Tag Archives: Doctrine

Language About God: Interviewing Dr. Jackson Lashier

I first met Dr. Jackson Lashier when we were both seminary students. Unlike many of the students who were pursuing degrees to become local church pastors, he and I found ourselves in many of the same classes as we worked toward degrees that prepared us for ministries in academic contexts. At the time, I knew him to be thoughtful, bright, and adept in handling resources that sometimes felt remote across the vast stretches of centuries and also abstract in their presentation of concepts. For pastors or academics or laypeople, the combination of remote and abstract can seem forbidding; but Jackson’s strengths lend themselves to bringing the remote and abstract both near and accessible. He’s the kind of person who comes to mind when you want to talk about the language we use when we talk about God . How we speak about God matters, and his point of view and expertise are valuable resources in exploring why we speak about God, and how.

Jackson is now a theology professor; he is also a John Wesley Fellow, about which you can read more at A Foundation for Theological Education, here. He has a passion for connecting the historic doctrines of the church to everyday lives of Christians (see his short video on “Why Church History Matters for Discipleship”) and authored Irenaeus on the Trinity and numerous scholarly articles. Currently, he is Associate Professor of Religion and Chair of the Social Science Division at Southwestern College in Winfield, Kansas.

Initially we began this discussion before the pandemic hit, and I appreciate his sustained efforts through that upheaval. It’s a gift to welcome his insight today.

Elizabeth Glass Turner, Managing Editor

Wesleyan Accent: So – Americans talk about God, or describe God, in a lot of different ways. American Christians often share some commonality in the language we use about God, but even within Christianity there can be different emphases or language employed. Is there any point in trying to use common language about God, or does it matter how we speak about God? If so, why?

Dr. Jackson Lashier: I think the language we use when speaking about God or to God matters greatly. First, it reflects our beliefs about God. So to call God gracious or loving or simple or immutable or Father, to name a few common examples, is to reveal convictions about the nature of the particular God we worship that cannot be implied from the word “God” alone. Second, and related to this, when used in the liturgy or in a common place of worship, our language proclaims a shared understanding that both unifies us as the Church and marks us off from communities of other faiths.

Now, having a common language of God does not mean we must have a uniform language of God. So many times I hear in public prayer people using the same title or titles of God over and over again (“Father God,” for example, seems really popular among American evangelicals). There is nothing necessarily wrong with repeating the same titles, but this practice fails to engage the vast treasure of names and language for God provided for us by Scripture and tradition. Using names for God that we are not familiar with helps open our minds to other aspects of God’s nature that we can praise and think creatively about.

WA: In systematic theology classes, students delve into Trinitarian theology – that God is three in one, not just one God with three masks or not three Gods who are best friends. God is three persons, and often we use personal, relational language to attempt to convey that – language that is found in Scripture: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yet Christians have also classically believed that God is spirit, which gives a different understanding of God than may be implied in the Trinitarian language which is exclusively male. Why might it be important to remember that Christians classically haven’t affirmed belief in what Marge Simpson called “Mr. Lord” or the common phrase “the old man in the sky”?

JL: I like your images, particularly the Marge Simpson reference, and I agree with you that assumptions that God is inherently male, even when we say otherwise with our qualifications, is a problem and skews our understanding of the nature of God. Because God is absolutely unique, completely unlike anything in creation (according to the basic distinction that God is the eternal Creator and everything else is contingent creation), our human language – even language used by Scripture – always falls short of fully encapsulating God.

Theological language is, as Thomas Aquinas taught, “analogical.” That is, it refers to God only by way of analogy. This is easy to grasp when we call God “a rock” or something of that sort, but it even holds true when we say that God is love. When we say that God is love, we mean that God is in some way like our human concept of love even though the love that is God’s nature transcends even the highest human examples of love. The analogical nature of our God language is crucial to keep us from bringing God to our human level and thereby to falsely and somewhat idolatrously assume the ability to completely know God in human terms.

This subject bears directly on the question of gendered language for God and male images of God that we seem to hold de facto. The Scriptures and the majority of church tradition use male titles for God (primarily Father and Son) as well as male pronouns for God. If we keep the analogical nature of theological language in mind, we can affirm that these male titles and pronouns demonstrate God’s personal and relational language (God is “Father” and “he” as opposed to an “it”). Yet we can affirm these titles without falling into the mistake of thinking that God is literally male. If we think that God is literally a male, we have failed to honor the transcendent nature of God, which, as your question rightly expressed, is affirmed in the Scriptural teaching that God is spirit.

WA: Some Christians seem to think, however, that in the Incarnation God becomes a man and so that affirms the inherent maleness of God and justifies our exclusive use of masculine titles and imagery. Does your argument here implicitly deny the reality of the Incarnation?

JL: Not at all. It is absolutely true, both historically and theologically, that at some point in history, God entered human experience and was born a man, Jesus of Nazareth. But to conclude from this that, as a whole, God is male, is to be extremely confused on our Trinitarian language. Scripture affirms not that God in total becomes human but that the Word or the Son (who the tradition will come to refer to as the Second Person) becomes truly human. The Father and the Spirit (who the tradition will come to refer to as the First and Third Persons) remain spirit, as you noted in a previous question. Moreover, the orthodox teaching of hypostatic union states clearly that Jesus’ human and divine natures exist in perfect union though remain unconfused and unmixed (indeed, certain authors like Julian of Norwich will refer to the Son as our Mother). So the incarnation in no way compels us to think of God as male. At the same time, we do not have to somehow deny the historical reality of the maleness of Jesus for fear of that reality making God male.

The path forward, then, is to remember the central teaching of the Trinity. It is not that God is male. It is that God is relational in God’s essence.

WA: Your use of the title “Mother” for the Son may sound odd to our modern ears. Despite numerous examples of very maternal, female imagery of God throughout Scripture, many Christians might think it arises from a theology of the Divine Feminine that isn’t rooted in classic Trinitarian theology. How can we walk a path in which we celebrate shared belief in the Trinity and value the Trinitarian formula – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – while affirming that while Jesus Christ experienced humanity in a male body, the Trinity is not inherently or eternally male?

JL: I think you’re right that many Christians have an immediate aversion to feminine language. I doubt whether there is a good reason behind it so much as the cumulative effect of using exclusively male language and thinking of God in exclusively male images. Indeed, it so forms our thinking about God that we cannot even recognize the many feminine images of God in Scripture —the mother hen, the woman who sweeps her floor looking for a coin, to name a couple off the top of my head. (Sometimes these images are wrongly dismissed by people who argue that God is not being “called” a feminine name [as God is called “Father”] but only compared to a feminine image; this argument makes no sense if we remember that all language and titles of God are analogical.) So for these reasons, we must reject the exclusive use of male imagery and language for God. However, for these same reasons, it is also insufficient to simply switch to using exclusively feminine language as I’ve seen some theologians and churches doing. Scripture reveals, and the tradition draws this out, that the transcendent and unique nature of God is neither male nor female but encompasses both male and female.

The path forward, then, is to remember the central teaching of the Trinity. It is not that God is male. It is that God is relational in God’s essence. Thus, God’s one nature is actually constituted by three “relations” or “persons.” This makes God eminently personable and that reality is more clearly expressed in relational titles like “Father” and “Son” than it is in titles like “spirit.” But “Mother,” for example, is also a relational name. And so I believe, along with Julian (and Gregory of Nazianzus and other Orthodox writers) that this title and other feminine titles can be used without sacrificing Trinitarian teaching in any way. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere in print, I think “Mother” more faithfully retains the central Trinitarian realities than does reverting to “Creator,” “Redeemer,” and “Sustainer” often used today.

Of course pragmatically any new introduction of unfamiliar titles and imagery of God should be paired with preparation and teaching, so that congregations understand where they come from. But having said that, the use of titles like “Father” and male pronouns should also be explained better.

WA: You mention titles like Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer – in terms of how we speak about God, a popular means of representing the Trinitarian formula without relying on gendered titles. However, it seems that this formula reduces the persons of the Trinity from Scriptural ways in which they relate – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – to function, and what humanity experiences them doing. Is affirming personhood of “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” more essential than reconfiguring gender-specific language for the persons of the Trinity, even if that language had its origin in patriarchal societies?

JL: I believe in altering our language, attempts that guard against the misguided conclusion that God is literally male are admirable and needed. Nevertheless, I would answer yes to your question about this recent attempt. The formula “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” is simply an insufficient Trinitarian formula as it removes any inherent relational connection among the three persons that is the basis in traditional Trinitarian theology for maintaining the Oneness of the Three. Effectively, this formula implies a worship of three gods. Or, alternatively, the formula could be taken in a modalist sense, which means that the one God at one time creates, at another time redeems, and at still another time sustains. But here again, there is no eternal relation of persons. So, both conceptions are not fully Trinitarian. As I mentioned before, it is for this reason that I am much more comfortable with “Mother” language of the Divine because it maintains the essentially relational character of the Triune God. And while the tradition creatively engages such feminine language, it uniformly rejects such modalist or tri-theistic formulas.

Perhaps the most important principle is creativity with the wealth of images in Scripture. Encourage yourself to think of God using different images. 

WA: I’ve heard some theologians and pastors refer to the Holy Spirit as the “she” within the Trinity. What are your thoughts about this approach?

JL: Honestly, I don’t like it very much. For one thing, it seems to render the feminine aspect of God as secondary: masculine images still outnumber feminine images 2-1, so it seems to me there is not much to gain by this approach. But more problematically, this approach assumes that the persons of the Trinity are literally gendered. So it could be thought that Father and Son are literal male members of the Trinity, and Spirit—by virtue of not having a masculine title—is the female member of the Trinity. As we have discussed, all persons of the Trinity are fully God and together they are one God.

WA: If in God’s infinite transcendence as Creator, the nature of God encompasses male and female, then this impacts our understanding of what it means to be human, yes?

JL: So many implications. First and foremost is the question of the image of God as reflected in humanity. Genesis 1:27 clearly states that male and female are together created in the image of God. Because of the Adam and Eve story of Genesis 2, however, this primary anthropological teaching is often missed; some assume that only the man is created in the image of God, which of course undergirds all sorts of problematic teachings related to hierarchies in marriage and ministry. But male and female together created in the image of God makes sense if we think about God in the ways we have been discussing. It means that they are equal and that they need each other to fully reflect the image of God. This truth, it seems to me, grounds an egalitarian view of marriage and the full participation of women in ministry. Another implication is that humans are inherently communal creatures. This does not mean, of course, that everyone needs to be married; it does mean that everyone needs to be in human community to realize fully who they were created to be. We can’t be good disciples and be solitary.

WA: Pragmatically, I’m reminded of a time I read a description of someone’s expectation that God’s voice would sound like Morgan Freeman or Sean Connery. Both made me smile, yet I was startled by my internal response: what if God’s voice sounded like Cate Blanchett’s character, Galadriel? This funny, simple thought reminded me of the importance of how we conceive of God when we pray. What are some important principles that should shape our imagination when we pray or talk to God?

JL: This is such an important question and really gets at the heart of what is at stake in this question. It is clear that if we reduce our images to masculine ones, then we will likely fall into the trap of thinking of God as male. Perhaps the most important principle is creativity with the wealth of images in Scripture. Encourage yourself to think of God using different images. At one point, imagine God as the Father of the prodigal son running to embrace you. At another time, imagine God as the mother hen who enfolds you in her wings.

The great monastic theologian, Dionysius the Areopagite, encouraged his readers to focus their imaginations on comparisons of God to inanimate objects precisely because there is less danger mistakenly thinking that God is literally a rock, for example, than there in thinking God is literally a Father. Ultimately, every Christian must explore images that resonate. But in general, Scripture and tradition allow for more freedom and creativity here then people often allow themselves.

WA: When it comes to drawing from Scripture and tradition, do you think people of faith can affirm the value of believing that God – out of the Divine nature of holy love – really reveals the very real, actual nature of God? That our language isn’t just a Rorschach test in which we make God everything we think God should look like? At the same time, is there space to acknowledge that sometimes we think about God or speak about God in ways that are incomplete or less rich than they might be?

JL: Great questions that have been wrestled with for centuries. I agree there is a danger here, which is why I think we are wise in our creative imaginings to remain within the range of images provided by Scripture and developed by tradition. Thankfully, there is more than enough there to occupy our imagination in prayer and worship; we have just scratched the surface in our engagement with these treasures.

In answering your broader question about the tension between knowing the revealed God vs the mystery of God, I follow the Western tradition as represented by Thomas Aquinas, as opposed to the Eastern tradition as represented by Dionysius or, more recently, theologians like Vladimir Lossky. The Eastern tradition has generally said that God in God’s essence is unknowable, so the only way we can really speak of God is to say what God is not. This is the so-called “negative” approach or apophatic theology. From it we have derived such important concepts as God’s eternality (God is not limited by time boundaries), God’s simplicity (God does not have parts), and God’s immutability (God is not changeable). I understand the impetus behind this apophatic tradition and see its value, though I move away from it precisely because of your point that God has revealed Godself to us.

The Western tradition has generally been more positive in its approach, so-called cataphatic theology. It affirms that we can speak of God positively, such that when we say God is good or God is love or God is Father, we mean something like what we know of as “good” or as “love” or as a good “father.” Personally, this way helps me connect better with God through prayer and thought. It seems consistent with the Incarnate movement of God to bring Godself to our level.

Yet as we mentioned in our discussion of analogical language, even this way of doing theology insists that we cannot fully know the essence of God: God is infinitely more loving and more good than even our highest human notions. So while we can know God truly and authentically through God’s revelation to us in Christ and as recorded by Holy Scripture, we can never know God fully and comprehensively. Incidentally, this means that eternal life will be spent growing deeper and deeper into the knowledge of God’s essence. I don’t know about you, but that sounds a lot more compelling then singing “Open the Eyes of My Heart Lord” over and over for eternity!

Andy Stoddard ~ The Gift of Brokenness

I’m a pretty happy and optimistic guy.  I tend to believe the best of other people, and by and large, I expect things to work out alright.  I take Romans 8:28 literally and seriously – God will somehow work out things for good.

I tend to be an optimistic and grace-full preacher.  I believe in hell, but I’m not a hellfire preacher. I tend to think that grace is a greater motivator to faithfulness than fear is. I have always taken Paul’s words in Romans 2:4 to heart with my preaching: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” I like to leave people with a pep in their step on Sunday morning.  I like to leave them with grace on their lips. I want them to enter into the world hopeful, peaceful, and more focused on Jesus than on their sin. 

Except for Lent. 

In Lent, yes, we need to know that we are loved.  But there is something else we need to know. We need to know this – we are sinful.  We are broken. We are fallen. We are ashes, and to ashes we will return.

We can’t run from this.  No matter how powerful, wealthy, famous, or holy we are, we are ashes.  No matter how great of an influencer on social media we are, we are ashes. No matter how big a church we are part of, we are ashes.  We are ashes. We are broken. We are sinful.

And you know what? 

This realization of brokenness is one of the greatest gifts we can ever receive.  Lent is a powerful and beautiful reminder of the gift of that realization. Once we receive this gift, we can truly live.  This realization gives us several life-changing truths.

First, brokenness is equality.  We are all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve.  We all inherit original sin. In our age, we like to talk more about “sins” than our “sinful nature.” Sins are things we do (what I jokingly call smoking, drinking, and cussing).  In our minds, there is always someone worse than us. Yeah, we’ve messed up, but look at themThey are much worse than we can ever be. 

If we look at our brokenness in terms of sin, then there are stratifications. There are better and worse than’s.  But that is not how we are called to look at it. We are all sinful. It isn’t just that we have all messed up, but it is that we all have a broken, sinful nature. We all desire that which is sinful.  You, me, our moms and dads, our preachers and bishops, all of us. We are all “sinful.” Jesus didn’t just come to forgive for our sins; he came to free us and restore us. When Adam and Eve fell, our nature was corrupted. That affects every last one of us.  Charles Wesley put it this way in his great hymn Love Divine:

Take away our bent to sinning;

Alpha and Omega be

We all have that “bent to sinning.”  Everyone one of us. All of us. You are sinful.You are broken. You are. Yes. You. Me.  All of us.

But here is the joy: that truth doesn’t make you the scum of the earth.  It makes you human. We are all broken. We are all sinful. We are all frail.

There is equality in our brokenness.  We all stand equal before God, no matter what. We are all broken. That makes us all equal, no matter what.

Second, brokenness is clarity.  If we ever, ever, ever really understand our brokenness, then we have the ability to see ourselves as we really are.  Broken and in need of a Savior. When we understand that, then healing can really begin.

One of the best books I’ve ever read is The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. If you’ve not read it, you need to stop what you are doing, go and buy it, and read it. In this book, he deals with our need for grace and the reckless God who gives us grace, unearned. Listen to what he writes:

At Sunday worship, as in every dimension of our existence, many of us pretend to believe we are sinners. Consequently all we can do is pretend to believe we have been forgiven. As a result, our whole spiritual life is pseudo-repentance and pseudo-bliss.

This clarity – you are sinful, I am too – when we realize that, when we truly know that we are sinful, then we are able to clearly see how amazing God’s grace is.  God knows the worst about us and loves us anyway. Our brokenness gives us clarity to see ourselves as we are, and to see just how much God truly loves us. 

Finally, brokenness is opportunity.  When we know our brokenness, as well as God’s great love for us, in spite of it all, we have an opportunity – an opportunity to be remade, reformed, reborn.  We go from being the Pharisees thankful that we are not tax collectors to the tax collector simply thankful for God’s love.

Understanding our brokenness allows us to truly reveal and marvel in God’s grace.  Understanding our brokenness puts on the path of recovery, the path of wholeness, the path of holiness. This path that understands it’s not about our morality and getting it right, but it’s about our humility and submission to Jesus and following Jesus. 

Our brokenness is our opportunity to be truly faithful.

This Lent, you are sinful.  You are imperfect. You are broken.  So am I. May we take this realization as a means of grace. And may we allow ourselves to be recreated into the people that God is calling us to be.  We are equal in brokenness, we are equally in grace. May this gift make us whole.

Barton Price ~ Founder’s Chic

I’m a historian by training. It is what I do and how I think. This training orients my own spiritual formation as well. I think about the past as a way to make sense of God’s faithfulness and to consider my Christian duty as well as others’.

Thinking like a historian tends to consider how we narrate our stories and what we can learn from them. Stories are instructive. They give us models of sainthood that we can emulate. They also give us examples of failure, serving as a call to live up to God’s call to be holy.

That said, sometimes we fall into a trap in our way of thinking about the past, especially the history of our own Christian tradition. For me, that’s the Wesleyan tradition. When I read some of the leading historians of the Wesleyan tradition, I am struck by a common theme. They like to tell the stories of the founders of the tradition. There is a common trope that we focus on the ministry and theology of John and Charles Wesley and their general legacy among the people called Methodists and their derivative denominations. You can trace the founders’ influence: Wesleyans look to the legacy of racial and social justice in the protests by Luther Lee, Orange Scott, LaRoy Sunderland, and Lucius Matlack. Free Methodists revel in the populism of Benjamin Roberts. Nazarenes relish the emphasis on personal holiness and welfare for the poor promulgated by Phineas Breese. And our brothers and sisters of color in the United Methodist, AME Church, CME Church, and AME Zion denominations look to the leadership of Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others to carve out space for African Americans in the face of discrimination.

Each of these individuals ought to be appreciated for their contributions to the Wesleyan movement and for highlighting the need for new emphases of piety and justice, which are hallmarks within Wesleyan Methodism.

But what happens when we focus exclusively on the work of the principal figures in the establishment of these denominations? Might we run the risk of what one historian referred to as “founders chic[1]”? It’s a term used to underscore an obsession with the founders of a movement—initially referring to the generation of men who ushered the North American colonies through independence and then into a constitutional, democratic republic. The problem, critics note, is that such strategies of writing about the past tend to focus primarily on white men of social and economic privilege, thus elevating their privilege even further. Another important criticism is that founders chic is a top-down approach to historical writing that privileges the contributions of social elites, typically white men of political or cultural influence. Thus, social historians of the mid-twentieth century have attempted to counter this approach by writing history from the bottom-up, from the perspective of lesser-known actors in history or from the perspective of broad sociological patterns in the past.

There is much to be done with the social history of the Wesleyan tradition. It allows us to look at other actors in history, particularly those frequently not represented in our denominational histories. Specifically, we begin to look at the roles that laity, women, people of color, and lesser-known clergy played in shaping the contours of Wesleyan Methodism in smaller pockets of denominational and devotional life.

We can appreciate what the Wesleys did to inspire a new movement of personal and social holiness.  We can affirm holiness as we read it in the Bible, and as Wesley’s sermons have shaped our doctrine. However, the founders chic trend in historical writing about the Wesleyan tradition zeroes in on John and Charles Wesley. But here, I argue, are two major reasons why we should move beyond the concentration on John and Charles.

The first is a matter of time. John Wesley’s conversion was nearly 300 years ago, and some of his greatest theological contributions were written more than 250 years ago. He was birthed from a different era, often trying to match his theology with the philosophical writings of the Enlightenment and tackling problems arising from England converting from an agrarian society to a mercantilist empire to an industrialized society. Additionally, there are some glaring red flags in his anthropology with his less-than-complimentary, if morphing, views of native peoples, including Africans and Native Americans. Should we continue to think like Wesley thinks on some of these things? Certainly not.

The second matter is space. While Wesley’s movement extended well beyond the British Isles, we often overlook the local contextualization of Wesleyan Methodism in those parts of the world where it spread. Here I will speak to the United States. In Wesley’s own lifetime, Methodism became a standalone denomination in America. Under Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury, it shifted from a connection of like-minded pious Anglicans into a distinct religious identity. And as such, it developed from a sect within Anglicanism into a church in its own right. And that is a story that should concern us more, at least in America. The flourishing of Wesleyan Methodism and its spin-offs provides narrative contours that intersect momentous epochs of American history for which John and Charles Wesley had no direct influence.

Furthermore, when we don’t look at how Wesleyan Methodism developed in America, we fail to understand what conditions gave rise to the further splintering of the Wesleyan tradition in the United States. How did the O’Kelly schism of the 1790s raise issues that parallel those of Roberts in the 1850s ? Or how did a movement committed to social justice find itself so deeply complicit in slavery, the most heinous injustice in American history? That complicity gave rise to the AMEC and AMEC Zion churches as well as, later, the Wesleyan-Methodist Connection in the 1840s. It also contributed to the fracturing of Methodism into its northern and southern branches, a division that lasted more than 90 years. And when it re-merged in the 1930s, it did so without resolving the racial injustice of Jim Crow. How did the Methodists of color resist Jim Crow with a specific Wesleyan accent? How did the evolution of Methodism in the later nineteenth into a mainline denomination that sought to buttress a white middle class status quo foster new holiness movements in the 1880s and 1890s that broke away from the Methodist Episcopal Church to emphasize personal piety and concern for the poor? And as Methodism further developed into a liberal mainline denomination in the twentieth century, how might the conservative voices have felt slighted, organizing within Methodism to challenge what they perceived as liberal trends far afield from biblical and holiness teaching?

There is a wealth to be explored by examining the histories of Wesleyan Methodism that move far beyond the founders of Methodism or its descendant denominations. When we apply the skills of writing the history of Methodism from the bottom up, we gain an appreciation for another cast of historical actors and social conditions that gave rise to a distinctly American Wesleyan accent within Methodism.

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2003/09/founders-chic/302773/

[2] Like many Enlightenment thinkers, Wesley sometimes used descriptors like “savage” or “heathens” when communicating about native peoples including Native Americans, Africans, and Europeans like Celts and Finnish people. Later descriptors were more nuanced, such as in “Thoughts Upon Slavery,” which was a contextually bold defense of African Muslims (“Mahometans”) against the evils of the slave trade, the practice of which comprised the subject of his final letter before his death that he wrote to abolitionist William Wilberforce.

Kevin Watson ~ Hope for the Future of Methodism?

Are we too comfortable talking about our own demise? Do some of us come perilously close to celebrating it?

I’ve been wrestling with this since a friend sent me a link to a blog post urging Methodists to shift from telling stories of the death of United Methodism to “writing the story about the future of the church.” 

I appreciate the article because it did not suggest that decline is not a real and serious problem in contemporary United Methodism (a kind of head in the sand approach, which I have seen). But even more than that, I appreciated the article because of its encouragement to shift from a funeral dirge to anticipating signs of hope for the future.

We need to be honest and realistic about the challenges we face, while putting our best effort and energy into a positive and hopeful vision for the future for the Wesleyan/Methodist family. United Methodism, in particular, is a church that has been in dramatic decline for years, even decades. The strains of decline are seen from the most visible expressions of our collective life together (publishing, denominational colleges and seminaries, boards and agencies) all the way to the local church, where disheartening numbers of local churches are closing their doors for the final time each year.

Is there really room for hope?

I believe that there is. But, it is not hope for a quick fix, or even a turnaround that comes from an intense exertion of our collective will and effort. We’ve tried that already. It hasn’t worked. And we are not currently of one will, so we aren’t really pulling in the same direction.

Let me put it strongly: We have no good reason to hope in ourselves. We have been in decline despite our good intentions. We have been in decline despite having leaders who have communicated a compelling vision. In short, many United Methodists have been trying really hard for a really long time. And, yet, we are in decline.

But there is hope. There is hope because Jesus has been raised from the dead. There is hope because the church is God’s Plan A. And there is no Plan B. God will not let the church fail. Of course, it is possible that The UMC, or any other Methodist/Wesleyan denomination could fail. But the church will not cease to exist. Regardless of what happens in one denomination, the future of Christianity itself is not at stake.

Fundamentally, our hope is in the Lord. Our tendency to despair often reveals that we have put our hope in ourselves and not in the Triune God. I have hope that the current realities of Methodism in America will help American Methodists become better Christians. Since at least the Civil War, we have been pretty confident in ourselves, in our own abilities. We have often become agnostic in our lives together, acting as if the future were fundamentally dependent not on God, but on ourselves. I have hope that the Holy Spirit will enable Methodism to repent of its self-sufficiency and acknowledge our need for God.

In Scripture and in countless testimonies, desperation often brings people to a new and deeper experience of God. Could it be that God, in God’s mercy, may be allowing us to become more desperate so that we might more fully experience God in our churches? Renewal, after all, does not typically come to the self-satisfied.

I also have hope that our collective language will become more robustly and explicitly theological. I hope that we will grow in our ability to speak of God, to receive the deep and tested faith of the church, and to embrace the way of life that comes from the riches of Christian doctrine.

Put differently, I don’t have much hope that unity of practice will come without a renewed unity of belief. There are pockets of Methodism that seem to uncritically reject the role of doctrine in Christian life. And yet, these well-meaning people not only appear to overlook the beliefs (doctrines) that lead them to reject doctrine, they also tend to be unable to offer anything more than good intentions as a way to get to unified practice without unity of belief.

To be clear, I believe it is a misunderstanding of the role of doctrine to see it as primarily restricting. Doctrine is only restrictive in the sense that an expert guide is when she helps you safely explore a wondrous land that you yourself have never visited. A guide who helps you experience a breathtaking view of a beautiful canyon will ensure that you don’t approach it via an unstable cliff. The goal of a guide, as with doctrine, is to enable you to have the freedom to safely explore what you do not yet know yourself. In this context, freedom is actually enhanced by boundaries or guidance outside of your own resources. In this way, Christian doctrine facilitates getting to know God and growing in deeper knowledge and intimacy with God by pointing to God and by providing protection from worshipping what is not God.

The article I mentioned at the beginning of this post is right. We need to start telling the story of the future of the church. I believe I am starting to be able to perceive the outlines of a story of renewal and recommitment by the people called Methodists.

Our story can be one of experiencing God’s transforming presence in our lives as we recognize the depths of our need for Christ, and Jesus’s ability and willingness to meet that great need. We can move forward with confidence, knowing that the Lord will sustain the church one way or another. And as we move into the future, we will be sustained and guided from perilous missteps if we immerse ourselves in the deep wisdom of our tradition. And as we seek to follow Christ and become mature in our faith, we can invite others to come with us on this great adventure.

Wesleyans have a great story to share with one another and with the world. I am anxious to see how God will use us to draw those created in the divine image more fully into the love that is already perfected within God’s life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth Glass Turner ~ Are American Clergy Suffering a Crisis of Faith?

Are American clergy suffering a crisis of faith?

From megachurch pastor and quintessential church cool guy Rob Bell to Seventh-Day Adventist pastor-turned-atheist-for-a-year Ryan Bell, 2014 was a doozy (the topic even emerged as a central theme in Steven King’s new novel “Revival”).

From Rob Bell: “All of these things that people think dropped out of the sky by divine edict are actually a reflection of ongoing human evolution and a thousand other factors that have shaped why we as humans have done what we’ve done.”

From Ryan Bell: “I do think I’ve now seen both sides of the coin. Being with the atheists, they can have the same sort of obnoxious certainty that some Christians have, and I don’t want to be a part of that. It feels like I’m stuck in the middle. I want to be for something good, but I don’t want boundaries, and religion just feels like a very bounded thing. The question I am asking right now: Why do I need religion to love?”

But I don’t just have to look at the headlines about Rob Bell’s seismic theological shift (he learned the most about Jesus from…Oprah? She’s great if you want to know if you’re wearing the correct bra size, but – Oprah?) or about Ryan Bell’s wrestling with the problem of evil and whether God exists (I completely applaud him for being honest about his struggles and for stepping out of the pulpit if his beliefs were in flux that deeply).

No, I don’t have to read stories like this one or this one to wonder if these North American clergy suffering crises in faith and theology are part of a greater trend. I have too many friends who are going through a similar process to wonder if it is, as my Facebook feed daily demonstrates.

It’s a mistake to think that clergy suffering crises of faith are something new under the sun, though. If Mother Teresa recorded her struggles and doubts, I think we can all breathe a sigh of relief.

It’s also a mistake to criticize questioning by and in itself. Buddy, you better. An unexamined life is not worth living, and an unexamined faith will last about as long as Farrah Fawcett hair, Hammer pants, beanie babies, MySpace, “Gangnam Style” and every other grass that withers and flower that doth fade away. Or as I occasionally put it to my congregants from the pulpit: “I really believe this. Otherwise I wouldn’t waste your time. Join the Rotary if you just want to be a good citizen.”

Why here, though? Why now, and why so many?

Orthodoxy itself is not bankrupt. In fact, if you feel disillusioned with the church or faith (though people rarely actually say they’re disillusioned with Christianity itself, which is why you don’t hear, “you know, the Apostle’s Creed really disappointed me today”), reading G.K. Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” might be just what the doctor ordered, a breath of fresh air that anticipated with remarkable acumen what the intellectual challenges of the next century would be. No, orthodoxy is not bankrupt even if modernism is. As many clergy or church-bred people I know who are slowly, gradually breaking up with the church, I know nearly as many drawn not just to orthodoxy but to an additional packet of dogma as well, eschewing North American Protestantism for the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions.

If there is this crisis of faith among North American clergy, then, why here? Why now? And why so many?

Here are a couple of factors that I suspect are shaping this trend.

The fault lines in fundamentalism have taken their toll. What a heartbreaking process to read (former Seventh Day Adventist pastor) Ryan Bell’s intellectual turmoil. Fundamentalism is all baby, no bathwater, as the LA Times piece recounts: “All along, his doubts grew. The more he tried to reconcile the Bible with science, the more it seemed he was putting together a puzzle with parts that didn’t fit. The more he thought about the unceasing suffering in the world, the more he doubted God’s existence.”

If your faith falls apart when you pull on the string of literal, six-day creation theory, you probably grew up a fundamentalist. There are good, loving, generous Christian fundamentalists who are the salt of the earth. But if your faith – the whole of your faith – could be shaken by the discovery of millions of iconic, undisputed, beautiful “missing links,” then your faith wasn’t in the Creator God whose mysterious ways caused all life; it was in one narrow interpretation of a complex language. This intellectual legalism has churned out more atheists and universalists than even Ricky Gervais could ever hope for.

What happens when you go through college and seminary without working through these theological issues? You work through them after you’ve joined the ranks of other clergy, after your own faith gets hit with challenges while you’re also trying to serve in ministry. American clergy are in part suffering a crisis of faith because we’re still recovering from a wicked hangover left by the well-intentioned fundamentalists of the 80’s, committed to coalitioning everyone to heaven.

The fatigue of the faithful has taken its toll. Show me a pastor who is struggling with theology or philosophy of religion and I’ll show you a pastor who’s also very likely burned out. Clergy see the best and the worst. Consider this statement from a Huffington Post piece on former megachurch pastor-now-Oprah-network-show host Rob Bell:

Now resettled near Los Angeles, the couple no longer belongs to a traditional church. ‘We have a little tribe of friends,’ Bell said. ‘We have a group that we are journeying with. There’s no building. We’re churching all the time. It’s more of a verb for us. Churches can be places that help people grow and help people connect with others and help people connect with the great issues of our day,’ Bell said. ‘They can also be toxic, black holes of despair.’

Competition from colleagues, church members fixated on petty, ego-driven concerns – these realities can knock the wind out of a beautiful baptism, a tender, hard-fought reconciliation, or a quiet “thank you” after a sermon. It’s not always the moments when a church can be a “toxic, black hole of despair” that send clergy into a theological tailspin. Sometimes it’s what they’re also dealing with themselves: grief, loss, depression, mental illness or addiction.

In At Home in Mitford, writer Jan Karon hits the nail on the head in this fictional letter from a bishop to his clergy friend:

You ask if I have ever faced such a thing as you are currently facing. My friend, exhaustion and fatigue are a committed priest’s steady companions, and there is no way around it. It is a problem of epidemic proportions, and I ask you to trust that you aren’t alone.Sometimes, hidden away in a small parish as you are now – and as I certainly have been – one feels that the things which press in are pointed directly at one’s self.I assure you this is not the case.An old friend who was a pastor in Atlanta said this: “I did not have a crisis of faith, but of emotion and energy. It’s almost impossible for leaders of a congregation to accept that their pastor needs pastoring. I became beat up, burned out, angry, and depressed.”The tone of your letter does not indicate depression or anger, thanks be to God. But I’m concerned with you for what might follow if this goes unattended.

Keep a journal and let off some steam. If that doesn’t fit with your affinities, find yourself a godly counselor. I exhort you to do the monitoring you so sorely need, and hang in there. Give it a year!

Any pastor “worth their weight” willingly exposes himself or herself to extraordinary amounts of pain. Even those who attempt to engage in “self-care” frequently short themselves or fear criticism from colleagues and supervisors. Does your denomination offer sabbaticals?

What percentage of your pastors actually take the offered sabbaticals? Do you communicate expectations to your staff that they will not only take their days off but their vacation days as well? Do you make sabbaticals mandatory? Do you admire a colleague’s “work ethic” and then raise an eyebrow when he has an affair? Do you demand 60 hours a week for a salaried position and then make judgments on your employee’s health and fitness level? Do you give compassionate leave to those in your district or conference who lose a parent, or do you send them carefully worded correspondence reminding them that their church is behind on apportionments, budget, or whatever your denomination calls the money a local congregation sends to its hierarchy?Dear pastors, superintendents, bishops: remember the Sabbath. Keep it holy. Rest your way back into faith.

For clergy suffering through the epidemic of faith crises that seems as miserable, unwelcome and persistent as this year’s flu strain, what palliatives might be offered? Plenty of rest (see above), but also these comforts:

Good-enough pastoring. When I became a new parent, I was panicked, constantly waking the baby by checking on him. Then I read just a short review of a book with a title that, in itself, calmed me down. The book? “Good Enough Parenting.”

Thank you, sensible reviewer, who, having had enough of the neurotic 21st century moms and dads who overparent so lovingly, gently suggested that perhaps parents need to relax a little and simply aim their expectations at “good enough.”

Dear clergy slogging through a crisis of faith: I know you are pressured on all sides to be intuitively genius at social networking; to have the preaching abilities of your congregation’s favorite pastor from 20 years ago; to have the evangelistic zeal of Billy Graham; the charismatic charm of Jimmy Fallon; the generational with-it-ness to know who Jimmy Fallon is; the biblical knowledge of a cloistered New Testament scholar; the entrepreneurial spirit of Donald Trump; the organizational abilities of Martha Stewart; the leadership abilities of whatever current “best practices” guru is popular; the financial soundness of Dave Ramsey himself; the parenting insight of Super Nanny; the technological and fundraising prowess of the 2008 Obama campaign and the humility of Mother Teresa.

Oh. And the holiness of our Messiah.

Let’s prevent a few existential crises by saying, here and now, that the Body of Christ in North America might better be served simply by pastors who are “good enough.” You may never have a multiple-book publishing deal, but you never got sent to federal prison, either. You weren’t ever a keynote speaker, but you also avoided major public meltdowns. In our quest to give God our best, maybe it also would have been valuable to give God quiet, almost invisible consistency.

Philosophy matters. Some of the most pastorally gifted people I know, who seem to intuit the pastoral needs of those in their care, are extremely well grounded in philosophy. I’ll never forget what a seminary friend once said to our philosophy of religion professor. After a tragic loss while she was young, she was left with enormous life questions that threatened to engulf her. In all her questioning, it wasn’t counseling classes or time with therapists that ultimately gave her peace: it was the content of an introduction to philosophy of religion class, where questions like “why would a good, all-powerful God allow suffering?” were dissected with compassionate logic and reason rather than answered with a quick-fix Bible verse or a prod to rehearse the blank abyss of her own sorrow on the therapist’s couch.

The best response to bad theology isn’t an absence of theology: it’s good theology. And the best response to deep philosophical questions isn’t to throw away faith, but to acknowledge that faith and reason complement each other, and that any version of Christian faith that rejects intellectual and philosophical questioning – or claims – is a version of the Christian faith that is cheating you.

And dear friend, you deserve more.

Let’s eavesdrop on G.K. Chesterton in closing:

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Oh God, take our cynicism and hand us back our wonder.



A reading list for the underwhelmed, overmarketed and disillusioned:

“Orthodoxy” by G.K. Chesterton (non-fiction)

“At Home in Mitford” by Jan Karon (fiction)

“Heaven, Hell and Purgatory” by Jerry Walls (non-fiction)

“Harry Potter” books 1-7 by J.K. Rowling (fiction: trust me on this)

“Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism” by William Abraham (non-fiction)

“Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality” by David Baggett and Jerry Walls (non-fiction)


Jerry Walls ~ The Sovereignty of God

The sovereignty of God is a vitally important truth Wesleyans badly need to recover. This is not only because it is crucial for understanding the biblical drama, but also because many Wesleyans have tended to neglect it because Calvinists often give the impression that it is one of their distinctive doctrines. But the sovereignty of God is not a Calvinist doctrine, it is a biblical doctrine, and no one who wants to be faithful to Scripture can afford to ignore or downplay this great truth.

So what is the sovereignty of God? Simply put, it is the truth that God is in control, that he has supreme power. It is the truth that he is the Lord of the Universe and of everyone and everything it contains. The sovereignty of God is not always appealing because it is sharply at odds with the popular illusion that we are in control. It is a common human conceit to think that our lives are our own, that human beings are running the show and answer to no one higher than themselves.

There is a great story in the Old Testament book of Daniel that illustrates this human conceit and shows how the sovereignty of God shattered the illusion. King Nebuchadnezzar was a good king who had achieved stunning power and success. One night, however, he had a troubling dream, and asked Daniel to interpret it. When he did, Daniel predicted that God would punish the king for his pride in order to teach him who is truly in control. In the course of the interpretation, Daniel described the king as follows: “You have grown great and strong. Your greatness has increased and reaches to heaven, and your sovereignty to the ends of the earth.”

Notice that last line: Nebuchadnezzar’s sovereignty reached to the end of the earth. If any man had reason to think he was in control, it was Nebuchadnezzar. But Daniel warned him that his pride would lead to his fall, and urged him to repent and atone for his sins. Apparently he listened in the short term, but his memory was short, for a year later, we are told that Nebuchadnezzar was out walking on the roof of his palace, admiring his kingdom, and he became a little too impressed with himself. “Is this not magnificent Babylon, which I have built as a royal citadel by my mighty power and for my glorious majesty?”

At this point in the story, God acted in a rather dramatic fashion to bring the truth home to Nebuchadnezzar. While his boastful words were still in his mouth, a voice came from heaven pronouncing the judgment that he would lose his kingdom and be reduced to acting like an animal. He would eat grass with the oxen, his hair would grow as long as eagle feathers and his nails as long as bird claws. Why did this happen? So Nebuchadnezzar would learn who is really in control.

And learn he did. After a period of “seven times” Nebuchadnezzar’s reason returned to him, and he emerged from the experience with a far better grip on reality. Here are his words from Daniel 4:34-35.

I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored the one who lives forever. For his sovereignty is an everlasting sovereignty, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does what he wills with the hosts of heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. There is no one who can stay his hand or say to him, “What are you doing?”

Notice what Nebuchadnezzar learned from his time eating grass. First, God is the Most High who lives forever. Man, by contrast, is a finite being whose length of life is not up to him or in his power. To vary the classic syllogism that all basic logic students learn: All men are mortal. Nebuchadnezzar is a man. Therefore Nebuchadnezzar is mortal. But God lives forever, and we owe our very existence to him.

Second, Nebuchadnezzar’s “sovereignty,” even if it extends to the ends of the earth, is only a temporary thing. Indeed, in the next chapter of Daniel, we see that Nebuchadnezzar’s son, Belshazzar failed to learn from his father’s example, and his kingdom was lost and given to the Medes and Persians. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall, and the kingdom of the Medes and Persians would also fall, to be followed by another, and so on.

By contrast, the sovereignty of God is everlasting, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation. Whatever “sovereignty” kings like Nebuchadnezzar have is circumscribed by the sovereignty of God, who is the Lord of all history and is working out his eternal purposes for his creation. God has supreme power, and nothing and no one can “stay his hand” when he decides to act.

Now here is a good place to highlight the difference between the Calvinist view of God’s sovereignty and the Wesleyan view. According to classic Calvinism, God’s sovereignty means that he determines literally everything that happens in the sense that he specifically causes everything to happen exactly as it does.

This can sound like a very pious thing to say, and at first it might seem to glorify God. But on closer inspection, it has very troubling implications. On this view, God caused Nebuchadnezzar to be proud, caused him to boast, and then caused his downfall, as well as his subsequent repentance. This is a troubling view because it means God actually caused his sin as well as his punishment.

The Wesleyan strongly disagrees. In the Wesleyan view, God did not cause or will Nebuchadnezzar to be proud. Rather, he became that way by his own free choices, by taking undue pride in his accomplishments. God then punished him to bring the truth home to him in order to move him to repentance. When he acknowledged the truth about God, he was restored to his kingdom.

So again, Wesleyan theology affirms a strong view of God’s sovereignty. God is in control, and our free choices are circumscribed by his sovereign will. That does not mean that God causes our choices, but that he sets the limits within which our free choices are made. And God is always free to demonstrate his sovereign control if we forget that he is God and we are not.

Matt Sigler ~ Knowing What We Have: The Methodist Liturgical Heritage, Part III

I grew up in a family of Methodist pastors and music ministers. You can imagine that our family gatherings were often filled with conversations about various ongoings within the church. In 1989 I remember there being quite a bit of discussion about the new hymnal and the orders of worship provided in the book. While I didn’t fully understand the conversations—I was only ten years old at the time—it was clear to me that whatever was in the red hymnal was very different from what my family knew.

The 1989 United Methodist Hymnal and the companion 1992 Book of Worship marked the culmination of nearly 20 years of liturgical developments within American Methodism. Many Methodists were suspicious of the changes made in these new resources. They saw the greater emphasis on Word and Sacrament as a step in the wrong direction for Methodist worship. In order to understand the influences behind the ’89 Hymnal and ’92 Book of Worship, it’s helpful to consider the shifts in Methodist worship in the twentieth century that preceded these resources.


The year 1905 marks a drastic change in Methodist worship practice. That year the northern and southern branches of the church published a joint hymnal that included, for the first time, an Order of Worship for the Sunday service. Nearly ten years earlier, the Methodist Episcopal Church had adopted a similar order of service at General Conference. Not only did both branches share a common Order of Worship—something that brought charges of “formalism” by many—but the hymnal included other changes. Bishop Nolan Harmon recalls:

the 1905 Hymnal came to be in full use with the systematic Responsive Readings…the saying of the Apostles Creed as a part of morning worship [and] with the Amen sung at the end of each hymn.

The 1905 Hymnal ushered in a period of aestheticism in Methodist worship that crescendoed into the 1930’s.

As Methodists became more respectable within society there was a growing stress on “enriching worship.” The prevalence of Methodist churches built in the Gothic style is a visual marker of this change. With the architectural shift came other changes. Liturgical scholar James White once remarked that when his home church in Vermont built a new Gothic building in the 1920’s, they also “resolved to discourage shouts of ‘amen’ during the sermon.”

The music used in Methodist worship was also influenced by this change. Increasingly the emphasis was on the “quality” of church music. A growing number of churches hired professional musicians. Choral responses sung by the choir often replaced the voice of the congregation. The 1935 Hymnal represents the high-water mark of growing musical sophistication among Methodists during this period.

Other streams within Methodism were not as entranced by the emphasis on “enriching” worship. They maintained that true Methodist worship was marked by evangelical zeal and freedom. Sung “amens,” processions, and the use of candles were all “pretty nothings carried out with an air of sacred mystery.”


Two World Wars and the emergence of the Cold War brought an end to the period of Aestheticism. The horrors of Nazi death camps and the Atomic bomb shattered the illusion that humankind was on a steady march toward progress. Neo-orthodoxy reminded the Church that original sin was real and could not be overcome simply with education and innovation. The Church, as James White put it, “needed something stronger than aestheticism and found it in historicism.”

Liturgically, mainline churches began returning to their roots in the rites of the Reformation—many (re)discovering creeds and confession. Methodists began examining Wesley’s Sunday Service and its connection to the Book of Common Prayer. Where for years American Methodists had altered the forms of worship inherited from Anglicanism, many of the liturgical resources of the 1950’s and 60’s sought to reclaim this part of their tradition. In 1965, for example, Methodists incorporated into the Book of Worship the penitential preface that Cranmer had added to the service of Morning Prayer in 1552.

Liturgical Renewal(s)

The 1965 Methodist Book of Worship went to press around the same time drastic changes began occurring elsewhere in Christian worship. Writing in 1972, James White—the principle author of what would become Word and Table I—defended why the Commission on Worship published a new communion service “for the second time in eight years.” He writes:

It is because the eight years between the 1964 and the 1972 General Conferences span some of the most rapid changes in Christian worship since the Reformation in the 1500s…The middle ages in Catholic worship lasted until December, 1963 when the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy was promulgated…

In contrast with previous changes to the Methodist communion service, which were primarily revisions within the Anglican pattern, White celebrated that Methodists had finally “broken the habit of simply revising within the Anglican-Methodist pattern and opted for one that reflects the breadth of modern Christianity and the depth of classical practice.”

While some saw the greater emphasis on Word and Sacrament in worship as a deviation from true Methodist worship, White understood this breaking free from the classical Anglican/Methodist pattern to be in harmony with a Wesleyan liturgical piety. As Methodists walked through the periods of Aestheticism and Historicism in the first half of the twentieth century, many in the Roman Catholic Church had been (re)discovering early sources on worship. Among these was On the Apostolic Tradition, credited to Hippolytus. White argued that Wesley was a patristic scholar who, had he been aware of Apostolic Tradition, would have embraced its implications for worship practice. Throughout his life, White would maintain that the work he and others did in reforming Methodist liturgical praxis by incorporating aspects of Apostolic Tradition actually made Methodist worship “more Wesleyan, than Wesley’s [Sunday Service].” Of course, many Methodists saw the changes as “too Catholic” and felt that White and others had moved Methodists away from true Methodist worship.

Just as Methodists did not foresee the liturgical changes that would be brought about by the Second Vatican Council, those who crafted the resources that eventually found their way into the 1989 Hymnal did not anticipate the deep influence of what would become known as “contemporary worship.” The efforts at Methodist liturgical revision that culminated in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal and 1992 Book of Worship were often disregarded by those seeking to make their worship services more “contemporary.” As “contemporary worship” became an increasingly viable option for Methodists, many completely rejected the hymnal or anything that appeared to be rooted in the past. While Methodist “contemporary” worship frequently infused life into dry services, it often looked just like the Baptist “contemporary” service down the street. In rejecting the historic forms of their worship, Methodists suffered from an identity crisis in their worship services.

Future Prospects

So let me return to my initial post where I suggested that in our effort to design services that are more faithful to the past, we must be careful not to “cut and paste” the content of our services. As Methodist congregations consider how to be faithful to their own liturgical heritage while being attuned to the particularities of their own context, it might be helpful to consider the following:

First, one must consider if speaking of form versus freedom in Methodist worship is to speak of a false dichotomy. Certainly this is a helpful way to understand the history of the various liturgical trends in Methodist history, yet when one speaks prescriptively about Methodist worship, one might be better served to speak of form and freedom as different sides of the same coin.

Second, and perhaps most important, Methodists need to know their own liturgical history. One wonders how many Methodists today are aware of John Wesley’s Sunday Service. How many understand the history and impact of the liturgical renewal of the second half of the twentieth century? White put it well when he suggested that to be ignorant of one’s own liturgical heritage is to be bound to the status quo.

Finally, knowing about one’s own liturgical heritage is only the starting point. The past must be embodied in the present if it is to have meaning. A distinct Methodist liturgical piety should transcend the various epochs of Methodist liturgical history. With some glaring deviations, Methodists have historically given equal value to the affections and intellect; Scripture and sacrament; and form and freedom in worship. These values, coupled with the rich textual tradition of The Sunday Service and the hymns of Charles Wesley, provide limitless possibilities for the future of Methodist worship.

Jerry Walls ~ I Wish More Arminians were More Like Calvinists

A while back, Bill Barnwell posted a blog entitled “Why Do Wesleyan-Arminians Allow Themselves to be Bullied by Calvinists?” Barnwell’s post was inspired by a blog article by Roger Olson in which Olson made some timely comments on Calvinists who infiltrate Arminian denominations, often with little resistance.

Barnwell made several observations on why Calvinists are better at getting their message across: “Calvinism by its nature is triumphalistic; Calvinists are very, very confident; Calvinists pretty much own academia; Calvinists do a better job infiltrating popular culture; Wesleyans are more tolerant than Calvinists; and Wesleyans don’t make as big a deal with their Wesleyanism as Calvinists do their Calvinism.”

I generally agree with all these observations except one, namely, that Calvinists pretty much own the academy. Indeed, Calvinists are a tiny minority in the Church at large, and they hardly own the academy. Among serious scholars, Calvinists are a minority. But they are nevertheless good at conveying the impression that they are the serious scholars, and that they own the academy. This impression is more due to another factor Barnwell notes, that they have been far more successful in infiltrating popular culture. Certainly Calvinists have a lot of popular authors that are widely influential in evangelicalism, but that is hardly the same as owning the academy. In my own field, philosophy, Calvinists are a distinct minority, and indeed it is worth noting that the greatest mind produced by contemporary Calvinism, namely, Alvin Plantinga, is an Arminian.

But back to where Barnwell is right. Calvinists are indeed far more confident, and less tolerant, and make a bigger deal of their theology than Wesleyans do. And I believe these factors are very closely related. Calvinists are intolerant because they are confident that their theology is true, that it is nothing more or less than the gospel, and they are passionate about preaching it and contending for it.

In your average United Methodist Church, by contrast, pastors and leaders take painstaking care not even to use traditional pronouns and language for God, for fear of offending someone, or not being “inclusive” enough. Whereas Calvinists do not shy away from affirming what they take Scripture to teach, even if it offends contemporary sensibilities, Wesleyans walk on eggshells, fearful of offense. To make matters worse, in my experience, there is a tendency in many Wesleyan circles to equate spirituality with milquetoast, passive aggressive personalities.

So here is what I wish were the case. I wish more Arminians were confident, not in themselves, but in the truth of their theology, and had the courage and conviction to teach and preach it more passionately, even aggressively, in the best sense of that word. (I have had more than one Calvinist tell me that I am the first Arminian they had ever met who acted like he really thought his theology was true). I wish Wesleyans were better at distinguishing spirituality and character from personality. I wish more Arminians had a clear grasp of where Calvinism is confused and why it continues to thrive on misleading rhetoric. I wish more Arminian biblical scholars saw what is at stake in the larger culture and church, and would take Calvinism on in a direct, forthright manner

I am not suggesting that Arminians should be arrogant, rude, or narrowly exclusive. We should warmly embrace all who believe orthodox Christian faith and cooperate where we can on mutual concerns. But this does not mean Arminians should passively hand over their churches to Calvinists or give Calvinists free rein to promote Calvinism.

In short, we need more Arminians with an edge. These are Arminians who understand that the claims of Calvinism and Arminianism are mutually exclusive, and they cannot both be right. They understand that there are important issues at stake and that there are large practical implications. Not the least of these is the very character and love of God. Does God truly love all persons, and do we have a gospel of good news for all persons?

We need more, indeed lots more, Wesleyans and Arminians who have thought these issues through carefully enough to understand what is at stake and are prepared to expose Reformed rhetoric for what it is. We need more Arminians who preach about God’s sovereignty, predestination and election, rather than ignoring those doctrines, thereby giving the impression that those are “Calvinist issues.”

I love the recent version of the movie True Grit. I love the fact that hearty, hardy Protestant Christianity runs through the film, the sort of Christianity that was vibrant when America was most vitally Christian. One of the killers, as I recall, had a brother who was a Methodist circuit rider. Circuit riders had an edge. They loved God, they loved people, they were gracious. But they had an edge.

I wish more Arminians had True Grit.

Ken Loyer ~ Doctrine and Renewal (Part 2)

This post continues a series of reflections on doctrine and renewal. In my last post (Part 1) I shared about the challenges that we face in the UMC to recover our distinctive Wesleyan doctrinal heritage. I mentioned that one of those challenges is moralistic therapeutic deism, a counterfeit “gospel” that has worked its way deep into the minds and hearts of many pastors and lay people in the UMC. I also suggested that we desperately need to return to the theological and doctrinal sources within our tradition in order, first of all, to be more fully formed by those sources as Wesleyan Christians, and, secondly, on that basis, to engage in critical and constructive ways with the issues of our day. I believe that this kind of retrieval is absolutely vital to any hope we have for the renewal of the UMC.

Before talking more about renewal, though, I want to share another story. This one involves a reaction to a YouTube video called “What is Methodism?” that I showed students in a seminary class on United Methodist Doctrine:

The student writes,

“I listened to the video and was amazed that someone would put this video on a public website. It does not make us look good – only one woman actually had any concept of what she believed. But it accurately conveys our sense of who we are – most of us haven’t a clue. We vaguely know that our pastors encourage us to minister to people, but I hear very little about the Gospel, about Christ, or about holiness coming from our leaders. Instead, we hear about the cause of the season, whether it be immigrants, oppressed workers…or – well, you’ve all heard it. At our meetings, we sound like the tear-jerker movie society while all around us people walk past our mostly empty churches headed to soccer games or drug buys.

Yes, this is common in our churches, partially because I have not attempted to define Methodism or generate a pride in being Methodist, but have focused upon using the word ‘Christian’ as I define the character of a good Christian, which hopefully is what our church members will become. If I focus upon Methodism, there is too much disconnect between what I am preaching and what they see in the publications.”

My student shares his thoughts frankly here, and whatever we might think about some of his word choices, he clearly identifies a major challenge facing our church today. What does the UMC believe? What do (or should) leaders in the UMC teach? And in both cases, why? We need to attend to such questions carefully, prayerfully, and when necessary, repentantly. I don’t think Steve Long puts it too strongly in his claim that when UM pastors are generally far more comfortable explaining their personality type on the Myers-Briggs personality test than they are of talking in any meaningful way about the Chalcedonian formula, then we have a theological and intellectual crisis in our church.

So if such stories identify the problems of doctrinal neglect and confusion, where can we turn for a solution? In the face of the challenges before us, what hope is there for a way forward? I believe that we will discover the most promising way forward through a deep retrieval of our doctrine and a comprehensive re-reception of it at every level of our church, especially in the local church since that is the most significant arena for making and growing disciples of Jesus Christ. This retrieval project will be a long and difficult one, but it is critical. My hope is that efforts to reclaim our theological heritage and develop a richer theology for the renewal of the UMC today will continue to bear fruit and spread throughout our church and world. I see doctrine as a light on the path to renewed vitality for the UMC.

Wesley warned of the sort of problems that we now face in his 1786 tract entitled “Thoughts upon Methodism” where he writes this: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast… the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.” Here Wesley not only provides a warning but also points to a remedy: holding fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which the Methodists first set out—or in other words, recovering the Methodist heritage in its fullness.

I hear echoes of Wesley in 2 Timothy 1:13-14: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.”


Jack Jackson ~ Next Steps for Claremont School of Theology


In 2011 Claremont School of Theology (CST) joined with schools from Jewish and Muslim communities to form a new umbrella academic institution, Claremont Lincoln University (CLU). In creating CLU the partner schools envisioned an institution that would facilitate education and relationships across diverse religious traditions. Last month that experiment in partnership came to an end, and for that I am thankful. Continued relationship with CLU would have diminished CST’s commitments to a broad range of Christian traditions in general, and the United Methodist Church in particular.

There were many dreams for Claremont Lincoln. One of mine was that it would serve as a conduit for the development of deep friendships, co-learning opportunities, and joint vocational projects amongst students, staff, and faculty from a variety of religious traditions. The students in each school under the CLU umbrella would tend to identify with the religious tradition of their home institution. For instance, CST would continue to have mostly Christian students, many of whom were from the United Methodist or Korean Methodist churches. CLU would be a platform for relationship building and learning across traditions. I hoped that the relationships that developed from such a learning model would provide a foundation for people from different religious communities coming together to address both local and global challenges.

Over the last 18 months, it has become clear that my dreams for this particular model for theological education were not to be. During that time, the leadership at CLU has pursued a different direction that focuses on religious awareness in corporate communities. While this direction has some merit, it is not consistent with CST’s heritage or its future as one of United Methodism’s graduate theological schools. Given this divergence of missions, it seems best for both institutions to go their separate ways.

For many years Claremont School of Theology has been grounded in Wesleyan traditions, specifically the United Methodist and Korean Methodist denominations, while at the same time welcoming persons from a variety of religious and non-religious traditions, Christian and otherwise. CST’s mission has always been excellent academic and spiritual preparation of persons for leadership in their community, be it parish ministry or otherwise.

I still believe that critical to that training in the 21st century is developing an awareness of, and relationships with, persons from other religious traditions. Learning from and sharing with persons from other religious traditions, some of whom are quite different and who may even have competing theological commitments, is necessary if our world is to survive, much less thrive in the next century. This hope of developing relationships with persons from other traditions that inspire trust, and an ability to collaborate on important projects, was part of the initial motivation behind CLU.

As Claremont Lincoln University shifts to a corporate and secular focus it’s clear the integrity of the initial vision behind the partnership with CST has been lost. Retaining the partnership with CLU would have trivialized CST’s Christian and Wesleyan commitments.The only responsible choice, then, was to wish CLU well and sever our institutional ties.

My hope is that Claremont School of Theology will continue in its commitment to preparing women and men, both Methodist and otherwise, for leadership in the church and world and in partnership with like-minded educational institutions from other religious traditions. My hope that CLU would prove the conduit for partnerships across religious traditions was short-lived. But the importance of creating communities of learning and relationships where people from very different religious communities, sometimes even with different values and commitments, come together for the betterment of the world is as pertinent today as ever.