August 25, 2014

New SermonCast: "What Jesus Wants for His Church" @StMarkMobile #UMC

What do you want in a church? It's a common question with almost limitless answers. Traditional. Contemporary. Liturgical. A church with ministries for children. Ministries for youth. Seeker. Missional. The way we answer reveals a lot about our understanding of the Church. There's another question that we need to ask, and this one is even more important: What does Jesus want for his Church? This question is important because it shifts the focus from our desires to Jesus' desires. This question highlights the reality that Jesus is the head of his body, which is the Church, and he calls the shots. In this week's SermonCast, we dig into Ephesians 4:10-16 in order to explore this all-important question. As we do, we will find that, when it come to his Church, Jesus desires mature disciples. And he's willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen. Listen here.

August 19, 2014

New SermonCast: "Gospel Precision, Gospel Power" Romans 1:1-7, 16-17

Gospel precision matters. That's one reason Paul wrote his letter to the Romans. He needed to clear up some potential misunderstandings of the gospel, because gospel precision produces gospel power. Here's the logic. If the gospel is "the power of God for salvation" (Romans 1:16), then an imprecise gospel means reduced power. So, this SermonCast digs into the content of a precise gospel that proclaims the lordship of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ as a call to faithful obedience. We also explore the power of the gospel to transform lives and energize world mission. Want to hear more? Just click here to listen.

August 11, 2014

New SermonCast: "Big God, Great Plans" Eph 1:3-14 #UMC

What do you think of when you hear the word "God"? Believe it or not, different people have many different ways of thinking about God. We don't all have the exact same notions about what God is like or who God is. Sometimes our understanding of God is too small. Sometimes our understanding of God hinders knowing God. Sometimes people think of God as a cosmic cop just waiting to bust you for breaking his law. Others think of God through the lens of their experience with an abusive or absent father. This is why it is important to understand that our perception of God will shape our expectations of God. If we have a diminished view of God's character, then we will expect him to act as small our our perception. So we need a big vision of a big God. And that's just what we get in the opening chapter of Ephesians. This week's SermonCast is an invitation to a bigger vision of a bigger God with big grace, big plans, and big glory. 

August 8, 2014

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right: Grace, Progress, & the #UMC (@DrewBMcIntyre)

Do evangelicals have a double standard when it comes to sexual ethics? That's the claim made by Drew McIntyre in a post on authority in the sexuality debate. Drew mentioned me in a Tweet about the post. His main point is that conservatives and evangelicals are not taken very seriously when they appeal to scripture to oppose same sex practices because they do not take seriously what scripture says about other sexual sins like adultery and divorce. That is, evangelicals look the other way when someone in their church when a man cheats on his wife but get all hot and bothered when two men show up together. This is a double standard, and nobody like a double standard.  Drew and I have discussed this issue before, and I think we stand in basic agreement. A couple of ideas came to mind as I read, though, so I thought I'd share those here. I'm not disagreeing with Drew's main assessment, but I would want to put a couple of things slightly differently. Here goes. 

Grace never looks the other way

In the course of his argument, Drew suggests that evangelicals have long stalled over one question in particular. He writes: 
"The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?"
I would urge caution in putting the question in a way that suggests evangelicals have extended grace to adulterers and divorcees by compromising on and ignoring something that scripture clearly forbids. In the Bible, adultery is always condemned, and divorce is condemned in most circumstances. (Even in cases where scripture allows for divorce, it is never seen as good, right, or God honoring.) Ignoring sin is never a grace-filled way of dealing with that sin. When one of my children sins against another one, it is grace to lovingly discipline and teach them to confess their sin and seek reconciliation with the one they have wronged. It's not fun and often tries my own patience, but this sort of instruction is a means of grace to help my kids grow in Christ likeness. To ignore their sin and give them the impression that their errant behavior is acceptable would be sin against them on my part, as would losing my temper and dealing harshly with their sin. Either path would only lead them further into the destructiveness of sinful habit. Ignoring sin is never grace. If the cross teaches us anything, it should be that the triune God never ignores sin. He would take the weight of the penalty on himself rather than ignore our transgression. Grace always deals with sin and never looks the other way. Any attitude among evangelicals that does look the other way on some (but not all) sexual sin is cowardice, not grace.

When going forward means going back

That sets up the next point. If grace means dealing with sin rather than ignoring it, then the answer is not to ignore what scripture says about one action because we've already ignored it on other actions. We do not now compromise on same sex practices because we've already compromised on adultery. Two wrongs don't make a right. Few have put the principle more clearly than C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity
"We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man" (Bk. 1, Ch. 5).
If evangelicals have taken the wrong road by compromising on biblical sexuality when it comes to adultery and divorce, then it is not progress to likewise compromise on same sex practice. The answer is not to continue down the wrong road; it is to go back and take seriously all of scripture and seek to apply it to the Church and ourselves for the sake of the world and for the glory of God. If evangelicals want to answer Drew's question, it means confessing and repenting of the sin of cowardice and gracelessness. It means being faithful to all of scripture, not just our favorite bits. Sometimes going forward requires turning around.
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Image: manostphotos via freedigitalphotos.net

August 7, 2014

Center for Pastor Theologians Announces Third Fellowship (@CenPasTheo)

I was pleased to learn that the Center for Pastor Theologians (CPT) is growing and has begun taking applications for a third fellowship. If you don't know about CPT, it is group composed primarily of pastor scholars who are committed to writing robust theology from the context of local church ministry. You can find them on Facebook and Twitter. This is from the CPT website:
The CPT is an evangelical organization dedicated to assisting pastor-theologians in producing and studying biblical and theological scholarship for the ecclesial renewal of the theology, and the theological renewal of the church. At present, the primary mission emphasis of the CPT is the CPT Fellowships, made up of a broadly diverse and select group of pastor-theologians. Each Fellowship gathers annually for a three-day theological symposium where Fellows collaborate together on various theological projects (both personal and corporate).
The ultimate aim of the CTP is the renewal of the Christ’s Bride, through the advancement of a robust, Christ exalting ecclesial theology.
Before the modern period, theological writings were largely produced by scholars who were also serving in the trenches of daily ministry. Think Augustine, Chrysostom, Aquinas, Calvin, and, of course, Wesley. The most important theology in the history of the Church has been written by bishops and pastors. The publication of theology by academics who are not necessarily writing from an ecclesial context is a fairly recent move. That is not to say that academic theologians do not have a very important role. They certainly do! Many academic theologians produce immensely helpful scholarship that is interesting and helpful, and for that I am grateful. The point is that the rise of academic theology has come with a decrease of ecclesial theology - robust theology written by those in local church ministry settings That decrease means that there is a gaping hole in the discipline of theology. We read little serious theology written by local church pastors, and the Church is impoverished for it. The best case scenario would be rich theology written by pastors and academics. Right now there are far too few pastors writing these kinds of books. 

This is why I'm grateful for CPT. They are working to bring attention to this lack and to fill the gap by cultivating ecclesial theology - robust theology written by pastors. So, if you are interested in applying for the third fellowship, you can find the information at the CPT blog. What CPT is doing is an essential component of healthy Christianity, and I'm glad to see they are growing and making room for more pastor scholars to engage in a vocation of writing theology from the Church. That is something to celebrate.

August 4, 2014

New SermonCast: "Growing into Salvation" 1 Peter 2:2-10 #UMC

Much of the time we think of salvation in the past tense. We focus in on that moment when we first experienced God's reconciling grace, whether a prayer, an altar call, or some other crucial event. Acknowledging and giving thanks for the work of God in our lives in the past is good and right. The grace that comes at conversion is the essential beginning of life in Christ. But we sell ourselves short if we don't give equal or greater attention to the saving work of God in our lives now and in the future. In this week's SermonCast, we take a look at Peter's metaphor of birth and growing up as a way of thinking about Christian discipleship. When we think of following Jesus in terms of being born and growing up, we affirm the importance of God's work in our past, but our attention is also drawn to what God is doing now in preparation for the future. Peter wants us to understand that salvation is bigger than our past. Salvation transforms our present and our future. 

July 30, 2014

On Priorities, Positions, and the #UMC Via Media (@eJoelWatts)

I raised a few questions last week about the current call among United Methodists for a via media (or a middle way) that might preserve our unity through our current and very deep division. My questions were focused around this central point: 
If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it's not clear to me that language of "a middle way" really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it's not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle.
The post provoked a variety of responses. Some agreed with the call for a middle way; others were suspicious of it. One post that aimed to answer some of my questions came from Joel Watts. He suggests that the via media is more about priorities than it is a position on any particular issue. Joel puts it this way:
I would say it is not a way of thinking about an issue but about priorities. I have argued consistently for a return to a theological grounding. I believe if we focus on affirming the proper role of Scripture, on what it means to be human, and how to stand as a Protestant in the Great Tradition, we can slowly began to answer the questions posed by all of the fields related to the issue of inclusion.
For me, via media is not the middle between left/progressive and right/conservative — because those two sides are usually defined, or start with, the issue of LGBT. Rather, the via media is about placing orthodoxy before other issues. Thus, we argue for orthodoxy and attempt to build up from there.
I'm grateful to Joel for taking my questions seriously. I've been tossing his response around for the last few days and now want to offer a couple of thoughts in reply. First, it seems to me a false step to set our theological priorities against the positions we hold. Is it not the case that our priorities influence, perhaps even determine, the positions we hold? For example, Joel prioritizes order and episcopal oversight. This leads him to take a position that opposes the various current acts of ecclesial disobedience happening in the UMC. He argues for LGBTQ inclusion, but not at the expense of order and discipline. This ranking of priorities results in particular positions on specific issues. Sometimes priorities are positions.

Second, Joel suggests that human sexuality is not a doctrinal matter on the level of the Trinity, Christology, or baptism, to mention a few. But this claim raises at least one question. How does the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity relate to marriage and sexual ethics? In Genesis 1, the relationship of heterosexual covenant monogamy is intimately interwoven with the bestowal of the image of God on the man and the woman. At the very least, this raises the possibility that our doctrine of God and our sexual ethics have much to do with one another and cannot be so easily separated into distinct levels of priority. This may give us some insight as to why matters of sexuality are such lightning rod issues. Perhaps different attitudes towards human sexuality emerge from fundamentally different visions of God and what it means to bear the image of God. So, I'm not quite satisfied with the claim that we can find a way forward by prioritizing orthodoxy over sexual ethics. 

Again, I'm grateful to Joel for the seriousness with which he took my questions, and I'm grateful to him for taking the time to offer some thoughts in reply. Likewise, I've aimed to take his suggestions seriously (even if I'm not finally satisfied by them) by reflecting carefully on them before posting my reservations. As many of us have said before, we need respectful dialogue on matters over which we disagree, and I'm always grateful for the opportunity to be involved in that sort of conversation. In the end, though, I find unhelpful the suggestion that the middle way is about priorities and not positions. Our priorities and our positions are bound tightly together and likely determine one another. It is essential that we recognize this if we are to understand ourselves and each other. 

July 28, 2014

New SermonCast: "Why Church?" #UMC

It's a question that many regular churchgoers may never ask. Church, for a lot of us, is the default position. It's just what you do. Why ask why. However, more and more people are finding the Church unnecessary. And a growing number are looking to places other than the Church to find spiritual fulfillment. Recent years have seen the rise of the "spiritual but not religious," who find great importance in spirituality but don't see traditional expressions of the Church as good places for spiritual growth. One poll even found that 33% of Americans think of themselves this way. Spirituality matters, but for the spiritual but not religious it's not to be found in the Church. In this increasingly post-Christian climate, the Church must be always asking the "why" question. Why Church? Why does it matter? What does the Church have to offer a world that cares less and less? This week's SermonCast on Ephesians 3:7-13 drills down on these questions as we consider the possibility that Church is not an option. Church is the plan. 

July 23, 2014

Defining the Methodist middle: Is there a via media for the #UMC?

The United Methodist Church is increasingly embroiled in an ever more polarized debate over human sexuality. As the debate rages, many have called for and attempted to articulate a via media, that is, a middle way between the two divergent sides. In recent weeks and months especially, though, I've found the call for a middle way to be curious at least and baffling at worst. The reason? Given the diversity of those associated with the middle, it seems difficult to actually define the middle. And terms that cannot be defined are by necessity meaningless. Allow me to illustrate the difficulty. 

Earlier this year, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter outlined a proposal that articulated what they see as "A Way Forward" for the UMC in light of the sexuality debate. Hamilton has done a good job of associating himself with the idea of a "middle way," and his plan for the Church reflects that attitude. It outlines the progressive and conservative sides and then presents a local option that the authors take to be a compromise or third way. You can see how Hamilton applies his approach to a variety of issues in his book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World.

Bill Arnold has shown (quite conclusively, in my view) that Hamilton misconstrues many of these polarizing debates by not taking account of  the many and varied views on each issue in question and by assuming that a middle way is always available and preferable. Arnold levels a heavy critique of Hamilton's way of reasoning and argues that the position of the UMC is already a middle way on a number of issues. See Arnold's book Seeing Black and White in a Gray World On the issue of human sexuality, Hamilton proposes as a third way that local churches and Annual Conferences make their own decisions about LGBTQ unions and ordination. In contrast, Arnold argues that the current UMC position that all persons are of "sacred worth" even though same sex practices are "incompatible with Christian teaching" is the true middle way. Hamilton affirms same sex practices; Arnold does not. Both believe they are the via media. How do we make sense of this? 

Another example comes with regard to the same issue. Steve Harper's new book For the Sake of the Bride has been touted as a "third way" through the current division. Harper's book has quickly become well-known because, though he has been aligned with conservatives in the past, he now takes the progressive view on sexuality. In contrast, just last week Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was said to have "joined the middle" after offering a conservative case against UMC schism. Again, Harper and Tooley come down on opposite sides of the sexuality issue, yet in the last week or so both have been described as part of via media. How do we make sense of this? 

One forum that is gaining prominence in the UMC is the Via Media Methodist blog. If you haven't seen this one, be sure to stop by. The contributors always have thoughtful insights on UMC issues, and their tone is commendable. The blog aims "to offer an alternative beyond the current polarization" in the UMC, and "raise the level of discourse within" our denomination. I've found this site very helpful in modeling Christian charity and respect while engaging in difficult conversations. However, for reasons outlined above, I'm still unclear on what it means to be in "the middle." I did find an interview with Allan Bevere on the most recent edition of the Wesley Cast to be helpful. Bevere described the middle way as involving more a way of reasoning rather than a set of specific positions. Okay, so maybe the middle is a method, not a position.

But this still leaves me with questions. If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it's not clear to me that language of "a middle way" really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it's not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle. If the via media is a way of thinking about an issue and not an actual position on a particular issue, how does it actually move us forward? Who can help me? What is the via media? How do I know it when I see it? What am I missing? 

July 22, 2014

New SermonCast: "First Things First" #UMC

Every organization that wants to be around and be effective for the long haul must, at some point, ask the question: What is the most important thing? They must decide what matters most, and then they must resolve to keep that most important thing always before their eyes, always in front of them. They must pursue it relentlessly. They must keep first things first.

The Church of Jesus Christ is no different. Like any other organization, we must decide our priorities and keep first things first. Check out this week's sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:1-5 to find out what the Church's "first thing" is and why we must keep it always in front.