The temptation we don’t discuss

They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 6:14)

Clergy face a temptation that is not talked about much and certainly never breaks into public attention the way other temptations we face do from time to time. It is the temptation to tell our congregations what they want to hear.

A sizeable number of our people want us to soothe their fears and worries with easy assurances. They want to be able to get on with life and not think about things like sin and death and eternity. And if we help them do that, they will thank us and love us, or at least they will until the day comes when they are staring into the black night of death and they discover the elixers we’d been feeding them were strong enough to numb what had been haunting them but not strong enough to cure them.

Too many Christians get to a crisis of faith and discover they have built upon sand. They face death and find themselves overwhelmed by grief and terror. They experience the loss of a loved one and uncover deep wells of bitterness toward God that drive them away from church forever. They encounter hardship and find that they have no spiritual reserves to draw upon because they have been fed straw rather than true food. And it is people like me who have helped them arrive at this point because we are too afraid of upsetting people and too worried about how we will stand up to the charge of hypocrisy. We make a secret and unspoken pact with our people. I won’t talk to you about sin and salvation too much and you will bring me lovely little cakes. It all works out fine until the sand start to give way beneath their feet.

I am a far from perfect man and a far from perfect pastor. I am going on to perfection and have much distance to travel still. But I truly do believe that we preachers do a grave disservice to our people when we offer them words of peace when what they need is to have the source of their fear and unease brought forth where it might be exposed to the light of the gospel. That is scary work and painful for all involved, but it is the only way we can truly help people. Soothing their pain in the moment only sets them up for much worse down the line.

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.

The missing parts of the story

I had a curious exchange recently with a man who got me thinking about being a pastor.

Talking to this man, who professes faith in Jesus Christ, I realized that the story he tells himself about his own life includes neither Genesis 3 nor Revelation. If he wrote a private version of the Nicene Creed, it would not include the line about Jesus being crucified for our sake or coming to judge the living and the dead. The article on the Holy Spirit would not include mention of forgiveness of sins or the life of the world to come.

He is living now and for today and — so far as he can see it — the only point of Christianity is to help improve the material and social conditions of people living right now. The only sin he could see in the world was “institutional” or “systematic.” It was all out there and not in him.

I understand that Christianity can easily become so “other worldly” that it fails to live out the call to love our neighbor. It is pretty easy, however, for me to point out where and how the Bible instructs us on this point and corrects this mistake. Someone who acts as if Christianity is purely about getting a personal, eternal fire-insurance policy has missed some important parts of the Bible.

And it seems to me that the man I was talking to did so as well. Talk of his own sin, his need for a Savior, and his own eternal status before the Lord were dismissed as if the Bible never spoke a word about such things.

I struggled to draw his attention to this in a way that he could hear. I’m sure he left our encounter convinced that I was the one missing the point.

I am reflecting on the conversation, in part, because I know that man is not the only one in my community who thinks that way. I wonder how I am called to witness to our faith in his presence. As a pastor, how do I best feed this lamb of Christ?

There is a model in our Wesleyan heritage that says the correct response is to lay out in clear terms his mistakes. Like John Wesley himself, we might dust off our copy of “Almost Christian” and walk through point-by-point where he has gotten the whole thing wrong.

That is a model, and Wesley would chide me at my hesitation to embrace it. He would tell me to pick up my cross and bear it for the sake of this lost soul. He would remind me that if this fellow — clearly still in the slumbers of his fallen nature — would not hear the message, I would at least be clear of the guilt of refusing to deliver it. His blood would not be on my hands.

I can feel Wesley’s firm but loving stare as I write these things, but I must confess that I feel ill-equipped for such a response.

Nearly every person we encounter — and I don’t exclude myself here — is getting something wrong and failing to live the faith we profess in full. How as pastors do we respond? The answer, of course, depends on the particulars of the person and the situation before us. There are blanket principles but not blanket answers. Each person requires different things. This is also something Wesley would say.

Discerning when to lead with the rod and when to offer milk is a skill learned over many years. I am aware that I have much to learn in this area. I know myself well enough to know I am apt to err too much toward gentleness when firmness is often required. I pray that the Lord will give me grace to do this thing I have been called to do, to feed and care for his flock.