When Authorities Collide

As we can expect, the debate continues in response to the recent “A Statement of Counsel to the Church – 2011” signed now by 36 retired United Methodist bishops. One noteworthy response comes from UM pastor and blogger Bernard Rosario in an open letter to Bishop Daniel Arichea (retired), one of signers of the statement. Rosario’s letter expresses his disappointment that Bishop Arichea signed the document and raises some important questions about its content. As a follow-up, Rosario posted an email response from Bishop Arichea which briefly defended his move to sign the statement. I was struck by this statment in the Bishop’s response:
And finally, I have met so many people who I believe have genuine calls to the ministry and who cannot serve in the UMC because of our rules, and so have to find the fulfilment of their ministry elsewhere. There are others who have to deny who they are in order to be faithful to their call to ministry (emphasis added).
I was struck by this statement for two reasons. First, a genuine call to ministry is not the only requirement for ordination in the UMC. As United Methodists, we understand that a call is not enough to be entrusted with oversight of the Church. Calls can be betrayed and the privilege of oversight to which we are called can be forfeited. There are moral expectations that we have for those ordained in our denomination. One of the reasons it often takes the better part of a decade or more to become ordained in the UMC is because the call, life, gifts, and graces of the ministry candidate must be evaluated and confirmed by the Church. Ministry is not a right; it is a privilege, and the privilege brings moral standards and expectations.
Second, I was struck by Bishop Arichea’s specific use of the langauge of self-denial, which appears to imply that he does not think faithful ministry should require it. I was struck because scripture speaks clearly to the importance of self-denial for Christian discipleship. Indeed, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). It would seem that self-denial is not only prerequisite for ministry but is a first step for any who desire to be called a Christ-follower.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, had some specific things to say about self-denial as well. In his note on Matthew 16:24, he wrote:
But if any will be a Christian, it must be on these terms, Let him deny himself, and take up his cross – A rule that can never be too much observed: let him in all things deny his own will, however pleasing, and do the will of God, however painful. Should we not consider all crosses, all things grievous to flesh and blood, as what they really are, as opportunities of embracing God’s will at the expense of our own? And consequently as so many steps by which we may advance toward perfection? (emphasis added).
Wesley even wrote an entire sermon on “Self-Denial” from Luke 9:23, in which he said:

It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practice it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of Him, but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or of the prince of the world, or of our own fleshly mind (emphasis added).

The reality is that faithful ministry and faithful discipleship both require all of us to practice self-denial. This practice may have different emphases in different people, but there are certainly common elements for all, and the practice is certainly a common condition for all who desire to be Christ-followers. I fear that the current debate in the UMC is the result of placing the authority of personal experience and reason on par with scripture, which has led to a conflict between authorities. So, once again we see that the issue is not so much about human sexuality as it is about authority, and the present debate is what happens when authorities collide. To which authority will we grant supremacy? The authority of Christ mediated through scripture or the idol of personal experience and self-preference? Commitment to self-denial is not merely a prerequisite for ordained ministry; it is an ongoing and essential element in the lifelong process of Christian discipleship. Jesus is clear on this, and Wesley understood him. Why do we seem to have so much trouble with it today?

Making it Personal: How the Trinity Explains Authentic Relationship (and Everything Else)

I had a conversation recently with a good friend in which we were discussing evidence for a Trinitarian reading of the Bible. At some point, I made the statement that the Trinity was so essential to my concept of reality that my world would come apart without it; the doctrine of the Trinity makes the world make sense. My friend then said that he had heard others say similar things and asked for an explanation. Why would I take the world to be unintelligible apart from the presence of the specifically triune God? 
My initial response to this question is bound up with the notion of personhood. What does it mean to be a person? To answer this question, we must realize that a significant historical development in the concept of personhood was nothing less than the doctrine of the Trinity. The early church fathers needed a way to speak of both the unity and distinction that describes the God revealed in Jesus Christ and Christian scripture. With regard to the divine unity, they turned to the language of essence or substance. With regard to the distinction between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, they turned to the language of person. Before this development, the Latin persona referred to the masks that actors wore during a stage performance but hardly carried any sense of the modern concepts associated with personhood or personal identity. But when the language of person was used to describe the relationships between the members of the Trinity, that language took on a whole new significance. We began to understand that to be a person meant to be a person in a relationship of other-oriented love. And as Dennis Kinlaw suggests, “With this new understanding of the nature of God comes a new concept of love as well – a love determined by the nature of the subject who loves rather than by the nature of the object loved” (Let’s Start with Jesus, 29) The notion of loving another not for what you could get but for who you are became attached to the language of person. And the world changed.
So, why is the Trinity essential to my view of the world? Why would my world collapse if God were not triune? Because my understanding of what it means to be a person is bound together with my understanding of God as a single divine essence of three persons in relationship. The members of the Trinity exist eternally in a personal relationship of other-oriented love. That reality gives meaning to my understanding of myself and others as a persons. That reality explains the way I conceive of my relationships. Indeed, my conception of my marriage as two equal persons in a covenant of other-oriented self-giving love is incomprehensible  if the Father, Son, and Spirit are not eternally relating to one another as persons in a covenant of other-oriented self-giving love. If personhood is about being in a relationship where the other is loved for who they are and not for what you can get from them, then the concept of personhood is unintelligible in a world where the Father does not eternally love the Son. I do not think the concept of personhood would have come about if we lived in a world of polytheism or unititarian monotheism. We are only able to understand ourselves as persons because we are made in the image of the God who is eternally three persons who share one essence.
This argument could be summed up by adapting the quote from C. S. Lewis in which he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” I believe in the persons of the Trinity, not only because I see them through revelation, but because by that revelation I can make sense of myself and others as persons in authentic relationships.
For more along these lines, see Dennis Kinlaw’s Let’s Start with Jesus: A New Way of Doing Theology (Zondervan 2005).

Further Thoughts on Electing a General Conference Delegation

After my recent post on the potential for improvement of the way our Annual Conference votes on our General Conference delegation, I’ve found myself in a number of discussions about this issue with my friends and colleagues. I may be sensing an increasing desire to see the system improve. In light of those discussions, here are a few benefits that may come from inviting delegation candidates to answer questionnaires regarding their experience and their views on important issues. Let me remind readers that different Conferences do this in different ways, and my own experience is limited to my own Annual Conference.  My intention is not to fire off angry criticism against past practices, but to suggest legitimate possibilites for  significant improvement in the way we administer our voting. As Wesley reminds us, we are all going on to perfection. Perhaps we can apply that wisdom to our discussion on electing a General Conference delegation as we discern and prepare for the future of our denomination.

Increased Equity
I’ve heard the suggestion that the voting is largely based on appointment to prominent churches or name recognition. This doesn’t necessarily have bad results, because in our Conference, pastors names are often recognized because they are doing faithful ministry, and their appointments are often prominent because they are effective. But this reality limits the number of electable clergy. Pastors of large churches and District Superintendents often get a lot votes because people know who they are. Also, there will usually be one female pastor selected and one from an ethnic minority.
If we knew up front, though, who was interested in serving on the delegation, it would be more equitable by giving minorities and lesser known pastors an opportunity to declare their interest and qualifications to serve. Whereas one female delegate is often selected, if we had a list with names and qualifications of other women who are interested in serving, there is an increased chance that more than one female might be elected. At present, though, it is simply the case that not many women clergy have been placed in prominent appointments. Indeed, our Conference has had only two female District Superintendents. This means that most of the women serving as elders in our Annual Conference stand little to no chance of being elected. If others had the opportunity to express their interest and qualifications, then more opportunity would be afforded to them to be elected. The same is true for ethnic minorities and younger clergy. Those who have less prominent appointments stand less of a chance of being elected; informational questionnaires published in the brochure of reports or on the Conference website would place more names on the table and increase the overall equity of the process.
Increased Responsibility
When we vote for representatives for positions in the government, we want to know where our potential representatives stand on the issues. The General Conference is the only body authorized to speak on behalf of the United Methodist Church. Should we not know where the delegates stand before we send them off to represent us and speak on our behalf and on behalf of our denomination? Having information ahead of time would allow voters to spend more time prayerfully considering those who would best represent them and make for a more responsible vote.
Increased Integrity
At this point, we already provide opportunity for those serving as lay delegates to provide information about themselves and their views. Not doing so for the clergy means that half our delegation is selected using one system and the other half using another system. This gives the impression that there is a double standard for clergy and lay delegates; it makes it appear that clergy and laity play by different sets of rules. Adopting an information sheet for clergy delegates like those used for lay delegates would ensure that all delegates are elected under the same rules and give our voting an increased level of integrity.

Are there other benefits from the proposed changes? Are there other ways that our voting system for the General Conference delegation could be improved? Are there any liabilities to giving clergy the opportunity to fill out questionnaires? Leave a comment with your thoughts.

Losing Our Connection: Is the United Methodist Hierarchy Out of Touch with the People in the Pew?

United Methodists are marked by our connection. Our people are part of churches that are part of Annual Conferences that make up our denomination. This connectionalism provides opportunity for exciting ministry opportunities. Together we are able to do much that we could never do alone. We are all a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

But I’m wondering if United Methodists are now a connection in crisis. Are we losing our connection? At least three issues suggest to me that this may very well be the case.
1. The overwhelming defeat of numerous constitutional amendments.
The 2008 General Conference passed 32 amendments to the UMC constitution which were supported by the bishops and then passed on to the Annual Conferences for ratification, which would require a 2/3 majority vote of Annual Conference members. When the Annual Conferences voted, 23 of those amendments, which would have restructured the whole denomination, only gathered about 39.5% of the vote, not even a simple majority and far short of the 2/3 needed to pass. The amendment intended to open membership to any who desired to join a local church was soundly defeated as well. In the end, only five amendments got the votes to pass. This evidence suggests that those who prepared and supported the amendments at the General Church level are not on the same page as the United Methodists all over the world who are represented in the Annual Conferences.
2. The University Senate’s continued approval of Claremont’s University Project.
Another recent issue that suggests disconnect between the denominational hierarchy and the majority of United Methodists is the continued approval by the University Senate of Claremont as an official United Methodist School of Theology. Claremont’s University Project seeks to train and credential the leaders and clergy of non-Christian religions including Islam and Judaism. It’s hard to imagine the average United Methodist wanting to support the training of the leaders of other religions. The mission of our denomination is to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Training those who reject Jesus as Christ seems counter intuitive to this mission for the average United Methodist.
3. The call by 36 retired bishops to change the denominational stance on homosexuality.
I’ve already written on the recent call by 33 bishops (now 36) to remove the paragraph in Book of Discipline that states the incompatibility between Christianity and a homosexual lifestyle. Let me just say here that our denomination has spoken on this in over 30 years worth of votes. For these bishops to continue to continue to pour gas on this fire clearly demonstrates just how out of touch they are with the majority of the worldwide denomination.
These are just three issues that point to a major disconnect between the hierarchy of our denomination and the people who sit in the pews week in and week out. Other issues could be raised to make an even stronger case. My prayer is that we will soon be able to make some progress and strengthen our connection. This will only come, though, when those who work at the denominational level put their own agendas aside and listen to the United Methodists who faithfully serve in local churches all over the world.

What do you think about the state of our connection? Are we becoming more or less connected? How can we work towards a healthier connection?

Can We Improve Our Voting for General Conference Delegates?

This is the first year that I will have the opportunity to vote for those who will be my Annual Conference’s delegation to the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church. As readers of this blog know, I take a strong interest in the goings-on of the UMC at the denominational level. So, this first opportunity to take part in voting for the General Conference delegation is exciting to me.
But this opportunity brings challenge as well. As a still wet-behind-the-ears pastor, there are many clergy in our Annual Conference that I do not know or, at least, do not know well. Further, I don’t know who is and who is not interested in being a part of the delegation. More importantly, I don’t know where many stand on some of the important issues that will certainly come up at General Conference. I would like to vote for candidates who will represent my own values and what I believe to be best for the denomination. The problem is that we do not have a system in place through which clergy candidates can make public their positions on important issues facing the Church.
Perhaps an analogy will shed some light on the matter. Candidates for government offices all have opportunity to respond to questionnaires about their positions on important issues. A political candidate who not only refuses to communicate her platform but also neglects to make it known that she is running would stand no chance in a public election. In civic elections we want to know who we are voting for and what they stand for. Should it be any less in the United Methodist Church?
I’ve been told of a few Annual Conferences that already provide information sheets for potential clergy delegates. My own Annual Conference does this for lay delegates. I propose that we do the same for clergy delegate candidates as well. It would be especially helpful to younger pastors like me, and it would provide a vote with generally more integrity.
What do you think? Is this a good idea or a bad idea? What are the pros and cons? Does your Annual Conference have a questionnaire for clergy delegate candidates? If so, what has been the response?

And So It Begins: The Next Round in the United Methodist Battle for the Bible

The 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church is still over a year away, but the controversy that we all knew would precede it has already begun. No surprise that the big point of contention is the Church’s current stand on homosexuality.
On January 31, thirty-three retired United Methodist bishops released a statement calling for 2012 General Conference to remove the paragraph from The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church that states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” (para. 304.3).
Other bishops, both active and retired, have spoken publicly in favor of the call while others have opposed it. Not surprisingly, many have not taken a side on the issue. Some are concerned about the divisive nature of the decision on the part of these retired bishops. Criticism of these retired bishops has shown up from pastors and others. Just this morning, the Renewal and Reform Coalition has called the Council of Bishops to defend the doctrine of United Methodist Church and to hold each other accountable for the defense of our doctrine. There will undoubtedly be other statements from both sides of the controversy as we move ever closer to General Conference.
But what is at stake in this controversy? What is the real issue underlying this debate? In reality, this battle is not so much about sexuality as it is about the authority of the Bible. Scripture is clear that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with a faithful Christian lifestyle. To this point, the United Methodist Church has remained faithful to the teaching of scripture and to the historic teaching of the universal Christian Church. There are, however, those within our denomination, including these retired bishops, who would cast off the authority of scripture in favor of the authority of their own personal agenda and experiential preference. More than a debate about human sexuality, this is a question over whether the United Methodist Church will remain under the authority of our God mediated through the scriptures or fall to the idolatry of worshipping a god made in the image of our own sinful inclinations. There will be attempts to distract us from the real issue. It will thus be key that we keep the clear teaching of scripture at the forefront. The United Methodist Church is engaged in nothing less than our own battle for the Bible. My prayer is that, at the end of the day, we will be found faithful.

The Cross & the Providence of God

“And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me'” (Mark 14:17-18).
The plot is hatched; the plan made; the betrayal initiated. And to some readers of Mark’s gospel, it would seem that the journey to the cross has now reached the point of no return. As one famous interpreter has suggested and others have agreed, Jesus has set the wheels of history in motion, and now that wheel is about to crush him; circumstances have escalated beyond his control.
This, however, is precisely the opposite of what Mark intends the reader to take away from this portion of the narrative. Mark would have us understand that Jesus remain firmly in control of all events leading up to his death. It may look like things are in Judas’ hands, but Mark intends to demonstrate that Christ remains sovereign in the events leading up to the cross. No one takes his life; he alone lays it down. The events leading up to the death and resurrection of the Christ are central to God’s providential governance of history. Mark demonstrates just this in at least three ways.
Jesus demonstrates control over his circumstances through his preparation for the Passover (12-16).
When Jesus sends two of his disciples to the city to find a man who has a room prepared for them to celebrate the Passover, Mark intends us to understand that the act is premeditated. Jesus has been planning this night all along. The man who will grant the use of his room is clearly a follower that we as readers simply haven’t met yet. “The teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (14). The teacher had clearly made the plans, and as the narrative unfolds and as Jesus shares the meal with the twelve, we know with certainty, he is calling the shots in this story.
Jesus demonstrates control over his circumstances by predicting his betrayal (17-21).
When we are told earlier in this chapter that Judas intends to betray Jesus, we are not told that Jesus is aware of the plot. Here, though, we learn not only that Jesus knows of the plot, but that he has embraced it as part of God’s plan revealed in scripture. Jesus is not surprised by the plan to hand him over. He knew it would come to this; he knew about the plot; he knew the traitor sat at the table with him; he knew that the cross was coming, and he did not attempt to escape it. He did not flee. Rather, things are going exactly has he has intended. He is in complete control. Mark would have us know that the cross is God’s plan, not Judas’ nor the priests’ nor any other. The cross is God’s plan for accomplishing the redemption of his people, his beloved. Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal demonstrates his utter control over his circumstances.
Jesus demonstrates control over his circumstances in his explanation of the Passover meal (22-25).
The Passover was the pivotal event through which God delivered the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt to make them not only a nation but his special treasure. More specifically, it was the night that the Hebrew people sacrificed a lamb and spread its blood over the doorposts of their homes so that the angel would pass over and spare their oldest son; those without the blood would not be spared. It was a meal that celebrated freedom and redemption from bondage and oppression.
Now Jesus would explain that he was the true Passover lamb. His body would be broken as he suffered the condemnation deserved by his people; his blood spilled as he bore the consequences of our sin. His sacrifice would inaugurate a new covenant through which humanity might once again become rightly related to the one who formed them in his own image through faith in this Passover Lamb. Jesus planned and interpreted this meal to explain the significance of his death and resurrection. Again, he is not surprised by his circumstances; he is providentially governing and explaining them.
Two brief but significant points of application should be made.
Sometimes God uses a great tragedy to produce an even greater healing.
Have you ever been in one of those times or places where it feels like the world is falling apart? Things are out of control and there’s nothing you can do? If there is something we can learn from Mark’s account of the Passover night, it is that Jesus works for healing in the midst of tragedy. The cross was the greatest tragedy the world has ever seen. At the same time, though, it was God’s plan to bring restoration and new life to his people and to all of creation. The words from the hymn How Firm a Foundation have been a comfort to me in difficult times because they capture this truth so clearly:

When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee thy troubles to bless
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
Sometimes God uses tragic circumstances to bring about very, very great healing.
No matter what happens to you, God is never surprised.
Earlier in my pastoral ministry, I was faced with a deeply difficult situation that required wisdom far beyond my inexperience. It was deeply challenging, and I knew myself to be profoundly ill-equipped. In the midst of that situation, an older and much wiser pastor asked me: Matt, do you believe that God knew this would happen before he sent you to this place? I had to answer yes. He continued: And he still sent you? Again, I had to answer yes. And almost instantly I knew a peace that I did not understand. God had sent me into that difficult spot not because I would know what to do but because he wanted to minister through my lacking and my weakness. God was not surprised by my circumstances. He had a plan, and his plans are always for the good of his people. Again, the author of How Firm a Foundation:
When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all-sufficient, shall be thy supply.
The flames shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
God is in control. He send us into that place of trial neither to hurt nor to harm us, but to grow us, to grow us in faith and trust and confidence in him and his power. The last verse to the hymn gives these words of promise and comfort:
“The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never, forsake!”
No matter what happens, Christian, God is never surprised. He is always in control, and he is always at work to sanctify his people and make them anew in the image of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God.