Preaching and the preacher’s soul

Don’t let sermon preparation be your only Bible study.” or “Your sermon preparation doesn’t count as your devotional time. You need to nourish your soul, too.” I hear several warnings like that in pastor circles. I understand the point and don’t disagree. Don’t read Scripture only under the pressure of developing it into a sermon. Read for your own nourishment.

And while I read Scripture for more than just sermon preparation, I can also say that my greatest growth and nourishment have come from the texts I’m going to preach. The extra weight of asking what God has for us in this word––the extra time and focus that demands––bring me to my greatest wonder and awe and conviction.

Preaching is good, if nothing else, for the preacher’s soul.

Theology and Sex: Do we write a Three Views book or a new creed?

Earlier this week, Tim Tennent posted an excellent article to distinguish perspectives and positions in theology. If you haven’t already read it, you should go do that. You might notice my comment at the bottom of the post. I build on that below.

Here I’m going to: (1) summarize how Tennent defines perspectives and positions and draw some logical conclusions for the church, (2) note how these categories should alter what I wrote last week on the UMC Divide, (3) ask whether human sexuality is a theological perspective or position, and (4) make a note on the crisis of authority in the post-Reformation Church.

A Summary of Perspectives and Positions according to Tennent

Theological perspectives allow for a “generous orthodoxy” (my words). We have different views about these matters, but we’re not calling anyone a heretic or unChristian for disagreeing.[1] Want to see all the sides of one of these debates? Zondervan has made a whole series for it––31 volumes. You can get Four Views on HellFive Views on the Church and PoliticsTwo Views on Women in Ministryor even Four Views on God and Canaanite Genocide.

While we celebrate that “generous orthodoxy” regarding perspectives, we allow no such variance for our positions. These are the core doctrines of the faith, “matters where the church has historically spoken with a single voice,” according to Tennent. You hopefully won’t find Two Views on Whether the Son was Created or Three Views on Christ’s Nature: Human, Divine, or Both? That’s because these matters are settled in the church. The early church convened councils, wrote creeds, and excommunicated people over them.

If someone teaches a belief contrary to a Christian position, there is no room for “generous orthodoxy.” We’re dealing with heterodoxy or heresy. The proper response isn’t to write a Three Views book, it’s to correct or excommunicate the heretic.

Perspectives, Positions, Sex, and the UMC Divide

Given the current controversy in the American church and especially the United Methodist Church, the elephant in the room throughout Tennent’s article is our theology of human sexuality. Which category does it belong to––perspective or position? Though the article doesn’t mention human sexuality directly, readers surely glanced in the elephant’s direction while they read this line in a paragraph on core doctrines: “We are told that we are ‘on the wrong side of history’ and we should ‘get with the times.’”[2]

Whether we treat this as a matter of perspective or position will change every aspect of how we handle this controversy. A few people took issue with the comparisons in my last post between United Methodists who flout our stance on baptism and those who flout our stance on same-sex marriage. To use Tennent’s definitions, I believe they were arguing that one is a perspective (generous orthodoxy!), the other a position (heresy!) That misses the point, as I was comparing the two regarding fidelity, not doctrine. If covenant matters, then all of the covenant matters.[3]

Though the categories of perspective and position don’t change that part of my post, they do draw two other parts into question.

1 — I listed several areas where a United Methodist church and clergyperson would be expected to keep covenant. That list is a medley of the two categories. It includes perspectives like women in ministry, itineracy, and baptism practices.[4] It also includes United Methodist doctrine, which in itself is part perspective (e.g. Wesleyan soteriology) and part position (e.g. the bodily resurrection).

Underneath that list, I said, “These questions do not ask for full agreement, only obedience.” That was a statement too broad for a medley of perspectives and positions. You don’t have to fully agree on itineracy, just obey. But on the eternal divinity of Christ, you must agree.

The denominational perspectives require obedience for the sake of fidelity.
The positions require agreement for the sake of orthodoxy.

The other item I included in that list was same-sex marriage. Is it a perspective that requires obedience or a position that requires agreement? This brings another part of my post into question.

2 — I said that I believe the church needs dissenters who will keep dissenting. I included those with different views on same-sex marriage as needed dissenters. If this is a perspective, then we should welcome appropriate debate on the issue. If it’s a position, then as Tennent says, it is “not a point of discussion;” debate and disagreement about same-sex marriage should be tolerated no more than Arianism.

I treated our debate over same-sex marriage as a matter of perspective, not as a matter of position. (Or at least, not as a matter so settled as to close the door on discussion.)

Is our theology of human sexuality perspective or position?

If we say this is a perspective, we can keep full communion, even while differing on this matter of theology.[5] But we’ll have to answer why the church’s consistent historical position on sexuality has come back up for debate. If the church has always taught sex as unitive (uniting two into one flesh) and procreative––prohibiting it whenever it didn’t have these two meanings––what permits us to question these now? Could historical teaching on Christ’s humanity or eternal divinity also come back into play?

If we call this a position, we’ll say the church has historically spoken with a single voice. This is not a point of discussion. We cannot keep full communion with those who disagree. They’re not orthodox Christians. But if we rely on tradition here, we’ll have to answer how the situation is different from as recent as the 15th century, when women’s ordination and the confessional view of baptism looked much closer to prohibited positions than permissible perspectives. Moreover, we’ll need to answer whether Protestant churches have truly held to the historical position of the church––that sex must have a unitive and procreative meaning. The Roman Catholic Church would surely argue that our perspective on contraception is a violation of the church’s historical position on sexuality.

I don’t conclude here with an answer. Tennent’s post has given me helpful categories to name my confusion. I’m a traditionalist on human sexuality. From Scripture and the church’s tradition, I’m convinced that sex is properly unitive and procreative. But I’m unsure whether I can call this a perspective or a position. The difference is glaring. Do we write a Two Views book with each other (it’s already out there), or do we say this is no point of discussion and correct or excommunicate the heretic?

The Crisis of Church Authority

Most of the church’s major theological crises were settled when there was a definable church. Then, as now, they did not have one side arguing from the Bible and another denying the Bible. Instead, they had two sides arguing their position from the Bible. They were able to convene ecumenical councils as one body, identify orthodox belief and heresy, and write creeds that specified Christian belief.

A theological crisis like this over human sexuality reveals the trouble with church authority after the Reformation. A denomination can convene a council, but that council speaks for the denomination, not for the Church universal. A council speaking for a denomination is, by definition, clarifying a perspective, not a position. Without an ecumenical council, where do we go to confirm and clarify positions in question?

I write about theology, ministry and the UMC, usually about twice a week. Click here to subscribe by email.

I don’t have comments here any more. If you’d like to discuss it with friends, share it with them and discuss. If you’d like to discuss it with me, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

[1] Well, most of us aren’t, anyway.
[2] When I run a Google search for “wrong side of history” and “church,” six of the first seven articles are about human sexuality.
[3] For a better direct comparison between doctrinal points, see my discussion of our treatment of human sexuality in relation to same-sex marriage.
[4] That we would include baptism as a perspective is especially interesting, and almost all of us would. Tennent supports this by saying that both views of baptism have theological arguments to support them and that historically, “the church has not found common ground on every aspect of baptism.” We can certainly say this today, but could 15th century theologians have said the same? Or would they have called baptism (or at least infant baptism) a matter “where the church has historically spoken with a single voice”––a position?
[5] This point especially comes into focus as the UMC and The Episcopal Church discuss full communion.

How the UMC Divides

Most people now think some sort of divide in the UMC is inevitable. Tom Berlin shared this helpful illustration about our differences––attributed to Tom Lambrecht. It shows two groups who are “non-compatible” with the other’s stance on same-sex marriage. Their positions are so opposed that they cannot find any covenant both sides would agree to and keep.

from http://revtomberlin.com/church-vitality/#sthash.6KAWMFae.7RLszL8M.dpbs

Chris Ritter improved on that illustration in a recent post to show the relative size of each group.

from https://peopleneedjesus.net/2017/05/08/why-are-traditionalist-compatiblists-so-hard-to-find/

First, let’s ask whether Ritter and Berlin are right––these groups can’t all remain united. I think they are. Mainly because I’ve interacted with non-compatibilists on both sides. I know the pastors and church members who will leave any Church communion that endorses same-sex marriage, on paper or in practice, nearby or afar (i.e. what happens in California affects Kentucky). And I know the pastors and church members who will leave any communion that prevents them from endorsing same-sex marriage.

Unless I’m wrong about this, our Commission on a Way Forward will not find a way to keep us all united. Some divide must occur.

The question: where and how do we draw the lines?

The illustration above helps us see our current crisis. However, I think it leads us to the wrong conclusions when we start talking about drawing lines. We assume that if we’re headed toward inevitable schism, the line must cut according to these divisions––we’re going to divide over same-sex marriage.

I want to suggest a different way of looking at our current situation, not according to same-sex marriage (alone) but according to covenant.

Covenant” in the UMC may sound like a shibboleth for conservative / traditionalist right now. Especially given the name and emphasis of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). But note that there are sugar packets on both sides here.

This is where some “conservative / traditionalist” repentance is in order. I offer this as someone who tends to identify more closely with the UMC’s “conservative” crowd. I hosted Bill Arnold’s guest post about the initial WCA meeting. I teach and affirm the UMC’s current positions on human sexuality. So I offer this critique of the UMC’s more conservative wing from the inside:

  1. Traditionalists have gotten serious about human sexuality far too late, and still leave some question about whether we’re concerned about human sexuality or only gay sex.[1] Many of our churches have allowed unmarried, sexually active heterosexuals to become members, leaders and staff members while denying the same to sexually active homosexuals, or in some cases, even celibate homosexuals![2] This reveals an incomplete and incoherent (or merely homophobic) theology of human sexuality. We must develop and practice a more robust theology of human sexuality.
  2. We have gotten serious about covenant far too late, and in an incomplete way. Some progressives have asked me why covenant-keeping has become so important to conservatives now, when they’ve never seen outrage about our several churches and pastors who practice re-baptism, “remembrance of baptism” by full immersion, or infant dedications with believer’s baptism. All of these are flagrant violations of our covenant.[3] If we’re going to get upset about flagrant covenant-breaking, it has to be about all flagrant covenant-breaking.
  3. We have suggested that traditionalists “believe the Bible” and progressives don’t. That’s unfair. I’ve been on the other side of that argument with Calvinists, believer’s baptism folks, and people who won’t ordain women. (“You let women preach? Oh, my church follows the Bible…”) We have to engage in more serious conversations about exegesis, not straw man take-downs.
  4. Some of us have withheld our apportionments as a sign of protest. That’s not the way to protest.

Our tendency is to acknowledge our “small” faults, but then to point out how much more the other side is at fault. I’ve never had a conflict move toward resolution by trying to point out that the other person was 80% of the problem. I don’t know the percentages here, but there’s enough blame to go around. No need to identify who’s more at fault.

Getting serious about covenant

With all of that, I want to suggest that it’s time for us all to repent, forgive, and get serious about our UMC covenant––all of it.

We need to offer full forgiveness to all who have broken that covenant in the past.

We need to ask which churches and pastors will find it impossible to abide our covenant going forward.

We need to offer them a gracious, graceful exit. This is not far different from what Bill Arnold and David Watson were proposing a few years ago (the A&W plan, as it was called). If you must leave, take your property and your pension with you. Some of our general boards and agencies may even find a way to continue to work in partnership with you, should you choose.

The major difference between this suggestion and the A&W plan: it’s not just about same-sex marriage. It’s about the whole covenant. Can you abide, or can you not?

Some of the most likely areas we’ll need to discuss:

      • Baptism practices. Will you need to break covenant to re-baptize someone, to perform an infant dedication, or to recommend believers’ baptism?[4]
      • United Methodist doctrine. Contrary to popular opinion, we have a clear set of doctrinal beliefs. Can you affirm and teach Trinitarian faith? The historical, bodily resurrection of Christ? Free grace on offer to all people (i.e. you’re not a Calvinist)? The Bible as the true rule and guide for faith and practice?[5]
      • Women in ministry. Can you support full clergy rights for women?[6]
      • Same-sex marriage. Will you need to break covenant to perform or live in a same-sex marriage?
      • Itineracy. If you vow to go wherever the Bishop may send you, can you keep that vow?
      • General Conference. Above all, you’re agreeing to live and minister according to the decisions of our General Conference.

These questions do not ask for full agreement, only obedience.

I have friends who believe we should re-think baptism, others who believe we should re-think same-sex marriage. But they’re willing to live within our current UMC covenant. I believe we need to re-think ordination and itineracy. But I’m willing to live within our current covenant.

We need dissenters who will keep dissenting, just as we needed them in the past to advocate women’s ordination until we changed our position. I’m not convinced by the alternative positions on baptism or same-sex marriage. I don’t expect ever to be. But people have historically helped the church re-think important positions by their advocacy.

If we divide (and we almost surely will), I hope we do it based on covenant, not the single issue of same-sex marriage. I hope we give a graceful exit to those who simply can’t abide the covenant. I hope we retain many people who continue to disagree and advocate for change. And I hope we then begin to take our covenant seriously––all of it.

I write about theology, ministry and the UMC, usually about twice a week. Click here to subscribe by email.

I don’t have comments here any more. If you’d like to discuss it with friends, share it with them and discuss. If you’d like to discuss it with me, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you.

[1] Some people have noted that traditionalists aren’t only now trying to maintain biblical faithfulness regarding human sexuality. They talk about an effort in the 60s and 70s to maintain faithfulness regarding premarital sex, adultery, and divorce. “We capitulated to cultural pressures” on those issues, writes one person. That’s a better historical perspective, not that traditionalists are only now getting serious about sexual ethics, but that we’ve capitulated on the rest in many places, making a firm stance against same-sex marriages appear merely homophobic, since it’s no longer paired with a firm stance on the rest.

[2] To be clear, I’m not suggesting that it would be unfaithful to our UMC covenant to admit people as members to the church, even while they’re doing something that we would call wilful sin. (I don’t advocate membership in those cases, but that’s another post for another day…) All I mean to suggest here is that if we’re willing to admit anyone “living in sin” as members, we need to be ready to admit anyone “living in sin.” No way can we exclude a gay or lesbian couple while admitting others.

[3] Several people have asked me if all of these are truly “flagrant violations of covenant.” I admit that I may have gone too far here. Re-baptism is a clear flagrant violation (including by willful ignorance or by any suggestion that the first one didn’t count).

Remembrance by immersion and infant dedication are more gray area. This article from Discipleship Ministries and the sources it cites are probably most helpful regarding infant dedication. If not 100% inappropriate, it’s at least a significant deviation from our sacramental theology (baptism as an act of God; dedication as a human action). For remembrance, This Holy Mystery states, “water may be used symbolically in ways that cannot be interpreted as baptism.” That makes it hard for me to see immersion qualifying. Usually a smaller amount of water is used and it’s not administered by another person. If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck… Many of these “remembrances” seem to me a clever way of getting around our baptismal theology. But this, too, is not black and white.

[4] Why the heavy emphasis on baptism? “That’s not what’s causing our divisions,” some say. But if we say that infidelity to covenant is causing our divisions, then this is a prominent area of covenant infidelity in some areas, and it must be resolved. (Also, some value our sacramental theology as much as our theology of sexuality. We have not come lightly to our positions on the sacraments.)

[5] Several people have suggested that the primary cause of our divide is theological. First, I don’t believe we have one divide, but many. Theology is certainly a cause of division, though I’d caution us not to think of that divide in simplistic “left” and “right” categories. We have many people across the spectrum (and with varying beliefs about same-sex marriage) who can say the full Nicene Creed and mean it. And we have people across the spectrum who cannot. If we attempt to solve our divisions by means of sifting out the heterodox (something that fidelity to covenant does), we will not be chopping off a “liberal” or “conservative” wing or resolving our controversy over same-sex marriage.

[6] For any who think this addition unnecessary, here’s a comment to me from a United Methodist woman: “[O]ne of the things I was worried about before the WCA was that the conservative voices in the UMC particularly here in KY would begin to question women clergy (among other things). Let’s be honest many many [of our] UMCs do not totally support women clergy and in fact if we shine a light bright enough, we find several UMC pastors and maybe even DSs that do not as well. I have also seen and been privy to conversations surrounding Communion as a Sacrament, One Baptism and Calvinistic language among lay persons in leadership and clergy whose primary background is in another denomination. Seriously, we have many Bapti-Methodist churches in [our state] and the SEJ that ignore important aspects of our doctrine and polity as egregiously as those progressive whom they criticize. As I have heard and seen WCA emerge, I’ve been pleased to see that Orthodoxy, Wesleyan theology, and abiding by the BOD in all regards is the focus.” For the record: I don’t know of any DSs who don’t support women clergy, but I found this woman’s testimony helpful for anyone who believes we’re past these concerns.