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.

Rumblings from the Rockies

A couple days before Christmas, the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone Conferences of the United Methodist Church issued an appeal for financial help. The statement announcing the appeal is somewhat vague about the need and purpose of the funding. It is equally vague about the size and scope of the need.

The appeal is linked to the election, consecration, and appointment of Karen Oliveto as bishop over the two conferences. The election of a non-celibate lesbian bishop has caused a lot of turmoil in the wider UMC and, apparently, in the two conferences she serves. The fund-raising appeal, issued Dec. 22, includes the following:

[T]here has been stress in some of our most theologically diverse congregations. Some have lost members. Others have had members withdraw their financial support. We believe theological diversity is critical for the vitality of The United Methodist Church. We seek to help our churches as we live into this new future. All our churches throughout the Mountain Sky Area play a vital role in witnessing to the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their communities. We remain committed to all churches in our area.

That is why the Mountain Sky Area is creating a Mountain Sky Vital Congregations Sustentation Fund to provide churches with short-term financial assistance as we move toward the day when God’s hopeful vision of all being included in The United Methodist Church becomes fully real. This fund is especially needed where a pastor’s compensation is at risk. Allocated funds for equitable compensation support will be exhausted before the need is met. And, importantly, by Discipline, equitable compensation funds cannot be used for part-time pastors in the same situation.

The appeal appears aimed in part at shoring up part-time appointments in the conferences where the loss of members and financial support would be felt the most quickly. At least, the last line of the quoted material above appears to justify the fund because it would permit support of part-time charges. Whether the problem is confined to part-time charges or is more widespread is not clear from the appeal.

It is tempting to try to draw conclusions about what is going on in these conferences or try to draw some generalizations about the meaning of all this for the wider UMC, but that seems pretty dangerous given the lack of specific information. If you know more about this or the situation on the ground in those conferences, please share in the comments section.