Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners? What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?”
– John Wesley, The Marks of the New Birth
It was one of the first things that hit me between the eyes when reading John Wesley’s works the first time: The man was not playing around. His faith was not a nice little thing he kept off to the side. It was all consuming and it was serious. He also was not out to win friends.
Tim Tennent writes about a modern-day apostle he met recently in India.
One of them (whose name cannot be shared for security reasons) is a former road-worker who was one of the earliest to respond to the gospel in the region. He shared with us his love for Christ and the amazing ministry God has given to him. He is constantly traveling, bringing the gospel to new villages all over this mountainous region. When many people of his age are thinking about retirement, he is thinking about which villages have not yet had the opportunity to hear the gospel. He has personally led over 500 Hindus to Jesus Christ. When we left the meeting, one of our Trustees turned to me and said, “I feel like I have just met the Apostle Paul.”
George Whitefield defending the doctrine that all Christians can experience the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in his sermon “The Common Privilege of All Believers.”
Indeed, I will not say our letter-learned preachers deny this doctrine in express words. But, however, they do it in effect. For they talk professedly against inward feelings and say we may have God’s Spirit without feeling it, which is in reality to deny the thing itself. And had I a mind to hinder the progress of the gospel and establish the kingdom of darkness, I would go about telling people they might have the Spirit of God and yet not feel it.
I’ve been reading William J. Abraham’s Dialogues: Amongst the People Called United Methodists.
People who read this book looking for a fair and balanced airing of various view points — expecting it to be a piece of journalism — will be shocked and disappointed. Those looking to see our current crisis through Abraham’s eyes, will find it an interesting read. (I suspect Steve Harper and Adam Hamilton may use words other than “interesting,” as will anyone who labels themselves a progressive.)
In the book Abraham touches on one proposal I find intriguing. The following proposal is offered by the character “Traditionalist,” but I have heard a version of it in the past from Abraham’s mouth, and I take Traditionalist to be the character in the book who most reflects Abraham’s views. This may be off base, but I don’t think it is far off base.
Traditionalist describes a taxonomy of three ways of being the church.
The first he call the “big C” Catholic and Orthodox option that puts an emphasis on “the historical episcopate, on baptismal regeneration, on an exclusionary account of the Eucharist, and on a clerical hierarchy with our without Rome.”
Traditionalist claims that Wesley started as an Anglican committed to this option up until it failed him spiritually.
The second option is Magisterial Protestantism, which Traditionalist says has as its core a commitment to “learn the original languages and finally figure out what to believe and do, not least what do do by way of church ministry and polity.”
Traditionalist argues this is a poor fit for Methodism because “we do not believe there is a normative church polity in scripture. We begin with the work of the Holy Spirit and effectively buy the slogan that where the Spirit is there is the church and the fullness of grace.”
Building on this thought, the third option offered by Traditionalist is Methodism as a Holy Spirit filled revival of the “Primitive Christianity that stretched beyond the New Testament era into the first centuries of the church’s life.”
Traditionalist argues that this option for Christianity coming forward from Wesley includes the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism, and much of the most vibrant expressions of Christianity now witnessed around the world.
I’m not sure how Traditionalist/Abraham fleshes out this notion of Methodism as a third way (based on the book, I’m pretty sure Abraham would not embrace calling it the third way) of Christianity. But the notion is interesting, and it speaks to some of the ways that Methodist evangelicalism often does not feel like the Reformed kind. It isn’t just about predestination, but about the robust embrace of the Holy Spirit. One of my professors calls it Metho-costalism.
There are times when a “hard word” must be preached, even to God’s people. However, the church and the individual believer do not grow by daily helpings of “hard words,” but by being nourished and encouraged by the full counsel of God. The greatest catalyst for spiritual maturity in the truly converted is a greater revelation of the love of God in Christ. Another thing that “budding prophets” need to understand is that a preacher carries a Sword, a basin, and a towel. He is quick to use the basin and towel with great joy. But he is slow to use the sword, and he always does so with tears and fear and scarred knees.
– Paul Washer, in an interview with Tim Challies
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:15-20, NRSV)
I wonder how this passage informs the ways Christians talk about prostitution today.
When I read a passage like the one above, I assume that what Paul had to say to the Corinthian church has something to teach us as well. The central point appears to me to be about our bodies and our relationship to Christ. Our bodies are not our own. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.
Paul finds sex with a prostitute objectionable because it unites one who belongs to Jesus Christ with someone unholy. It almost feels like we are reading Leviticus when we take a moment to look at what Paul is actually saying to the Corinthians.
No where in Paul’s analysis do questions of consent or oppression or power come into play, although that does not mean he would approve of the institution. As with slavery, Paul appears more interested in teaching the church how to live in the light of a institution existence. Whether he would eliminate the institution is not a question he openly addresses in either case. In the case of prostitution, it is a uniting what belongs to God with one who stands in de facto rebellion against God. It does not matter that in certain counties in Nevada prostitution is legal. It does not matter that countries in Europe sex work is a regulated business, as it was in ancient Rome. It does not matter that Hollywood glamorizes the degrading and brutal exploitation of women. What matters is that Jesus Christ came to save sinners. We were bought with a price, and we are not now to unite what Christ has bought with the bodies of those who are still enslaved by sin.
That reading may not make much sense in public debate about the rights of sex workers. But it is my best effort to understand Paul’s teaching and how it still speaks to the church today.
I hope I am wrong about this, but I wanted to share some thoughts about the controversy at Duke Divinity School. The facts at the heart of the controversy are contested right now, and I have no first-hand knowledge of the events, so rather than attempt to summarize the matter here are a couple of news stories about it: 1, 2.
Some of my colleagues in the Methoblog and Twitterverse have reacted as if this is no big deal and will blow over. Richard Hays is a respected scholar. All he did was quote the doctrine of the United Methodist Church as dean of a United Methodist seminary. This is Duke, after all.
I hope so.
What I have seen among those who call themselves moderates and conservatives in the UMC in recent years, however, is a shocking lack of understanding how political and protest movements operate. One of the first goals of a successful protest is to have a clearly defined enemy. This is often a person, someone on whom the protest can focus attention and use as a symbol. Dean Hays has been nominated for that role. Whether he seems like a villain to many Duke alumni or the many pastors who read and admire his books is beside the point. He is being nominated to wear the black hat in a drama that will play out mostly before people who have no idea who Richard Hays is and have never read a word he has written.
Perhaps he will succeed in declining the invitation.
Another rule that I fear is not understood at the moment is that in politics the norms of academic debate and discussion have no authority. Dean Hays appears to be attempting to respond to the crisis as if it were merely an internal seminary concern. If he succeeds in keeping the controversy on that ground, then he will likely resolve the crisis with little long-term damage to himself or Duke. But already the engines of political action are in gear. People are spreading versions of events designed to provoke outrage. People are throwing around words like “abuse of power” and other people are repeating them. People are reading the letter Hays wrote and accusing him of attacking the woman who asked the question that led to the controversy: A white man with power using his power and privilege to attack and silence a dissenting female voice. The narrative builds this way.
One of the news stories linked above says Hays has invited key student leaders to sit down and talk about the issue. If the students — or others — demand a public spectacle in the place of personal conversation, you can rest assured that the demands of the protest are driving the agenda.
I hope I’m wrong.
I recall a story at another United Methodist seminary where a successful pastor was lambasted for sharing his honest efforts to honor his convictions about biblical morality and pastoral care. Interestingly, that story also involved the quotation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. The school responded by apologizing.
Hays has not apologized. Indeed, he has been criticized (in a post Tweeted by the Reconciling Ministries Network) for seeking to clarify rather than apologize. I hope he and Duke are able to work on the issues internally, but I worry that such hopes are naive.
“He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sin through his name.” (Acts 10:42-43, NIV)
If I understand my historical-critical method and my ground-up Bible study tools, the key issue in Acts 10 has to do with insiders and outsiders, Jews and Gentiles.
In our context, though, the big question does not seem to be whether belief in Jesus is enough to make Gentiles righteous before God, but whether we need to believe anything at all. In verse 35 Peter says that all who fear God and do right are accepted by God. But even inside the church in our day people sound like they are arguing that you do not have to believe in Jesus Christ or fear God in any way. Just be our own lovable selves, and God would be unjust to do anything but give us a big high five at the pearly gates.
A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a question to his non-church-going friends. He wanted to know why they did not go to church. One response turned the question back on my friend. Why, the person asked, should I bother with church at all. My life is good just as it is. Why do I need church?
It strikes me more and more that most of the people in our context are like the ones Moses warned about in Deuteronomy 8. They think they neither need God nor have received anything from God. Most of us are like the ones mentioned in the Psalms who say “What do I care about God? He will not notice me.” Most of us are the people the prophets aimed their arrows at.
Cornelius and his household were not. They were “devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly” (10:2). He was ready to hear the news of Jesus Christ as good news because he was already conscious of his need for God.
In the church these days, it feels as if we spend a lot of time trying to talk people living in a Deuteronomy 8 mindset into changing their ways. We worry about being credible to people who say in their hearts, “I don’t really need God but if he can do something for me, well maybe.” Peter was guided to the Spirit to the place where men and women were eager for the good news and longing to know God better. What would it look like if the church today followed his example?
Adam Hamilton recently published three blog posts about violence in the Old Testament.
Allan Bevere recruited Ashland seminary professor Dan Hawk to provide a response.
The posts on these two blogs and the comments they have generated would make an interesting small group study.
Here is how Hawk concludes his second post:
On the question of divine violence as in so many others, the canon calls faithful readers out black-and-white thinking and into the gray; out of an impulse that seeks to simplify, dichotomize, and resolve in order to determine who is right– and into a communal conversation as fluid and contentious as the clamor of voices that vie with one another in the biblical canon. The plurality of voices, postures, testimonies, and declarations that configure Scripture reflect the diversity of the same that characterize the church. The very nature of Scripture, then, directs the community shaped by it to seek the truth from all sides and prayerfully ponder together what God is doing in any given day and age and so to align its witness and involvements accordingly.
I notice the reference to living in the gray, which may or may not be a reference to one of Hamilton’s other books. Reading Hawk’s response to Hamilton, I am mindful as well of another response to this question about the violence of God. Some — and John Wesley would fall in this camp — that we are all creatures of God, and so God is justified at any moment if he destroys us for any reason. We are like clay pots the potter can smash on a whim.
This “clay pot” solution to the violence of God comes to mind as I was reading these posts because it strikes me as the mirror image of Hamilton’s approach. Hamilton — as I think Hawk rightly argues — simplifies the witness of Scripture too much by shearing off those parts seem to conflict with a certain vision of who Jesus is. Wesley — and contemporaries such as John Piper — simplify the witness of Scripture the other way by smashing clay pots every time someone raises a qualm about Hell or the destruction of Jericho.
Hawk — quoting Walter Brueggemann — testifies to a God who defies simplification, and in that way becomes much more dangerous and awe-inspiring. You just don’t know what God is going to do next. Such a God is hard to cram into a Sunday School lesson or a sermon. Such a God certainly is not chiefly concerned with making us comfortable. But such a God — at least for me — feels much less like an idol created out of my own imagination and needs. Such a God feels worthy of worship, fear, and love.
At the end of his explanation of the General Rules of the United Societies — rules which we still hold as binding on ourselves — John Wesley wrote this:
These are the General Rules of our societies; all which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written word, the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these, we know, his Spirit writes on every truly awakened heart. If there be any among us who habitually break any of them, let it be made known unto them who watch over that soul as they that must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways; we will bear with him for a season: But then if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.
I notice several things here.
First, Wesley takes very seriously the notion that pastors and lay leaders are on the hook if they do not actively look to the salvation and preservation of souls. I was in a class once in which another pastor told me that his job was not to be anyone’s sin police. That got a lot of nods of agreement, and I was right there with the others. But Wesley would not have agreed. He would not have used the phrase “sin police,” not least of which because it is cute rather than instructive, but he would have reminded us that those who watch over the souls of others will be held to account by Jesus for what we do and what we fail to do.
Second, I notice again the rock solid commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture to guide our faith and practice. Such an idea would not get even a moment of indulgence from many pastors and most seminary professors today.
Finally, just imagine that last portion being read at Annual Conference. Indeed, I wonder what would happen at General Conference if the text of the General Rules were up for a vote. Perhaps that is why it wise that the General Rules are protected by our Constitution.
As a church that protects and preserves these rules, though, I wonder how we live them. How do we — within local congregational settings — get to the point where such a text could be read and embraced? How do we be the church in light of what we hold as our general rules?