Watts: ‘I have nothing to hide’

Joel Watts shares his thoughts about human sexuality and the United Methodist Church.

Watts is a nominee for General Conference in the West Virginia Annual Conference. His answers to other questions can be found here.

The cause of social misery

Here is a brief Wesleyan account of the root causes of social evils. In a word, the cause is sin.

In his treatise on Original Sin, John Wesley gives the following example of the ways misery and poverty are ultimately traced back to sin.

Many families are miserable through want. They have not the conveniences, if the necessaries, of life. Why have they not? Because they will not work: Were they diligent, they would want nothing. Or, if not idle, they are wasteful; they squander away, in a short time, what might have served for many years. Others, indeed, are diligent and frugal too; but a treacherous friend, or a malicious enemy, has ruined them.; or they groan under the hand of an oppressor; or the extortioner has entered into their labours. You see, then, in all these cases, want (though in various ways) is the effect of sin. But is there no rich man near? none that could relieve these innocent sufferers, without impairing his own fortune? Yes; but he thinks of nothing less. They may rot and perish for him. See, more sin is implied in their suffering.

Wesley argues that miseries of many kinds — from that of individuals to that of nations — can be traced back to sin. And these sins are always a case of willful actions or omissions. Wesley did not look to impersonal or systematic causes of social evils. Sin was the cause and sinners were in one way or another the agents of misery.

The role of the church in the face of these things was to identify the sin, convict the sinner, and thereby relieve the suffering and redeem souls at the same time.

This is slow work, of course. And in a culture where people reject the gospel out of hand, it is a solution that many people cannot even contemplate. In such cases, it falls to the church to care for those who suffer, to continue to witness to the gospel, and to lay down its life for others so long as sin runs free.

This is what the church has done through the ages when it is at its best.

What can Spener teach United Methodists?

I have been reading Philip Jacob Spener’s Pia Desideria. It is one of the foundation stones of Pietism, a movement that has had vast influence on both the Methodism of John and Charles Wesley and on the founders of the communions that would come together in the Evangelical United Brethren. Therefore, it is a book that should be read with humble and open hearts by United Methodists. It is a root from which our mingled traditions spring.

As a result of my first read through the book, I wanted to share some short observations about Spener’s method and his prescription for the church.

His method was exceedingly practical. He called upon clergy to examine themselves and the church carefully for signs of sickness and turn to God in prayer for the light to see the proper remedies. He urged them to do this task in writing to each other and in meeting together as they were able. He saw reform, in other words, as rising up from networks of clergy who shared a sense that something was not well and reached out to one another for discernment and encouragement in treating the illness of the church.

Having proposed some remedies, he urged them to put them into practice in their own congregations, but not with blindness of heavy-handedness. He urged clergy to first aim at those most ready to receive and be edified by what is useful and necessary to true and healthy Christianity. Aim first and exclusively at those who are “tractable.” As those efforts bear fruit, Spener argued, others would be drawn into the circle by their example.

Even as we do this, however, we must not expect instant results or immediate fruit. Spener urges patience and hope, knowing that the seeds we plant often bear fruit we do not see. He writes, “If God does not give you the pleasure of seeing the result of your work quickly, perhaps he intends to hide it from you, lest you become too proud of it. Seeds are there, and you may think they are unproductive, but do your part in watering them, and ears will surely sprout and in time become ripe.”

As I read these words, I find Spener both pastoral and practical in ways that draw me into deeper study.

So what are the tools by which Spener urged clergy to cultivate these seeds? What is the medicine he urged for the sickness of the church and the people?

He offers six proposals, which I will list here but hope to expand upon in later posts.

  1. Extensive use of the Word of God both by individuals and in small devotional groups
  2. Diligent exercise of the priesthood of all believers
  3. Emphasis on living faith beyond mere knowledge of faith
  4. Engagement with non-believers and heretics in a spirit of love rather than bitterness or competition
  5. Reformation of training of clergy toward the practical arts of ministry and inward formation
  6. Promotion of preaching aimed at producing faith and fruits

Each of these items requires further explanation and each bears examination, but as a United Methodist, I find some encouragement that there may be a program here that fits our spiritual heritage and practices. I want to study these more.

‘I neither know nor desire to know’

If John Wesley were among us today, I think he would be scoffed at for being anti-intellectual. No one would say he was not intelligent, I think. But reading his letters, journals, and sermons, I see time and again that he was not much interested in theological controversies and placed little trust in reason as a path to truth about divine things.

Here is just one instance of what I mean. In a letter he wrote in 1753 to a Dr. Robertson about a treatise Robertson had sent him, Wesley shows his reliance on revelation and distrust of the conclusions of natural reason. The treatise uses reason to show the true principles of religion without any dependence on divine revelation. Wesley’s letter is an extended rejection of the arguments of the treatise. As Wesley puts it:

The treatise itself gave me a stronger conviction than ever I had before, both of the fallaciousness and unsatisfactoriness of the mathematical method of reasoning on religious subjects. Extremely fallacious it is; for if we slip but in one line, a whole train of errors may follow: And utterly unsatisfactory, at least to me, because I can be sufficiently assured that this is not the case.

In some of his particular objections, Wesley shows his willingness to stand in ignorance about questions to which others feel compelled to devise answers. He admits that he cannot explain how God’s complete foreknowledge of our actions is consistent with the idea that we are free, and yet he finds both God’s absolute knowledge and our freedom in Scripture. For him, that is enough to hold to both.

When the treatise refutes commonly held theological notions about the way original sin is transmitted from generation to generation, Wesley waves his hand at the whole discussion. He writes that he would not care if every reasonable explanation for the way original sin is transmitted were shot down.

I care not if there were none. The fact I know, both by Scripture and by experience. I know it is transmitted; but how it is transmitted, I neither know nor desire to know.

If Wesley were among us today and responded to questions about tricky theological points in such a manner, I suspect many of us would not approve. The question then remains, whether God would approve now or did approve then of his ministry.

Do we need the Creed?

Andrew Thompson has provided a series of links to some recent and not-so-recent writings about the place of the Creed in Wesleyan and Methodist faith. The authors generally come out in defense of the Creed. This is not a controversial position for Christians to take, of course, but given the history of doctrinal neglect in United Methodism, it is not a foregone conclusion that any particular group of United Methodists will provide a robust defense of the creeds of the church.

So, these arguments are important.

But, at the risk of encouraging an “anything goes” attitude, I do want to ask whether the Creed is either sufficient or necessary for Christianity. Is affirming the Creed enough to make you a Christian (the demons believe and tremble)? Is affirming the Creed necessary for a person who claims to be a Christian?

Another way to ask this, I suppose, is whether Christianity could exist without the Creed. As a historical hypothetical, of course, it is an impossible question to answer. And yet, we do have an answer. The Creed was not handed to us by Jesus Christ. The Apostles did not recite the Apostles’ Creed. The church found the absence of a Creed problematic and the establishment of a Creed useful, but Peter and Paul and the subsequent generations were certainly good Christians despite their ignorance of the Creed.

So the question is not whether we need the Creed, but how best do we use it? What role should it play in the life of faith? How does knowing the Creed deepen our faith and practice? How does the Creed call us into holiness of heart and life?

Did you see this study of pastoral effectiveness?

I missed this report when it came out in 2012.

I found a couple of aspects of the study interesting. First, these four qualitative assessments of what is required for clergy effectiveness are not surprising but still are interesting:

Calling
Effective pastors possess a profound inner sense of being called by God and called to ministry. This calling is manifested as a deep trust in God and the willingness to act boldly and to take risks as part of that called ministry.

Leadership
Effective pastors have the ability to cast a vision and mobilize and empower people to work toward it. Effective pastors influence people in ways that will help them achieve their goals.

Transforming Lives
Effective pastors are able to transform lives. People with transformed lives experience spirituality as part of their identity; that is, they incorporate spirituality into their everyday lives. People with transformed lives experience God in their lives every day of the week, not just on Sundays. Transforming lives involves helping people grow in their love for God and develop a deeper relationship with God. People with transformed lives also have a genuine desire for spiritual growth.

Helping Others
Effective pastors help people discover and utilize their gifts for the good of their communities. They help people grow personally as well as spiritually. They help people become better, more spiritual people who make better decisions and have stronger, healthier relationships with God and others.

I’m struck in this list by what is not here. Knowledge of doctrine, theology, church history, and the Bible are not here. They are implied behind some of these things, but they are not up front. Most of the education offered through seminary serves as the building blocks that are drawn upon as effective pastors exhibit the four attributes list above.

As I read those four, I also find myself thinking about reading lists and training opportunities. How much do we read and how much training do our conferences provide on how to grow as a leader, for instance? In my teaching, I spend some time with students looking at the leadership theories of Daniel Goleman. How many of our pastors in seminary or subsequent training learn about similar theories or find themselves in settings where leadership development is an important focus? Certainly this is hard for solo pastors without mentors or senior pastors appointed above them.

I have similar questions about the way we train pastors to transform lives and help other people find and develop their gifts.

Later in the report, it takes a more quantitative look at the knowledge, skills, abilities, and personal characteristics that are important for pastoral effectiveness. The report argues that things that can be taught (knowledge of doctrine and skill at preaching) should be less important in ordination decisions than things that are more stable and resistant to change (a sense of trust in God, personal integrity, etc.).

I’ve never served on a Board of Ordained Ministry. Reading the report makes me wonder how these various things are weighed in actual practice.

I’m curious whether readers have seen this report before and what you make of its findings.