Preaching the faith of the church

Early in the process of discerning my call to ministry, I came to the conviction that the call of a member of the clergy in the United Methodist Church was to preach the faith of the church.

This conviction is not an easy one to hold to in the UMC for a couple of reasons.

First, it is not easy to hold because a large number of fairly vocal clergy leaders in the UMC advocate something else. It is quite easy to find clergy arguing that the task of the preacher is to preach their own struggles, their own doubts, their own truth. Such advice is usually given the name of being “authentic.”

I understand the appeal. I was an English major in college. I have written and read poetry. I’ve written and read personal essays about doubt and struggle. I’ve read Hamlet. I can sing many pop songs. I once cried after watching Dead Poets Society.

I am not saying preachers never struggle or doubt, but I don’t think they are called to do that while leading worship on Sunday morning. I do not believe our ordination as elders authorizes us to read Scripture out loud from the lectern and then declare from the pulpit, “I’m not really sure if I agree with what the Bible says about God here.”

Again, please hear what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying the Bible is always easy to interpret. I’m not trying to deny the existence of differences of interpretation among various traditions within the church. I’m not saying there are no controversies within the church over the meaning of Scripture.

I am merely saying that while standing in the pulpit — or on the stage of a worship center — the task of the preacher is to preach the faith of the church. They are not there to present a lecture on the history of controversy over a passage. They are not there to give us a tour of their own emotional or intellectual struggles with Scripture. There are places to do both those things. Sunday morning is not that place. Elders are called and ordained by the church to preach the faith of the church.

Which brings me to the second problem.

An elder or local pastor who sets out in ministry with the intention of preaching the faith of the church quickly discovers in the UMC that it is difficult to identify what our faith is. I had this very problem as I was first discerning my call.

Early in my process of discernment, I turned to the Book of Discipline and found our doctrinal standards. As quickly as I read over the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, however, I noticed that a lot of things described there were openly questioned or dismissed by some of the preachers and leaders in the UMC.

In my search, I also began to read the sermons, journals, and letters of John Wesley. Doing so only deepened my sense of disconnect between what our Discipline claimed to be our doctrinal standards and what I heard preached and taught in United Methodist churches. When I spoke of this sense of disconnect with some elders, they made jokes about Wesley.

For better or worse, in my process of discernment of my call, I came to the conviction that if I were to be a Methodist preacher, I should preach Wesleyan Methodism. Conveniently for me, as I delved more deeply into Wesleyan theology, I found that I quite agreed with John Wesley that the movement the Holy Spirit stirred up around Wesley’s ministry was Scriptural Christianity. If I had come to the conclusion that Wesley was in error about the essentials of Christianity, I hope I would have had the integrity to say I am not called to be an elder in a church bearing the name Methodist.

Why do I share this?

I share this because being clear about my role as an elder in Methodism is the place where I can make a difference in the church in this age of struggle. As United Methodism goes through the wrenching process of division into two or more new churches, lots of decisions need to be made and will be made. Almost all of them will be made by people other than me.

I am not in those rooms or part of those conversations, nor do I expect to be. But I am in a pulpit. I’ve been given a yoke to do ministry. The best way I can contribute to the future vitality of this movement of the Holy Spirit called Methodism is to be a Methodist preacher. I see no other way to do that with integrity than to preach the faith of the church as set forth in our doctrinal standards. Yes, I will struggle and have questions, but on Sunday morning my job is to preach the faith as well as I can. May God give me the grace to never fail in this task.

Making the hard argument

I recently read an article written by the a district superintendent in the Mountain Sky episcopal area.

The article is a critique of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. The author tries to demonstrate what he sees as hypocrisy and inconsistency in the positions of the WCA. In doing so, he writes some things that I found rather troubling.

Here is some of what he puts forward:

  • The ordination of women is unbiblical.
  • The toleration of divorced clergy is unbiblical.
  • John Wesley’s primary concern was in new expressions of faithfulness.
  • The Nicene Creed should not be used as a litmus test for orthodox Christianity.
  • Central Conferences in the UMC do not have to follow the doctrine of the UMC.

I think the author is wrong in all five of these claims, but today I want to respond to the assertions that the United Methodist Church’s current teaching regarding women’s ordination and divorce are not biblical.

Here is what I believe the author was trying to do. He believes the church is wrong to hold as a matter of doctrine and law that gay sex is sinful and that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. He wants to critique the WCA for its support of current church teaching, so he wants to demonstrate that it is at its core a hypocritical and intellectually shallow association. To do so he asserts that the WCA endorses clearly unbiblical stances on women’s ordination and divorce and suggests therefore that the WCA is merely playing power games in not endorsing the unbiblical teaching regarding gay sex.

I am troubled by this line of argument, especially coming from the member of the cabinet of one of our episcopal areas.

Here is why.

He is asserting that the official United Methodist Church teaching on women’s ordination and divorce are unbiblical. I don’t believe that is fair or true. I believe our doctrines are compatible with the Bible and that we do not hold them in spite of what the Bible says but because of what it says. I believe our denomination tries rather hard to be faithful to its doctrinal standard that says the Bible is final authority in all matters of faith and practice and that we cannot adopt as church teaching or law something that we believe is in direct violation of biblical teaching.

As I see it, there are at least two ways of arguing that our church should change its teaching with regard to gay sex and gay marriage. The first is to do as this author appears to do. Argue that the church has already opted to ignore the Bible in many areas and therefore should do so again. In making this argument there is almost always the implication that dark motives are the real reason behind the current teaching and support of it. The upholders of current teaching are cast as bigots or cynical hypocrites. In addition, such arguments appear to take the stance that it is okay to endorse one unbiblical position because we have endorsed another one. That strikes me as a foolish rule, akin to saying two wrongs make a right. If the church is violating the Bible in ordaining women or permitting divorce, as the author of the article asserts, then the proper response would be to advocate for a revision of our doctrine and law regarding women’s ordination and divorce not the adoption of more self-consciously unbiblical teaching.

The second way to make this argument — and one that seems much more in keeping with the golden rule — is to assume that our church actually has arrived at its current teaching through faithful attempts to listen to Scripture. As the church is always in need of reform, we accept that we always stand in risk of being wrong about the teaching of Scripture and so are open to being taught. But we never intentionally and willfully dismiss Scripture and strive never to hold as doctrine any teaching that we believe is incompatible with the Bible. And so to argue that gay sex is not sinful and that marriage is not intended by God to be between one man and one woman, our author would need to demonstrate how a full and careful reading of the Bible actually supports these positions.

That is a hard argument to make. I know that some have attempted to make it. I know as well that many outside the church have no interest in making it. Millions of people who have no particular regard for the Bible cannot be bothered to treat the church’s attempts to be faithful to the Bible with respect. I understand that. I just hope that within the church we might start from a different place.

A turning point

So it is official. I have been approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry for commissioning as a provisional elder at Annual Conference.

This has been a long time coming. It is really just the first step of yet another and longer journey, but it also represents a pivot point in my life. I thank God for bringing me this far and pray he will watch over my days.

Now that this process had come to a close, I intend to return to more regular blogging.

Have I missed anything since November?