Atheism in the Church

The Christian church in America has enough of a problem with practical atheism, the phenomenon of saying we believe in God while living as if there is no God.

We also have a problem with clergy who have invested piles of money and years of their lives (sometimes decades) preparing for professional ministry, who come to a place where they discover they no longer believe. As to their career, they have huge sunk costs. They need to make a living and support their families. So they put on the act, and continue fulfilling the professional aspects of ministry, pretending the faith.

Now we have openly professing atheist pastors who not only take umbrage at the suggestion that their atheism could in any way disqualify them for ministry, but even seek to spread their “gospel.”

In an interview, Toronto pastor Gretta Vosper, after identifying herself as a non-believer in God, answers a question about her alternatives:

Wouldn’t an atheistic community be a better fit for you?
No. I want the United Church to accept that the Bible is not the authoritative word of God and that God is not where moral authority resides, and to recognize the innumerable divisions religion has created across millennia.

It sure looks like Rev. Vosper is wanting her denomination to support her effort to transform the church into her own image and likeness. Sounds like a sure way to kill a church.


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Wesley on Preaching Law & Gospel

Fools TalkOne of the books I’m reading is Fool’s Talk by Os Guinness. It’s a good book for those involved in the work of apologetics. I want to be a little picky, however. He says at one point, ‘As John Wesley advised his young preachers in his day… “Preach the Law until they are convicted, then preach Grace until they are converted.”’

Methodists who know anything about Methodism will know Wesley preached grace. Methodists who have actually read Wesley know that he also valued preaching the law. This “quotation,” however, doesn’t reflect Wesley’s actual practice or teaching (sounds more like Luther to me). Here are some statements where Wesley brings the two together:

I think, the right method of preaching is this: At our first beginning to preach at any place, after a general declaration of the love of God to sinners, and his willingness that they should be saved, to preach the law, in the strongest, the closest, the most searching manner possible; only intermixing the gospel here and there, and showing it, as it were, afar off.

After more and more persons are convinced of sin, we may mix more and more of the gospel, in order to “beget faith,” to raise into spiritual life those whom the law hath slain; but this is not to be done too hastily neither. Therefore, it is not expedient wholly to omit the law; not only because we may well suppose that many of our hearers are still unconvinced; but because otherwise there is danger, that many who are convinced will heal their own wounds slightly; therefore, it is only in private converse with a thoroughly convinced sinner, that we should preach nothing but the gospel. (Works of John Wesley [Jackson Edition], 11:486-6)

He continues a couple of pages later in the same volume:

Not that I would advise to preach the law without the gospel, any more than the gospel without the law. Undoubtedly, both should be preached in their turns; yea, both at once, or both in one: All the conditional promises are instances of this. They are law and gospel mixed together.

According to this model, I should advise every Preacher continually to preach the law; the law grafted upon, tempered by, and animated with, the spirit of the gospel. I advise him to declare, explain, and enforce every command of God; but, meantime, to declare, in every sermon, (and the more explicitly the better,) that the first and great command to a Christian is, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ;” that Christ is all in all, our “wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption;” that all life, love, strength, are from him alone, and all freely given to us through faith.

The “preach the law and THEN only AFTER they’re convicted, preach grace,” is NOT the John Wesley methodology. It is that form of preaching that inclines us to read the New Testament and frame the doctrine of soteriology in terms of “plight to solution” reasoning. I’m not enough of a Wesley scholar to have investigated his analysis of plight and solution in salvation, but his theory of always combining law and gospel/grace in preaching shows that at least as far as communication strategy goes, the two are not best understood simply sequentially, as if we can truly grasp our plight without simultaneously hearing the solution.

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Jesus Welcomes You to __________

JesuswelcomeshawkinsHawkins, a town not to far from us, hit the news a few months ago when some started protesting a welcome sign. It wasn’t just a “Welcome to Hawkins” sign like you might expect to see in a small town. This one said, “Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins.” The controversy was about whether such a sign was a breach of proper church/state separation etiquette.

I’m not really concerned about church/state separation issues here. As far as that goes, if some citizens of town decide to put up a sign that says, “Jesus Welcomes You to <Our Town>,” my first thought is positive. Maybe my fellow Americans haven’t forgotten Jesus altogether. In fact, as I drive to church each Sunday I pass through two other towns that feature similar signs.

I do feel uneasy about the signs, however, and am reluctant to put up a similar sign in my town or in the town in which I pastor. My uneasiness is not rooted in a lack of devotion to Jesus. Rather, I’m doubtful that we can live up to the message we’re giving in Jesus’ name.

What do people think when they come to a town and are greeted by Jesus himself? Will they be looking for people to act like Jesus? Represent him accurately? I don’t want people to hear the greeting and then judge Jesus in terms of what they see of our sin. I don’t want to be a part of turning people away from Jesus.

There is no biblical precedent for Jesus welcoming people to a particular town. In the years of his ministry that we see in the gospels, we see a man who was mostly homeless, wandering from town to town telling of the good news of the Kingdom. In some places he found a welcome; in others not.

Instead of welcoming people to a town or place, Jesus welcomed people to himself. He said, “Come unto me, all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” If I were to put up a “Jesus welcomes” style sign, that’s the kind of message I’d put up. I don’t want people to get the idea that we’re representing ourselves as especially holy or spiritual. We’re not. But we can extend Jesus’ invitation to himself, and welcome people to follow him with us.

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Dual Relationships

One of the books I finished last week was You can read my review at NetGalley.

Scazzero suggests that one of the practices that helps leaders be more healthy is to minimize “dual relationships.” While the term might not be familiar, the reality likely is. A dual relationship is one where we have two kinds of relationship with the same person. For example, as a pastor, I might also be a friend to a staff member or parishioner. As a neighbor, I might also be a customer of the family next door.

Dual relationships create complexity and sometimes trouble. As the leader of an organization, I might need to take action to end the employment of a friend. And what about a family member? If a member of my family works for me, how do I balance the duties that come with my familial relationship with my duties to the organization I lead? Such conflicts often lead to emotional disturbance and even paralysis. To the degree that we want to minimize emotional disturbance and be free to act in the best interest of our institutions, we’re best off minimizing dual relationships.

Taking dual relationships to be a problem arises in modern society, particularly in more populous settings. In the big city (Scazzero lives and works in New York City, though cities a fraction that size face the same realities), differentiation is the norm. In large population areas we usually relate to people in simple relationships. The people we do business with are only the people we do business with. Otherwise they are strangers.

In small towns and in traditional communities, however, dual – and even multiple – relationships are unavoidable. Networks of relationship, whether kinship, business, church, or school, tie most people together. Conflicts of interest become ineliminable.

If we are best off avoiding dual relationships, then we are also best off keeping everyone at a distance, encouraging others to remain strangers. In some ways that might make Jesus’ command to “love our neighbor as ourselves” easier. Everyone is a stranger to us, so we love each stranger equally (even if fairly minimally). When some are not strangers, but come into the category “friend” or “family” the practice of “equal love” becomes nearly impossible.

But what about our selves? I play many roles. In my family I am husband, father, son, brother, etc. Professionally, I am teacher, pastor, and (now), Director of Church Relations for a college. I am also a Christian, a follower of Jesus. All of these roles – and others – contribute to making me what I am. I bring myself – in all this complexity – into all my relationships. While different relationships my require a different aspect of myself to be at the fore, I cannot, at that time, pretend that these other aspects do not exist. They shape how I live out my relationships with others. I find it emotionally unhealthy to suppress elements of my personality; in the first place, it seems fake, and thus dishonest, in the second, I like who I am. To the degree that I avoid dual relationships, I am also, at least minimally, practicing the fragmentation of my self.

Either way, whether we pursue or avoid dual relationships, there is a cost. Just knowing that there is a cost either way is a helpful starting point.

The reality of dual relationships has another benefit. When I am both boss and friend, for example, then I find myself in a situation where it is harder to treat my employee as a mere object, as a mere means to the ends of my institution or enterprise. This, I believe, is a chief strength in dual relationships. Of course, as we’ve already seen, this strength comes with a price. But most strengths do.

Our dual (or multiple) relationships, then, require management and attention, rather than elimination.

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No Best Option?

One of the challenges of real life decision making is that the options before us might not include any ideal/right options. Some who are faced with cancer are given the option of (a) treatment that is incredibly painful and uncomfortable, and (b) a faster death. They’d like a third and better option.

I suspect the proposed “Iran deal” may be like that. It looks like we have two options: Do the deal or don’t do the deal. The deal looks bad, given our rational distrust for the current Iranian regime, so it’s easy to assume that not doing the deal is the better choice. But what if neither is a truly good choice?

What about the Rohingya women in this story? The introduction:

The young woman had been penned in a camp in the sweltering jungle of southern Thailand for two months when she was offered a deal.

She fled Myanmar this year hoping to reach safety in Malaysia, after anti-Muslim rioters burned her village. But her family could not afford the $1,260 the smugglers demanded to complete the journey.

A stranger was willing to pay for her freedom, the smugglers said, if she agreed to marry him.

“I was allowed to call my parents, and they said that if I was willing, it would be better for all the family,” said the woman, Shahidah Yunus, 22. “I understood what I must do.”

She joined the hundreds of young Rohingya women from Myanmar sold into marriage to Rohingya men already in Malaysia as the price of escaping violence and poverty in their homeland.

They appear to have two choices: (a) Stay in Myanmar and face death, or (b) escape to Malaysia and be sold into marriage? If I were in their place I wouldn’t count either option as good.

One of the advantages of being rich Americans is that we imagine that every option is always available to us. One of the disadvantages of being rich Americans is that we imagine that every option is always available to us – and it’s just not so. Our own prior decisions and actions, and those of others, have foreclosed many if not most options.

When it comes to understanding the Christian ethical stance in the world, I’ve been really attracted to Stanley Hauerwas’s work over the years. It strikes me as uncompromisingly Christian, and I like the idea of being uncompromising. But I’m not fully convinced we can pull it off. Am I compromising when I like John Stackhouse’s approach in Making the Best of It? If I am compromising, is it a bad thing?

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Communities with Multiple and Conflicting Conviction Sets

In a previous post I noted McClendon & Smith’s work on the nature of convictions. Convictions are the beliefs that are so important to us that they define our identity. If we give up or change these convictions, we become significantly different people. In another post I discussed their claim that convictions also define at least some communities. While some communities have their identity rooted in geography, economics, genetics, or demography, the identity of others is importantly formed by a set of convictions.

What about the United Methodist Church? Can we say that the UMC is a convictional community? On the surface, it looks like we are. As Christians, our liturgy shares in conviction bearing/producing documents and materials. The creeds and hymns we find in our United Methodist Hymnal, the Bible itself – these are important places to look for our convictions. As United Methodist Christians, we also appear to have convictions. We can again look to our hymnal (the Wesley hymns are particularly rich sources for identifying Methodist convictions) and our Book of Discipline. In the Discipline we find the Articles of Religion and the Confession (from our EUB heritage).

On the other hand, in the generations where liberal theology has been dominant in our tradition, some of our meta-convictions have pushed us in the direction of being a non-convictional (or minimally convictional) community. The normative doctrinal pluralism of our original United Methodist doctrinal statement and the non (or even anti-) convictional nature of our seminaries point us away from the idea that we are or should be a convictional community. This has been an ongoing argument in the church since the 1968 merger, with groups like Good News and The Confessing Movement characterized as pushing against the mainstream by claiming we are a convictional community.

Dropping my attempt at objectivity for a moment, the notion that the UMC is or could be a non-convictional community seems ludicrous. The question is not whether we are a convictional community but what those convictions are and the way they will be expressed in the church.

Inasmuch as convictions are a species of belief, we can speak of there being (generally) two kinds of belief. There are beliefs about the way the world is and beliefs about what we should do in the world. Borrowing some language from John Searle’s philosophy, we might describe the former as having a “belief to world direction of fit” (trying to represent the world rightly), the latter as having a “world to belief direction of fit” (trying to make the world right). That at least some of our convictions have an outward view means that convictions have “real world” consequences.

At least some of our current trajectories toward disunity lie in convictional differences. The presenting issue these days revolves around the issue of homosexuality, but draws on a network of convictions including those dealing with hermeneutics (the authority and interpretation of scripture), anthropology, soteriology, and ecclesiology. We are, as a proposed resolution at the last General Conference declared, “not of one mind” on the subject of homosexuality. Or, put in the terms used here, we do not have a shared set of convictions on the subject. Our convictional differences lie in both types. We have United Methodists whose conviction set about the way things are in the world connects with a set about what we are to do, that results in the consequent conviction that “full inclusion” is the only appropriate action. We also have United Methodists whose conviction set about the way things are in the world is rather different, connecting with an again rather different set of convictions about what we are to do, resulting in the consequent conviction that the practice of any form of non-heterosexual marital sexuality is to be avoided.

If we had a congregational or highly individualistic conviction set, the church could just settle into a fully “local option,” with each church and each pastor doing as they saw fit. Unfortunately, the United Methodist conviction set still (largely) contains convictions that mitigate against such individualism. We are the church together. We are all one church. Our theology of ministry (centered on the concept of itineracy) treats all clergy as functionally alike and therefore interchangeable.

The easiest way forward is for one side to give in and submit to the other, either willingly or under coercion. This is the way teleological communities (organizations) work, after all. Our current Discipline puts most of the pressure on those who advocate “full inclusion.” The Discipline explicitly declares that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” that same sex weddings are not to be celebrated by our clergy or in our churches, and the “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” are not to be ordained. These institutionalized convictions, inasmuch as they become less shared, are seen as purely coercive, rather than persuasive. Though these rules are still on the books, the past couple of years have seen them increasingly ignored in large swathes of the church.

Given where we are now, I do not know the way forward. I and others are loath to go the way of coercion. The willingness to talk about “amicable separation” is at least partly due to the desire to avoid coercion. I agree with McClendon and Smith when they note:

“If we regard integrity and a certain degree of consistency as important elements in being a person, we should neither expect not want others’ convictions to be easily changed or lightly given up. On the other hand, if we have a true esteem for our own convictions, we will want them to be shared in appropriate ways by anyone whom we regard.”

Thinking in terms of the Golden Rule, I would not like it if I were coerced to give up my convictions or to act contrary to my convictions. I would feel like my integrity was being violated. For this reason, I would rather our church not be an institution characterized by constant trials of dissidents or by numerous people being forced to give up their convictions.

Yet we are a convictional community as well. Just as I am against the idea of coercion, I am also convinced that a convictionally fragmented (or minimized) community will be a weaker and less effective presence in the world, less faithful to God and less able to speak a clear word to the world.

So where do we go? I will continue to explore these themes in future posts.

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My People Are under Attack!

I think Christians, regardless of race or ethnicity, ought to think of themselves as co-belligerents (without bellicosity!) for the Kingdom of God. For that reason, when I hear of stories like this (church burnings in multiple states) or the murderous attack in Charleston, I feel like I am under attack. These are MY brothers and sisters, my teammates.

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