The challenge of polygamy

The United Methodist Church’s official web site shares a commentary by the Rev. Lloyd Nyarota about the differences between American and African United Methodism, especially the different challenges facing the African church. Among the many interesting concerns he raises is the following:

Polygamy is one of the big issues facing Africa, and it’s often confusing to pastors in the local churches. Children from polygamous marriages sometimes cannot be baptized. Women from polygamous marriages are sometimes denied acceptance into women’s fellowships (organizations equivalent to United Methodist Women) because of the stigma associated with polygamy within the church.

Polygamy is a long time cultural phenomenon and missionaries created a legacy of stigma around this issue that is difficult for The United Methodist Church in Africa, especially since some African churches promote polygamy. This is an issue that we will be discussing for generations to come.

The challenge the church in Africa faces with the cultural acceptance of polygamy is both pastoral and theological. The full depth of the matter is beyond my understanding or experience. However, I am familiar with the fact that the church is always and constantly in a position in which its teaching and its call to holiness is at odds with aspects of the non-Christian culture in which the church exists. The church always finds itself at odds with the culture around it. The church is constantly being pressed by those outside it and within it to reformulate its vision of holiness to accommodate God to human desire. The great temptation of the church — one it has often failed to meet — is to confuse the sinfulness of human hearts for the holiness of God. The church is always in need for reformation and confession in this regard.

I do not expect the church will find any resources in this struggle from the secular or non-Christian cultures of Africa and America. What it will find is what it has always found from its earliest days. Those who do not acknowledge the lordship of Christ will provide the church with many reasons to abandon its understanding of holiness because holiness is always an affront to sinful desire.

I pray that our church can and does provide Christians in Africa with the support and resources they need to provide a strong witness to Christ in the face of the particular cultural challenges that work against the gospel. I pray the same for the church in America.

Are we saving souls?

John Wesley gets paraphrased a lot in United Methodist circles. For those who read and study Wesley’s works, the things that get said about him are often cringe-worthy, which is a shame because so much of what he wrote could be of such value to our work today.

Here is a quotation from Wesley that I do not see very often in United Methodist commentaries or hear very often from the lips of our bishops.

It is not your business to preach so many times, and to take care of this or that society; but to save as many souls as you can; to bring as many sinners as you possibly can to repentance, and with all your power to build them up in that holiness without which they cannot see the Lord.

Wesley did not believe that preaching alone could transform hearts and lives. In fact, he knew from hard experience that preaching was not sufficient to the work.

Here are some thoughts on the necessity of visitation from house to house taken from the minutes of the earliest Methodist conferences:

For, after all our preaching, many of our people are almost as ignorant as if they had never heard the gospel. I speak as plain as I can, yet I frequently meet with those who have been my hearers many years, who know not whether Christ be God or man. And how few are there that know the nature of repentance, faith, and holiness! Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts. I have found by experience, that one of these has learned more from one hour’s close discourse, than from ten years’ public preaching.

I don’t know what stands out for you in that quotation, but here is the line that grabs me: “Most of them have a sort of confidence that God will save them, while the world has their hearts.”

How little the human heart changes despite the passage of time. How many of our people in our churches could that statement describe? How many of us know our people well enough to have a good sense of whether it applies to them or not?

There is some comfort in the realization that Wesley struggled with the same things that plague our churches these days. Elsewhere in the minutes of the early Methodist conferences, you can find reports of disguntled leadership and complaints about new programs or ministry ideas. Ministry was messy then as it is now.

As I read through Wesley’s program for visitation among the people, I am struck by how animated his work was by a clear mission: to save souls. That mission determines the shape of his work.

For instance, as he describes what a good visit to a house of a Methodist would entail, he includes the following:

Next inquire into his state, whether convinced or unconvinced, converted or unconverted. Tell him, if need be, what conversion is; and then renew and enforce the inquiry.*

Just reflect on that a moment. How many times have you asked such questions of members of your congregation? How many times have you as a church member had a pastor ask such questions of you?

They are uncomfortable questions and Wesley knew this. His advice on the matter includes acknowledgement of the resistance and discomfort such inquiries produce, but he always came back to whether such questions could be avoided if our aim is to save souls.

And so this somewhat rambling blog post comes to an end with this lingering question: Am I eager enough to save souls to let that mission shape my work? Are we?

 


*Note for those who think Wesley did not believe in “conversion” that here he seems to discuss quite directly.

The danger of Christmas

It is that time of year when that slumbering beast the Christmas marketing machine stirs from its summer hibernation, opens its glittering jaws, and tries to devour all light and joy within itself.

On every screen that captivates our attention and in every shop window and aisle, we are bombarded with the message that happiness lies in buying things and getting gifts. Economic empires rise and fall based on how well companies can convince us to covet the new and pretty things that they have to offer us.

In the face of this onslaught of materialism, I received this small gift and reminder from John Wesley as I was reading his sixth sermon on the Sermon on the Mount.

[O]ur prayers are the proper test of our desires; nothing being fit to have a place in our desires which is not fit to have a place in our prayers: What we may not pray for, neither should we desire.

The trick with such a quotation, of course, is that we have a lot of teachers in the church who have taught us to pray for exactly the same things that the secular marketing machine wants us to desire. We have far too many pastors and teachers who teach us to pray not for our “daily bread” but for gold and fame and so many other treasures that perish like dust.

So the work of the church, in many cases, is the work of redigging old wells. We have to teach people what it means to pray as a Christian rather than as a well-trained participant in our economic system, and we have to help each other bend our desires to the things that our Lord would have us seek.

The old Methodist teaching went something like this. As we pray that God give us our daily bread — just what we need to make it through the day each day — so this is all we should desire. While we work hard to make the most of the gifts God has placed in our hands, we are called to desire nothing more than the simple necessities that secure life and provide for the needs of our families. Perhaps the Lord will bless us with more than this, but we should desire only what our Lord himself had for himself: sufficient food to eat, clothing to wear, a roof over our heads (and even he did not always have that), the comfort of friends, good work to do, and time alone with God.

Perhaps this is too spare a list. It feels that way to me if I am honest about the rumblings of my own heart. But here is the challenge I place before myself. Search the scriptures. See what our Lord teaches on these matters. Ask whether that rumbling in our hearts comes from the Holy Spirit or is perhaps the sign of another spirit at work in us.

We celebrate on Christmas the child born in a feeding trough for animals. It is not proper for us to desire more than our king required.