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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The character of a Wesleyan

Much is being made these days in my (admittedly very narrow) slice of the world about what it means to be Wesleyan. “Wesleyan” in this case doesn’t refer to a particular denomination but to a broader theological stream birthed through an eighteenth-century movement and largely defined by the commentaries and sermons of John Wesley.

Wesley himself once wrote a tract called “The Character of a Methodist.” By his definition a Methodist is happy, full of love, prayerful, pure in heart, servant-minded, known by his fruit.

In this age, it seems important to articulate further the distinctives that make us Methodist. In my own study, I discovered this strong reflection on the character of a Wesleyan written more than a decade ago by Kent Hill, then president of Eastern Nazarene College. His thoughts resonate, so I share them as a starting point for your own formation of a definition of what it means to be Wesleyan.

What does it mean to be Wesleyan?

First, to be Wesleyan means to recognize the primacy of Scriptural authority. John Wesley never left any doubt as to his convictions in this area. In a letter in 1739, he unequivocally stated: “I allow no other rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scriptures….” Wesley was so serious about Scripture playing the primary role in what he thought and how he lived, that his sermons and letters are infused with Scriptural phrases. It became part of his very language.

Second, to be Wesleyan means to be consciously and proudly part of the broad, ancient tradition of the Christian faith. We do not belong to a religious sect that came into existence in the middle of the eighteenth century. In 1777, at the founding of City Road Chapel in London, Wesley described the movement of Methodism this way: “Methodism, so called, is the old religion, the religion of the Bible, the religion of the primitive Church, the religion of the Church of England. This old religion…is no other than love, the love of God and all mankind.” If we are true to our Wesleyan heritage, we not only may, but are obligated to, draw broadly from Christian tradition.

Third, to be Wesleyan not only allows, but requires, that we be ecumenical. Though John Wesley believed strongly in his theological convictions, he never lost sight of the fact that the Body of Christ is much bigger than any one tradition or theological perspective. He neither swept under the rug important theological divisions that existed, nor allowed those differences to cloud the larger reality that what we hold in common through the creeds is of primary importance. In Wesley’s ecumenism, there was a commitment to a common humanity in Christ.

Fourth, to be Wesleyan means to affirm the cardinal doctrine of justification by grace through faith. Salvation is grounded in the merits of Christ’s righteousness and is appropriated by faith, which is a gift of God’s grace. Wesley insisted that we must respond to God’s gift through acts of obedience that flow out of faith. Wesley believed that humans can never do enough to merit salvation; still he taught that God in his sovereignty grants us a measure of freedom to respond to his transforming grace, and if we refuse to respond, then we will neither be saved or transformed.

Fifth, to be Wesleyan means to recognize the grace of God as “transforming,” as well as “pardoning.” This lies at the crux of what can be called the central theological distinctive of John Wesley’s thought – the quest, by God’s grace, for holiness or sanctification. Grace is more than the “creative grace” that has formed all things. It is even more than the “pardoning” grace that forgives us of our sins. It is the “transforming” grace which, through the work of the Holy Spirit, enables us to conform ever more to the image of Jesus Christ.

Sixth, to be Wesleyan means to be effective apologists of the Christian faith. John Wesley’s life and ministry reflects a compelling response to the command recorded in I Peter 3:15-16: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience….” (NIV) If we reflect a Wesleyan perspective, we will cultivate opportunities to use Scripture, broad Christian tradition, reason and experience in defense of the faith. And we will do it in a way that shows restraint and love in the face of criticism.

Seventh, to be Wesleyan requires commitment to discipleship and accountability. Specifically, it requires of us a commitment to the importance of structured Christian discipleship. In June 1779, Wesley wrote in his journal: “This very day I heard many excellent truths delivered in the kirk (church). But, as there was no application, it was likely to do as much good as the singing of a lark.” In addition to participation in small accountability groups, Wesley insisted on the importance of private devotions, participation in larger church meetings, the taking of the sacraments, and acts of mercy.

Eighth, to be Wesleyan means to be involved in compassionate ministries. John Wesley always believed that it was imperative that a follower of Jesus Christ be simultaneously committed to the essential vertical relationship with his or her Creator, and to the necessary and redemptive relationship to the rest of God’s Creation. If the latter is not present, Wesley insisted that there is something fundamentally wrong with the former. No position could be more clearly rooted in Christ, who stated in Matthew 25 that “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (NIV)

In our own day, may we see a revival of Methodism with such a strength and character that it regains its ability to welcome and advance the Kingdom of God. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A MESSAGE TO GLOBAL UMC FROM UMC AFRICA INITIATIVE

5th August 2016

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

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

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

Furthermore, their actions seem to confirm the fears of our founding father, John Wesley. About five years before his demise, John Wesley had expressed his fears about the future of our church in regards to its continued commitment and submission to the Scripture and discipline that govern us. He said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodist should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America [in Africa and the rest of the world]. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both to the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out”. When we abandon the clear teaching of Scripture in favor of some philosophies and ideologies of contemporary society, we cease to exist within God’s parameter of grace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Find this letter here.)

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A very hopeful New Room

This week, I’ve been attending and being renewed at the New Room Conference, hosted by Seedbed (the publishing house of Asbury Seminary).  It has been a great gift to hear holiness, sanctification and global Christianity preached by folks who are deeply embedded in and passionate about seeing the Kingdom come.

These three days have been Wesleyan theology at its best.  We worshiped lavishly and expressively. We prayed deeply. We talked about the means of grace and mission, about travailing prayer and scriptural holiness. In all the ways you’d want it to be, it was Pentecostal:  globally focused, vibrant, Kingdom-minded.

The point of New Room is not to bog down in current denominational issues but to raise ourselves up above the tree line (as J.D. Walt says) to see what connects Wesleyans aroNew-Room-Covenantund the world. By Wesleyans, we are not talking about a single denomination but a theological strain that is orthodox, evangelical and missional. The opportunity to network with and appreciate faithful voices from many Wesleyan tribes was truly a gift.

What most excites me about this room of about 700 Christian leaders is that at least half of them are younger than 35. I am having conversations this week with young adults who are hungry to see a genuine, transparent version of holiness blossom within their generation. They are excited about things like accountability, community-based discipleship and the means of grace.  Stanley John, a dynamic young Indian preacher raised in Kuwait, is preaching even as I type, and he is setting this room on fire with stories of moves of the Holy Spirit around the world.

I find myself repenting this week for the hours upon hours of time I’ve wasted in conversations, prayers and angst over the political unrest within my own denomination. Lord, forgive me. For the concern of our own survival, we are missing powerful moves of God happening all around us. The fact is, God will go where God is received.

I leave this conference hopefully, gratefully … reminded that I am not alone. In fact, far from it, I feel surrounded. In my spirit, I am hearing Elijah on the mountain, saying to God, “I alone am left,” while God says, “To the contrary, there are thousands in the valley waiting for you. Get to work.”

Yes, Lord. I hear you.  Get to work. The world is hungry, waiting, and ready.

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