The basis of Methodist polity

Stuff I’m picking up in polity class at United Theological Seminary:

What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God; and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable, as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not, it is nothing worth. (Letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746)

What Heidelberg might teach us?

It would be a wonderful gift to the United Methodist Church if General Conference authorized an official catechism for the denomination.* I think of something along the lines of the Heidelberg Catechism, which I have read with profit for the last year or so.

Yes, this is the catechism that was endorsed by the Synod of Dort, which condemned Arminian doctrine, which was a root from which Wesleyan Methodism drew much nourishment. But in my reading of the catechism, I’ve found little to offend my Methodism, and I hear many echoes of Wesley’s own words in its pages.

The 129 questions of the catechism are traditionally studied over 52 weeks, with a handful of questions being taught and studied each week for a year.

One interesting aspect of the catechism is how directly it flies in the face of American sensibilities. This is not a document written to speak to the felt needs of a society used to having its preferences cultivated and catered to by people who want to sell us things.

Here is Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and death?

Note the word “only” there. In America, we do not believe in the premise of the question. We are a land constantly, ceaselessly in such of new and other comforts than the ones we already know. We are the world’s greatest breeding ground for products and services to satisfy wants we did not even know we had. The notion that we have only one comfort simply does not compute.

And so, neither does the answer we get from Heidelberg:

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from the power of the Devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father heaven not a hair can fall from my head, yea that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.

Yes, Methodists and our Reformed brothers and sisters might get into a disagreement over the preservation spoken of in the middle of the answer. A Methodist would say that the Father’s will is that so long as we remain in Christ, we will be preserved. The “so long as” being a part of the Father’s will. But we are getting down to fine — but important — distinctions when we arrive at this disagreement.

What I find more profitable in reading this is the insistence that we are not our own but belong to Christ. This is language that can barely be comprehended, much less affirmed, in 21st century American culture. If there is one thing our politics and education system teach us it is that we are free owners of our own bodies and minds. We are barricaded safely within a host of rights, and the protection and exercise of these rights is the path to human happiness and fulfillment. We can speak words of praise for those who risk their lives for the nation and commend those who sacrifice for others, but always with the clear understanding that what they do is a personal choice entered into freely as one who has total freedom to do what he or she wishes to do with his or her life.

How different are the first words of this catechism: I am not my own.

How different would our conversations within the church be if we started with this affirmation? How different would we live our lives as Christians?

That, in the end, is the value I see in works such as the Heidelberg Catechism. They give us new questions and new ways of understanding ourselves. They call into question what we think we can take for granted. And they glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. What a wonderful thing it would be if United Methodists officially adopted such a book.

(For those who are interested, here’s a digital version of a book examining John Wesley’s revisions of the Westminster shorter catechism.)

*I’m aware that the deadline for making such formal proposals for 2016 has passed.

Do Christians sin?

Do Christians sin?

If we know any Christians at all, the answer appears obvious. We all know Christians who sin. If we are honest, we can name times in which we have sinned despite our professed allegiance and obedience to our Lord and Savior. In light of our own experiences, therefore, we are led to conclude that, yes, all Christians sin and this cannot be avoided. We may even recall the words of 1 John 8:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (NRSV)

So it appears we have experience confirmed by Scripture to support this doctrine. Of course, Christians sin.

Or do they?

We who walk in the way of Christ in companionship with John Wesley have a different answer, radically different.

The first distinction we need to draw is between those who bear the name of Christian and those who are truly born of God. As it happens, anyone may declare themselves a Christian. So the mere fact that someone who claims to be a Christian commits a sin does not really settle the question. To be a Christian means we have been born again — or in the language of 1 John been “born of God.” This is a teaching so fundamental to Wesleyan doctrine that I cannot imagine how we could deny it and still claim any connection to Wesley or the tradition that he inhabits.

To be a Christian in the full sense, then, means to be born of God. And those who are born of God, do not sin.

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. (1 John 3:9, NRSV)

We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. (1 John 5:18, NRSV)

This is one of those cases where the translation you read matters. In the NIV and several other translations the key phrases are rendered in English as “do not continue to sin” rather than “do not sin.”* This gets into an argument over the sense and meaning of a single Greek word, an argument I am not qualified to enter into. But I have read enough on this to be persuaded that Wesley’s reading certainly has merit on scriptural grounds: Those who are truly born of God cannot sin and do not sin.

But, we might object, we know of people who were not merely nominal Christians but truly born of God and who subsequently sinned. Doesn’t this make the reading advanced here contradict our experience?

Here is the Wesleyan reply: It does not pose a contradiction because we hold that a person born of God can, by neglecting to worship, pray, study Scripture, and practice other spiritual disciplines, fall back into their old life. They can — in the spiritual sense — pass from life to death and give way again to sin. Properly speaking, when we do this, we have ceased to be born of God and have enlisted again in the family of the devil.

This teaching, of course, runs against the Reformed tradition’s doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Exploring that theological disagreement, however, is a topic for another day.

Another objection to the Wesleyan teaching that Christians do not sin might be that we will never be free from the kinds of ignorance and weakness that lead us to hurt each other and violate the will of God. We are imperfect people, we say, and so can never expect to live without making mistakes. Therefore, Christians will sin, if only by accident.

Wesley’s answer to this runs like this: “A mistake is not a sin.” Wesley taught repeatedly that sin — an inward or outward action that tends to our condemnation — is a voluntary breaking of a known law or command of God. Acts we commit in ignorance or by accident may violate the law of God, but they do not threaten our salvation. This is also a doctrine that leads to argument, but it is thoroughly Wesleyan and consistent with the wider body of his preaching and teaching.

So how, then, do Wesleyan Christians answer the question whether Christians can sin?

We say that they cannot. So long as one born of God “guards himself or herself” they cannot sin, but if we do not maintain our connection to Christ, if we stop seeking him, we will find ourselves cut off from the grace that allows us to trample down sin and temptation. We will fall away. We will sin.

So Christians do not sin, but we may find ourselves sinning even if we have at one time been a true follower of Christ. The good news is this:

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, NRSV)

If you have read this far, you may be wondering why anyone would spend so much energy trying to work all this out — especially in the face of so much disagreement among Christian communions.

I can only answer for myself.

First, it matters because sin matters. Whether or not you agree with Wesleyan teaching about the nature of sin, you should care about the questions raised here. Sin destroys our life and — the same thing — separates us from God. If we care about that at all, then we need to understand the nature of our affliction.

Second, it matters because it matters to people I pastor. Questions about sin come up all the time even in the small churches that I serve. As one who will one day — God willing — take a vow to teach and preach the doctrine of the United Methodist Church, I am compelled to understand those doctrines and find a way to explain them.

Finally, it matters because I am a pastor. If my charge is to shepherd people toward and into the kingdom of God, then I need to understand what threatens and hinders people’s progress toward that goal. I can’t help people avoid pitfalls and dangers that I cannot see myself. Having a doctrine of sin is for the spiritual shepherd as important as having a knowledge of the diseases and dangers that afflict sheep is for the herder of sheep.

If you want to read more about Wesley’s teaching, I’d suggest the following sermons:

The Great Privilege of Those that Are Born of God

On Sin in Believers

The Repentance of Believers

*This is one place where the Common English Bible reflects a Wesleyan translation. Some of the CEB’s translation decisions in other places obscure Wesleyan doctrinal emphases, but 1 John is one place where the CEB can be read by Wesleyans without having to reinterpret the English.

How I learned to talk about goats

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)

For many are invited, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14)

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)

I found myself using a line in my sermon last Sunday that has been lingering with me. In the midst of my sermon, I said to my two congregations that I did not want them to end up as goats, and from there I reminded them of the teaching of Jesus from Matthew 25:31-46.

I have to confess this: Ten years ago, I would never have taken that kind of sermonic detour. Indeed, had I been in a pew hearing that, I might have bristled at it.

You see, I came to Christ from secular America and through theological liberalism. Talk of the supernatural and eternal judgment of humanity was alien to me — even a bit laughable, perhaps even contemptible.

There is a line in the TV show House that comes to mind. The atheistic Dr. Greg House is talking with another doctor about what happens after death or does not happen. House’s counterpart asks incredulously whether he believes this is all there is, to which House replies: “I find it more comforting to believe that all *this* isn’t simply a test.”

This is the way we often react to talk of the judgment of God, the coming wrath, eternal reward and eternal punishment. We act indignant that God would cheapen the meaning of life by reducing it to a never-ending test to judge our fitness for heaven and hell.

I get all that.

So why the warning to my congregations about sheep and goats?

The short answer to this is that I’ve spent the last 8 years reading John Wesley and the Bible. I’d read none of Wesley and scarcely any of the Bible before I was baptized in 2001. It was nearly pure experience that got me to the baptismal font and very little in the way of Scripture or Tradition. And it was gentle but powerful experiences of the grace of Jesus Christ that deepened my faith before I got my call to ministry several years after my baptism.

Once I sensed that call, I decided I had better start learning about Methodism and the Bible. And it was this study that helped me name my experiences of grace. Before this, I had only some spiritual experiences that, without the language of Christianity, were nearly impossible to articulate. The Bible and Wesley helped me to understand what had happened to me and what was happening in me. And they gave me the framework of belief that helped me see that this day-to-day life is much more than just a weary grind for a few decades before our bones dry out and we pass into forgotten memory. We are called to be children of God. We are called to that now. We are called to it forever.

Is life more than a test? Yes. Of course. But there is a test. And, as a pastor, I grow more convinced that I do the people in my congregations real harm if I shade that reality or hide it from them. The truth is this. We will stand before God. There will be a final exam. The good news is this. Jesus has already shown us the test. We know the questions and the answers. No one has to fail, but many will.

All this talk is crazy to atheists and those who have grown so wise that they find Jesus’ words in need of updating. It used to be crazy talk to me. As a pastor, though, I dare not treat it that way when given the awesome responsibility of teaching and preaching the Word of God to the people who come to hear it. How can I claim to love them if I act as if our purpose in life is to eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die?

When doctrine matters

I was reading John Wesley’s pamphlet “Predestination Calmly Considered” when I came across the following passage that highlights Wesley’s approach to doctrine.

This is my grand objection to the doctrine of reprobation, or (which is the same) unconditional election. That it is an error, I know; because, if this were true, the whole Scripture must be false. But it is not only for this — because it is an error — that I so earnestly oppose it, but because it is an error of so pernicious consequence to the souls of men; because it directly and naturally tends to hinder the inward work of God in every stage of it.

For Wesley, the biggest concern in doctrine is how it undermines or encourages the impulse toward holiness. Since he considered the saving of souls the highest priority for the church, he responded to doctrinal disagreements through the lens of salvation. If a doctrine clearly threatened the work of God in the souls of people, then he would oppose it more forcefully than a doctrine that was merely at odds with Scripture but not directly harmful to holiness.

To what are clergy vowing faithfulness?

How do you remain faithful to vows when your partner keeps changing?

Ever since I began down this road toward full-time ministry, I’ve wondered how I will navigate the fact that at one point I will be asked to take vows to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church, and yet that doctrine and discipline can change substantially over time. What is the vow really about? Is it a vow to a specific formulation of doctrine and discipline that was in place when you took the vow? Or is it a vow to remain faithful to a community even when that community changes?

These questions come up when United Methodists talk about sex, but that is not the only topic that raises such issues.

It emerged for me today while reading Bill Arnold’s proposal to revise portions of “Our Theological Task” in the Book of Discipline. Arnold has submitted this proposal for consideration by the Faith and Order Committee at General Conference in 2016. I find his proposal an improvement on our current language and would support it — if I had either a vote or say in any of this (such if the life of a local pastor.)

But as I am reading this proposal, I am also working on the final draft of my commissioning paperwork due in November. One of those questions asks for my interpretation of our theological task as United Methodists. One of the reviewers of my draft documents wrote recently that as long as my answer matches what the Book of Discipline says, I’m good.

So what happens if General Conference changes the text in meaningful ways in May? Or what does this mean for people who were ordained under the pre-1988 text, which I’ve never read but have heard a great deal about. (For those interested, a helpful brief commentary on changes changes in UMC doctrine can be found here, see especially page 2.)

I don’t have any answers to these questions. They are questions I have wondered about since I began writing this blog. I’d be interested in your thoughts.