Book Notice: T&T Clark Social Identity Commentary on the New Testament (@TandTClark, @JBrianTucker)

As a pastor I’m always looking for approaches to the Bible that shed light on the dynamics of the early Christian communities. Understanding those dynamics helps me relate the text of scripture to present-day Christian communities (including the one I pastor!). That’s why I’m excited to see the publication of the T&T Clark Social Identity Commentary on the New Testament edited by Brian Tucker and Aaron Kuecker. It’s a one-volume commentary with chapters on each book of the New Testament. Each chapter draws on insights from the field of social identity theory (SIT) with the goal of illumining aspects of the text that may not have been apparent before. SIT is all about how individuals come together to form groups, how they think of themselves as sharing certain traits that define them as a group, and how they distinguish themselves as a group from other groups. Personally, I’ve found SIT to be one of the most useful tools available for thinking about how I appropriate the biblical text as a leader in a 21st century church. It’s aided me in strategy sessions, conflict resolutions, personal leadership style, and more. And considering how those dynamics are at play in the New Testament has deeply shaped my approach to pastoral leadership. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to write the chapters on 1 and 2 Thessalonians for this one-volume commentary. That research and writing was rich preparation for the series of sermons I just wrapped-up on 1 Thessalonians called “People of the Day” (check out the playlist below). This one-volume commentary is a companion to the T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity in the New Testament, which will take interested folks even further into the theory and how it can benefit our readings of the scriptures. The commentary is a bit pricey, but that is because it’s quite long. If the cost is prohibitive, wait till the paperback copy comes out.

Here’s my sermon series on 1 Thessalonians:

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary.  He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice (SBL Press).

Community is messy, but lines are essential (#umc, @spiritchatter, @huffpost)

Official statements abound in the wake of last week’s Judicial Council ruling on the consecration as bishop of Karen Oliveto by the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church (#UMC). One that came across my desk this morning is from the Dean of Perkins School of Theology, Craig C. Hill. It came via the Huffington Post in a blog by Professor Jack Levison of Perkins. The post was intended to point readers to the Dean’s letter and contained a few brief affirmative comments regarding the letter’s substance and aim. One line from Levison’s post struck me, however, and prompted some further reflection. He writes, “Truth be told, authentic community doesn’t allow for sharp lines and clear distinctions.” I want to be careful because Levison didn’t offer much in the way of explanation in terms of what he meant. I don’t want to attribute views to him that he doesn’t express. Nevertheless, the comment prompts a number of questions and was offered in a public forum. So, public reflection on possible implications is fair play. Let’s have the conversation.
What sort of lines?
That’s the first question that comes to mind. I can only imagine that “sharp lines” here refers to community boundaries. The above quote follows on the heels of Levison’s stated commitment to holding the community together in the midst of discord, and Hill’s letter deals with questions of community boundary in relation to human sexuality. The context would suggest then that the “sharp lines” in question would be those that mark the boundaries of the United Methodist community and make a distinction between those practices that are acceptable and those that are not. 
A group with no boundaries?
But this raises the question of what it would look like to have a community without “sharp lines” at the boundaries. What sort of group would that be? How would we know who is in that group? How would we know who is outside of it? How would we distinguish a group with no lines at the boundary from other groups? 
If you were to ask someone who studies the formation and maintenance of social identities, they would tell you that distinction is the key category for defining a group. If you want to talk about a group in any meaningful sense, then you need to identify what it is that makes members of that group perceive themselves to be distinct from other groups. What values and commitments do they hold in common that distinguish them from members of groups that hold different values and commitments? Social identity theory recognizes that sharp lines at the boundaries is precisely the stuff of which groups are made. And if there are no lines at the boundaries, then there is no community to speak of. In reality, authentic community depends on sharp lines. Distinctions are the sine qua non of every group. 
Where do we draw the line?
If you want authentic community, the question isn’t whether there will be lines and distinctions. The question is where those lines will be drawn. The line is currently drawn in one place; Levison and Hill would like it drawn elsewhere. No matter where it’s drawn, there’s still a line. And that’s what makes community messy or, as Levison puts it, “sloppy” and “unkempt.” If we didn’t have any lines, we wouldn’t have to worry with being unkempt, because there wouldn’t be a we in which to disagree. We only run into differences that have to be sorted out because we want to draw the lines in different places. The question of boundaries are precisely what makes community challenging. We have to come to some agreement on how we will conduct ourselves. We have to have some shared values and commitments that we will not betray. Sorting those out is tough. But sorting those out is also how the lines get drawn. Sorting those out is how the community gets formed. Clarifying and maintaining those lines is how the community is perpetuated. When a subgroup of the larger group crosses the line and refuses to abide by the shared values, the group is endangered. And if the lines get moved, the community will change. You are likely to lose some of the people in the community. New communities may form. However that plays out, things get messy. The point is that things are only messy because there are sharp lines. Take away the lines and distinctions, and the mess goes away also. But then so does the authentic community. 
I noted above that a number of statements have been released. I decided to write about this one instead of the others because the commentary that accompanied it seems to me internally inconsistent. In the end, the argument for authentic community without sharp lines and distinctions regarding shared values and practices is self-defeating. There is no such thing as a community with no boundaries. Every group has lines drawn around it. That is unavoidable. The question for United Methodists going forward is where those lines will be drawn.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

5 Keys to Fill the "Sanctification Gap" (#UMC, @IVPacademic, @OfficialSeedbed)

Is holiness a missing element in evangelical theology? That’s what Gordon T. Smith says in the opening chapter of his recent book, Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. Smith points to an observation made by Richard Lovelace in the late 1970s “that evangelical theology and spirituality were marked by a ‘sanctification gap'” (14). Lovelace traced this to evangelicalism’s emphasis on revivalism where the focus was on conversion leaving Christian maturity and holiness to be treated as secondary matters. Smith suggests that the gap remains and substantiates the case in part by pointing to the fact that theology texts in evangelical seminaries tend to give holiness superficial attention. When sanctification is in view, Smith observes, the interest is in how not when. That is to say, attention is given to the process of sanctification, not the goal or end of sanctification (14-15). He believes we need more than that.
The sanctification gap and Wesleyan identity
Reading Smith as a pastor steeped in Wesleyan theology, I cannot help but think of John Wesley’s conviction, articulated in a letter near the end of his life, that the doctrine of entire sanctification “is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly he appeared to have raised us up” (Works, XIII, 9). You might say that Wesley perceived a sanctification gap in 18th century English Christianity, and he was persuaded that God had specifically called and equipped the people of the Methodist movement to fill the gap. To that end, he rode countless miles on horseback to preach thousands of sermons and organize communities of worship and accountability committed to growing in grace and maturity that intentionally pursued, not just sanctification, but entire sanctification. For Wesley, that’s what it meant to be Methodist.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and you’ll find a Methodist family tree with no few branches. The denominations that trace their heritage to Wesley are many and varied. Some embrace robust teachings on holiness. Others don’t emphasize it quite as much. Within my own branch of the Wesleyan family tree – The United Methodist Church – we have a number of tribes with distinct subgroup identities, but we are largely without a widely held sense of identity on the denominational level. The theorists would say that we have a number of competing subgroup identities but lack a superordinate social identity that cultivates and maintains a sense of coherence between the subgroups. We’ve got high church folks, low church folks, mainliners, progressives, and evangelicals. The point there is to illustrate the range of groups, not provide an exhaustive list of UMC subgroups. All that to say, the UMC is a denomination without an identity, and we are feeling the anxiety and the pain that comes with that. 
My hope is that we will be able to recover the identity that Wesley left us: we are the people called by God “to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” The reason there are Methodist churches all over the world with so many branches on the Wesleyan tree is because John Wesley believed with all his heart that God raised up the people called Methodist to revitalize the Church with the message of holiness for the life of the world. That is who we are. That is our identity. That should be our mission. Because that is what it means to be Methodist. It’s our vocation to fill the sanctification gap.
Can we fill the gap?
But how do we do it? What disciplines and practices and strategies have to be in play to pull this off? There are several key pieces. And at this point, I’m moving beyond the UMC to think in terms of the wider Wesleyan world. It’s not clear that the UMC will ever succeed in forming a unifying identity. I should add that I’m not suggesting any of this is new information. Lot’s of folks are thinking about this. I’ve been involved in dialogue about this sort of thing for years. Here are a few things that keep coming up.
  1. Preaching – Wesley believed that every Methodist preacher should preach the doctrine of holiness. I’ve heard the observation made many times that the doctrine of entire sanctification is seldom preached these days. This could be for a variety of reasons. Maybe we are unfamiliar with it. Maybe we don’t understand it well enough to preach it confidently. Maybe we are afraid of being misunderstood. Maybe we don’t believe it. Whatever the reason for the lack of homiletic attention to the doctrine of holiness, if we are going to forge and maintain an authentic Wesleyan identity, then we must have clear and robust preaching on holiness. 
  2. Singing – The observation has been made that the Methodist movement would never have made it with John’s preaching alone. Charles Wesley’s hymns were essential for planting the seeds of holiness in the hearts of the early Methodists. Not only do we need to be singing our own Wesleyan hymns about holiness, we need a new generation of songwriters who can ably transmit holiness theology melodically and lyrically. 
  3. Small groups – Wesleyans did small groups before small groups were cool. The movement happened because the people involved were involved with each other at deep levels. They didn’t just worship together; they got deeply entrenched in one another’s lives. They cared for each other. They got in each other’s business, and they did it for love of Christ and love for one another. And if someone didn’t show up a couple of times, they went looking for that person. This is essential. We can’t be Wesleyan without deeply committed small groups explicitly focused on growing in holiness and entire sanctification. 
  4. Theologians – We also need theologians who can write the books and give the talks that lead the Church in thinking about entire sanctification. Some of these folks might be academic theologians; others might be pastor theologians. We’ve got some good folks out there doing this kind of work, but this is one of those things where there’s never enough. And there’s the question of who will receive the baton from the current generation of theological leaders in the Wesleyan tradition. Who will embody this key vocation as we move into the future? 
  5. Conferences and publishers – I am encouraged by the birth and growth of Seedbed and the New Room Conference. This sort of thing is going to be essential for connecting people of like heart and like mind around the topic of holiness. It’s also essential for helping us discover new resources and develop a sense of group identity. Let’s keep it growing.
All five of these center around our ability to speak and write about holiness with care, wisdom, clarity, and faithfulness. At the end of the day, we’ve got to be talking about holiness…a lot. So much that when people see us coming, they think “here come the people who talk about holiness.” And our speaking must be filled with passion that is compelling and contagious. If we can do this, then we will be well on our way to filling the sanctification gap and recovering our God-given vocation to bless the Church and the world with the good news that God’s grace is more powerful than the sin that besets us.

Your turn: Do you perceive a sanctification gap? What evidence do you see for a sanctification gap? What must we do beyond the 5 keys mentioned here? Is holiness essential to Wesleyan identity? Leave a comment with your input. 

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Hear him on the So What? Podcast, connect on Facebook, or follow @mporeilly.

New Post: Resurrection Makes Us Holy (@OfficialSeedbed)

During my recent trip to Wilmore, Kentucky, I had the opportunity to film another episode for Seedbed‘s growing Seven Minute Seminary series. This one explores the relationship between future bodily resurrection, Christian identity, and holiness. These three themes were at the heart of my PhD research, and I’m grateful to Seedbed for making some of that available more broadly. If you receive this via an email subscription, click here to watch the video. And be sure to check out my other contributions to Seven Minute Seminary over on the video page.


Dr. Matt O’Reilly is pastor of St. Mark Church in Mobile, Alabama, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and an adjunct member of the faculties of Asbury Theological Seminary and Wesley Biblical Seminary. Connect on Facebook or follow @mporeilly.

@TandTClark Handbook to Social Identity in the New Testament

I’ve been reading up on Social Identity Theory (SIT) as of late and on its use as a framework for reading the letters of Paul. So, I was naturally very excited to learn about the new T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity Theory in the New Testament (Kindle Edition) The book is edited by J. Brian Tucker and Coleman A. Baker, who bring together over two dozen scholars to explore the various ways SIT has been applied to the text of the New Testament. With 29 chapters and over 650 pages, this “handbook” has plenty to keep you busy. It will be essential reading for students and scholars who want to get a handle on the range of approaches in applying SIT to the New Testament. 
The book is divided into two major sections. The first deals with methodological issues and opens with a chapter introducing the reader to SIT and its usefulness in reading the New Testament. This is followed by chapters that discuss SIT as it relates to matters like social history, ethnicity, ritual, letter writing, and narrative, to mention a few. The second section moves from method to practice by presenting a number of case studies that apply SIT to individual texts. If you are like me and find it very helpful to see finished examples of how a method might be applied to a text, then you should find the chapters in section two immensely helpful. The studies take up representative passages and issues from most divisions of the New Testament including the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, the General and Johannine letters, and Revelation. So, no matter what sub-discipline of New Testament studies you are interested in, there is likely something relevant to be found. 
As a critical method for reading the New Testament, SIT is here to stay. This volume is a guide to which interpreters will turn for years to come. I certainly expect to turn to it again and again.