Evangelical amnesia

Scot McKnight was one of the first evangelical writers I read as a new Christian. If you have never read his books or his blog, I’d encourage you to do so.

Recently, he wrote a blog post about the demise of evangelical Christianity.

As an evangelical Methodist, I find much of what McKnight writes in his post compelling and on target. Indeed, I would say that much of what is troubling United Methodist churches that I have been a part of can be attributed to the degree to which we are afflicted by the ills McKnight outlines in his post. We United Methodists are evangelicals with a case of amnesia. We have forgotten that we are evangelicals. We have forgotten ourselves and therefore have no idea why we are here or what we should be doing.

McKnight highlight the following areas of trouble. See if any of these ring true to you.

The Bible is diminished – Preaching is not rooted deeply in it. People do not study it. We are not shaped, formed, and challenged by it on a daily basis.

Evangelism is diminished – We do lots of mission work, but somehow that activity has been divorced from church planting and the salvation of souls. Whether it is overseas or in our own communities, we are very eager to provide bread for the body but not food for the soul.

Vocations are diminishing – Is this one true in the UMC? McKnight writes that the numbers of people coming forward to seek vocations as pastors is decreasing. I don’t know if that is the case in my conference in the UMC. I know that my commissioning class was fairly large by recent standards, but that may be a decline overall from historic trends. I do know that there is much talk in my conference about retirements out-pacing new vocations.

The Cross is diminished — McKnight’s point is that there is a lot of confusion and contention around atonement theology. Camps are divided. Progressives seek theories that downplay or dismiss the notion that Christ died for our sins. Conservatives go all in on penal substitution and ignore other aspects of the work of Christ on the cross. In all this, we end up diminishing Cross and  — dare I say — emptying it of its power.

I’m sure these critiques are not valid in every place United Methodists gather, but much of McKnight’s critique seems like it applies to us as well. It feels in the church that we are much more comfortable with “doing good works” than we are in the hard work of sanctification or the often unrewarding work of preaching the gospel to those who have not heard it. And we are really, really, really good at clustering together with like-minded folks and clucking about how those “other Christians” are doing it all wrong.

What do you think? Does any of this seem on point to you?

What can we do to shake off our amnesia and help others to do the same?

Preserve me from bigotry

I read today a blog post by a United Methodist who considers the election of Karen Oliveto as bishop as an opportunity for the United Methodist Church to “lance the boil” of bigotry enshrined in our Book of Discipline.

I want to sidestep getting into an argument with that blog about the definition of the word “bigotry” and the writer’s assertion about the church’s bigotry. Those are old arguments, and I have little doubt whether I could persuade that writer or those who think as he does to change his opinions.

But the post did get me thinking again about one of our doctrinal standards in the United Methodist Church, John Wesley’s sermon “A Caution Against Bigotry.”

In that sermon, Wesley uses a brief passage in the Gospel of Mark as his starting point. In the Gospel, Jesus rebukes the disciples for their eagerness to shut down a man casting out devils in the name of Jesus because the man is not part of their group. Wesley uses this sermon to address voices in English Christianity who were condemning other Christians because they worshiped differently or were dissenters from the Church of England or were — as the Methodists often were — viewed as irregular or illegal gatherings because they allowed lay preachers to preach. Wesley’s plea was that Christians judge such things on the basis of results.

Wesley starts by observing the scope of the devil’s work in England.

These monsters might almost make us overlook the works of the devil that are wrought in our own country. But, alas! we cannot open our eyes even here, without seeing them on every side. Is it a small proof of his power, that common swearers, drunkards, whoremongers, adulterers, thieves, robbers, sodomites, murderers, are still found in every part of our land? How triumphant does the prince of this world reign in all these children of disobedience!

He less openly, but no less effectually, works in dissemblers, tale-bearers, liars, slanderers; in oppressors and extortioners, in the perjured, the seller of his friend, his honour, his conscience, his country. And yet these may talk of religion or conscience still; of honour, virtue, and public spirit! But they can no more deceive Satan than they can God. He likewise knows those that are his: and a great multitude they are, out of every nation and people, of whom he has full possession at this day.

Many in the United Methodist Church today, of course, would cast Wesley with the bigots for his list of those under the power of the Satan. But please stick with me rather than getting bogged down on that point. Wesley’s point is that the devil is at work in people’s lives and the work of a Christian minister is to be the instrument that God uses to break that power and bring them into the kingdom. We can see the work of casting out devils to the degree that these signs of the power of Satan are broken in the lives of men and women. Here is how devils are cast out, Wesley writes.

By the power of God attending his word, he brings these sinners to repentance; an entire inward as well as outward change, from all evil to all good. And this is, in a sound sense, to cast out devils, out of the souls wherein they had hitherto dwelt. The strong one can no longer keep his house. A stronger than he is come upon him, and hath cast him out, and taken possession for himself, and made it an habitation of God through his Spirit. Here, then, the energy of Satan ends, and the Son of God “destroys the works of the devil.” The understanding of the sinner is now enlightened, and his heart sweetly drawn to God. His desires are refined, his affections purified; and, being filled with the Holy Ghost, he grows in grace till he is not only holy in heart, but in all manner of conversation.

So here is what I hear Wesley arguing as a preface to addressing the issue of bigotry. He is arguing that the real issue of concern for the church is that people need to be saved from the power of Satan and that this is effected by the preaching of repentance and the building up of people in holiness. This is the standard we should use to judge the work of other Christians. To criticize them or refuse to recognize them on the basis of other issues, he cautions, is bigotry.

But how do we know if another preacher has cast out devils in the manner Wesley commends. Here are his words.

The answer is easy. Is there full proof, (1) That a person before us was a gross, open sinner? (2) That he is not so now? that he has broke off his sins, and lives a Christian life? And (3) That this change was wrought by his hearing this man preach? If these three points be plain and undeniable, then you have sufficient, reasonable proof, such as you cannot resist without wilful sin, that this man casts out devils.

And so, this might be our practice, too, when dealing with division within our denomination. Rather than getting into endless fights over worship styles or even points of doctrine and theology, perhaps, we should follow Wesley’s lead and ask of each other this question: Can you show that your ministry has brought sinners to Christ in such a way that they have broken off from their sins?

Yes, yes, I am aware that the problem with my recommendation is that we disagree about whether sin is sin. And that is not unimportant. But can we find signs that those with whom we disagree cast out devils by their ministry? Can we see clear evidence that God uses their ministry to save men and women from the power of the devil?

If we can, Wesley would caution us not to forbid them from doing their work. And so, it seems to me, that we cannot be good Wesleyans or good Methodists or good Christians if we do not ask for such signs. Neither can we, upon seeing such signs, ignore them.

For Wesley, this is the true mark of bigotry — to see the work of God in the ministry of another and to oppose it still because that person does not follow our “party, opinion, religion, or church.”

I do not personally know enough about the ministry of other pastors and bishops to make such determinations. I find the work in my own church is consuming enough that I have little time to examine others carefully. But I do want to be mindful of Wesley’s warning and his closing admonition in his sermon:

Think not the bigotry of another is any excuse for your own. It is not impossible, that one who casts out devils himself, may yet forbid you so to do. You may observe, this is the very case mentioned in the text. The Apostles forbade another to do what they did themselves. But beware of retorting. It is not your part to return evil for evil. Another’s not observing the direction of our Lord, is no reason why you should neglect it. Nay, but let him have all the bigotry to himself. If he forbid you, do not you forbid him. Rather labour, and watch, and pray the more, to confirm your love toward him. If he speak all manner of evil of you, speak all manner of good (that is true) of him. Imitate herein that glorious saying of a great man, (O that he had always breathed the same spirit!) “Let Luther call me a hundred devils; I will still reverence him as a messenger of God.”

May God preserve me from ever being a bigot.

A person not a self-help program

This is an old blog post, but it came across my Facebook feed this morning, so it is new to me.

United Methodist Communications shared this post connecting a song by Tim McGraw with the teaching of 19th century British Methodism. The gist of the short article is that McGraw’s song, which calls people to “always stay humble and kind” mirrors the advice of Methodist devotional writers in the 19th century.

Of course, on the surface, this is probably true. Humility and kindness are fruits of the Spirit, and so it is not at all out of place for a Christian writer to praise them. But in making this connection, the article misses a rather large and important point.

What is the point?

Well, for Christians the point is Jesus Christ.

We are Christians because of Jesus. Our faith is in a person not a set of values or character traits. If we focus on the outward things — the character traits — we can discover that we have the surface but none of the depth.

The truth is this: People are capable of being humble and kind without knowing Jesus Christ. There are kind atheists and humble Muslims. There are generous Buddhists and peaceful Hindus. We worship Jesus Christ, we follow him, we pray to him because he is the Son of God, the Word, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings, the Savior of all humanity. Through him we are forgiven and saved from the power of the devil and grasp of evil.

Christianity is not a set of socially valuable character traits. It is about a person.

Does this mean praising humility and kindness is a bad thing? Well, of course not. But my sense of American Christianity is that we are very good at looking at the outward things and confusing them for the real thing. We point to humility and kindness and fail to seek Jesus. We point with pride at never missing a Sunday worship service and always putting our tithe in the offering plate and ignore the fact that we have no living relationship with the one we worship. We put up posters in our churches of “The Three Simple Rules” and rarely look each other in the eye and ask “Do you know the Lord?”

I am sure I am not being entirely fair to the writer of the post that prompted this blog post of mine, but I do hope my concern is clear. Let us as the church make sure that we never confuse the main point of what we do and who we are. Let us always err on the side of too much Jesus and not enough of everything else. He is the reason we exist.