Learning to Judge Again

Once I was with a fellow who was about to speak at an important meeting in front of about 50 people. He was wearing a tie with slacks and a sports coat. He looked rather spiffy. That is, with the exception that he had tied his tie way too short without noticing. As he went by a mirror and stopped to double check his appearance he finally noticed that his tie made him look a little bit like Bobo the clown trying to get into GQ. He quickly fixed his tie after which he turned directly to me, who had been with him for about 15 minutes, and asked, “Why didn’t your tell me how goofy I looked before I almost embarrassed myself in front of all those people?”

I can’t say that I didn’t notice his tie, but I also wasn’t sure whether I should say anything or not. It was short, but I wasn’t sure if it was too short for his tastes; and I didn’t want to point it out for fear of offending his own possible fashion sensibilities. He wasn’t pleased. Basically he said that I should have pointed it out because he would rather be embarrassed in front of just me rather than 50 others. More or less he was disappointed that I didn’t show enough concern to risk offending him in order to save him from even worse potential embarrassment.

It has long been a fairly common assumption in society and even in many Christian circles that the worst thing we could do is ever judge anyone. Once in a sermon I stated some of the things that I disagreed with regarding some of the doctrines of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Afterwards a man approached me and said that I was being too “judgmental” and that “it just wasn’t Christian”. Lost on him was the irony that he was “judging” me for being “too judgmental”! I have even seen people wearing T-shirts that say, “Only God can judge me”, which just seems to be another way of saying to anyone who may be critical of their actions, “Shut up!” And that I think is really the point behind much of the selective judgmentalism regarding judgment.

Who are we to judge anyway? After all didn’t Jesus say, “Judge not lest you be judged”?

Yes he did, but he also said a few other things that undeniably show that he didn’t mean that we should never say that certain actions are wrong or that we should never point out fault in another person’s life.

Luke 17:1-4 (NLT)
One day Jesus said to his disciples, “There will always be temptations to sin, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting! 2 It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone hung around your neck than to cause one of these little ones to fall into sin. 3 So watch yourselves!
“If another believer sins, rebuke that person; then if there is repentance, forgive. 4 Even if that person wrongs you seven times a day and each time turns again and asks forgiveness, you must forgive.”

An expanded version of this same admonition appears in Matthew 18:10-21. The context shows that it’s God’s heart for the church to diligently go after straying and wayward sheep. Immediately following the parable of wayward sheep, Jesus points out the duty of disciples to “point out the fault” (v. 15 NRSV) of one who may have sinned against them. It is a loving, but relentless process with an abundance of forgiveness required where there’s repentance. It is so relentless, even when excommunication takes place, because the goal is always reconciliation of sinners to God and the body of Christ. The reason quite simply is because “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt 18:14 NRSV).

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If this seems unloving it is only because you may not have quite the same definition of love that Jesus operated with (see Timothy Tennent’s article here on the importance of knowing your Biblical vocabulary). Jesus summed up (not abrogated) the entire law of God with two commandments found in the law itself. Love God (Deut 6:5) and love your neighbor as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:18).

The context of the former makes clear that to love God is to obey all of God’s commandments (see Deut 6:6). It’s no accident that the love command follows the restating of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5.

Likewise the context of Leviticus 19:18 makes clear that to love one’s neighbor is not out of sync with pointing out a neighbor’s fault.

Leviticus 19:17-18 (NRSV)
17 You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. 18You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.

The permissiveness that the world defines as love is defined by the Bible as hate. To not reprove one’s neighbor is not to love one’s neighbor. It is not loving to stand by while a fellow disciple acts contrary to the word of God any more than it would be loving for me as a parent to stand by while my 9 month-old precariously enjoys playing with an electrical outlet. That’s why Jesus insisted on accountability among his people, not in spite of love but because of it.

So disciples of Jesus are called to make judgments, but we must be careful to only make the judgments that Jesus has commanded us to make, and to carry out that judgment in the right way.

A friend of mine became a volunteer firefighter as a teenager. One day I ran into him somewhere and as we were talking he told me how excited he was because he was going to get to help burn down an old abandoned house with some other firefighters for training. A little pyromania for sure! The reason they got to burn down the house is because it was condemned by the proper authority.

God is the only proper authority who can pronounce final and everlasting condemnation, not the church. Moreover, only God can see the motives and intentions of someone’s heart. Nonetheless, the church is called to judge fruit, the actions someone takes. And actions indicate the direction of a person’s life. Blatant disobedience is a sign that someone is headed in the wrong direction; and if someone seems to be headed for, or even seems to be turning toward, the destruction that Jesus (Matt 7:13-14) and Paul and the other apostles’ warned about, the loving thing to do is to warn them. That’s why Paul warns that those who practice what he calls works of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God as he juxtaposes them with the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:19-22). Although we are not called to determine anyone’s final destination, we are called to warn about bad fruit that indicates that someone may be going in the wrong direction.

Yes we are called to make judgments, but with the goal of redirection rather than pronouncing final condemnation. Hence, Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians to not shy away from judging one another within the church (1 Cor. 5:9-6:11). This he discussed in the context of a man who was unrepentantly, defiantly, and arrogantly engaged in an incestuous affair with his stepmother, of whom Paul judged that he should be excommunicated. This was not for purposes of final condemnation, which is only God’s prerogative, but with a view toward redirection so that the incestuous man might be saved on the Day of Judgment (6:3-5). Thus, the purpose of judgment should be discipline that hopefully leads to redemption, which is the purpose of all Divine temporal judgment, whether it was carried out against the nations of Israel and Judah through the Armies of Assyria and Babylon or whether it is carried out with regards to individuals through church accountability and discipline. And make no mistake, it is all about love because God disciplines those he loves (Prov 3:12; Heb 12:6; Rev 3:19).

It is important, however, to note that it is also important that the judgment to which we are called is to be carried out with the proper spirit, which is humility. When Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged” he went on to discuss the manner in which we should actually point out the fault of a fellow disciple.

Matthew 7:1-5 (NLT)
“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. 2 For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.
3 “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? 4 How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? 5 Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Notice the warning is really about judging hypocritically. Also notice that Jesus doesn’t say just forget about the speck in your neighbor’s eye altogether. No. He simply reminds us about the log in our own eye, which we need to attend to first. He doesn’t tell us to ignore specks or logs, but to attend to both, but in the proper order. First remove the log in your own eye and then you will be able to help with the speck. We are all sinners, yes, but that is no excuse to ignore sin in our own lives or in the lives of others. From what we already saw above Jesus obviously couldn’t have meant that. Judge we must, but only in a spirit of humility and gentleness not one of arrogance and hypocrisy. Hence, Paul’s exhortation in Galatians 6:1-2 for believers to hold each other accountable “in a spirit of gentleness” and to bear each others’ burdens in order to fulfill the law of Christ, which is the law of love.

Among the many strengths of the early Methodist movement were a commitment to be Biblical Christians and to holding one another accountable to the word of God in love. Their loyalty to Scripture was not coincidental to their commitment to accountability. This commitment was inherent in the meaning of Methodist membership. As a result in the early days Methodist worship attendance far outnumbered Methodist membership. Today the reverse is the case, which is an indication of the loss of both our commitment to be faithful to Scripture and, not coincidentally, to genuine accountability in love. We need to recapture both of these commitments if we are ever to become a vital and transformative movement again.

We need to learn how to judge again; and to learn to judge again is to learn to love again. In this case to not judge places us under the rightful judgment of God as pronounced in the Word. Judge not and we will be judged, and found wanting. As Leviticus 19:17 says, “you will incur guilt yourself.” And it will involve more than a little embarrassment over a stubby tie in the presence of a few strangers, but, according to Jesus, shame at the coming of the Son of Man in all of His glory (See Dan 12:2 & Mark 8:34-38). Let us repent therefore and seek the Lord while he may still be found and we will find forgiveness through his blood and empowerment for obedience and right judgment by His Spirit.

What ALL Can You Do?

I had the privilege of helping coach a very good 9-11 year old baseball team this year. During the regular season our team won 12 of 14 games including an area tournament. Of the games we won, almost all of them were by several runs. Our advantage right from the get-go was base running, and everyone improved their all-around game throughout the year. It was one of the best sports teams that I have been a part of, and I have been a part of many.

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We headed into the Dixie Youth divisional tournament with the top 12 “All Stars” from the 16 we started with during the regular season. We had a few weeks of practice before we played and everyone was looking very good and ready. Before the opening game one of our coaches, Robbie, introduced the kids to Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (NKJV), to give them a positive mental focus and as a way of intentionally planting gospel seed in some young hearts. Building on that I shared a word of wisdom form Ecclesiastes 9:10, ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might …” (ESV) , saying that this was a window of opportunity that would close on us pretty quickly and we should give it our best effort. We prayed together before the game. I was usually the one who prayed. Never once did I pray for victory, and our head coach, Greg, this day made sure the kids understood that we weren’t praying for victory, but that we would do our best. I always prayed first to thank God for the privilege and opportunity to play and for the creation and the ability to enjoy it. I also prayed for the health and safety of everyone involved on both teams, and that we would all play hard, play smart, and have fun. We never prayed for a win.

We won the first game 12 to 4. Many of the kids had written Philp 4:13 on their shoes or the inside of their hats. The second game had us matched up with a team that we had already beaten rather handily during the regular season more than once. Before this game I shared Proverbs 16:18 with the kids, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (ESV). I told them not to overlook this team because we had won big the day before and because we had beaten them handily before.

During the first couple of innings we scored 5 runs and our opponents only mustered 2. Things seemed to be going our way once again, but by the final inning we found ourselves down by 2 runs. We eclipsed that deficit on an in-the-park home run and a successful steal at the plate on a wild pitch. We held them scoreless in the bottom of the 6th as we were the visiting team before heading into an extra inning. We failed to score and they ended up driving in a run with two outs to win the game. It was a heart-breaking loss, but it couldn’t have been a better game and neither team could have played any better. It was one of the best games in any sport that I have ever been a part of.

The next game we played great for the first 2 innings until a left-hander on the other team, who normally struggles to hit the ball at all, reached out and yanked one over the right-field fence with bases loaded. A grand slam!

That grand slam seemed to take the wind out of our sails and our players just never could quite regain focus. We lost and were eliminated from a tournament that we could have won. Still we had a great season, and still Philippians 4:13 applied.

In our losses and disappointments Christ hasn’t failed us, it is there that he most especially strengthens us, and enables us to remain content and hopeful. The context of that verse indicates that Paul is saying that in good times or bad, whether I am abased, that is brought low, or whether I abound, with plenty of resources or with very little, in the valley or on the mountaintop, in that context he said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

When Paul wrote those words, he himself was facing the very real possibility of being executed, yet even if he was, he knew that being in Christ he could not lose. Not even death itself could take away the greatest victory of all. Hence, he says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philp 1:21 ESV). Because Paul knew Christ and the power of his resurrection, he also knew that even though he might suffer the loss of all things in this world, even his life, (See Chapter 3) that abiding in Christ he could not ultimately lose. Because eventually all of our loses and disappointments in this world will not even come close to comparing to the joy of the victory that we have in Christ.

Yet I find something else intriguing about how Philp 4:13 is often applied to so many things such as winning in sports (I remember Evander Holyfield had that verse on his robe when he went out and got his ear bit off by Mike Tyson), or being successful in business or some other personal venture that will bring personal success and acclaim. When we are living for God’s glory I don’t believe praying for success in the ventures to which God calls us is wrong, but I wonder how many ever think of applying Philippians 4:13 to keeping God’s commandments.  When it comes to keeping the commandments of God though, what I often hear is something along the lines of, “Well, we’re all sinners.” I wonder how often that is used as an excuse to continue in sin rather than a confession to enable us to die to sin so that we can live fully for God.  Why not also have an “I can do attitude” when it comes to our greatest competitor and gravest threat, sin and the devil?

The beauty of the early Methodist movement was its great expectations for what God could do in the heart and life of a believer through the cleansing blood of Christ and the power of the Spirit. When it comes to the commandments, surely through Christ we can do all these things too, and we can most certainly take up our cross and deny ourselves to gain the ultimate victory over sin and death. After all, is anything too hard for the Lord of all the earth? Thanks be to God who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (see 1 Cor 15:56-57 & Rom 7).  Now that’s a victory that we should all certainly pray for!

The World, or at least the City, as my Parish #UMC

On June 11, 1739, John Wesley made the following journal entry:

I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.

I’ve never given much thought to how this might pertain to my own ministry until recently.  But one of the more exciting things that has happened to me personally as a pastor and, I think, to our church as a whole has been expanding my/our sphere of influence beyond our church walls to encompass if not the whole world, than at least our city of Dayton, TN.

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This paradigm shift has made some practical difference in how I go about my job as pastor in the parish/city I serve.   Here are a few of them, and I invite you to add your own ideas or practices in the comment section.

  • Spend time in your parish.   This might seem like a no-brainer but often times because something seems so obvious it’s often the first to be forgotten.   A pastor friend suggested to me that 80% of a pastor’s time should be spent out of the office.   I think that’s about right.   Visiting shut-ins or the sick or other church members is certainly a part of this time but I also want to be with the people who aren’t part of my church (at least not yet).  I try to bounce around from coffee-shops and libraries and other hang-outs when writing my sermon or doing my devotions.    I am becoming intentional about timing my grocery store visits to rush hour, when I know the most locals will be around and I can meet someone I’ve never met before.

 

  • Be intentional about time spent in your parish.   I make up flyers that tell in a simple, compelling way some of the things their (notice how those I meet are given ownership in this) parish church is doing and hand them out to people I meet.   I make it known to the check out person at Bi-Lo or Walmart or the DMV that I’m a local pastor serving the area and that I’m pleased to know them.   The other day at the grocery store I ran into the lady who cut my hair a couple months ago and she recognized me as the pastor of “that Methodist church down the road” and said she hopes to visit one day when she gets a Sunday off.   I told her I’ve been expecting her and will see her soon for another hair cut.   Of course, if you are going to make a flyer advertising community outreach, you need to start having some community outreach!…

 

  • Community outreach to your parish.  At the church I serve we have begun asking ourselves the question, If our church closed tomorrow, who in our community would protest?  In other words, if our church shut down and the only people upset is us, we’ve failed not just our community but Christ Himself.   This question continues to propel us out into our parish and re-orient all of our activities towards evangelism and outreach.   Thus, the potluck dinner we have the last Wednesday each month is now called Community Potluck and it’s advertised on our marquee and Facebook page.   During bad weather we’ve made it known that our fellowship hall is open to the homeless in our parish.    We have begun a recovery ministry on Thursday nights and call it “Recovery @ Dayton,” and even though this is in the very early stages of development we are already seeing great results.   Our men, who meet for breakfast each Saturday, decided to offer a Community Pancake Breakfast the first Saturday of each month (this Saturday will be our first).    In 2 weeks we are offering Financial Peace University and have passed out flyers and put it in the paper, hoping to contribute to the financial health of our parish.   And when we concluded VBS last week we threw a free cook-out (hotdogs) and put up bouncy houses and invited the community to party with us.   These are just a few of the ways we have tried to say to our community, “We are your church, and you are our parish.”

 

  • Pray for your parish.  This is the most important part of all.   We’ve been praying that God would make us the kind of people who want the people nobody else wants.   Since arriving here last year I have made it a habit to walk the premises of our community and pray for the people who live here.   I pray regularly for those in my parish who are sick, lost, broken, addicted, lonely, hurting, suffering, etc.  I pray that our church would be a vessel of God’s mercy and grace, that the Holy Spirit would be so powerfully present here on our campus that all the world would know God is present and willing and able to save even the hardest soul.   I pray for revival in our town and for the pastors of other churches, that we would be of one mind and one Spirit, pointing the folks of our shared parish to the cross of Jesus Christ.     This is my daily prayer, and I believe God, as He is prone to do, is answering it in ways I could not imagine.

These are just a few of the ways I, and my church, are striving to make our city, if not our world, our parish.    I pray they ignite new ways for you to do ministry through your church, for your parish, that we might reap the plentiful harvest our Lord says is waiting (Matt. 9:38).

WNCCUMC Annual Conference Panel Discussion on Possibility of Amicable Seperation: Recollections and Reflections

Bishop Goodpaster began our time of holy conferencing with a call to the exercise of holy leadership at the clergy session of the Western NC Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska. He spoke on 1 Peter 1:13-15 in which Peter calls disciples to be prepared for action and warns them of the danger of being conformed to ungodly desires from their past. Peter goes on to call them to be holy in all aspects of their life, quoting Leviticus 20:26 as the authority behind the imperative that he has laid out for them. He then encouraged us pastors to remember that we are called to a distinct form of leadership that requires us to attend to all of the means of grace and not just secular leadership resources. For me and some of my colleagues this was quite refreshing to hear. One of those important means of grace, holy streams through which the refreshing and invigorating Spirit of God’s grace flows into our spirits, is holy conferencing. Holy conferencing is a time of conversation where convictions and ideas are shared and, hopefully, deep listening takes place. In addition of the various worship services, Bible studies, times of prayer, and plenary business sessions that included conversation regarding many of the temporal affairs of the church, we also had a special time of holy conferencing on Saturday afternoon regarding the talk of schism in the United Methodist Church over differing beliefs regarding the bounds of holy sex and holy matrimony.

A panel discussion was formed that included Bishop Goodpaster, who led and participated in the dialogue, Rev. Dr. Andy Langford of Central UMC in Concord, Rev. Talbot Davis of Good Shepherd UMC in Charlotte, Rev. Dr. James Howell of Myers Park UMC in Charlotte, and Dr. Shannon Sherfey (a lay member who is a medical doctor from Taylorsville). A few people from the audience also spoke. Below are some of my recollections (hopefully not too faulty since I didn’t take extensive notes) and reflections on what was said.

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Rev. Langford got the ball rolling after a few introductory remarks from the bishop. He talked about how “amicable separation” is possible and gave some examples when it happened in the past. He also warned that while it is possible that it is not likely to be able to pass the 2016 General Conference under the current circumstances. He spoke of the growing conservative element of the church, especially in Africa, and how that reality would make a liberal change to the Book of Discipline a practical impossibility since we are a global church. In his talk Rev. Langford also seemed to imply that since the Book of Discipline is not adhered to in other ways, such as some pastors refusing to perform infant baptism or who re-baptize, then why make such a fuss over pastors who perform homosexual weddings. Additionally, if I heard him correctly, he also seemed to call for a boycott of the General Conference in favor of annual conferences deciding matters for themselves. At any rate, he said top down approaches will never work. Only a grassroots movement will be able to bring about meaningful change.

My Thoughts: I don’t think pointing to other bad behavior and covenant breaking as an excuse for more bad behavior and covenant breaking is a good way forward. Rather I think it would take us backward to the time of the judges when everyone did what was right in their own eyes in Israel (Jdgs 17:6; 21:25). I’ve heard several of my colleagues bring up the issue of baptism as someone did right before the panel discussion started. John Wesley, however, did place mode of baptism in a category where Christians of different traditions/denominations with different covenants regarding mode of worship could agree to disagree and yet still be a common witness and in mission together for Christ to the world. For him this would be a second order issue between Christians of different traditions so to speak. I do not believe, however, that he would be happy with pastors who vowed themselves to a covenant that includes the administration of infant baptism and not to re-baptize not abiding by that covenant. Neither do I believe United Methodist pastors should dismiss this part of our discipline. What’s more important is that I do not believe the fact that some pastors choosing to break this part of the covenant in a second order matter should be used to justify or excuse other pastors breaking the covenant in what I believe to be something much more serious that would clearly fall within what John Wesley would have considered to be much more of an essential. Looking for loopholes and excuses for covenant breaking isn’t becoming of the holiness to which we are called.

For Wesley the essential love that unifies Christians of differing opinions regarding modes of worship and church government constrains one:

“to serve him with fear, to ‘rejoice unto him with reverence’ Art thou more afraid of displeasing God, than either of death or hell Is nothing so terrible to thee as the thought of offending the eyes of his glory Upon this ground, dost thou ‘hate all evil ways,’ every transgression of his holy and perfect law; and herein “exercise thyself, to have a conscience void of offence toward God, and toward man” (Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” I:16).

With regards to the “holy and perfect law” Wesley would have had the moral law in mind as is conveyed in article VI of our Articles of Religion that says “no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.” We do not keep these law, which would include the laws regarding sexual holiness, in order to be saved, but because we are saved and graciously inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit to do so. Love is the fulfilling of the law, and the love of God is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. I’ll say more on love later, but let it suffice for now to say that love is the first fruit of the Spirit and to love God is to obey God out of a holy affection of heart and desire to please him as Wesley said. I don’t think Wesley would be pleased with a pastor refusing to baptize infants after vowing to abide by our United Methodist Discipline, but I think he would be exponentially more displeased with pastors using that as a rationale to make light of pastors encouraging and giving their blessing to people to break God’s moral law.

Dr. Shannon Sherfey disclosed that she does not believe that same sex relations are sinful and that she supports the full inclusion of LGBTQ people into the life of the church without stigma or qualification regarding ordination. She also said that she believes that a person’s sexual orientation is genetically predetermined and immutable and therefore a part of God good design. Dr. Sherfey stated a regard for Scripture but a different reading of it. She held out her hope that in a couple of decades the United Methodist Church will find itself on “the right side of history” with regards to marriage equality. She quoted John Wesley from his sermon “Catholic Spirit” to say that “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” Yet, Dr. Sherfey also expressed misgivings with some of the “middle way”/“agree to disagree” proposals because to her this is a matter of justice for an unfairly discriminated against minority on par with the plight of oppressed Africans and African Americans during the days of slavery and the pre-civil rights era in America. For her to agree to disagree would continue the allowance of what she sees as unjust oppression of a minority, which is, understandably from her perspective, rather unthinkable.

My Thoughts: From a conservative perspective, a few weeks ago I similarly argued that the middle way/agree-to-disagree solutions are untenable (See Here). As Professor Bill Arnold has argued we are at a fork in the road and we can’t really just take it as Yogi Berra might suggest (“Seeing Black and White in a Gray World”). Dr. Sherfey seems to work from a premise that sexual orientation is genetically predetermined and rooted more in identity than simply behavioral. Of all the talk about gray areas in the Bible, here is the area that I really believe falls into that category rather than what the Bible says about same sex intercourse. Even many liberal scholars who support same sex marriage admit that both Old and New Testaments are unequivocal in their condemnation of all forms of same sex intercourse whether it is within a committed relationship or not.
As I’m sure Dr. Sherfey knows there is no scientific consensus regarding the exact nature of the origins of same sex attraction, and it is self-evident that the genetic component if there is any is not akin to the genetic contribution to eye color or skin color as is often asserted or implied. There is obviously a strong unchosen component with regards to sexual desire and attraction as no one consciously chooses any desire or attraction, but there is also obviously a large behavioral component where deliberate decision making plays a key role. People decide for various reasons whether or not to act on certain innate desires all the time. It is also clear that experience and experimentation and the behavioral conditioning that goes along with it plays a critical role in the formation and strengthening of both desirable and undesirable innate desires, attractions, and preferences. There is also a strong cognitive component that can be influenced by information/disinformation (i.e. indoctrination and propaganda). What is really so complicated and foggy is the nature of sexual orientation/behavior and not the Biblical witness against same sex relations. But so often it is framed as exactly the opposite. Then people buy into the overly simplistic notions regarding the nature of same sex attractions and the exaggerated “complication” of the Biblical witness against same sex behavior.

A woman from the audience who spoke later provided an example of the overly simplistic nature argument. She said that since she didn’t choose her attraction to her husband she couldn’t imagine that her LGBT friends chose their same sex attractions; and since they don’t choose their attractions they cannot be wrong. Are we really prepared to overthrow traditional Christian sexual ethics that were virtually undisputed in the Church until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s based on the notion that unchosen innate desires must be ok? Again, who chooses their desires or attractions? No one! But people do choose all the time whether to act on them or not. Like a young woman who decided to have sex with other women because she knew she couldn’t get pregnant that way! Such decision-making is, however, greatly enhanced by the empowering grace of the Holy Spirit made available through the atoning blood of Jesus and the power of his resurrection.

Rev. Langford rightly pointed out in response to Dr. Sherfey that the church just can’t go along with the whims of the culture, but that we need to dig deeper into Scripture. With that I strongly concur (see my further thoughts on that here).  The “right side of history” in a fallen world does not necessarily end up in the Kingdom of God.

Rev. Talbot Davis, inspired by a presentation given by Matt O’Reilly the day before at the Evangelical Movement breakfast (See Talbot’s thoughts on Matt’s Presentation here), spoke of what it is we conservatives want to conserve, namely the beauty of marriage that is the reflection of the image of the Triune God and Christ’s love for his church. Rev. Davis argued that the sacred library which is the Bible begins with a heterosexual marriage in Eden and ends with the image of Christ being united with his bride, the Church, in the New Jerusalem. He said, these bookends with the imagery of heterosexual marriage were, in his opinion, not accidental; and that there is something distinctly unique about the marriage of a man and woman that reflects the beauty of the holiness of the Triune God and His love for his Church. Rev. Davis also spoke of the desire to be faithful to Scripture and the historic witness of the Church universal regarding sexual purity and the glory it brings to the Triune God, a witness that is affirmed and upheld by leading New Testament scholars such as N.T. Wright and Western NC’s own Dr. Ben Witherington as Talbot pointed out.

My Thoughts: I concur wholeheartedly with Rev. Davis and with Rev. O’Reilly’s admonishment for the church to not only speak about what it is we are against but to reveal the truth, goodness, and beauty of the sexual holiness to which God call’s His people as revealed in sacred Scripture.

Rev. James Howell was incredibly gracious and quite congenial, but also with a very serious message that it is important for all of us to stay together so that we can continue to learn from one another. He held out hope that with continued discussion and reflection minds could be changed in the long term. He said he would miss his conservative friends like Talbot, and especially Talbot’s pool. Dr. Howell proposed that it was more important to be loving than to be right and that he believed this was an issue over which we could still agree to disagree and still remain in fellowship just like he and his family remain united even though they don’t all think “father knows best.” James said that he thought it was more important to be loving than to be right, a statement that he quickly qualified by saying that he didn’t mean that truth didn’t matter and that being right was unimportant. Dr. Howell also compared the current situation to the issue of Gentile circumcision that was addressed by the Jerusalem council as recorded in Acts 15, which concluded that Gentiles shouldn’t be required to be circumcised. Talbot later pointed out that Gentiles were required to abstain from sexual immorality. James replied that the issue was really over our interpretation of what that really means for us today and that he was advocating the acceptance of a holy form of same sex relationships presumably within the bounds of an altered definition of marriage to be between two persons rather than just one man and one woman. Talbot concurred that he and James definitely disagreed on this issue, but that James could still swim in his pool. Later James pointed out that Myers Park UMC has people call all the time to make sure their church is hospitable for gay people, but never, he said, has anyone called to make sure they are “antigay” before visiting.

My Thoughts: I respect and appreciate the knowledge and wisdom of Dr. Howell on many things. I have had the privilege of getting to know him and to experience his and his wife’s gracious, kind, and hospitable spirit. James is “right” to point out that we shouldn’t just be concerned about being right. Yet, as he admitted, his statement that “it is more important to be loving than to be right” must not be taken in a strictly wooden literal sense. As James also said, truth is important. As Christians we are called to speak the truth in love for the sake of the health and maturity of the body of Christ (Eph 4:15). Love and truth cannot really be separated. The desire to be right though can be wrong. That is, if we desire to be right for our own personal glory rather than the glory of God. Genuine love leads one to seek to magnify God’s kingdom and God’s glory rather than self. As Talbot endeavored to convey we conservatives want to conserve the truth of traditional covenant marriage between one man and one woman because it reflects the glory and beauty of the Triune God, and I would add it requires and exhibits the self-denial that is inherent in the call of Christ that leads to ultimate human flourishing.

Moreover, circumcision, like slavery and women in ministry, is a weak analogy compared to other possible forms of consensual sexual expression from which Christians are called to abstain. Self-denial of innate sexual attractions is required for all disciples, whether married or single. Circumcision, was an important ceremonial law among others that signified Israel’s distinction from the other nations, while the sexual laws were moral laws even though they were not without a symbolic significance of their own. The purpose of circumcision as a distinction between Jew and Gentile was fulfilled in Christ who fulfilled the promise of God that all nations would be blessed through Abraham. In Christ people of all nations were brought into the covenant-family of God so that there was no longer a distinction needed for Jew and Gentile. Yet with regards to sexual morality the requirements for believers became even more stringent not less. Christ closed the loophole in the law that allowed for divorce for any reason by referring to God’s original purpose for marriage at creation, the lifelong, one-flesh covenant relationship between one man and one woman with the primary purpose being the ongoing work of creation through fruitful reproduction and secondarily for strong bonds of companionship to allow for relational and family stability (see Mark 10; Matt 19). Marriage symbolizes the faithful self-giving, self-sacrificial, overflowing love of the Triune God (see Eph 5). Celibacy too has tremendous symbolic value as is born out in the trajectory of the New Testament into the early tradition as those in singleness reflect the beauty of intimacy without sex that is characteristic of the full realization of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven. That is, when humans are no longer married or given in marriage but are like the angels (Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35). Imagine it if you can, a world, the new heaven and new earth, where sex is no more, but our intimacy with God and each other will never be more truly complete. The beauty in the symbolism is based on the truth of the creator’s design and intention for sex, not as a be-all-end-all for our own recreation, but one of the means through which creation is brought to its ultimate end, the full manifestation of the glory of God through true human flourishing that reflects fully and freely the image of God. This is the truth, goodness, and beauty of the call of Christ to celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage, the way the Creator designed and intended. As Matt O’Reilly pointed out in his talk last Friday morning, ethics must not be thought of separately from eschatology.

Other Overall Thoughts: We really do need to develop a more robust and right view of love that is at least as equally concerned about people’s eternal destiny as their feelings. Love is more than affection and a commitment to covenant has to be at its center, or else it truly would be just a second-hand emotion. We also need to use better analogies in our dialogue, and we do need to dialogue because minds and hearts can be changed for people’s good and God’s glory. Is it really best to compare LGBT issues to war, slavery, and women’s rights, or is it best to compare with other expressions of sexual desires and attractions?

Last fall I carefully read through all of John Wesley’s sermons, all three volumes. There was one person who spoke on Saturday afternoon that made me think the Wesleyan spirit is still alive and well. It was one of our African brothers, who pastors the Ghana Mission UMC in Charlotte. He said, I have heard many speak about what they think, but what about what God thinks? He then proceeded to read from Scripture as if it really was God’s very own account. He warned about the wrath to come and called people to repent and take up their cross of self-denial as Jesus called us to do. From my reading of Wesley there could be nothing more Wesleyan than that, and from my reading of Wesley and the Bible there could be nothing more loving than that.

As far as giving people the opportunity to be changed through dialogue, I’m all for it. When I was at Duke Divinity School there were often panel discussions with folks who had changed their minds from a conservative to progressive perspective. Once, Rev. Laurie Hays Coffman, who at the time pastored a “Reconciling” congregation in the NCCUMC, invited me to come to one such panel discussion that included professor Willie Jennings and Bishop Ken Carder. When I asked who would be speaking from the conservative perspective she looked at me as if I was crazy. Well, there are many people who have converted the other way around, such as my good friend, Rev. Chad Holtz (See Chad’s Testimony here), and Rev. Karen Booth (Karen’s book “Forgetting How to Blush” United Methodism’s Compromise with the Sexual Revolution” is a must read for anyone who wants to know how we got to this point in our church; also see Karen’s Transforming Congregations website here). There’s also the recent testimony of a former lesbian LGBT activist professor (see here), and so many more who have experienced freedom for chastity in singleness or traditional marriage, although this is no guarantee that all unholy sexual desires will completely go away .

Deep listening and good dialogue is a must and I hope it continues (see a great example of just such a dialogue among leaders in the Church of Ireland and Professor Robert Gagnon here; and for a fuller presentation of Dr. Gagnon’s research that shows his exegesis of key biblical texts and his refutation of the “no knowledge of committed homosexual unions in antiquity” arguments go here). Rev. Drew McIntyre and Matt O’Reilly had just such a discussion during our Annual Conference (Listen here). Fellow Methodist and Bible teacher James Michael Smith also gives us a wonderful example of deep dialogue around this issue over at Disciple Dojo as well (see here).  Please, let’s keep listening and may lives be changed and God be glorified for time and eternity.

Do you know Who is in you?

My two devotional readings for today, June 25th, from two different books, were of one mind and packed a powerful punch.  It’s one I think every Christian needs to contend with, and when we do not, we are open to all sorts of malpractice in our walk with God and, even worse, live as defeated Christians most of the time.    Here they are:

Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? (1 Cor. 3:16).

A revelation of the indwelling Spirit was the remedy Paul offered the Corinthian Christians for their unholiness.  Their need, like ours today, was to grasp the fact that God himself had taken up his abode in them.  To many of us the Holy Spirit of God is quite unreal.  We regard him as a mere influence – an influence for good, no doubt, but no more than that.   In our thinking, conscience and the Spirit are more or less identified as some “thing” within us that brings conviction when we are bad and tries to show us how to be good.  Like the Corinthians our trouble is not that we lack God’s gift of the indwelling Spirit, but that we have not yet awakened to the reality of his presence.  We fail to appreciate the essential holiness of the One who has made his abode within our hearts.

                                                         ~ Watchman Nee, from A Table in the Wilderness, June 25th, page 107

The things which are impossible with men are possible with God (Luke 18:27).

Your Christian life is every day to be a proof that God works impossibilities; your life is to be a series of impossibilities made possible and actual by God’s almighty power.  Have you learned to deal so closely with an almighty God that you know omnipotence is working in you?

The cause of weakness of your Christian life is that you want to work it out partly, and to let God “help” you.  And that cannot be.  You must come to be utterly helpless, to let God work, and God will work gloriously!

I could go through Scripture and prove to you how Moses, when he led Israel out of Egypt, how Joshua, when he brought them into the land of Canaan, how all God’s servants in the Old Testament counted upon the omnipotence of God doing impossibilities.  And this God lives today, and this God is the God of every child of His!

Yet some of us want God to give us a little help while we do our best, instead of coming to understand what God wants and to say, “I can do nothing; God must and will do all.”  Have you said, “In worship, in work, in sanctification, in obedience to God, I can do nothing of myself, and so my place is to worship the omnipotent God, and to believe that He will work in me every moment?”  May God teach us this!

                                                         ~ Andrew Murray, Absolute Surrender (cited in Living the Christ Life edited by Rebecca English)

Lord Jesus, help me keep on keepin’ on #UMC

The other day a United Methodist pastor asked me how I can carry on serving in a denomination that is heading in the wrong direction.    I want to offer my reasons, not to convince anyone one way or the other (we each need to answer that question for ourselves), but hopefully to help someone who might be struggling – as I have been – to answer.

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The very recent overturning of Frank Schaefer’s defrocking for performing a same-sex marriage (and stating he has no intention of abiding by our shared covenant) is sure to drum up even more calls for schism.  I’m sympathetic to those calls and believe they have every right  – biblically or otherwise – to do it.    God is not glorified by outright rebellion to our shared way of life (to say nothing of the biblical witness) or by the factions that make it obvious we are not of “one mind” any less or more than when a remnant stands up for truth and decides to leave.    But laying aside for the moment the question “Should we leave?” what I want to do here is answer the question, “How can I stay?” if not for you, then at least for myself.

  • I can stay because on the ground, where the rubber meets the road, this issue which threatens to tear our denomination apart is not affecting my ministry.   When I look at my local church, where I am charged to serve and shepherd, no one really cares what some pastor in Pennsylvania did last year or what some judicial committee made up of people none of us know decided about his credentials.    We are far too busy trying to figure out how to find additional space for the 62 kids who showed up for VBS last night (and we expect even more tonight!), or how to turn our social events into evangelistic outreach opportunities, or figure out when and where we will launch a new recovery ministry for our county or how we can best shelter the homeless in our city or, most importantly, how we can cultivate a culture in our church where there is the expectation that every week someone will be introduced to Jesus and accept him as their Lord and Savior.

 

  • I can stay because when I take my focus off the internet and blogs and news around the crazy world of Methodism and put my focus on my sheep, I see I have work to do.   This is holy work, and I know I have been called and fitted for the task.    I can stay because the covenant I entered into had less to do with promising to remain faithful to my colleagues and far more to do with staying faithful to God and the flock He has entrusted to my care.    When I was a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy I took the Hippocratic Oath, like all medical professionals do.   I know very well that many of my fellow corpsman (including myself) did not always live up to that oath, and in many cases were committing malpractice.   But it never occurred to me to leave the Navy or the Corps because some doctor in Japan abused his or her position.   I wish I could say the negligence of others only invigorated me to shine even brighter so that the darkness might be less noticed, but back then I was drinking or looking at pornography to much to care.

 

  • I can stay because having been a Nazarene, a Lutheran, a Non-denominational something-or-other, and a semi-Pentecostal all before becoming a Methodist I know there are no perfect Churches.   In every denomination there are leaders who have lost sight of the prize or who are no longer living into a calling but just doing a job or who won’t think or act the way I think they should think or act and will make decisions that I feel violate God’s law.    If I focus on what others (godless or otherwise) are always doing or not doing then I, too, will fall.   I need to take my eyes of them and put them on Jesus.  Every day.    I cannot make anyone keep the commitments they have made – to God or to the church or to me.  I can only keep my own.   Granted, I hope and pray that those in charge (our bishops, for example) will keep their commitments, and I pray for them daily that they will have the courage and strength to do so, but in the end, I can only strive to keep my plate clean as I seek to faithfully point those in my care to Jesus, the one who died for me, and us, while still in our sins.

 

  • I can stay because I live in a fallen world where I see it as my duty to be a light shining in the darkness.    Why should I be surprised that my mission field won’t also include the Church at Large in which I am committed?  I can stay because so long as my conscience can abide by the rules which govern us (and as of now they still do, even though they are not upheld in all places (but they are upheld in most!)), then I can see myself as an ambassador for Jesus Christ, who came to “save that which was lost.”   He was a Jew who came to show the wayward covenant people of God the way to the Father, which they had missed through centuries of atrophy and delusion.    I can stay because I wish to show them the same mercy Christ showed to me when I was lost and deluded myself, exchanging the truth of God’s word for the lies of this world.    If God can break through this hardened liberal’s heart and free me from the bondage of cynicism and skepticism (not to mention gross immorality) then He can do it for anyone.

 

  • I can stay because something breaks my heart far more than a pastor who marries two people of the same sex:   It’s a pastor in bondage to sexual sin such as pornography and self-gratification.   Having been delivered from that bondage myself, and having been addicted while a pastor, I know the shame it brings and the ways it twists and warps one’s thinking, particularly as it relates to sexuality and sin and holiness.   Since my wife and I began our blog DesireMercy, I have received numerous private responses from pastors and leaders within churches who confess their addiction to sex and their struggle to find the God they preach about each Sunday, albeit with timidity.    I am convinced that the reason we fail to have meaningful dialog about sexuality in our churches today is because many of the people who would be responsible to lead such dialog have skeletons in their closet they are too ashamed to admit.   For fear of being called a hypocrite they choose instead to never talk about pornography or lust or what a healthy, monogamous sexual ethic entails.    You can’t lead people where you are not yourself.     And thus, I can stay because I want to be part of that voice, by the grace of God, which declares the power of God to set captives free, including my fellow pastors, and hopefully, Lord willing, bring healthy dialog about sex which honors God back to the pulpit.

These are five of the reasons I can stay.   None of it is perfect, and I am well aware of the chaos that is out there, at least if you are only reading the inter-webs.   My advice:  take a 4 week fast from the internet and throw yourself into the shepherding work of your local church.  Watch how God shows up as you, and I, go about our business of being faithful with the little or lot we’ve been given.

A passage you know well comes to mind.   At the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Peter wants to know what is going to become of John, one of his colleagues.    Jesus’ command is one I am trying to take to heart and live by each day:  What’s it to you what happens to him?  You follow me! (John 21:22).

Lord Jesus, help me keep on keeping on.

 What are some reasons helping you to stay?

Can the #UMC be reborn?

*This was originally published at Seedbed and here last year.    I’m convinced that Rev. Sangster’s words from 1938 are more true today than ever before.  

 

I’m reading a wonderful little book entitled, Methodism Can Be Born Again, by W.E. Sangster, an extraordinary Methodist preacher and leader in Britain during the mid 20th century.

What I find so wonderful about this book is that it is written in 1938. The problems faced by the church then are not unlike the ones we face today, 75 years later, but the diagnosis for the problem is very different than what we hear today. After naming the popular reasons of his day behind the decline in both attendance and ardor by those within and without the church – things like the War, loss of biblical authority, competing attractions on a Sunday morning, radio (ha!), a transient society, and a spirit of secularism – he then points his readers to the starting line from where a cure will come:

We must begin with ourselves. General criticism of “Methodism” must give way to clear, incisive and detailed criticism of a Methodist.

When was the last time you heard that? Absent from Sangster’s analysis of the current state of his church is a critique of the Church at large or the culture in which it fights to exist or even the values of one generation over another. Rather, Sangster goes to the heart of the matter by going right for the heart. Just like Jesus.

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If your news-feed is anything like mine then over the past many weeks you have been inundated with posts and counter-posts about why this group or that group are leaving church and what we can do to get them back. As the dust settles it is becoming increasingly clear to me that the purpose of it all is to avoid blame. Every problem the church faces seem to be, conveniently, external and oppressive to the one naming the problem.

When confronted with the news that someone will betray the Master during The Last Supper, Sangster reminds us that each of the disciples around the table asked, “Is it I?” Being with Jesus had taught them humility and a self-awareness which took seriously the deceitfulness of their own hearts and proclivity for wandering. He writes,

The pew has been blaming the pulpit: the pulpit has been blaming the pew. The pew says that the preaching is lifeless and irrelevant: the pulpit says the people are absent or prayerless. Back and forward the blame has gone, and nothing will be done till the utter folly of this mutual recrimination is seen as folly, and pulpit and pew alike humble themselves before the Cross, confessing their own sins, and saying, “Lord, is it I?”

I have become increasingly convinced in my own life and ministry that humility is the virtue I need, and my church needs me to need, most. The great Scottish preacher, Robert Murray McCheyne, said, “The greatest need of my congregation is my own personal holiness.” I cannot lead anyone where I have not been, and revival will not take place in my church until it begins in my heart.

This posture of the heart touches all aspects of my life. An example can be found in the margin of my Bible next to the mandate for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church. There I have written the words, “When there is a problem in my marriage it is always my fault. I must bear Amy as Christ bore me.” I realize that not all would agree with this sentiment. I also realize that if a jury were to decide who the guilty party was in our disputes they might charge Amy now and again (only on a fraction of them though!). But I take seriously my responsibility to lead through humility, not because I’m the man and she the woman but simply because I’m a man striving to be like Jesus. Keeping always before me the cross of Christ it is not terribly difficult to decide to suspend my will and go low for the sake of my closest neighbor. When there is a problem in my marriage, the buck stops with me.

I extend this same principle to the church I am appointed to shepherd. If there is a problem in my church, if there is a mass exodus, a lack of belief, a rebellious spirit, a spiritual malaise, a disdain for holiness, a lack of zeal for the lost, I hope I will be restrained by God’s Spirit from pointing at anyone else by either pen or posture but return first and foremost to the foot of the cross and ask, “Lord, is it I?”

Sangster believed Methodism could be reborn, and so do I. But it will not come through additional programs, better music, more Barna research, grasping cultural complexities and differences, well-argued blog posts, generational bridge-building nor anything else that doesn’t start with the heart of the matter: the heart of each Methodist.