Bishops: ‘Not of one mind’

My bishop e-mailed our conference this statement coming out of the Council of Bishop’s meeting.

As bishops of The United Methodist Church, our hearts break because of the divisions that exist within the church.  We have been in constant prayer and conversation and affirm our consecration vow “to guard the faith, to seek the unity and to exercise the discipline of the whole church.” We recognize that we are one church in a variety of contexts around the world and that bishops and the church are not of one mind about human sexuality. Despite our differences, we are united in our commitment to be in ministry for and with all people.  We are also united in our resolve to lead the church together to fulfill its mandate—to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As we do so, we call on all United Methodists to pray for us and for one another.

Mr. Wesley’s fabulous contraption

Scripture, of course, is the source as well as the paradigm of Christian speech. What we say must be said faithful to the language of Scripture. This is a complex task because it is no means clear how the many ways of expression in Scripture are to be said coherently. The investigation of that process is called theology. But theologians are often tempted to say too much because the reticence of Scripture, the refusal of Scripture to tell us what we think we need to know, drives us crazy. I sometimes think that the work of historical criticism, essential work for helping us read Scripture faithfully, is a rage against the silences of Scripture. Why do not the Gospels tell us what Jesus is “thinking?”

– Stanley Hauerwas, Working with Words

If I were to rename this blog, I would be tempted to steal a phrase from Hauerwas and call it “Rage Against the Silences.”

Rage is not really my thing, but I love that turn of phrase. It speaks to me out of the same place that “An arrow through the air” does. It also capture the desperation I often feel when confronted with silences in my life. To sit in the presence of silence — especially the kind you get when you really want speech — is a discipline I have barely begun to develop.

I don’t think John Wesley was very good at abiding the silences, either.

I was baptized in a United Methodist Church without ever being exposed to Wesley. I later went on to read and study Wesley’s theology as an amateur. As I consider what I have learned from this work, I do wonder whether Wesley fell prey to the temptation of the of the theologians that Hauerwas mentions here. Did he fill up the silence of Scripture or steamroll the conflicts in the interest of constructing a method? There is a sense in reading Wesley’s theology that it works too well. (I know Calvinists will howl about that last line. That’s okay. Let them howl.)

Wesley’s theology is brilliantly constructed to speak to the spiritual condition of people conscious of sin, mindful of wrath, and desiring to know the way of salvation. It is practical and carefully articulated. It shows all the signs of being developed by a skilled practitioner and careful observer of the human soul. It is well engineered and elegant.

But like any finely crafted machine, it does not work very well at things it was never designed to do. For instance, Wesley just waves his hand at the question of salvation outside of Christianity. He neither condemns nor saves Muslims and Hindus and Jews. He merely says that is a question for God and not for him.

I respect that answer, but I do not find it terribly helpful in multi-faith America.

Or to hit even closer to home, Wesley’s theology is so dependent on cognitive processes, that I wonder how it speaks to those who by age, injury, or disability cannot form the proper mental states to participate or cooperate with grace as laid out by Wesley.

There are ways we might answer that, but Wesley does not help us at all with those answers. His concern was with the machine he was building, and he does not speculate about other problems, or at least nothing I have seen in his works shows such concern.

I don’t mean this as an attack on Wesley. I’ve learned far too much from him for that. But I do wonder how to properly receive him. I wonder this, in particular, because I take quite seriously the vows of ordination the church may one day ask me to take.

How do I reside in the silences of Scripture while remaining an heir to the fabulous contraption Wesley constructed?

Billy Abraham on doctrine

The measure of a great team

From Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage:

Some people find this extreme emphasis on results to be a little cold and uninspiring. But there is no getting around the fact that the only measure of a great team — or a great organization — is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. … See, no matter how good a leadership team feels about itself, and how noble its mission might be, if the organization it leads rarely achieves its goals, then, by definition, it’s simply not a good team.

When I read this, I detect a couple problems for the United Methodist Church.

First, I’m not sure most local churches or our denomination as a whole can state what it is that we are setting out to accomplish. We have things we say, but I’m not convinced we say it with the kind of clarity we need to actually judge our own accomplishments.

John Wesley said some vague things, too. You could argue “spread Scriptural holiness across the land” is not terribly specific. But he did flesh this out with quite a bit of detail in theory and in practice. Among his more specific statements was the word to his preachers that they have nothing to do but to save souls.

What are we trying to accomplish?

The second thing that emerges for me as I read this is discomfort. I want to wriggle away from what Lencioni is saying. I want to come up with a reason to deny what he claims. I don’t want to agree when he says a team that fails to achieve its goals is not a good organization or lead by a good team.

I want to avoid this because agreeing with him calls for action.

A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

In his footsteps

Some thoughts on 1 John 2:1-6.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

I love that “but.” John is saying — and has just written with a stark image of darkness and light — that we should not sin. BUT if we do sin.

In other words, John is a realist. Indeed, he knows himself. He speaks of “our” sins and the advocate that “we” have in Jesus Christ. He writes in the first person, placing himself among the sinners.

I notice, as well, the atonement language here. Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice,” as the NRSV puts it, or the propitiation. What a contested word we have here. I’m not up on the debate enough to comment, but I will rest on the simple point that John sees in Jesus’ death a radical cure for sin, not only ours but the world’s.

It is not just Paul who makes such a big deal about the death of Jesus and the cross and all that goes with it. Any Christian theology that shies away from the significance of the cross is missing something of utmost importance about Jesus Christ.

Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. Whoever says, “I have come to know him,” but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: whoever says, “I abide in him,” ought to walk just as he walked.

What a series of hammer blows to lazy faith we find here. John does not write it just once and move on. He circles around his point and piles it on. If we claim to know God but do not obey his commands, we are liars. Just a few verses earlier, he said the same thing. If we say we have fellowship with him but walk in darkness, we lie and the truth is not in us.

It is interesting to me how much of these early verses of 1 John are tied up in testimony and action. There is a real concern with how well our actions match our words, and whether our words are shown to be true in our deeds.

That last verse about walking as he walked sounds like an outline of discipleship to me. There is a sermon series there, I would think: Walking like Jesus.

And how is it that we can walk the way he did? Not because we are creatures of light and goodness, no. We can walk as he walked because he is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. If we confess our sins, he will cleanse of of all unrighteousness (1 Jn 1:9).

As I reflect on these verses, I find that John is offering us a fairly easy to use litmus test for the disciples of Jesus Christ. We in the United Methodist Church talk a fair amount about wanting to make disciples, but we are not often very good at describing what it means to be a disciple. Here is an answer. Obey his commandments. Walk as Jesus walked.

I need a new pair of sandals.