This is not that: Glide and the UMC

To my friends beyond the United Methodist Church, thanks for your patience while I dig a little today into an issue currently circulating in my denomination. This post falls into that category of “UMC insider news.”

Glide Memorial United Methodist Church is a high-profile congregation and non-profit ministry in San Francisco. From what I gather it has a creative structure that allows the church maximum exposure to the community through a non-profit side that has operated since the 1960s. That side of their ministry doesn’t seem to be part of the present debate. The issue seems to be with Glide as a UM church. Recent communication between Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Glide representatives indicate a growing concern over ministry practices that Carcaño believes fall outside the purview of mainline Methodism. Representatives of Glide have responded to her concerns by questioning its future with the UMC.

My intention here is not to weigh in on this debate but to draw some broader conclusions that surface because of this story. It raises lessons and cautions as the whole church continues to wrestle with whether there is a way forward that keeps all local churches in the denomination.

Methodists are not universalists. This has been a recurring theme for me, so I’m interested to note that this is where Bishop Carcaño’s concern is focused. She has said that Glide’s Sunday celebrations are not United Methodist services. She cites the varied faiths represented in their Sunday celebrations (Hindu, Buddhist, etc), and notes that this theological diversity has gone beyond hospitality to theological pluralism. Meanwhile, representatives from Glide have made much of the day they took the cross out of their sanctuary.

To welcome folks from any faith into our worship services is commendable; to exclude Christ for the sake of including everyone else does not support our stated mission. This is precisely why I have contended that the future of the UMC begins not with human sexuality but with Jesus. What we do with the nature of Jesus Christ — this is the headwaters of our current conflict. If we differ on the nature of Jesus and the means of salvation, we might as well end our conversation there. The classic, orthodox understanding of Jesus, supported by our United Methodist Articles of Religion and the historic creeds, is that Jesus is the exclusive way to the Father. From our own Articles of Religion: “The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone” (Article XX). Our mission as United Methodists is to preach the gospel given us by eye-witness disciples of Christ himself.

Incarnational ministry is not the same as contextualization. My concern lately has been the misuse of the term “contextualization,” especially in the service of the proposed One Church Model. In the words of Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Now, let me say clearly that I’m all about contextualizing the message so it connects with the people, but contextualizing is not the same as “gutting” the message, any more than changing the wrapping paper is the same as changing the gift inside. When some use the term contextualization as the argument, they would have us believe the only way forward is to minimize basic beliefs. In other words, we’re being asked not just to change the wrapping paper, but to remove the gift inside, allowing for outright contradictions to exist among us for the sake of being all things to all people. This misuse of the term will only serve to remove the theological  center of our tradition in the name of preserving the institution.

In the world of missions and evangelism, this is not what contextualization means at all. We might benefit from remembering a few definitions:

Syncretism is the attempt to blend different religions or world views together. Think “melting pot.” That is often the “feel” of universalism, and it sounds very much like Bishop Carcaño’s concern with Glide. Pluralism is about coexistence of principles or groups in a common space. Think “quilt.” Methodists are not syncretists, pluralists or universalists. This isn’t just an assumption; in 1972, we added the word “pluralism” to our Book of Discipline. In 1988 we removed it, having endured years a failed experiment.

Contextualization is the expression of a message in ways that make sense to the local culture using appropriate cultural forms. Think “parable.” Incarnation is about the posture of the person who takes a message into a cultural context in a way that serves both the message and the people hearing it. Think “Jesus.”

Contextualization in the missional sense of the term means making the good news about Jesus Christ accessible. It does not mean changing the message to make it more palatable. As a friend in the mission world says, “Contextualism without the centrality of Christ and the authority of Scripture dissolves into plain relativism and your truth is as good as mine.”

In other words, contextualization without incarnation will not produce transformation. In our conversations about the way forward, we must be careful about our use of terms so as not to make the idea of a watered-down gospel more appealing for the sake of institutional preservation. In that equation, no one wins — certainly not the one waiting to open a gift of good news.

A gracious exit is not the same as giving up. I have read Glide’s recent public letters and sympathize with the struggle of their leadership. They are asking good questions. Are they still United Methodist in their approach to ministry? Is this partnership still productive for them? Glide President and CEO Karen Hanrahan says, “The reality is that over the past decades, we’ve evolved so that about 95 percent of what we do is programs and services and about five percent is as a church.” And now, they have to ask themselves, “Does the five percent actually inform, in any meaningful way, the other 95 percent?” From what I’ve read, I would think not. So what they need are options that don’t destroy what they’ve built and truly invested themselves in.

And this is where their situation intersects with an important piece of our denominational debate. How do we provide a gracious way out for those who simply cannot abide the prevalent values of the UMC? Friends, an exit ramp is important … for all of us. After months of discussion within the Commission on a Way Forward, this was clearly their conclusion. Without an exit ramp, we will inevitably hold some section of our denomination hostage. And for what?

An exit ramp 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, let’s remove the restrictions that bind unwilling churches to a system they can no longer, in good conscience, support. This is the spirit of the freedom we espouse as followers of Jesus. The role of the denomination should be to guard and promote its mission, not control the assets of local churches. We are not in the real estate business, nor are we designed for vindictiveness or control. By providing a gracious exit, we support viable ministry and offer a solid witness while maintaining a clear theological center. This, folks, is how love wins.

I hope and trust Bishop Carcaño and the people of Glide Memorial set an example for all of us in this contentious and uncertain season. If necessary, let us give congregations the grace and space to honestly and prayerfully discern whether they can continue to walk forward with the United Methodist Church. If they cannot, let us wish them well as they attempt to discern what God is doing in their midst.

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The Church is the Hope of the World (because Jesus is).

God likes churches, which all by itself says a lot about the unfathomable patience of God. Church people have a bit of a reputation for challenging the limits of good sense. Thom Rainer, President of LifeWay, did a Twitter poll a few years ago asking pastors to share their best stories of things church people fight over. He posted his favorites from the literally hundreds he received.

Some arguments we can almost imagine, like the discussion over the appropriate length of the worship pastor’s beard or whether or not he ought to wear shoes on stage. I’m not saying these are legitimate arguments, but that I can imagine people airing strong opinions. The comments I get about clothing and hair never cease to amaze.

Other arguments seem ridiculous even for church people. Some church members left their church because one church member hid the vacuum cleaner from them. And there was an argument over the type of filing cabinet to purchase and another over the type of green beans the church should serve. Two different churches reported fights over the type of coffee. In one, they moved from Folgers to a stronger Starbucks brand; in the other, they simply moved to a stronger blend. In both cases, people left the church over this. Then there was the disagreement over using the term “potluck” instead of “pot blessing.” And (my personal favorite) whether the church should allow deviled eggs at the church meal.

And this is what God has chosen as his primary vehicle for saturating the world with the gospel. In fact, he calls it his bride. God doesn’t just like the Church; he loves the Church. He married us. He isn’t just putting up with us. He wants us. Stunning, isn’t it? So when Jesus ascended into Heaven after his resurrection, he sent the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit’s work is to build the Church on earth. By revealing Jesus Christ as Messiah of the world, the Holy Spirit builds churches. Why? Because God has chosen the Church as his primary vehicle for saturating the world with the gospel, which is why in much of the world, the church is a very dangerous idea.

The 2018 World Watch List from Open Doors estimates that one in twelve Christians live where their faith is “illegal, forbidden, or punished.”

  • So far this year, 3,066 Christians have been killed, 1,252 abducted, 1,020 raped or sexually harassed, and 793 churches have been attacked.
  • North Korea is at the top of the list for persecution. “It is illegal to be a Christian in North Korea and Christians are often sent to labor camps or killed if they are discovered,”
  • Afghanistan ranks number two on the number of persecutions.
  • Six countries are on the World Watch list because of dictatorial paranoia. Five made the list for religious nationalism.
  • Communist and post-Communist oppression caused four nations to make the watch list, and organized crime and corruption put two others in the top fifty.
  • Pakistan recorded the most violence against Christians last year and was the worst in terms of church attacks, abductions, and forced marriages.

In so many other places in the world, church folks are not arguing over why the youth group used the crock pot to make cheese dip (true story). In most places in the world, church folks are waking up every day prepared to die. And yet, no other religion is growing at the rate of Christianity. In fact, countries seeing the greatest rate of growth in Christian conversions are also ranked highest in their rate of persecuting Christians.

The Church is the hope of the world, because  Jesus is.

It is, as a pastor in Hong Kong has said, “the most influential, counter-cultural and enduring organization that has ever existed in all of history.” There are more than 2 billion members worldwide — a third of the world’s population, up 300% in the last 100 years. As an entity, it is the biggest organization on the planet, twice as big as Facebook (which, by the way, is on the decline).

Meanwhile, the global growth of evangelical Protestants since 1940 has increased at three times the world’s population rate.  Compare that with atheism, the only belief system that has declined. Despite what it must feel like in our own culture some days, the Church is holding her own.

My friends, God is at work all around us — in ways we cannot imagine, don’t even know to look for. And the Church is where the Lord God does his best work. Maybe not in your church, mind you — which ought to make you think (and act) — but in and through The Church, Jesus is proving himself Lord … over and over again.

The Church is God’s home on earth — his Bride, his people — so we’d better fall in love with the Church. She is how God has chosen to organize his slow-burning but ever-advancing global revolution … one life at a time.

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Grow Up, People.

” … speaking the truth in love,
we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …” – Ephesians 4:15

This line in Paul’s letter to the church at Ephesus should come with sound effects, like a siren or an alarm. Something to warn you it’s coming so you can duck. This line is a revolution in twenty-one words. A trumpet blast announcing the charge on my immaturity and yours.

Speak truth in love, Paul says, like anyone even knows what that means any more. We’ve become so used to spin, which is incredibly detrimental to real community. We’ve learned to couch everything for personal gain, so that the norm for public discourse is much more argument than advocacy. More about my own provision and protection than the common good.

So much public discourse in this season is flatly immature and appeals to the most childish side of us. It appeals to our fears and encourages emotional reaction. It goads us into personal attacks and stifles the prophetic voice. Meanwhile, real truth wrapped in real love requires real trust and real maturity. Does Paul not get that?

Do I?

Grow up in every way, he presses. Every way. Not just the convenient ways — the places where it is more fun to be of age than not — but in every way. In speech and silence, in public and private, in submission and responsibility. In love, power and self-discipline. Maybe especially self-discipline.

In other words, Paul counsels, act like adults. Which flies in the face of so much that comes at us from every other direction. We’re encouraged to pander to our inner child, to coddle his or her pain beyond good sense, to keep putting Spiderman band-aids on gaping childhood wounds so we never actually have to heal. We are encouraged to a state of arrested development, spending far more time accommodating the child we used to be than encouraging the adult we can become.

It is time to grow up, Paul says. Heal. Move on. We will never get to the richness that is the good life if we never challenge ourselves to maturity.

In Peter Scazzero’s book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, he talks about how common it is to find immaturity in leadership, so that we’ve learned to accept that:

  • You can be a dynamic gifted speaker for God in public and be an unloving spouse and parent at home.
  • You can function as a church council member or pastor and be unreachable, insecure, and defensive.
  • You can memorize entire books of the New Testament and still be unaware of your depression and anger, even displacing it on other people.
  • You can fast and pray a half-day each week, for years as a spiritual discipline and constantly be critical of others, justifying it as a discernment.
  • You can lead hundreds of people in a Christian ministry while driven by a deep personal need to compensate for a nagging sense of failure.
  • You can be outwardly cooperative at church but unconsciously try to undercut or defeat your supervisor by coming habitually late, constantly forgetting meetings, withdrawing and becoming apathetic, or ignoring the real issue behind why you are hurt and angry.

Scazzero says we’ve come to expect these things in the community of Jesus. We’ve normalized the unhealthy. In fact, in his rants about spiritual leadership in the first century, Jesus himself called these very behaviors roadblocks to God’s Kingdom (see Matthew 23:13).

That’s quite a charge. A roadblock that stops my growth is bad enough, but roadblocks are not discerning. What I’ve done to block my own growth may end up blocking the spiritual maturing of others. My refusal to grow up in every way into Him, who is my Head, can actually stunt or stop the growth of the people around me. Which is no small matter. How selfish would I have to be in order to allow that?

Don’t glide too quickly past this truth: When I refuse growth in myself, I deny growth in others. This may well be a key not only to unlocking your own way forward, but also to finding more wholesome, productive place within the community of faith.

Who knew that growing up could be such a revolutionary act?

What evidence do the people closest to you have that there is actually an adult living in your adult-sized body? What evidence do your Facebook friends have that you’re a mature follower of Jesus? What would you have to relinquish in order to grow up in every way into Him, who is your Head?

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Seeking higher ground: Conversations in the UMC

As conversations around the future of the UMC heat up in this Annual Conference season, I hold a prayer that we will elevate our discourse above the level of emotion. Here are a few things I’d like to hear in discussions around what comes next:

Let’s talk Christologically. Does the conversation about the future of the UMC begin with Jesus? If my experience is any indication, then the Lordship of Jesus–the exclusive nature of Jesus–is where we in the United Methodist Church part ways long before we ever get to the topic of sexual ethics. In the UMC, there is a great divergence around the nature and role of Jesus Christ; yet, we spend all our energy on other things. We rarely acknowledge what is. What is, for those of us who embrace an orthodox understanding of faith and truth, is that Jesus is the most true being. Those of us who are committed to absolute truth (and that Jesus alone embodies that Truth) also believe deep in our spirits that the people we like and the people we have feelings for and the people for which we have great compassion and the people we want to see living holy lives and the people we want to see in Heaven are not the authors of our faith. The author of our faith is Jesus Christ. In other words, we have a Person-centered faith, not a people-centered faith. Our conversations must reflect this “Kingdom down” perspective while resisting the urge of a “humanity up” perspective. If we start with Jesus Christ, I suspect we will find plenty to discuss and (grievously) much on which we fundamentally disagree.

Let’s talk biblically. Are our debates rooted in scripture? We all live under the same blue sky. Anyone who is practicing faith in Christ with love and integrity is in relationship with people … all kinds of people. We are all navigating all kinds of relationships and stories and we want God’s best for people we love. We who are pastors contend for souls daily. However, theological tents are not built on a foundation of who we know, love and want included. If we are going to talk about the future of the UMC, let’s talk biblically and not just anecdotally. When the Minnesota Annual Conference chooses to substitute the name for God in the Apostle’s Creed, that provides plenty of fodder for discussion. Does an official United Methodist entity have the right to change something as fundamental as the biblical terms of our creed? After all, Methodism is a defined theology. There are lines we can not cross while remaining true to our tradition.

Let’s talk globally. Do our discussions about unity take into account the global nature of the UMC? Let’s talk about John 3:16. Jesus told us that God so loved the world that he gave his Son. The world, not just our corner of it. Let’s discuss the values of the typical follower of Jesus anywhere on the African continent, or in the Philippines, or South America. Do we understand that a call to unity that doesn’t include them is not a call to unity at all in a global connection? Please understand that a decision to wrap ourselves around an American cultural ethic will alienate us from an African UMC. An American church that has separated from our global connection is far more detrimental to our personality and theology as a denomination than any decision to uphold our Book of Discipline as it stands. You and I are not the only ones deciding whether we stay or go. There are a world of people making that choice … literally. In fact, they are contending in ways we cannot fathom. One African brother told me, “I wake up every morning prepared to die.” I thank God we are a global connection and that my friend’s drive to wake up daily contending for the faith is part of who we are. But as I’ve said myself, anecdotes won’t win the day so let’s talk about Revelation 7:9. That’s how we’ll guard against cultural drift. If you want to talk about unity, make certain we include the global connection in that conversation.

Let’s talk systemically. Are we thinking centered sets or bounded sets? This would make for great conversation in this season. The concept of “centered sets” and “bounded sets” emerges from the mission field (you can read about it here or here), and it describes what happens when communities choose “bounded set,” “fuzzy set,” or “open set” thinking over “centered set” thinking. Bounded sets draw a line between the world and the congregation. Open sets have no boundaries at all. Fuzzy sets thrive on a lack of clarity. But centered sets cast a clear vision for a community’s values, then invite folks to orient toward those values.

Centered-set thinking reminds me that the responsibility for a person’s orientation toward the truth is theirs, not mine. Likewise, it is not for me to widen the tent pegs to make sure everyone is inside, never mind the direction they are pointed. I am responsible for pointing toward the center of my set; so are you. How far I am from that center is not the issue so much as whether I am pointed toward or away from the agreed-upon center. Centered-set communities allow adults to take responsibility for their choices as well as their spiritual progress. What it does not allow for is changing the center to suit your tastes. Be where you are, but don’t ask others to change direction so you don’t have to.

Let’s talk eschatologically. Do our discussions rest on the assurance that the Church of Jesus Christ will continue undeterred from its mission, whatever is decided by this denomination? Let’s talk about how our ecclesiology can be better rooted in our eschatology. Remember that the Church extends nearly 2000 years further back than the fifty-year history of the UMC. The next iteration of our tribe (whether it is some altered version of the UMC or something else) will be robust and hopeful. We know this, because we know how the story ends. Jesus wins. His Church (the Body of Christ on earth) can’t be killed. We may be rearranging chairs on a deck, but we are not on the Titanic. Methodist theology will continue (there are 80 million Methodists of varying flavors in the world and 279 million Pentecostals; our tribe is not going anywhere and in fact, is growing in other places). I am committed to the process of The Commission on a Way Forward and certainly to our brand of theology; but if our denomination makes a fundamental shift away from the values of historic Christianity, I am not fearful of what comes next. The gospel of Jesus Christ will keep right on rolling toward His second coming and I’ll do my best to keep pace because I  don’t want to get left behind.

Let’s talk health … not just survival. Being unequivocal about our beliefs and values is simply good relational work. We must all decide in these days where our boundaries are; to have none is simply not Methodist. Nor is it healthy. This is the fundamental problem with the “one church” proposal. It may support survival, but for all the reasons above it isn’t healthy. I contend it isn’t even Methodist. My friends in Christ, sound theology is worth the fight. Setting clear values and making a firm statement about what they are does not mean giving up; it means we care. What progress we could make if we choose to elevate our conversations to the level of theology over institutionalism or emotionalism, respecting each other even as we expect folks who commit to a covenant to keep it. Without that expectation, there can be no health.

As I head to Annual Conference this week, I’m looking forward to robust conversations and pray that we will all seek higher ground.

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How men can support women leaders

The story is often told of a time when Bill Gates was speaking to a group of Saudi Arabian businessmen and political leaders. Most in the room were men; any women present were veiled and sat in a separate section according to custom. After his speech, Gates took questions, during which time an audience member commented on the rank of Saudi Arabia in the field of technology, asking what Gates thought might lift his country into the top ten globally.

“Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates responded, noting the paucity of females present, “you’re not going to get too close to the top ten.”¹

It is not news that women lag behind men in leading in both secular and sacred arenas. What may not be so obvious is that the progress of women toward narrowing that gap has slowed and in some cases stalled in recent years. This is just as true in the business sector as in the religious sector. Consider the results of these studies:

  • According to the 2013 Catalyst Census conducted by Fortune Magazine, there was no increase in the number of women in executive positions, with women holding less than fifteen percent of executive roles.
  • According to The National Congregations Study conducted by Duke University, pastors in America are becoming more diverse and older but since 1998 they have not become more female.
  • Dawn Wiggins Hare with the Commission on the Status and Role of Women reports that the number of women clergy in the United Methodist Church has not increased since 2009.
  • A National Congregations Study reports, “Despite large percentages of female seminarians and increased numbers of female clergy in some denominations, women lead only a small minority of American congregations. Moreover, we do not detect any increase since 1998 in the overall percentage of congregations led by women.”³

Here’s the real irony: in a field dominated by men, it is male spiritual leaders who have the most opportunity to influence the next generation of women called into leadership. What can men do to affirm and encourage women called and gifted to lead in ministry? Here are a few places to begin:

Root your decisions about leadership in a Wesleyan understanding of scripture. Having a well-researched, well-prayed-over egalitarian theology will help you make more confident choices about giving both women and men leadership responsibilities. An egalitarian view says that while the Fall (Genesis 3) is responsible for setting men and women against each other in an antagonistic or hierarchical relationship, the intended purpose at creation (Genesis 1 and 2) was for men and women to stand together as equal partners. If this is true (and I believe it is), then we want to operate and make decisions that support a pre-fall view of human design. In other words, we value people based on gifts and call and do not exclude them because of gender.

Commit to making decisions that reflect the values and spiritual maturity of an elder in the New Testament Church of Jesus Christ. What motivates your leadership choices? Are you so spiritually formed that you can maturely mentor, hire and encourage women without fear or intimidation? Have you done the spiritual spadework needed to develop strong mental and physical boundaries? This ends up being an important piece of the puzzle. Unless we are emotionally and spiritually mature, our discomfort with the other gender will keep us from confidently leading. Remember that the gospel clearly calls us to take responsibility for our own minds and bodies, not to ask others to bear that weight.

Give women who are called and gifted access to every level of leadership. Are there places in your church where women are excluded? Are there tables to which they are not invited? Please understand that a lifetime of experiencing subtle biases has given most women a sensitivity to those places where we are excluded. That may be something we have to deal with and heal from but nonetheless, we know when we’re not welcome and it makes a difference in how we live out our potential and contribute to the coming Kingdom.

Pray for God to give you an urgency to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God on earth. As God answers that prayer, you will become more attuned to those he has placed in your community who are ready, willing and qualified to lead along with you. When you find them, take authority over your role as apostle and pastor by pouring into them as leaders, whether they are men or women. Genuinely qualified women leaders are starving for solid, qualified, Kingdom-minded mentors and coaches who care so much about Kingdom priorities that they will do whatever it takes to make sure that cause is advanced.

 

1. Dale, Felicity, et al. The Black Swan Effect: A Response to Gender Hierarchy in the
Church. Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007, kindle loc 882.

2. Leach, Tara Beth. “Dear Bill Hybels and Other Men Who Affirm Women in Ministry.”
MissioAlliance. August 10, 2015.

3. National Congregations Study. “Religious Congregations in 21st Century America.” http:/
www.soc.duke.edu/natcong/Docs/NCSIII_report_final.pdf

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What you believe matters.

I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding is now our critical need.

I was reminded of this a while back while working out at the gym. I was on a machine watching television but without the sound on … just reading closed captioning. The story being typed onto the screen word by word was some news piece about Pope Francis. And somewhere in the story, this phrase crossed the screen: “a message from Bob.”

From the context, I could tell they meant to type, “a message from God” but God never got the credit for whatever that message was. That strikes me as significant. How many people in the world are getting their messages from “Bob” (any popular speaker/ writer/ influencer) while God goes unnoticed?

When the movie, The Passion, first came out, a big group from our church went to see it together. Afterward, we adjourned to my living room to discuss what we’d seen. In the midst of the dialogue, someone asked some kind of technical question about the way God works and a guy who happens to have been in professional ministry had this response: “Frankly, I don’t have much use for theology. I just want to know who God is and what his heart is.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that pretty much the point of theology?

“I don’t have much use for theology.” Really? I bet that guy would have cared about my theology if we had been worshiping cows in my living room. I bet he would have cared if we were all there to discuss the message of Bob rather than the message of God. It must be fun to sound like a renegade in a group of people talking about religion, but it can also be theologically dangerous.

What you believe matters. And this is why I hold that biblical literacy and theological grounding are the critical need today. Otherwise we won’t have the compass to discern the direction of those who seek our endorsement. Those of us who trust in Christ have a poor record of talking theologically in public, with integrity (we do it, but not well). But to have a Kingdom-shaped influence in the marketplace, as Dr. Gregg Okesson says, we must learn to talk theologically in public about issues of public interest.

Theology matters. True, it has no life without the stirring of the Holy Spirit but nothing can be said about the nature of life, God or ultimate meaning without talking theologically. Indeed, nothing of any importance can be said of sports, politics, family systems, sexuality, or buying habits unless we learn to think and talk theologically. It would be like learning to play the piano without learning music theory. Without theory, it is just notes.

Nor can we discuss with respect the differences between religions or properly respect contrasting belief systems. Without theological grounding, how do we discuss the fact that the Mormon Jesus leaves significant questions about the nature of the Trinity, or that the Muslim Jesus is respected and revered but not crucified? How do we talk about Wesley’s systemic teaching on grace or Calvin’s take on God’s sovereignty?

Without deep theological reflection, how do missionaries learn to share the whole gospel without adding a layer of cultural bondage to the top? How do pastors influence culture and change systems?

When we’ve not grounded ourselves theologically, it is remarkably easy to get drunk on tweetable lines. It becomes far too tempting to redefine Christianity based on the trajectory of culture. We ask questions like, “Who are you to decide what orthodoxy/ Wesleyanism/ holiness/ Christianity means?” As if any of those are decided by vote.

On the other hand, it is tempting to blame thinking Christians for the suppression of the Holy Spirit. Experience has made us book-shy. Far too many wanna-be pastors have marched off to seminary while their friends at home warn, “Don’t let school ruin you!”

Spiritual thinking ought not rob us of our energy for the full gospel. To the contrary, to think theologically — to reason out a very distinctive set of beliefs — is to honor the depth and glory of God. Theology trumps experience every time and leads us toward the Holy Spirit, not away from Him.

As I listen to the fodder of news shows and sort through the various discussions that surface among well-meaning people within the church and online, I am more and more convinced that biblical literacy and theological grounding are our critical need in this season of the Church’s life. We’re allowing pop icons and an unanchored culture to do for us what thoughtful, Spirit-inspired study should be doing. The Kingdom won’t be ushered in on tweetable lines or emotional appeals. It will come when the good news of Jesus Christ is unapologetically learned, preached and practiced in all its power.

To hell with the message of Bob. The world is starving for something more.

 

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You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

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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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Before you serve communion today …

I was one of six kids, so I ate dinner every night at a table that sat eight people very tightly. To make matters more uncomfortable for me, I was the only left-handed person in our family. There was no seat at the table that didn’t earn scorn and derision. Most of the time I ate with my elbows drawn in, so as not to be picked on by the brood. It was an awkward way to eat. Add to that the fact that I have almost no eye-hand coordination (I can’t catch a baseball with a satellite dish). Between being left-handed at a crowded table and clumsy on my best days, I had probably a fifty-fifty chance on any given night of knocking over either my tea or someone else’s.

Bless my dad’s heart. He hated dinner being interrupted by spilled drinks. He’d get frustrated by it. He’d say, “Can’t we eat a single meal without someone spilling something?

Well, no. Evidently not, Daddy, because you had five right-handed children and one left-handed one and because of that equation, spilling was mostly inevitable. That’s how our family was made. The only way to avoid the spill would have been to seat me at a separate table. But wouldn’t that be strange and even a bit cruel? After all, I was still part of the family and we all instinctively knew, even if I spilled more often than not, that there was a place at the table for me. 

My family dinner experience inspires two thoughts about the Family Table of the Lord:

First, the Lord’s table is not meant for a party of one. Communion has a deep and fundamental meaning for Christians. The best image for it is the Table, where we come together to share in the body and blood of Jesus. When we take the elements set at this table, we commune, and not just with God. When we take these elements, we admit our participation in the Body of Christ. We are that body. Since the ascension, we who commune around the table of the Lord are the Body of Christ.

So while the act of taking communion can be deeply personal, it was never designed to be an independent act. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find evidence supporting the idea that the Lord’s table should ever be reserved for a party of one. Communion is a sharing — a sharing in the suffering of Jesus and a sharing in the body of Christ on earth. The table connects us.

Second, people who sit at the table of the Lord are prone to spill (and as it happens, our Father is okay with that). It is how his children are made. At the table of the Lord, spilling is a good thing! This table not only connects us, but sends us out to spill over onto others as we share our stories, invite others into this communion, offer them a place at this table.

This meal is worth sharing and the DNA of this family makes us prone to want to share. People who sit at this table have a predisposition toward spilling over onto other people because we believe that we all belong to each other.

Pastors, before you serve communion today, make sure you’re on board with what the sacrament is meant to do in the life of your community. It is not primarily a ritual. It is not primarily a way for people prone toward introspection to curl in toward themselves and away from the community around them. It is a gathering of the family. And when you serve, make sure your people understand that when they share in this meal, they are committing to the expectations of this family table: people who eat at this table have to learn how to spill.

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The insanity of pluralism

There is an old tale about four blind men and an elephant (this is not a politically correct tale, just an old one). As the story goes, each man is stationed around an elephant, their experience of him limited by what is within their grasp. The man standing by the leg decides this must be a tree. The man holding the tail declares it to be a rope. The trunk is determined to be a snake. The massive side of the elephant must be a wall.

Each of them interprets their “elephant” according to their own experience and the moral of the story is that none of us has the full range of truth. We each have our corner of it and our unique perspectives color our understanding of the whole. In other words, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Christians each have just a corner of the truth, though we are gathered around the same God.

And that, brothers and sisters, is just plain bad theology. For starters, it is an insult to every religion. To say all of them are equally right is to ignore the obvious and opposing differences. No serious Hindu can lay claim to one god, exclusive of all others. No faithful Muslim will embrace the Trinity (and in fact, considers that doctrine heretical). Jews are still waiting for their Messiah, while Christians cannot imagine a God without Jesus. To say these varied theologies are simply parts of the same “elephant” is to willfully deny their distinctives.

In a recent article, James Heidinger walks out the logic behind the theological liberalism of the 20th century that highjacked most mainline denominations, the United Methodist Church among them. The dismantling of orthodox theology began with the character of God (“Perhaps this is not an elephant after all”), its trickle-down effect impacting everything from our view of humanity to our understanding of the nature of Jesus Christ. Heidinger writes:

“Liberalism believed that just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively and not absolutely or substantively, neither does Christianity differ from other religions. It is just one, perhaps one of the most important, among the world’s various religions, all of which stem from the same basic source. Thus, the church’s missionary effort should not aim to convert but rather to promote a cross-fertilization of ideas for mutual dialogue and enrichment. The Christian faith is neither unique nor intended to be universal. Thus, the church’s worldwide missionary mandate was denied.”

This is the elephant redefined as chameleon. It will be what we need it to be, abolishing the need for absolute truth. It sounds gracious and accepting, doesn’t it? Except that it further diminishes the integrity of not one religion but all of them.

To say that somehow, we’ve all grabbed our own corner of the elephant is to say that the elephant itself is a donkey on one end and a peacock on the other. To call either an elephant is to misdefine the thing. In the story of the elephant and the blind men, no one is right. This elephant isn’t a snake or a tree or a rope or a wall. It is an elephant! The blind men can all be equally wrong, but they can’t be equally right.

Truth is not relative. 

There is a later version of this old story that includes another character. A king in possession of his sight eventually shows up to tell the blind men they have got it wrong. Their experience has deceived them. This is, in fact, an elephant.

And so it is with Christianity. Someone from beyond has come to reveal to the world the heart of God. He has seen what we cannot see and has come to tell us what truth is. Or more precisely, who truth is. Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus. To believe in him alone for salvation is to be a Christian. Nothing else counts.

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