Archive for April, 2016

Why Adam Hamilton is still wrong (Part 1)

April 28, 2016

In these days leading up to our United Methodist Church’s General Conference, many Methodist clergy who support changing our Book of Discipline‘s still-orthodox doctrine on sexuality and marriage have become increasingly vocal on blogs and church-related websites. None is more high profile than mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City.

When Hamilton first publicly stated in a 2012 sermon that he now supports changing our doctrine, I wrote about it.

He doesn’t make any new arguments in a blog post he published yesterday, except his tone is more assertive. In his 2012 sermon, he seemed almost circumspect as he shared his testimony about his “conversion” on the subject, after years of towing the traditionalist line. Today, by contrast, he’s far more confident, encouraging his fellow revisionists to hold our denomination together for just ten more years, after which this will become “a non-issue, as even most evangelical young adults in the United Methodist Church see this issue differently from their 40- and 50- and 60-year-old parents and grandparents.”

I suppose, as a 46-year-old theologically conservative evangelical, I should be insulted: What would today’s Methodist teenager or 20-something know about human sexuality that the rest of us don’t? And why should their opinion hold sway? Do they have a biblical case to make on the subject that we haven’t considered before? As even Hamilton would concede—I think—the argument for changing our doctrine must be rooted in scripture.

Maybe Hamilton will get around to making a biblical argument. There’s no evidence of one here.

Instead, he argues about our understanding of the Bible itself. First, he describes a recent letter he received from a group of conservative United Methodists in Nebraska urging him, as a delegate to General Conference, to resist the pressure to change our Discipline. They said, “We believe that the Holy Bible is God’s Word, and that His Word is unchanging.”

Hamilton writes:

These fellow United Methodists seem to be stating that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word, and that it should be applied without question today because “His Word is unchanging.”  But I don’t believe this is actually how they approach Scripture.  Nor is it the way Christians have generally approached Scripture across the last two millennia.

First, let me say that unlike Hamilton, I do believe that everything written in the Bible is God’s Word. I have no “Bucket No. 3” in my doctrine of scripture. In other words, if it’s in the Bible, it’s there because the Holy Spirit guided its writers to put it in there—for a reason.

But Hamilton would say that if I truly believe that, then I’ll inevitably be inconsistent in my interpretation and application of it.

Then, as if he hasn’t listened to any counterargument from my side over the past 40 years—not to mention in my little blog post four years ago—Hamilton continues to conflate the issue of homosexuality with slavery and the subordination of women: since the Bible got it wrong on those subjects, he argues, how can we be confident that the Bible isn’t wrong about homosexual practice?

Please note: He’s not merely saying that our interpretation of scripture has changed over the millennia in light of better exegesis of the texts; he believes the Bible is simply wrong to begin with. As he said in his discussion of buckets, some scriptures “never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

If you think I’m being unfair, consider the following exchange that Hamilton had on Twitter yesterday after he linked to his blog post:

hamilton

Ooh, burn! 

Does Hamilton really mean to say that we can’t hold the Bible as “authoritative” if we nevertheless believe, for good hermeneutical reasons, that parts of it are no longer binding on us today? I’ve dealt with this in many other blog posts, but this is a good starting point. Among other things, I say the following:

[C]ontrary to what United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton asserts in this sermon, the church doesn’t arbitrarily “pick and choose” which verses reflect “God’s timeless will” and which verses we can throw in the dustbin of cultural context. We would only be picking and choosing if our hermeneutical (interpretive) principles ignored context and said every command of scripture is equally binding for all time. Maybe there are some fundamentalist Christians out there who believe this—although I’ve never met one—but the capital-C Church (not to mention Jesus himself) never did.

If we have principled and logical reasons for believing, for instance, that some commands in Leviticus are binding today and others aren’t, then it’s not picking and choosing. Hamilton knows this as well as anyone. I wish he wouldn’t play dumb. Rachel Held Evans also played dumb about this in her recent book The Year of Biblical Womanhood, which drove me crazy, but I don’t expect as much from her.

We are picking and choosing, however, if, in spite of our principles, we disregard the Bible’s teaching on homosexuality mostly because we don’t like it. I’m not sure I like it, either, but that’s hardly the point.

For more on this “picking-and-choosing” argument, see Glenn Peoples’s post here.

(Seriously… Read the Glenn Peoples’s post.)

I reject Hamilton’s premise that the Bible got it wrong when it comes to slavery and subordination of women. I fully endorse Asbury president Tim Tennent’s “trajectories” argument. And along with N.T. Wright, I believe that the case for women in ordained ministry comes from scripture. Among other things, I believe that Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene as the first apostle in John 20—literally the apostle to the apostles. I believe it’s deeply significant that Paul refers to Junia as an “apostle” in Romans 16.

Does the Bible have any such trajectory away from its condemnation of homosexual practice? Or does the same thinker who wrote, “There is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” also warn that homosexual behavior, if left unrepented, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom?

But even if I accepted Hamilton’s premise about slavery and women, his argument is a red herring unless or until he demonstrates that there’s some connection between slavery, women, and homosexuality. You can’t just say, “We were wrong about slaves and women, therefore we’re wrong about homosexual practice.”

Are we also wrong about incest? Or polygamy? Or premarital sex? I ask because I’m sure that Hamilton has many convictions in common with our traditional understanding of sexuality. By his logic, you could say, “Yes, but we were wrong about slavery and women, so… who’s to say?”

Talk about picking and choosing!

I have more to say, but this will have to do for now.

“He who is forgiven much, loves much”

April 27, 2016

sproulIn my sermon last Sunday, I spent a lot of time talking about the ambiguity of Jesus’ first question to Peter in John 21:15: ““Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” Who or what does these refer to?

All the commentators I read agreed that it could mean one of three things: “Do you love me more than you love these other disciples who are with you?” Or “Do you love me more than you love your boat, your nets, and your occupation?” Or “Do you love me more than these other disciples love me?”

The consensus among scholars I read is that the third interpretation is best (although there’s a sense in which all three meanings are relevant and true). If Peter heard the question in this third sense he wisely chose not to compare his love for Jesus to the others. After all, isn’t that kind of hubris what got him in trouble in the first place? “Even though they all fall away, I will not” (Mark 14:29). Instead, Peter affirmed only that he loved Jesus.

In my sermon, I shared this insight from R.C. Sproul about why he believes Jesus meant the question in the third sense:

My educated guess is that He was asking Peter, “Do you love Me more than the rest of the disciples love Me?” This is why I think that: Jesus taught that “to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little (Luke 7:47b). The corollary is true: he who is forgiven much, loves much. There is a sense in which the depth of our affection for Christ is inseparably related to the depth of our understanding of that which we have been forgiven. Peter understood that of all those surviving he had betrayed Christ more deeply than the rest. Therefore, in being forgiven, restored, and invited back, not only into the fellowship of Christ, but into the ministry of Christ—rather than being dismissed from ministry for the rest of his life for his scandalous transgression—he saw the grace of God more fully than the rest. I believe that was what Jesus was driving at with His question.[1]

1. R.C. Sproul, John (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust, 2009), 405.

“Dear Brent, God’s plan for someone else’s life isn’t your concern”

April 26, 2016

A few months ago, in a sermon, I shared the following anecdote about my desperate need for recognition from others.

In my first job out of college, before I got an engineering degree, I worked in sales for AT&T and later Lucent Technologies. We sold very large telephone systems to companies. My mentor, after I was hired on, was a man named Alec, who was himself a very professional, very successful salesman. He took me under his wing.

Alec told me once that he wasn’t motivated by money—that even though he made a lot of it, that wasn’t what drove him to succeed. What drove him, he said, was recognition. He loved winning sales awards—and being recognized by the senior executives of the company. Being flown to exotic places on the company’s dime. That’s what motivated him. Not money.

And I was thinking, “Well, if you feel that way, how about giving me your commission checks because I’m motivated by money?”

My point is, I thought he was crazy at the time. Motivated by recognition! Whoever heard of such a thing?

And then, the very next year, the general manager posted a chart on the wall—which ranked all of us salespeople—there were a couple of dozen of us—in terms of the percentage of our annual sales quota that we had met year-to-date. It had bar graphs going across. And that chart became very important to me. I became obsessed with this chart. After all, anyone in this large office of employees—hundreds of people—could walk down this hall, look at this chart, and see what my ranking was; see how I measured up to others; see how valuable I was—or not valuable.

If I’m down near the bottom of the chart, I’m worthless. If I’m up near the top, I’m special and worth a lot.

It soon became clear that like my friend Alec, I, too, was motivated by recognition, by what other people thought of me. Because the next year, I blew out my quota. I did great. I was at or near the top of the chart… Or at least I would have been, except the general manager had decided to take the chart down. So no one else could see how well I was doing. No one could see how valuable I was. And I was crushed.

The truth is, in my life there has always been a chart—in my mind if not on the wall. I constantly compare myself to others. In pastoral ministry, of course, the metrics are different from sales, but not by much: How big is my church? Is it growing or declining and how fast? Where do I stand in relation to other pastors in my district, in my conference, in my age group, in my seminary class?

I worry that I don’t measure up.

To make matters worse, I’m “friends” on social media with plenty of clergy who use the platform for (what I perceive to be) “humble-bragging”: Nearly every week, if not every day, they want to tell me how great every aspect of church life and pastoral ministry is at every moment.

I’m tempted to say, “Get real!” but who am I to talk? I’m not being real, either. As someone told me once, “You’re comparing their outsides to your insides. You’ll always come up short.”

But I still do it. And it makes me miserable.

And I’m not the only one… Even John Piper, who in my eyes is as objectively “successful” as any pastor, falls victim to the spiritually deadly sin of comparing ourselves to others:

Jesus’ blunt words—“None of your business, follow me”—are sweet to my ears. They are liberating from the depressing bondage of fatal comparing. Sometimes when I scan the ads in Christianity Today (all ten thousand of them), I get discouraged. Not as much as I used to twenty-five years ago. But still I find this avalanche of ministry suggestions oppressing.

Book after book, conference after conference, DVD after DVD—telling me how to succeed in ministry. And all of them quietly delivering the message that I am not making it. Worship could be better. Preaching could be better. Evangelism could be better. Pastoral care could be better. Youth ministry could be better. Missions could be better. And here is what works. Buy this. Go here. Go there. Do it this way. And adding to the burden—some of these books and conferences are mine!

With that in mind, I need to hear the good news of John 21:20-23. Jesus has just told Peter that one day—he doesn’t say when—Peter is going to die a martyr’s death. Peter then turns to John, who was following close behind, and asks, “Lord, what about this man?” And Jesus says, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

In other words, Jesus tells Peter, “Don’t worry about him. My plans for him are not your concern. You only need to be concerned about my plans for you. Keep your eyes on me, and don’t look over your shoulder at someone else. Just follow me!”

John, as we know, lived a long life. He died of old age on the isle of Patmos. One way that he glorified God was through the written witness of the gospel that bears his name.

Did Peter think it was unfair for his life to be cut short in a painful way while John’s life ended very differently? Who knows? (I know which kind of death would prefer!)

What we do know is that Christ called each of these disciples to glorify God in his own way, each according to a plan that was not his own. Neither way was “better” than the other. The only thing that mattered was their faithfulness to Christ.

And so it is with me: Lord Jesus, make me faithful in following your plan for my life.

I’ll leave you with a 1949 song by Hank Williams, which, in addition to tying in with today’s theme, demonstrates the important influence of “hillbilly” music on the development of rock and roll:

 

Sermon 04-17-16: “Come and Have Breakfast”

April 26, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

The Gospel of John seemed to have the perfect ending with John 20:30-31. But John added an epilogue with chapter 21. One reason he did this is to teach us present-day disciples how to be the church. That being the case, what can their fishing expedition in verses 1-14 teach us?

Sermon Text: John 21:1-14

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 of this sermon.]

Last Wednesday, in the world of NBA basketball, fans saw a couple of perfect endings. First, the Golden State Warriors had to win their final game of the season in order to set the record for most wins in a season. Which they did, defeating the Memphis Grizzlies and finishing the regular season with a record of 73-9, beating the previous record held by the Chicago Bulls by one game.

Another perfect ending on that same night, however, was the final game of Kobe Bryant. In fact, his perfect ending was far less probable than that of the Warriors. Not only did the Lakers win—which they almost never did during this, the Lakers’ worst season ever—Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in the game. He hadn’t scored that many points since 2009. And he’d only scored 60 points on five other occasions throughout his 20-year career. He was like the old Kobe all over again—the one who led his team to five championships.

In fact, after the game, he said, “The coolest thing is that my kids actually saw me play like I used to play. It was like, ‘Whoa, Dad!’ I said, ‘Yeah, I used to do that.’ They were like, ‘Really?’ I was like, ‘Dude, YouTube it.’”

A perfect finish. Just like John chapter 20 was a perfect finish—with the resurrected Lord appearing to all the disciples, even Thomas; commissioning them to bring the gospel to the rest the world; and telling us, the readers, that Jesus did many other miraculous signs not recorded in the book, “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” The End. What else needs to be said? It’s perfect! Read the rest of this entry »

What’s wrong with believing that God speaks to us outside of scripture?

April 22, 2016

Roger Olson has been reading my blog! Just kidding, but he has a post this week on a topic that I wrote about a couple of months ago. He asks, “Does God still speak to us today—outside of the ways God speaks to us through scripture?” Olson believes that he does and gives a recent personal anecdote to illustrate one way that God has spoken to him.

In my recent response to a post by blogger Anne Kennedy, I wrote the following:

Having said all that, while Kennedy’s (and Cary’s) words serve as a helpful warning, I don’t buy in to their argument completely. For one thing, I’ve had those strong intuitions that God is “speaking” to me. Maybe that’s an understatement: I’ve felt as if God has zapped me with lightning sometimes. Maybe that’s not God’s “voice,” but it’s something! So perhaps the language we use to describe these intuitions is imprecise or inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean the Holy Spirit isn’t guiding us in some way through them.

Besides, God foreknew that we would have these strong intuitions, including how we would interpret and respond to them. Therefore, it’s no stretch to imagine that he uses them—as he does everything else—for our good. If we’re wrong, he’ll redeem this mistake too.

In my comment on Dr. Olson’s blog (awaiting moderation), I said that we evangelicals believe in God’s providence—that God guides us through external events in our lives. Why would it be difficult to believe that God guides us through internal events, such as our thoughts, intuitions, and even dreams? God is sovereign over those things, too, isn’t he?

But I share Olson’s word of caution: To say God speaks to us outside of scripture does not mean “with the same inspiration and authority as in Scripture.” I would also add—for the sake of many United Methodists who get confused about this—that what God tells us can’t contradict what God has told us through scripture, either.

What do you think? Does God speak to us outside of scripture?

The “high Christology” of doubting Thomas

April 19, 2016

Carson_Gospel of JohnCritical Bible scholarship—the air that seminarians of mainline Protestantism breathe—is in love with “low Christology,” the idea that if the earthly Jesus was, in any sense, God, he was unaware of it—as were his apostles until a long time after Christ’s resurrection (however that event would be construed by these scholars).

Therefore, Thomas’s confession of Christ as God in John 20:28 (“My Lord and my God!”) couldn’t have been spoken by Thomas only a week after Easter. “John,” whoever he is, invented the story to reflect his community’s high Christology, which developed decades after Easter. After all, they say, there’s no hint of Jesus’ being God in Mark, the earliest gospel, written (so they say) around 70 A.D., because that belief hadn’t developed by then.

(I’m not agreeing with this assessment of Mark. I’m just saying that’s their position.)

Of course, since even critical scholars accept that Paul’s letters date from about A.D. 48 to A.D. 60, they have to explain away any high Christology found there. (Examples are plentiful, but I would start with the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:5-11.)

When I was in seminary, few of us knew that there was any serious alternative to critical scholars. (I certainly didn’t.) We knew nothing about evangelical scholars, even those who, like N.T. Wright, keep one foot in each realm. We never read them. Professors never mentioned them. Critical scholars that we studied never cited them.

So it’s been eye-opening for me, as I’ve worked through John’s gospel in my current sermon series, to read, for example, D.A. Carson’s The Gospel According to John, published by Eerdmans. Dr. Carson interacts with critical scholarship throughout his commentary—voicing both agreement and disagreement where necessary—from the classic skeptic Bultmann to one of my Candler professors, Gail O’Day, author of Abingdon’s New Interpreters commentary on John.

Carson tackles the alleged “plausibility problem” of Thomas’s confession on a number of fronts. For one thing, Thomas would have been familiar with Old Testament accounts of “believers who conversed with what appeared to be men, only to learn, with terror, that they were heavenly visitors, possibly Yahweh himself.”[1]

This is exactly right: I’m thinking of Abraham’s encounter with the three heavenly visitors in Genesis 18 (before they destroy Sodom and Gomorrah). One of those visitors, without explanation, is referred to as Yahweh beginning in v. 17. Abraham knows he’s talking directly to God.

Or what about the story of Jacob’s wrestling an angel in Genesis 32. Is he wrestling an angel, or is he wrestling God? The text is ambiguous: Jacob, at least, is convinced when it’s over that he’s wrestled God, and is relieved to have survived the encounter. In fact, the very name that he’s given during this encounter, Israel, means “strives with God.”

Carson’s point is that Thomas would have already had precedent within an orthodox Jewish framework to identify Jesus as literally God—just as Abraham and Jacob did in their encounters with the divine.

Critical scholars employ another tactic to explain Thomas’s confession away: they say that his wasn’t a confession at all; it was an exclamation, like OMG! As Carson writes:

Thomas’ utterance cannot possibly be taken as shocked profanity addressed to God (if to anyone), a kind of blasphemous version of a stunned ‘My word!’ Despite its popularity with some modern Arians, such profanity would not have been found in first-century Palestine on the lips of a devout Jew. In any case, Thomas’ confession is addressed to him, i.e. to Jesus; and Jesus immediately (if implicitly) praises him for his faith, even if it is not as notable as the faith of those who believe without demanding the kind of evidence accorded Thomas.[2]

“Modern Arians.” That’s harsh, but why not call a spade a spade?

1. D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 658.

2. Ibid.

Letting go of the idea that “we’ve got to do it all”

April 16, 2016

tom-wright

In N.T. Wright’s commentary on John 21:1-14, which I’m preaching on tomorrow, he notices that Jesus already has fish on the grill (see v. 9) as the disciples are bringing their miraculous catch of 153 fish to him.

But then there comes an interesting little exchange. Jesus is already cooking fish and bread on the charcoal fire. He doesn’t need their catch. He is well capable of looking after himself (though what ‘needs’ his risen body now has are past our comprehension). John, describing this scene, isn’t wasting words. He isn’t filling in time. John never pads out stories. He is telling us something, something about working under Jesus’ direction, something about the relation of our work to his.

How dreadfully easy it is for Christian workers to get the impression that we’ve got to do it all. God, we imagine, is waiting passively for us to get on with things. If we don’t organize it, it won’t happen. If we don’t tell people the good news, they won’t hear it. If we don’t change the world, it won’t be changed. ‘He has no hands but our hands’, we are sometimes told.

What a load of rubbish. Whose hands made the sun rise this morning? Whose breath guided us to think, and pray, and love, and hope? Who is the Lord of the world, anyway? We may be given the holy spirit to enable us to work for Jesus; but the holy breath is not independent of the master who breathes it out, of the sovereign God, the creator. Neither the institutional church nor its individual members can upstage him. Jesus welcomes Peter’s catch. He asks him to bring some of it. But he doesn’t, in that sense, need it.[1]

This is a helpful insight to me, a pastor, who often feels as if the weight of the world—or at least that tiny portion of the world within a few miles’ radius of my church—is on my shoulders.

1. N.T. Wright, John for Everyone, Part Two (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 159-60.

Alas, even Will Willimon “argues about the argument,” too

April 13, 2016

Who knows whether Bishop Willimon will approve the following comment, which I made in response to a blog post he (and Bishop Ken Carter) wrote in 2013. But my comment summarizes what I wrote on Monday, and goes deeper into the biblical argument, especially Jesus’ words in Matthew 19.

When did we move past the argument concerning homosexual practice and go straight to “we need to acknowledge different biblical interpretations”? All we Methodists do today is argue about the argument. I want to hear the argument itself—from you, Dr. Willimon, if possible. After all, none of these revisionist biblical interpretations occurred to anyone until about 1980 or so. As someone who has been rightly skeptical of the influence of post-Enlightenment thinking in Christian theology, you must have a really strong biblical case to make for full inclusion of sexually active gays and lesbians. Or so I would imagine.

Bishop Carter writes: “At the same time, they often wonder why one particular lifestyle or issue or orientation is singled out for judgment; this present reality is surely not justified by the biblical attention given to homosexuality (in comparison, for example, to divorce and remarriage, or economic justice and poverty).”

How much attention does the Bible give to incest or bestiality? Less than homosexual practice, yet all three practices are condemned in the same context in Leviticus. Speaking of which, what about 1 Corinthians 5 and Paul’s harsh, uncompromising words to the church about condoning the behavior of the man in an incestuous relationship? Paul believed that nothing less than the man’s soul was at stake. Was Paul wrong? Or have we misunderstood him? If so, somebody better make that case or explain why this particular instance of sexual sin would be different (in Paul’s mind) from homosexual practice.

As for our “singling out” this issue for judgment, doesn’t Paul do that in 1 Corinthians 6, where he says that engaging in this behavior without repentance risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom? Again, maybe Paul is wrong, or maybe we’ve misunderstood him, but then so did the brightest Christian minds for two millennia. Why? What do we know that they didn’t? What do we know that the Holy Spirit didn’t know when he guided the authors of scripture to write what they did (assuming we Wesleyan evangelicals can at least agree that the Bible was in some sense guided by the Spirit)?

Moreover, Paul’s words in Romans 1 don’t proof-text Leviticus: As N.T. Wright, among many others has observed, they hark back to Creation itself: From the beginning, God intends for the gift of sex to be practiced only within the context of marriage, which by definition is between a man and a woman.

This emphasis on the complementarity of male and female as one prerequisite for sexual behavior is also affirmed by Jesus in Matthew 19 and parallels. Jesus implies that only a bond between two sexually complementary humans can create a “one flesh” union. Logically, this follows from the Creation story in Genesis 2: The man finds only in the woman his missing part (and vice versa). They literally complete one another—in a way that neither a sexual relationship between two men nor two women can.

By this same logic, Paul warns Corinthian men in 1 Corinthians 6 against having sex with prostitutes: Even heterosexual sex with a prostitute, which obviously isn’t “loving, committed, monogamous, covenantal, and lifelong,” creates this “one flesh” bond. Most LGBT-affirming Methodists, by contrast, say that this marital bond depends on qualities associated with a sexual relationship, whether gay or straight. Paul disagrees.

The burden for Willimon and LGBT-affirming United Methodists who affirm the primacy of scripture is to explain why Paul’s words don’t matter.

I’ve heard the pushback from plenty of Methodists: “You can’t take Genesis 1 and 2 literally!” For the sake of argument, let’s say that’s true: Then how do you take it figuratively? Jesus himself says, “God created them male and female,” using two words that, in Hebrew, emphasize sexual characteristics unique to each partner. Even figuratively, how can we interpret Jesus to say that he was only referring to “any two consenting adults”?

Another counterargument, which Bishop Carter would surely endorse, is that the biblical authors didn’t understand homosexuality the way we do today, therefore their words on the subject are time-bound and culturally relative. If that were true, then I’ll leave you and your readers with this thought experiment: Suppose God wanted to tell us that sex and marriage are reserved only for a man and woman; indeed, that homosexual practice, per se, is a sin. How would God tell us that in 2016? What would the Bible have to say that it doesn’t already say? How could the Spirit have guided the authors of scripture such that their words couldn’t be dismissed as hopelessly relative and time-bound?

My fear is that LGBT-affirming Methodists have ruled out the traditional interpretation of scripture before they even begin the task of interpretation.

Sermon 04-03-16: “Do Not Disbelieve, but Believe”

April 12, 2016

John Sermon Series Graphic

After living and ministering alongside Jesus for three years, it’s hard to believe that even on Easter evening, after Mary Magdalene told them that she had seen the Risen Lord, the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room—behind a locked door, in fear. Why did they doubt? Yet, as we look at our own lives, are we really so different?

Sermon Text: John 20:19-31

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

It was during my junior year in high school. I had a class with a girl named Estelle Long. During the class, we had some down time, and Estelle wanted to show us something really cool. It was kind of like an experiment. It required five people, and she asked for volunteers. I liked Estelle, so naturally I volunteered. Anyway, here’s what happened: One person sat in a chair. Two people stood on opposite sides of the chair. Estelle asked the four of us standing on opposite sides to place a finger—a single finger—underneath each corner of the chair and try to lift the person off the ground in the chair.

Impossible, right? We tried. We couldn’t do it…

But then she explained that if we take turns stacking all eight of our arms over the head of the person sitting in the chair, one arm above another arm, something scientific would happen—I don’t remember exactly how she explained it. We would reduce air resistance or create a temporary vacuum or something… so we did that. And then, she had us unstack our arms, and repeat the experiment. And now… voila! What had been impossible before now was easy. We lifted the person in the chair off the ground with no problem. Light as a feather! At least that’s how I remembered it.

Almost thirty years later, on the other side of a high school diploma, a few college degrees, and a whole lot of life experience, I happened to remember Estelle’s demonstration. I remembered it out of the blue, and I thought, “That’s impossible!” I mean, I know I experienced it—I know that we couldn’t lift the person off the ground the first time, and then we did this thing with our arms, and then we could lift them off the ground. But Estelle’s so-called “scientific” reason for it—that we had eliminated air resistance couldn’t have explained it. Read the rest of this entry »

United Methodists only like to argue about the LGBTQ argument

April 11, 2016

While I was on vacation last week, a couple of blog posts from United Methodist leaders reminded me that we are in the midst of a politically divisive season. No, not that season… I’m talking about the United Methodist Church’s General Conference 2016 in Portland, which begins next month.

First, Dan Dick, a theologically progressive United Methodist minister and author, argues that if our church splits over issues pertaining to homosexual behavior, it will have done so because we have chosen “personal desire over the will of God.”

God’s will, from Dr. Dick’s perspective, is unity above all else. We are united in baptism, which—because Methodists are sacramental—we believe is primarily an act of the Holy Spirit. Through baptism, therefore, the Holy Spirit has already said that our LGBTQ-affirming brothers and sisters, including sexually active gays and lesbians, are included in our church. So who are we to say otherwise?

Dick writes, “We are brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of our behaviors and/or beliefs.”

Moreover, since this essential unity can’t be abrogated by human action anyway, including splitting the church, we may as well learn to live together. In fact, to do otherwise is to “reject God, renounce Jesus, and revoke our baptism.”

Strong words!

If a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox Christian were reading Dick’s words, he might be forgiven for thinking, “Physician, heal thyself!” As Riley B. Case puts it in the comments section:

Following this logic we need to renounce our United Methodism and our Protestantism and go back to Rome. Since 2016 is the year before the 500-year anniversary of the 95 theses, we could perhaps vote at General Conference to disband and repent. After all, blood is thicker than water.

Another commenter includes these insightful words from John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, regarding church schism (Sermon 80, On Schism, ¶ 17):

I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a minister of the Church of England. And I have no desire nor design to separate from it till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet, and right, and my bounden duty to separate from it without delay. To be more particular, I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel. Yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the church without omitting this, without desisting from the gospel, I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. In like manner, if I could not continue to unite with any smaller society, church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to other doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society. And in all these cases the sin of separation, with all the evils consequent upon it, would not lie upon me, but upon those who constrained me to make that separation by requiring of me such terms of communion as I could not in conscience comply with.

Moreover, since Wesley himself endorsed, however reluctantly, the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in the former British colonies of America, how can he be considered anything other than a schismatic?

Clearly, Wesley himself, unlike Dick, did not value unity above all else. If Dick thinks Wesley was wrong, I wish he would say why. Does Dick know something about the nature of baptism that Wesley didn’t know?

Not to mention the authors of scripture!

After all, I’m sure the man committing incest, as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, also happened to be baptized. Yet Paul tells the church in the strongest terms possible to separate themselves from this man—for the sake of the man’s soul. Suppose some leaders in the Corinthian church disobeyed Paul: “No, Paul, we think it’s perfectly O.K. that this man is committing flagrant, unrepentant sexual sin, which is condemned alongside homosexual practice in the exact same context of Leviticus 18 and 20.”

Would Paul write back and say, “No problem. You’re all baptized, after all. God has accepted this man committing incest. You need to as well”?

It boggles the mind.

Of course, I am making an argument from scripture, which few Methodist leaders these days have the stomach for. Certainly not Dick. He seems so bored with the biblical argument that he can’t even bother to make it. He only argues about the argument:

The Bible offers a cultural community/purity code that has absolutely nothing to do with the post-enlightenment morality codes of Western civilization.  What we want the Bible to say about homosexuality it simply doesn’t say.  Sure, it is named as “a sin”, but not as some would like to define it today.  In context, it was a disobedience to God and a violation of community because it did not fulfill the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”  Those who wish to make it about the sanctity of marriage must be careful, because it cannot be separated from issues of divorce, bloodline, polygamy and a much broader (less-sex-based) definition of adultery.

As I’ve argued in many places in this blog (here, for example), the biblical case against homosexual practice goes far beyond the “thou shalt not’s” of a few proof-texts (although inasmuch as scripture says “thou shalt not,” we Methodists, who say we affirm the primacy of scripture, better pay attention!); it mostly has to do with complementarity of male and female. This is affirmed loudly by Jesus in Matthew 19 and its parallels. Contrary to Dick’s assertions, Jesus’ words there, along with Paul’s in Romans 1 and Ephesians 5, say nothing about procreation.

But Dick’s point here is to say that we can’t know what Paul and the other authors of scripture meant when they wrote about sexuality—except they didn’t mean what we mean today. (At least Dick concedes that the Bible says that homosexual practice is a sin, so that’s progress, I guess.) His words remind me of something I wrote in my review of Daniel Helminiak’s revisionist book, What the Bible Really Says about Homosexuality.

The author’s point is that everything we think we know about what the Bible says regarding homosexuality is wrong…

[I]f Helminiak is correct, we have no idea what kind of Bible we have—because the Bible is so hopelessly obscure that none of us unschooled in the nuances of Hebrew and Greek can begin to decipher it! Words no longer mean what we think they mean—despite what a broad consensus of Bible scholars and translators have told us for 2,000 years.

Fine… We don’t know what Paul means by “unnatural” (Greek: para physin) in Romans 1:26. Why stop there? How do we really know what “love” means in John 3:16?

If Dick (and Helminiak) are right about the obscurity of the Bible, then we have another problem: Suppose God wanted to tell us through his Word that homosexual sex, per se, is a sin. What would God say that he hasn’t already said? How would the Holy Spirit have guided the authors of scripture to put God’s intentions into words such that they couldn’t be dismissed as culturally relative?

What would the Bible have to say about homosexuality to convince revisionists that God is telling us that homosexual sex, per se, is a sin?

I ask because, if the revisionists are right, they rule out that interpretation before they even start! Why? Because, they say, their world is different from ours and vice versa.

In the second article, on the UMC-affiliated Ministry Matters website, Rev. Dalton Rushing tells us that he believes in the primacy of scripture, yet he says that his convictions regarding the “legitimacy of LGBTQ relationships” comes from “hours of study of scripture, of the doctrines of the church, of science. It comes from conversation and communal discernment. It also comes from hours and hours of prayer.”

Do you see the contradiction?

If we Methodists accept the primacy of scripture, then the authenticity (or not) of homosexual relationships depends on nothing other than what God is telling us through his Word. Inasmuch as tradition, reason, and experience help us understand what the Bible says, that’s good and useful. But they have no veto power over the Bible.

(And before anyone asks, I am happy to argue about Albert Outler’s so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral.)

Rushing says that apart from his convictions about the LGBTQ issue, “you’d be hard pressed to argue I’m not a classical Wesleyan evangelical.” If so, then he would surely agree that the Holy Spirit does not reveal something to us today, even through “hours and hours of prayer,” that contradicts what the Holy Spirit has already revealed to us in scripture.

Besides, I’m sure the apostle Paul prayed a lot, too. Ahem…

Like Dan Dick, Rushing is only arguing about the argument. I would like for him to actually make his argument.

Early in his article he writes:

While I would argue that [the LGBTQ issue] is not the most important issue facing the United Methodist Church (the church lost nearly 5% of its worshipping membership between 2012 and 2014, according to the most recent statistics available), the issue of full inclusion of LGBTQ people is certainly important.

Really?

Because if the UMC splits this year—or General Conference sows the seeds of a split in the near future—the denomination that’s left in its wake will lose much more than five percent of its membership in two years. And if it lost those members in part because it changed its doctrine on sexuality to reflect Rushing’s convictions, he would probably say something like this: “It’s unfortunate, but if that’s the price the church had to pay in order to be faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ, then so be it.”

I could be wrong, but why wouldn’t he say something like that? From his perspective, our church is condoning something evil. Isn’t it? Denying full equality to gays and lesbians; discriminating against them in ordination and marriage; actively harming them through our witness and our doctrines, perhaps even leading some to commit suicide (as I’ve been accused of doing on more than one occasion).

If Rushing believes he’s right, how could he not believe that the LGBTQ issue is bigger than simply losing members?

So here’s something I have in common with most theological progressives in our denomination: I believe the stakes couldn’t be higher when it comes to this issue.