Helping Christians be better Christians

Recently, I picked up a small book about Jacob Arminius‘ theology of election and his criticism of predestination. The strain of Reformed Protestant theology advocated by Arminius in the 17th century would have deep influence on the development of Methodism.

One hallmark of Arminius’ theology is an appreciation for the practical aspects of theology. Theology is not meant to be a series of abstract ideas. It is meant to have practical application and impact. The author of my book puts it this way:

Genuine theological knowledge (harkening back to St. Augustine) was a habitus, a way of thinking that could not be separated from a way of living. It touched the heart, enlightened the mind, and made one charitable … Arminius understood well that doctrine (doctina) had connotational roots in the history of the church as religious teaching that enables one to be a good Christian.

Christian doctrine exists to help Christians be better Christians. This idea is something Methodists have little difficulty affirming. I find it helpful to realize that this conviction locates us with a grand tradition of the church catholic that can be traced back to Augustine and the early church fathers.

For me as a pastor, then, the question is this: Am I teaching and preaching in ways that are not merely correct but also helpful to Christians seeking to live out their faith?

Methodist preaching is orthodox

I’m told the first point I want to make about the faith a Methodist preaches is no longer controversial.

Ten or twenty years ago, I’m told, yes. But not now.

There was a time when you did not struggle to find a Methodist preacher — or a bishop — who openly questioned foundational doctrines of the Christian church. It was not infrequent to hear a sermon on Easter that quibbled with whether it really mattered in the end if Jesus really rose from the grave.

I’m told those days are over, that the generation of clergy who questioned the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the divinity of Jesus are no longer among us. That such preaching ever happened from our pulpits still staggers my imagination.

And yet, I can start no other place than to say clearly that Methodist preaching, the faith we preach, is orthodox. It holds to and affirms the creedal formulations laid down in the early centuries of the church. It preaches the Trinitarian God. It preaches the resurrection. It looks forward to the return of Christ and the present work of the Holy Spirit.

Let me outline a couple of particular things this entails.

First, Methodists preach that there is one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Other descriptions of God can be well meaning, but they are mistaken. They may not be vicious or malicious in their error, but they are in error. To argue that there is no Son or that the Holy Spirit is not fully God is to be wrong about who God is. To put it plainly: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, pagans of various stripes, and all who do not name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fundamentally in error about God. Methodist preaching can be gracious toward other religions, but it cannot say that all ways of talking about God are equally true.

Second, Methodists preach that our salvation is necessary, that sin must be forgiven, and that there is a judgment coming. I will write more about this when I turn to discuss the ways in which Methodist preaching is evangelical, but it should be recognized that the importance of salvation, the problem of sin, and reality of judgment were not ideas invented in the Protestant and evangelical revivals. It is all plainly affirmed in the Bible and the creeds.

While you may struggle to find Methodist clergy who deny the resurrection, or carefully avoid affirming it, you still can find quite a few who hold to some form of universalism — a belief that either there is no Hell or that it will be empty. You can still find Methodist preachers who speak dismissively or not at all about our sin and our need for forgiveness. Such preachers at times will proudly assert that they are not evangelicals. What is really at question is whether they are even orthodox.

There is much more that can be said about what orthodoxy entails and what it does not. Even these two points bear much more discussion than is suitable in a blog post. But this, at least, is a starting point. The faith we preach as Methodists is orthodox. It is in keeping with the grand and central doctrines of the church handed down through the centuries. When preaching ceases to be orthodox, it ceases to be Methodist.

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.