Saturday, July 15, 2017

A Centrist Response to the Wesley Covenant Association’s “Hope for The Way Forward"

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The WCA has now officially made its desires known. The WCA wishes to divide the United Methodist Church into at least two new entities: One for traditionalists, one for progressives, and possibly a third for “compatibilists.” (They do make clear that defining these groups purely by doctrines relating to sexuality would be unwise.) This is not surprising… From the beginning, the WCA has insisted:
·      It is unwilling to change the UMC doctrine on human sexuality.
·      It is unwilling to accept any structural changes allowing for more local autonomy.
This leaves only one real way forward: schism.

This saddens me greatly. The WCA statement explicitly condemns two long-time Methodist values:
·      Theological diversity.
·      Compromise.
According to the WCA, the problem with the UMC is that it is a “big tent.” I joined the UMC precisely because I believed that was one of its key strengths.

A great evangelical leader once said, “People who aren’t willing to compromise are either stubborn or perfect already.” I believe that the unwillingness to compromise, find consensus, and work together is the single greatest moral failing in the United States today. And now that unwillingness is being lifted up as righteousness by our religious leaders.

The UMC is the only major protestant denomination in the U.S. to survive the 20th Century intact. While the UMC was consolidating Wesleyan churches under one big tent, every other movement was suffering schisms between liberals and conservatives. The results of these schisms are now painfully clear: Each of the resulting institutions, in the absence of internal prophetic dissent, became theologically inbred and gravitated toward extremist positions. Generally speaking, the most successful congregations in those traditions are the ones that bucked the prevailing extremist trends and carved out more moderate positions.

If the UMC divides into two denominations, both denominations will sooner or later drift into obscurity… catering to people who want to hear what they already believe echoed back to them. Perhaps more importantly, the message our denomination sends to the rest of the nation will be: “Give it up. We don’t need to listen to each other. We don’t need to compromise. We don’t need to live together.” That is the last thing our nation needs to be told right now.

We don't need another fundamentalist denomination. We don't need another uber-progressive denomination. We have too many of both already. What we need is a church that can transcend fallen human political machinations.

If, on the other hand, there is a third option, a centrist option, I predict that the huge majority of our congregations will choose it. And we will thrive.

Monday, March 6, 2017

"The Shack" - Redux



I have not yet seen the new film version of "The Shack," although I plan to. This post is a revision of a review I wrote of the book seven years ago. I felt the need to revisit it because my views on one point have changed somewhat.

Let me start by saying that I definitely recommend reading the book because it’s a great conversation piece. But my overall review would have to be mixed. I think I’ve discerned five major points in The Shack that Young wants to make about God. Three of those points are very good, and two are seriously flawed.

I’ll start with the positives, which in my mind outweigh the negatives. The primary purpose of The Shack is to discuss how relationships within the Holy Trinity should model our personal relationships, and it succeeds in doing so. Young’s hero, Mack, responds to a personal invitation from God the Father, who goes by “Pappa,” to spend the weekend with him at the shack where Mack’s young daughter was murdered. Mack spends the weekend having long talks with Pappa, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus, naturally, appears as a young Jewish man. The other two appear in various other human and quasi-human forms, while making clear that only Jesus is truly human. Mack learns a lot about himself, but also about the Triune God and the nature of sacred trust.

I have read a number of evangelical reviews of The Shack that take strong exception to Young’s view of the Trinity, calling it heresy. To put it bluntly, most of these critiques betray a shocking and pathetic ignorance of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the Nicene Creed, and the New Testament. Don’t get me wrong… Young’s imaginative portrayal is not perfect. I’ve never seen or read one that is. Nor would I attempt to write a better one. I could not.

Most Christians simply don’t think enough about the Trinity. Evangelicals tend to focus exclusively on Christ, charismatics on the Spirit, and liberals on a loosely understood “parent-God.” However, the Bible makes it clear that when Jesus prays, he’s not talking to himself like a lunatic. Jesus and the Father are having a true conversation, and yet both are God. Then, the Holy Spirit is poured out, which is also God. Taking this Triune God seriously is not Tritheism, as the critics claim.

The second point Young makes is on the nature of evil and how it works in with God’s plan. Young’s understanding of evil matches mine very closely. Since I’ve preached on this several times, I’ll try to be brief here. God neither causes nor wills neither sin nor evil. However, by giving us freedom to love or not love, God has self-imposed limits on the degree to which he can stay our hands. The Miracle of redemption is God’s power to use our sins to fulfill his purposes.

This leads to Young’s final good point: Our sin is the result of our fierce independence, which is a form of self-idolatry. We each want to be our own god, yet we blame God when this leads to chaos.

Thus far, this is all very good stuff. But Young also makes two serious errors. First, Young makes the argument that religion is about rules, and rules are bad. Christianity, on the other hand, is about the relationships people have with each other and with God. Relationships are good. But rules hurt relationships. Therefore Christianity is not a religion. It’s something else… something better.

I believe that Young has taken this position for two reasons. One is that Young has clearly misunderstood both Jesus and Paul. The other is that Young has been wounded by people with religious authority who use rules as weapons. But religion, and Christianity is a religion, is full of rules. Those rules were given to us by God. In Matthew, while discussing divorce, Jesus seems to admit that at least some of these rules are a necessary evil. "Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning." In other words, God gave us rules because people don't love each other the way they should. In the absence of selfless love, we need rules to guide our behavior. Hebrews 10:1 seems to say that, in the Kingdom of God, when all things are made right, these rules will no longer be necessary: "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves." But that's not where we live. In this broken reality, people who love imperfectly need rules to follow to keep them from hurting each other.

The only problem Jesus and Paul had with the Law, if you could call it a problem, is that people were viewing it as an end itself rather than a means to an end. The Law, in and of itself, does not hold the power of salvation. Following the list of “don’ts” will not save us from evil. Rules are a part of our faith, but they are not the entirety of our faith. The Law of God prevents us from doing harm so that loving relationships can be possible.

Finally, Young claims that the Church is just another human institution and, therefore, just as broken as any other human institution. He even goes so far as to say that the Church is a human invention. To make that claim, you have to ignore parts of Matthew, the whole book of Acts, and most of the Epistles. As broken as the Church is, Jesus did indeed invent it and charge it with acting on his behalf.

Young’s disillusionment with the institutional church is not just a sideline in the book… it’s a theme that runs throughout. The hero, Mack, is a seminary graduate. Yet Mack repeatedly makes the claim that everything he learns in the shack is a shocking revelation that never would have been discussed in Sunday School. Really? Hmm. I remember talking for hours about these very questions in both seminary and Sunday School... even as a youth.

While Young’s images are creative and the plot is original, there is absolutely nothing new about the ideas he puts forward. It would be tempting to say that Young is simply ignorant of what seminarians actually study. However, Young holds a degree from a Bible College, so I can’t say that. Unless…

Young is writing from the perspective of a former fundamentalist in the independent church tradition. His Biblical education was done in that setting. Based on the comments the book makes on churches, combined with the theologically na├»ve but vitriolic public response by some independent pastors, I have to wonder: What on earth is going on in these independent churches? I think it’s very telling that, after The Shack was published, William P. Young stopped attending church altogether. (He may have since returned... I don't know.) He says that churches don’t know how to handle wounded people. That’s sad. I thought that was why we were here.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Archie Comics is on the CW and nobody told me...

So last night, after I get home from a Church Council meeting, Becky (my wife) and Zoe (teenage daughter) are watching something on the CW. I take one look at it and say, "Hey... Cole Sprouse is wearing a Jughead Hat. That's awesome!" (Yes, I saw every episode of "Suite Life." I've got kids. Shut up!)

Zoe: Who's Jughead?
Me: He's a character in Archie Comics.
Becky: Well, you know, this is based on Archie. It's called "Riverdale."
Me: WHAT!!!?

That's right. Archie Comics' chief creative officer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has created a teen drama based on Archie Comics. It's got everyone from Archie to Josie and the Pussycats. They even wear the ears and it kinda' works. Except it's dark, sick, twisted and totally awesome.

There's no sign of Archie's jalopy yet, but a man can hope.

So yes, I'm going to be watching the new teen drama on the CW. (BTW - It's got Luke Perry too.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

An open letter to anyone in the UMC who will listen:




Forgive me if this essay is strongly worded, but I’m mad as hell at our denominational leaders for allowing the United Methodist Church (UMC) to reach crisis point. This has been brewing for decades and all the warning signs were there. The extremists at both ends of the theological spectrum have stubbornly refused to listen to each other, and no one can go ignored forever without eventually feeling betrayed.

So now we’re at the point of schism. The most liberal conferences are in open defiance of our rule of law, and our most conservative congregations are withholding funds and preparing to exit the denomination. Most of us, the centrists, are facing the prospect of a horrific decision. If the Wesley Covenant Alliance (WCA) exits the United Methodist Church, what do we do? On the one hand, I can’t leave with the WCA. I no longer share their position on same-sex marriage, and I don’t trust their most vocal leader. On the other hand, I fear that whatever is left of the UMC after the exit of the WCA will be a completely dysfunctional denomination with equally untrustworthy leadership.

Why I don’t trust the Wesley Covenant Alliance:

Rob Renfroe, President of Good News and the spiritual leader of the WCA, says:
“We believe what the UMC says it believes… and how that makes us anything but the center, I have no idea.”

But is it really true that the WCA believes what the UMC says it believes? The Good News Movement, which gave birth to the WCA, currently supports no less than 32 major amendments to the Book of Discipline. Most of these amendments relate to polity, and several are designed to help congregations and pastors withdraw from the denomination. But others pertain to our social and theological beliefs. In fact, they want to amend our Mission Statement. Our Mission is a basic paraphrasing of Christ’s Great Commission from Matthew 28. What’s wrong with that? Good News wants to add the phrase “for the eternal salvation of persons” to the church’s mission statement, “reinforcing the equal priority of evangelism with world transformation” as the goal of making disciples. I thought that making disciples was evangelism. Good News seems to make a distinction there. I find this theologically disconcerting, if not alarming.

I’m even more concerned about the personal theology of Rob Renfroe. In his online article, “Three Requests of My Centrist Friends – An Open Letter,” Renfroe says:
When you believe that some parts of the Bible never were truly God’s word – that’s not just a difference in interpretation. It’s a difference in how we see the inspiration and the authority of the Scriptures.
Now wait a minute… The Bible quotes lots of voices, and some are explicitly identified within the text as being voices other than God. So obviously there are parts of the Bible that were never God’s word… Unless one adheres to the doctrine of verbally inspired inerrancy: The doctrine that God actually dictated every word of scripture to the original writers. This fundamentalist doctrine has never been embraced by the United Methodist Church or any of its predecessor institutions. Does Rob Renfroe hold it? It sure sounds like he does. If I were thinking about joining the WCA, I’d want to know.

Finally, I find it very hypocritical that the WCA takes issue with rogue bishops who ignore the Book of Discipline, while simultaneously… proudly… announcing that some of its member churches have stopped paying apportionments. Apparently, breaking rules is breaking covenant, but letting other congregations foot the bill of denominational mission work is not breaking covenant. I forcefully disagree. It should also be noted that some of these congregations have actually been engaged in apportionment wars for decades, long predating the current theological crisis.

Why I don’t trust the current United Methodist denominational leadership:

I must admit that the WCA is dead-on when it points out that there is no reason to believe that our rogue bishops, who routinely ignore sections of the discipline, will voluntarily adhere to any future decisions with which they disagree.

Everyone who follows Judicial Council (JC) rulings knows that, at least in the United States, it has become virtually impossible to hold bishops accountable for their actions. One bishop in particular has set a new denominational record for the most decisions served against a living bishop. (Possibly any bishop in history… I didn’t read that far back.) He set that record in a single session of the JC, and has continued adding to that record since. Some of these rulings have simply never been followed. What has happened to this bishop? Nothing. But this bishop is just the most extreme example. Reading the more recent decisions, the JC is clearly becoming exasperated. It should be noted that the huge majority of these unenforceable JC rulings have nothing to do with sexuality. They run the gamut: constitutional separation of powers, due process, conflict of interest… you name it.

Just as concerning to me is the fact that the progressives in the UMC practice their own brand of Pharisaic behavior. Police officers and military personnel are feeling increasingly unwelcomed in our pews. Moving the flag from the front of the sanctuary to the back is one thing. Banning the wearing of uniforms on church property as if they were something to be ashamed of is quite another. (Yes… it’s happening.) The UMC has always had pacifists in it, but we have never been officially pacifist. If we’re headed in that direction, and it looks like we are, I can’t go there.

At this point, I doubt that anything can be done to prevent WCA members from exiting the United Methodist Church. I hope they all realize what they’re getting themselves into, but I doubt that they do. What happens to the rest of us who stay? How long can we continue to muddle along in a church that simply won’t behave? How can pastors trust their leadership when they don’t know which rules will be enforced, which unwritten taboos will be treated as chargeable offenses, and which rules will be ignored altogether?

Schism or no, the UMC can only survive if two things happen:
  1. The restoration of accountability. Bishops who refuse to follow the rules need to either publicly repent or get their credentials yanked.
  2. A reclaiming of the center, or at least a reaffirmation of theological diversity. If the evangelicals exit, this will be difficult to accomplish.

I spent my formative years in an independent congregation. I returned to my ancestral home of Methodism for three reasons:

  1. Wesleyan theology.
  2.  Institutional accountability.
  3. Theological diversity.

If someone doesn’t do something soon, we’re going to lose all three.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why Christians SHOULD celebrate Halloween.



Brothers and Sisters,

Greetings in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ! October is finally here, and it is one of my favorite times of year. I love the cooler weather, the changing of the leaves, and that special taste in the air that only comes this time of year.

The child in me also loves Halloween! Trick-0r-Treating is a great American tradition. It became widespread in the 1950s and is still going strong today. I know there are some churches that consider the observance of Halloween to be a pagan practice, but that is due to a mistaken or incomplete understanding of what Halloween is.

It is true that the ancient Druids held a harvest festival on October 31 called Samhain. However, the only tradition from that festival that has survived into modern times is the bonfire. We actually know very little about pre-Christian paganism in Europe.

Our Halloween traditions actually come from Celtic Christian traditions. Here are some interesting things you should know about Christianity and Halloween:

·       Halloween is short for All Hallows’ Eve: The night before All Saints Day. Traditionally, it is a time to reflect on one’s own mortality and need for salvation.
·       Jack-o-Lanterns were originally used by churches and farms as gargoyles. When the pagans held their fall festivals, the Christians posted Jack-o-Lanterns to ward off evil.
·       Celtic Christians believed, as we still do today, that evil is real. They also believed that demons were just as real a threat as any other forest predator, especially around pagan holidays like Samhain. Wearing scary masks on Halloween was a primitive version of camouflage.
·       Churches traditionally held worship services on Halloween. Martin Luther inadvertently started the Protestant movement at a Halloween service.

I always encourage my children to celebrate and enjoy Halloween for the following reasons:

·       It encourages them to take the supernatural in general, and evil in particular, seriously.
·       I believe that ritual play focusing on the struggle between good and evil is not only healthy but important.
·       Traditional “scary stories” almost always teach good moral lessons.
·       It’s just good fun!

My wife, Becky, was not raised in the church. She became a Christian in High School, largely because she was invited to help out in a haunted house attraction at a Methodist church Halloween party. If not for that Methodist Church (St. John’s of Hamilton) my family would not exist as it is today. (I met Becky at a Methodist church two years later.) God can work through events like Halloween, but only if the church participates. So…

Happy Halloween!

Pastor Steve
 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Rick vs. Shane – Who’s the better savior?



Please forgive me if this post is lost on you. Every now and then, I go on a flight of fancy.

I’m a Zombie nut. Many of you know that. Becky tolerates it. Except for “The Walking Dead.” She’s as addicted to the show as I am. Believe it or not, zombies have very little to do with it. The show is really about people and moral choices they make as the world falls apart around them.

Throughout season 2, there is a major power struggle between two leaders with very different values. Rick and Shane have been friends since childhood, and both served together in the Sheriff’s Department before the world was overrun by the walkers. A ragtag group of survivors looks to them for leadership and protection.

Shane is the stronger of the two, in every sense of the word. His motives are simple: He intends to survive, and he intends to protect a few select people whom he cares about. He is unwilling to protect the weak, and is unwilling to waste energy or resources on people he doesn’t care about. He believes that societal norms, like right and wrong, have no meaning when society is gone. Shane is more than willing to sacrifice someone for the good of the larger group, whether they want to be sacrificed or not. He would never consider sacrificing himself. Half of the group thinks he’s making a lot of sense.

Rick sees things differently. He believes survival is not enough. We must be worthy of survival, or we’re better off dead. Rick isn’t willing to sacrifice anyone but himself. He’s also willing to put the whole group at risk to save one person. Some people think he’s either out of touch or just plain crazy.

2,000 years ago we had the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. Jesus preached turning the other cheek. He said a good shepherd leaves the flock unattended while he searches for the lone lost sheep. Barabbas was part of an armed revolutionary group who’d killed people during an uprising. We chose Barabbas.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

So here we are. And we’re still choosing Barabbas.

I think Shane would’ve won if Rick hadn’t killed him first. Actually, I think maybe Shane won after all.