N.T. Wright on Authentic Church Unity #UMC

Anyone who’s spent much time in church will know that disagreements happen. If those disagreements aren’t resolved quickly, they may soon become full-on conflict. Factions form. And the long term unity of the church is jeopardized. This can happen on different levels, whether it’s a local church or a whole denomination, as is presently the case in my own United Methodist Church. However a particular conflict plays out, the cultivation and maintenance of authentic church unity requires robust reflection on what constitutes authentic church unity, which brings me to N. T. Wright.

I’ve been reading through Wright’s little book, Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters, as part of my sermon prep for a series I’m preaching called Live Worthy: Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.  One of the key contextual issues in Philippians is what appears to be a budding conflict that centers around two leaders in the local church (see Phil 4:2), and much of what Paul says throughout the letter is aimed at reconciling that conflict and maintaining the unity of the Philippian community. Reflecting on that situation, Wright says

Unity by itself can’t be the final aim. After all, unity is possible among thieves, adulterers and many other types. Those who commit genocide need to do so with huge corporate single-mindedness, as the Nazis showed when killing millions of Jews, gypsies and others.

No: what matters is that Christians…should focus completely on the divine drama that has unfolded before their eyes in Jesus the king, and is continuing now into its final act with themselves as the characters. Bringing their thinking into line with each other wouldn’t be any good if they were all thinking something that was out of line with the gospel. The love that they must have is the love that the gospel generates and sustains. Their inner lives, which are to be bonded together, must be the inner lives that reflect the gospel. The ‘same object’ which they must fix their minds on must be the facts about Jesus the Messiah,  and on the meaning which emerges from them (98-99, italics original).

It should be clear that authentic Christian unity is never unity in name only. Authentic Christian unity can only be had when it is gospel-oriented unity. And that unity is bound together by love – but not just any love – gospel-motivated and gospel-oriented love. All that, of course, means that unity is only possible among those who have the same understanding of the gospel. And that further means that unity is achieved not primarily by talking about unity but by talking about the gospel. Only when we are deeply and passionately committed to the same gospel will we be able to  work toward authentic Christian unity.

Dr. Matt O’Reilly is 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.

For more from Matt, be sure to subscribe to the Orthodoxy for Everyone YouTube Channel, listen to SermonCast, connect on Facebook, and follow @mporeilly.

Click here to get a copy of N.T. Wright’s Paul for Everyone: The Prison Letters.

N.T. Wright: Paul Was Not a "Religious" Figure (@fortresspress)

So says N.T. Wright in the opening chapter of his Paul and his Recent Interpreters (Fortress, 2015): “though we have been accustomed to thinking of Paul as a ‘religious’ figure, that is a function of the way our culture has seen things in the last two hundred years,” but this is “not a necessarily ‘correct’ way to approach him” (10). Having just wrapped up my Ph.D. in Pauline studies, I’ve been eager to dig into this book and work through Wright’s assessment of the field. As an aside, the home stretch of writing and defending the dissertation is the reason for the lack of regular posts here at the blog.
Back to Wright’s point. His concerns emerge from the reality that the word “religion” means something very different now than it did in Paul’s world. In our day, religion is often seen as a private affair set off in its own compartment away from one’s public or professional life. In the ancient world, religion intersected with every aspect of life. You couldn’t set it off to the side while you go about other business. That’s how we often treat religion today. Paul’s religious thought engaged every aspect of life with the claims of Jesus, the resurrected Messiah and Lord. He did have something to say about what we might call “religion”, but he also had something to say about philosophy, ethics, cosmology, economics, and government, among other things. Wright prefers to call Paul a “public figure,” and he is happy to remind us that Paul “was not inviting people into a private ‘religious’ world” (10, italics original).
This is one instance where we modern folk have something to learn from the ancients in general and Paul in particular. Our culture is deeply fragmented. We have tried to sort religion and politics and ethics and activism into separate bins, only to be taken aback when someone takes public action and grounds it in their religious conviction. We need to learn the lesson that religion is part of an integrated whole. Worship encompasses all of life. If we follow those who label Paul a “religious” figure and attempt to mute his voice in our secular society, we do so to our detriment. If, however, we allow him to speak at his full volume and engage our culture with the message of the gospel, we may just find a fresh and compelling vision of God’s world and our place in it.

If We Do Not Repent (#PPSellsBabyParts)

Many of us thought it couldn’t get worse than seeing a medical doctor swill her wine and crunch her croutons while speaking of “less crunchy” ways to dismember and murder a baby while still in utero. Then we saw video of Planned Parenthood employees digging through pie plates full of dead baby parts looking for the bits that would get the best price. Again, we believed it simply could not get worse. But we were wrong. Dead wrong. With the release of the seventh video exposing the barbarism of Planned Parenthood and its business partners, it got worse. Much worse. Now we know of the cruel violence done to a little boy with a beating heart outside the womb. They cut his face in half with a pair of scissors in order to harvest his brain and sell it for cold hard cash. His heart was beating. He had been born. He was alive. He was murdered. This cannot be denied. 
We know about this treachery because one of the guilty ones has come forward. In video #7, Holly O’Donnell, a licensed phlebotomist and former procurement tech for StemExpress, told us all the depraved and debased details. Make no mistake. She is no mere a witness or whistle blower telling us what she saw. As Doug Wilson observed, she is confessing her sins. She was a participant. She has blood on her hands. And yet she is seeking absolution. By confessing her sin to a global audience as part of the Planned Parenthood exposé, she is racing with all her might toward restitution. She wants to make it right. She wants to be clean. She wants it bad enough that she’s willing to tell the world her greatest sin. The good news is that the blood of Jesus Christ is able to wash the blood of the unborn from her hands. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. 
My point here is simple: the confession and repentance of Holly O’Donnell stands as a model of the confession and repentance that we the people of the United States must humbly make. She is showing us what we as a nation have to do. We must confess our sin. We must acknowledge our guilt. We must throw ourselves on the mercy of God. We must repent and turn from our wicked ways. We must do it, as a people, as a nation. And if we do not, we deserve every bit of judgment that God sees fit to pour upon us. To be sure, we already deserve it. But God, in his great mercy and love, is at this time giving us an opportunity to see the evil that our nation has legalized, funded, and executed. He is giving us an opportunity to repent and sin no more. What we do know is that even now the souls of more than 50,000,000 preborn slain surround the throne of the God and of the Lamb crying out, “How long, O Lord, until you avenge our blood?” What we do not know is how long they’ve been told to wait.  

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Grace, Progress, & the #UMC (@DrewBMcIntyre)

Do evangelicals have a double standard when it comes to sexual ethics? That’s the claim made by Drew McIntyre in a post on authority in the sexuality debate. Drew mentioned me in a Tweet about the post. His main point is that conservatives and evangelicals are not taken very seriously when they appeal to scripture to oppose same sex practices because they do not take seriously what scripture says about other sexual sins like adultery and divorce. That is, evangelicals look the other way when someone in their church when a man cheats on his wife but get all hot and bothered when two men show up together. This is a double standard, and nobody like a double standard.  Drew and I have discussed this issue before, and I think we stand in basic agreement. A couple of ideas came to mind as I read, though, so I thought I’d share those here. I’m not disagreeing with Drew’s main assessment, but I would want to put a couple of things slightly differently. Here goes. 

Grace never looks the other way

In the course of his argument, Drew suggests that evangelicals have long stalled over one question in particular. He writes: 

“The question that evangelicals, as best I can tell, have not been able to answer is: why is compromise acceptable for adulterers and divorcees in the life of the church, but the idea of extending that same grace to LGBT persons is off limits?”

I would urge caution in putting the question in a way that suggests evangelicals have extended grace to adulterers and divorcees by compromising on and ignoring something that scripture clearly forbids. In the Bible, adultery is always condemned, and divorce is condemned in most circumstances. (Even in cases where scripture allows for divorce, it is never seen as good, right, or God honoring.) Ignoring sin is never a grace-filled way of dealing with that sin. When one of my children sins against another one, it is grace to lovingly discipline and teach them to confess their sin and seek reconciliation with the one they have wronged. It’s not fun and often tries my own patience, but this sort of instruction is a means of grace to help my kids grow in Christ likeness. To ignore their sin and give them the impression that their errant behavior is acceptable would be sin against them on my part, as would losing my temper and dealing harshly with their sin. Either path would only lead them further into the destructiveness of sinful habit. Ignoring sin is never grace. If the cross teaches us anything, it should be that the triune God never ignores sin. He would take the weight of the penalty on himself rather than ignore our transgression. Grace always deals with sin and never looks the other way. Any attitude among evangelicals that does look the other way on some (but not all) sexual sin is cowardice, not grace.
When going forward means going back

That sets up the next point. If grace means dealing with sin rather than ignoring it, then the answer is not to ignore what scripture says about one action because we’ve already ignored it on other actions. We do not now compromise on same sex practices because we’ve already compromised on adultery. Two wrongs don’t make a right. Few have put the principle more clearly than C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man” (Bk. 1, Ch. 5).

If evangelicals have taken the wrong road by compromising on biblical sexuality when it comes to adultery and divorce, then it is not progress to likewise compromise on same sex practice. The answer is not to continue down the wrong road; it is to go back and take seriously all of scripture and seek to apply it to the Church and ourselves for the sake of the world and for the glory of God. If evangelicals want to answer Drew’s question, it means confessing and repenting of the sin of cowardice and gracelessness. It means being faithful to all of scripture, not just our favorite bits. Sometimes going forward requires turning around.
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Image: manostphotos via freedigitalphotos.net

New SermonCast: "Growing into Salvation" 1 Peter 2:2-10 #UMC

Much of the time we think of salvation in the past tense. We focus in on that moment when we first experienced God’s reconciling grace, whether a prayer, an altar call, or some other crucial event. Acknowledging and giving thanks for the work of God in our lives in the past is good and right. The grace that comes at conversion is the essential beginning of life in Christ. But we sell ourselves short if we don’t give equal or greater attention to the saving work of God in our lives now and in the future. In this week’s SermonCast, we take a look at Peter’s metaphor of birth and growing up as a way of thinking about Christian discipleship. When we think of following Jesus in terms of being born and growing up, we affirm the importance of God’s work in our past, but our attention is also drawn to what God is doing now in preparation for the future. Peter wants us to understand that salvation is bigger than our past. Salvation transforms our present and our future. 

On Priorities, Positions, and the #UMC Via Media (@eJoelWatts)

I raised a few questions last week about the current call among United Methodists for a via media (or a middle way) that might preserve our unity through our current and very deep division. My questions were focused around this central point: 

If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it’s not clear to me that language of “a middle way” really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it’s not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle.

The post provoked a variety of responses. Some agreed with the call for a middle way; others were suspicious of it. One post that aimed to answer some of my questions came from Joel Watts. He suggests that the via media is more about priorities than it is a position on any particular issue. Joel puts it this way:

I would say it is not a way of thinking about an issue but about priorities. I have argued consistently for a return to a theological grounding. I believe if we focus on affirming the proper role of Scripture, on what it means to be human, and how to stand as a Protestant in the Great Tradition, we can slowly began to answer the questions posed by all of the fields related to the issue of inclusion.

For me, via media is not the middle between left/progressive and right/conservative — because those two sides are usually defined, or start with, the issue of LGBT. Rather, the via media is about placing orthodoxy before other issues. Thus, we argue for orthodoxy and attempt to build up from there.

I’m grateful to Joel for taking my questions seriously. I’ve been tossing his response around for the last few days and now want to offer a couple of thoughts in reply. First, it seems to me a false step to set our theological priorities against the positions we hold. Is it not the case that our priorities influence, perhaps even determine, the positions we hold? For example, Joel prioritizes order and episcopal oversight. This leads him to take a position that opposes the various current acts of ecclesial disobedience happening in the UMC. He argues for LGBTQ inclusion, but not at the expense of order and discipline. This ranking of priorities results in particular positions on specific issues. Sometimes priorities are positions.
Second, Joel suggests that human sexuality is not a doctrinal matter on the level of the Trinity, Christology, or baptism, to mention a few. But this claim raises at least one question. How does the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity relate to marriage and sexual ethics? In Genesis 1, the relationship of heterosexual covenant monogamy is intimately interwoven with the bestowal of the image of God on the man and the woman. At the very least, this raises the possibility that our doctrine of God and our sexual ethics have much to do with one another and cannot be so easily separated into distinct levels of priority. This may give us some insight as to why matters of sexuality are such lightning rod issues. Perhaps different attitudes towards human sexuality emerge from fundamentally different visions of God and what it means to bear the image of God. So, I’m not quite satisfied with the claim that we can find a way forward by prioritizing orthodoxy over sexual ethics. 
Again, I’m grateful to Joel for the seriousness with which he took my questions, and I’m grateful to him for taking the time to offer some thoughts in reply. Likewise, I’ve aimed to take his suggestions seriously (even if I’m not finally satisfied by them) by reflecting carefully on them before posting my reservations. As many of us have said before, we need respectful dialogue on matters over which we disagree, and I’m always grateful for the opportunity to be involved in that sort of conversation. In the end, though, I find unhelpful the suggestion that the middle way is about priorities and not positions. Our priorities and our positions are bound tightly together and likely determine one another. It is essential that we recognize this if we are to understand ourselves and each other. 

Defining the Methodist middle: Is there a via media for the #UMC?

The United Methodist Church is increasingly embroiled in an ever more polarized debate over human sexuality. As the debate rages, many have called for and attempted to articulate a via media, that is, a middle way between the two divergent sides. In recent weeks and months especially, though, I’ve found the call for a middle way to be curious at least and baffling at worst. The reason? Given the diversity of those associated with the middle, it seems difficult to actually define the middle. And terms that cannot be defined are by necessity meaningless. Allow me to illustrate the difficulty. 
Earlier this year, Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter outlined a proposal that articulated what they see as “A Way Forward” for the UMC in light of the sexuality debate. Hamilton has done a good job of associating himself with the idea of a “middle way,” and his plan for the Church reflects that attitude. It outlines the progressive and conservative sides and then presents a local option that the authors take to be a compromise or third way. You can see how Hamilton applies his approach to a variety of issues in his book Seeing Gray in a Black and White World.
Bill Arnold has shown (quite conclusively, in my view) that Hamilton misconstrues many of these polarizing debates by not taking account of  the many and varied views on each issue in question and by assuming that a middle way is always available and preferable. Arnold levels a heavy critique of Hamilton’s way of reasoning and argues that the position of the UMC is already a middle way on a number of issues. See Arnold’s book Seeing Black and White in a Gray World On the issue of human sexuality, Hamilton proposes as a third way that local churches and Annual Conferences make their own decisions about LGBTQ unions and ordination. In contrast, Arnold argues that the current UMC position that all persons are of “sacred worth” even though same sex practices are “incompatible with Christian teaching” is the true middle way. Hamilton affirms same sex practices; Arnold does not. Both believe they are the via media. How do we make sense of this? 
Another example comes with regard to the same issue. Steve Harper’s new book For the Sake of the Bride has been touted as a “third way” through the current division. Harper’s book has quickly become well-known because, though he has been aligned with conservatives in the past, he now takes the progressive view on sexuality. In contrast, just last week Mark Tooley of the Institute on Religion and Democracy was said to have “joined the middle” after offering a conservative case against UMC schism. Again, Harper and Tooley come down on opposite sides of the sexuality issue, yet in the last week or so both have been described as part of via media. How do we make sense of this? 
One forum that is gaining prominence in the UMC is the Via Media Methodist blog. If you haven’t seen this one, be sure to stop by. The contributors always have thoughtful insights on UMC issues, and their tone is commendable. The blog aims “to offer an alternative beyond the current polarization” in the UMC, and “raise the level of discourse within” our denomination. I’ve found this site very helpful in modeling Christian charity and respect while engaging in difficult conversations. However, for reasons outlined above, I’m still unclear on what it means to be in “the middle.” I did find an interview with Allan Bevere on the most recent edition of the Wesley Cast to be helpful. Bevere described the middle way as involving more a way of reasoning rather than a set of specific positions. Okay, so maybe the middle is a method, not a position.
But this still leaves me with questions. If two people with irreconcilable views can both be said to occupy the middle, it’s not clear to me that language of “a middle way” really gets us very far. It may help us have a conversation without it devolving into fisticuffs, and for that it is commendable, but it’s not clear to me that this is sufficient to bring about a unified United Methodist Church, which seems to be a goal of those who see themselves in the middle. If the via media is a way of thinking about an issue and not an actual position on a particular issue, how does it actually move us forward? Who can help me? What is the via media? How do I know it when I see it? What am I missing?