Archives for February 2015

What is Sin?

A recent post by Morgan Guyton portrays two very different understandings of sin.

It seems that most conservative Christians define sin “legalistically” as disobedience to God’s rules, while progressive Christians define sin “humanistically” as that which dehumanizes individuals and societies. This basic difference radically impacts how we understand our faith, scripture, and God’s nature. When we read the Bible looking for rules to obey, we see a very different text than when we read it looking for a perfect model of humanity to emulate (emphasis original).

He goes on to say, “My goal in avoiding sin as a Christian with a humanistic understanding of it is to gain the rich and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ.”

Morgan makes a lot of good points in his post about what sin is and why we should avoid it.  My concern is creating a dichotomy between his two definitions that seems to say a person has to pick one definition over the other.  I believe the two definitions are both true.  Disobedience to God’s rules is what dehumanizes individuals and societies.  God’s rules are given to us to guide us into being fully human and fully loving toward God and others.  I don’t see a conflict between the two.

Of course, the Bible doesn’t contain a “rule” to govern every situation.  It contains principles that we are able to apply in different contexts to extrapolate how God would have us behave.  We are not as helpless as Morgan maintains when he says evangelicals believe, “If the Bible is unclear or allows for more than one interpretation in any of its teachings, then we are utterly lost.”  In keeping with Wesley’s dictum that what is clear in Scripture ought to interpret what is unclear, we ought not to form an interpretation or application that contradicts what we know to be clear in biblical teaching.  We ought not to allow a murky situation with our taxes to obscure the clear teaching that “thou shalt not steal.”

The way Morgan frames it, we need to choose either to obey God’s “rules” or take a more “humanistic” approach to discerning God’s will, based on whatever leads to love for God and neighbor.  My answer is that we can and should do both.  Obeying God’s rules will lead to greater love for God and neighbor, and acting in love for God and neighbor will not contradict God’s rules.

Morgan’s (false) dichotomy sets up the opportunity to overrule God’s rules because we want to do something that we believe is more loving.  There are several problems with this approach.

  • Scripture is full of exhortations to obey God’s commands.  Psalm 119 is literally filled with such exhortations:  “I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts” (Ps 119:44-45).  The classic verse is from I Samuel: “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams” (I Sam 15:22).  Jesus’ last words to his disciples included the injunction to “teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).  John reminds us, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.  The [person] who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him.  But if anyone obeys his word, God’s love is truly made complete in him. This is how we know we are in him:  Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (I John 2:3-6).  This last shows that there is no contradiction between obeying God’s commands and “to gain the rich and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ” (as Morgan puts it) or to live like Jesus.  Obeying the commands of God is an essential part of discipleship.
  • Untethering obedience to God’s commands from discerning how to love God and neighbor also runs afoul of the doctrines of original sin and total depravity.  Jeremiah exclaims, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9).  Our Confession of Faith puts it, “We believe [humanity] is fallen from righteousness and, apart from the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, is destitute of holiness and inclined to evil” (Article VII).  It appears that Morgan may not give sufficient weight to the corrupting effect of sin and evil on our moral reasoning.  The point is that because of our inclination to evil, we easily distort our moral reasoning to justify behavior that is at odds with God’s commands.  Going by the more nebulous “whatever leads to greater love for God and neighbor” while ignoring the commands of Scripture opens the door to such self-justifying thinking and can lead us off the track of following Jesus.
  • Finally, who is to say what “leads to greater love for God and neighbor?”  Morgan’s approach is a highly subjective one.  Under his rubric, there is no consistent understanding of what is “right” and “wrong,” only an understanding that “is absolutely true to our spiritual journey at that moment in time” (as Morgan puts it).  Truth thus becomes relative, and each person ends up doing “what is right in their own eyes” – a highly individualistic understanding of the Christian life.

We may not always understand why God commands us to do something.  It may even (and often does) go against our natural inclinations.  Adam and Eve did not know why God commanded them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Yet, they were expected to obey God’s command, and the failure to do so unleashed the rebellion and separation of all humanity from God.  If we only obey those commands that we can understand the reason for, we limit God’s authority in our lives and place our moral agency on par with God.

So sin is both the disobedience of God’s commands and the doing of things that undermine our love for God and neighbor.  Where the second appears to contradict the first, we need to examine both more carefully, to ensure that we rightly understand and apply God’s command and that doing so really would be undermining love.  When push comes to shove, however, given our tendency toward sin, obeying God’s objective commands has to take precedence over our possibly flawed subjective understanding of love.

Why Same-Sex Marriage Is a Communion-Dividing Issue

Unified-ChurchUM News Service reporter Heather Hahn recently recounted the third forum on sexuality held by the Connectional Table, this one in Mozambique.  I was intrigued by the views of Bishop Christian Alsted of the Nordic and Baltic Area.  Alsted “said some of the conferences he serves want to allow same-sex marriages and gay ordination, while others would be opposed to such a move. Still others, he said, are split on the question. But he sees no reason those differences should threaten the church unity. ‘It has always been part of my understanding of our DNA that we as United Methodists are willing to ask the hard questions… and to do this with respect, grace and compassion.’”  When asked what might happen if the church changed its position on marriage and sexuality, “Alsted said some churches would welcome the development while he is sure others ‘would consider leaving the connection.’”

“’However, it is a mystery for me that this one issue has become such a dominant issue within our denomination and in our society, and that presents a problem,’ he said. ‘The issue of human sexuality, in particular homosexuality, is an important issue. But it does not have the significance or importance to split us as a church. And if we go in that direction, I wonder what we will think of our past in 50 years.’”

I agree with Alsted that “United Methodists are [and ought to be] willing to ask the hard questions” and engage one another “with respect, grace, and compassion” (at least on our better days).  But his statements bring up the important question, whether the issue of homosexuality has “the significance or importance to split us as a church.”  I believe this issue is a communion-dividing issue for at least three reasons:

1) Empirically, it has already proven to be a communion-dividing issue for many other Protestant Christians.  The United Church of Christ, The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) have all experienced denominational separation after changing their position on marriage and ordination for same-sex persons.  In addition, thousands of persons have left Mainline congregations, including The United Methodist Church, over the past 20 years due to struggles over what we believe about sexuality.  Churches who become “Reconciling” often lose a significant percentage of their membership.  One can say that it doesn’t have to be that way, but evidently many people do see a change in the church’s position as a reason to separate.

2) Evangelicals view compromising the church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality as a violation of biblical authority.  We say that we believe the Bible is “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.  Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation” (Confession of Faith, Article IV). Yet that is precisely what advocates of same-sex marriage are proposing, making the affirmation of same-sex behavior an article of faith.  Scripture is clear on this matter, as we say in our Book of Discipline, all persons are of sacred worth and loved by God, but homosexual behavior is not consistent with God’s will for us.  I have read many different attempts to portray an alternative interpretation of Scripture that would allow same-sex marriage.  By and large, these are rationalizations, not faithful interpretations of the Bible.  The best any of them can say is that the words of Scripture do not mean what they say, or that they no longer apply to us today.  There is no positive warrant in Scripture endorsing same-sex behavior.  Against that is 2,000 years of Christian teaching and an additional 1,000+ years of Jewish teaching about the complementarity of the sexes and the meaning of marriage.  These teachings were promulgated in many different cultural situations, some of which allowed or even embraced homosexual behavior.  Yet the teaching has remained consistent throughout that God’s design is for marriage between man and woman — and most ideally between one man and one woman for life.  Given the stress on obedience in the Bible, including in the words of Jesus, for the church to turn its back on biblical teaching would leave many evangelicals no choice but to separate.

3) Alsted (along with Rev. Adam Hamilton and a number of other church leaders) seems to believe that it is possible for the church to exist with part of it endorsing same-sex marriage and ordination and part of it opposing this.  However, proponents of same-sex affirmation would not be satisfied with such a situation.  Even Hamilton views that accommodation as only a temporary one, until the older generations die and the younger generations are in a position to change the church for everyone.  If by some chance a compromise were reached that would allow people to live according to whatever they personally believe, it would not last long.  Advocates for same-sex affirmation view their cause as a civil rights issue on par with slavery, racism, and discrimination against women.  Just as the church could (rightly) not exist “half slave and half free,” or segregated by race, or not giving women full equality in every part of the church, so same-sex advocates will not rest until every part of the church affirms the goodness of same-sex marriage and the endorsement of homosexual behavior.  Anyone who cannot agree with such a program will eventually be forced to leave the church.  What is the difference if that separation happens now or in 20-30 years?  It will happen just the same.

Much as I would like to believe that persons holding different views on human sexuality and having different practices regarding marriage and ordination could all live together in the same church body, I do not believe it is possible.  For either side to live with the other’s actions would require each side to give up their deeply held convictions and violate their consciences.  This truly is a communion-dividing issue.

The Importance of Church Discipline

9780195355826_p0_v1_s260x420“From the beginning, upholding Wesleyan standards of discipline constituted one of the cornerstones of American Methodism,” writes John Wigger in his excellent distillation of early American Methodism, Taking Heaven by Storm (p. 99).  Thomas Rankin, John Wesley’s representative in America in the mid-1770’s, noted, “I am more and more convinced that unless the whole plan of our discipline is closely attended to, we can never see that work nor the fruit of our labours, as we would desire” (p. 99).

“The uniformity of Methodist discipline gave the movement a cohesiveness unknown to any other large-scale religious movement of the time” (p. 99).  It is precisely this cohesiveness that is missing from United Methodism today, and one of the primary causes is the lack of uniform discipline or accountability.

“Making sure that new members lived up to Methodist standards was one of the primary responsibilities of all preachers and class leaders.  Frequently this involved expelling recalcitrant members, the stiffest penalty available to the church” (p. 100).  It is often alleged that it was possible to have strict discipline when Methodism existed only as a reform movement within the larger Anglican Church, but not practical once Methodism became its own church.  But after the founding of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784, Bishop Asbury led the way in continuing this strict accountability.  “Unless the discipline of the church is enforced,” wrote Asbury in defense of his actions, “what sincere person would ever join a society, amongst whom they saw ungodliness connived at?” (p. 100).

Members were confronted about swearing, drunkenness, pretentious dress, sexual immorality, and neglecting class meetings, among other vices.  If they refused to respond to the counsel of their class (small group) leader or their pastor, they were often expelled from membership in the church.  Later in the 19th century, such cases of discipline were heard by a “jury” of persons from the local church, who ascertained the facts and rendered judgment.

Always, the purpose was to bring back the brother or sister into conformity with Methodist standards and restore their place in the church body.  Discipline was meant to be redemptive, but at the same time, consistent violations of the standards could not be countenanced.  Such would lead to discord in the church and a falling away from the holiness that all were striving for.

In light of the current conflicts in the church, I found interesting one case cited by Wigger (p. 90).  At an 1812 quarterly conference (roughly equivalent to our charge conference meeting) in Madison, Kentucky, one David Hardesty was “charged of having inveighed against the Doctrine and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church” and expelled.  (To “inveigh” means “to protest or complain bitterly or vehemently.”)

Exactly 200 years later, Bishop Melvin Talbert said the following, ““I declare to you that the derogatory language and restrictive laws in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience … I call on the clergy who have signed the pledge to stand firm in their resolve to perform marriages among same-sex couples and to do so in the normal course of their pastoral duties. “  If that is not “inveighing against the Doctrine and Discipline” of The United Methodist Church, I don’t know what is.  Yet, there has been no discipline exercised against Bishop Talbert, even for his outright disobedience of the church’s standards, let alone only for calling for such disobedience.

We often talk about the “ethos of Methodism.”  There is no question that the ethos of Methodism has changed dramatically in 200 years.  Unfortunately, the lack of discipline in our church is one of the contributing causes to the four-decade decline in vitality and membership.  Can we recapture a commitment to hold one another accountable in love and to seek to conform to Methodist standards of living as a means of grace on the road to holiness?

Taking Heaven by Storm: Methodism and the Rise of Popular Christianity in America, by John H. Wigger; New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.