Monday, January 26, 2015

Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism:
Getting Our Terms Right

In today's American discourse, in both culture & religion, the terms "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" are often used interchangeably, both of them contrasted to terms used to designate those who lean to the left regarding faith issues, who are often termed "liberal" or "progressive". I believe there are stark differences between "evangelicals" & "fundamentalists" & that this distinction is vital to understanding today's Church, particularly in America.

Christian fundamentalism as a formal movement arose in the early 20th century as a reaction to modernism in both Church & culture and to Protestant liberal theology, which by the early part of that century was coming to dominate mainline denominations. An attempt to stress what early fundamentalist leaders considered essentials for Christian faith, fundamentalists stressed the inerrancy of & literal interpretation of the Bible, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the bodily resurrection & physical return of Christ & a version of substitutionary atonement theory. It wasn't very long before this "circle the wagons" mentality became genuine animosity toward those who disagreed with the movement, and it seemed that the wrath of God (a legitimate topic in Scripture) was proclaimed far more passionately than the love of God (also a legitimate Scriptural topic). Fundamentalists became stereotyped as mean, uneducated, separatist, and shallow, rejecting most Biblical scholarship, science, historical/archaeological discoveries & even at times aspects of the Great Tradition of Church history & doctrine.

The evangelical movement (or neo-evangelical movement) was birthed out of fundamentalism in the mid-20th century. Originally known as fundamentalists who were willing to cooperate with non-fundamentalist Christians for evangelism & mission work, the movement quickly broadened & soon began gaining adherents in the very mainline denominations fundamentalism was founded to fight.

Because of the breadth of evangelicalism, identifying core principles in this
trans-denominational movement can be difficult. Wesleyan evangelicals, for example, stress the importance of God's prevenient grace, Lutheran evangelicals stress Luther's delineation of law & gospel, Presbyterian evangelicals stress the sovereignty of God, Catholic evangelicals stress proper celebration of the sacraments, Pentecostal evangelicals stress the gifts & activity of the Holy Spirit, Baptist evangelicals stress their particular understanding of baptism, etc. These & other differences are not unimportant.

But what evangelicalism has become, essentially, is a movement which strongly adheres to the core principles of orthodox Christianity as it has been proclaimed for more than 1500 years. The doctrines of the Trinity & the Incarnation are important, as are the Resurrection of Jesus & the authority of Scripture. Evangelicals may disagree as to which atonement theory is to be preferred (ransom, Christus Victor, Anselmic satisfaction, Calvinist satisfaction & governmental approaches have all been taught by evangelical theologians at one point or another) or which style of worship is most faithful or what is the correct understanding of the sacraments or which polity is best, but they are united in that core doctrines such as Trinity, Incarnation & Resurrection are vital to being Christian.

Fundamentalism has also broadened a bit, but not in terms of cooperation. There are Catholic fundamentalists, for example, who insist that unless one is a faithfully practicing Catholic, one is not a Christian even if adhering to the core doctrines of the Great Tradition. Some go further & believe that unless one is a faithful "traditionalist Catholic" rejecting Vatican II & everything which followed, one is not a Christian. There are similar movements in, say, Reformed Baptist circles, where some teach that unless one adheres to Dordt Calvinism, one is not Christian (which begs the question of how any Christians could have existed prior to 1619). Fundamentalism is thus still generally known as an at times nasty approach to culture & the Church, misunderstanding or even ignoring completely the love of God & the fullness of his grace. Put another way, too often our fundamentalist sisters & brothers "major on the minors".

To understand the full breadth of evangelicalism / orthodox Christianity, perhaps no work has been more important than that of theologian Thomas Oden, who has endeavored for decades to gather the wisdom of the ages for the Church to learn & enjoy again. I highly recommend his Classic Christianity as perhaps the best one volume summary of the Great Tradition in the English language. Here, we read of the fullness of orthodox Christianity & rejoice in its diversity as well as its unity.

I am an evangelical Christian in a Wesleyan context. It's a wonderful thing to be.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Bounds of Christianity

"A community with no boundaries can neither have a center
nor be a community." Thomas Oden

"Boundaries aren't all bad.
That's why there are walls around mental institutions." Peggy Noonan

Orthodoxy: of, pertaining to, or conforming to the approved form of any doctrine, philosophy, ideology, etc.; of, pertaining to, or conforming to beliefs, attitudes, or modes of conduct that are generally approved.

The loudest debate in the American arm of The United Methodist Church over the past several decades has been over the issue(s) related to chosen sexual behavior. Specifically, many United Methodists have disagreed with the Church about whether or not active homosexual relationships are valid within the framework of Christian discipleship in a United Methodist context.

The Church maintains in Article IV of our Constitution that, "...all persons are of sacred worth." That is vital to understanding United Methodist exegesis of Scripture through the lens of Wesleyan theology.

The Church also maintains in paragraph 304.3 of our Book of Discipline, "The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." This is equally important to understanding United Methodist exegesis & is in line with the rest of the Church Universal and her teachings on sexual ethics and behavior. The United Methodist position is hardly unique or groundbreaking.

The "conversation" has been marred at times by various acts of ecclesial disobedience from pastors & bishops which has forced the Church to strengthen its prohibitions against homosexual choices rather than have any meaningful dialogue. Many faithful United Methodists hope & pray that these acts will cease in order to facilitate a real conversation.

And there IS a conversation that is not only worth having but necessary for the Church as we engage 21st century American culture. It may not be the conversation many want to have, but it is nonetheless vital if we are to speak to one another in any meaningful ways.

The question which must be asked - in as loving & as gracious a way as possible - is this:

Is affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices still within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy or is it essentially a new Christianity-like religion, such as the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists or the Jehovah's Witnesses?

Certainly, historic orthodox Christianity, of which the United Methodist tradition is a part, has not affirmed sexual behavior outside the covenant of a marriage between a man & a woman. There is biblical precedent for this teaching as well as theological support throughout the 2000 year history of the Church; there's no need for me to
re-present that here. This is simply the default teaching of Christianity, and is founded on faithful biblical exegesis by many intelligent, well-meaning saints over many years.

Breaking with the Christian faith on this issue - which progressives admit is vitally important - may be quite dangerous for The United Methodist Church.

Other faith movements have broken with orthodox Christianity in the past. The history of the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists, Jehovah's Witnesses and other groups are filled with well-meaning persons who were and are very sincere about their faith and who wholeheartedly believe that they stand in divine favor. They should be respected as persons of integrity and conscience...but that does not make them orthodox Christians.

Mormonism, for example, has been dealt with by the General Conference of The United Methodist Church which in 2008 stated that, "...the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints presents itself as a faith tradition outside the parameters of historic, apostolic Christianity," and that Mormons seeking to become United Methodist must first receive the sacrament of Christian baptism as their LDS membership is not considered within the bounds of orthodoxy (see Resolution #3149 in our 2008 Book of Resolutions & the related teaching document Sacramental Faithfulness: Guidelines for Receiving People from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

There is also precedent for considering social issues & behavioral choices to be outside orthodoxy. Few would consider Westboro Baptist Church's extreme hate speech as perfectly orthodox, in spite of their faithful adherence to Dordt Calvinism. Likewise, most people on both sides of the political aisle would agree that pederasty is unorthodox behavior.

The wisdom of the Church, then, teaches us that allowing theology or practices deemed outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity to be accepted or normative within the Church is a threat to our identity as the covenant Body of Christ. At the point of acceptance of non-orthodox theology or practice, that branch of the Church ceases to be the Church & becomes a new religious movement, perhaps utilizing Christian language & concepts but distinctly non-Christian.

The question is thus a crucial one for us to discuss. Is affirmation of homosexual behavioral choices still within the bounds of historic Christian orthodoxy or is it essentially a new Christianity-like religion, such as the Mormons, Unitarian-Universalists or the Jehovah's Witnesses?

Surely, the Safe Sanctuaries policies of the Church have reminded us that boundaries matter; not every behavior is acceptable in every context. The Church has the responsibility to determine what is appropriately Christian behavior and what is not.

The imperative debate, then, is not about whether the Church should bless weddings of persons who have chosen homosexual behaviors or partners, nor is it about whether the Church should ordain to the pastorate those who are actively engaged in homosexual behaviors. The debate concerns the very nature of the choice of those behaviors & whether they can be deemed at all to be within the bounds of Christianity...ever.

I take very seriously my ordination vows & the doctrinal standards which I swore to teach & uphold. Not only must I as a United Methodist pastor teach the Church's position on the appropriateness of homosexual behavioral choices, but I also personally agree with the Church's position which, as I've stated, is based on 2000 years of Spirit-led, Spirit-driven quality Biblical exegesis by faithful saints & should not be dismissed lightly.

Nevertheless, I am happy to engage in this critical discussion with friends who disagree with the Church. I am willing to listen & consider. Granted, the witnesses of Tradition, Reason, Experience & (especially) Scripture make it very, very difficult for those who disagree with the Church to change my mind (and the minds of other United Methodists who are much smarter than I am & are equally committed to orthodox Christianity), but I am willing to engage.

But let us not debate the wrong questions. Let us consider instead whether or not it is even possible for the Church to approve of chosen homosexual behaviors while still remaining faithfully a part of the covenant Body of Christ. That is a conversation worth having.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Ministry Reading List for 2015

Seeing Black & White in a Gray World:
The Need for Theological Reasoning in the Church's Debate over Sexuality

by Bill Arnold

Exposing the Idols that Can Derail the Present & Destroy the Future

by Guy Chmieleski

Shaping Their Future:
Mentoring Students Through Their Formative College Years

by Guy Chmieleski

Images of Salvation in the New Testament
by Brenda B. Colijn

Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul?:
A Narrative Approach to
the Problem of Pauline Christianity

by JR Daniel Kirk

Pastoral Practices: A Wesleyan Paradigm
by Diane Leclerc & Mark A. Maddix

Kingdom Conspiracy:
Returning to the Radical Mission of the Local Church

by Scot McKnight

Sermon on the Mount (The Story of God Bible Commentary)
by Scot McKnight

A Change of Heart:
A Personal & Theological Memoir

by Thomas C. Oden

Bringing Discipleship Back to the Local Church

by Randy Pope

Thinking, Listening, Being:
A Wesleyan Pastoral Theology

by Jeren Rowell

Sent & Gathered:
A Worship Manual for the Missional Church

by Clayton J. Schmit

The Radical Wesley:
The Patterns & Practices of a Movement Maker

by Howard Snyder

The New Parish:
How Neighborhood Churches Are Transforming Mission,
Discipleship & Community

by Paul Sparks

A Thicker Jesus:
Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age

by Glen Harold Stassen

Giving Blood:
A Fresh Paradigm for Preaching

by Leonard Sweet

Following a Future Filled with the Possible

by JD Walt

The Class Meeting:
Reclaiming a Forgotten (and Essential) Small Group Experience

by Kevin Watson

The Crown & the Fire:
Meditations on the Cross & the Life of the Spirit

by NT Wright

Simply Good News:
Why the Gospel Is News & What Makes It Good

by NT Wright

This list is subject to change, be added to, edited, etc as ministry & culture make necessary. It also doesn't include planned fiction & devotional books.