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.

Making the hard argument

I recently read an article written by the a district superintendent in the Mountain Sky episcopal area.

The article is a critique of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The author tries to demonstrate what he sees as hypocrisy and inconsistency in the positions of the WCA. In doing so, he writes some things that I found rather troubling.

Here is some of what he puts forward:

  • The ordination of women is unbiblical.
  • The toleration of divorced clergy is unbiblical.
  • John Wesley’s primary concern was in new expressions of faithfulness.
  • The Nicene Creed should not be used as a litmus test for orthodox Christianity.
  • Central Conferences in the UMC do not have to follow the doctrine of the UMC.

I think the author is wrong in all five of these claims, but today I want to respond to the assertions that the United Methodist Church’s current teaching regarding women’s ordination and divorce are not biblical.

Here is what I believe the author was trying to do. He believes the church is wrong to hold as a matter of doctrine and law that gay sex is sinful and that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. He wants to critique the WCA for its support of current church teaching, so he wants to demonstrate that it is at its core a hypocritical and intellectually shallow association. To do so he asserts that the WCA endorses clearly unbiblical stances on women’s ordination and divorce and suggests therefore that the WCA is merely playing power games in not endorsing the unbiblical teaching regarding gay sex.

I am troubled by this line of argument, especially coming from the member of the cabinet of one of our episcopal areas.

Here is why.

He is asserting that the official United Methodist Church teaching on women’s ordination and divorce are unbiblical. I don’t believe that is fair or true. I believe our doctrines are compatible with the Bible and that we do not hold them in spite of what the Bible says but because of what it says. I believe our denomination tries rather hard to be faithful to its doctrinal standard that says the Bible is final authority in all matters of faith and practice and that we cannot adopt as church teaching or law something that we believe is in direct violation of biblical teaching.

As I see it, there are at least two ways of arguing that our church should change its teaching with regard to gay sex and gay marriage. The first is to do as this author appears to do. Argue that the church has already opted to ignore the Bible in many areas and therefore should do so again. In making this argument there is almost always the implication that dark motives are the real reason behind the current teaching and support of it. The upholders of current teaching are cast as bigots or cynical hypocrites. In addition, such arguments appear to take the stance that it is okay to endorse one unbiblical position because we have endorsed another one. That strikes me as a foolish rule, akin to saying two wrongs make a right. If the church is violating the Bible in ordaining women or permitting divorce, as the author of the article asserts, then the proper response would be to advocate for a revision of our doctrine and law regarding women’s ordination and divorce not the adoption of more self-consciously unbiblical teaching.

The second way to make this argument — and one that seems much more in keeping with the golden rule — is to assume that our church actually has arrived at its current teaching through faithful attempts to listen to Scripture. As the church is always in need of reform, we accept that we always stand in risk of being wrong about the teaching of Scripture and so are open to being taught. But we never intentionally and willfully dismiss Scripture and strive never to hold as doctrine any teaching that we believe is incompatible with the Bible. And so to argue that gay sex is not sinful and that marriage is not intended by God to be between one man and one woman, our author would need to demonstrate how a full and careful reading of the Bible actually supports these positions.

That is a hard argument to make. I know that some have attempted to make it. I know as well that many outside the church have no interest in making it. Millions of people who have no particular regard for the Bible cannot be bothered to treat the church’s attempts to be faithful to the Bible with respect. I understand that. I just hope that within the church we might start from a different place.

Righteousness as a requirement

Near the end of his life, John Wesley wrote the following in his journal:

I then met the society, and explained at large the rise and nature of Methodism; and still aver, I have never read or heard of, either in ancient or modern history, any other church which builds on so broad a foundation as the Methodists do; which requires of its members no conformity either in opinions or modes of worship, but barely this one thing, to fear God, and to work righteousness. (August 26, 1789)

We heirs of the Methodist movement who call ourselves United Methodists stand on the brink of schism because we are deeply divided over whether sex between people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness.

We agree on some things regarding sex. We all agree, so far as I am aware, that adultery and polygamy are contrary to the will of God and righteousness. I am not aware of a significant movement within our denomination to declare fornication — sex outside of marriage — compatible with righteousness. We agree that divorce is contrary to the will of God, but that as sinful and fallen people we do break our relationships to the degree that divorce is the outcome and that divorce does not automatically preclude remarriage. And we agree that all these sexual sins are things for which we can receive forgiveness.

Our schism hangs on a disagreement about how to respond a subset of homosexual sexual activity. I do not hear anyone in the church advocating for celebration of casual, one-night hook ups by anyone. What one party in the church argues is that sexual activity between two people of the same sex is compatible with righteousness in the confines of a monogamous relationship that the partners intend to be lifelong. The majority of the church — at least as far as the votes of our General Conference indicate — has disagreed with this claim since it was first up for formal consideration in 1972.

I wonder if there would be any room for holding our denomination together if we could all affirm some form of the following statements.

  1. Righteousness before God is incompatible with sexual sin. We affirm biblical and Christian teaching that insists that adultery, polygamy, and fornication are contrary to the will of God and incompatible with Christian salvation.
  2. We recognize that the church has at times in its past held to teaching that it has changed. Guided by the prayerful study of Scripture under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the church has in the past concluded that what it once held to be true should be revised. For instance, we believe there is a sound biblical argument in favor of a strict prohibition of slavery, the ordination of women, and the remarriage of divorced Christians. We hold these positions not in spite of what the Bible says, but because we believe the Bible, as the final word on all matters of faith and practice, is compatible with these positions. Arriving at these teachings has not been easy or without dispute.
  3. There are those in the church who believe that our teaching about same-sex sexual activity is in need of a similar revision. Those advocates have not persuaded the church of this position. They should be permitted to argue and attempt to convince the church that their position is consistent with the Bible.
  4. As the church is not persuaded, however, all members of the United Methodist Church should continue to honor and uphold the doctrine and discipline of the church, especially the clergy who have taken a vow to that end.

I realize this would not satisfy everyone in the church right now. We have reached the point where we can no longer hope to do that. We have arrived at the point where the question is no longer whether people will separate from the church, but what will be the grounds for separation. I believe the four statements above could be affirmed or accepted by the majority of our global denomination.