A statement from African bishops

Here’s a statement issued by a meeting of 11 of 12 active United Methodist bishops from conferences in Africa.

(Someone out there help me out by tallying how many United Methodists these bishops shepherd.)

Thanks to Creed Pogue for helping with the following. These bishops lead “4,392,638 professing members in 2013 or about half again as much as the Northeastern, North Central and Western Jurisdictions combined.”

Read the whole statement at the link, but here is a passage that spoke strongly to me:

One of the functions of the Bishops of the church is to “maintain the unity of the church”.  As leaders of the church, we believe that there are far more important issues that unite us than issues of sexual orientation. As a church, we are called to be in solidarity with people who suffer as a result of unjust political systems, wars, famine, poverty, natural disasters, diseases, illiteracy , etc. We believe that we can be united around these issues rather than allow ourselves to be ripped apart by issues of sexual orientation.

What Heidelberg might teach us?

It would be a wonderful gift to the United Methodist Church if General Conference authorized an official catechism for the denomination.* I think of something along the lines of the Heidelberg Catechism, which I have read with profit for the last year or so.

Yes, this is the catechism that was endorsed by the Synod of Dort, which condemned Arminian doctrine, which was a root from which Wesleyan Methodism drew much nourishment. But in my reading of the catechism, I’ve found little to offend my Methodism, and I hear many echoes of Wesley’s own words in its pages.

The 129 questions of the catechism are traditionally studied over 52 weeks, with a handful of questions being taught and studied each week for a year.

One interesting aspect of the catechism is how directly it flies in the face of American sensibilities. This is not a document written to speak to the felt needs of a society used to having its preferences cultivated and catered to by people who want to sell us things.

Here is Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and death?

Note the word “only” there. In America, we do not believe in the premise of the question. We are a land constantly, ceaselessly in such of new and other comforts than the ones we already know. We are the world’s greatest breeding ground for products and services to satisfy wants we did not even know we had. The notion that we have only one comfort simply does not compute.

And so, neither does the answer we get from Heidelberg:

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with his precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from the power of the Devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father heaven not a hair can fall from my head, yea that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by his Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.

Yes, Methodists and our Reformed brothers and sisters might get into a disagreement over the preservation spoken of in the middle of the answer. A Methodist would say that the Father’s will is that so long as we remain in Christ, we will be preserved. The “so long as” being a part of the Father’s will. But we are getting down to fine — but important — distinctions when we arrive at this disagreement.

What I find more profitable in reading this is the insistence that we are not our own but belong to Christ. This is language that can barely be comprehended, much less affirmed, in 21st century American culture. If there is one thing our politics and education system teach us it is that we are free owners of our own bodies and minds. We are barricaded safely within a host of rights, and the protection and exercise of these rights is the path to human happiness and fulfillment. We can speak words of praise for those who risk their lives for the nation and commend those who sacrifice for others, but always with the clear understanding that what they do is a personal choice entered into freely as one who has total freedom to do what he or she wishes to do with his or her life.

How different are the first words of this catechism: I am not my own.

How different would our conversations within the church be if we started with this affirmation? How different would we live our lives as Christians?

That, in the end, is the value I see in works such as the Heidelberg Catechism. They give us new questions and new ways of understanding ourselves. They call into question what we think we can take for granted. And they glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. What a wonderful thing it would be if United Methodists officially adopted such a book.

(For those who are interested, here’s a digital version of a book examining John Wesley’s revisions of the Westminster shorter catechism.)

*I’m aware that the deadline for making such formal proposals for 2016 has passed.

Do Christians sin?

Do Christians sin?

If we know any Christians at all, the answer appears obvious. We all know Christians who sin. If we are honest, we can name times in which we have sinned despite our professed allegiance and obedience to our Lord and Savior. In light of our own experiences, therefore, we are led to conclude that, yes, all Christians sin and this cannot be avoided. We may even recall the words of 1 John 8:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (NRSV)

So it appears we have experience confirmed by Scripture to support this doctrine. Of course, Christians sin.

Or do they?

We who walk in the way of Christ in companionship with John Wesley have a different answer, radically different.

The first distinction we need to draw is between those who bear the name of Christian and those who are truly born of God. As it happens, anyone may declare themselves a Christian. So the mere fact that someone who claims to be a Christian commits a sin does not really settle the question. To be a Christian means we have been born again — or in the language of 1 John been “born of God.” This is a teaching so fundamental to Wesleyan doctrine that I cannot imagine how we could deny it and still claim any connection to Wesley or the tradition that he inhabits.

To be a Christian in the full sense, then, means to be born of God. And those who are born of God, do not sin.

Those who have been born of God do not sin, because God’s seed abides in them; they cannot sin, because they have been born of God. (1 John 3:9, NRSV)

We know that those who are born of God do not sin, but the one who was born of God protects them, and the evil one does not touch them. (1 John 5:18, NRSV)

This is one of those cases where the translation you read matters. In the NIV and several other translations the key phrases are rendered in English as “do not continue to sin” rather than “do not sin.”* This gets into an argument over the sense and meaning of a single Greek word, an argument I am not qualified to enter into. But I have read enough on this to be persuaded that Wesley’s reading certainly has merit on scriptural grounds: Those who are truly born of God cannot sin and do not sin.

But, we might object, we know of people who were not merely nominal Christians but truly born of God and who subsequently sinned. Doesn’t this make the reading advanced here contradict our experience?

Here is the Wesleyan reply: It does not pose a contradiction because we hold that a person born of God can, by neglecting to worship, pray, study Scripture, and practice other spiritual disciplines, fall back into their old life. They can — in the spiritual sense — pass from life to death and give way again to sin. Properly speaking, when we do this, we have ceased to be born of God and have enlisted again in the family of the devil.

This teaching, of course, runs against the Reformed tradition’s doctrine of perseverance of the saints. Exploring that theological disagreement, however, is a topic for another day.

Another objection to the Wesleyan teaching that Christians do not sin might be that we will never be free from the kinds of ignorance and weakness that lead us to hurt each other and violate the will of God. We are imperfect people, we say, and so can never expect to live without making mistakes. Therefore, Christians will sin, if only by accident.

Wesley’s answer to this runs like this: “A mistake is not a sin.” Wesley taught repeatedly that sin — an inward or outward action that tends to our condemnation — is a voluntary breaking of a known law or command of God. Acts we commit in ignorance or by accident may violate the law of God, but they do not threaten our salvation. This is also a doctrine that leads to argument, but it is thoroughly Wesleyan and consistent with the wider body of his preaching and teaching.

So how, then, do Wesleyan Christians answer the question whether Christians can sin?

We say that they cannot. So long as one born of God “guards himself or herself” they cannot sin, but if we do not maintain our connection to Christ, if we stop seeking him, we will find ourselves cut off from the grace that allows us to trample down sin and temptation. We will fall away. We will sin.

So Christians do not sin, but we may find ourselves sinning even if we have at one time been a true follower of Christ. The good news is this:

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9, NRSV)

If you have read this far, you may be wondering why anyone would spend so much energy trying to work all this out — especially in the face of so much disagreement among Christian communions.

I can only answer for myself.

First, it matters because sin matters. Whether or not you agree with Wesleyan teaching about the nature of sin, you should care about the questions raised here. Sin destroys our life and — the same thing — separates us from God. If we care about that at all, then we need to understand the nature of our affliction.

Second, it matters because it matters to people I pastor. Questions about sin come up all the time even in the small churches that I serve. As one who will one day — God willing — take a vow to teach and preach the doctrine of the United Methodist Church, I am compelled to understand those doctrines and find a way to explain them.

Finally, it matters because I am a pastor. If my charge is to shepherd people toward and into the kingdom of God, then I need to understand what threatens and hinders people’s progress toward that goal. I can’t help people avoid pitfalls and dangers that I cannot see myself. Having a doctrine of sin is for the spiritual shepherd as important as having a knowledge of the diseases and dangers that afflict sheep is for the herder of sheep.

If you want to read more about Wesley’s teaching, I’d suggest the following sermons:

The Great Privilege of Those that Are Born of God

On Sin in Believers

The Repentance of Believers

*This is one place where the Common English Bible reflects a Wesleyan translation. Some of the CEB’s translation decisions in other places obscure Wesleyan doctrinal emphases, but 1 John is one place where the CEB can be read by Wesleyans without having to reinterpret the English.

To what are clergy vowing faithfulness?

How do you remain faithful to vows when your partner keeps changing?

Ever since I began down this road toward full-time ministry, I’ve wondered how I will navigate the fact that at one point I will be asked to take vows to uphold the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church, and yet that doctrine and discipline can change substantially over time. What is the vow really about? Is it a vow to a specific formulation of doctrine and discipline that was in place when you took the vow? Or is it a vow to remain faithful to a community even when that community changes?

These questions come up when United Methodists talk about sex, but that is not the only topic that raises such issues.

It emerged for me today while reading Bill Arnold’s proposal to revise portions of “Our Theological Task” in the Book of Discipline. Arnold has submitted this proposal for consideration by the Faith and Order Committee at General Conference in 2016. I find his proposal an improvement on our current language and would support it — if I had either a vote or say in any of this (such if the life of a local pastor.)

But as I am reading this proposal, I am also working on the final draft of my commissioning paperwork due in November. One of those questions asks for my interpretation of our theological task as United Methodists. One of the reviewers of my draft documents wrote recently that as long as my answer matches what the Book of Discipline says, I’m good.

So what happens if General Conference changes the text in meaningful ways in May? Or what does this mean for people who were ordained under the pre-1988 text, which I’ve never read but have heard a great deal about. (For those interested, a helpful brief commentary on changes changes in UMC doctrine can be found here, see especially page 2.)

I don’t have any answers to these questions. They are questions I have wondered about since I began writing this blog. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Could this make us pitch perfect at #GC2016?

If you are interested in the latest proposal to get the United Methodist Church out of the wilderness, here is a link to its web site.

This is how Good News Magazine described the plan on its Facebook page:

The Covenantal Unity Plan is a proposal to restore covenant accountability and compliance, while providing a way for those who can no longer live under our current Book of Discipline to exit the denomination with their property and pension. The CUP plan is a revision of proposals first made by Dr. Bill Arnold and Dr. David Watson, now co-authored by Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway and Rev. Dr. Greg Stover. The CUP plan establishes an entirely new, global accountability process for bishops. It provides a mandatory minimum penalty for clergy who perform a same-sex marriage. It tightens the requirements for “just resolutions” and the Counsel for the church. And it provides a simple mechanism for churches and clergy who cannot in good conscience live with the church’s policies to leave the denomination with their property and pension.

The purpose of the CUP plan is to preserve and enhance the unity of the church. “If The United Methodist Church is to remain one denomination, it will be necessary for us to decide together that our teachings, policies, and decision-making processes really do matter. If we cannot affirm this, then we may be a loose confederation of churches, but we do not constitute a church. Any denomination needs to be “United” by more than an uneasy compromise between rival groups with incompatible views. Authentic unity must be grounded in doctrine, discipline, and Kingdom-centered mission.”

The plan is called CUP for Covenantal Unity Plan. For some reason, that makes me think of this song, which has the virtue that it actually gets lots of people to do stuff together.

I wonder if we could get the entire General Conference delegation to do that?

Is someone building an ark?

They say every preacher has one sermon. Dan Dick has one blog post, but it is a good and needful one. Here’s the latest iteration.

In this he laments the low expectations culture of the United Methodist Church as a whole.

We want a definition of discipleship that costs absolutely nothing.  People often comment that they think I make discipleship too hard, that I expect too much of people, that I am unrealistic in my expectations.  I always wonder where people got the idea that discipleship was supposed to be easy and convenient.  Can people be Christian “believers” and not read the Bible and not pray, and not attend church regularly, and not give or serve as an expression of their faith, and not fast, and not share their faith?  Obviously, a lot of people think so.  But be a disciple?  Discipleship has some built-in defining characteristics that are much more demanding than occasionally showing up.  People who haven’t shared in public worship for two years should not be called disciples.  Those too busy to pray, who have no time to meet with other Christians for accountability and spiritual practice, who neglect a sacrificial commitment of time or money should not be called disciples.  Those who do meet to debate carpet colors, criticize the pastoral leadership, snipe over music styles, and decide who isn’t welcome are not disciples.  Those who only pay attention to the parts they like and that make them feel comfortable and lovable are not disciples.  Come on!  Why would anyone want to be a disciple if the key qualification is breathing?

On his blog, I asked — and will repeat here — whether we are institutionally capable of surviving the fall out that would happen if United Methodists got serious about discipleship. Here is what I predict would happen: First, there would be a tremendous amount of conflict and shedding of “members.” Then, the remnant would go forth and be much more like the church as the New Testament describes it. But make not mistake, it would be a much smaller church. It would probably be more active and vital, but it would be smaller.

There would be fewer buildings, fewer full-time jobs for clergy, and even less cultural relevance than we have now — at least for a time.

If we want a church of disciples — I think it says this somewhere in our mission statement — then shouldn’t we being doing the kind of institutional prep work that getting that kind of church is going to require? The image that comes into my head is Noah. If we know a flood is coming, shouldn’t we be building an ark?

Maybe someone is. I can’t hear the hammering from where I stand, though.