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.

Mismatched clergy and congregations

The Rev. James Howell wrote an interesting blog post about the harrowing future that might be facing clergy and congregations in the United Methodist Church if we split apart.

He raises several interesting points, but one section of his post in particular grabbed my attention. In discussing the position of clergy in his conference if we sundered into two denominations, Howell wrote:

We would also have a rash of mismatched clergy and congregations.  If congregations get to choose which denomination to go with, I’d imagine the clergy would get to pick too.  At least in my part of the world, and I suspect all across the United States, on average the clergy are far more progressive than their congregations.  In Western North Carolina, for instance, out of 1,000 clergy I’d estimate at least 500 would choose the new progressive institution; but no more than a few dozen churches would do the same. Where would the clergy work?  And who would pastor the conservative churches?

Among those who observe clergy, it has long been remarked that clergy are often more liberal than their congregations in the United Methodist Church. Howell is merely speculating about some of the numbers. What is interesting in his numbers is the assertion that no more than a few dozen churches in his entire conference would join a progressive or liberal denomination while hundreds — about half — of its clergy would.

For my part, I do not know where I would land in the fall out of a broken church. I am comforted to know, however, that theologically, at least, I do not have the struggles of so many of my colleagues. When I teach and preach the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church and try to articulate the heart of Wesleyan theology, I do not have to hide my true theological beliefs or couch them in ways that disguise the fact that I secretly consider the faith of my church members somehow backward — or whatever the opposite of progressive is. I am too Democratic for many of the Republicans in my churches and too much a fan of Indiana University for the Purdue Boilermaker fans in my church, but I can pray for healing without crossing my fingers, speak of the resurrection without resorting to metaphors, warn of the devil’s works without feeling sheepish, and wrestle with holiness without trying to dispense with holiness itself. I am grateful for that.