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?

Getting to yes in the UMC

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

I’ve been thinking lately of Fisher and Ury’s classic book on negotiation Getting to Yes. It is a book about reaching successful agreements, success being defined in part as an agreement that all parties to the agreement observe. (Here is a summary of the book’s main ideas.)

I know the very thought of negotiation and compromise on the matters that threaten to split our denomination is anathema to many. To both sides of the conflict, it is tantamount to turning away from God’s righteousness.

I understand that. I am exploring these questions, however, as one who is not persuaded that splintering is either God’s desire or the cure for what ails us.

Here is the book summary on the difference between positional and principled bargaining. Which one sounds like us?

Negotiations often take the form of positional bargaining. In positional bargaining each part opens with their position on an issue. The parties then bargain from their separate opening positions to agree on one position. Haggling over a price is a typical example of positional bargaining. Fisher and Ury argue that positional bargaining does not tend to produce good agreements. It is an inefficient means of reaching agreements, and the agreements tend to neglect the parties’ interests. It encourages stubbornness and so tends to harm the parties’ relationship.

Fisher and Ury argue that principled bargaining requires four steps:

  1. separate the people from the problem
  2. focus on interests rather than positions
  3. generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement
  4. insist that the agreement be based on objective criteria

Let’s look briefly at a few parts of that first step: separating people from the problem.

Fisher and Ury argue that a large problem in any negotiation is that people tend identify personally with their position, and so experience any non-favorable response to their issue as a personal attack. This tends to make it very hard to see the issues clearly and to speak about them rationally.

Fisher and Ury highlight three kinds of people problems: perception, emotion, and communication. (Read the summary of the book for a quick take on these.) The bottom line on the first step in the process is summed up nicely on the web page:

Generally the best way to deal with people problems is to prevent them from arising. People problems are less likely to come up if the parties have a good relationship, and think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than as adversaries.

And so, the impasse emerges. Are the two sides in our denominational crisis willing to come together as peacemakers seeking an agreement that speaks to the interests of everyone? Or are we locked in a struggle that both sides can cast only as a competition between angels of light and angels of darkness?

I know and greatly admire individuals on both sides of this conflict. I also am aware of people on both sides who would never be interested in unity. They see unity as a rag of shame when it requires compromise on the principles they hold most dear.

I understand that. But I still want to explore whether it is possible to be peacemakers in the midst of our conflict. Can we enter into a process — if not all of us then some of us — that does not seek to destroy each other but to make peace in the midst of our conflict?

Seminary committee denounces sermon

So, I’m trying to piece this together from threads and bits and pieces. You with better Internet skills than I can help out.

It appears that on Feb. 26 a guest preacher at a chapel service at United Methodist-related Boston University School of Theology included in a sermon that the preacher supported the United Methodist Book of Discipline on matters of sexuality. (Here’s a blog post about the sermon. I cannot find a link to the sermon or even the name of the preacher.)

This led to an outcry among students who felt attacked by this sermon, which led to the school’s spiritual and community life committee issuing the following statement.

While we recognize that denominations are divided on this issue, we are not. We, as a school are clear that the gifts that the church needs today will come from all of us. And we are convinced that there is no room for messages of exclusion and calls for Christian unity at the expense of our LGBTQIA sisters and brothers. We recognize that there are times when communities are called to speak loudly, prophetically, and affirmatively with those who are marginalized in an unjust world. This is one of those times.

What if unity were the rule?

I’d never heard of Terry Fullam until he died. After reading the news accounts of his ministry in Darien, Connecticut, though, I scrounged up a copy of Bob Slosser’s book Miracle in Darien.

The book is a fairly inside-church-baseball look at what Fullam did when he was called to the church in the early 1970s and how the church grew from fewer than 150 on Sunday morning to well over 1,000.

One of the early decisions Fullam made was that he should not make the decisions. He got the leadership of the church to agree that they would not take any action if they did not have unity among the board on the decision. His reasoning strikes me as pretty sound. If Christ is the head of the church, would you expect his church to be divided? Of course not. So if the church is divided, it must not yet be listening carefully or fully enough to Christ.

Reading that, I thought of the churches I serve and wondered if such a formal rule would change anything.

I also thought of our denomination. What would our Book of Discipline look like if you removed every provision that did get unanimous support? All of it would be gone, I suspect. Indeed, we would have no denomination at all, as I gather there were some dissenting votes on the idea to form the United Methodist Church.

I’m not sure what to make of that thought.