Posts Tagged ‘James Howell’

Tell me again why the issue dividing the UMC isn’t “essential”?

June 28, 2017

Last April, I publicly disagreed with James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer (who used to write a column in the liberal mainline journal Lectionary Homiletics, to which I subscribed early in my ministry), over the issue that threatens to divide our denomination in 2019. Dr. Howell wrote a blog post in which he said that, irrespective of our convictions on the subject of human sexuality, it isn’t a question of “essential” Christian doctrine. Therefore, why should the UMC divide over it?

He never responded to my objections, unfortunately.

Yesterday, in an unrelated Facebook thread, we disagreed on a different matter. He wrote the following:

I thought about ignoring it, but why? Do I believe that unrepentant sexual sin risks excluding someone—eternally—from God’s kingdom? Do I believe that to whom much is given, much will be expected, and that it’s better for us pastors to tie a millstone around our neck and throw ourselves into the sea than to cause believers to stumble?

So I wrote the following (no response yet):

If that’s true, then I trust that you’ll search the scriptures and understand why our church’s doctrine on human sexuality is, indeed, a non-negotiable “essential” of the faith—just as it was for the Jerusalem Council when the church retained the Bible’s proscription against “porneia” [translated “sexual immorality”], even as they ruled that Gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised or follow other ceremonial aspects of the law.

If we don’t disagree on the authority of scripture, then surely you’ll agree with me that our church can’t place the need for “unity” ahead of holiness, just as Paul himself refused to do in 1 Corinthians 5, for example, when dealing with the man committing incest. Since incest is condemned in the identical context alongside homosexual behavior in Leviticus 18 and 20, it’s difficult for those of us who embrace the authority to scripture to believe that one is a serious enough sin to divide over but not the other.

If we don’t disagree on the authority of scripture, then you’ll understand why appeals to the Articles of Religion or the creeds or anything outside of scripture ring hollow when determining what is “essential” and what isn’t. Unrepentant sexual sin, according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 6, risks excluding someone from God’s kingdom. Nothing less than heaven and hell, therefore, hang in the balance. That being the case, surely you and I agree, committed as we both are to the authority of scripture, that the issue that is dividing our church counts as “essential.”

Having Christian convictions doesn’t mean we have God “100 percent figured out”

April 7, 2017

This is a follow-up to yesterday’s post about Dr. Howell.

He only appears to offer one reply per commenter, so he didn’t reply to my second comment. But in response to another dissenter, who also challenged him on scripture, he refused to take the bait. Instead, he wrote the following:

I guess I keep hoping that readers will join me in the faithful posture that we don’t have God 100% figured out just yet, that however much we know, we’ve missed something, so we have learning and growth ahead and this might be the time. Doesn’t imply an outcome, just a dream of something besides defensiveness and fault-finding on both sides.

This sounds nice at first. He’s right: none of us has God “100 percent figured out”—not even close! We are finite and fallible. We see through a glass darkly. By all means! So Dr. Howell’s comment seems humble. And what kind of jerk must be to be so presumptuous—so arrogant—to think that I do have God 100 percent figured out? People with strong convictions on this issue must think they have God 100 percent figured out!

But not so fast…

Dr. Howell’s implication is obviously false. To believe that we know something about God isn’t the same as believing that we we know everything about God. Indeed, classic Christian theology teaches that God is unknowable apart from what God has chosen to reveal to us. And how does God reveal himself? The primary way is through his holy Word, the Bible. This is, in fact, the only infallible way that any of us possesses.

Progressives like to interject at this point that the Word of God is Jesus, not the Bible, but that’s a false choice. Yes, Jesus is the Word of God, and he is the perfect revelation of God. But everything we know for sure about Jesus—given that he ascended to heaven and now reigns at the right hand of the Father—we know from the Word of God that is the Bible. If someone has received a “revelation” about Jesus that contradicts what’s revealed about him in scripture (cf. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons) we rightly reject it.

So as I said in my original comment to him, there’s no getting around it: if the different sides to this conflict in the UMC are going to listen to one another, which Dr. Howell says he wants to do, we need to talk about what we believe about the Bible. This, I suspect, will be the heart of the division in our denomination.

Please don’t patronize us, Dr. Howell

April 6, 2017

The Rev. Dr. James Howell, a United Methodist pastor and Duke Divinity School lecturer, published a popular blog post yesterday about sex, marriage, and sexual sin—the issues that threaten to split our denomination in 2019. He says that his post is “something of a final resort” as an appeal for unity, rather than division.

In response to it, I posted the following on Facebook:

While I appreciate Rev. Howell’s irenic tone here, I would have to “die on that same hill” with Talbot Davis, in part because the apostles in Acts 15 seemed willing to. Or else why include the caveat of verse 20 against porneia [Greek for “sexual immorality”]? And what did porneia mean to the apostles, and does it mean something different today and why?

But even to have that discussion involves exegesis and hermeneutics—and before long we’re knee-deep in a discussion about the authority of scripture. Still, Howell says we’re not really arguing theology. Really? It feels like we are. As much as Howell wants us to listen to one another, I don’t feel “listened to” when he says otherwise. In fact, I feel patronized. But enough about my feelings! Good arguments don’t depend on feelings. (Do they?)

He gives reasons why our disagreement isn’t over an “essential” of Christian faith. But surely he knows that “my side” has a counter argument. Why does he give no evidence that he’s heard it? If he has, surely he wouldn’t resort, for example, to an argument over the Articles of Religion, the General Rules, or Wesley’s sermons. What about the Bible? I don’t think anyone on my side will be persuaded apart from a biblical argument.

But Rev. Howell and I do agree on this: Essentials of the Christian faith are worth splitting over.

I also posted a similar comment on his blog. He wrote this in reply:

But can’t you feel your (and my, we all do it) selectivity? Exegesis couldn’t be clearer regarding what to do with our possessions, or with whom you eat dinner, or whether to accumulate pension funds, etc. We roundly ignore these items or rationalize, don’t we? But then on homosexuality we become literalists?

To which I wrote,

I’m confused, James. Are you saying that you believe the church’s traditional doctrine on sexuality is correct, but, since we fall short in all these other areas, we’re hypocrites to try to follow it?

By all means, the Law can only condemn us. And when it does, we fall on our knees and thank God for the cross of his Son Jesus. We don’t shrug and say something like, “My greed, or my hypocrisy, or my idolatry is no big deal.” It is a big deal; it will send us to hell apart from Christ’s atoning sacrifice.

So do we ignore or rationalize other ways in which we sin? I’m sure we do. We’re terrible sinners, after all. But inasmuch as we become aware of our sin, we repent. And as pastors we teach our flock to do the same.

Do you disagree? Have I misunderstood you?

I want to underscore one point I make above: Despite protests to the contrary, Dr. Howell hasn’t heard me—or people on “my side”—if he doesn’t understand why we believe these issues related to sex are essential to Christian faith. We make this argument from scripture—not from creeds, confessions, or founding documents of our denomination. If the Bible is our ultimate authority that guides faith and practice (which United Methodists say they believe), then it’s no use arguing from lesser authorities.

By the way, the same creeds, confessions, and founding documents that fail to mention sexual sin also fail to mention any number of sins about which Dr. Howell and Methodists on the left wing have also “become literalists.” By Dr. Howell’s logic, should we disregard the Bible’s teaching on immigrants, for example, because we ignore so many other “clear” teachings of scripture? I suspect he would say no.

Because of scripture, we believe that without repentance, the practice of homosexuality—alongside many other sins that all of us have committed—risks excluding us from God’s kingdom eternally. While I don’t expect Dr. Howell to agree with this conviction, I do expect him and my fellow United Methodists who disagree with “my side” to understand what’s at stake for us.

Please don’t patronize us by saying that we’re not really arguing theology or that matters pertaining to (nothing less than) eternal life or death aren’t “essential.”

If you believed what we believe about this or any other sin, you would agree that, in the interest of love, it is essential.

Theologically insufficient tweets

July 24, 2013


Some of my fellow United Methodist pastors from Georgia are in class on St. Simons Island this week earning their CEUs. I hope to rejoin them next year. It didn’t work out for me this summer.

Given the enthusiasm with which this quote was retweeted, I assume United Methodist pastor and homiletics professor James Howell got applauded or Amen-ed when he said this. I sympathize. We don’t like saying “God is in control” because, based on the extreme Calvinist interpretation, it ascribes God’s agency to truly horrifying evil.

But… surely neither Howell nor his tweeters deny that God is in control to some extent. Right? Otherwise, let’s not bother with petitionary prayer, for instance—if events are just going to run their course anyway.

My point is, God is sovereign and has the power to stop people from shooting children. Agreed? Like it or not, he chooses not to. We believe he has perfectly good reasons not to intervene—and, by all means, the free will argument is a good one, in this case.

For all I know, Howell went on to say these same things. But this tweet doesn’t say enough. Well, why would it? Almost by definition, tweets, like bumper stickers, don’t say enough.