December 19, 2014

What Mr. Tumnus Can Teach Us About Advent

After stumbling into the snowy wood of Narnia through the doors of a magical wardrobe, the first person Lucy met in that mysterious new country was a faun named Mr. Tumnus. Her presence startled him as much as his did her, so much so that he dropped the brown-paper parcels he was carrying. Knowing nothing of this strange new land, Lucy observed that, "What with the parcels and the snow it looked just as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping." Lucy would soon learn, however, what all who love the story already know, that Narnia is under the spell of a cruel witch, who makes it always winter and never Christmas. These parcels, therefore, could not have been Christmas gifts as Lucy had assumed. She was mistaken. Or was she? Could it be that her assumption, no less than her very presence in Narnia, foreshadows the coming reality, a reality for which all Narnia waited with eager longing? Perhaps her presence and her perception of the faun's parcels are designed to reveal that winter would soon end and Christmas soon come.

That Tumnus is the one carrying these would-be Christmas presents is no small detail. For he carries in his arms that which portends the liberation of Narnia, yet he himself is in the employ of the one who keeps Narnia in bondage to decay. He intends to hand the innocent Lucy over to the one who would destroy her, the false queen who will stop at nothing to keep her power and exploit the land and its people. As the story begins Tumnus is a coward and treacherous. And he knows it. And so the fact that this two-faced faun is carrying in his arms the packages which not only introduce the tension that carries the story but also the potential for its resolution is even more pronounced. He carries with him the sign of hope and freedom, even though he is himself part of the problem. 

He is part of the problem because he has not yet learned to wait. To be sure, he dreams of the day when the snow will melt and spring arrive, but in the meantime he has hedged his bets as he colludes with the Witch to save his hide. Like her, he has chosen to do what is necessary to preserve himself without regard to who might be hurt along the way. He is not waiting. He has capitulated.  

What then can Mr. Tumnus teach us of Advent? He teaches us first that waiting for the King born on Christmas morn is no passive thing. To the contrary, the waiting we do in the season of Advent is active resistance to the powers that rage against the Christ child, as we proclaim the gospel truth that there is another king, namely Jesus. For Tumnus, waiting for Aslan in holiness would have meant suffering, which is precisely what he feared. You only have to read his account to Lucy of what will happen if he releases her. His horns cut off; his beard plucked out; he will be turned to stone. You see, Mr. Tumnus understands that sometimes waiting means dying. 

Second, Tumnus reveals that no one is ever without hope, if, of course, they are willing to repent. In the end the faun chooses to release Lucy, to turn from evil in service to the Witch and face the grim reality that he will suffer for doing right. In this way Tumnus is being conformed to the image of the one who will soon suffer on the cold hard slab of a stone table. And because Tumnus is repentant, the Lion who overcomes even death, will soon breath on him and give him back the life that he gave up for Lucy's sake. He has learned the meaning of Advent. He has learned to wait. 

December 16, 2014

Four Thoughts on the Four Virtues

Upon the recommendation of a very good friend, I began reading through Joseph Pieper's The Four Cardinal Virtues. Not surprisingly, the book is divided into sections of chapters dealing with each of the four virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. I found the opening pages to be quite thought provoking and offer here four reflections that came to mind as I worked through the first chapter:
  1. We don't speak this way anymore. Until, I think, fairly recently, the language of virtue was part and parcel to (at least) Western civilization. Pieper's discussion begins with prudence, the first virtue, and he argues that contemporary minds are uncomfortable with the notion that prudence is preeminent among the virtues. It ranks the highest, and all others depend on it. Beyond that, I would suggest that, as a society, we not only resist the idea of a hierarchy of virtues, we have come to the point where we don't really see virtue as essential or even important. The cultivation of virtue is no longer a value common to Western civilization. Rather, we have elevated the pleasure of personal preference to the place of highest value. And when preference replaces virtue, the result is hedonism. 
  2. Right worship cultivates virtue. To become virtuous is to become good. But a person cannot live into the fullness of their potential to be good apart from a life of discipleship following Christ our Lord. And one of the ways - indeed, the primary way! - that Christ forms us into good people is through worship. To pray the liturgy is to develop habits of worship that cannot be attained anywhere else, habits that lead to consistent goodness, or (as it is called in our Wesleyan tradition) holiness, which brings me to the next point. 
  3. Virtue is essential to holiness. As Pieper's discussion unfolded, I couldn't help but conclude that virtue and holiness are intimately connected, though I'm not altogether settled on how to talk about the connection. For now, suffice it to say that holiness may be more than virtue, but it is not less. Pieper puts it this way: "All Ten Commandments of God pertain to...the realization of prudence...every sin is opposed to prudence. Injustice, cowardice, intemperance are in direct opposition to the virtues of justice, fortitude, and temperance; ultimately, however, through all these virtues, they run counter to prudence. Everyone who sins is imprudent." To be free from sin is to be both virtuous and holy. And I am inclined to say that the highest virtue is actually holiness. One benefit of including the cultivation of virtue in our talk of holiness is that it defines holiness in positive terms. All too often, we think of holiness negatively as avoiding sin. And it is that. But it is also the positive cultivation of consistently godly character, and godly character is nothing if not virtuous. Pieper calls it, "impulses and instincts for right acting."
  4. The Greeks and Romans went far with what they had. C.S. Lewis described Christianity as "the true myth." He deployed this term against those who suggested that the presence of parallel stories to scripture among pagan religions suggest that the Bible is simply one myth amongst many. Lewis rejected this line of thinking and argued instead that the presence of similar themes in pagan mythology and Christianity simply indicated that the pagans had picked up on some truth, even if they didn't get it all right. The presence of similar themes in varied traditions meant that there was some common reality or revelation that all observed. Christianity is the true myth that gets the story right. Likewise, I suggest, the Greco-Roman writers who saw the cultivation of virtue as an end of society were working in the right direction. Even if, apart from Christ and the Holy Spirit, they were unable to achieve what they were after, namely the fullest and best expression of human life, they got a long way in the cultivation of virtue, though they could not reach the pinnacle. The stunning thing about it is that the Greeks and Romans at least knew they should be virtuous, which is perhaps more than can be said of us. 

December 12, 2014

New Podcast: Body of Christ, Bread of Life @StMarkMobile #UMC



When we want to read about the birth of Jesus, we usually turn to Matthew and Luke. After all, that's where we find angels and shepherds, magi and the manger, Mary and Joseph, and, not least, baby Jesus himself. We don't usually turn to the Gospel of John. John doesn't have all the nativity stuff. Nevertheless, the opening chapter of John is telling a Christmas story, because it's telling the story of the Word of God made flesh in the person of Jesus. It's the story of the incarnation. And Christmas is about nothing, if it's not about the incarnation. John is not quite so interested in who was there when Jesus was born. He is more interested in the implications of God taking a body in Christ. And one of the reasons John is interested in what it means for God to take a body in Christ is because John understands that the body of Christ is the bread of life. And John wants to be sure the sheep are fed. 

If you received this post through email, click here for the podcast.

December 8, 2014

Christmas and Communion (or Incarnation and Eucharist)

Icon of the Nativity (15th cent.)
My Advent series of sermons this year focuses on the significance of the Eucharist. In preparing for this series, I've spent some time looking at the Eucharistic writings of the Church Fathers. One theme that emerges with regularity is the connection between the Incarnation and the Sacrament. I included this illustrative quote from Justin Martyr in yesterday's sermon: 
We do not receive these gifts as ordinary food or ordinary drink. But as Jesus Christ our Savior who was made flesh through the word of God, and took flesh and blood for our salvation; in the same way the food over which thanksgiving has been offered through the word of prayer which we have from him - the food by which our blood and flesh are nourished through its transformation - is, we are taught, the flesh and blood of Jesus who was made flesh (First Apology, 62).
While Justin doesn't go into detail about the nature of the sacramental transformation, he does draw an analogy between the Incarnation and the Eucharist. Both are mysterious because both somehow convey the presence of God through physical means. The Incarnation is the basis for the meal. It is because Christ is a flesh and blood savior that he can offer his flesh and blood to us in the Eucharist. And because he continues presently embodied in heaven, he is able to continuously offer his body and blood to us at the Table. By offering his body and blood to us in the Communion meal, he surprisingly yet beautifully cultivates our communion with himself and our Father through the Spirit. So, without Christmas there is no Communion, neither with Christ nor the Father, and without Communion, we easily lose sight of the bodily nature of Christ's ministry to us and for us, which we desperately need since we ourselves are embodied creatures.

December 4, 2014

New Podcast: His Presence, Our Salvation #Advent #UMC @StMarkMobile


Advent is about Christ's coming. And his coming is about the promise of his presence with us. But Christ is not present with us in exactly the same way as he was to his first followers. None of us have ever had an experience like that of the disciples, who were granted to look upon and touch the risen Christ. This raises the question: How is Christ present with his Church now? How is he with us in between his first and second comings? The Church's answer has long been quite simple, even if it remains deeply mysterious. He is present in the bread and the wine.

If you receive this post through email, click here for the podcast.

December 2, 2014

3 Reasons for Reading Backwards with Richard Hays (@Baylor_Press)

After attending part of the review panel for Richard Hays' new short book, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness (Baylor, 2014), I knew I had to get a copy and read it. So I did, and took the long plane ride from California as an opportunity to dig in to this treasure trove of accessible and robust biblical scholarship on the Gospels. Hays is currently the Dean of Duke Divinity School and is well known for his work on the interplay between Old and New Testaments. This book is the published version of Hays' Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge in the fall of 2013 and spring of 2014, and it takes up that interplay as it relates to the canonical Gospels.

The central thesis of the book is that the Gospels teach us to read the Old Testament, and the Old Testament teaches us to read the Gospels. In particular, the Gospels are to be read figurally, that is with a view to the many ways Old Testament texts may signify or pre-figure the Gospel narratives about Jesus. Hays puts it this way: "we learn to read the OT by reading backwards from the Gospels, and - at the same time - we learn how to read the Gospels by reading forwards from the OT" (4, italics original). This is not simply to say we note the citation when a Gospel passage quotes or evokes an Old Testament passage. It means that the Gospel writers intend their readers to soak into the original context of Old Testament passage and to interpret what they say about Jesus in light of that context. So, when Jesus says things like, "I am with you," or, "My words will not pass away," he should be read with a view to the rich texture that those words have in the OT when they are predicated of God. Or when Jesus walks on water, it's not just a neat miracle to illustrate his power over nature. It should be read with the understanding that in the Old Testament only the God of Israel "treads on the waves of the sea" (Job 9:8). And the narrative implication is that Jesus embodies the presence of that very God. These examples don't begin to capture the many and varied ways the Gospel writers see the Old Testament pre-figuring Jesus. You'll have to read the book. In the mean time, here are three reasons to do just that. 

1. Refreshingly Orthodox

A significant number of New Testament scholars insist that stories about Jesus' divinity were invented by the later Church and read back onto the life of Jesus. Hays cites one of the more popularly known proponents of that view, Bart Ehrman, who says, "The idea that Jesus was divine was a later Christian invention, one found, among our gospels, only in John" (Jesus Interrupted, 249). In contrast, Hays shows that each of the Gospels were written to narrate how Jesus of Nazareth embodies the God of Israel. To be sure, the different gospels tell the story to emphasize different aspects of what that embodiment looks like, and the diversity of their portrayals should not be minimized. Nevertheless, when the Gospels are read figurally in light of the Old Testament, they unanimously insist that Jesus bears in his body the unique presence of the creator God. Hays makes his case with elegance and beauty, which is the main reason it is so robust and persuasive. When you come to the creeds after you read this book, their words will carry far richer meaning than you ever might have imagined.

2. Great resource for preaching

This reason for reading is directed more toward the preachers out there. Use this book as a resource for preaching the Gospels. If you are working with a passage in the Gospels, look it up in the index to see what Hays says about it. It will add a multiple layers of depth to your comprehension and preaching of the text. It will point you to features of the text that you had not previously observed. And it will equip you to lead your congregation into a deeper understanding of the connection between the Old Testament and the Gospels. It will make you a better preacher. 

3. Perfect for Advent

I'll finish by saying that this book is an excellent read for the season of Advent, which has just begun. As we draw near to Christmas and our celebration of the Incarnation of God in Christ, what better book to read than one focused on deep clarity with regard to the way the Gospel writers portray the Incarnation? I was very glad to read this book when I did since I was reflecting on scripture and sermons for the season. It has impacted my experience of Advent both in terms of formation and as a resource for preaching. For this I am grateful.

Seldom do I say that I cannot recommend a book highly enough, but that is exactly what I will say about Reading Backwards. 

November 8, 2014

New Podcast: Generous God, Generous People @StMarkMobile #UMC



There are many words to describe God. One of those words is “generous”. And what an excellent word to describe the big-hearted and overflowing extravagance of God’s grace. We can be exceedingly grateful that God relates to us with a generous grace. But if God treats us with such generous grace, shouldn’t our lives be conduits of that grace to others? Shouldn’t we embody that kind of godly generosity? Doesn’t God desire that his people be generous as he is generous? Because he is generous? And as we grow in godly generosity, aren’t we then growing in grace? And if generosity is about grace, isn’t it also about joy? What if growing in generosity produces joy? And not just any joy. Deep joy. 

If you receive this post through email, click here for the podcast.

November 6, 2014

Keep Up the Good Work: Criminal Mercy in South Florida

The governing authorities are the servants of God to uphold what is good and right. But sometimes the servants get wrong. Bad wrong. Crazy bad wrong. When that happens the servants need to be reminded who they serve and what their role is. Such is the case in Ft. Lauderdale where three people have been arrested for feeding homeless people. Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently, one of the arresting officers instructed the culprit to "drop that plate right now." Yes, drop the plate and move away slowly...with your hands up! You have the right to remain silent.

How many passages of scripture flood to mind after the reading of this headline:
"I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink...just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it unto me. And these will go away into eternal punishment." -Jesus, Matthew 25:42,45-46
"In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak." -Paul, Acts 20:35
"When you give a banquet, invite the poor." -Jesus, Luke 14:13
"They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which is actually what I was eager to do." -Paul, Galatians 2:10
"Has God not chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom...But you have dishonored the poor." -James 2:6
"If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your own community...do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be." -Deuteronomy 15:7-8
I could go on. There are many, many others, not to mention the texts that curse those who oppress the poor. That's right, curse. The imperative to care for the poor is a chorus that rings throughout scripture. It cannot be missed by anyone reading with their eyes open. What is astounding is that this sort of tomfoolery must actually be named for what it is. Any clear-minded person should see the savagery in criminalizing ministries of mercy with the impoverished. Talk about having it backwards. 

In this case, Mr. Abbot and the pastors who have been arrested are the ones who have it right. And they should take comfort in the promise of Jesus, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:10). Well done, fellas, keep up the good work.

Photo credit: Associated Press

November 5, 2014

A Prayer for Those Who Govern

The government in the U.S. is in the midst of a significant transformation after yesterday's election. And it's a good time for the people of God to remember their responsibility to hold those who govern in prayer regardless of policy or party affiliation. So, I offer this prayer, which is a slightly revised version of one I said to open the Mobile City Council meeting last week, the light editing intended to extend it beyond the local level to all levels of government. 
Almighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, whose kingdom is everlasting, whose power infinite, and who rules over all that is. You have established the governing authorities to uphold what is good and right and true. Have mercy upon this this land, and so rule in the hearts of your servants who govern it, that they, knowing whose ministers they are, may above all things seek your honor and glory. Look upon them with favor and replenish them with grace by your Holy Spirit, that they may be always motivated to do your will and walk in your way. Fill them with wisdom and courage; grant them wholeness and holiness. And grant that we, the people of this land, remembering whose authority they bear, may faithfully and obediently honor them. Grant that all under their authority grow in your grace and holy love, and attain everlasting life, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who reigns over heaven and earth. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 
Those familiar with the common prayer tradition should be able to do the source critical work quite easily, even if it is said with a Wesleyan accent.

October 24, 2014

New Podcast: Fully Focused on the Finish #ChristianPerfection #UMC


When I read the letters of Paul, I often wonder whether he was a fan of athletic games - foot racing, at least. On several occasions Paul draws on the language of the races to illumine the nature of the Christian life. For instance, "Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it" (1 Cor 9:24). Similarly in Philippians 3 Paul describes the Christian life in terms of straining forward towards the goal to win the prize. It's hard not to imagine an Olympic runner putting all of his energy into crossing the finish line to win the gold. For Paul, the gospel worthy life is fully focused on the finish, and that means knowing what the finish line is, namely resurrection union with Christ, and it means leaving the past in the past - all of it. On top of that, Paul's racing imagery helps us get a better sense of what we mean when we talk about Christian perfection. Take a listen to find out what Paul means when he counts himself among the "perfect" in Philippians 3:15. If you receive this post as an email, click here to listen on the podcast page. Previous sermons can be found here

October 9, 2014

New Podcast: Christlike in Real Life @StMarkMobile #UMC



How would you like to be part of a group of people who were always concerned with your best interests? A group of people who were consistently and genuinely looking out for your well-being? They would be loyal to you. They would encourage you. They would build you up. That would be great. But you're probably thinking: what a longshot. Because, after all, we meet people all the time who are in it for themselves - only looking out for Number One. Wouldn't it be nice to be a part of group that was different, a group committed to other-oriented love? Longshot...right? Well, I believe that this kind of community life is a real possibility. And I believe it because that is the vision of community that Paul holds before the Philippian Christians in his letter to them. He tells them to regard one another with the mind of Christ looking not to their own interests but to the interests of others. It turns out that Paul thought the Philippians could actually live into this vision. And he commended Timothy and Epaphroditus as men who embodied this vision of what it looks like to be Christlike in real life. Check out this week's podcast for more on embodying the mind of Christ consistently...comprehensively...entirely.

October 7, 2014

Here's my favorite moment in Narnia. What's yours?

The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis are full of remarkable passages. In fact, there are so many amazing moments that it can be difficult to narrow it down to a single favorite. But if I had to choose today, I would go with a scene near the end of The Magician's Nephew. The scene comes just after Aslan has sung Narnia into existence and after the boy Digory has managed to allow the evil Queen Jadis into the newly created world. As Digory is preparing for a task that will protect Narnia from the wicked Queen, he gathers the courage to ask Aslan to cure his deathly ill mother. Here's the passage as Lewis tells it:
"But please, please - won't you - can't you give me something that will cure Mother?" Up till then he had been looking at the Lion's great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion's eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory's own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his mother than he was himself. 
"My son, my son," said Aslan. "I know. Grief is great. Only you and I in this land know that yet. Let us be good to one another." 
I reserve the right to change my mind later, but for now that's my favorite moment in Narnia. What's yours?

September 30, 2014

New Podcast: Saved All the Way @StMarkMobile #UMC #WesleyanAccent


One reason I love Philippians is the constant attention Paul gives to applying the gospel to all of life. He really wants to see the light of the grace of God shine into every crack and crevice of the human heart. He wants to see us work out the grace that God has worked in us. One way he does this is by holding up the example of Jesus, the one who did not exploit his divine status but instead emptied himself to become a servant, and a human servant at that! For Paul, the attitude of Jesus demonstrated in his other-oriented self-emptying is the same attitude that should consistently and comprehensively be demonstrated in the lives of believers. We Wesleyan Christians sometimes happily insist that "all can be saved to the uttermost," and this certainly reflects Paul's understanding of salvation all the way through Philippians. To update the language a bit, we might also say that Paul believes we can be saved all the way. Click play above to discover how it happens.

September 23, 2014

New Podcast: Life Worth Living @StMarkMobile #UMC

The apostle Paul said a lot of remarkable (and often surprising!) things. One thing that I find particularly remarkable is the fact that even in the midst of great suffering he was still able to find joy. This shows up with clarity early in his letter to the Philippians. Paul reports not only that he is in prison for Christ but also that some rival preachers are working to increase his suffering. Wow! Talk about tough times. And yet he still declares that he will rejoice and continue to rejoice. Apparently, Paul's circumstances didn't degrade his joy. He still found meaning and purpose in the gospel of Christ during great persecution. What was his secret? Simply this: Paul understood that the gospel worthy life is life worth living. And he wrote to the Philippians because they needed to hear that very message in the midst of their own suffering. Check out this week's podcast for more about how the gospel makes life worth living even when circumstances present challenges.

September 22, 2014

Connecting the Pauline Dots: Not Whether but What Sort of Imputation? #PFG

The following is from David I. Starling and seems to me remarkably clear and thoroughly Pauline:
At this point in the discussion, the topic of imputation arises - not only because it is a notorious point of contention between old perspective and new perspective but also (and more importantly) because of the language and imagery implied by words such as "righteous," "justified," and "condemned." In Rom 3:24, for example, the justification that is accomplished through the work of Christ is conferred on its recipients "by his grace as a gift" (δωρεὰν τῇ αὑτοῦ χάριτι) - language that anticipates the discussion in the following chapter, in which the justification of the ungodly is described as a metaphorical transaction in which righteousness is "reckoned as a gift" (λογίζεται κατὰ χάριν; Rom 4:4, 6, 12; cf. 5:16-15) and sin, conversely, is "not reckon[ed]" against the sinner (Rom 4:8; cf. 2 Cor 5:19).
Imputation, then (or "reckoning"), of one sort or another, is not an un-Pauline intrusion into the doctrine of justification; it is part of the conceptual array that the texts themselves bequeath to us as a framework within which to articulate our understanding of the righteous status of those on whom God's justifying verdict has been pronounced. If we are to follow Paul's lead in constructing our doctrinal formulations, the question is not whether we will have a doctrine of imputation but merely what sort of doctrine of imputation we will construct - which metaphorical credits or debits we will speak of as being imputed to whom - and how much work we will ask it to do within our doctrinal system. If Paul is happy to speak of God as "reckon[ing] righteousness," "as a gift," to "ungodly" people whose record of conduct could hardly warrant this verdict; if Paul speaks of this gift of righteousness as having been made possible by the faithful obedience of Christ, culminating in his atoning death; and if the forensic and covenantal background against which Paul makes these assertions is one in which "righteousness" is language not only for the status created by a judge's verdict but also for the record of conduct with which this sort of verdict ought normally to correspond, then surely, one might argue, we are only connecting Pauline dots, not drawing a whole new picture, if we speak in terms of God's imputing our sins to Christ and Christ's righteousness to us.
From "Covenants and Courtrooms, Imputation and Imitation: Righteousness and Justification in Paul and the Faithfulness of God," Journal for the Study of Paul and his Letters 4:1 (2014): 37-48, here 43-44. This issue of JSPL was devoted to reviewing N.T. Wright's recent and substantial Paul and the Faithfulness of God

September 12, 2014

Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Matter? @OfficialSeedbed #7MinuteSeminary

I'm grateful to the team at Seedbed for the opportunity to contribute to the Seven Minute Seminary series of short videos. Here's one on the biblical, theological, and pastoral importance of the Trinity.

September 9, 2014

Roundup: British New Testament Conference #BNTC2014

I've recently had the pleasure of attending the 34th British New Testament Conference (BNTC) held this year at the University of Manchester. Our hosts at the University did a wonderful job putting on the conference and are to be commended. It's always great fun to renew old friendships, make new ones, hear about new research, and participate in some stimulating conversations about all things New Testament. At many academic conferences you have the opportunity to move in and out of various sessions to catch the papers that interest you. One of my favorite things about BNTC is that everyone is encouraged to attend the same seminar group throughout the duration of the conference. The advantage is that seminar members have the opportunity to spend a couple of days reflecting together on a particular area of New Testament, which usually results in a more fruitful and less fragmented conference experience. 

I was in the Paul Seminar, which is one of the largest seminars at the conference and always has a number of world class scholars in attendance. The seminar chairs, Peter Oakes and Sarah Whittle, put together a very well-balanced combination of papers and group discussion in each of the sessions. The first session was of particular interest with a paper on divine wrath in Paul by Dorothea Bertschmann, which was followed by a panel discussion on divine wrath with Dorothea, Francis Watson, Simon Gathercole, and Michael Thompson. You won't be surprised to learn that it got a bit energetic at points, and it was certainly refreshing to hear this discussion since the wrath of God is not a subject often broached by New Testament scholars. The second installment of the Paul seminar focused on various issues relating to the ever present pistis Christou (faith of Christ) debate. Jeanette Hagen introduced some helpful evidence from 2 Corinthians, which is not often brought into the discussion, and Jonathan Tallon gave a very interesting paper on the richness of pistis and cognates in the sermons of John Chrysostom. This was followed by another vigorous open discussion. I had the pleasure of participating in the third session of the Paul seminar along with David Harvey, who gave a paper on honor and ethics in Galatians. My own contribution was titled: "Embracing Resurrection: Temporal Aspects of Social Identity in 1 Corinthians 15." I'm grateful for the substantive, constructive, and charitable engagement with my argument. We followed up with an open discussion on the place of social identity in Pauline studies.I was grateful for the opportunity to emphasize that social identity readings of Paul need not be pitted against theological readings, as is sometimes suggested.

In addition to the other seminar groups, there were three plenary sessions with invited papers.. The first was a lecture by Joan Taylor on "Mary Magdalene and the Case of the Missing Magdala." She spent some time dismantling various misconceptions about Mary Magdalene's background and argued that we cannot know with certainty where Mary was from. She also made the interesting suggestion that the name Magdalene should perhaps be read with a view to its meaning of "tower" and that it might even be a personal nickname that carried symbolic significance. As Peter was known as "Rock", so Mary might have been "Tower." The second plenary was from Judith Lieu on "Marcion and the Contradictions of the Gospel." The third plenary from Simon Gathercole was called, "Jesus, the Apostolic Gospel, and the Gospels," in which he argued that the canonical gospels shared certain theological characteristics in common that were not shared by most of the apocryphal gospels, and that those common characteristics derive from the earlier regula fidei. I found this discussion particularly interesting and helpful in emphasizing what the gospels hold in common. It was something of a courageous lecture given the current trend in the guild to elevate the differences between the four evangelists over what they hold in common.

All in all, it was a fine conference. I'm grateful to have had opportunity to attend and participate. And I look forward to my next opportunity to do so. Next year will be in Edinburgh, and, as was observed a few times, it could be the first international BNTC depending on a certain upcoming vote. 

September 4, 2014

New SermonCast: "God's Reputation, Our Responsibility" @stmarkmobile #UMC

Did you know that there are basically two kinds of people in the Church? Those who like to talk about sin and those who don't. And you've probably noticed that those who like to talk about sin typically don't want to talk about their sin. They would much prefer to talk about yours. Among those who don't like to talk about sin, there are two more groups: those who don't like to talk about it and so they don't and those who don't like to talk about sin but know it's necessary. Just as a patient must be willing to have the hard conversation with a physician about the diagnosis before the pursuit of a cure can begin, so human beings must be attentive to the hard reality of our sin if we are to benefit from God's transforming grace. When we come at it from this angle we discover a trajectory that should characterize all our talk of sin, from diagnosis to cure, from sin to holiness. This same trajectory is seen in Ezekiel 36, in which the prophet declares the various ways that the people of God have profaned God's name only then to point forward to the coming gracious act of God to sanctify his people. Along the way the Israelites needed to learn what God's people must always be learning: God's reputation is our responsibility.

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.

July 17, 2014

New Podcast: Hungry? #UMC

What comes to mind when you hear the word "appetite"? Most of us probably think of food. Right? Appetite is, of course, primarily about our desire for food. But we use the word to express our desire for other things too. Maybe we have an appetite for popularity or status. Some people might have an appetite for power or control. We hear of people with an appetite for destruction. All of us probably have an appetite for relationships. Maybe our appetite is for entertainment or sports or (dare I say) college football. 

Given the widespread application of appetite, we shouldn't be surprised that Jesus has some things to say about the subject also. And when Jesus talks about appetite, he zeros in on one thing. Listen to the podcast to find out what that one thing is and how to cultivate an appetite for it. 

July 8, 2014

New Sermon Podcast: "See Holy, Be Holy" #umc #wesleyanaccent

I'm excited to announce that I've just begun a new appointment to St. Mark United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama. It's a great church, and I'm honored to be the pastor. Yesterday was my first Sunday in the pulpit. I had a great time and am grateful for a very warm welcome. The church will be podcasting my sermons each week. You can easily subscribe to the podcast in iTunes, put the feed in your reader, or check out the player widget in the column to your right. Sermons will also be archived on the church website

My first installment is called "See Holy, Be Holy" and digs into Isaiah 6:1-8 and the prophet's vision of God's holiness that led to his being completely set apart for a holy mission. I always enjoy hearing from readers and listeners. So, feel free to share your thoughts.  

June 24, 2014

#WesleyCast Interview w/ @DrewBMcIntyre, Review by @TalbotDavis #UMC

I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Lake Junaluska last week. I've been United Methodist for over 20 years, yet this was my first visit to this Wesleyan hallowed ground. The lake was beautiful, adn the grounds were amazing. I was not disappointed. I was there to speak at the breakfast meeting of the Western North Carolina Conference Evangelical Movement (WNCCEM). The turnout was great, which impressed me, because it was a 7:30 am breakfast meeting. Now Junaluska is, of course, in the Eastern Time Zone, and I live in the Central Time Zone. So it felt like 6:30 am. I'm almost certain this was the first time I've delivered a speech that early in the morning. And I would do it again in a heartbeat! It was great fun. For a very kind review and reflection on the talk, head over to Talbot Davis' blog, I'm grateful to Talbot for creating this opportunity and for his very gracious comments.

While at Junaluska, I was also interviewed for the Wesley Cast, a podcast devoted to theological dialogue in the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition. The podcast is hosted by Drew McIntyre, Steven Fife, and Evan Rohrs-Dodge who together operate the Via Media Methodists blog. Drew did the interview in which we discussed my then upcoming talk at the WNCCEM, the "A Way Forward" proposal, and the prospect of unity or schism in the United Methodist Church. It was a lot of fun and I'm grateful to Drew for the opportunity to discuss these important issues. Click through to listen to the interview (Released: 6/23/14), and be sure to subscribe to Wesley Cast so you can catch future episodes.

It was a whirlwind trip. I wasn't even on site for 24 hours. But I did get the chance to attend one worship service at the meeting of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference and enjoyed hearing Bishop Jonathan Holston preach. I also made a quick visit to the World Methodist Museum where I saw John Wesley's portable pulpit and one of four copies of his death mask. It was a remarkable experience to look at the exact contours of the face of a man who lived centuries ago and who has shaped my life in profound ways. It was great to visit the beautiful Lake Junaluska, make some new friends, and get a small sample of North Carolina Methodism. Next time I'll have to stay a little longer.

June 16, 2014

Allowance Isn't Affirmation, Except When It Is (@DrewBMcIntyre #UMC)

My recent post aimed at evaluating the "Way Forward" plan set forth by Adam Hamilton and others has garnered a fair bit of response, some positive and some less so. This is to be expected on any matter related to how the United Methodist Church (UMC) will proceed when it comes to our denominational stance on same sex practices. One of the more extended critiques of my view comes from Drew McIntyre. His tone is charitable and his evaluation is thoughtful. I'm grateful to Drew for taking the time to dig into what I've written and give some conversational pushback. Careful interaction is certainly essential if any of us really want to move forward. This post aims likewise to proceed with charity and gratefulness for this opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue

The Critique
Drew argues that I have failed to account for the critical distinction between allowing some event or action, on the one hand, and affirming that event or action, on the other. To make the point, he draws an analogy which suggests the possibility that the UMC might allow but not affirm the blessing of same sex unions by our clergy and the ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals by our Annual Conferences is similar to what happens when God allows but does not cause evil actions or events. God is not the author of evil, but he does permit evil because he has created us with a certain amount of free will. Based on this analogy Drew claims, "allowing pastors and churches more flexibility in determining their ministry to same-sex couples is not necessarily tantamount to the church 'affirming' those choices." The argument he makes is that I have missed the essential distinction between allowance and affirmation.

Flawed Logic
Drew certainly raises some good points, and I agree that there is a difference between allowance and affirmation in some cases. However, I find his view unpersuasive in this case because the logic by which he argues is flawed. In my view, Drew has committed the logical fallacy of false analogy. Drew's argument depends on a perceived similarity between the UMC allowing clergy to bless same sex practices and God allowing evil events to occur. Drew concludes that if God can allow evil without causing it, then the UMC can allow the blessing of same sex practices by clergy and Conferences without affirming those practices. This argument assumes that divine causation and UMC allowance are sufficiently similar to form a reliable analogy. But are we justified in likening the mysterious manner in which God governs his creation to the UMC allowing clergy to bless same sex practices? I am not persuaded that we are.

Theologians have long struggled to find the best language to describe the manner in which God governs his creation without becoming culpable for evil. Our attempts at this are called theodicy. We wrestle with terms like sovereignty and providence seeking definitions that account for the evidence in scripture and experience. As Drew observes, Calvinists tend to see it one way while Arminians see it differently. But it's not immediately clear that either side has given a fully satisfactory account of why God is not morally responsible for the presence of evil in his creation. Honest folks on various sides of the debate readily acknowledge aspects of their view that make them uncomfortable. We all articulate ways of thinking that help us along, but theodicy is hardly a settled matter. If it remains unclear how God can allow evil to occur without being morally culpable for it, then it is not clear that there is enough similarity between the proposal for the UMC and divine allowance of evil. The analogy from theodicy depends on a perceived similarity that is neither established nor warranted. Drew has committed the fallacy of false analogy. His manner of reasoning is flawed and his argument unpersuasive.

Discerning the Difference
Drew was not the only one to suggest that the allowance proposed in the "A Way Forward" plan does not amount to a UMC affirmation of same sex practices. Others made this claim as well. It is thus worth our time to think more carefully on the question of why, in this case, allowance is indeed affirmation.

When a couple approaches a member of the clergy seeking to be joined in marriage, they are asking the clergy person to declare God's blessing and the Church's blessing on their union. Remember that the minister declares and blesses the union with authority vested in him or her by the Church. The minister performing a marriage rite is an authorized representative of the Church who declares the blessing of the Church on that union. When a person seeks ordination in the UMC, he or she is asking the Annual Conference to act in accord with the authorization of General Conference to affirm and bless the call of God on their lives for a set aside ministry in the Church. For General Conference to say that the denomination allows individual clergy and Conferences to offer the Church's blessing in such circumstances, even though the UMC itself does not offer its affirmation, is a contradiction. It's nonsense. If the Church says it's permissible for clergy to bless same sex unions and for Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals, then the Church is authorizing clergy and Conferences to extend the Church's blessing to such practices. In this case, the Church is affirming the compatibility of these practices with Christian teaching. We are not simply "allowing pastors and churches more flexibility," we are authorizing them to pronounce the blessing of God and the Church on practices that God neither condones nor blesses. In this case, allowance most certainly amounts to affirmation.

It is true that allowance does not always amount to affirmation, but sometimes it does. What matters is being able to discern the difference, and conversations like this one help us along in the discernment process. Sometimes simply allowing an action or event to take place makes us culpable for that action or event. Pilate washed his hands of Jesus' blood, but does anyone really think him not guilty of crucifying the Lord of glory? 

June 6, 2014

Why "A Way Forward" Isn't (#umc #umcschism)

These are difficult days in the United Methodist Church. The divide in our denomination between those who differ on the compatibility of homosexuality with Christian teaching is deeper than ever. Both sides are frustrated. Both sides are hurting. Both sides want a solution, though different people on each side have different ideas on what constitutes a solution. Many hope that conservatives and progressives will work out a compromise and remain together in a  united United Methodist Church. One recent proposal aimed at such unity comes from Adam Hamilton and has been endorsed by a number of others in the denomination. The proposal has already been analyzed by some and evaluated for its strengths and weaknesses, and more analysis will undoubtedly be forthcoming. This is good. Proposals like this have potential for a massive impact on the UMC, and they come with a variety of intended and unintended consequences. Shared dialogue is very important, especially since our future as United Methodists is at stake. 

Before I get to the proposal itself, let me say that I have a great deal of respect for Adam Hamilton. I've read his books, participated in his mentoring groups, used his materials, and implemented some of his strategies. Like many, I have benefited greatly from the resources that Adam has made available to the Church. I appreciate and have attempted to imitate his practice of looking for the helpful contributions and strengths of perspectives other than his own. So, the following evaluation comes in the context of years of appreciation. 

A Double Proposal
The heart of the proposal in "A Way Forward" is twofold:
  1. Local churches would have the authority to determine the nature and extent of their ministry with gay and lesbian people, including whether they will or will not allow same gender unions.
  2. Each Annual Conference would have the authority to determine whether or not it will allow self-avowed, practicing homosexuals to be ordained.
The goal of moving these decisions to local and regional levels is "to end the rancor, animosity and endless debate that divide our denomination every four years at General Conference." Those who have signed off on this document believe that it "would allow conservative, centrist and progressive churches to come to their own conclusions regarding this important issue and to focus on how best to minister in their own communities."

Compromise? 
The "A Way Forward" proposal is set forth as a compromise that would keep progressives and conservatives together in a single United Methodist Church. The idea is that if local groups get to make their own decisions, then everyone will be happy, or at least able to live together. But is this proposal really a compromise? I fear that it is not. If General Conference permitted those Annual Conferences that choose to ordain practicing homosexuals to do so, then that would amount to General Conference giving its blessing to the practice of homosexuality. Allowing the decision to be made locally does not amount to a neutral position on the part of the General Conference. If this proposal were implemented, it means that The United Methodist Church would affirm the compatibility of homosexual practice with Christian teaching, even if it did not require all Annual Conferences to ordain practicing homosexuals and local churches to bless homosexual unions. Implementing this proposal would necessitate the removal of the "incompatible" language from the Discipline and it would necessitate the removal of the language that forbids same sex unions in local United Methodist churches. This is not a compromise. This is a reversal of the denominational position. Allowing those who so desire to abstain from participation does not change the reality that this would be a win for progressives and a capitulation for conservatives. 

Forward or Apart?
Others will certainly have a different take on this plan, and I welcome some healthy and charitable dialogue on the matter. But as I see it, given that this proposal amounts to an affirmation by the General Church on homosexual practice, it is unacceptable for those who affirm the current stance of the United Methodist Church with regard to homosexuality. If implemented, many conservatives would find themselves unable to remain in the United Methodist Church and would feel forced to leave the denomination. As a result, the implementation of this plan would not help us avoid a split. Instead, it would lead us ever further down the path toward schism. I suspect that we would experience something similar to what has happened in The Episcopal Church. Conservatives churches (and perhaps whole Annual Conferences) would pull out of the denomination to go it alone, affiliate with another denomination, or form new associations. This plan is not a way forward; it would push us further apart.