Posts Tagged ‘Timothy Tennent’

On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 5: Slavery, women, and homosexuality

June 10, 2015

This is the fifth part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” See my four previous posts for more.

In my previous post on fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s blog post, “The Bible and Homosexuality,” I began analyzing Rev. Purdue’s words about the three passages of scripture in Paul’s letter that directly mention homosexual practice. Purdue devotes a single paragraph to them, saying that he’ll “leave the particular word studies to the Greek scholars.” As I said, if he’s sincere about that, then he’ll accept the verdict of these experts: that Paul (and the rest of scripture) condemns homosexual practice per se in the strongest terms possible.

At the end of this paragraph, he writes: “[W]e must not ignore or proof-text Paul’s teachings on homosexuality. We must consider the three passages in their context and in light of the entirety of Christian teaching.”

I agree, and I expected him to engage these scriptures in this way. Instead of doing so, however, he spends the next five paragraphs ignoring these passages—writing words such as the following:

Friends, we now see some of Paul’s teachings in newer non-literal light. In 1 Timothy 2:12-15, Paul writes, “ A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. … Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing.” What do literalists do with these verses? Can we build our theology of women around them? Was Adam not deceived? Are women saved by childbirth? An honest literalist theology must explain what Paul means by child-bearing salvation.

We now see some of Paul’s teachings in newer non-literal light.

No, we don’t! Purdue doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the world “literal.” When we read Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2, we don’t imagine that Paul is speaking figuratively. We aren’t reading these words as if they’re poetry. We read these words, which Paul intends for his readers to take literally, in a literal light only. Otherwise, we’re reading them incorrectly.

By introducing the concept of “literalism” here, however, Purdue can begin attacking every progressive Methodist’s favorite bogeyman: the biblical “literalist.” “What do literalists do,” he asks, “with these verses?” Since I’ve been accused by at least a couple of clergy colleagues of being a literalist myself, I suppose I’m qualified to answer.

But do you see what he’s doing? He’s questioning the character or intelligence of people like me, who believe, in good faith, that homosexual practice is a sin, by lumping us with “those darn literalists.” He doesn’t have to engage our arguments; he can just call us names. We’re guilty by association, just a notch or two above (I hope!) the late Fred Phelps. We can’t have well-principled reasons for defending the church’s traditional doctrine: either we’re not well-informed students of the Bible—or we’re not good people.

I’m tempted to ask him if he believes that Wolfhart Pannenberg, the great German theologian who died last year, was also a “literalist” because he believed in the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality.

Pannenberg and me—two peas in a "literalist" pod.

Pannenberg and me—two peas in a “literalist” pod.

Be that as it may, when he says that we should read Paul’s words about women in a “non-literal light,” he means to say that we shouldn’t take Paul’s words about women (or slavery) at face value. I agree! Obviously, when Paul says in one part of 1 Corinthians that women should “keep silent” in church (1 Corinthians 14:34), we can’t take it at face value. Why? Because he’s already approved of women prophesying in church (1 Corinthians 11:5). Women aren’t simultaneously keeping silent and prophesying at the same time. So we have to resolve what, on its face, is a contradiction.

But do I think Paul was contradicting himself? Of course not. Believe it or not, the apostle Paul was one of the greatest thinkers and writers in the history of the world. We are not smarter than he is; we are not morally superior to him. Can we give him the benefit of the doubt? Unlike his original readers and listeners, we have no access to the original context of his words. We’re eavesdropping on one side of a two-sided correspondence. We try our best to reconstruct circumstances in the Corinthian church, but this still involves much speculation.

Purdue says that we Methodists, when we began ordaining women in 1956, “clarified or perhaps set aside some Pauline ideas in obedience to the teachings of our Lord.” Clarified, yes. “Set aside”? By no means! (At least we shouldn’t have—I wasn’t around back then.)

We don’t “set aside,” I hope, any part of God’s Word! But we do interpret scripture that’s less clear in in light of scripture that’s more clear. This is a sound interpretive principle. Purdue himself does this when he defends Paul’s view of women in the following way:

In Romans 16, Paul writes “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon …receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me. Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. Greet also the church that meets at their house.” (Romans 16) The great Apostle seemingly bans women leadership, but starts a church in Lydia’s home, works with a clergy couple, and sends a female deacon to help lead the church in Rome.

We could say much more about Paul’s exalted view of women in ministry than this. For one thing, Paul entrusted Phoebe with his Letter to the Romans, his magnum opus. She wouldn’t have merely delivered the letter like a mail carrier. She would have read it to the churches in Rome and answered questions about it. She was the letter’s first expositor.

The point is, even Purdue understands that we must interpret Paul’s words about women first in light of everything else in Paul’s corpus—and then the rest of scripture—and when we do, we understand that Paul can’t be ruling out women’s important roles in ministry.

How is this analogous at all to Paul’s words about homosexuality?

We know, for example, that Paul condemns homosexual practice without qualification in three places in his letters. If the analogy to women in ministry holds, there should be other passages in Paul that qualify, clarify, or even contradict (on their face) Paul’s blanket judgment against homosexual practice, right? Where are they?

They’re not there—neither in Paul’s letters nor in the rest of the Bible. The analogy doesn’t hold.

Purdue tries to make a similar point regarding Paul’s words about slavery (emphasis mine).

Before  we simply embrace Paul’s three verses [regarding homosexuality] at face value perhaps we need to examine Paul’s teachings on slavery. The Apostle speaks of equality before the Lord but also upholds slavery: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters… just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5) Surely no one anywhere, any longer quotes Paul’s words to justify slavery. Today, we stand firmly with John Wesley and our General Rules in rejecting slave holding. We have not always done that. The 1889 cornerstone of my current appointment reads “M.E.C.S.”! A good portion of our church stood with the right to own another child of God. We now name as sinful what the Levitical law and Paul accepted. Could we embrace a new understanding of homosexual persons just as we now accept a new understanding of slavery?

My questions to Purdue are these: Does he believe that the Bible writers, including Paul, were mistaken to write what they wrote? Was Paul wrong? Would Paul fail to understand, as we do today, that the involuntary, race-based, chattel slavery practiced in the few centuries leading up to the American Civil War was evil? Are we morally superior to Paul? What do we understand about sin and evil that he didn’t? Worse, did the Holy Spirit fail to properly inspire and guide the writers of scripture to write what they did about slavery (as practiced in the ancient world)? Does God’s Word endorse or promote sinful behavior?

Purdue says that he “stands firmly” with John Wesley. I do even more so because I “stand firmly” with John Wesley in believing that Paul wasn’t wrong to counsel slaves to “obey your earthly masters… just as you would obey Christ.” For one thing, what alternative did they have? For another, as many others have pointed out, slavery in Paul’s day wasn’t the same as African slavery of our American experience. It was usually voluntary; it was usually for a limited duration, not for life; it was usually bonded or indentured servitude in order to pay off a debt, after which the person was manumitted; it didn’t usually separate slaves from their families; it was often the only thing separating someone from starvation or financial ruin.

More importantly, as surely Purdue knows but doesn’t say, if all Christian slaveholders took to heart Paul’s counsel to slaveholder Philemon regarding his runaway slave Onesimus, the institution of slavery wouldn’t long survive, at least among Christians. Read the whole letter (it’s very short), but here’s one poignant part:

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. I would have been glad to keep him with me, in order that he might serve me on your behalf during my imprisonment for the gospel, but I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother—especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

And let’s not forget Paul’s radical, liberating, oft-quoted words in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

My point is that the Bible’s treatment of slavery, like its treatment of women in ministry, is not at all analogous to its treatment of same-sex sexual behavior. If it were, we should expect to find—again—some word from Paul or the other Bible writers that mitigates the unqualified condemnation of the practice of homosexuality. It’s not there.

(For more on this argument about slavery and women, see this post, which includes a link to a fine article by Timothy Tennent.)

Purdue’s words about slavery and women in ministry are a red herring, anyway.

Here’s why: While I utterly reject the premise that Paul and the Bible writers were wrong about slavery and women, let’s follow Purdue’s logic for a moment: Because Paul can’t be trusted in the case of slavery and women, Purdue argues, he therefore shouldn’t be trusted in the case of homosexual practice. Or, because the church was wrong in its interpretation of Paul’s words in the case of women and slavery, it’s therefore wrong in its interpretation of Paul’s words regarding homosexual practice.

For one thing, as I’ve shown, these things are not analogous. But even if they were analogous, Purdue doesn’t reject everything else Paul teaches—even what he teaches about sexual sin. In other words, I doubt Purdue thinks that Paul got it wrong on incest in 1 Corinthians 5. I’m sure he agrees with Paul that incest is an intolerable sin for which there is no room for compromise. I doubt that Purdue thinks that Paul got it wrong on prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6. I’m sure he agrees with Paul that Christians should not, under any circumstances, have sex with prostitutes.

And those are just two examples, of course. I’m sure Purdue agrees, in general, with much of what Paul says about sexual immorality. Nevertheless, if Paul got it wrong on slavery and women in ministry, then on what basis do we say he got it right on incest or prostitution?

I’ll keep plugging along through the rest of Rev. Purdue’s post later.

The “powerful corrective” offered by the global church

August 26, 2014
Here I am in Kenya, having one of the best times in my life

Here I am in Kenya, having one of the best times in my life

In last Sunday’s sermon, I talked about my experience of going to Kenya and teaching indigenous United Methodist pastors. On that note, Tim Tennent shares this reflection about the “powerful corrective” that the global church can offer to Western churches. Every word rings true to my experience.

One of the advantages of sustained interaction with the global church is that our brothers and sisters can help re-introduce us to Christianity. As every year passes it becomes increasingly clear that what is “bought and sold” as the Christian faith in North America is often only a pale reflection, almost a dim memory, of the actual article. Our long sojourn with Christendom has domesticated the faith, sanding down every rough edge, making it comfortable, almost coterminous, with western pragmatism. Once you have swallowed the pill of the kind of “feel good-self help-therapeutic-market driven” Christianity which has become so persuasive you can begin to think (after sustained exposure) that this really is the real thing. We slowly begin to actually believe what is said from the pulpits of America rather than what is set forth in the text of the New Testament and proclaimed by the Apostles. This is where the global church can provide a powerful corrective…

We can discover a post-Western Christianity. We can hear and see the gospel through the eyes and ears of others. We can re-discover the gospel itself. I have spent enough time with the church around the world to realize that they, too, have problems and issues, just as the early church did. But, the point is, they are often not our problems; they do not suffer from our blind spots. The result is that they can help us to see our own situation more clearly.

I remember the first time it really dawned on me that I was actually a nominal Christian. The real tragedy is that such a possibility had never even crossed my mind. So, lift up your eyes and see afresh the mighty works of God around the world. Learn to laugh out loud whenever you hear some new proposal which has as its presupposition that North America is somehow entitled to be the vanguard of Christian faith and practice. Believe in the seemingly heretical possibility that we who were for so long called to be teachers and leaders, just might be called to a new season of listening and following.

Does the UMC really believe that the LGBT are “evil” or “less than fully human”?

June 23, 2014

In the sixth part of a seven-part series of blog posts on “A Way Forward,” an Adam Hamilton-backed proposal to save the United Methodist Church from schism, Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary and a fellow ordained elder in full connection in the UMC, notices a surprising lack of biblical and theological reflection in the debate over changing our church’s traditional stance on human sexuality.

One of the striking differences between the contours of the United Methodist discussion and the counterpart discussions which led to the breakup of the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches is how seldom Methodists have actually discussed specific biblical texts related to homosexuality, or, for that matter, invoked a deep discussion about a biblical theology of the body, marriage and human sexuality… I readily acknowledge that all of these discussions have taken place in our seminaries, but it hasn’t really become part of the public church discourse as it has in other denominations. Our conversations have mostly focused on pastoral care, the need for generational sensitivity for evangelistic purposes and wanting to portray ourselves as inclusive and welcoming, not closed and angry. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that not a single verse of Scripture is actually quoted in A Way Forward.

He goes on to concede that we traditionalists haven’t fared much better, focusing our disagreement on revisionists’ disregard for the Book of Discipline—as if that were God-breathed scripture.

I’m sympathetic with Tennent’s complaint—until I read a recent blog post like this one, written by popular United Methodist blogger and pastor Jason Micheli. The post reminds me how lightly committed we Methodists are to the authority of scripture. Tennent fails to appreciate that if there’s any hope of “saving” the UMC, the Discipline may be the only arrow left in our quiver.

Be that as it may, even for Micheli, a blogger with whom I’ve long and loudly disagreed on a number of issues related to the authority of scripture, this post is unusually obnoxious.

He begins by excerpting an email he received from a parishioner, who writes, among other things:

As part of a Christian community, we are charged to make disciples; to invite friends and acquaintances to join us in that community. How can we invite friends and acquaintances who are gay and lesbian to join a community that publicly affirms and proclaims that they are evil, cannot hold positions of leadership and may not enjoy the blessing of holy matrimony?

As one long-suffering commenter on his blog said, “You should correct your friend, because this is not the affirmation or proclamation of the UMC.”

That’s putting it mildly!

Micheli knows that his parishioner has grossly mischaracterized our church’s doctrine. He knows that we in no way “affirm or proclaim” that gays and lesbians are “evil.” We affirm that all people are of “sacred worth,” regardless the extent to which they experience same-sex attraction (which is on a continuum; it’s not binary). Alongside two millennia of orthodox Christian teaching on the subject, we say that homosexual practice is sinful. (But not even that—in our own milquetoast way, we say it’s “incompatible with Christian teaching.” Well, yes…).

He also knows that gays and lesbians are not only permitted to hold positions of leadership, but they can also be ordained—so long as they are celibate in singleness—just like heterosexuals. The extent to which someone experiences same-sex attraction is irrelevant.

In the interest of acting in good faith, even given his disagreement with our church’s stance, how can Micheli let this statement stand—unless he agrees with the spirit of it?

Of course, he would probably say he’s merely using his parishioner’s email as an example of the way in which our doctrine is “bad advertising” for our church.

But if that were the case, how can he then say the following (my emphasis in bold): “Where Methodists are still stuck in the love the sinner/hate the sin time warp, debating whether we can officially regard homosexuals as fully human or not, Presbyterians have moved ahead to grant homosexuals access to the sanctifying grace Christians call ‘marriage.’”

Given that I can’t decide whether it’s worse to view homosexuals as less than “fully human” or “evil,” it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Micheli agrees with his parishioner.

If so, does he not realize that he’s impugning himself? After all, he stood before God, his bishop, and his annual conference not too long ago and promised them all that he agreed with the doctrines of the church and would actively enforce and abide by what he now seems to believe are ignorant, bigoted policies.

I’ve said before that I respect the integrity of my fellow clergy on the other side of the debate who believe, along with me, that the issue dividing us can’t be a matter of indifference—that there is no middle way. Given his strong convictions, why does Micheli believe in one? In the interest of social justice, why is he willing to live under a tent so large that we tolerate or condone church leaders (like me, I presume he would say) who believe (according to him) that homosexuals are less than human—or evil? Or something like that?

The rest of his post is misleading and beside the point. Yes, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to allow gay marriage by a wide margin. Of course they did! Many of the conservatives who would otherwise have voted against it have already left the denomination! Also, as a matter of integrity, who cares whether the UMC is “mainline,” whether its present doctrine is bad advertising, or whether it causes us to lose or gain members? The only thing that matters is faithfulness to our Lord.

And Micheli agrees with that. He says it’s imperative that we “do right by what the Spirit is showing us about gay Christians.”

Of course, but by what doctrine of scripture would the Spirit be showing us something that contradicts what the Spirit has previously revealed in scripture?

Which reminds me… Last week on Facebook someone asked me, “Besides Bible verses and tradition, what argument can you really make against homosexual practice?” To which I responded: “Besides the shooting, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”

Tim Tennent on the need for “gospel clarity”

April 1, 2014

Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary, doesn’t blog often enough, but when he does he usually makes it worth our while. In this post, he points out the potentially dangerous fact that most of our fellow Methodists possess at least a vague understanding of John Wesley’s “heart-warming” experience at Aldersgate on May 24, 1738.

I say “potentially dangerous” because if that’s all they possess then they risk divorcing Wesley’s experience from its scriptural foundation:

I don’t know of too many Methodists who have actually read Martin Luther’s preface to the Book of Romans. The fact that the heart-felt experience of Wesley is far more known than the textual source of that experience is significant. We can all too easily forget that our experience of God’s work does not come untethered from the truth of God’s word. When Christian “experience” becomes disconnected from God’s Word it drifts into mere emotionalism.

It’s easy to imagine that we’ve succumbed to “mere emotionalism” when our marketing tagline is “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”

The phrase “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” says absolutely nothing about Jesus Christ or the glorious gospel. It only speaks of our hearts, our minds and our buildings. Is that really the best we can do? As I have said before, if there were public relations consultants in the 19th century, the phrase “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” could have just as easily emerged as a great tagline for a 19th century brothel.

This reminds of something a professor at UMC-affiliated (and theologically orthodox) United Theological Seminary said about the UMC’s website. If it’s true, as we say, that the UMC’s mission is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” then doesn’t it follow that our church’s official website ought to reflect that priority?

Perhaps the public website should take a more evangelistic approach. How about, right up front, a link to the testimonies of people who have accepted Christ and known his transforming power? How about a link to a video called something like, “Why Should I Choose Jesus?” Or perhaps a video, or at least a page, called something like, “Why Does Christ Make A Difference?” Perhaps one could have the option to chat or have a video call with a pastor. Maybe it would be helpful to have something on the basics of Christian belief.

Nevertheless, Tennent’s words in this next-to-last paragraph seem exactly right:

Brothers and sisters, we must find new ways to let the clarity of the gospel ring forth from our lives and from the ministries of the church. Wesley’s “heart-warming experience” must be wedded anew with the steadfast powerful message of the gospel as found exposited by Luther in his preface to the Romans. This is certainly how Wesley himself interpreted his heart warming experience. After May 24th he became crystal clear about the nature of the gospel, the centrality of Jesus Christ, and the power of the Word of God. He became razor sharp in his passion to preach the gospel, evangelize the world, disciple believers and spread scriptural holiness throughout the world. We should remind ourselves every day that being a Methodist or a Presbyterian or “non-denominational” means nothing if it is not first and foremost an outgrowth of our more basic identity as Christians who have been transformed by and through Jesus Christ.

About Adam Hamilton’s recent Washington Post op-ed

February 27, 2013

Despite my uncanny resemblance to the man (or is it Rob Bell? I can’t remember), I continue to “agree to disagree” with my fellow United Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton on his recently revised stance on human sexuality. I only mention my disagreement again because of his recent op-ed in the Washington Post. 

Some prominent United Methodist clergy, including Asbury Seminary president Timothy Tennent and pastor Maxie Dunnam, have weighed in on it here and here. While Hamilton doesn’t add anything to the argument in his sermon last fall, which I wrote about in some depth, his emphasis in this piece is on the analogy to the biblical treatment of slavery (and, he adds parenthetically, “the place of women”). Regarding those many verses in the Bible that seem to condone or justify slavery, Hamilton writes the following:

Abolitionist preachers argued in their sermons that the verses related to slavery in the Bible were a reflection of the cultural context and times in which the Bible was written and did not reflect God’s endorsement of slavery. They argued that there were “weightier” scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery. This was the position that Lincoln himself adopted.

One day soon, he says, most of us Christians will view the church’s stance toward homosexuals the same way.

Both Tennent and Dunnam argue (as I tried to) that this analogy, powerful as it seems at first blush, doesn’t hold water. As Hamilton has surely preached before on numerous occasions, the Bible’s “clear trajectory” moves away from slavery and female subordination. Hamilton knows, for example, that if slaveowner Philemon takes Paul’s words to heart—that Philemon should treat his runaway slave Onesimus as a fully equal brother in Christ, who is master of us all—and all Christian slaveowners do likewise, then the institution of slavery is subverted from within until it no longer exists. This is, in fact, exactly what happened: by the Middle Ages, slavery was illegal in the Christian West. (Yes, it tragically reemerged with African slavery, but those parts of the Church that endorsed it weren’t being faithful, first of all, to scripture itself, not to mention tradition.)

Since Hamilton knows all this—and has surely preached and taught it before—don’t you think it’s disingenuous for him not to say so? In other words, contrary to his argument, it’s not merely “‘weightier’ scriptures on justice, mercy and love that superseded those on slavery,” it’s also scripture’s direct words about slavery itself that destroyed the institution—again, my colleagues in ministry have it right when they talk about a clear trajectory.

No such trajectory exists for homosexual behavior. On the contrary, those verses that speak against same-sex sexual behavior (“five or eight depending upon how one counts,” Hamilton writes) move in the opposite direction.

As he did in his sermon last fall, Hamilton continues to stress the relatively few verses related to homosexual behavior, over against the “100 plus verses on slavery.” If the Church can set aside those hundred-plus verses in order to declare that slavery is immoral, he argues, surely it can do the same with those few verses related to homosexuality.

I don’t know why he thinks this is a good argument.

How many times does the Bible have to say, “Do not covet,” for us to know that coveting is wrong? How many times does it have to say, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for us to know that we really ought to do so? Unless Hamilton believed that those “five to eight” verses were insufficiently clear, then he’s not making his point.

See, he knows what those five to eight verses are clear enough: that’s not his argument. Although I accept that there are eight verses rather than his five, Hamilton is too good a student of the Bible to go on one of those flights of exegetical fancy in which he pretends words no longer mean what they plainly seem to mean, as I described here.

No, his argument is that those verses, though clear enough, are cultural and time-bound and don’t reflect God’s timeless will.

He also offers this:

In my own life, it was both reading the Bible’s passages on same-sex intimacy in the same light as passages on slavery (and violence and the place of women) and coming to know gay and lesbian people that led me to see this issue differently, particularly children who grew up in my church who loved God and sought to serve Christ. As I listened to their stories I saw that they did not fit the stereotypes I had been taught about gay and lesbian people… And their faith was as authentic as that of anyone else in my congregation.

You mean gay and lesbian Christians can also love and serve Christ as well as the rest of us sinners? Their faith is as “authentic” as straight people’s faith? Who said otherwise? A handful of fundamentalists? Westboro Baptist? What kind of straw-man argument is this?

Will the many gay and lesbian Christians who nevertheless accept and abide by the Church’s traditional teaching and remain celibate appreciate that Hamilton realized—rather late in life, apparently—that they, too, are authentically Christian? Of course, Hamilton doesn’t allow for the possibility that such Christians exist—or that celibacy could ever be a viable option for anyone, even though both Jesus and Paul clearly endorsed it!

One final problem with his article occurs in the final paragraph. He conflates the church’s stance regarding homosexual behavior with preachers “decrying the rights of homosexuals today.”

Not so fast! The question of “rights” is strictly a political question. And if you want to talk about political remedies for unjust discrimination against homosexuals, I’m all ears. I stand alongside our Book of Discipline in opposing discrimination. But this is entirely a separate question from whether the church itself should endorse same-sex marriage or ordain non-celibate homosexuals. None of us, gay or straight, has any “rights” before God.

“A more robust Christianity” in a post-Christendom world?

July 25, 2012

The boys and I at St. Simons Island. (I went to the North Ave. Trade School, but I like Auburn, too.)

This week I’m at St. Simons Island, which has historical significance for us Methodists. John and Charles Wesley spent some time here when they were in America. Naturally, there is a United Methodist retreat center here, called Epworth-by-the-Sea. It is the setting of our annual Georgia Pastors School, a teaching conference for us United Methodist clergy in Georgia. We have classes in the morning (taught this year by a biblical archaeologist) and worship services in the evening—with camp activities for the kids.

Our preacher during worship this week is the Rev. Dr. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. Tennent is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and an expert in the field of missiology.

In last night’s sermon he shared some eye-opening—if not downright shocking—statistics about the number of self-identifying Christians in this post-Christian, post-Christendom culture in which we find ourselves. I don’t have the exact numbers from the sermon, but here’s similar data he’s shared elsewhere:

The white Caucasian peoples, once the standard bearers of global Christianity, are now losing the faith in record numbers (between 4,700 and 7,000 per day).  To put this in generational perspective, 65% of the “builder” generation identified themselves as Christian; whereas only 35% of the “baby boomer” generation did.  Generation “X” has only 24% who identify themselves as Christian and the millennial generation (born between 1980 and 2000) is only 15% Christian in their self identification.  If this trend continues then the next generation will be statistically able to be classified as an “unreached people group” as have quite a few European groups in the current generation.

Bear in mind, these numbers reflect a decline in cultural Christianity—Christendom—which isn’t altogether bad. Living in a so-called “Christian” culture comes at a cost. In this blog post, Dr. Tennent writes,

Christendom always finds ways to sand down all the rough edges of the gospel so its prophetic, radical proclamation gets gradually domesticated.  The result is that, over time, Christianity gets quite removed from the proclamation and experience of the New Testament.  Gradually, being a “Christian” gets domesticated to little more than “being nice to people.”  Sin moves from binding ourselves to the human rebellion against God to an “inconvenient slowing down of our moral development.”  The righteous judgment of a holy God is quietly dropped in favor of the proverbial “man upstairs” who is more like Santa Claus than the God of biblical revelation.  Preaching, over time, becomes bland moralizing and child-like admonitions.  Pastors become endlessly manipulated and coerced into the larger cultural project rather than remembering our prior calling to serve Jesus Christ and to help usher in the Kingdom through the witness of the Church.

The way forward, Dr. Tennent writes, is the way back: to “reclaim biblical Christianity as the Church.” The church itself needs to be re-converted to the gospel.

My greatest concern is that those of us who are pastors and leaders have ourselves forgotten the gospel.  The early church didn’t spend a lot of time wringing their hands over the paganism of Rome.  They took it for granted and set about evangelizing it.  This cannot be done if we are angry (this is not the time to start burning Qur’ans).  This also cannot be done if we are too passive (this is not the time for silence and cultural acquiescence).  The greatest need for conversion today is not the unbelieving world, but the church itself.  After all, doesn’t Scripture teach us that judgment begins in the household of God?  (I Peter 4:17).  We cannot even begin to effectively respond to the godless drumbeat of this generation until we ourselves learn to listen to the gospel with better ears, better hearts, better feet, and a lot more good old fashioned courage.  There are few things more troubling than the quiet surrender of the gospel at every turn while, in the same breath, we blather on endlessly about the importance of making the church more “culturally relevant.”

Last night’s sermon reiterated many of these thoughts. I came away being reminded again (I seem to need constant reminding!) of the urgency of our mission—including the urgency of my task as pastor. I believe the Lord is telling me, “Don’t get complacent, Brent. Lift up your eyes, and look on the fields; for they are white already to harvest.”