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How Can We Be One? #UMC General Conference 2019

On January 5th and 6th I participated in two General Conference listening sessions in my Annual Conference. We heard various and diverse opinions on people’s hopes for the upcoming special General Conference of the United Methodist church, which is slated for February 23-26 in St. Louis. I was one of about a couple dozen people over the course of two sessions to give 3 minutes speeches to the entire body after a time of small-group round-table discussions with various delegates.

Throughout both sessions some expressed their desire to see the church change to be more inclusive of the LGBTQ community. More than once the denomination’s current official position in the Book of Discipline, which in a nut shell is that sex is for marriage and marriage is only between one man and one woman, was condemned as being discriminatory and hurtful to the LGBTQ community. More than one person speaking for progressive change insisted that since being gay is not a choice then it is wrong to not bless same-sex unions. There were several implicit comparisons—one very explicit—between sexual orientation and race. At least one speaker spoke of a scientific consensus along those lines with regards to sexual orientation.

More than one speaker on behalf of the progressive view also condemned the traditional view as harmful and even deadly. That is, that the traditional Christian view is actually causing people to kill themselves. A mother of a gay son, who took his own life, actually spoke to that point. It is incredibly heart-wrenching to even think about. I can imagine how emotionally devastating it would be to lose a child like that.

Other progressive speakers used the issues of the church’s evolution on the issue of slavery and ordaining women as analogies for how we should also think differently about the Biblical passages that prohibit homosexual behavior. More than one progressive speaker admitted that Bible is clear on the issue, but they just don’t think those verses apply anymore in light of modern knowledge and experience. One woman said: “We know what Leviticus and Paul said, but we should interpret those passages as we interpret the passages on slavery” (i.e. as no longer relevant today). One basically said, the Bible is a flawed book written by flawed men who gave their opinions about the will of God at the time, but they were wrong. Another gentleman used the argument that since Jesus didn’t explicitly say anything about it then it must be okay, and it doesn’t really matter what Leviticus or Paul say.

There really wasn’t  anything in these arguments that I haven’t heard before. All of these comparisons and assertions are dubious at best, and one assertion is pretty insidious and sinister really. The race comparison is just false, as is the idea that there is a scientific consensus behind such an analogy. Consider the American Psychological Association on the cause of sexual orientation:

There is no consensus among scientists about the exact reasons that an individual develops a heterosexual, bisexual, gay or lesbian orientation. Although much research has examined the possible genetic, hormonal, developmental, social and cultural influences on sexual orientation, no findings have emerged that permit scientists to conclude that sexual orientation is determined by any particular factor or factors. Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

https://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/orientation.aspx

That is a far cry from being just like race or eye color, which is another comparison I’ve heard quite frequently. I’m not saying that the APA supports the traditional Christian view; they certainly don’t. The APA, as with almost all of secular society, believes that all consensual sex between adults married or not is perfectly normal and healthy, and most of the APA, based on the ideology of their predecessors like Alfred Kinsey, would likely believe that it is sexual repression, not expression, that is unnatural and unhealthy. Their conclusions and advice are based on a particular set of philosophical presuppositions and a worldview that is quite different from the traditional Christian worldview. And these secular philosophical presuppositions are too often asserted as scientific fact. The truth is some just believe that people should be able to have consensual sex with whomever and however they want without any negative judgment. It’s no secret that people with this ideology often have tremendous contempt and disdain for the traditional Christian view, which they see as backwards and repressive. This is the dominant view we encounter almost exclusively in pop culture and secular media and entertainment.

Nonetheless, as the LGBTQ+ acronym itself suggests other types of sexual attraction/desire and orientation are more appropriate analogies. For example, a few weeks ago a United Methodist shared a video from a site called “Queer Theology” promoting the acceptance of polyamorous people (people who desire to be in multiple sexual relationships simultaneously) like him. In the video a young man talks about his polyamorous (possibly bi-sexual?) orientation and how he thinks the Biblical metaphor of the Church being the bride of Christ justifies those types of relationships (i.e. because, he said, Jesus is in intimate relationships with multiple people at the same time). Other progressives have also followed the logic to these other expressions of sexual desire to condone and bless any expression of consensual sex with marriage only being optional. As a matter of fact, one plan being put forward to the special General Conference called “The Simple Plan,” would remove restrictions regarding sex outside of marriage altogether from what I understand.

From the traditional Christian worldview, however, we believe that sin corrupts and distorts our God-given desires and enslaves us apart from God’s grace to those desires. Think about the way Paul describes a person enslaved to sin in the flesh apart from the power of the Spirit in Romans 7. The person thus bound, even when he knows better, cannot not sin. A person in the flesh, apart from grace, has no choice, but is left asking, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). Of course the answer comes in the next verse and the next chapter: “God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7:25). In chapter eight Paul describes the new life and freedom we have through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. Whereas in the flesh bound by sin, we cannot submit to God’s law because we will not; in the Spirit we are freed from the power of our corrupted desires for joyful obedience to the will of God! (Rom 8:1-17). This is true for all of us no matter how our corrupted desires manifest themselves in our lives sexually or otherwise.

And of course this does not mean our desires will be completely transformed on this side of the resurrection and the second coming of Christ. In this life we will still have to deny the fulfillment of our sinful desires and put them to death by the power of the Spirit (Rom 8:12-13; also Col 3:5ff). As Jesus said, we have to deny ourselves and take up our cross daily to follow him (Luke 9:23). And, of course, we will need to be plenteous in mercy and forbearance with one another in the struggle together.

As far as the slavery comparison goes, that is also a bad analogy. Even some of the best liberal scholars admit that the Bible is clear and unequivocal in it’s unconditional prohibition of homosexual practice. The regulations even under the old covenant for Israel were designed to be a system of mercy for the destitute, as hard as that might be for us to imagine. And even within the old covenant regulations of slavery there was already a quick trajectory toward freedom every seven years and in the year of Jubilee. It was not a system based on race and lifelong chattel slavery as developed in colonial and Antebellum America. And there is nothing to suggest that the Biblical model of slavery was to be required to continue to exist in every time and place. Again this is not a good analogy, and it would be better to look at the trajectory of sexual morality in the Bible with regards to …. sexual ethics. As the Sermon on the Mount makes clear, the trajectory was not toward a more liberal sexual ethic. A similar argument can be made for women in ministry as there is already precedent for woman exercising prophetic ministry and leadership even in the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament. At least these two issues are not straightforward and unequivocal in the same way that the prohibitions against homosexual behavior are.

As for the charge that the conservative Christian view is actually causing harm and even death, I can say that the disproportionate rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies, among other problems, in the LGBTQ community is concerning and heart-wrenching. Any time someone takes his or her own life it is incredibly alarming and sad. A teenage boy in my kid’s high school took his own life last week. He left a note saying in part at least it was because his girlfriend broke up with him. I’m sure he was troubled in many ways. It is heartbreaking, and I can’t imagine what his former girlfriend is going through as a result.

There’s a movie called “Prayers for Bobby,” starring Sigourney Weaver, who plays a conservative Christian mother who became an LGBTQ advocate after her gay son, Bobby, took his own life. The movie portrays Bobby’s depression and suicidal tendencies as resulting from the rejection he experienced from his conservative Christian mother and his church. But even in the movie it shows that Bobby finally took his own life after being distressed by seeing his boyfriend flirting with another man. To try to lay the blame primarily at the feet of the conservative Christian community is incredibly manipulative and really quite insidious. It is a lot more complicated than that.

Is the message to traditional Christians that you must give up your convictions and accept the progressive view or you are responsible for people’s deaths? This will only lead to more anti-Christian sentiment and more legal maneuvering to suppress the expression of traditional Christian views in society. But will this really lessen the disproportionate rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies in the LGBTQ community? There is evidence to suggest it will not.

This is not, however, to suggest that it is okay for parents or churches to completely reject and disown their children for any reason, whether they come out as bi-sexual, polyamorous, gay, or as just refusing to be celibate outside of marriage as a strict heterosexual. My children may disown me, but, by the grace of God, I’ll never disown them, but that does not mean I’ll agree with everything they believe and do.

At our listening sessions, nevertheless, every progressive speaker who expressed condemnation of the traditional view in the terms described above, also expressed support for the “One Church” Plan, which purports to make room for both progressive and traditionalist views in the same denomination. It’s really hard to understand how people who believe the traditional view is so harmful would be content with being affiliated with people who still promote it. The One Church Plan does actually liberalize the definition of marriage and only allows for slender exemptions for the traditionalist conscience. It will also quickly bring about the ordination of practicing homosexuals in the United States by delegating that decision to the Annual Conference clergy sessions, where only ordained elders and deacons will have a say (with the exception of a few lay people and local pastors who happen to be on the Board of Ordained Ministry).broken rope

The part of conscience that the One Church Plan does not protect is conscience in terms of affiliation. Progressives show they understand the importance of this when they make motions to divest clergy pension funds from companies that do business with the state of Israel, for example. And by not allowing for a gracious exit, the One Church Plan allows local church property and assets to be used as leverage to create a fellowship of the coerced rather than the committed, as some have put it.  I think it is clear that most progressives support the One Church Plan because it gives them the upper hand to maintain control of the denomination in the U.S. The exemptions they give traditionalists now can be taken away later (consider how the Episcopal Church has recently revoked exemptions originally given to conservatives when they first officially liberalized their polity; the Presiding Bishop has recently brought sanctions against the Bishop of Albany).  Progressive United Methodists will not be content to allow space for what they see as grave injustice for long. Is the One Church Plan really a recipe for “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3)?

When it was my turn to speak at the listening sessions in my Annual Conference this is what I said:

 I speak today on behalf of the modified traditional plan; I believe it is the only plan that will allow for unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. In John 17 Jesus prays that his disciples may be one (vv. 11 &22); he also prays that they will be sanctified or made holy according to the truth of God’s word (v. 17). We do not have unity because we do not have a shared vision of holiness and truth.

The argument is really not about whether Scripture identifies all forms of homosexual practice as sin. Liberal Bible scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says, progressives should be honest that they are in fact “rejecting the straightforward commands of Scripture” in light of the authority of modern experience.[1] Walter Brueggemann argues that the revelation of Jesus shows that the prohibitions against homosexual behavior were just wrong.[2] Our own Adam Hamilton makes a similar argument by saying that some Scripture was never inspired of God. Yet according to Matthew 5 Jesus said:

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (NRSV)

I pray for unity, but not a unity based on what is at least a partial rejection of the authority of the moral law in Scripture. This is not in harmony with the teaching of Jesus or our own doctrinal standards that express the sufficiency of Scripture (Article 5) and the ongoing authority of the moral law (Article 6), which was an essential for John Wesley. Jesus, in John 14:15, says, “if you love me you will keep my commandments.”

Without a shared vision of holiness and truth we cannot have unity. The “One Church” plan will not bring peace; it will prolong infighting and intensify it by localizing it to the Annual Conference and local church. The traditional plan allows for the possibility of unity around a shared vision of holiness and truth; it also allows for amicable separation for those who have contradictory and competing visions.

The call to maintain the unity of the Spirit in Ephesians 4:3 must be understood in light of what Paul says a few verses later about the goal of building up of the body of Christ. The goal is to work

until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. 14 We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. 15 But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,.. (Eph 4:13-15 NRSV).

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience,” Commonweal Magazine, 6/11/2007,  https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0. accessed 1/3/2019.

[2] Marlena Graves, “It’s Not a Matter of Obeying the Bible: 8 Questions for Walter Brueggemann,” On Faith, https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2015/01/09/walter-brueggemann-church-gospel-bible/35739. accessed 1/3/2019.

Below you’ll also find a link to a video where I recently discussed the plans that the special General Conference will be presented and explain why I disagree with some of the most common reasons given for changing the official position of the UMC. It may be useful in having conversations in churches from a conservative perspective.

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The End of the Wesleyan Way of Salvation

The following is a very slightly modified excerpt from a paper I recently completed. This is why God the Father sent his Son into the world.



John Wesley’s refined soteriology is marked by very subtle nuances and distinctions along his via salutis (Way of Salvation); as a result it is also holistic in that he does not emphasize justification at the expense of sanctification, what God does for us and what God does in us.[1] Yet in his sermon on “The Way of Salvation” he alludes to the concept that sums up greater still what is the end of the way of salvation, namely to be renewed in the image of God, which he describes Christologically by alluding to Phil 2:5 as “the mind which was in Christ Jesus.”[2]

We should not underestimate how important renewal in the image of God was for John Wesley’s soteriology. In his sermon on “Original Sin” Wesley did not mince words:

Ye know that all religion which does not answer this end, all that stops short of this, the renewal of our soul in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it, is no other than a poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul.[3]

John Wesley preachingTherefore, it is vital that we grasp Wesley’s understanding of the image of God in order to appreciate the full scope of his vision of salvation. We will also see how it is the nexus between human renewal and the renewal of the entire creation.

As Edgardo Colón-Emeric says, “the doctrine of the image of God lies at the heart of Wesley’s theological anthropology and soteriology.”[4] It is central to his teaching on original sin, foundational to his understanding of justification by faith, and essential for his doctrine of the new birth. These three scriptural doctrines, original sin, justification by faith, and the new birth, Wesley considered of utmost importance for Christians to understand. He considered justification by faith and the new birth to be fundamental Christian doctrines above all. Moreover, he says, the foundation of the doctrine of the new birth is the doctrine of humanity created in the image of the Triune God and the disastrous effects of original sin on our nature. “This then is the foundation of the new birth—the corruption of our entire nature. Hence it is that being ‘born in sin’ we ‘must be born again.’”[5]

The Three Dimensions of the Image of God

Whereas Deists identified reason with the image of God, and Immanuel Kant with conscience, Wesley saw it in a more relational sense.[6] He also thought of it in a tri-dimensional way. First there is the natural image. Like God, humans are also spiritual beings, albeit embodied spiritual beings, which possess an immortal soul. The natural image also includes a principle of self-motion, an agency driven by understanding, will, and liberty. Understanding involves the ability to discern truth from falsehood; the will is made up of a constellation of affections, passions, and tempers, which would have been completely filled with love before the fall; and liberty is the ability of choice that made humans capable of “holy love” in the first place.[7]

The second dimension is the political image. This dimension captures the fact that God not only created humans to be in relationship with God and other humans, but also nature itself, especially other creatures.[8] “Man was God’s vice-regent upon earth, the prince and governor of this lower world, and all the blessings of God flowed through him to the inferior creatures.”[9] From biblical passages like Gen 1-3 and Psalm 8, Wesley understood that God created humanity to be conduits and mediators of God’s blessing to the rest of creation, including other humans and other creatures. Humans were created with a responsibility for their relationship with God; they were also created with a responsibility for the welfare of their fellow humans. God does generally choose to bless humans through other humans (see Gen 12:1-3). Moreover, humans were created with a responsibility for the welfare of the other creatures.[10] This is how Wesley understood the dominion of humans over creation under the reign of God.

The third and, according to Wesley, the chief dimension of the image of God in humanity is the moral image.[11] It is this dimension that especially distinguishes humanity from the rest of creation. But, for Wesley, it was not reason that made the difference. Wesley granted that animals also have some reasoning capabilities in terms of a measure of understanding. He speculated that before the fall those capabilities would have far exceeded what they are now.[12] For sure, he believed humans capable of reasoning powers far in excess of all other creatures except angels. Nevertheless, what really made humans unique is the capacity to know, love, and glorify God. Speaking of the moral image, Wesley quotes part of 1 John 4:16, “God is love” to say that so too “man at his creation was full of love, which was the sole principle of all his tempers, thoughts, words, and actions.” But lest we misconstrue this as a mere sentimental love, Wesley is also careful to highlight other moral attributes that humanity originally shared with God, “justice, mercy, and truth.” In fact, based on Eph 4:24, Wesley primarily identified the moral image with “righteousness and true holiness.”[13] Wesley says, “Gospel holiness is no less than the image of God stamped upon the heart; it is no other than the whole mind which was in Christ Jesus; it consists of all heavenly affections and tempers mingled together in one.”[14] Again Wesley considered love to be the sole principle of those affections and tempers before the fall, but not understood apart from righteousness and holiness. The moral image “highlights the crucial truth that it was not just any love in which humanity was created but it was holy love.”[15]

The moral image in humanity was in perfect harmony with the nature of God and, therefore, with the will and law of God. The righteousness in which humanity was originally created “was the conformity of all the faculties and powers of his soul to the moral law.”[16] Wesley considered the moral law to be the universal standard of righteousness that is “a copy of the eternal mind, a transcript of the divine nature.”[17] According to Wesley it was written on the hearts of angels and humans when they were created.[18] As a copy the moral law is not to be identified as the actual mind of God or the image of God itself in humanity. Neither is it the basis of the humanity’s fellowship with God. But it is “a standard that is expressive of the integrity of that relationship and that reveals both grace and righteousness (and sin as well) for what they are.”[19]

 

The Effects of the Fall on the Image of God

As we have seen, the doctrine of original sin is foundational for Wesley, especially as it concerns the new birth, the beginning of human renewal. Thus, it is essential that we consider the deleterious effects of the fall. First, understanding the image of God as a “capacity for relationships,” we see that humanity’s rebellion in Adam severed humanity’s primary and most significant relationship, our relationship with God.[21] This brought spiritual death wherein the soul was cut off from the life of God. The cause according to Wesley was first and foremost unbelief. In unbelief Adam and Eve rejected the word of God and believed the word of the devil. Unbelief led to pride and self-will and love of the world above God. This left humanity plagued with evil affections and tempers and its liberty therein bound. Those created for virtue became slaves to vice. The moral image was completely lost, while the natural image was left marred and confused, hopelessly (apart from grace) prone to error and ignorance; the political image was greatly distorted, thus disrupting the flow of the blessing of God through humanity to the rest of creation.[22] For the rest of creation, rather than being a conduit of God’s blessing, humanity brought “disorder, misery, and death.”[23]

Although as a whole the entirety of the image of God was not totally effaced; it was overshadowed and despoiled by what Wesley called “the image of the devil” marked by “pride and self-will.” Humanity also fell partly into “the image of the beast” being dominated by “sensual appetites and desires.”[24] Actually humanity became worse than the devil in that “we run into an idolatry whereof he is not guilty: I mean love of the world,” which is “to seek happiness in the creature rather than the Creator.”[25] With 1 John 2:15-17 as his guide, Wesley further explained love of the world as living for the insatiable desires for pleasure, novelty, and praise of people rather than the will of God.[26] It is from this sad and hopeless (apart from grace) state that humanity needs to be saved. By the blood of Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, the grace of God reverses and heals the effects of the fall, thereby renewing humanity in the image of God.


 

Although John Wesley did believe in the conscious existence of the soul after death, he saw that as only an intermediate state. The renewal of all creation through human renewal in the image of God was always his greater hope. This greater hope is inherent to his vision of the image of God in which humanity was created, especially in what he called the political image. When humanity is in proper relationship with God in terms of the moral image, blessing flows from God through humanity into the rest of creation. What is implicit in Wesley’s understanding of the image of God, especially the political dimension, he makes explicit in his sermon on Romans 8, “The General Deliverance” (Sermon 60). With humanity fully redeemed in the resurrection of the body, harmony and full blessing will be restored to the rest of creation in the new heaven and earth.

It is also important to note that holiness and righteousness in terms of the moral image, and its relationship with the moral law, are absolutely essential for a genuinely Wesleyan vision of salvation. Holiness and the moral law are essential doctrines. Wesley would often quote Hebrews 12:14 as a reminder of that fact.

Follow peace with all men, and holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord: (KJV)

It is true that we are not saved BY holiness, but we are saved BY grace THROUGH faith FOR holiness, which is renewal in the image of God. This is the end-goal of grace, justification, sanctification, and all of the means of grace. Remembering this ultimate goal can keep us from losing sight of the forest for the trees and settling for truncated visions of salvation that would leave us with far less than God intends. Truncated visions of salvation include those that emphasize individual salvation at the expense of social and cosmic salvation, those that emphasize justification at the expense of sanctification, or those that promote so-called social justice to the neglect of individual salvation. It is foolish to expect to bring about a virtuous society without virtuous people. Only the grace of God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit can renew people in the image of God. To settle for anything less, in the words of Wesley, would be a “poor farce, and a mere mockery of God, to the destruction of our own soul.” But to accept the grace of God in Christ through faith is to have our souls saved and renewed “in the image of God after the likeness of him that created it.”  This is the end of the Wesleyan way of salvation!

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Charles Wesley ~ “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”

 

[1] Wesley, “Sermon 45: The New Birth,,” in Works, Outler, 2:187.

[2] Wesley, “Sermon 43,” in Works, Outler, 2:164.

[3] Wesley, “Sermon 44: On Original Sin,” in Works, Outler, 2:185.

[4] Edgardo Colón-Emeric, Wesley, Aquinas, and Christian Perfection: An Ecumenical Dialogue (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 18.

[5] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:190.

[6] Theodore Runyon, The New Creation: John Wesley’s Theology Today (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 13.

[7] Kenneth J. Collins, The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007), 52-53.

[8] Collins, Holy Love, 53-54.

[9] Wesley, “Sermon 60,” in Works, Outler, 2:440.

[10] Collins, Holy Love, 54-55.

[11] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler 2:188.

[12] Wesley, “Sermon 60,” in Works, Outler, 2:441.

[13] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:188.

[14] Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:194.

[15] Collins, Holy Love, 55.

[16] John Wesley, “The Doctrine of Original Sin,” in The Works of John Wesley, ed. Thomas Jackson (reprint; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 9:434.

[17] Wesley, “Sermon 34: The Original, Nature, Properties, and Use of the Law,” in Works, Outler, 2:10.

[18] Wesley, “Sermon 34,” in Works, Outler, 2:7.

[19] Collins, Holy Love, 56.

[21] Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace (Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1994), 68.

[22] Collins, Holy Love, 58-63.

[23] Wesley, “Sermon 56: God’s Approbation of His Works,” in Works, Outler, 2:399.

[24]Wesley, “Sermon 45,” in Works, Outler, 2:190.

[25] Wesley, “Sermon 44,” in Works, Outler, 2:179-180.

[26] Wesley, “Sermon 44,” in Works, Outler, 2:181-182.

Sexuality & the Church: What’s Love, Jesus, and Covenant Got To Do With It?

*The following is a slightly revised version of an article I wrote a few years ago*

“Why don’t you just want to love people and follow Jesus?”

That was the question a pastor colleague asked me as we sat in the sunshine on the roof of a restaurant in Minneapolis. We were with several other colleagues attending a preaching conference headlined by names like Walter Brueggemann, Brian McLaren, Mike Slaughter, Will Willimon, and others. I think by this point in the conference I had already heard Mike Slaughter call people who think like me Pharisees. Brian McLaren had already basically suggested that we conservatives just want to see the Earth destroyed and the only way for it to be saved was for progressives to band together against those forces of destruction. McLaren was very much laying out an “us vs. them” and I soon figured out that I was on the “them” side of his equation. “Full inclusion” of LGBTQ+, which of course for progressives means acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and LGBTQ+ behavior, was mentioned quite frequently without even the slightest hint anywhere that the traditional Christian sexual ethic might still have some validity.

So at dinner when the topic was brought up by someone else on my end of the table, I said that although I refused to argue in sound bites I would be happy to share with them why I believe the Church should stick with the traditional teaching on sex. One person said she was wrestling with the issue, although heavily leaning progressive. Then the other person really wanted to hear what I had to say because she just couldn’t understand “Why you don’t want to love people and follow Jesus?”DSC00618

Undoubtedly it was a sincere question. Apparently in her time in the United Methodist Church and at Duke Divinity School she had never heard anything but progressive arguments presented clearly. Nonetheless, these colleagues, both of whom I appreciate and care about, showed me a great deal of respect and listened as I began to address that initial question and a couple others. The following is the very little that I shared with them that day and a bit more.

First of all, I don’t see love as a blanket permissiveness, a fuzzy non-judgmentalism, or a generic niceness. Christian love is a holy affection (Hebrew: ahav Greek: agapaō) that inspires one to be faithful to the word of God out of Spirit-implanted gratitude. As the author of 1 John might put it, love is to gladly keep God’s commandments (see 1 John 5:2-3). In other words, from a biblical point of view, I believe love is a holy affection that issues in covenant loyalty. This is what I believe is at the heart of God’s love for us and our love for God in response. The Hebrew term chesed often translated “steadfast love,” regularly occurs in parallel with the word “faithfulness” in the Old Testament with regards to God’s posture toward his people (See Psalm 100:5, for example). Similarly for us, while deep feelings for our beloved are certainly involved, biblical love cannot be far removed from covenant without radically changing its meaning. This is whether it be speaking of God’s keeping his promise to bless, or even to discipline his covenant people (the Bible clearly speaks of God’s blessing and punishment being driven by love – see Heb 12 & Rev 3:19), or whether it be with regards to God’s forgiveness. In any case covenant loyalty is at the center of it. Covenant faithfulness is also at the center of the people of God’s love for him as a cursory reading of Deuteronomy 6 would clearly reveal. This doesn’t disappear in the New Testament, for New Testament people are a New Covenant people; hence 1 John’s equating the love of God with commandment keeping. Yes, we need forgiveness, and forgiveness is driven by love; but forgiveness is not permissiveness. Love forgives, but love also holds accountable. God does this for us, and he expects us to do this for each other.

If we love each other, not only should we forgive each other, but we should also hold each other accountable. That’s what the context of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” found in Leviticus 19:18 clearly indicates. Jesus quoted that verse along with Deuteronomy 6:5 to sum up—not to set aside—the rest of the law. Leviticus 19:17 specifies a covenant member’s responsibility to hold his fellow covenant member accountable to the covenant or else he would incur guilt himself. The context suggests that not to do this would be to hate one’s neighbor; while to be faithful to this task would be to love one’s neighbor. There is danger in breaking God’s commandments; to stand idly by while one’s brother or sister does so would be no more loving than not warning someone who was about to step off a cliff. Members of the Old Covenant were to hold each other accountable; members of the New Covenant are as well. Accountable to what? Well, to the New Covenant, wherein there is much overlap with the Old such that the Old Testament is quoted in the New Testament as an authority for Christian behavior (see 1 Peter 1:16 which is a quote from Leviticus). Jesus held his disciples accountable and he called his disciples to hold each other accountable albeit with an abundance of forgiveness (see Matt 18).

Make no mistake, however, Christians don’t keep the commandments in order to merit God’s love and grace; they show covenant loyalty out of thankfulness for God’s love and grace already received by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Grace forgives, and it also inspires and empowers one to live a life pleasing to God, which includes accountable discipleship.

If all this sounds crazy, perhaps it is because we have been steeped into something other than genuine Christianity. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) as some have described the religion of many young people in the Church, a religion that was undoubtedly passed down from parents and even pastors as others have rightly discerned, IS NOT Christianity – no matter how Christian-ish it may be! The love described in both covenants is not a bland niceness that leads to blanket permissiveness; it is a holy affection of the heart that leads to a desire to please God by doing his will, keeping his word, and as a result being found faithful.

As preachers, as John Wesley would concur, we are not only called to preach the Gospel; we are also called to preach the law warning others of God’s righteous judgment. For a preacher to neglect this is serious business as Wesley well knew! Wesley would allude to or quote Ezekiel 3:16-21, which warns about incurring punishment for failing to warn sinners, as a reminder of this grave responsibility. A preacher’s job is not to make people more comfortable with sin, which is both covenant breaking and the inner compulsion of a corrupt nature to do so. A preacher’s job is to warn sinners “to flee from sin as from the face of the serpent”, as Wesley often said, and to run to Jesus to find everlasting comfort in the living God. This is love!

So the question is what are the just requirements of the covenant with regards to sexual behavior? In other words, what does the Bible say? For there is no better place to go to find the terms of the covenant than to prayerfully go to the Bible, lest we find ourselves following our own deceitful hearts and eyes away from a covenant relationship with God (See Num 15:39; Jer 17:9; 1 John 2:15-17).

According to Jesus’ own reading of the Bible (Matt 19:1-12) all forms of sexual activity outside of the lifelong covenant marriage between one man and one woman are outside of God’s original design for marriage, which is evident in the structures of creation itself, not least in the complimentary sexual anatomy of male and female (see Gen 1-2 & Rom 1). Sex is good, but it is a good thing that can be corrupted and abused. The ultimate end or goal of sex is the glory of God in the ongoing work of creation brought about through procreation, bearing and rearing children. The pleasure derived from it is a means to that end, not only for childbearing, but also to create a strong and stable loving bond between a man and a woman as the foundation of a thriving family. Marriage also provides for lifelong companionship that allows for the fulfillment of natural sexual desires that is in harmony with God’s design and intent for sex whether children result or not (see 1 Cor 7:1-9). When pleasure becomes an end in itself rather than a means, God’s design is upended and everyone suffers, especially children.

In a fallen world God did allow for a measure of sex outside of his original intent for Israel. For instance, the Law of Moses allowed for divorce for more or less ambiguous reasons, but when Jesus came he announced that allowance had reached its expiration date and would no longer be allowed under the New Covenant except for cases like adultery. Jesus made his case for lifelong marital unions by pointing to God’s original intent and design in creation and under the New Covenant calls his followers to live into that ideal as far as is possible (see Mark 10 & Matt 19). For Jesus boredom is certainly never a good reason for divorce. Jesus’ teaching on divorce and marriage also had direct implications for polygamy which God had also tolerated under the Old Covenant. Polygamy came to be unacceptable for Christians altogether. Monogamy became the absolute rule, a trajectory undoubtedly set by Jesus himself, and reiterated by Paul as early as his first letter to the Corinthians (see 1 Cor 7:1-16).

That being said, there were other forms of sexual activity that were strictly forbidden for God’s people because they are more degrading and corrupt than others. Leviticus 18 delineates these things that included adultery, incest, homosexual sex-acts, and bestiality. Revealing their universal sinfulness, God renounced the Egyptians and judged the Canaanites for these practices, and sternly warned Israel not to follow them. God says these practices, along with the child sacrifice that seems to be part and parcel of such unbridled sexual practices, defile not only the people who practice them, but also the land itself, which because of these practices becomes metaphorically sick.

People under the Old Covenant were strictly forbidden from engaging in any of these things, and also warned that the land too would become sick and vomit them out if they practiced them. For those under the New Covenant there is not a looser sexual ethic; there’s an even tighter one, as a cursory reading of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount makes clear, as well as his teaching on marriage and divorce mentioned above (Mark 10; Matt 19). Moreover, when you consider the fact that Jesus spoke of sexual immoralities in the plural that proceed from an evil heart, which, along with other sins, defile a person (Matt 15:19; Mark 7:21), there’s no reason to believe that the plurality of sexual immoralities that he spoke of would bear no relationship with the degrading sexual practices outlined in Leviticus. There is no indication anywhere from the witness of any of the other writings of the New Testament that Christians should expect more license with regards to sexual behavior. The standard that Jesus set forth presents a tremendous challenge for all kinds of sexual sinners whether they be heterosexual, homosexual, or anything in between. In fact, in our hyper-sexualized culture the thought of this may easily lead one to despair and to wonder, who then may be saved? From a human point of view it is a definite impossibility, but with God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, all things are possible! (Matt 19:26).

Specifically with regards to homosexual acts the prohibition in the Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (ESV) and 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them,” are absolute. As far as the Bible is concerned there is no way to have a justified same-sex sexual relationship. The writings of the New Testament are even clearer in that not only is sex between men explicitly condemned, but also sex between women (which would have been implicitly understood to be off limits in the Old Testament); both of which are condemned for being “contrary to nature” (i.e. contrary to God’s original design, see Romans 1). While the penalty according to the civil laws for Israel under the Old Covenant no longer apply; yet the moral prohibition remains under the New Covenant. While also condemning all sexual immorality in general, 1 Corinthians 6:9-12, echoing Leviticus with regards to homosexuality, makes it unmistakably clear that same-sex sexual activity, along with the various others sins listed there, if not repented of, will exclude one from the kingdom of God. In other words, all unrepentant sexual sinners will be excluded from the New Covenant community in the New Heaven and Earth (see Rev 21:1-8).

To be a part of the New Covenant community we need to repent, which means to turn away from sin and turn to Jesus, trusting him with our life by receiving the forgiveness that he provides as our Savior, and following him by the power of His Spirit as our Lord. Along the narrow way (Matt 7:13-14) we will struggle, stumble, and sometimes fall; nevertheless, we will not fail to reach our goal if we keep looking to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb 12:1-2 KJV).

The trajectory of church history, undoubtedly set by Jesus himself, only confirms the witness of the New Testament. Strict monogamy within holy matrimony quickly became the norm for the Church. This is the relationship that most beautifully reflects the faithful covenant relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:21-32). Sexual pleasure is a means to a greater end, which is covenant loyalty, namely love. The object of love shouldn’t be the pleasure derived from the beloved, but the beloved himself or herself. Marriage should reflect that God Himself is the ultimate object of our love. Christian celibacy makes this even more vivid. Celibacy reflects the sexless nature of the world to come (see Matt 22:30; Mark 12:25; Luke 20:35), further confirming that sex is a means to a greater end not an end in itself. The Bible is telling us that sex is not of ultimate importance, which, as is evident from our own culture, is all too easy to forget. As Christians we are called to sexual holiness to model for the world the beauty and the goodness of covenant love and faithfulness. When we depart from this God-ordained design, we open the door to the destructive forces of chaos that destroy individuals, marriages and families, hurt children, and destabilize society. God’s design is not meant to be a kill-joy. It is meant to be a blessing where marriages are built on covenant faithfulness rather than fleeting notions of romance and sexual excitement; where children are received as a blessing rather than a burden and faithfully nurtured by their mothers and fathers together, as far as is possible.

As admitted by “progressive” scholars such as Dan O. Via (see book “Two Views” by Via and Robert Gagnon), up until the 1960’s the gist of what I described above was universally accepted to be the teaching of the Bible without exception. Then once the “sexual revolution” ignited a brush fire of sexual licentiousness that spread quickly through society, novel interpretations of the Bible began to spring up suggesting that perhaps the Bible never really condemned all forms of homosexual behavior after all. Since then many have suggested that people have simply misinterpreted the Bible for thousands of years. Arguments were made that maybe there was room in the church for strictly monogamous homosexual relationships. Many variations of this argument still abound.

Nevertheless, from what I have read and heard these revisionist arguments are all extremely dubious at best. What many people don’t realize is that not only are these revisionist arguments rejected by conservatives scholars such as Richards Hays, Ben Witherington, N.T. Wright, Michael Brown, and Robert Gagnon; these arguments are also dismissed by prominent liberal/progressive scholars such as Dan O. Via, Luke Timothy Johnson, Old Testament expert Walter Brueggemann, theologian Phyllis Tickle, and William Loader, who is an expert on ancients Jewish and Christian attitudes about sex.  All of the latter are supportive of the LGBTQ+ agenda.

In a lecture I saw on video Phyllis Tickle basically said it is a fool’s game to try to prove that the Bible would condone same-sex relationships of any variety. As does Dan O. Via, Walter Brueggemann also acknowledges that the Leviticus texts condemn all forms of same-sex activity, consensual or otherwise; but Brueggemann believes that the revelation of God in Christ serves as a “corrective” to those texts. Similarly, I have heard Tex Sample, an ordained United Methodist elder and seminary professor, argue something similar at a weekend retreat on rural ministry. Sample’s argument concerned the Apostle Paul. He said that Jesus serves as a corrective to Paul because although Paul condemns homosexuality, Jesus never mentioned it, which Sample obviously, and mistakenly, interprets as tacit approval on Jesus’ part. Luke Timothy Johnson, a prominent New Testament scholar at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, also acknowledges that the Bible condemns all forms of homosexual behavior, but he, like Via, believes experience proves the Bible to be wrong. Johnson puts it this way:

The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to …[1]

 

While each of these scholars might differ in some finer nuances of their arguments, as all scholars do, the underlying thread among them is that the Bible does indeed condemn all forms of homosexual activity. Some of them, however, do attempt to somehow pit Jesus against the texts that condemn same-sex acts in some way, but unconvincingly so when you consider the more conservative trajectory of Jesus’ own sexual ethic as mentioned above. Robert Gagnon (see “The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and hermeneutics & other articles at robgagnon.net) has also shown that prominent liberal secular experts on homosexuality in the ancient world, who themselves approve of homosexuality, also admit that the Bible does indeed condemn any form of same-sex sexual activity.

Take, for instance, two of them in their own words in light of common claims among revisionists that the writers of the Bible would only have had exploitative and abusive forms of homosexuality in mind when they condemned it, or the claims that had they known about “sexual orientation” like we do they would have approved of committed same-sex sexual relationships.

Paul could have believed that tribades [the active female partners in a female homosexual], the ancient kinaidoi [the passive male partner in a male homosexual bond], and other sexually unorthodox persons were born that way and yet still condemn them as unnatural and shameful. . . . I see Paul as condemning all forms of homoeroticism as the unnatural acts of people who had turned away from God.” (p. 446 in “Love Between Women: Early Christian Responses to Female Homoeroticism” by Bernadette Brooten, professor at Brandeis , herself lesbian)

According to [one] interpretation, Paul’s words were not directed at ‘bona fide’ homosexuals in committed relationships. But such a reading, however well-intentioned, seems strained and unhistorical. Nowhere does Paul or any other Jewish writer of this period imply the least acceptance of same-sex relations under any circumstance. The idea that homosexuals might be redeemed by mutual devotion would have been wholly foreign to Paul or any other Jew[*] or early Christian. (p. 114 in “Homosexuality and Civilization” by historian Louis Crompton who was also homosexual)

(The above quotes are given as cited by in an article by Robert A.J. Gagnon) [2]

I would also add that “the any other Jew” referenced by Crompton would also include Jesus of Nazareth; there is no biblical or historical reason to assume otherwise. The fact that Jesus didn’t mention it specifically apart from the general mention of sexual immoralities, at least as far as the record of the four Gospels is concerned, no more means that Jesus actually approved of homosexuality any more than he would have approved of incest or bestiality, neither of which did he mention either.

Thomas Hubbard, an expert in Homosexuality in ancient Greece and Rome, acknowledges that there was some idea of sexual orientation similar to our own in the early Imperial age of Rome.[3] The obvious reason that Paul would not have been swayed by the “born that way” argument is because of his own born that way argument that he derived from scripture regarding sin in general. Paul knew that we are all born sinners who love to sin in multifarious ways because of a corrupt nature. Jesus also knew quite clearly that sin flows from corrupt human hearts (Matt 15:17-19). We all have a bent (unchosen desires) toward sin that manifests itself in different ways in different people. Neither Jesus nor Paul would have been fooled by the false dichotomy between unchosen desire and deliberate action. There are a plethora of unchosen desires we all have that we should not act because it would be contrary to what is right.

The bottom line is this, there is really no good reason to believe that people just misinterpreted the Bible for thousands of years until the sexual revolution of the 1960’s finally opened our eyes. The Bible (Old and New Testaments) does not have one positive thing to say about same-sex sexual relations in any form, consensual, monogamous, or otherwise. There’s no good reason to believe that Jesus’ supposed silence on the subject means that he actually approved of it. As mentioned above, Jesus spoke of a plurality of sexual immorality as evil that comes from the human heart; same-sex sexual activity would have been understood to be included in that. There’s also no good reason to believe that the apostle Paul just misunderstood that Jesus really approved of committed same-sex sexual relationships. Sexual holiness was a central teaching for the apostle Paul, as even a cursory reading of his letters would indicate (consider the fact that sexual immorality tops most of his vice lists – see 1 Cor 6:9-12; Gal 5:19-25; Eph 5:1-12).

Moreover, Luke in the book of Acts makes it clear too that Paul preached, taught, and ministered by the Spirit of the Lord himself. One should also note that Paul also frequently warns that sexual immorality, and various other sins, embraced and not repented of would cause one to remain outside the kingdom of God. This is because such a person would be outside the New Covenant community, not because of lack of having done enough to earn membership, but because of lack of genuine faith in Jesus. Jesus promises not only to forgive us; he also promises to transform us from the inside out. To opt for forgiveness without transformation would really be to forfeit both; and both are gifts of his grace. Jesus calls us to this kind of sexual holiness. This is a central part, not the only part, but a central part of his covenant. I can also confidently say that Jesus himself provided the initial and ongoing forgiveness that we need to be a part of it by his shed blood on the cross; and he provides us new birth, lifelong transformation, and a willing heart to live a life striving to please God by the power of his Spirit (See John 3 & Rom 8). Living by his Spirit we will supernaturally bear the corresponding fruit, beginning with love (see Gal 5:22-26). And Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15 ESV; see also v. 23).

Doubtless, there will still be some who will mock what I have said here. They will throw out myriad and myriad of reasons for why what I have stated here is wrong and unloving.  Some, though, even in the face of the witness of serious and extraordinarily skilled conservative and liberal scholars, will cling to the revisionist arguments. Some may just be naïve, others may know full well what the Bible actually says and still use revisionist arguments to deceive. The liberal scholars that I mentioned above agree that the Bible really does condemn all same-sex sexual behavior; they simply have the courage to say that they just think the Bible got this wrong. Many of the revisionists that I have spoken with, read, or heard also eventually reveal all of their cards. They almost always, when pressed, end up talking about how we don’t obey the Bible with regards to other things like eating shrimp, which was a dietary restriction for Israel under the Old Covenant. This argument seems to be a staple in the diet of those who want to dismiss what the Bible has to say about sex. But this fails to account for some of the distinctions between the Old and New Covenants in terms of the differences between the ceremonial, ritual, and civil laws for the nation of Israel under the Old Covenant and the ongoing significance of the universal moral law under the New Covenant. These distinctions are referenced in the Articles of Religion for the United Methodist Church (see Article VI).

But some will bring up other, admittedly difficult but not insurmountable, issues regarding the justice of God with regards to some Old Testament passages. They will do this all to the effect of trying to render the text of Scripture as untrustworthy and unreliable, that it is gray at best (see Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book “Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White, then compare to Bill Arnold’s response “Seeing Black and White in a World of Gray”). They will insist that the Bible is not clear; but the science on homosexuality and their personal experience is, when the direct opposite is actually the case. Still others, while also doing much of the above, will insist that the topic is not all that important, and certainly not a “central” issue. They will imply that it should be treated as an indifferent matter where people on both sides can simply just agree to disagree. These same folks, the self-styled moderates, who are almost always for full LGBTQ+ inclusion, will say that it is important that we believe the creeds regarding the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and the resurrection, not what we think about sex. In other words, it seems to me, they are saying that it is in fact alright to honor God with our lips but not with our hearts, at least as far as sex is concerned.

After all of this undermining of the integrity and reliability of the written word of God, what are we left with if we buy what they are selling? It seems to me all we are left with is doing what is right in our own eyes and following our own hearts. But I don’t think that is really loving people or following Jesus.

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving. For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.  Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”         Ephesians 5:1-14 (ESV)

 

 

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, “Homosexuality and the Church: Scripture and Experience,” 6/11/2007, Commonweal, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/homosexuality-church-0. Accessed 7/7/2018.

[2] Robert A.J. Gagnon, “How Bad is Homosexual Practice According to Scripture and Does Scripture’s Indictment Apply to Committed Homosexual Unions?,” January 2007, accessed July 30, 2018, http://www.robgagnon.net/HowBadIsHomosexualPractice.htm.

[3] Gagnon, ““How Bad is Homosexual Practice According to Scripture and Does Scripture’s Indictment Apply to Committed Homosexual Unions?”

Augustine and Wesley on the “One Church” Plan

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around. ~ G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

When considering major decisions for the Church, Christians can’t merely look to the opinions of those who live in only one geographic area. Neither should a body of Christians only consider what those who are presently alive have to say on any major issue. The Church is a communion of saints (holy people set apart by faith) throughout space and time. The Church consists of Christians around the globe and throughout history. The importance of tradition, as Chesterton noted, is that it enables us to listen to the voice of those who though dead still speak.

Progressives in the United Methodist Church are advocating that we change the definition of marriage and loosen the standards for sexual ethics. One major rationale given is that morality is “contextual.” This is what proponents of the so-called One Church Plan have insisted. Apparently the UM judicial council concurs. At least they say there is nothing in our doctrinal standards that would require uniformity of moral standards when it comes to marriage and sexual morality. Make note, however, that the One Church Plan doesn’t assume that there would be wide distance in terms of contextual standards for morality.

The assumption is not that moral standards may vary between continents or countries, or other large geographical areas. The assumption is that moral standards regarding marriage and sexual ethics may vary within local communities from local church to local church. The assumption is that different UM churches within the very same community, perhaps just on opposite sides of the street, can operate with contradictory definitions of marriage and different teaching regarding sexual morality, one of the most controversial issues of our time religiously and politically, and still somehow maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. I wouldn’t bank on it!

The assumption that morality can easily be considered separately from theological doctrines is seriously flawed. One of the most essential distinguishing features of the Judeo-Christian worldview from a pagan worldview is the connection between religion and morality in the former. Nevertheless, proponents of the ironically named One Church Plan insist that separation should be made, at least with regards to sex and marriage. There also seems to be the assumption that modern times necessitate doctrinal and moral relativism because of competing interpretations of the content, nature and authority of Scripture. The idea seems to be that at our current place in history we now know that doctrinal and moral relativism is an obvious necessity, something of which our ancestors were unaware. Sometimes progressives simply refer to the current year to seal the deal. “Hey it’s 2018! Get with it! And leave that outdated morality in the past where it belongs!”

That being said, I’m not really sure that proponents of the One Church Plan are as committed to their own idea of contextuality as they say. I think they really believe in the universal rightness of their vision of human sexuality for all people every where. They are just willing to make exceptions for traditionalists as a stepping stone. That’s what Bishop Palmer said at the Uniting Methodist conference in Dallas a few months ago as he compared the views of traditionalists regarding marriage to apologists for slavery in the past. Nevertheless, for now they are using their idea of contextuality to make space for different, and competing and contradictory, standards of marriage and sexual ethics within the same denomination to gain ground.

But there is really nothing new under the sun! I think we should and we can consult our ancestors to get their opinion on the underlying premises of the One Church Plan.

I’m in a DMin focus group at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio called “Living the Historic Faith: Christian Wisdom for Today’s Church.” We seek to study Scripture and mine the great tradition of the faith to apply ancient wisdom in the modern Church. This semester we read and discussed Saint Augustine’s book called Teaching Christianity. Augustine’s basic method of teaching the faith was to help church leaders in understanding the Scriptures correctly and to communicate their meaning clearly and effectively. For Augustine to teach Christianity is to teach the Bible. I know there are those who say the Church had faith before it had a Bible. But they are usually only thinking of the New Testament canon. From the beginning the church had Scripture as a standard of the faith proclaimed, the Old Testament (see Acts 17:11). Augustine well knew that there is an inseparable interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments. He said, The new is in the old concealed; the old is in the new revealed.”

Augusitne_n

Although Augustine’s method of finding symbolic meaning in seemingly mundane passages of Scripture is odd for most of us, he did not take liberties at the expense of the literal and plain meaning of Scripture. He didn’t just interpret the Old Testament figuratively. He also gave very practical instruction in terms of understanding the plain meaning of Scripture. For one thing he recommended that people begin by reading through the entirety of the Bible to get as familiar with its contents as possible. He also assumed that Scripture as a whole was clear (perspicuous) enough that one could understand God’s general will revealed therein. He believed there was enough clarity to prevent an honest person with the help of the Holy Spirit and the Church from being led astray by misinterpreting obscure and difficult passages in a heterodox way. He believed the clear passages of Scripture revealed the rule of faith by which all else was to be interpreted. For Augustine the intent of Scripture is to lead people to the love of God and neighbor, which also serves as a primary guide for interpreting Scripture. But to be sure, for Augustine the meaning of love should be derived from the plethora of plain passages from Scripture.

Augustine did warn about the danger of interpreting things literally that should be interpreted figuratively in accordance with the rule faith; but he also warned about the danger of interpreting things figuratively as a cloak for rebellion and self-will. In one such warning I believe Saint Augustine, though dead, yet speaks directly to the folly inherent in the One Church Plan.

The human race, however, is inclined to judge sins, not according to the gravity of the evil desire involved, but rather with the importance attached to their own customs. So people frequently reckon that only those acts are to be blamed which in their own part of the world and in their own time have been customarily treated as vicious and condemned, and only those acts to be approved of and praised which are acceptable to those among whom they live. Thus it can happen that if scripture either commands something that does not accord with the customs of the hearers, or censures something which does not fit in with them, they assume they are dealing with a figurative mode of speech—if that is, their minds are bound by the authority of God’s word. Scripture, though, commands nothing but charity, or love, and censures nothing but cupidity, or greed, and that is the way it gives shape and form to human morals.

Again, if people’s minds are already in thrall to some erroneous opinion, whatever scripture may assert that differs from it will be reckoned by them to be said in a figurative way. The only thing, though, it ever asserts is catholic faith, with reference to things in the past and in the future and in the present. It tells the story of things past, foretells things future, points out things present; but all of these things are of value for nourishing and fortifying charity or love, and overcoming and extinguishing cupidity or greed. ~ Teaching Christianity, Book III:10.15

It seems pretty clear to me that Saint Augustine would be against the “One Church” Plan and the moral relativism—however selective it may be—on which it is based. Wooden literalism can certainly be harmful, but so can unwarranted figurative interpretation. As Augustine suggests, those whose minds are still bound by the authority of Scripture, will sometimes appeal to alternative interpretations to justify what Scripture actually calls sin. It’s important to note that Augustine defines charity or love as “the urge of the spirit to find joy in God for his own sake, and in oneself and one’s neighbor for God’s sake.” He defined cupidity or greed as “any impulse of the spirit to find joy in oneself and one’s neighbor, and in any kind of bodily thing at all, not for God’s sake.” In other words, Biblical love is to do all to please God; cupidity is to live to please self. One of these motivations can help us interpret Scripture faithfully, the other will lead us to distort Scripture in a self-serving and culturally accommodating way.

Augustine’s warning here resonates with John Wesley’s warning about speculative latitudinarianism (i.e. doctrinal indifference).

This unsettledness of thought, this being “driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,” is a great curse, not a blessing, an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgement concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavour to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of: who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit. ~ Sermon 39 “Catholic Spirit” 3.1

For Wesley morality was not an indifferent matter. Earlier in the same sermon he speaks of the moral law as one the essentials of the faith. Neither did Augustine see morality as an indifferent matter subject to revision according to place and time. Augustine would certainly agree that we have to adjust language from place to place and from time to time in order to communicate the truth of the gospel more effectively. But he would certainly not go along with the idea that we also have to change the truth to which language and symbols refer from place to place and from time to time as well.

Will we be swayed by the prevailing winds of the customs and sinful sensibilities of the modern western world, “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around” in a particular time and place? Or will we listen faithfully to Scripture with the help of tradition, the voice of the saints from the past? Augustine and Wesley have spoken. Are we listening? Will the United Methodist General Conference heed their warnings? Let’s pray it does!

The Supernatural, the Occult, and Halloween

And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.  ~ Acts 19:19 ESV

Acts here tells us about those who had converted to Christianity in Ephesus. Many of them had formerly practiced magic. In this case magic was not illusion performed through misdirection or slight of hand. It was the pagan art of using spells and incantations to bring luck and good fortune for oneself, one’s family, or city. Magic could also be used to bring misfortune to one’s rivals by employing hexes and curses. In addition to spells and incantations, the books mentioned in Acts 19:19 likely also included instruction on how to predict the future (i.e. divination) and how to contact the spirits of the dead or other spiritual entities that one might appease to solicit their aid. These would have been how-to books on occult practices. magic-book-background-vector-5430214

When pagans converted to Christianity they would give up these magical arts and occult practices. As a symbol of their break with the former way of life, Acts 19:19 tells us they brought their magic books together to burn them. There is no indication, however, that they were forced to do so; they voluntarily did so. This was no “book burning” via coercion from ecclesial or government authorities. It was a voluntary practice. Church leaders would have certainly encouraged new converts from among Gentiles to abandon occult practices, but there is nothing here to suggest they required book burning in this case.

The fact that converts would take such drastic measures to disassociate themselves from these books and the practices contained therein is really not all that unusual. Just a few months ago another pastor posted a question on Facebook asking for advice on what he should do with a series of books by a certain author that he once admired, but now considers to be a dangerous false teacher. He wondered if he shouldn’t just burn the books. I actually recommended he keep them for reference for exposing how and why they were misleading.

Nevertheless, I imagine that many of the converts in Ephesus recognized the spiritually deleterious nature of the practices that those magic books promoted, especially after they were born again. They probably also clearly recognized the great harm that they too had suffered spiritually, psychologically, and even physically themselves.

Under the Old Covenant, Israel was explicitly commanded not to engage in occult and superstitious practices. The latter would involve among other things the idea that certain physical objects could bring good fortune or power (i.e. a rabbit’s foot). The prohibitions definitely forbade attempts to communicate with the dead. The main problem was that it detracted from the faith and allegiance that they were to have in the Lord (YAWEH), and the Lord alone. These forbidden practices were certainly associated with the worship of pagan gods and idolatry. But they are not bad only because of their association with idolatrous worship; they were inherently bad in themselves. The reason is because there are real, malevolent spiritual entities that can use these practices to bring spiritual destruction and ruin to the people involved.

“When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. And because of these abominations the Lord your God is driving them out before you.  You shall be blameless before the Lord your God, for these nations, which you are about to dispossess, listen to fortune-tellers and to diviners. But as for you, the Lord your God has not allowed you to do this.  ~ Deuteronomy 18:9-14 

The attempt to contact spirits of the dead and to gain insight or empowerment thereby render people vulnerable to the manipulation of evil spirits.

I was talking to someone one night at a social gathering who said he was awakened by a voice one night telling him to go check on the baby. He thought it was his wife, but when he looked over she was obviously sound asleep, and later had no awareness of what he was talking about. He said, he did go to check on the baby who had a stuffed animal over his face. Something similar happened more than once. Initially he thought it was indeed a spiritual entity, the spirit of a deceased person just trying to help. But after building his trust, which  opened his mind to looking to it for further help, he said, the spirit eventually turned violent. Later he discovered that there had been a horrific murder in the home. They moved shortly after that! He was quite relieved when I explained that it probably was a demonic presence in the home and how to make sense of it all from a Biblical, Christian perspective. Spirits like that can only have access to people’s lives if they invite them in, naively or knowingly.

I know the above scenario sounds like something out of a horror movie, but the man who told me this story was quite serious. He was seeking my insight as a Christian pastor. The incident took place in a home in Raleigh, NC.

A few years ago, a woman came up to me after a worship service. In tears, she expressed grave concern for her son who was dabbling into sorcery. Several weeks afterwards, I actually met and began to spend some time with the young man . He opened up to me a lot and I shared the gospel of Jesus with him. One time he said he had a friend who had “a dark presence” that he just couldn’t quite get rid of. He asked if I knew anything about demons. He was actually asking for himself, not a friend. He wasn’t quite ready to give up the sorcery and practices that had such a spell on him. For a while it seemed that he only saw Jesus as another possible source of power among others. He was trying Jesus by addition rather than submission to Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). The “dark presence” remained. Eventually, he said he submitted to Jesus as his only savior and Lord and it left!

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. ~ James 4:7

I know materialists want to dismiss the supernatural altogether, but there is another dimension. There is a spiritual realm with good and evil entities. God is good, and it is to God and God alone that we are to look to for blessing and help.

Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness. Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. ~ Psalm 37:3-4

The key to genuine blessedness, the fullness of which we will only experience in the world to come under the reign of Christ, is to trust in God and by God’s grace to live according to his moral law. The key to blessing in the Bible is obedience to God’s commandments. It was through obedience that Jesus achieved blessedness for us, which we receive through faith in him and him alone. Pagan religion and its corresponding practices have sought to find short cuts to happiness apart from obedience to God. Morality was not a concern of pagan religions in the ancient world or even today; but it is essential to the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Christians should abandon and avoid anything associated with the occult and sorcery or witchcraft and warn others about the same. Things like Ouija boards and even superstitious practices like possessing certain objects or performing certain rituals to bring good luck should be avoided. And of course as Christians who are called to love our enemies and bless those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:14), we should certainly not be engaging in practices to curse or harm anyone.

Sorcery is listed among vices that if engaged in an unrepentant fashion will lead one to be excluded from the kingdom of God according to Paul in Galatians 5:19-21

 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (See also Revelation 21:8)

“Sorcery” is translated from the Greek word pharmakiea. That word is used because sorcery often involved enchantment with special potions or drugs. Sometimes the use of special potions is for one’s own personal benefit; sometimes they are used to control other people (i.e. think about how one might use alcohol to manipulate another person). This word used in Galatians recalls all of the warnings and prohibitions against occult practices in the Old Testament. (So much for the idea that the OT should not be the go to source for any behavior in the Church!!). These practices are spiritually dangerous and should be avoided by all Christians.

I once played with a Ouija Board with a friend of mine. She insisted it was for real and seemed to be nothing but serious about it, although she did have some concerns. She was a little spooked because the box it was in would sometimes shake by itself under her bed at night. It seemed quite real to me when we used it together. For me, this was at a time as a late teen just before I entered one of the darkest periods of my life. I was already headed in the wrong direction; I’m sure this encounter didn’t help. Thankfully, God intervened to deliver me!

Toward the end of his life, King Saul of ancient Israel lost faith in God, and ended up seeking guidance from a medium/witch. He wanted her to conjure up Samuel, the dead prophet, who had anointed him as king. Indeed, Samuel did respond, but only to pronounce doom on Saul and his sons. I know there are some who believe that this really could not have been the spirit of Samuel, only a demonic spirit imitating him. The text, however, repeatedly says it was Samuel. While in many cases it could very well be demonic impersonation when it comes to what are called “familiar spirits” (demons do impersonate the dead as a bait to build trust), in this case God allowed Samuel to come and prophesy one more time. But still this only spelled doom for Saul, who still should not have sought the counsel of even the spirit of the great and revered prophet, Samuel, rather than trusting in God! (Read the sad story in 1 Samuel 28)

Today there is an increase in occult activity and witchcraft. Witches apparently outnumber Presbyterians (PCUSA) in the United States now! There are also Christians who have fallen prey to temptations to syncretism, the amalgamation of various religious beliefs and practices. And pagan rituals and practices have crept into mainline Christian circles. There was a serious discussion on a United Methodist clergy Facebook page recently where someone wondered aloud if it was okay for a Unitarian Universalist to teach and over Christian Education in a church. Amazingly many UM clergy thought it would be perfectly fine. Others thought it would be okay but only if the person agreed to teach Methodist doctrine. Something tells me it’s not wise to hire someone who does not hold Christian beliefs to teach Christian beliefs in a church! Another person said they had knowingly hired a pagan spiritualist to teach children and youth because the person agreed to teach Methodist doctrine! This is nuts! The UM pastor said it didn’t work out though because the person didn’t keep her word! I wish I was making this up! Lord, have mercy.

Nonetheless, Halloween is a time when people are especially vulnerable to reveling in and glorifying the dark forces of death and evil. Much of popular media and entertainment certainly puts a positive spin on them, including some occult practices. All Hollows’ Eve, the evening beginning the celebration of All Saints’ Day, does stand as a reminder that we still live in a world plagued by sin and evil and death and decay. There are some scary things still active in this fallen world that we need to be wary of. Christians, however, should celebrate Halloween, but not in a worldly way, where it is severed from its Christian roots, especially its association with All Saints’ Day. We must not forget that we live in a world of sin and evil and death and decay, but we do so as citizens of heaven and heirs of the New Creation where sin and death no longer reign. Halloween is a reminder that death and darkness are still with us, but only as defeated foes not worth comparing to the glory of the New Creation wrought by the glorious victory of Jesus Christ in his resurrection. Christians should never revel in the forces of darkness and death. Neither should we be paralyzed in fear of evil and death as if they are an endless cycle that will never go away. We can dress up and have fun at the expense of the forces of darkness because through the triumph of Christ the saints in heaven and on earth have the final victory!

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. ~ Hebrews 2:14-15

On Not Getting Lost in the Calvinism-Arminianism Debates

I’ve been seriously contemplating the relationship between the sovereignty of God and free will off and on since my freshman philosophy class in 1994. Is everything that happens in the universe determined in a strict cause and effect relationship where free choice is a mere illusion, or do humans have a genuine capacity for making choices between competing desires? This issue not only involves theology, but it also comes up in philosophy and science apart from questions concerning God. I had a professor in divinity school who was committed to theological and philosophical determinism. She had us read literature in neuroscience that came to the same deterministic conclusion from a scientific viewpoint. This particular professor’s determinism, however, led her to conclude that God would have to save everyone eventually, because it just wouldn’t be right to condemn people who have no real choice, ironically, even though she considered such a choice to be logically impossible.

In theological circles, nonetheless, the debate is sometimes framed strictly in terms of exegesis—that is, faithful interpretation of Scripture. Calvinists see certain passages as teaching a strict determinism. One such passage is the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, which they concealed from their father through outright deceit. After Joseph and his brothers are reconciled and after his brothers express contrition for their sinful actions, Joseph forgives them and says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Gen 50:20 ESV). The typical Calvinist sees in this passage a specific statement regarding God’s sovereign direction over all of the events in this story, including the sinful actions of the brothers. Ultimately they did what they did because of God’s decree.

Arminians, on the other hand, believe that God’s grace gives all humans a measure of freedom to freely choose between competing desires. They point to passages like Deuteronomy 30:19-20, which they see as clearly implying such a libertarian freedom, albeit by God’s grace and not by fallen human nature.

 I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” Dt 30:19-20 

The number of texts that both sides muster in their defense is immense. Both sides claim that Scripture is the ultimate standard for their position. There are texts that seem to support both positions. But there clearly are others issues at work as well. There are also philosophical issues and logic involved in interpreting those texts and deciding which set of texts should take precedence in terms of interpretation of the other set. And the issue of interpretation of language in general is not a simple one. The following are also some of the things that are helpful to know when trying to understand this incredibly complex theological and philosophical issue.

How does God know what will happen in the future?

  1. The strict determinist says God knows what will happen in the future because he has already predetermined everything that happens ahead of time by his eternal decree. The action and reaction of every human and every molecule (John Piper by way of Charles Spurgeon uses the example of every dust particle) in the universe has been planned in minute detail ahead of time. According to John Calvin, God not only foresaw the fall of humanity in the Garden of Eden, he decreed it. Not all who would claim the label Calvinist would agree with this entirely, but this is the basic, consistent traditional Calvinist position. God decreed the fall of Adam and the salvation and damnation of every individual thereafter.
  2. The basic Arminian position is that God knows the future because he clearly foresees it ahead of time, but without predetermining every human decision. Being outside of time, in a way mysterious to us, God sees the past, present, and future simultaneously. In his omniscience, he foresees the faith of individuals and elects this class of believers to salvation. This is not based on works righteousness, which Paul clearly distinguishes from faith (i.e. Rom 3:21-31). Election and salvation are by faith. In the case of the former, it is faith foreseen by, but not predetermined by, God. It is not true as is sometimes supposed—often in Arminian circles— that Arminians don’t believe in predestination and election. They do, but have a different understanding of those terms.

Another issue to understand is the different notions of freedom.

  1. It is not true that Calvinists do not believe in free will. They do, but they understand freedom differently. For the strict Calvinist, humans freely choose to do what they want to do. But all humans are ultimately slaves to their desires. The type of freedom envisioned by Calvinists is called “compatibilist freedom.” According to this notion of freedom, humans are free to choose according to their desires. But fallen humans only desire sin and rejection of God. Without God intervening to change their hearts and with the corresponding desires, fallen humans are doomed to damnation. But according to his eternal decree, God chose before the foundation of the world to regenerate some humans unconditionally but chose to leave others unregenerate. Although they could not do otherwise, the non-elect, those doomed to eternal damnation, are justly condemned because they freely choose sin and continued rejection of God’s grace. But again, they freely choose to do what they want to do – but – according to this definition of freedom, they cannot choose otherwise.
  2. Arminians have a libertarian view of freedom. This is the notion that God’s grace enables humans to choose between competing demands to accept or reject God’s grace. For traditional Arminians, this would involve only the limited ability, restored to all by God’s prevenient grace, to accept or reject God’s grace in terms of justification, new birth, and sanctification. As to how exactly the future is clearly present to God without it being predetermined, ultimately this type of freedom is much  more mysterious than the more straightforward compatibilist notion of freedom. That doesn’t make it right. It’s just an acknowledgment that in terms of our ability to comprehend, it is more mysterious to fathom how we would choose between competing desires, if some of those desires are stronger than others. But Scripture does seem to warn and encourage believers to choose between competing desires, as with the passage from Deuteronomy above. But the choice does seem to be limited to receiving God’s gracious help to overcome sinful desires though his power and not our own.

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. ~ Gal 5:16-17

Of course, there are many other things to consider. This is one of the most complex and ultimately mysterious issues in all of theology and philosophy. Calvinism and Arminianism are not the only options to consider in terms of Christian theology, and neither of these traditions are monoliths. There’s also Molinism and Open Theism to name two more. The relationship between the knowledge of a sovereign God and human freedom is impossible for us to fully comprehend. Methodist theologian Geoffrey Wainwright argues that both sides of the Calvinist-Arminian debate have probably tried to explain too much. In these debates, it’s also easy to get lost, and not just intellectually.

Faithful Christians committed to the authority of Scripture have come down on different sides of this debate. In my own Methodist tradition, we have the relationship between John Wesley, an Arminian, and George Whitefield, a Calvinist. While their differences did cause some tension between them and interfered with them being able to fully cooperate together in ministry, they both maintained admiration and respect for each other as brothers in Christ. By request of Whitefield himself, John Wesley preached at his funeral service. Today we can see a staunch Calvinist like James White and a committed wesley and whitefieldArminian like Michael Brown debate those issues vigorously while recognizing each other as brothers in Christ and partnering in ministry together in other areas where they share agreement. Whitefield and Wesley did the same, and providentially, in spite of some hindrances, their respective ministries and gifts complemented each other for fruit for the kingdom and the glory of God (Read interview of J.D. Walsh).

This is not to dismiss the need for further dialogue and debate. It’s also not to dismiss the seriousness of the implications over the disagreements. Both sides want to preserve something they see as vital in the way we talk about these things. Calvinists want to preserve 100% of the glory for God in the salvation of souls. Arminians like me don’t see that allowing for a graciously God-given ability just to receive or reject God’s gift for every person detracts from God’s glory, but I  think we can understand the concern. Arminians are also concerned that genuine human responsibility for sin should involve a real possibility for acceptance or rejection of God’s grace. But this is not primarily over a concern about human freedom, but a concern over the character of God. It should be understandable why we would have such concerns.

What does it say about the character of God if he condemns people for sin that he himself predetermined, especially when the Bible says God calls all to repentance and that God does not want anyone to perish (2 Peter 3:8-10; cf Ezk 18:23, & 33:11)? We believe that when Paul in Romans 11:32 says, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all,” the last “all” includes every individual just like the first “all” does. Just as Rom 3:9 says “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin,” is qualified by the, “no not one” that follows in verse 10, which is a quote from Psalms, so also, no one is excluded from the mercy of God available in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we believe truly all are enabled to accept or reject the mercy of God and thus to be judged accordingly.

I’ve revealed my leanings. At times, however, I’ve leaned in the other direction. I believe Wesley was right to say he was within a hair’s breadth of Calvinism. I believe God has graciously created space for a limited libertarian freedom. Nevertheless, I realize the difficulty of speaking of freedom within a specific set of limited predetermined parameters. It is easy to get lost intellectually in terms of the paradoxes and mystery involved in all of this.

But the worst way to get lost is to think that having the correct theory of how someone gets saved is more important than preaching the Gospel that Jesus saves. As Whitefield put it by employing a quote from John Bradford, “Let a man go to the grammar school of faith and repentance, before he goes to the university of election and predestination.” Calvinists and Arminians, alike, can agree that the call to repentance and the preaching of the good news of the kingdom of God available through faith in Jesus Christ is the means God has ordained that will lead to souls being saved. On Calvinist or Arminian terms, God already knows the elect – those who will be saved – and the non-elect, who will not; but we do not know either. And either way, God has called us to preach the Gospel to the world, elect or not. On that, we should be able to agree and work together for the salvation of souls to the glory of God!

For Further Study:

Books:

For Calvinsim (2010) by Michael Horton

Against Calvinsism (2011) by Roger Olson

Why I am Not a Calvinist (2004) by Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell

Youtube Debates:

Debate between two Calvinist professors , Bruce Ware and Tom Schreiner, and two Wesleyan scholars, Joe Dongell and Jerry Walls

Michael Brown vs. James White

Making Sense of the Bible? Rightly Handling the Word of Truth

I watched an hour long talk that Rev. Adam Hamilton gave at a conference of The Uniting Methodists in Dallas a few weeks ago (See HERE). Rev. Hamilton rightly said the controversy over sexuality in the United Methodist Church really comes down to differing views regarding Scripture. He insists that despite claims of conservatives to the contrary he does indeed have a high view of Scripture. As with many terms, however, Hamilton has a different definition than conservatives of what that means. But he does seem convinced that he has the view of Scripture that Jesus and Paul had; he also believes he employs the same method of interpretation that they did. In Scripture Hamilton apparently believes he finds a precedent and a trajectory of interpretation for rejecting the binding authority of some straightforward commands of Scripture in light of new experiences. He places himself in the position of Jesus and Paul and conservative United Methodists in the position of the Pharisees and Judaizers, the latter being those Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles be circumcised for salvation.

Rev. Hamilton insists that the Pharisees and Judaizers also had a high view of Scripture and were understandably concerned when Paul set aside the clear commands of Scripture regarding circumcision. He believes Paul did this primarily in light of the experience of Gentiles receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit because of which he interpreted Scripture differently so that circumcision was no longer binding. I get the impression that Hamilton believes Paul went in search of a few prooftexts to “theologize” in order to justify his new position.

But from Hamilton’s talk it’s not all that clear that he thinks Paul came to completely Spirit-inspired conclusions. Rather awkwardly and quite arrogantly, he also suggests that Paul could have handled the circumcision question in a more conciliatory way so that more Jews would have remained in and come into the Church. I suppose he would have had the church agree to disagree over the necessity of Gentile circumcision so that some would preach salvation by grace through faith alone, and others would preach salvation by grace through faith plus circumcision. Though it’s hard to see how that would have resolved the confusion and strife rather than intensifying it even further, but …

The problem with Hamilton’s line of reasoning is that it renders much if not all of Paul’s letter to the Galatians to be misguided at best. And what does it say about the actual decision reached by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15? It was not an agree to disagree middle way position. Hamilton’s reasoning here also brings Paul’s reasoning in Romans 9-11 into question. There Paul concludes that the Jews by and large as a whole people have not responded to the Gospel because God has allowed a temporary hardening of Israel so the Gentiles could be grafted into the family of Abraham too. According to Paul this was all in fulfillment of Scripture in accordance with the mysterious will of God.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ~ Romans 11:33 ESV

So according to Adam Hamilton’s reasoning is Romans 9-11 the mysterious wisdom and knowledge of God or the mere rationalization of Paul who should have been more gracious with Judaizers?

At any rate, it’s really not all that clear that the Pharisees and Judaizers actually had a high view of Scripture. Like Adam Hamilton they may have claimed to, but Jesus thought the Pharisees had a higher view of their own traditions that they developed through a poor interpretation of Scripture. Jesus did not chastise the Pharisees for taking the law too seriously; he chastised them for taking their extra-biblical traditions so seriously that they ended up using them to find loop holes around keeping the true spirit and intent of the law.

And the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” And he said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written,“‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”And he said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition! ~ Mark 7:5-9

In fact, Jesus said the Pharisees made the word of God—specifically in this case the commandment to honor father and mother—void through their traditions (Mk 7:10-13).

Rev. Hamilton is right that the Bible has to be interpreted, but it should be rightly interpreted on its own terms. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). While Rev. Hamilton sees the apostles simply making a decision to set aside the straightforward commandment regarding circumcision for Gentiles primarily in the light of a new experience, they clearly did not see themselves doing that. So what was going on at the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15?

Well, they discerned from the Old Testament that Gentiles who were coming into the church through faith in Christ did not have to first become Jews through circumcision and be required to keep all of the ceremonial laws required of Jews under the Old Covenant. As Old Testament Professor Bill Arnold argues, the elders in Jerusalem led by James, the brother of Jesus, discovered from the Scriptures with the help of the Holy Spirit that the Gentiles who were becoming Christians could abide by the few regulations required of Gentiles living in Jewish communities according to Leviticus 17-18 (see specifically 17:8, 10, 12, 13 and 18:26, which pertains to sexual immorality). The key is that these verses from the holiness code found in Leviticus pertained to what was also expected of the resident aliens living in Israelite communities. These would be uncircumcised non-Jews who were content to live among the Jews without becoming Jewish. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church at the Jerusalem Council found guidance for what should be expected of Gentile converts in terms of basic behavior as they lived among Jews and had fellowship with Jewish Christians. Nevertheless, the main point again is that even at the Jerusalem Council the elders of the Church decided the questions before them in this transitional period with the guidance of the Spirit and from the law and the prophets, the latter made obvious with James’ quote from Amos 9:11-12 (Acts 15:12-21). Here the council was far from rejecting the straightforward commands of Scripture in the Old Testament. Instead they were trying to discern how to best understand the implications of the fulfillment of its promises in Jesus Christ and how best to apply the intent of its principles and precepts as Gentiles were welcomed into the family of God while remaining Gentiles. Adam Hamilton simply does not fairly represent what actually happened at the Jerusalem council. As Bill Arnold says, “James and the apostles gathered for the Jerusalem Council would have been shocked to learn that some today are suggesting they overturned Mosaic law.” It’s far worse to use the Jerusalem Council as an example for rejecting some of the prohibitions against sexual immorality that very same council commended to be of ongoing significance for Gentile Christians.

As is evident in the letter to the Galatians, Paul did not interpret Scripture prooftext by prooftext; rather he interpreted each text and passage from the wider perspective of the grand narrative of Scripture. This is what John Wesley called the overall tenor of Scripture. Paul identifies the Gospel being preached by Scripture as it records the promise to Abraham that in him “all the nations shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3 as quoted in Gal 3:8). The law of Moses given to Israel was meant to serve that greater promise and blessing, according to Paul (Gal 3:15-29). Israel living in obedience to God’s law was always intended to be a witness to the rest of the nations (Dt 4:5-8). The prophets, as the Jerusalem Council saw, testified to the eventual blessing of the Gentiles that was initially promised to Abraham (Gen 12:3). The mystery was that this would turn out to mean they would be blessed not by becoming Jewish through accepting the symbolic identity markers that set Jews apart from Gentiles; rather they would be welcomed into the covenant family of Abraham while retaining their ethnic identity as Gentiles. Based on Amos 9:11-12 (from the Septuagint–Greek Old Testament), this is the conclusion reached by James, as the spokesperson for the apostles, during the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). That’s the same conclusion Paul gives in Galatians and Ephesians. These are very subtle and difficult-to-detect distinctions that the Church saw in Scripture not in spite of it. And it was not without mystery and some paradox.

For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles—assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. ~ Ephesians 3:1-6 (see also Eph 2:11-13)

From what Paul says in Romans it is seems quite evident that he saw by revelation Gentile inclusion among the elect people of God as Gentiles in Scripture not apart from it.

even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles? As indeed he says in Hosea,“Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’” ~ Romans 9:24-26
Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but has now been disclosed and through the prophetic writings has been made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith—to the only wise God be glory forevermore through Jesus Christ! Amen. ~ Romans 16:25-27

In light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of Israel’s Scriptures, Paul and the church saw clearly in those same Scriptures what was once obscure so as to be hidden. These are the incredibly fine and subtle distinctions in the Old Testament Scriptures that became clear in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Hypothetically speaking, even if Paul was mistaken in his interpretation of the Old Testament, he certainly didn’t see himself as declaring certain Scripture no longer relevant simply in light of a new experience as Adam Hamilton suggests. By not recognizing these distinctions and by not making reasonable distinctions himself, Rev. Hamilton, does not “make sense” of the Bible; he makes mincemeat of the Bible. And as a result he ends up in the awkward position of criticizing the apostle Paul and arrogantly suggesting that he might have handled things better himself in addition to using as Gentile inclusion as an analogy that is incredibly dubious at best. Moreover, there is no way that he can search the law and prophets to find anything that would even come close to a hint that homosexuality should at some point be accepted by the Church; there is certainly nothing in the New Testament remotely close to that. As I have repeatedly shown even some of the best liberal scholars admit this. Gentile inclusion is a horrible analogy for accepting behavior that the Bible consistently and unequivocally condemns.

From Rev. Hamilton’s talk it seems quite clear to me that he is more interested in rationalizing behavior that the Old and New Testaments both clearly condemn as immoral. He fails to rightly handle the word of truth. He conflates rather than making proper distinctions; he creates false dichotomies; he argues against straw men, and even seems to set up Scripture itself as a straw man, all while claiming a high view of Scripture.

During one portion of his talk he quotes a slew of verses out of context from the Old Testament where the death penalty is commanded such as the one in Deuteronomy about stoning a disobedient son (Dt 21:18-21; see my effort here to put that passage in perspective). He also brings up the so-called genocide of the Canaanites in Joshua that really wasn’t (the language of total annihilation was an ancient near eastern idiom common among the Canaanites themselves and the Egyptians) to make the God described in those passages look as bad as possible. The Bible itself makes clear that the language of total annihilation of the Canaanites was hyperbolic because the Canaanites continued to maintain a strong presence and a persistently negative influence on Israel, as well as being a military threat, as the full context of Joshua and Judges makes clear (see also Paul Copan & Matthew Flanngan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God—Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004 to really “make sense” of these texts). We also might want to consider that our modern culture that by and large stands by as unborn children are slaughtered by the thousands daily mainly for reasons of personal convenience, may not really hold the moral high ground it seems to think it does.

Some people, nonetheless, wrongly prooftext to defend Biblical authority; others prooftext to undermine it. Likewise some resort to wooden literalism to bolster the authority of Scripture, others again to undermine it. Hamilton is obviously engaged in the latter as he suggests that certain Old Testament passages do not reflect the God revealed in Jesus. He posits those texts tell us more about those primitive human’s misunderstanding of what God is like rather than what God is really like. But there is more than one way to play the misleading game that Adam Hamilton likes to play with Scripture.

I could easily pull sayings of Jesus out of context to make him seem overly harsh and vindictive and then compare them to prooftexts from the Old Testament that make the God revealed therein seem more gracious and merciful.

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. ~ Matt 13:41-42
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ ~ Mark 9:42-48

But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me. ~ Luke 19:27 (Cf Luke 20:9-18)
But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. ~ Revelation 2:20-23

I could then take these prooftexts and compare them to the way God is described as being so merciful and compassionate in Psalm 103 and the book of Jonah, for example, both of which are based on the revelation of God given in Exodus 34:6, and say this Jesus doesn’t reflect the merciful and compassionate God revealed in Moses and the Prophets. Either way it is a deceptive exercise. The God revealed in Jesus is none other than the God whose full character as a God of mercy and justice is revealed in Exodus 34:6 and 7.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” ~ Exodus 34:6-7

Instead of pitting prooftext against prooftext and throwing our hands up and saying we all just pick and choose, which seems to be Adam Hamilton’s definition of “interpretation,” we should seek to understand each verse, passage, and story within the overall framework of the grand narrative we find in the overall sweep of the Bible. We should also work hard to make the proper distinctions to the best of our ability. There are difficult passages and things hard for us to understand, but as Augustine and John Wesley taught we should seek to understand the difficult passages in light of the plethora of the clear. Adam Hamilton, however, seems determined to use the difficult verses to muddy the waters of the clear passages of Scripture in order to exert self-will over the authority of Scripture as an objective standard. As Peter warned there are some who will twist the hard-to-understand portions of Scripture to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). Adam Hamilton, albeit for different reasons, quite clearly seems to be employing tactics similar to the teachers that Saint Irenaeus wrote against. Regarding these teachers, whom Irenaeus says they also boasted that they were “correctors of the apostles,” Irenaeus said:

But when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying that they are not correct or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them by those who are not acquainted with the tradition. (Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2.1)

The tradition of which Irenaeus’ rivals boasted included a tradition of Biblical interpretation where they felt free to correct the writings of the apostles and to declare certain portions of Scripture to be a false representation of the the Supreme God of their worldview and of that God’s actual will. They pitted certain passages of Scripture against others and developed at least an implicit unofficial canon within the canon. Marcion, however, was more explicit with his deconstruction project. In all cases they failed to make the proper distinctions in context, and failed to rightly interpret the word of truth (2 Tim 2:15). They brought a foreign worldview to Scripture and twisted and distorted Scripture to fit their worldview rather than adjusting their worldview to Scripture.

We can, however, detect how best to make the proper distinctions through clues within the Bible itself. For example, Jesus spoke about the “weightier” or more important matters of Scripture that the Pharisees neglected in favor of lesser issues (Matt 23:23). In the Old Testament law we can detect what are weightier matters through the differing degrees of punishment we find in the penalties that were to be imposed under the Old Covenant. We also see this reflected in Jesus’ statements that there would be greater degrees of punishment in the judgement for some towns over others for their rejection of the good news of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 10:5-15).

Based in 2 Corinthians 3, Saint Augustine detected a distinction between symbolic laws for Israel that were types and signs of a greater spiritual reality that we enjoy through faith in Jesus Christ to whom they pointed. As Paul said, as Christians Christ is our Passover sacrifice (1 Cor 5:7), for example. Through faith in Christ we keep the spirit of Passover. We also need to make distinctions between literal and figurative language. In some cases it is more subtle than others—there are dozens and dozens of different types of figures of speech, all of which point to something very real. And while considering that the distinctions we find in Article 6 of the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church between the ceremonial, civil, and moral law in the Old Testament are not absolute with no overlap, we should seek to understand the nuanced distinctions to which they point and stop trying to find loop holes around the moral prohibitions that are unequivocally stated in both Testaments. There are plenty of legitimate distinctions to make and we can make them in a principled fashion as difficult as it may be. We can do better than pretending like we all just pick and choose more or less arbitrarily.

Article VI — Of the Old Testament

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.

Rather than doing the admittedly difficult work of making the distinctions that we need to make, Adam Hamilton works hard to stir up as much doubt and confusion as he can to justify rejecting the straightforward command of Scripture regarding homosexual practice. I know from personal interactions with Adam that he will throw everything he can, including the kitchen sink, at you to ward off criticism. It would take more than a long blog article to deal with every objection he throws out.

The bottom line is this: his arguments clearly show that he has a view of Scripture that is not compatible with our own doctrinal standards. His view of Scripture may be higher than Richard Dawkins’, but that doesn’t make it a high view. In his talk Adam also went to great lengths to distance Scripture itself from the concept of “the word of God.” Ironically he used Scripture to argue that “the word of God” is something more than Scripture itself. With that general statement I actually agree, but I disagree that Scripture as a whole is something far less than the “word of God.” According to Rev. Hamilton’s view only some of Scripture is the inspired word of God. He reduces Scripture to a medium through which God may speak, rather than seeing it as a trustworthy and reliable record of how God has spoken first through his prophets and finally through his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Whereas for the apostles and Christians in Acts Scripture was used to judge the authenticity of the verbal proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 17:11), Hamilton sits in judgement over Scripture according to another standard, the spirit of this postmodern age. Ironically he also uses 2 Timothy 3:16-17 to try to justify his view, but not without trying to bring its meaning into doubt too.

The context of 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is pertinent. There Paul warns Timothy about times of apostasy when many “will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). It’s in the context of warning about apostasy and rebellion against the truth that Paul tells Timothy,

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. ~ 2 Timothy 3:14-17

In the face of those today who are arguing that some Scripture actually may have never been inspired by God, that’s still a much needed admonition for Christians today. Do not be deceived. We will not be judged by what we are able to know with certainty, but by what we are willing or not willing to believe with conviction. People can make seemingly plausible arguments for anything. You can use uncertain

light through gray clouds

ty of knowledge as an excuse for doubt and unbelief; or you can see it as an invitation to faith. Indeed, “for we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). Perhaps God is inviting us out of the cloud of gray and into the light.

Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~ 2 Corinthians 4:1-6