Is that job already taken?

What is the better metaphor for the role of elders in the United Methodist Church: Watchman/woman or Shepherd?

John Wesley most often made reference to the way Ezekiel speaks about watchmen. He spoke often of being clear of the blood of those who did not listen to his preaching. He had Ezekiel 3 and/or Ezekiel 33 in mind.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:17-19, NIV)

But Ezekiel also speaks of shepherds.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-6, NIV)

Yes, I know these are not the only two metaphors for the work of an elder, but today this is where I am looking.

On the one hand, I am drawn toward the metaphor of the shepherd because it plays toward my gentle and nurturing side. But, of course, in Ezekiel 34, God seems pretty set on assuming the title and role of shepherd for himself.

Could it be that it is God’s task to gather up the lost, bind up their wounds, and provide them with food?

Could it be that the task of the elder is more to be a watcher on the wall than to be a shepherd in the field, to study and speak the word of the Lord? Is that perhaps what Paul is saying to Timothy?

These are honest questions. And I know the answer is probably more both/and than either/or, but I do wonder if we run the risk of usurping the role of Jesus when we see ourselves primarily as shepherds.

Obama and the church

I’ve been reflecting upon the nature of the African-American church as reflected in President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clem Pinckney.

I’ve had the privilege at seminary of having classes with pastors from black churches. Their attitudes and experiences reflect what Obama said in the video. The black church has been not just a place to gather for an hour of peace on Sunday morning, but as the central institution in the life of the community. It is the theological, social, political, and economic heart of its people.

I can’t help but feel that in white church we have lost track of this, reducing the church to a fast-food dispenser of spiritual services. And I feel convicted that it is people like me who have let that happen by not stepping up to the work and call of pastoral leadership. It has slipped so far, of course, that most white Christians cannot even imagine what a community of people formed around Jesus Christ even looks like, not white mainline Protestants, at any rate.

I was also struck near the end of the eulogy when the president talked about grace saying we don’t deserve, we get it anyway, but we have to choose how to receive it. Speaking at an AME church, that sounds like good Arminian theology to me.

Can we see ourselves in these?

I apologize for this post’s brevity. True confession: I am writing it mostly so I can hold on to these two links and write another post or two later that references them. Both are about tensions in the Reformed movement known as The Gospel Coalition.

The first is a story about divisions within the movement over the doctrine of sanctification. As a Wesleyan, I think there is fodder here for consideration of where we fall on these issues.

The second is a story about the split within The Gospel Coalition that includes an interesting look back at the split within British evangelicalism in the 1960s. Back then the question was whether to stay within the mainstream Church of England or “come out” and form separate bodies. I think evangelicals within United Methodism have been engaged and will be engaged in the same sort of debate in coming years.

Like I say, there is lots of interesting stuff here. Time does not permit me to delve into it right now. Feel free to share your thoughts, though.

Politics in the church

In my Annual Conference — Indiana — there is some post-conference grief being expressed because members of an evangelical caucus communicated with members who wanted information about general conference candidates who would share similar theology. I’ve also heard that others engaged in similar activity, but the complaints I’m hearing are aimed at the evangelicals.

On the day of the elections and since, people have expressed anger and disappointment. Some have accused their brothers and sisters in Christ of ugly motives and anti-Christian conduct.

I’m a local pastor without a vote, and I am not a member of any caucus group in my conference, so my thoughts about all this are more as an observer than anything else.

I find it odd for people to say that there is something wrong with people doing political things in the midst of a process that centers on voting for candidates. If we want to take politics out of such things, maybe we should cast lots like in Acts 1. If that is not the way we want to go, it is naive and silly of us to expect politics to play no role in the decisions of the church. I can think of at least two reasons why this is the case.

First, our United Methodist polity is hugely influenced by American republican principles. From the Christmas conference on, we have been doing politics, which is simply unavoidable when you have lots of people trying to organize themselves for common action. Organizing a global denomination involves politics. All you have to do is look at the system our conference adopted in 2014 for the endorsement of candidates to see that this was a political process long before we gathered to vote.

Second, wider church history is full of politics. Last week, a lot of preachers spent time contemplating the mystery of the Trinity and wrestled with how to preach about it. It does not take a great deal of knowledge about church history to know that the ecumenical councils that settled on the final formula of the creed and the Chalcedonian definition were political affairs. So was the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Any one who has ever been part of a local church knows that politics is alive and well in the local church, too: bad politics and good politics.

Politics is a human activity, so it is prone to corruption and sin. But it is also an unavoidable part of human life. All the great movements of history that we praise — Civil Rights, abolition, the Methodist movement — were political. Politics is just the name for something that humans do. As a church, we should do our best to prevent sin from corroding our politics, but we should not pretend that politics itself is antithetical to the nature of the church.

What the Bible says about female clergy

Ben Witherington III from Asbury seminary shares an old post he wrote aimed at all the common arguments why women should not be clergy or leaders in churches.

The post goes into a fair amount of detail and exegesis. It serves as a caution against assuming we understand everything in the Bible. If you find the post too dense, I suggest you pick up some of Witherington’s books. I’ve found them to to be excellent and his insights into the New Testament always valuable.

Of course, there are people who disagree with Witherington’s argument on the issue of women in leadership. I am persuaded by his case, though. And I am grateful that it is made without declaring the Bible — or Paul — simply wrong or outdated.

Here’s how he ends this blog post:

As I have learned over many years…. the problem in the church is not strong and gifted women. We need all those we can get, and were it not for them, many churches would have closed long ago. I remember so vividly meeting the babooshkas– the grandmothers in the Moscow Baptist Church, who had stopped Stalin from closing the church by standing in the door and not letting his troops enter and close it down. Thank God for strong, gifted women in the church. No, the problem in the church is not strong women, but rather weak men who feel threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even by dubious exegesis to prohibit them from exercising their gifts and graces in the church.

Q: Should these two things define the church?

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)

If we in the church are an extension of the original apostolic ministry, then shouldn’t the core of our mission be defined by the tasks originally set out by Jesus? In this passage those tasks are preaching and driving out demons.

To this point in the gospel, the content of Jesus’ preaching has been the original proclamation of Mark 1:15. The kingdom has come near. Repent, and believe the good news. I have zero reason to believe the apostles were sent out to preach anything different. Is it fair to say that preaching the kingdom is the first task of those who see their ministry as in a line with the apostles?

Also to this point in the gospel, we have seen Jesus drive out demons. Here he gives the apostles the authority to do the same thing. Has the authority passed down to us today? If so, why do so few mainline United Methodists speak of such things, much less do them?

What do you think?