denominations (and churches, and businesses, and pretty much anything else that involves people) have huge disagreements and personality conflicts. And like families, no one really understands yours except the ones who are in it. Our connection is deep and personal.

What makes a family is that connection. It is that intangible you can’t quite define but when it is there, you know it. The United Methodist Church was designed to be like that. When we talk about the places where we disagree and what is on the table at this year’s General Conference, that question of connection is beneath all the other questions.

Are we connected? If we are not, then everyone is free to have their own opinion and go their own way. If we are not connected, at least one of the plans (ironically called “The One Church Plan”) makes sense. It fits a congregational structure. But if we are connected then whether we end up agreeing or not, we are required to live respectfully with one another inside a set of expectations. If we can’t do so, then the right step is to step out.

That question of connection and accountability is at the heart of the current crisis within the UMC.  The most volatile issue to be discussed (and has been for forty years) is human sexuality and its connection to marriage and ordination. We have reached an impasse but more than an impasse, actually. Those who disagree with our current statements on human sexuality have already chosen to ignore our Book of Discipline. Others have long since set aside orthodox tenets like the exclusive nature of Jesus as the Messiah and the global nature of the gospel. These are not secrets. People speak openly about their disagreement with big chunks of our core theology. That certainly calls into question the integrity of continuing on as if we are connected theologically when in fact, we are not.

In order to maintain our connection, we must restate our covenant. After decades of discussion, the issues that divide us must be finally, peacefully decided so we can move on. The disruption to ministry and souls demands a decision this time around.

Are we connected … or not? In other words, are we accountable to one another or not? The answer to that question determines how we define the local church, the global church and what exactly makes us Methodist.

Part two focuses on the four plans being considered at GC2019.

Part three focuses on the grace that needs to be part of whatever decision is made.

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A Year for the UMC

You’ve heard the old saying, “Wherever you go, there you are.” For the UMC, this maxim has proven sadly too true. As 2019 opens, we stand on the verge of a called General Conference that promises (threatens? hopes? fears?) to bring to a head forty years of debate on the foundational theology of our tribe. We have been here before, multiple times. We have made these decisions multiple times.But here we are, grasping for some way forward that manages to avoid the implosion of a 13 million member institution. On the way here, we’ve called for commissions and holy conferencing and have done our level best to enter this year with some plan that brings peaceful resolution to our deep divide. As it turns out, no matter how we have tried to spin this or resolve it, wherever we go, there we are. We are stuck.

So now what? February’s historic called General Conference will convene in St. Louis to discuss various proposals for restructuring. Given the options, it is likely no one will leave that gathering with a sense of resolution. If the way forward stalls, we will all be disappointed. The prayer for us who are watching with interest should be first of all for deliverance from a bureaucratic quagmire. I genuinely hope we are all just fed up enough to stretch for a decision that allows us truly to move on from where we are.

It must begin with Jesus (and nothing less). I will never get past this point. Until we deal with Jesus, nothing else matters. A colleague writing to me in response to something he’d seen online said we’d probably preach similar messages about what Jesus does, but when pressed about who Jesus is, he’d have to say, “I don’t know. It just seems out of character with the God I’ve come to know … to insist upon the use of particular doctrines or names as an admission ticket …”

I respect this difference, and see it as just that. He and I don’t agree on the very fundamental nature of Jesus and what it means to express faith in him. I will say yet again that long before we part ways on lesser issues, we are deeply divided on the nature and role of Jesus. If we spent our General Conference talking about nothing else other than Jesus, I suspect we’d be closer to final schism than we are now. I am convinced that this is the most fundamental dividing line in the United Methodist Church. Long before we part ways on issues of human sexuality, we are already deeply and tragically divided at the point of Wesley’s first question to ordinands: “Have you faith in Christ?” Some among us want to claim a form of Christ that is more ethereal and situational, while others are committed to Jesus as the way, the truth and the life. That distinction matters, because both things cannot be equally true. Either Jesus is Christ for the whole world, or he is Christ for none of it. Our conversations about the substance of mutual ministry must begin here.

It is okay to acknowledge differences (and we can do that without castigating each other). But hear me: it is not okay to minimize what someone else calls a drastic difference. This seems to be the strategic course of those who embrace the One Church Plan. It is to persistently insist that our differences don’t matter but to many of us, they do. By minimizing the differences, we deny clearly unique theological positions the chance to prove their viability. Good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that our current dialogue is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one. To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Theology creates unity (though perhaps not the unity you were hoping for). To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the One Church Plan would reduce the whole of our internal division to one issue. If it were to pass, it seems that United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, we could make a mistake that would take us backward by several decades. This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension. For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. Our differences should not be minimized for the sake of pragmatism.

Let the theology do its work. For years, our tagline in the UMC has been: “Open hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.” Wouldn’t it be something if this year, we led with, “Open Hands.” As in, holding the institution with an open hand as we also hold tenderly those with whom we disagree. Perhaps with a looser grip on the false god of unity-at-all-costs, we can find a way forward that holds our differing theologies with greater integrity and compassion.

My deepest prayer is that we will treat with Spirit-saturated grace anyone who can no longer abide the climate we legislate in February. A second prayer is that we manage to legislate something. This is our year, UMC, to move on from where we are. May we hold grace and courage enough to do so.

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ELCA: foreshadowing a UMC future?

In the United Methodist Church these days, it is all about “the plans.” Three have been recommended by the Commission on a Way Forward. I note them here for reference, with reflections beneath about another denomination’s experience with their version of the One Church Plan:

The Traditionalist Plan: This plan maintains language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, and provides a gracious (but as-yet undefined) exit for those who cannot in good conscience abide by that language. Those who support this plan are often accused of being schismatic for their unwillingness to bend on what they would call core theological convictions — convictions written into the Book of Discipline and which traditionalists and progressives alike committed to at their ordination.

The One Church Plan: This plan removes language in the Book of Discipline around issues of human sexuality, leaving it to churches to determine what their guidelines will be on issues like membership, marriage of same-sex couples, or ordination of LGBTQ persons. There is no exit ramp attached to this plan, presumably because it allows churches, members and pastors to choose their theology. The lack of a gracious exit reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to have deeply held convictions about the Bible, holiness, marriage and the nature of discipleship. It requires those convictions to submit to the cause of institutional preservation.

The Connectional Conference Plan: This plan corrals United Methodists into three main “camps” — traditionalist, centrist and progressive. These three camps would share affiliated services while being otherwise autonomous though governed by one Council of Bishops. There is no gracious exist attached to this plan, though it also requires a fundamental shift in understanding about what it means to hold core theological convictions. What the One Church Plan requires of laypersons and clergy, the Connectional Conference Plan requires of bishops, requiring them to set aside personal conviction for the sake of institutional preservation.

The One Church and Connectional Conference Plans — by their lack of exit ramp and the assumption that preservation trumps personal conviction — reveal the depth of our divide in the United Methodist Church, a divide that ought to be respected because it refuses to be minimized. Other denominations have proven the power of this kind of theological divide.

A colleague and friend, Reverend Dave Keener, witnessed this firsthand during the similar crisis in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA). Reflecting on the eventual division in the ELCA and its similarities to the current crisis in the UMC, Reverend Keener notes that something similar to the One Church Plan (OCP) was adopted by the ELCA in 2009. “The term they used was ‘bound conscience,’” he writes. “The assembly was assured that the theological and biblical positions of traditionalists and progressives alike would be respected. This did not happen.”

Soon after the vote it became clear to the traditionalists that there was in reality only one acceptable position and it wasn’t theirs. Since the the decisions of 2009 the ELCA has intentionally become more progressive and the traditionalists who remain in that denomination have been marginalized (most exited at the height of the crisis, forming the North American Lutheran Church, or NALC).

It may be helpful to take note of what happened within the ELCA in the aftermath of their adoption of a plan similar to the OCP. These reflections come from my Lutheran colleague:

  • Massive loss in membership. In the seven years after the decision to go against the historic teaching of the church the ELCA lost over one million members. They continue to decline but have not released numbers since 2016.
  • Massive loss of income. In the first few years after the vote the ELCA was forced to lay off hundreds of workers and experienced significant decreases in all areas of funding. Their current income for denominational expenses is less than it was in 1987, the year it was organized.
  • Global impact. Many churches in other parts of the world broke off formal ties with the ELCA — especially in Africa and the East.
  • Loss of confessional identity and loyalty.  It was no longer possible for local pastors to recommend that members who were relocating find an ELCA congregation since there was no longer unity in biblical teaching.
  • Theological education. Since the vote the ELCA has slowly purged itself of orthodox seminary professors. They have had to merge two of their seminaries for financial reasons and have removed one seminary president at the urging of progressive advocacy groups.
  • Diversity. One of the battle cries for the ELCA in making their decision was diversity, inclusion and welcoming. Ironically, according to a Pew research study last year the ELCA is now the second least diverse and multicultural denomination in the USA (96% white). The least diverse is the National Baptist Convention which is 99% African American.
  • Theological drift because of lack of accountability. Since the 2009 decision the denomination has continued to drift. With it’s decision the ELCA lost its ability to speak credibly to any issue. In saying that it doesn’t really matter what the Bible clearly states they reduce it to one resource among many and not God’s revelation to His people. Everything becomes a matter of opinion and soon the scripture has no authority for life. Congregations preaching various forms of universalism are becoming more and more common.
  • Generational impact. This article explains how quickly theology can drift in just one generation, once the theological core of a tribe has been removed.
  • Evangelism and discipleship. See point #1 for stats on loss of membership and attendance. As my friend notes, “Once biblical authority and historical teachings are removed, universalism and cheap grace are not far behind” … and neither breeds evangelistic urgency.

We owe it to ourselves and the thirteen million who call themselves United Methodist to learn from our brothers and sisters in other tribes who have may have tried too hard to hold together what isn’t theologically compatible. May God give us both grace and humility to go where he leads and to refuse the spirit of fear.

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Do you know the General Rules of our Church?

This post is excerpted from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The 19 explores the 19 questions asked of those intending to preach in the Methodist Church since its earliest days. This post features #6: “Do you know the General Rules of our Church?” The General Rules are three simple statements meant to guide life in community among those seeking to grow in faith together.

Three simple rules:

Do no harm.

This seems on the surface like an unnecessary word. Surely, grown adults don’t have to be told to not harm each other … right? Except that we do it all the time. Not in obvious ways, of course. Most of us don’t kill people or do boldly illegal things. We don’t play around with evil on purpose and we try to stay on the right side of the ten commandments. We know how to avoid the more conspicuous harmful things. But it turns out that some of the worst damage is inflicted not by the obvious things but by more subtle forms of unkindness. Greed causes Christians to do harm by making us stingy when we ought to be generous. Fear causes us to be unkind by fostering a lack of trust. Living an undisciplined life can wreak havoc on all our relationships. When we can’t follow through on commitments because we’ve over-committed, and when we don’t honor others’ time because we’re disorganized and unprepared, we frazzle other people and fray our relationships around the edges.

Think honestly about this. Do you use people for your own ambitious ends? Do you stretch yourself to your emotional limits, so that others have to contend with your mood swings? Do you tend to the state of your heart not just for your own sake, but for the sake of doing no harm to others?

Be clear on this: doing no harm does not mean “never disagree.” To the contrary, I’d say that sometimes a refusal to call someone out on their foolishness is the most harmful thing you can do to them, not to mention plain unkind. Who wants to be left to sit in their sin while others use politeness to avoid confrontation?

In the issues being debated in the UMC these days, there is a premium placed on tolerance. Yet, our core value as Christians is not tolerance but holiness. God commanded, “You are to be holy, because I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 20:26, 1 Peter 1:16). Holiness informs my response to the culture around me. My opinions must be rooted in the values of holiness as I find them in the Bible. I don’t interpret the Bible in light of how the world turns. I interpret the world in light of the Bible, even when it means I will look a little crazy by the world’s standards.

Holiness does not give me a pass on practicing a whole host of other character-defining traits — patience, humility, gentleness, endurance, bearing with one another in love. When followers of Jesus take this call to holiness seriously then eventually, they will look less like the world and more like the Kingdom of Heaven in the ways they live life. I pray like crazy that as I live the art of holiness, I will “do no harm,” as Wesley counseled…

Do good.

If doing no harm is the “being” side of community-building, then doing good is the “doing” side. Authentic communities of Christ are doing communities…  It’s not that we work our way to heaven, but without works, there is no proof of what we believe. This is our divine design. Our faith is connected to what we do, and what we do connects us to each other…

Attend to the ordinances of God.

The ordinances of God are what we might call spiritual disciplines or means of grace — things like public worship, ministry of the Word, the Lord’s Supper, family and private prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting or abstinence, meeting together, and caring for the poor. The means of grace are the things I do that lead me more directly under the influence of the Holy Spirit. This rule, then, is a challenge toward spiritual transformation. It is an inspiration to grow more deeply into holiness…

When Wesley asks if we know the General Rules, I suspect he is really asking if we have owned them. When we own them, these rules are not really rules at all. They are our ticket to getting a Kingdom perspective and making a Kingdom investment for the sake of a Kingdom impact. It is one thing to know what is right. It is another thing completely to be committed to it. Am I concerned only for my immediate surroundings — my family, my workplace, my church — or do I have the mindset of a Kingdom Christian? Is my heart yet broken for the whole community of faith? Am I so committed to loving the other that I will hold myself accountable to holy practices that strengthen my own soul and by extension the fabric of the community of Christ?

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When Calvinism Becomes Dangerous

I have great respect for many colleagues in ministry who espouse a reformed or Calvinist view of the world. That said, it should be no surprise to those who read and listen to me regularly that I am enthusiastically and unapologetically Arminian (really interested? Read this book). I am far too deeply committed to the notion of God’s pure love exercised in his gift of human free will to appreciate most of what reformed theologians teach us. I can manage about two  and a half letters of the TULIP; the rest of it does not convince me.

I suspect that at least some of our theological differences are just a matter of how our brains work but there are concepts that cross a line into dangerous territory. Here are three Calvinist ideas I’ve heard voiced in real conversations that cause real damage when spoken into a secular culture:

Misconception #1: God has my days numbered and nothing I do can change that. This line was shared (verbatim) while someone I love was animatedly sharing his participation in some fun but risky behavior. He said, “Listen, I know where I’m going when I die and God knows exactly when that is going to happen and nothing I do can change that.” His point was that since God has already ordained the day of his death, his choices have no power to change his future.

What?

Calvin not only taught that God’s grace is irresistible but that a true believer in Christ cannot possibly fall from grace. And in fact, he took this idea a step further. He believed every detail happens according to the will of God, that even evil people are operating under God’s power so that no matter what a person does, God has caused it.

Maybe on my weak days, I wish this were true. I sometimes wish God would just override my will. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been with people who struggle to believe; in those moments I’d give anything if God would just save them from themselves.

Make them believe, Jesus! Because they’re killing me!

But that isn’t how it works. People come to Christ every day and every day people resist the grace of God. Not only that, but every day people make horrible choices against the will of God that limit the length or joy of their lives.

Our behavior matters. If I smoke two packs of cigarettes  a day, it will affect the length and joy of my life. To persist in such behavior isn’t God’s will, and our behavior matters to God. As Moses said to the Israelites, we have two choices before us — blessings and curses, life and death. “Choose life, that you might live.”

Misconception #2: Everything happens for a reason and all reasons are ordained by God (even the evil ones). I most recently heard this one at the funeral of a young adult who overdosed. How such a hollow statement could have provided comfort to a family dealing with such a tragedy is beyond me. Is even an overdose ordained by God? I can’t imagine the thought of having to endure such a tragedy believing that God had done this to my loved one … or at least blessed it.

Paul’s word to the Romans was that God can work all things together for good for those who love him and are called according to his purpose. There is a ton of solid theology in that one line; it assures me that God can make good out of even my worst mistakes. What it doesn’t tell me is that God causes my mistakes. He can work redemption into a circumstance without causing it.

The fact of God’s sovereignty does not have to mean that God has made toys to play with. People are not puppets. To the contrary, he has made free humans with heads, hearts and wills, “just a little lower than the angels.” I can have  tremendous trust in who God is, in his great love for us and in his power to redeem anything without having to believe that he causes even my worst mistakes and sins.

Misconception #3: Jesus died for the ones he came to save, but not for everyone.
This is how many people deal with the fact that many in the world have never heard and will never hear the name of Jesus. It is because Jesus didn’t die for them. The “L” in TULIP means God’s atonement is limited. A Calvinist would say, “It is not my salvation to get and it is not my salvation to lose. It is Christ’s salvation of me.”

An Arminian would agree. God’s salvation is his gift to us, and nothing we do can generate it. But everyone is offered the gift. Every person on this earth has both the right and the opportunity to have their chains broken, their guilt removed and their value restored. There is no one beyond the reach of his mercy. To think otherwise is to judge someone before Christ himself has had the opportunity to do so.

Salvation is a free gift for everyone. Not everyone will accept that gift, but everyone is offered it. Otherwise, what was the cross for?

This is the strength of His grace. It is that willingness of God to be there no matter what, so that when we awaken to him, he will be there. Grace is that strong willingness of God to bear our stories of rejection and inadequacy, of dark nights and angry days, even our own stories of sin and shame. God’s grace is strong enough to bear the pain we’ve caused others as well as the pain of others we feel. God is there through all of it. That is what it means to be sovereign. God has been there the whole time, watching and in his strength, waiting.

And God knows what you are made of and God knows what you’ve been though. And that same God has never once given up on you, not even once.

 

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The Methodist Middle or the Global Center?

On any given Sunday, United Methodist churches gather to worship God in nearly 60 nations around the globe. Across multiple time zones, languages and cultures, our tribe attempts to be a witness to Christ in a hurting world. The one entity – and the only entity — that speaks for that international witness is the General Conference, a global body. It is smack dab in the center of what it means to be United Methodist.

Regrettably, that body — and our United Methodist Church — is in a season of crisis. The Greek word krisis means “to separate, distinguish, judge,” and can apply to both positive and negative experiences. A crisis can be an opportunity to shake loose the needless and redeem the needful. I am convinced that all of us in the UM Church, no matter what theological position we take, are hoping for a positive end to a crisis-heavy season.

A group of clergy within our denomination have recently organized themselves under the banner of the Methodist Middle. For those of us supportive of the global Methodist center, we welcome these voices. This is a big denomination and everyone should have an opportunity to be heard.

It is charitably fair to assume that the Methodist Middle was not looking for a crisis. Who would? While they’ve been more hopeful, progressives and conservatives (or traditionalists or orthodox believers), have felt the pressure of a growing tension. Truth be told, those in the Middle have felt it, too, though in a different way. They’ve struggled to hold the tensions together in one hand and may even consider themselves the voice of tempered reason in a world of extremes. It must be frustrating to find themselves now — after years of asking us not to take sides — creating a “side.” As the Middle organizes and communicates with the average layperson, allow me to make a few observations and one appeal.

Unity can’t be the goal. 

First, it seems as if the Middle is asking the people in the pews to make theology less important than unity. To those who pay attention, it sounds as if the Middle wants the entire global denomination to adopt and/or accept a liberal position on human sexuality. In exchange, it seems, United Methodism would keep much of the rest of our theology in tact. By suggesting this path, the Middle seems to be reducing the crisis down to one issue — a mistake that would take us backward by several decades.

This kind of proposal turns a blind eye to the widening and pervasive theological gap that has been developing over decades. To say that orthodox believers only want to “win” on this one issue is to vastly over-simplify a long history of the erosion of our values. Likewise, to say that progressives are defined by this one issue alone is to ignore the depth and breadth of progressive theology — a worldview that influences how one views the Bible, humanity and even Divinity Itself, especially the divinity of Jesus as it pertains to his birth, death, resurrection and ascension.

For theologians — and all pastors are theologians — these distinctions matter, and not just to conservatives. They matter to anyone who has given their life and vocation to the work of caring for souls. It is damaging to everyone and to the work we take so seriously if we minimize all the theological differences and decide instead that for the sake of unity, we should reduce ourselves to a few simplistic and practical ideas.

Whether you are progressive, middle or conservative, what you believe matters. What you teach matters. Those things should not be minimized. This is the essence of our faith.

Whose Bible is it?

Second, my friends in the Middle are missing the opportunity to challenge the average layperson to really think about how they read the Bible. For instance, the Upper New York Annual Conference floated a resolution this year* condemning the work of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (of which I’m a member). Whatever their motivation, the statement they produced was actually very helpful in drawing the distinctions that exist among us. In their document they noted: “progressives/ liberals/ reconciling United Methodists use a faith paradigm that utilizes historical-critical biblical analysis, recognizes the Bible and the gospels as human products that are the result of historical processes, views much of the Bible as metaphorical with a more than literal meaning (a surplus of meaning) and looks to the Bible for what it can tell us about Jesus and God and the character of God that we are to emulate … ” Many progressives would go further to say that God’s revelation is not fixed but “progressive” — still unfolding and not bound by the tenets of scripture.

Upper New York had a point to make in their disapproval of the WCA, but let’s be clear: their take on the Bible does not speak for United Methodists worshipping in 60 nations around the globe. Their voice should not be dismissed; to the contrary, it needs to be placed in context. The Upper New York clergy who signed that statement have invested themselves into a fundamentally different perspective from an orthodox understanding of Scripture which views all of Scripture as true, using a variety of literary styles to convey that truth. We believe the Bible includes an historic account of God’s work in the world (conservatives use “faithful” to characterize our reading, rather than “literal”), and that it is Living Word and contains all that is needed for faith and life. The current crisis in the UM Church is an opportunity to deeply examine how we read the Bible, how we understand what it calls us toward, the power it has to guide us.

And central to that reading is what we do with Jesus.

Which Jesus do we follow?

“All intersections point to Jesus. We don’t know about His personal life – I believe that Jesus was Queer, Black and Poor.” That was the declaration of a United Methodist youth pastor at a “Gather at the River” conference hosted by a progressive group within the UM Church.

Although my Methodist Middle friends would cringe at the use of such an extreme example, please hear me out. This statement exposes the gravity of difference between two world views. To minimize these differences or to assume we can duct-tape them together with polity is to miss the mark and disrespect those who give their lives for precisely these kinds of beliefs.

The man who made this statement calls himself Methodist. So do I. But our understanding of Jesus (and Methodism, I’m guessing) couldn’t be further apart if we tried. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a New Testament scholar anywhere on the spectrum who would define Jesus as Queer, Black and Poor. Actually, Jesus was a middle-eastern Jewish man, born into a specific context at a specific time in history. Orthodox believers assert that he came in order to do battle with the spiritual forces that created our fallenness. He is not a metaphor for all the good in the world. He was and is flesh-and-blood, mysteriously fully God and fully man. The resurrected and ascended Jesus — Son of the Living God — sits at the right hand of God the Father. He died and rose for the sake of breaking the power of sin and death. Sinless himself, he is on the side of the sinner – queer, straight, black, white, poor, rich. He has compassion for the one who is oppressed. He has a preference for the poor, but he is not some nebulous idea or Transformer toy who becomes who we need him to be, even when those needs are contradictory from person to person.

If we refuse to acknowledge these vast differences in belief, we are actually refusing to hear each other. We are the like the co-dependent mother who refuses to believe any of her children might do anything wrong. It simply isn’t healthy. The Middle may mean well, but good lay people in congregations around the country deserve to understand that this crisis is more than just a struggle to agree on one issue or get along like children in the back seat of a car. They deserve a clear explanation of the deep theological differences so they can claim an educated spot on the spectrum and not just an emotional one.

To offer them anything less would be, in my estimation, irresponsible discipleship.

Whose fault is it? 

There is a misconception that the conservative wing is fixated on preserving the past but nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is that the past has been institutionalized and even petrified. Conservatives and progressives alike are hungry to move forward. It is which direction forward we’re debating. As we have come to realize, there is a tremendously important distinction between the global center of Methodism and the progressive-leaning Methodist Middle found regionally in the U.S.

So … do we change to accommodate a world no longer in step with many American United Methodists or with the American culture at large? Or do we commit to holding a theological line at our global center, refusing to cross over into territory not in keeping with historic Christianity, the theological principles of the Book of Discipline as they stand, or global, orthodox Christianity?

These questions shape our current crisis and are forcing us out of stagnation. It makes me wonder if God himself is the author of this crisis; if so, we ought not to avoid it.

But it seems so simple … 

Many will hear the voice of the Methodist Middle with a sigh of relief. It seems to make the issue so clear and simple. “Yes! Can’t we just agree to disagree on this one issue and still live together?” Those with that hope will gather in the Middle and wait for the storm to pass.

What those hopeful souls are missing is that their choice to place their confidence in this group will eventually lump them together with the vast majority of progressives in the United States who will also embrace the ethos of the Middle. The average Methodist who just wants their church to stay the same won’t see how their choice may send them over the edge into a progressive world they didn’t sign on for.

And this is my appeal to my friends in the Methodist Middle. It is a plea for full disclosure. In your conversations with local congregations, please don’t hold back from telling the whole story. Please don’t reduce our current crisis to something akin to a paper cut needing a bandaid when it is more like a canyon-sized gap. By minimizing the differences, we may stifle a crisis that is actually our opportunity — if we’re bold enough to accept change as a good thing — to give clearly unique theological positions a chance to live with more integrity and to prove themselves by their fruit.

According to the Scripture, after the ascension of Jesus, the disciples began to preach boldly this good news about the Messiah and it enraged the Pharisees. They decided they would stifle it by killing Jesus’ followers. They might have succeeded early on, but Gamaliel appealed to their higher nature. He reminded them of others who had popped up with innovative ideas, only to see them eventually fizzle out. Given those experiences, Gamaliel urged his colleagues to let the theology do its work. “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail,” he said. “But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38b-39).

My friends in the Methodist Middle, let the theology do its work. Let’s be honest about the diverse collection of differences we now share and consider the way forward that best preserves both the integrity of United Methodism and the freedom of those who no longer fit comfortably within this tradition.

Again I say, let the Holy Spirit do His work.

 

*An earlier version of this post stated that this resolution passed. That is my error. I understand it was narrowly defeated, replaced by a revised resolution denouncing schism. The point stands: there is a segment of United Methodist leaders who believe in the statement mentioned enough to promote it to their conference. Their resolve further illuminates the theological diversity.

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