Are we a church or an institution?

Do we in the United Methodist Church consider ourselves a church or a human institution?

Yes, I know, the answer is both because we in the UMC always say the answer is both. But bear with me for a moment, please.

As I’ve listened to clergy in the UMC begin to prepare themselves for a possible split within the UMC, I hear lots of people saying some variation of this: “The institution might change, but God’s work continues.” Or this: “Whatever happens, I know that God called me to this vocation and God will see me through even if the institution falls apart.”

These kinds of statements are variations on the theme you often hear when clergy and laity talk about the United Methodist Church. They betray, I think, a weak theological understanding of the church or, perhaps, an unspoken acknowledgement that we are not really a church at all.

In the minds of many in the United Methodist Church — left, right, and center — seems to be the idea that the UMC is a human institution not a product of the Holy Spirit’s work. I get the impression that many of us do not really believe that the Book of Discipline is a result of the Holy Spirit’s guiding hand in our conferencing. I suspect that many do not really believe that the Holy Spirit works through the General Conference. Many of us have seen how the sausage is made and find it hard to believe the Holy Spirit was leading the process.*

I suspect all this because of the ease with which we speak of the demise of the UMC and the way I hear so many speak of it. I get little sense that many of us understand the UMC to be a church raised up by the Holy Spirit, sustained by his power, and in communion with one another and with Christ. We tend to speak of it as a bureaucratic superstructure that holds our local congregations together — sometimes against their will.

It may very well be that God has decided that the UMC as it is constituted now no longer serves his purposes, and God is working to do a new thing with our church. God might be dividing us or purifying us. We see only in part right now, and so it is hard to say. But I find it helpful to remember that the UMC is itself a work of the Holy Spirit, a clay vessel, perhaps, but one with precious treasure within and formed by the potter’s hands.

If we believe we are a church, the way we talk about the bishop’s commission and the possibility of church division should reflect that. We should talk much more about what God is doing in and among us and have much less brave talk about the mere institution being something that does not really matter in the end. If the institution does not matter, was it ever a church to begin with? On the contrary, it matters a great deal.

The United Methodist Church was raised up by the Holy Spirit to accomplish God’s ends on the earth. And right now the church is like Jacob wrestling with the Spirit at night, aware of our failures, anxious about our future, and crying out for a blessing. I don’t know how this encounter with the Holy Spirit will end or which direction we will be sent limping away from it, but I do think we would all be better served if we would be intentional about the way we think about the church and speak of it in these times.


*Do we betray an aversion to incarnation here? When pushed do we resist the idea that God actually works in and through messy human beings?

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Sign of spittle and grace

I had someone ask me recently how they should talk to an atheist who insists on saying things meant to provoke or insult.

My initial response was something like this: You are asking me what to say when that person says something insulting to faith or about your belief. How about, “I love you”?

I knew that was easier to offer as advice than to do, but I went on to say that I have always found it interesting how strongly some people feel compelled to react to the presence of faith around them. Based on my own pre-Christian experiences, I believe that in many cases the person is reacting defensively against the grace of God. Acting out in anger might just be the sign that God is getting a foothold and they are lashing out to try to drive grace away.

Paul writes in Romans 8 about the groaning of creation as it awaits the liberation from death and decay. Commenting on this passage, John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament observe the following:

Upright heathens are by no means to be excluded from this earnest expectation: nay, perhaps something of it may at some times be found even in the vainest of men; who (although in the hurry of life they mistake vanity for liberty, and partly stifle, partly dissemble, their groans, yet) in their sober, quiet, sleepless, afflicted hours, pour forth many sighs in the ear of God.

Some of our sighs to God can look a lot spitting in God’s face.

It is not easy to be on the receiving end of these things, but I do think Christians should view vocal atheism as a sign of God’s grace at work stirring up souls.

Many atheists, of course, would reject what I just wrote. I understand that. I was once among their tribe. Part of being a Christian, though, is learning to tell the story of the world around us in terms of grace and God’s activity.

So maybe in addition to suggesting that my friend say “I love you” in the face of atheist insults, I should have added “God loves you, too.”

The confession we need

There is a difference between confessing Jesus Christ as Lord and accepting as Lord.

In American evangelical Christianity, some variation of “accepting” Jesus is offered as the hallmark of conversion. Getting saved is often associated with asking Jesus to be our Savior or — more commonly — accepting or receiving him as such.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with the active verbs here. It has always felt like we are doing Jesus a favor.

To confess Jesus as Lord and Savior is an entirely different thing. When we confess, we state what is true. To use a contemporary common example, we a person confesses a crime, they are simply stating the truth that they did such and such things. The things happened whether the criminal confesses it or not. To confess is to acknowledge what is already the truth, even if unknown to others. To confess Jesus Christ as Lord is to say that Jesus is Lord whether I acknowledge it or not. I am just now coming around to acknowledge that truth.

This strikes me as theologically and practically important. We Christians proclaim the good news that Jesus Christ has defeated death and broken the power of sin and that he will one day judge the world. This is not a claim that he will judge those who have accepted him. It is a claim that he will judge the world.

I believe that on the cross and in the tomb, Jesus really did save the whole world from death — including those who had already died. This is why there will be a general resurrection. All will be resurrected to eternal life. All will stand before the judge. The book of life will opened and all will be judged.*

When we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, we are proclaiming this truth. At the risk of putting it too strongly: Jesus is not my savior. He is THE savior.

It is because of this, that I shy away from the traditional sinner’s prayer. It is not that I think new birth is unimportant, but because I think new birth is not about us “accepting” Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. I think, rather, it is about a work of the Holy Spirit in us. It is the Spirit opening our blind eyes to the great truth of Jesus’ love and lordship. Perhaps in response to that new birth we might utter words very similar to the sinner’s prayer. Perhaps in seeking to have that new birth we might utter that prayer. But unlike Joel Osteen, I don’t believe the uttering of those words is the same as being born again.

The Spirit blows where it will.

What we need to be given is the gift that allows to confess from the depth of our very soul the great truth. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is savior. Jesus loves me, even me, and died so that I might live.


*The standard of judgment appears to be how we have lived rather than what we believe or say, which opens up for me lots of interesting questions that would derail the simple point I want to make here.