Obama and the church

I’ve been reflecting upon the nature of the African-American church as reflected in President Obama’s eulogy for the Rev. Clem Pinckney.

I’ve had the privilege at seminary of having classes with pastors from black churches. Their attitudes and experiences reflect what Obama said in the video. The black church has been not just a place to gather for an hour of peace on Sunday morning, but as the central institution in the life of the community. It is the theological, social, political, and economic heart of its people.

I can’t help but feel that in white church we have lost track of this, reducing the church to a fast-food dispenser of spiritual services. And I feel convicted that it is people like me who have let that happen by not stepping up to the work and call of pastoral leadership. It has slipped so far, of course, that most white Christians cannot even imagine what a community of people formed around Jesus Christ even looks like, not white mainline Protestants, at any rate.

I was also struck near the end of the eulogy when the president talked about grace saying we don’t deserve, we get it anyway, but we have to choose how to receive it. Speaking at an AME church, that sounds like good Arminian theology to me.

Politics in the church

In my Annual Conference — Indiana — there is some post-conference grief being expressed because members of an evangelical caucus communicated with members who wanted information about general conference candidates who would share similar theology. I’ve also heard that others engaged in similar activity, but the complaints I’m hearing are aimed at the evangelicals.

On the day of the elections and since, people have expressed anger and disappointment. Some have accused their brothers and sisters in Christ of ugly motives and anti-Christian conduct.

I’m a local pastor without a vote, and I am not a member of any caucus group in my conference, so my thoughts about all this are more as an observer than anything else.

I find it odd for people to say that there is something wrong with people doing political things in the midst of a process that centers on voting for candidates. If we want to take politics out of such things, maybe we should cast lots like in Acts 1. If that is not the way we want to go, it is naive and silly of us to expect politics to play no role in the decisions of the church. I can think of at least two reasons why this is the case.

First, our United Methodist polity is hugely influenced by American republican principles. From the Christmas conference on, we have been doing politics, which is simply unavoidable when you have lots of people trying to organize themselves for common action. Organizing a global denomination involves politics. All you have to do is look at the system our conference adopted in 2014 for the endorsement of candidates to see that this was a political process long before we gathered to vote.

Second, wider church history is full of politics. Last week, a lot of preachers spent time contemplating the mystery of the Trinity and wrestled with how to preach about it. It does not take a great deal of knowledge about church history to know that the ecumenical councils that settled on the final formula of the creed and the Chalcedonian definition were political affairs. So was the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15.

Any one who has ever been part of a local church knows that politics is alive and well in the local church, too: bad politics and good politics.

Politics is a human activity, so it is prone to corruption and sin. But it is also an unavoidable part of human life. All the great movements of history that we praise — Civil Rights, abolition, the Methodist movement — were political. Politics is just the name for something that humans do. As a church, we should do our best to prevent sin from corroding our politics, but we should not pretend that politics itself is antithetical to the nature of the church.

What the Bible says about female clergy

Ben Witherington III from Asbury seminary shares an old post he wrote aimed at all the common arguments why women should not be clergy or leaders in churches.

The post goes into a fair amount of detail and exegesis. It serves as a caution against assuming we understand everything in the Bible. If you find the post too dense, I suggest you pick up some of Witherington’s books. I’ve found them to to be excellent and his insights into the New Testament always valuable.

Of course, there are people who disagree with Witherington’s argument on the issue of women in leadership. I am persuaded by his case, though. And I am grateful that it is made without declaring the Bible — or Paul — simply wrong or outdated.

Here’s how he ends this blog post:

As I have learned over many years…. the problem in the church is not strong and gifted women. We need all those we can get, and were it not for them, many churches would have closed long ago. I remember so vividly meeting the babooshkas– the grandmothers in the Moscow Baptist Church, who had stopped Stalin from closing the church by standing in the door and not letting his troops enter and close it down. Thank God for strong, gifted women in the church. No, the problem in the church is not strong women, but rather weak men who feel threatened by strong women, and have tried various means, even by dubious exegesis to prohibit them from exercising their gifts and graces in the church.

Q: Should these two things define the church?

Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him. He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons. (Mark 3:13-15)

If we in the church are an extension of the original apostolic ministry, then shouldn’t the core of our mission be defined by the tasks originally set out by Jesus? In this passage those tasks are preaching and driving out demons.

To this point in the gospel, the content of Jesus’ preaching has been the original proclamation of Mark 1:15. The kingdom has come near. Repent, and believe the good news. I have zero reason to believe the apostles were sent out to preach anything different. Is it fair to say that preaching the kingdom is the first task of those who see their ministry as in a line with the apostles?

Also to this point in the gospel, we have seen Jesus drive out demons. Here he gives the apostles the authority to do the same thing. Has the authority passed down to us today? If so, why do so few mainline United Methodists speak of such things, much less do them?

What do you think?

‘Methodists are free church Catholics’

Methodism could make a real contribution to our common life as Protestant Christians if we took seriously the ecclesial implications of Wesley’s stress on sanctification. I think Maddox is quite right to say that Wesley understood that without God’s grace we cannot be saved; but without our (grace-empowered but uncoerced) participation, God’s grace will not save. Wesley, of course, was not unique in this emphasis — thus Augustine’s observation that the God who created us without us will not save us without us. Participation is, of course, signaled by baptism, by which we are made members of a community in which we are made accountable to one another. In short, Methodists are free church Catholics.

— Stanley Hauerwas, “The End of Protestantism,” in Approaching the End

Stanley Hauerwas follows the statement above with an admission that very few United Methodist Churches would offer much support for his claim that we are “free church Catholics.”

I take his point to be that our tradition holds to a view of sanctification that requires a community to nurture us and hold us accountable. To “participate” with God’s grace requires the presence of other people. As Wesley would say, there is no holiness without social holiness.

I hear Hauerwas asserting that because of this there is no salvation without the church, not because the church has grip on the magic beans that get us into heaven but because it is impossible to grow in grace without being part of a community around you.

I’m not convinced I understand Hauerwas properly. I’m never convinced of that. I wonder how his quote above strikes you.

How do we mold leadership teams?

Patrick Lencioni defines a leadership team as a small group group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving results for their organization.

Do our churches by this definition have leadership teams? Do we have a groups that understands themselves to be collectively responsible for achieving results?

I find these questions challenging. They challenge me because I wonder if we could even define what we mean by “results” in many cases. They challenge me because I am full of doubt about my ability to pull together such a leadership team. They challenge me because I sense that as pastor, the ministry of order calls me to do what I most doubt my ability to do.

What stories can you share about creating groups of leaders in church?