Not So Much Unity

Lovett Weems sees more unity than I do when he writes,

What if the General Conference addressed matters of doctrine, mission, and values and gave freedom (such as Central Conferences already have today) in structure and regulations, including clergy standards? Thus, General Conference becomes a time for celebration, worship, and engagement with those elements of United Methodist identity that unite across all boundaries and differences.

We might use the same words in our talk about doctrine, if we consider the Articles of Religion, for example, as expressing “our doctrine.” There are many who still think in terms of the pre-1988 Disciplinary statement on doctrine. Up until 1988 the BOD supported normative doctrinal pluralism; the 1988 BOD turned away from that position.

If we actually had the level of unity he imagines, then it might be possible to “move from structures of control to a culture of trust and grace.” As we stand now, we don’t have that. From what I see, the UMC has never had that level of unity. I pray that in our ecclesial re-alignment we find ways to have that kind of unity in more than just our denominational name.


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Review: Faith for this Moment

If you have access to this review, you know we live in a highly polarized culture. One the one hand, our political polarization has been on display during the past week as a miscreant from Florida sent mail bombs to leading Democrats, as an evil doer from Kentucky decided to go kill black people for no reason other than their race, and as a murderous thug killed almost a dozen Jews in Pittsburgh. We didn’t even have time to mourn before the tribal recriminations began.

Our churches are not only in this polarized culture, but are in many ways of it. My own United Methodist Church is in the final throes of a battle that’s been raging pretty much since the denomination began in 1968. The denomination’s official position on issues in the bounds of sexuality are mostly in line with traditional Christian positions, and thus at increasing odds with broader American culture. As American United Methodists, we have, as always, taken up positions defined and defended in our culture as not just American, but also as Christian.

FaithForThisMomentRick McKinley, in his recent book, Faith for this Moment: Navigating a Polarized World as People of God takes these cultural issues head on. McKinley frames the Christian approach to this conflict in terms of the Old Testament experience of Exile. The nation of Israel was God’s chosen people. They had experienced awesome moments of God’s blessing. But then in the 6th century BC, they were defeated by the Babylonians and carried off into captivity. In the prophetic literature, Israel is challenged to respond to their Exile in a way that maintains their faith in God and their calling to be his people.

McKinley, a pastor in Portland, Oregon, has experienced the marginalization of the church first hand. Portland is on the leading edge of secularization in America, so how could he plant and grow a church there, where the culture seemed as such deep odds with traditional (American) Christian culture?

Faced with what to do with its host culture – while in “exile” – McKinley sees three common responses. When we are confronted with culture we either baptize it, accepting it as indistinguishable from our faith, burn it, see if it as entirely in conflict with our faith and thus worthy of total warfare, or bless it, recognizing its people are our neighbors. Settling on Jeremiah 29 as a primary text, McKinley opts for the “bless” it option.

The greatest weakness of the book is the failure to confront the specifically Christian contribution to current American culture. For most of our history, Christians have been in charge. It’s not that some foreign culture has invaded and imposed its values on us. What we have is evolution within a formerly Christian-molded culture. And that Christian-molded culture was profoundly broken in multiple ways. We need look no farther than the Christian voices that built and defended slavery and the oppression of African Americans even after slavery. The hypocrisy of Christian culture is a large part of what got us where we are.

The greatest strength of the book comes in the last chapters where McKinley discusses “practices” that enable the people of God to “bless” their host culture. The chapter on Generosity is particularly good.


Note: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of writing this review.

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Review: 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith

Gregg R. Allison’s 50 Core Truths of the Christian Faith is a helpful survey of basic 9780801019128Christian theological teachings. Though Allison is a professor at a Southern Baptist seminary, he writes for a broad evangelical audience.

The first thing I like about the book is it’s structure. Each chapter deals with a single doctrine and is divided up into multiple sections:

  • Summary
  • Main Themes
  • Key Scripture
  • Understanding the Doctrine (further subdivided into Major Affirmations, Biblical Support, and Major Errors)
  • Enacting the Doctrine
  • Teaching the Doctrine
  • Perennial Questions and Problematic Issues
  • Teaching Outline
  • Resources (a bibliography)

This structure makes it very easy for non-experts to grasp the material and use it in teaching sessions.

A second thing I like is Allison’s labor to speak to an audience broader than his own baptist tradition. This has the dual blessing of making the book useful in multiple churches and of including multiple viewpoints. As a Wesleyan, it’s been common in my experience for evangelical writers to present adherence to Calvinism as necessary to being an evangelical, therefore leaving all Wesleyans on the sidelines. Allison is clearly more Reformed than Arminian, but he is fairly generous.

If you’re not a conservative evangelical, this book is probably not for you. Though Allison allows for some breadth of teaching, the limits are not really very broad. One way to see this is the assumption of a foundationalist epistemology, exemplified by the building of doctrine an inerrant scripture.

I also appreciate Allison’s inclusion of a section on “Enacting the Doctrine.” For too long Christians have acted like doctrine is only something to be believed – a sort of “mental furniture.” Allison is correct that doctrine has consequences for the way we live as Christians and as the people of God.

One of the limitations of this book comes from covering 50 doctrines in a single volume. Not only would one wish some doctrines received greater coverage, but important dimensions of theological teaching are left unconsidered altogether. There is little or no attention, for example, given to scientific and philosophical consideration. Allison might argue that these disciplines have no place in a truly scriptural theology, but by not considering them (except as contributing to theological errors), the theologian becomes blind to ways culture and other schools of thought have crept into our ways of thinking.

[Note: I received a copy of this book from Baker Book Bloggers on condition of writing a review.]

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The “Angry, Offended” God

I ran across this quotation on Twitter the other day:

“God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign. Unless we behold God in and through Christ, the only Mediator–the terrors of His Majesty would overwhelm us. Because of our sins–we dare not approach the Father, except in Christ.”

The quote comes from Stephen Charnock, a 17th century English Puritan. As a Wesleyan Christian, this is, in important ways, alien from the theological picture I work from.

Here’s where I can agree with Charnock:

  1. God is sovereign. God is the sole creator of all that is. God is the ultimate authority not just in theory, but in fact. We ought to submit to God in all areas of our lives. God alone is due (and worthy of) our worship and devotion.
  2. Jesus Christ is the only way to God. Other so-called gods are no help to us. Our performance, how ever great we or others judge it, gets us nowhere with God. God is never in our debt; we are always in debt to God. Jesus is the only mediator between us and God.
  3. There is a huge gap between us and God. Morally, we fall short of God’s ideal. From a practical point of view, this is because of our sin. Our sin distorts our perception of God as well as of everything else. We lack accurate understanding of an insight into ourselves because of our sin.
  4. God is not safe. Not only is God “a consuming fire,” but the consistent biblical picture of people who come face to face with God (whatever that means, given our vast ontological difference), are completely overwhelmed. We are never God’s “buddies.”

My great difference with Charnock comes in the first line: “God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign.”

  1. Where at least some strands of the Calvinist tradition (as represented in Charnock) view God as primarily “holy wrath,” the Wesleyan tradition views God as primarily “holy love.” Calvinists do not deny God’s love, and Wesleyans (at least when they’re true to Wesley) don’t deny God’s wrath.
  2. Given my experience of United Methodism, the largest denomination in the Wesleyan tradition, I need to say more about God’s wrath. I’ve noticed that many of my contemporary Methodists (who I assume would count themselves as Wesleyans also), don’t like talking about God’s wrath, deferring to the attribute of love alone. The first step in joining the Methodist movement in the 18th century was evidencing a “desire to flee the wrath to come.” This was not the wrath of the French, the Germans, or the Turks: this was the wrath of God. In my experience we never use this Wesleyan phrase any more.
  3. The Trinity – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – is eternal. We misunderstand the Trinity when we imagine some eternal GOD, who only later, after the fall, “splits up” or “becomes” Trinitarian. There is thus no such thing as “God, apart from Christ.” The Trinity is always, from all eternity and into all eternity, love.
  4. When we read “God, apart from Christ, is an angry, offended Sovereign,” we get the picture of that “angry, offended Sovereign,” sitting on his throne, just waiting to stamp us puny sinners out of existence. But then Christ shows up and convinces God to go against his prior intent and grant us mercy. God’s prior intent is and always is love.


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The Gospel in Bryan Stone’s Evangelism after Pluralism

I thought Bryan Stone’s Evangelism after Christendom  was one of the best books on the EvangelismAfterPluralismintersection of evangelism, theology, culture, and church that I’ve read. When I saw he’d recently come out with Evangelism after Pluralism, I thought I ought to read it too.

In the first chapter he says:

“The good news heralded by the church is that in Christ salvation is now possible in the form of a new way of life. This salvation is not an experience to be passively received or a set of propositions to be assented to. It is a way to be embarked upon, a way we forgive each other’s sins, a way we love and include those who are different from us, a way we welcome the poor, a way we love our enemies, a way we bind up those who are brokenhearted, or have suffered loss, a way we cancel debts, and a way the world’s hierarchies are turned upside down in Christlike patterns of fellowship.”

I have to think about this a bit.

My first thought is that he is exactly right. The gospel (good news) is not merely a set of propositions to which we assent. It’s also not merely an experience of God or the reception of a new destination for eternity.

My second thought is the recollection that too many definitions of “gospel” come down to news about us, about the recipients of the news. For some who talking about “sharing the gospel,” the “gospel” shared is a list of truths about how the recipient of the good news can achieve some good. This good is usually something like “eternal life,” “forgiveness of sins,” or “reconciliation with God.” Each of these phrases – and the notion that God intends them for us – is biblical. But is it the gospel?

Isn’t the gospel primarily about Jesus – about who Jesus is and what God has done in his life, death, and resurrection? Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and current lordship over creation are surely integral to those other things we associate with the gospel (on all accounts). But in our talk do we sufficiently guard against taking these fruits of the gospel as the gospel itself?

In his definition of the good news in this passage, Stone doesn’t directly mention the work of Christ; but he does mention it indirectly. When he claims that this salvation is “now” possible, we see the opening for taking salvation as having a temporal dimension. There was a time when this salvation was not possible. Now, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, this salvation has been accomplished for us.

The strength of Stone’s definition is the emphasis on the present reality of the salvation we have in Christ. Salvation is not just something that happens far off in the future, either when we die or in the Eschaton; nor is it just a private internal experience of God. Salvation in Christ is a way of life we enter into, a way we live in. Our living the way of Jesus is visible in the world and has real-world consequences.

I’d like to see greater explicitness on the work (and status) of Christ as the heart of the good news we experience, live, and proclaim. One way this could be done (and this is only p. 9, so Stone may very well take this up later in the book) would be to tie together the way we live in Christ with the Holy Spirit living within us. We’re not just acquiring and operating a spiritual technology, akin to a law or set of noble truths. Through the indwelling Spirit, we are living out the life of God within us.

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Review of Didn’t See It Coming

didntseeI came to Didn’t See It Coming as a regular reader of Carey Nieuwhof’s blog. I’ve listened to his podcast since the beginning. I’ve found his work helpful and insightful for my role as a pastor and Christian leader. Though I reckoned him to be at the top of the game in providing leadership insights and a skilled interviewer, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this book aimed at a general audience.

Going by the title alone, I thought of my own “didn’t see it coming” experiences. The first thing that came to mind was the birth of our first child. Sure, births of first children are normal occurrences. But what we’d expected – what we’d “seen coming,” was a certain number of children, general family growth and happiness, eventual college, jobs, and on into the empty nest. We didn’t know what to do when our first child turned out to be disabled, and disabled in a way that meant she would never pass from the need for our care. Her special needs have determined our relationships with our other children, our extended family, friends, jobs/careers, and the whole of our lives. We didn’t see that coming.

That’s not the kind of experience Nieuwhof writes about in this book. I’d hoped that he had – that there would have been a magic solution that we hadn’t thought of after thirty years. But I don’t believe in magic, and neither does Nieuwhof. The challenges he addresses are other kinds of unexpected events common to many of us. None of these have magical solutions. All can be dealt with, but instead of magic, each requires that we change the way we see things, and adopt new practices.

He deals with seven challenges none of us expect in life: cynicism, compromise, disconnection, irrelevance, pride, burnout and emptiness. I’ve dealt with at least four of these myself. Reading the book I found most of his suggested therapies to be at least plausible if not proven strategies. Note well that these are therapies, not solutions. He doesn’t advocate the magical approach – or even the technological approach – that says, “If you do this, results are guaranteed.” When I had my rotator cuff surgeries, I had to take up certain practices to regain my strength and range of motion in my arm. Healing took more than knowledge, more than listening to wise advice. I had to act. I also had to keep acting. There was no “one and done.”

The section I had the most trouble with was the chapters dealing with irrelevance. As a pastor, I deal with issues of change all the time. I’m also part of a denomination that is facing huge cultural change issues that are tearing us apart. Because of my institutional setting, I looked for more that would be useful to me in that domain. The strength of Nieuwhof’s discussion of change was focused on the personal – not surprising since that is the point of the book. If we – my denomination and the churches that compose it – had dealt with personal transformation and issues of cultural discernment over the past few generations, we would be much better situated to deal with the huge cultural changes swamping us today.

Nieuwhof is a pastor by trade. He writes from a distinctly Christian point of view. If the slightest tinge of Christianity annoys you, this book won’t be for you. Most of what he has to say, however, is wisdom that requires no commitment to any faith tradition. For those coming from the other direction who might accuse him of watering down the teaching of the faith into a secularized pabulum, might consider the commonality of the wisdom tradition in the ancient world. Much – though not all – of the wisdom tradition in ancient Israel finds parallels in places like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. Theologically, we could look to the doctrine of creation as a rationale for thinking our common status as creatures of God living in a particular kind of (and shared) world would make a basic common wisdom likely.

If your life is only going upward, only sweetness and light, you might not get much out of this book. My guess, however, is that even such ease is your reality (not just your dream), this book may help you be on the lookout for what is coming down the road.

If you’d like to dip into or pre-order the book, you can check it out – and read the first chapter! – at

(I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book.)

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No Exit?

(Previous post in the series) Turning to the difficulty of the exit option with regard to exit voicepolitical entities, Hirschman writes:

“But the economist is by no means alone in having a blindspot, a ‘trained incapacity’ (as Veblen called it) for perceiving the usefulness of one of our two mechanisms [exit]. In fact, in the political realm exit has fared much worse than has voice in the realm of economics. Rather than as merely ineffective or ‘cumbrous,’ exit has often been branded as criminal, for it has been labeled desertion, defection, and treason.”

In the economic/business realm, exit is very easy and of relatively low cost. If you don’t like a particular business, just “exit” that business and go to a competitor (assuming you’re not dealing with a monopoly). Because exit is so easy in this context, some businesses don’t get the feedback (voice) they need to improve.

The situation is the other way around in the political realm. When it comes to our citizenship, especially at the top level of the nation state, exit is very difficult, if it’s even possible. Moving away from one’s home country can, as Hirschman notes, be seen as more than just a personal decision to emigrate. It’s “desertion, defection, [or] treason.”

What about in the church? Unlike our nation state, exit is very easy when it comes to the church in America. In fact, exit is so easy, our relationship to church seems much more like our relationship to a business. Religion is a commodity in a marketplace. If we’re not happy with the services offered by our current provider, we just go to the next one down the street or across town.

If church is a business, an entity that exists to offer services within a religious marketplace, then exit is a sign that the church needs to do a better job serving its members. We need to “meet the felt needs” of people, i.e., offer them the quality and quantity of religious commodities they demand. After all, “the customer is always right.” Burger King leads the way.

But what if church isn’t a business? Contrary to the expectations of some, churches are not there to serve their members. Members are tied to each other through fundamental commitments and covenants. When practicing exit in the face of a declining or deteriorating church, the break in relationship is more like “desertion, defection, [or] treason” – or even divorce. We even have a religious word for this, used when it is a group that is practicing exit together: “Schism.”

Churches are political entities, unlike businesses. We commit to each other when we become members. Members of a church aren’t simply interchangeable like customers of a business. We matter to each other because our relationships are rooted in love. This love bay be inchoate or immature, but it is still love. Breaking the bond of membership through exit hurts. Exit is also materially costly, since the current United Methodist Book of Discipline has congregations holding all property in trust for the denomination. Those who exit leave with nothing to show for years – sometimes generations – of work and sacrifice.

When someone exits, we have some ready-made names to throw their way to assuage our pain: Heretic! Congregationalist! Bigot? Fundamentalist! Calvinist! Baptist! Is it possible to stay in love even when people exit? Can we embrace the pain rather than trying to expel it?

The call for provisions to allow for “gracious exit” may point this direction. Those who seek to add this option to the United Methodist constitution may be wishing to maintain love in the face of the pain of exit. From what I’ve seen, it’s usually the traditionalists who talk about creating this option. On the front side, it looks like this is showing grace and love to those they disagree with, those who in the face of maintaining the traditionalist policies with regard to sexuality may see the current policy as evil. On the other hand, it may be that with the cultural juggernaut of revisionist sexual ethics in America, traditionalists may be trying to open space for their own exit.

Both of the major sides in the current United Methodist conflict think they can win. The traditionalists think they can win because they see the bulk of world Methodism (and the growing edge) taking a traditionalist point of view. The revisionists think they can win if they only outlast the traditionalists, since they are “on the right side of history.” Both sides keep up the voice option. But how long till voice becomes too tiring or painful, and exit becomes the favored option, even if costly?

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Exit, Voice, and Loyalty

exit voiceI believe there are some useful ideas for United Methodists in Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. We know we have decline in the United Methodist Church. We have fewer members in the United States every year. Because we close many more churches than we open, we have fewer congregations each year. If the general population were in decline, this might not be so bad, but as the population increases, we decrease. We also have an aging population, and that mostly aging in place. We’re getting older without adding younger people (younger than our current average age).

But why read Hirschman? He’s an economist, not a theologian. I don’t even know if he was a Christian.

As United Methodists, we confess with other Christians that the church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. We claim with scripture that the church is the body of Christ, united and animated by the Holy Spirit. When we stray from these theological descriptors we damage the church. When we fail to experience the church as so described, we miss out on tremendous blessings.

But the church is also a human institution. We experience it as an organization – one of the targets Hirschman has in view. When I read Hirschman, I see application to what I see and experience in the church.

Hirschman’s thesis is that all organizations experience decline and deterioration. People “inside” the organization (the meaning of “inside” varies depending on what type of organization is in view) have limited options when dealing with this decline. They might decide to bail on the organization altogether. If I have a bad experience at a restaurant – poor service or nasty food, for example – I will stop going to that restaurant. Hirschman calls this option “exit.”

Suppose the restaurant belongs to some close friends or plays an important role in my community. I have sufficient connection to the restaurant that I want to stay attached. I would like to see the restaurant be better. In this case I exercise “voice” – I speak up and give my input.

Some kinds of organizations make exit very easy. If I live in an area with many restaurants, it’s easy to drop one and never return. There are plenty of others I can choose. Churches are this way too. Exiting any particular church, whether a specific congregation or a denomination, is easy. If I don’t like something about First Methodist, I can go to Second Methodist. If I don’t like something about Methodists in general, I can go to the Presbyterians, Baptists, or Catholics.

Exit is very difficult when it comes to some other social entities. If I don’t like the local public school, I may or may not have any option. Exiting the school – dropping out – has a huge cost associated with it. Or consider the nation state. In recent election years we hear of rich celebrities declaring that they’ll move to another country if the candidate they despise is elected. Being rich, that might be a live option. For most people, it’s not an option. Exit is too difficult.

Sometimes our role in the organization can make exit more difficult. As a ordained elder in the United Methodist Church I’m deeply committed to the church. I haven’t just declared my allegiance to the institution when I was ordained, but I’ve invested over thirty years of my professional life into the church. As a pastor, I can, through the agency of the Bishop & cabinet, exit one appointment and move to another. Institutionally, that’s an easy and common thing to do. I can’t however, easily move to a church of another denomination. Exit costs me not just relationships but my livelihood.

When exit is difficult or impossible, the importance of voice rises. I find myself in an institution. I’m personally and deeply invested in that institution. I not only care what happens to that institution, and what it does, but to a significant degree, my success or well-being depends on its success and well-being. When I see or experience decline in the organization, I have to speak up. By exercising voice, I aim to shift the trajectory of the institution, to redirect it toward health and/or growth. If exit is difficult or impossible – and I have no voice or feel like I have no voice, I might withdraw into passivity and neglect and depression.

Hirschman’s third word describing a possible relation to an institution is “loyalty.” Loyalty speaks to the degree and quality of our connection to the institution. Sometimes, and our normal relationship to businesses like restaurants, our relation to an institution might be based on what we get out of it. We patronize the restaurant because we like the food, the atmosphere, the people we find there. Choice plays an important role. Churches are different. While some current people were raised in that church and may perceive themselves as lacking a choice, the church “market” is such that many options exist in most places. It is true that some people choose a church based on what they get out of it. They are consumers, and they approach their decision to adhere to a particular church as a consumer of goods and services. For many, however, the connection is much deeper. Many join and adhere to a church out of conviction and love. They understand themselves not as consumers of the church’s goods and services but as part of the church itself. Our nation state represents a third type of relation. Choice plays a much smaller role when it comes to our connection to our nation state. Sure, there are conditions under which we can migrate to another country. The decision is much more momentous, difficult, and costly.

Loyalty can function in each of these kinds of institutional relationship. My loyalty to a restaurant will lead to my regular patronage and my referring others to it. My loyalty to a church entails my dedication to and participation in achieving its mission. I want it to succeed in terms of that mission. My loyalty to my nation can be expressed variously. I obey the laws and encourage their enforcement. I serve when called on – for the country’s defense or on a jury. I cheer for my country in international sporting events.

Loyalty, as Hirschman conceives it is never blind loyalty. True loyalty wants the institution and its constituents to prosper and do well. Loyalty takes the mission and purpose of the institution into account. Loyalty may push voice over exit, but exit can remain as an option of last resort. Institutions that want loyalty from their participants or adherents must keep the possibility open for exercise of voice, lest those who are experiencing decline or deterioration are forced to exit.

In future posts I will interact more with Hirschman’s book and its application to our current United Methodist situation. In those I will go into greater detail as to how I think it might help us. Keep reading.

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Room for Deterioration

Reading Albert Hirschman, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty:

“The wide latitude human societies have for deterioration is the inevitable counterpart of man’s increasing productivity and control over his environment. Occasional decline as well as prolonged mediocrity—in relation to achievable performance levels—must be counted among the many penalties of progress.”

Sometimes dogs need discipline (I’m thinking here of discipline as negative consequences). They eat something they’re not supposed to eat, or destroy some valued object. I’ve heard that dogs can learn from discipline in these circumstances, but only if the discipline comes immediately enough that they can make the connection between the discipline and their action.

Maybe humans are that way too. When we experience negative consequences from our actions, we can learn to avoid those actions and choose some others. Sometimes the consequences of our actions come at such a distance from the actions themselves that we can’t see the connection. “Climate change” can go in this category. What we humans do – what we put into the atmosphere – in a single day, or even a single year, doesn’t have much discernible effect. Over time we start to see an effect. The effect comes so slowly, with no directly perceived relation to our actions, that we might be dubious about the connection.

What would happen if we there were immediate negative consequences to our putting increasing amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the air? Would that be a help? Surely the immediate negative consequences of putting our hand on the burner tell us DON’T PUT YOUR HAND ON THE BURNER!

We can turn to ethical matters. In the Old Testament, for example, we see God commanding the people of Israel to “make no graven image.” Idolatry is clearly a bad thing. God promises consequences. Generally, with a few notable exceptions, the consequences from God (as we read the Bible) do not come immediately. It seems that Israel can linger in idolatry for generations before judgment (consequences) comes. Wouldn’t it be better if those consequences would come immediately? Then we would be much clearer both as to exactly what constitutes idolatry and that we should avoid it.

What if there were no time for deterioration – no gap at all between our actions and their (total!) consequences? Surely in such cases, the more total the consequences, the less possible we could learn. We sin, we die. That quick. But, again, we almost never see that pattern in the Bible. There’s a lag between going wrong and being shown to be wrong.

In the quote above, Hirschman is looking at human societies (groups, communities, enterprises, businesses, etc.). Due to progress, these societies are not constantly at subsistence level. If they were at subsistence level, the first instance of “consequences,” or to use his word, “deterioration,” would be fatal. As things are, we can, as Hirschman notes, go along for quite a while, not doing really well – being just plain mediocre – but still getting along.

Like other institutions in our time, our United Methodist Church (in America, at least) is at the stage of deterioration. We’ve been losing members for over a generation now. We’ve closing far more churches than we’re opening. Through the 1950s and even into the 1960s we thought we were doing great. We’d made progress. considering were we stood in comparison with the general population of the US we were largely deceiving ourselves, but degree of progress we experienced – taking us to somewhere around 14 million members – gave us room to “deteriorate,” and to deteriorate slowly enough that we’ve continued to exist, even, occasionally, to think we’re doing ok.

What’s the cause of this deterioration? Our current conflict over sexuality gives us a context for explaining our deterioration. We can say, “Accepting, legitimating, and pushing revisionist accounts of sexual ethics is the cause of our deterioration.” Or, on the other side, we could say, “Our stubborn resistance to revised accounts of sexual ethics that take modern discoveries and the needs of contemporary people into account is the cause of our deterioration.” Either – or both – could be factors, but that’s not point in this essay.

In the first place, the beginning of our deterioration antedates by a good while the rise of these issues to the fore in the church. Neither, therefore, is likely to be the origin of our deterioration.

In the second place, neither action produces immediate consequences unambiguously enough for us to understand them as the cause of deterioration.

In the third place, I’m skeptical of monocausal theories. Our deterioration is longstanding, its causes complex.

Finally, my point in this essay is to point to the temporal gap between causes and resulting deterioration. This gap gives us time to act. From what I see, however, our time is running short.

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United Methodist Convictions

In their book Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism, James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and James M. Smith work from this definition:

“A conviction… means a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.”

The X I’m concerned with is the United Methodist Church. In this regard, I have a few questions:

  1. Can we accurately describe the United Methodist Church as a “convictional community?”
  2. If the answer to the first question is affirmative, what are those convictions?
  3. What is the connection, if any, between our “convictions” and our “doctrines?”
  4. To what degree and in what way are these convictions shared across denominational membership?
  5. What role, if any, do our convictions have in our actually being “United?”
  6. How have our communal convictions, if we have any, changed over the years?
  7. What forces lead to change in our communal convictions?
  8. Are there size limits on a convictional community?
  9. Are there temporal limits on a convictional community?

Let me take a stab at answering these.

First, as a pastor and teacher in the United Methodist Church, I take the church to be a convictional community. We have at least some persistent beliefs. Some of these beliefs have persisted since our origins in the work of the Wesleys and their co-laborers. Other beliefs have persisted since the movement came to America, or since their generation in various moments in the American experience.

This way of answering the question is appealing to a normative definition. What if we were instead to do a study of how United Methodists and their churches actually live? Would the lived convictions match the declared convictions? Before the 1988 Book of Discipline the United Methodist theological statement supported normative doctrinal pluralism. This is no longer the de jure position of the church, but for many it has remained (and for others it has become) the de facto position. In some cases it would sound like such persons are making a claim that a key communal conviction is that we do not have communal convictions.

This may sound like utter nonsense – how can it make sense to have a conviction that one does not have convictions? We could generously interpret the claim (more often implicit than explicit) not as primary conviction, but as a secondary conviction, that is, a conviction about convictions. Now, I don’t think United Methodism (or the Wesleyan tradition) – or Christianity for that matter – can work that way, but I don’t want to argue that yet. Jumping ahead to question 10, I simply want to acknowledge that whether the United Methodist Church ought to be a convictional community is a disputed question.

Second, if one were to ask an “official” United Methodist spokesperson (yes, only the General Conference can officially speak for the Church, but professional Methodists generally fit the bill for what I’m getting at here) today about our persistent beliefs, our convictions,  such an official would likely point to some elements easily recognized as “beliefs,” while others pertain more closely to “practices.” “Grace” would be at the top most lists of beliefs, while practices such as “episcopacy” and “connectionalism” would be prominent in lists of practices.

Third, it would be natural to think there is a close and deep connection between our convictions and our doctrine. If this were so, one could point at our official doctrine, found in the Articles of Religion, the Confession, and Wesley’s Sermons and Notes, as presenting our convictions.

Surely, to some degree, this equation probably works. Article III, for example, says, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.” Inasmuch as United Methodist Churches celebrate Easter, one would think they believe in the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., that this Article regarding his resurrection expresses one of our communal convictions.

McClendon and Smith, as we saw above, define a conviction as a belief that “persists,” that “will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.” If United Methodists stop believing Jesus was raised from the dead, then we would, in fact, become a “significantly different community” than we were before. Perhaps then, we are justified in saying that Article III, taken as a point of our official doctrine, is, in fact, also expressive of one of our communal convictions.

What about Article XIV? “The Romish doctrine regarding purgatory, pardon, worshiping, and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant to the Word of God.” How different would the United Methodist Church be if we stopped disbelieving in Purgatory (picking one item from the Article)? Currently, belief in the resurrection of Jesus is central to who we are and what we do. Our Sunday worship is predicated on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and current life and lordship. The way we do funerals and minister with the dying is rooted in our convictions regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Our life as Christians (not to mention United Methodists) would change dramatically if we set aside the belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

John Wesley was a life-long Anglican. The Anglican Church came into being through conflict/separation with the Roman Catholic Church. In that process it was important to declare ways in which Anglicans WERE NOT Roman Catholics. In Wesley’s day, differentiation from Roman Catholicism was still important enough that his editing of the 39 Articles retained this “Anti-Romish” doctrine. In our current social setting it is still true that United Methodists are not Roman Catholics. We can remain NOT Roman Catholics even while we step away from DEFINING ourselves as not Roman Catholic.

In my experience, United Methodists are barely aware we even have Articles of Religion. Insofar as our convictions match up with our official doctrine (as expressed in the Articles), that match is more due to pastoral appropriation of that official doctrine and presentation through preaching and teaching. We preach and teach on the resurrection much more often than we do on purgatory. I don’t recall ever hearing any preaching in line with Article XIV’s denial of purgatory at any time in my growing up years. If we change our official doctrine by dropping Article XIV – or even modify it by dropping denial of purgatory while retaining its other denials – that would not make us a “significantly different community.”

It would seem then, that at least some of our communal convictions find expression in our official doctrine, and at least some of our official doctrines express some of our communal convictions. We have seen, however, at at least some of our official doctrines are not expressive of our communal convictions.

Fully answering the fourth question would require a broad survey. I can say that in my experience, communal convictions can very from United Methodist to United Methodist and from congregation to congregation. Some, for instance, have a conviction that faith in Jesus is essential for eternal life. Others have a conviction that God’s love is so great that while faith in Jesus is a good thing, it is not essential for eternal life. Some of these will make comments like, ‘There are good people in all religions. In fact, I’ve known people who have no religion at all who are better than I am. Surely God will let them in.” Still others will affirm that because God loves allall will be accepted alike into eternity (since “all means all”). If a United Methodist has a conviction that personal faith in Jesus is essential, then particular practices and actions will ensue; if, on the other hand, one rejects the need for personal faith in Jesus, then other practices and actions will ensue.

United Methodists also, famously in our current period, differ on issues of “sexuality.” We seem to share, contrary to Wesley and people in his period, a belief that there is such a thing as sexuality. Beyond this shared conviction, we differ on many other aspects of the concept and practices related to it. Given that the church is on the point of dividing (whether we actually do or not, we are undeniably on the point of doing so). we have groups that differ in their communal convictions on this regard. Members of the Confessing Movement and members of Reconciling Ministries Network, for example, have substantially different convictions about sexuality. With the first, we might strategically claim that our convictions match up best with Christian beliefs through history and around the world. With the second, we might strategically claim that our convictions not only fit the current beliefs of most Americans, our ministry context, but also are truest to love and justice.

For my purposes here, the truth of these groups claims is irrelevant. What matters is that in our current context these convictions have become central to communal identity in these United Methodist subgroups but are not shared across the whole church. If the convictions of the Confessing Movement were to prevail over the church as a whole, those who are members of the Reconciling Ministries Network would be forced to become “significantly different.” Likewise, if the convictions of the Reconciling Ministries Network were to prevail over the whole church, those who are members of the Confessing Movement would be forced to become “significantly different.”

Turning to question 5, our shared convictions may be substantial. They may even be talked about more frequently. But our differing convictions are currently talked about more loudly. Perhaps we all know that we agree on things like the incarnation, the Trinity, and the resurrection. Since we have those things (things that are at the very core of the Christian faith) in common, we can safely take them for granted. As convictions, if we were to change them, we would surely become “significantly different.” But the time seems to have passed, at least in the general church (I could be wrong here), when these basics of the faith face substantial challenge within the church. (Thirty years ago I heard stories from friends who attended a denominational seminary that told of being openly mocked in class for believing that Jesus was literally raised from the dead. That it was the “rise of Easter faith in the disciples,” maybe, but we moderns, it was said, could not believe that a dead person would become alive again.)

My perception is that though we are united on fundamental Christian beliefs, they do not currently function to make us be united. Rather, we are united around institutions and relationships. In our congregations we are united around relationships with fellow congregants, lay and clergy, with our common worship and service in the community. We also also united locally in being this church and not those other particular churches, whether of our own or other denominations. We are united through our Annual Conferences and their institutions: the meetings we hold, the function of oversight from the bishop through the district superintendents, the seminaries we attend. These institutions and relationships tie us together more than our beliefs.

The purest reason we could contend for unity is that Jesus prays for it in John 17 and Paul commands us to “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” in Ephesians 4. For myself, these are good reasons, but if I’m honest, not primary. My primary reasons for wanting us to remain united are that it’s easier (fragmenting a denomination and figuring out what’s next sounds complex, expensive, and tiring) and I actually like many of the people who believe differently from me. We may have important convictions on which we differ, convictions that determine what we preach, how we lead our churches, and how we conceive of what we do, but I still like them. (Sure, it’d be more Christian to say I “love” them, since “love” is prominently commanded in scripture, while “like” is not. For that reason, however, it’s too easy for “love” to remain merely theoretical and not actually lived out.)

Question six, like so many of the others, is a large and complex question. Our communal convictions have changed other the years. In early Methodism, what we would call “small groups,” i.e., the society and band meetings, were the core of Methodism. They were built on the premise that life transformation, growing into likeness to Jesus, aka, holiness, was essential to the Christian faith and happened in a communal setting (“no holiness but social holiness,” as Wesley put it). American Methodism lost that conviction by the middle of the 19th century. Oh, we still have small groups, but not only are they incidental to what Methodism is these days (we commonly have many more in attendance at worship services than in small groups), but their purpose is entirely different. Whereas the Methodist societies and bands aimed at life transformation through mutual accountability and provocation, current small groups are built on information transfer. Judging by what we do, our communal conviction is that “discipleship” (a word that occurs only three times in the Jackson Edition of Wesley’s works) refers to gaining knowledge, not something like “learning to obey everything Jesus has commanded us.”

If we come at the question from the angle of our official doctrine and asked Methodist to do something like, “List the most important Christian convictions,” the lists might be quite similar through time. We might see things like the Trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection of the Jesus, the virginal conception of Jesus – things we confess in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds.

I don’t think, however, that it is these basic Christian beliefs that drive our current conviction sets, however. In his definition of a tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre says that the fundamental agreements that make that tradition what it is are “defined and redefined” through conflicts. These include interpretive conflicts that are internal to the community that bears the tradition and conflicts with those outside the tradition to challenge the basic claims of the tradition. Traditions – and I count the United Methodist Church as a community that bears a tradition – necessarily have these internal and external debates. As the questions coming at us, whether from within or without, change, the convictions that we see as most necessary will change also. We might have the exact same conviction set (though this is unlikely), but the relative importance of each conviction in the set, and the role that each conviction plays in the life of the community will change over time. We United Methodists have given insufficient attention to this phenomenon. We are more prone to say, “Change is progress. Progress is good. Change is the work of the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Change is bad. We need to hold onto and maintain the truth as it is found in Jesus.”

I’m obviously already looking at the seventh question. Forces internal and external to our United Methodist community force change in our convictions. If we have a conviction that our churches are full of good people, and that good people make it into heaven, we will be hard-pressed to keep believing that good people who are not in our churches won’t make it into heaven. Our initial conviction changes as we experience the genuine goodness even of non-Christians. (Yes, the conviction that goodness is what gets us in with God IS antithetical to the gospel. Nonetheless, the conviction has been very common to Methodists I have known and pastored.)

John Wesley traveled incessantly to bring the gospel to people. Through preaching and organizing the awakened he set in motion the coming to faith of thousands. His conviction set told him that people needed Jesus. A similar passion, for a time, characterized American Methodism, suggesting a conviction set that echoed Wesley’s. Something changed in the conviction set of the Methodist community between that day and ours. First, perhaps, was a transition to the conviction that human goodness was the determining factor. As Methodism became more successful in bringing in second generation Methodists, we became less good at bringing in first generation Methodists. Second generation Methodists, that is, our children, were raised in the faith from infancy. They didn’t need a conversion the same way real sinners did, since being raised in a Christian home they were already (mostly) basically good. Absolute goodness was pretty rare, so that basic goodness seemed more realistic. The Methodist conviction regarding the nature, possibility, and pursuit of holiness fell by the wayside.

We could also look at doctrinal change with regard to sexuality, our current flashpoint. The sinfulness (or non-sinfulness) of homosexuality wasn’t a central conviction of Methodism in the beginning. If the matter came up, I’m sure Methodists from John Wesley on would most likely express a conviction in line with our current disciplinary prohibition. The change has been that what was not a live issue in the 18th century is now a live issue.

Consider, for example, our General Rules. Though sometimes abstracted into “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Stay in love with God,” Wesley’s presentation of them put more meat on the bones by providing numerous examples of each. Under “do no harm” – which Wesley strengthens into “avoiding evil of every kind,” I read that this includes “The ‘putting on of gold or costly apparel,’ particularly the wearing of calashes, high-heads, or enormous bonnets.” Apparently wearing something called a “high-head” was a live option in the 18th century – and it was a really bad thing! If Wesley were promulgating the General Rules today I doubt that particular illustration would make the cut; the “evil” (or is it a “harm?”) mentioned is not a live option today. But other actions and practices today are live options.

We live in a society where marital heterosexuality is no longer the norm. “Do what you want, as long as you have proper consent,” is the ethical standard upheld by American culture; the actual practice (what an updated version of the General Rules would inveigh against) would be something like “Do whatever you can get away with to maximize your pleasure.”

American Methodism, with not only its doctrine but its General Rules ossified in the 18th century (and that in the foreign culture of England!), has not had the institutional tools to deal with “live options” for sin and harm as they have evolved over the centuries. The lack of mechanisms for faithful change/adaptation, has been a major factor in paring down the General Rules to the “Three Simple Rules” to mere abstractions. As abstractions they give the feeling of being points of unity. “Surely we can all be unified around the ideas of ‘Doing good,’ ‘Avoid harm,’ and ‘Stay in love with God.'” Yes we can – but we get to put our own meaning into those terms, since they have been shorn of Wesley’s (admittedly culturally limited) examples and not replaced with new ones. If we use the same words, but use those words with different content, we are strained to remain a common convictional community.

I’ll take questions eight and nine together, since they deal with limits on convictional communities. Is there a size limit on convictional communities? Can a set of convictions function to define a community of unlimited size? My guess is that the strength of the convictions of a convictional community is inversely related to the size of the community. The larger the convictional community, the more diffuse it becomes in the society as a whole, the more likely the conviction set of members is to be diluted by convictions from outside the community in view. In our setting, American Methodists, spread out across the nation as a whole, take on convictions from the world around them. This is how southern Methodists in the 19th century could take on, vigorously defend, and go to war for the defense of slavery, an institutional inimical to primitive Methodism. This is how American Methodists, as the nation grows in wealth and prosperity, could take on acquisition and defense of that wealth as a positive good. This is how American Methodists, who came to understand themselves as Americans, could take up the nation’s causes when it came to war.

A deviant conviction set, i.e., a conviction set that deviates from broad cultural norms, is harder to maintain in the face of societal pressure. Strong ties in the convictional community are required to do so. The larger the convictional community, and the more diffuse that community (and Methodism is more diffuse since the demise of the class system), the weaker our ability to maintain the strong relationships that make deviant convictions possible.

Conviction sets are also difficult to maintain over time. This is especially true when the convictions in view deviate from cultural norms (which themselves change over time). Also, as our setting changes, some of our convictions that dealt with “live options” at one time, say the wearing of “high-heads,” those convictions no longer address live options. If we even know what a “high-head” is, the declining relevance casts a pall over that conviction; this pall can then extend to other neighboring convictions. While those convictions may remain beliefs, they no longer remain convictions in McClendon & Smith’s sense.

I realize this has been a rather roughly written composition. It’s largely my thinking “out loud.” I have more thinking to do on he subject, and will turn next to these questions:

  • Should the United Methodist Church seek to be a convictional community?
  • Can the United Methodist Church avoid being a convictional community?
  • If the United Methodist Church is a convictional community, what relations does it have with other convictional communities?
  • If the United Methodist Church is a convictional community, how are those convictions inculcated and reinforced?
  • Are there any convictions the holding of which entails the communal rejection of the “anti-conviction?”
  • How does the United Methodist Church deal with its constituents’ membership in other convictional communities?
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