Last week I was ordained as an Elder in the United Methodist Church along with many other Elder candidates and a few candidates for the office of Deacon. The process to becoming an Elder in full connection is a long one. I began this journey 10 years ago. The earliest I could have been ordained was two years ago, but I self-delayed the intense written and oral examinations required to be approved due to some challenging life circumstances and a few qualms about the dubious state of the denomination. At any rate, I wanted to share a few thoughts about some of the vows I took during the process of being accepted into full connection during the clergy session and in the ordination service during our Annual Conference in Western NC. And piggy-backing on what others have shared about what the “next Methodism” should be like, I also want to share some thoughts on how these vows should be and can be taken more seriously in the future. (See others’ thoughts about the next Methodism here: Kevin Watson, David Watson, David Watson again, Scott Fritzsche, & Stephen Fife.)
During the clergy session at the beginning of our Annual Conference the Bishop invites the candidates for ordination on stage to answer historical questions of examination for Methodist preachers that go back to John Wesley himself. Some of the questions also seem to be a bit hysterical too as they often evoke chuckles from candidates, colleagues, and family and friends, such as the one that asks: “Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?” With the exorbitant cost of higher education, including seminary, nowadays the debt question always evokes some chuckles.
I think the next Methodism certainly needs to find more ways to help ministerial candidates fund theological education and to train students on strategies to get by with less and reduce the amount of loans. Ministry is hard enough without the added strain of a mountain of debt. Thankfully, I was blessed that I didn’t have to borrow very much for seminary. What I did borrow to help with the transition from full-time gainful employment to a part-time local pastor salary while I was a full-time seminary student I, I was able to pay off entirely last fall. Nonetheless, as we find ourselves in an evermore missionary type environment, I think we need to seriously consider finding ways of educating and training ministers more efficiently, economically, and effectively. How is it in a day when we have the most educated clergy since Pentecost, we also seem to have some of the most Biblically illiterate congregations in history? With the technology we have today, surely we can train and equip clergy more efficiently and effectively.
More importantly, however, one of the other questions, actually the very first question asked of candidates in the clergy session is: “Have you faith in Christ?” That may sound like an odd one considering it’s being asked of candidates for ministry. But we must remember this comes from the Rev. John Wesley who wasn’t sure if he had genuine and complete faith in Christ even years after being ordained in the Anglican church.
In March of 1738 – about 13 years after he was ordained a deacon! – he wrote in his journal “I was, on Sunday, the 5th, clearly convinced of unbelief, of the want of faith whereby alone we are saved.” Wesley went on to contemplate quitting preaching. He asked himself, “How can you preach to others, who have not faith yourself?” His friend and mentor Peter Bohler insisted that he continue to “Preach faith til you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
Wesley took his advice, but for many weeks continued to struggle with heaviness of heart over his lack of saving faith. He consulted the Scriptures and the description of faith and the experience of salvation described therein and compared them to his own experience. He remained in a state of feeling weighed in the balances of the word of God and found wanting. Wesley understood faith in theory, but he knew he did not have it in his own experience. Rather than redefining faith to match his experience, he continued to seek faith as defined and described in Scripture. He sought a change in his own heart rather than denying the truth and changing the word.
On May 24th that year, still with heaviness of heart, he hesitantly attended a society meeting on Aldersgate Street in London. That evening upon hearing Martin Luther’s description of “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ,” Wesley wrote, “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation: And an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Interestingly, the very next thing he describes is how he then began to pray with all his might for those who had especially despitefully used him and persecuted him.
From that moment on, although he was tempted to doubt, Wesley never again doubted that he had real faith, even as he recognized the need to continue to grow stronger in that faith. And that was the moment that really ignited the fires of Methodism as a movement and the Wesleyan revival across England that spread to America and around the world.
If Methodism is to really become a movement again, and if we are really going to see revival again, genuine faith and a call to real faith will be at the forefront. Wesley realized that knowing about faith doesn’t guarantee an experience of it in the heart as the real work of God. As he listened to the message of Luther on Aldersgate street, he finally received that precious gift of faith. Interestingly, it is Martin Luther who can also help us to ensure that our candidates for ordained ministry today have genuine faith in Christ alone for salvation and how to discern what specific shape it should take.
In his “Treatise on Good Works,” to correct misunderstandings of the doctrine of justification by faith alone which are still common today, Luther explained that genuine faith will be evidenced by the fruit of good works. He said faith in Christ is first a fulfillment of the first commandment, which is: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3). In the context of the storyline of the Bible this is because there is only one true God, the maker of heaven and earth, and all other gods are really just pretenders. The gods worshipped by the nations are not really worthy of worship. Only, Yahweh, the God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, and who rescued Jews and Gentiles, all of humanity, through Jesus Christ, from slavery to sin and death, is worthy of worship. Hence, we are to love him with all of our heart, soul, and strength (Dt 6:5). From here Luther said obedience to the rest of God’s commandments would flow. He used the Ten Commandments to explain what are the good works for which we are saved (see Eph 2:8-10). It’s also important to note that John 14:6, where Christ claims to be the only way to the Father, is a direct corollary of the first commandment, as Jesus Christ was the manifestation of the one true God in human flesh (see also Acts 4:12; Acts 17:30-31).
A person of genuine Christian faith should display a serious commitment to the first commandment and the first of the two greatest laws according to Jesus (Matt 22:36-40). Moreover, John 14:6, shouldn’t be considered controversial or embarrassing or in need of reinterpretation among those of genuine faith. So if there is a candidate for ordination who agrees with the modern day Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, that the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt, and that other gods and goddesses are legitimate manifestations of the divine, can we really say they have faith in Christ? As I shared before, I was taken to a conference to listen to Bolz-Weber speak with many other young pastors who were also provisional members (i.e. commissioned but not yet ordained). Virtually, all of them thought she was a wonderful role model for United Methodist ministers. I do not!
We need to take the original intent and spirit of that historical question that Wesley asked more seriously. “Have you faith in Christ?” doesn’t mean do you believe in Christ as you define and imagine him. It means do you believe in Christ as he is revealed in the pages of Holy Scripture. Do you trust in him and him alone for salvation?
We have pastors in some of our churches telling their congregations that they don’t really need to believe in Jesus to be saved because everyone is saved already. We have some who are telling their churches that Jesus really didn’t rise bodily from the dead. We have others who are telling their churches that Jesus really wasn’t divine. A Facebook friend of mine, stopped attending his United Methodist church in California when the pastor said the Sunday after Easter that Jesus was not really divine, and planned to preach a sermon series from the Gospel of Thomas (a heterodox non-canonical text). In 2003, in spite of denying Christ’s virgin birth and his bodily resurrection, Bishop Joseph Sprague was cleared of heresy charges by Bishop Ough, the current president of the Council of Bishops, who obviously didn’t see Sprague’s heterodox beliefs as a big deal. Have they faith in Christ? Well not in the historical sense in which that question was originally asked. Not even close!Which brings me to some other questions I was asked about doctrine and Scripture.
We were also asked: “Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?”; Do yo believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?; Will you preach them and maintain them? In that same spirit we were reminded by the Bishop in the liturgy during the ordination service that we are called “to proclaim the faith of the church and no other” (p. 675 UM Book of Worship). Additionally, we were asked if we believe the Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments, “to contain all things necessary for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ and are the unique and authoritative standard for the church’s faith and life” and if we would be loyal to the church, “accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word.”
In all of the above there is an echo of the call found in the book of Jude to “contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (v. 3). The reason for Jude’s call to defend the faith is because of people who had crept into the church and perverted the grace of God into an excuse for sensuality, which the context clearly indicates involved sexual immorality. As the story of Balaam in Numbers shows, the promotion of sexual licentiousness is sometimes the lure into the trap of idolatry (Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16; see also Jude 1:11 & Rev. 2:14).
In our current climate in the United States, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a candidate who would answer that historic question in the spirit of its original meaning might be penalized or viewed as in need of correction for not being “diverse and inclusive” enough in their thinking. Through the commissioning process I was deemed by at least one person to be too rigid in my thinking because I expressed my conservative views on sexuality in particular. That person also began to talk to me about how all religions are really just manifestations of the same divine ultimate reality. He used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate his point. Gods of other religions are just as valid as the god of Christianity he said. He recommended two books to “help” me. One was “Six Ways of Being Religious”, which really doesn’t argue what he was arguing, although it obviously leans in that direction. The other was “The Future of Faith” by the liberal Harvard theologian, Harvey Cox. In that book, Cox argues against orthodoxy and the creedalism that has attended it. He argues for a more “diverse, open, and pluralistic” faith rooted more in a mystical experience of an apparently more impersonal ultimate reality. He actually includes John Wesley in his criticism of orthodoxy and its historical proponents, which he views as corrupting what he believes to be the original, “more open and diverse” version of Christianity. He also argues for a faith based less on specific content than experience; in reality Cox just presents an experiential faith with a different specific content. The diversity and inclusiveness so often promoted in Mainline circles is often just another version of the syncretism that both the Old and New Testaments warn God’s people against.
This one persons recommendations to me, which he included in his official report, were meet with approval by those on the discipleship committee and were put on their report of my interview as official recommendations for me. “Have you faith in Christ?” answered according to its original intent actually might put a candidate going before a board of ordained ministry in the U.S. and some other places in the category of “needing help and correction.” These things out not be!
The next Methodism, whatever that ends up being, if it is to become a Holy Spirit fired movement again, will have to take those historical questions more seriously according to their original meaning and intent. The faith required will require more than – albeit not less than – orthodox content. The faith required will be the kind that John Wesley, himself, received as the free gift of God on Aldersgate street a little over 279 years ago!
Click on the link below to listen to a powerful song by the Mark Swayze Band and let’s pray for that holy fire to fall upon the people called Methodists once again. Come, Holy Spirit! Bring us the faith to ignite the fire of revival once again!