Archive for November, 2014

“So how many people in your church have gotten saved over the past year?”

November 6, 2014

Recently I met a man who was new to our United Methodist tradition, and he wanted to find out about our church. He asked—with perfect innocence—”So how many people in your church have gotten saved over the past year?” And a part of me wanted to answer him, “You don’t know much about us Methodists, do you? We don’t do salvation like that. We don’t talk in terms of being saved or getting saved. Salvation is a mysterious process. But we hope that it it least happens around age 12 during confirmation.”

Like I said, a part of me wanted to answer him like that. The truth is, when he asked me that, I felt like a fraud and a hypocrite. I say I believe that making a decision to follow Christ is the most important decision a person must make. I say that eternity hangs in the balance on this decision. I say that apart from the saving work of Christ on the cross, we are all bound for final judgment and hell.

say that I believe that. Yet I don’t preach it enough. I don’t live it out enough through my own personal witness. I don’t pray enough for people’s salvation. I’m not in the habit of meeting people and wondering, prayerfully, if they’ve accepted Christ as Savior and Lord. I mean, sometimes I do, but it’s not a part of my routine; it’s not a part of my lifestyle.

Merciful God, help me change!

The average layperson would be surprised to learn that practically nothing we future Methodist clergy learn in mainline Protestant seminary prepares us for the task of inviting people to respond to the gospel message by accepting God’s gift of salvation in Christ—sometimes known as “leading someone to Christ,” or inviting them to “ask Jesus into their hearts”—call it whatever you want.

No one talks about getting saved!

Why? Our own United Methodist Book of Discipline says the following of our church’s main task:

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… (¶ 120)

The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world. (¶ 129)

By all means, as we Methodists rightly emphasize, the process of “making disciples” includes the lifelong process of being made into disciples—what we call sanctification. Salvation isn’t just a one-time decision that a person makes during an altar call, or at the end of a revival, or during confirmation.

But at some point we must make a decision—a deliberate, conscious choice—to surrender our lives to Christ and follow him. I wonder if many of us pastors don’t like confronting people with this choice because we don’t want to be rejected? So we make the gospel message something that people can’t reject. We’re just happy if people come to church. Maybe while they’re here they’ll become Christians by osmosis!

If you listen to my sermons, you’ve probably noticed that I often do invite people to make that choice in response to my message. This is—please note—a relatively recent development in my own preaching, something that’s only happened over the past few years.

But I realize I have a long way to go in order to become the kind of Christian—not to mention pastor—who places a priority on doing what our United Methodist Church says I—and all of us Methodists—ought to be doing: convincing the world of the truth of the gospel or leaving them unconvinced, without evading or delegating this responsibility.

I promise, with God’s help, I’m getting there!

Sermon 10-19-14: “Bible Heroes, Part 10: Esther”

November 5, 2014

superhero graphic

In the popular dating app Tinder, singles “swipe right” if they “like” someone and “swipe left” if they don’t. All they have to judge the person, however, is the most superficial thing of all: a user-selected profile picture. We live in a superficial age—a “swipe-left, swipe-right” kind of world in which we constantly judge based on appearances. As today’s scripture demonstrates, however, God usually works in ways that we can’t see. Esther and Mordecai teach us to see beyond appearances and trust in God.

Sermon Text: Esther 3:8-11; 4:1-17

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

A friend of mine posted a link on Facebook last week to BuzzFeed article last week entitled: “13 Breathtaking Places Guaranteed To Make Your Stomach Drop.” And like all productivity-killing BuzzFeed articles, I just had to click on it. These are tourist attractions that daring adventurers around the world can go see—if they don’t mind taking their lives in their hands. They include climbing the Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. Or walking out on something called “Troll Tongue” in Norway. Or wading out into this pool on the edge of a very steep waterfall in Zambia. Or get a load of this foolishness: in Norway, you can stand on a small boulder wedged between two other rocks, hundreds of feet up in the air.

buzzfeed

The Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.

There were very few things on that list that I would be willing to do. Because, as I’ve said before… I’m chicken. I don’t like taking needless risks. I like to play it safe.

So I can totally relate to Esther, in today’s scripture, when her guardian Mordecai warns her that she can no longer play it safe—that she’s going to have to risk her life in order to save her fellow Jews—and save herself—from destruction.

But first, how did she get in this predicament? Read the rest of this entry »

The dangerous idea at the center of the new Methodist “centrist” movement

November 4, 2014
No "centrist" Methodist ought to claim that the Holy Spirit will reveal something that contradicts scripture.

No “centrist” Methodist ought to claim that the Holy Spirit will reveal something that contradicts scripture.

Please note: Whenever I write on the divisive issue of the UMC’s doctrine on sexuality, I do so as a sinner who stands in solidarity with my fellow sinners, regardless of the sins with which they struggle. As for me, I struggle daily with any number of desires that tempt me to sin. As I become aware of sin in my life, I do my best to confess, repent, and, by the power of the Spirit, change. And when I do, I’m deeply grateful that our Lord is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”—a promise that holds for all penitent sinners. 

My point is, like every other human being, I’m a sinner who needs God’s grace and mercy at every moment. And like all who seek to be faithful to Jesus, I am a work in progress.

A while ago, I wrote about an important “hostile witness” for me and my fellow United Methodists who believe, alongside the unanimous verdict of nearly two millennia of Christian reflection on the subject, that God intends the gift of sex to be shared only by a man and a woman within the context of marriage. This witness’s name is Luke Timothy Johnson, perhaps the most prominent New Testament scholar at my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology.

He’s a “hostile witness” because Johnson is otherwise on the LGBT-affirming side. But he isn’t on that side because he believes scripture in any way endorses homosexual practice. On the contrary, as he wrote in Commonweal several years ago:

I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says… I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.

Notice in that last sentence he conflates “homosexuality,” about which scripture says nothing, with homosexual practice, which is indeed a “freely chosen” sin. To be clear: the church has never taught that experiencing same-sex attraction is a sin, only one’s decision to act on it, either by lusting or through more overt sexual behavior.

Nevertheless, Johnson, a liberal New Testament scholar, concedes that homosexual practice contradicts the “straightforward commands of Scripture,” and to argue otherwise is to “make Scripture say something other than what it says.”

In spite of scripture’s clear teaching, however, he argues in his essay that it’s possible that the Holy Spirit could be showing the church something new. He cites Acts 15 as a precedent: there, he says, the Holy Spirit showed the church something new—that Gentiles don’t first have to become Jewish in order be part of God’s covenant people. I’ll leave aside the question of whether that thing that the Spirit revealed to the church contradicted the Old Testament (I certainly don’t believe it did) to say that citing Acts 15 is beside the point: We know that Gentile Christians don’t have to be circumcised or follow dietary laws in order to become part of God’s covenant because the Holy Spirit has revealed this truth to us in scripture—in Acts 15 and elsewhere. In other words, the church wasn’t left to guess whether or not the Holy Spirit was showing us a “new thing” because this new thing is found in God’s inscripturated Word.

Do you see the difference?

Inconveniently for Johnson’s case is the fact that the Jerusalem council reaffirmed in that same chapter a few aspects of Torah that Gentiles had to follow, including the avoidance of porneia, sexual immorality, which in the Jewish Christian context of Acts 15 would have certainly included homosexual practice.

Again, Johnson would have us believe today that the Holy Spirit is revealing something new, which, by his own admission, contradicts scripture’s clear teaching. And that’s fine for Johnson. He isn’t Methodist.

We Methodists who are true to our convictions aren’t allowed to do what Johnson does. If Johnson is right about scripture’s clear teaching, then that alone would be a sufficient reason for holding fast to our United Methodist doctrine.

Am I wrong? Am I misrepresenting our Wesleyan doctrine of scripture? Please tell me how.

I mention all of this again because the new statement from the “United Methodist Centrist Movement” affirms, in at least three places, this same dangerous idea: that the Holy Spirit can reveal something that contradicts what this same Spirit has revealed in God’s Word.

In the opening paragraphs describing the importance of our remaining together and avoiding schism, despite our disagreements over homosexual practice, the authors state (emphasis mine):

Relationship is at the center of Biblical Prophetic Call and Witness as expressed in many other texts in addition to the ones mentioned above.  This call was and will always be connected within the context of community and covenant, even when the covenant community is being self-critical and certainly when the Spirit of God is doing a new thing.

In other words, we should “certainly” avoid schism if “the Spirit of God is doing a new thing”: not that the church was wrong for nearly 2,000 years in its interpretation of scripture, but that in spite of the fact that the church was right, the Holy Spirit is doing something new—in this case doing something that contradicts what the Spirit did for thousands of years in revealing God’s will through his Word.

Why would God the Holy Spirit do that to us? Does it make any sense that the Spirit would change course like that—and fail to reveal it to us in God’s Word? Yet, this is what these “centrists” would have us believe.

Later in the document, the authors write:

Many of us – while sensing a new movement of the Spirit may be at hand – are uncomfortable with the dynamics involved with the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the marriage of gay and lesbian persons in our local churches. We serve congregations that are by no means of one mind on this issue, in communities where Christians from other tribes are warning our people of the “dangers” of our denomination’s “precarious disunity.” We are tired of seeing the United Methodist Church in the national news only when a few in our ranks engage in a public dispute over homosexuality.

We also are aware of changing attitudes in our culture, particularly the young, as we serve congregations that are on the average, 20 years older and much more homogeneous than the general population. We are torn both by scripture which addresses issues of what is acceptable sexual practice and by the call of the prophets to love justice, offer mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord.

Here, these “centrists” are once again affirming that “a new movement of the Spirit may be at hand,” even a movement in the opposite direction of the Spirit’s movement in the past. Regarding the fact that they’re “torn” between God’s Word regarding sex and the word of the “prophets,” I wrote in my original post on the topic:

Why are they torn? Weren’t the prophets always the ones calling us back to being faithful to God’s Word? In which case, the only question that should concern us is, What is “acceptable sexual practice” according to scripture? If we get that answer right, I trust the prophets will also support us.

Notice that many of these “centrists” have no problem with the “ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the marriage of gay and lesbian persons in our local churches”—mais non!—but only with the “dynamics involved.” These dynamics include the fact that many (older) church members are uncomfortable with it. No worries, though: Attitudes are changing, “especially among the young,” and those people who still have a problem with it will be dying off soon anyway. Then of course, those “discomforting” dynamics will no longer exist. Right?

In my original post, which was hastily written, I called the statement “disingenuous nonsense.” Upon further reflection, I not only affirm my original verdict but add that it’s disingenuous and dangerous nonsense.

More on those United Methodist “centrists”

November 1, 2014
United Methodist "centrists," like theological progressives, also want to change church doctrine on sexuality. They're just willing to bide their time.

United Methodist “centrists,” like theological progressives, also want to change church doctrine on sexuality. They’re just willing to bide their time.

Please note: Whenever I write on the divisive issue of the UMC’s doctrine on sexuality, I do so as a sinner who stands in solidarity with my fellow sinners, regardless of the sins with which they struggle. As for me, I struggle daily with any number of desires that tempt me to sin. As I become aware of sin in my life, I do my best to confess, repent, and, by the power of the Spirit, change. And when I do, I’m deeply grateful that our Lord is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

My point is, like every other human being, I’m a sinner who needs God’s grace and mercy at every moment. And like all who seek to be faithful to Jesus, I am a work in progress.

Dr. Doug Damron, a fellow United Methodist pastor who helped draft the “centrist” statement that I blogged about earlier this week, disagreed with my characterization in the comments section of my post. Please read his response. He also wrote the following to Victor, one of my blog readers, who believes that the statement was timed to coincide with this week’s Judicial Council decision regarding Frank Schaefer:

Victor, yes I am the one of the original group and one of the first signers. I am one of three pastors from West Ohio who identified a smaller group of clergy who are respected for their leadership and effectiveness in our conference to talk about beginning a movement that would seek to reform and unity our denomination. I have been in all of the conversations and can assure you the Judicial Council decision was not once mentioned as we worked to get our platform out. Our deadline is a December 5th meeting where we hope to further organize and begin talking about candidates for endorsement (lay and clergy) in West Ohio. We wanted enough time for busy people to read it, pray, and consider joining us.

The first line of point #4 reads, “we stand with those who believe the current BOD needs to be upheld.” Meaning we do not support the breaking of covenant by some on the progressive side. Mutual respect is a call for an act of sacrificial love by refraining from breaking the covenant we agreed to uphold as part of our ordination while also instituting a moritorium on church trials. One of the practical reasons for this is how horrific this looks to the world looking in from the outside. This is hindering our witness for Christ.

Where we may be in disagreement is with the notion that we can continue as a church with parties at odds over the issue of same gender relationships. If this question trumps Christ’s call for his body to be unified than yes schism is the only option if the pendelum moves even an inch to the left on same gender couples. However, if this issue is not a deal breaker to remain in covenant with one another, love requires we attempt to find a way forward that both sides can live with. Is this hard, yes but we think worthy of our efforts until 2020. If extremes want all or nothing after a proposal or a choice of proposals is presented then we would regrettably yield. You can lead the horse to water but can’t make it drink.

I do think those who advocating splitting may be seeing this senario with rose colored glasses. On the conservative side of our church, wouldn’t a new Evangelical Methodist Church now have to contend on all sorts of issues where there will be a true lack of consensus? Infant baptism, episcopacy, the quadrilaterial, inerrancy, for some divorced persons in ministry? My first question to those who want to split is how then will you deal with this issue, an issue Jesus explicity spoke too. With the sexuality issue “settled” won’t there be one, two, ten more issues that can further divide the Christ’s Bride? For those who want seperation over one issue, one has to be prepared for a fight on a whole host of other issues that good disciples don’t necessarily agree upon. True Orthodoxy would require ahearance to all matters where the Bible clearly speaks (including divoce and remarriage). I would be interested to see how a new conservative only church deals with this issue with integrity.

We don’t believe a church with space for those who hold differing views is a liability, we atucally see it as a strength and a refreshing counter witness to a polarized world. We also are big fans of grace with all of its implications and possiblities. Thanks again for being in conversation friend.

I wrote the following in response to Dr. Damron:

Doug,

So you’re saying that although your group “stand[s] with those who believe the current BOD needs to be upheld,” there will be no consequences for clergy who break church law on this issue? That will only encourage more church law-breaking, as everyone knows. You can “stand with” us all you want. If the spectacle of church trials is so harmful to our witness, how about we agree to avoid them by enforcing mandatory sentences for clergy who break the law on this issue?

You write: “Where we may be in disagreement is with the notion that we can continue as a church with parties at odds over the issue of same gender relationships.”

No, we conservatives will happily live with “parties at odds” over this issue, so long as these parties adhere to the Discipline when it comes to ordination and marriage. That’s the one and only presenting issue here: ecclesial disobedience and a failure on the part of church leadership to enforce the Discipline. The way you frame it reminds me of something Schaefer said last week after he was reinstated. He said that this “victory” shows that it’s O.K. for Methodists to continue to “speak out” on the issue.

“Speak out on the issue”? Is he kidding? He knows that “speaking out” isn’t the reason he went to trial and lost his credentials. No conservative wanted him to face discipline for merely speaking out—just as conservatives aren’t arguing that we can’t disagree on this issue.

You write: “If this question trumps Christ’s call for his body to be unified then, yes, schism is the only option if the pendelum moves even an inch to the left on same gender couples.”

I take issue with your pitting Jesus against those of us who believe, alongside nearly 2,000 years of Christian reflection on the subject, that homosexual practice is a sin, and one condemned in the strongest terms possible in both Testaments.

From our perspective, Jesus himself affirms the sexual complementarity of man and woman as a prerequisite for marriage in Matthew 19:5-6. And Paul wasn’t so concerned about “Christ’s call for his body to be unified” when he told the Corinthians to excommunicate the man committing incest in 1 Corinthians 5 for the sake of the man’s soul.

Incest here is relevant for two reasons: First, it’s a sin condemned in the exact same context as homosexual practice in Leviticus 18 and 20. We all still agree that incest is sexually immoral, and none of us argues that because we eat shellfish today, we ought to disregard what Leviticus says about incest. Right?

Incest is also relevant because Jesus never mentions it in the gospels. Yet none of us says that because Jesus was silent on the subject of incest, Paul must have been wrong to condemn it as sexually immoral.

You see my point, I’m sure.

Given our high regard for God’s Word, I can safely say that we conservatives are indeed unwilling to move an inch to the left on this issue. It is a deal-breaker.

I responded to your words about seeing schism “through rose-colored glasses” in my previous comment. Again, what happens to the centrists who stay in the rump UMC when progressive UMC leadership advocates for theological or religious pluralism, or Christian universalism, or denies hell or annihilation, or the exclusivity of God’s revelation in Christ, or the Second Coming or final judgment. Maybe this won’t happen. It’s a slippery slope argument, I know. But it’s at least as likely as the new “Evangelical Methodist” church becoming Bible-thumping fundamentalists, or whatever.

As I remind you in the previous comment, we conservatives are the ones who want to keep the UMC the way it is today. You’re the ones who want to change things. And as for financial or itinerancy reform, I’m sure we’re all happy to have that conversation. That has nothing to do with the questions that are dividing us now.

But, Doug, I began my post calling the “centrist” side disingenuous and by saying that the “centrists” really support changing church law on the question of homosexual practice, and that they’re biding their time. Am I wrong?

Please tell me: What is your conviction on the subject of homosexual practice? Do you agree with what our Discipline says? Do you believe, in other words, that homosexual practice per se is a sin? Do you believe that we should ordain otherwise qualified non-celibate homosexuals? Do you believe that marriage is only for man and woman?