Resident Aliens redux

God has put North American Christians in this world under an allegedly democratic polity in a capitalist economy and with state-run education, a military budget, and gun violence in the streets — as well as rates of incarceration higher than any country in the world. How then should we live now in light of the shock that God has raised crucified Jesus from the dead? That’s the political question before us.

The words come from foreword of the “expanded” version of Will Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas’ Resident Aliens. They get to the heart of the central issue of the book: How should the church be the church in post-Christendom?

It was about ten years ago that I first picked up a copy of this book. I used the new edition coming out as an excuse to buy a copy without my comments and underlining in it to read the book afresh, which I hope to do soon.

The new forward is mostly interesting for Willimon’s reflections on his regrets about the book — not enough Christology or pneumatology, too much ecclesiastical romanticism, and some irrelevant arguments with dead theologians — and few glimpses at how being a bishop sharpened Willimon’s sense that the book is still needed.

Here is Willimon’s summary of UMC in the 25 years since Resident Aliens was published.

My church (Stanley’s ex-church) lost three million more members without noticing. United Methodist bishops, clueless about how to challenge the lies told by American ideologues of the left or the right, take the easy way out and vow to end malaria in Africa. The Protestant mainline becomes even more fissiparous in fights over, of all things, sex. When pietism substitutes love by God for obedience to God it degenerates into safely personal, instrumentalist, suffocating sentimentality.

If you have an old copy of the book, you don’t need to buy a new one. The only new material is Willimon’s foreword. But if you’ve never read the book, I commend it to your attention. I know I am looking forward to reading it again.

How to fight for the faith

Dear friends, I wanted very much to write to you concerning the salvation we share. Instead, I must write to urge you to fight for the faith delivered once and for all to God’s holy people. (Jude 3, CEB)

It is sometimes implied that Jude does not deserve our attention because it is a disputed addition to the canon. We who say with Jesus our Lord that the last will be first, somehow hold Jude’s contested inclusion in the New Testament as a mark against it.

When I read Jude, though, I feel it is among the most timely texts in the New Testament. Its warnings and exhortations seem to speak directly to our day.

In this verse, Jude tells the church that he’d rather write to it about the salvation that they share — or that all Christians share — but he is compelled to address other matters. The influence of false teachers among them has left him with no choice but to exhort them to reclaim or hold on to the ancient faith of the people of God.

It is interesting to me that all the examples in the letter are Old Testament stories — even if some apparently belong to writings that were not in the Old Testament canon that would later be settled. We read of the Exodus, the revolt of the fallen angels, and Sodom and Gomorrah. We read of Cain, Balaam, and Korah. We read of Enoch and Adam.

And we read Jude’s counsel to the church — the means by which we should fight for the faith delivered to the chosen people and opened to all through faith in Jesus Christ.

But you, dear friends: build each other up on the foundation of your most holy faith, pray in the Holy Spirit, keep each other in the love of God, wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will give you eternal life. (Jude 20-21, CEB)

Build each other up. Pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep each other in the love of God. Wait for the mercy of Jesus Christ.

These are the tactics with which we are urged to fight for the faith.

In the verse 19 — right before the quote above — Jude names the scoffers and the ungodly as the source of division within the church. They are worldly and without the Spirit.

But what does Jude suggest as a response to these people who divide and disrupt the church?

Build each other up. Pray in the Holy Spirit. Keep each other in the love of God. Wait for the mercy of Jesus Christ.

We are exhorted to have mercy on those who waver and are led astray by false teaching and have mercy on those caught up in sin, even as we hate the defilement of the sin itself.

Fight for the faith, I hear Jude teaching, by being disciples of our Lord and Savior.

What is the biblical argument for schism?

The church is a strange organization. We declare by creed that it is one, holy, apostolic, and catholic. We look in vain for a church that clearly displays these marks.

From early in the life of the church the church has been embroiled in debates about how to cope with members within the church who other members believed to be apostate. We see this in the New Testament. We see it in the teaching of Jesus who instructed his disciples about the mingling of weeds and wheat. We see this in the Donatist controversy that so engaged Augustine.

These debates are beyond my ability to summarize, but one outcome over time of this conversation was the formulation of a distinction between the visible church and the mystical or invisible church.

This distinction is preserved in our Articles of Religion, where we read these words:

The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

The visible church is composed of many people who bear only the faintest resemblance to Jesus Christ. It always has been. The visible church is the assembly of those who profess the name of Jesus Christ, hear the Word of God justly preached, and partake of the sacraments properly administered. Doctrine and sacrament are the marks of the visible church.

In the United Methodist Church, we’ve never been very good about enforcing discipline around the meaning of preaching the pure Word of God. We have a long history of not paying too much attention to whether our preachers affirm the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. So we are left with a situation in which it is hard to spot this mark of the church or for it to provide much unity.

Similarly, we are pretty lax when it comes to proper administration of the sacraments. Infant baptism is actively opposed in many places. Our practice and teaching of Holy Communion bares the same undisciplined marks.

In short — and this is hardly news to anyone — the United Methodist Church is a mess. Even the marks of the visible church are often hard to discern among us.

But I don’t understand the claim that the UMC is somehow mired in a unique level of mess today. We don’t strike me as massively more compromised by American culture than we have been for the last 40 years. I also don’t understand the claim that God somehow wills that the church divide.

For me that is the final question here: Is it God’s will that we split?

The question, for me, is not whether life would be easier or whether conflict would cease. The question is whether it is God’s desire for the church that we split. I have not seen that argument made.

I have seen the argument that we should exercise greater discipline and holiness. But I don’t see where the proper response to our inability to do so is division.

In the Old Testament God sent prophets to Israel and preserved a faithful remnant within Israel while everyone else bent a knee to Baal. I do not recall God calling one tribe to divide itself from the chosen people and start over.

I can think of Paul calling for individuals to be separated from the church. Did he call for the church to divide itself along party lines?

In other words, what is the biblical argument on behalf of separation?

Why 8 in 10 do not attend church

Eighty percent of families with children who have disabilities do not attend church.

This blog post talks to families about the reasons for that number.

  • My child is not welcomed in any of the children’s activities, they said he is too disruptive.
  • I took my child to Sunday School class, but they wheeled him to the corner and he sat there until I came to pick him up.
  • They said I had to keep my child with me because they had nobody that could help care for her during Children’s church.  I tried, but she can be noisy, so an usher asked us to please leave the sanctuary because she was disrupting the service.
  • I asked the pastor if we could possibly have someone help my child during Sunday School, they told me they were not responsible to find me babysitters.
  • It’s not worth it, my child cannot handle the sensory overload.
  • When my child is loud, people stare at us and shake their heads. I even had people tell me that my child needs discipline, my child has autism and they know it! I’m not going back.
  • My child is welcomed, but almost very Sunday they call me and I have to go get her from her class. Why bother.
  • I tried starting a special needs class for kids, the church leadership did not support me, they said there was no need.
  • For 20 years my wife and I took turns going to church. One Sunday she would go and I stayed home with our son, the next one we switched.