Archive for the ‘Methodism’ Category
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.
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?
At the heart of his argument is the claim that very few people and organizations know why they do what they do. They don’t know their purpose or their reasoning for being.
Here’s the video if want more than my brief summary:
If Sinek is correct, it helps explain why the United Methodist Church’s mission and marketing slogans seem so uninspiring.
“Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
This operates more of less on the level of what we do and how we do it, perhaps getting to why at the end. The why, it turns out, is to transform this world, although we hide that part at the end.
Or how about: “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”
That is a “how” statement, if I understand Sinek’s categories properly. Maybe it is a “what” statement. What I know for sure is that it does not tell us “why” we do what we do.
Here is my understanding of how John Wesley thought about and talked about what he was doing.
His purpose was to show people the way to happiness in eternity. Everything he did was motivated by the belief that each one of us is hanging over a great gulf and we will either fall into an eternity of pain and suffering and darkness or land on a happy shore of joy, peace, and light.
If you want to know the way to that shore, Wesley said, I can show you the way that the Bible teaches to arrive there. And here is the best news. It is not only something you arrive at after you die. You can taste it right now. You can see, feel, and experience today. It starts in this life.
Do you want to know how?
I don’t think I could point to any single place where Wesley put it precisely this way, but I don’t think this is an unfair example of how Wesley would explain the “why” of what he did. And — to Sinek’s point — I believe the “why” was always forefront in Wesley’s mind and actions.
I don’t think we today in United Methodism can begin to answer the why question — why do we do what we do — in any coherent or uniform way. And I don’t believe we really are aware of that. We can talk a good game about what we do. We have lots of support for how to be a United Methodist. All our metrics about “vital congregations” tell us what thriving churches do and offer some theories about how those actions create vitality, but we rarely talk about why any of that matters to anyone else. How many of us and how many of our people can answer the simple question: “Why do you do what you do?”
Do you see an answer to this “why” question in United Methodism today that I am missing?
What happens when the Council of Bishops does not act?
That was my first question upon reading the Methodist Crossroads web site with its call for for the following actions at and after the Council of Bishops’ fall meeting:
- The Council’s commitment to promote, defend and uphold the church’s biblical teaching that marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman;
- A commitment from all active bishops that they will fully enforce the Discipline with respect to those clergy members who disregard church teaching and choose to preside at same sex services;
- A strongly worded directive to all annual conferences and jurisdictions not to circumvent the Discipline’s teachings regarding same sex services or the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals;
- A public statement noting that those bishops who have stated they will use their influence to prevent trials as a means of just resolution for clergy who preside at same sex services have been censured by the council; and,
- A commitment from all bishops that when trials occur they will appoint as counsel for the church individuals fully supportive of the church’s teachings and the necessity for organizational accountability.
Given the membership of the Council of Bishops, I cannot imagine the body will satisfy the desires of those who wrote and endorse the Integrity and Unity statement.
In the FAQ on the website, the authors propose the following if the Council of Bishops fails to act on its request:
If the Council is not able to restore unity with integrity, then we believe the healthy and mature response is to admit we are so deeply divided we are no longer one church. And the church would do well to seriously explore the option of amicable separation. Again, we hope it does not come to this. But no one believes it would be productive to continue an unresolvable debate that hurts feelings, damages persons made in the image of God, and fosters cynicism throughout the church. It would be better for us to honestly admit we are no longer united. Remaining together would only sow confusion and undermine our witness and ministry to the world.
Have you ever read the full statement from which the Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition is adapted?
In the second section of the pamphlet, Wesley lays out the choice in clear terms:
Turn either to the right-hand or the left; lay both parts before you, with every link of each; Christ with his yoke, this cross and his crown; or the Devil with his wealth, his pleasure and curse: and then put yourselves to thus: “Soul, thou sees what is before thee, what wilt thou do? Which will thou have, either the crown or the curse? If thou chose the crown, remember that the day thou take this, thou must be content to submit to the cross and yoke, the service and sufferings of Christ, which are linked to it. What sayest thou? Hadst thou rather take the gains and pleasures of sin, and venture on the curse? Or will thou yield thyself a servant to Christ, and so make sure the crown?
Suffice it to say, Wesley was not schooled in seeker sensitive ministry.
Read the entire pamphlet for the full scope of the meaning of covenant in the Wesleyan tradition that is suggested and hinted at in the prayer from the United Methodist Hymnal.
I’ll admit I would not have called this one.
When the first Methodist conference gathered in 1744 the very first question dealt with in its minutes was about salvation.
We began with considering the doctrine of justification: The questions relating to, with the substance of the answers given thereto, were as follows: –
Q.1. What is it to be justified?
A. To be pardoned and received into God’s favour; into such a state, that if we continue therein, we shall be finally saved.
Q.2. Is faith a condition of justification?
A. Yes; for every one who believeth not is condemned; and every one who believes is justified.
It may not be obvious from the bare words, but the doctrine at the very center of this thing called Methodism aims to cure those who are doomed to eternal death. The starting point for all Methodist preaching and doctrine was the notion that human beings are far from God and condemned to eternal destruction. That is the default state of a human being. We are on a highway to hell. No matter how nice we seem on the outside, even if we do all kinds of lovely works and care for the sick and poor, without faith in Jesus Christ we are doomed.
This is what John Wesley preached in 1738. It is what the Methodist conference set down as settled doctrine in its first meeting in 1744. It is what Wesley continued to preach into his dying days.
There is a reason proper Anglican priests kept telling him he would not be invited to preach a second sermon at their church. The doctrine of justification by faith is outrageous to sensible middle-class and wealthy people everywhere. It says they are not good in God’s eyes just because they have managed to get a nice job and a good house and raise kids with only minor character flaws. It says there are worse things than being poor and illiterate. It says our sins are but a sign of the wicked heart inside us that rebels against God.
And so my question, one that burns at me: Did we stop preaching this because it is not true? Did we decide the doctrine of justification by faith was not biblical or that the Bible got God wrong?
This question bedevils me so much because I don’t know what we are doing in the church if our conclusion is that John Wesley — and millions of other Christians — have been wrong about this basic theological issue. If people are basically good and everyone is going to heaven regardless of whether they have faith or receive forgiveness, then why did Jesus die? Why do we need a church at all? We have plenty of people giving us moral platitudes and inspiring video clips on Facebook. Why bother with all the rest?
And if John Wesley was right, then what, dear Lord, are we doing in church when we act as if the biggest problem most people have is finding meaning in their lives or getting their kids to behave? If Wesley was right that men and women are hurtling toward eternal death unless they receive pardon by the grace of Jesus through faith, if he was right about this, then why are we so quiet about it?
It was a big enough topic that it was agenda item #1 at the first Methodist conference. Is it still important for us today?
In his “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley began with a definition of the “better religion” that he sought to introduce to the men and women of England. He summed it up as nothing more or less than love, love of God and love of all humanity.
This love we believe to be the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world, for all the miseries and vices of men.
Here is a statement that I imagine most United Methodists would embrace. Whatever the forces are that pull and tug at us, we would all give a good “Amen” to the conference speaker that said these words.
The great challenge, Wesley discovered after many years of seeking this religion for himself, was that we cannot will ourselves to love in this way. No amount of effort on our part can sustain us for more than the briefest moments of true and pure love. We cannot grind our teeth hard enough to find our hearts filled with love, peace, and joy in God.
This was the lesson that Wesley learned after so much agony and frustration. The only way to the religion of love is faith.
But here again, we must be careful. Faith is not a decision to believe in spite of the evidence. It is not a leap in the dark, not for Wesley. For Wesley, faith has two essential attributes. First, it is a kind of spiritual perception — the conviction of things not seen (Heb. 11:1). Faith is the perception of God and the love of God for us in Jesus Christ. It is the opening of the eyes of heart to a truth we had not seen before (Eph. 1:18). Second, it is a gift of God, not something we do by our own power. We receive faith; we do not decide to have it. It is grace.
This notion of faith differs quite a bit from the idea of faith as trust. Or at least so it seems to me. I’m not sure how well we receive Wesley’s notion of faith, and therefore his description of the means to attaining the religion of love. I suspect many would argue with him on this definition of the word “faith.”
Does Wesley’s chain of thinking here — love, faith, grace — still ring true as an encapsulation of the heart of Christianity? Is he still relevant or an 18th century museum piece?
In a story from the Get Religion blog on the New York Times’ coverage of the Frank Schaefer refrocking, this paragraph jumped out at me:
Now, anyone who knows anything about United Methodist polity knows that it is dominated by what has — literally for decades — been a functional “local option” policy. There is no one United Methodist Church; there are several radically different bodies, with the content of the faith depending on where in the United States (and the world) one happens to live.
It reminds me of the “A Way Forward” Proposal.
The story also had a link to this interesting story about the 7 Churches of United Methodism.