Rev. Rob Renfroe
By Rob Renfroe-
My wife, Peggy, has a habit that drives me crazy — and brings me lots of joy. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, however late we might be, she’ll stop and take a picture — several pictures. Usually her unplanned photography is preceded by her stepping off the path, bending down, and saying, “Isn’t that amazing?” Often what has grabbed her attention is something I have already passed without noticing. Even when she points it out, it seems rather mundane and ordinary to me. It’s just a rock on a path or a shell on the beach or some berries in a bush or some fungus on a decaying tree branch.
Here’s the strange thing. When we get home and she enlarges the picture and shows it to me, I see it — the interplay of different colors in a stone she spotted lying in a riverbed; the pattern of stripes on the wings of a bug she saw crawling on a blade of grass; the design of a flower’s petals as intricate and delicate as the stitching of a quilt; the brilliant hues of berries in a field, hiding their glory under a carpet of wild grass. When she shows these things to me, I can see the beauty that she saw, the magnificence of little things I had walked by and missed.
Peggy is an artist — she paints, creates, and imagines. Like every artist, she sees the world with a sense of curiosity and appreciation. Actually, it is the gift of wonder – the ability to be amazed by little things; to see more when other people see less; to be surprised again by the beauty you’ve seen a hundred times, feeling about it the way you did the first time you saw it, and to wonder how life could give you such a marvelous gift.
One of the reasons “the wise men” deserve that title is because they were wise enough to see in the star of Christmas what others missed. When they arrived in Jerusalem, the wise men asked King Herod: “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). What is remarkable about the wise men is not that they saw the star. Everyone who looked into the night sky saw the same star. No, what made them wise is that they recognized the star for what it was: a sign that could lead them to God.
Scholars still debate what the star actually was. Some have suggested it was a nova, a newborn star that burned exceedingly bright for a short period of time. Others have said it was a comet. In recent times some have posited that it might have been the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, appearing to the naked eye as a single, brilliant star.
Once scientists agree upon a definitive answer, they still will know less about that star than the wise men if they do not recognize that it was more than a cosmic phenomenon. Whatever else it was, it was a sign that could lead men and women to Christ.
Life is full of signs. Your life is full of signs – but you must see what others miss.
Take, for example, the struggle you experience inside. You so want to be unselfish and accepting and forgiving, but when you’re honest, you find it hard to be the person you want to be and easy to be the kind of person you despise. What do you think that is? It’s a sign that, like the rest of us, you’re made in the image of God yet flawed inside and in need of help. It is a sign pointing you to God.
Do you remember the way you felt when you first held your newborn child? How impossible it seemed that anything so wonderful could come from you. Sure, you understood the biology and the genetics, but when you looked into that tiny face and felt your child’s heartbeat next to yours, every argument about life being meaningless and accidental seemed ridiculous. What do you think that feeling was? It was a sign that life has meaning and is grounded in something larger than itself. It is a sign pointing you to God.
Maybe for you the sign is how you feel when you gaze upon the beauty of a sunset or stand surrounded by the majesty of the mountains. Maybe it’s the stirrings you experience as you listen to great music and find yourself longing for something — you’re not even sure what. You can’t explain it, but there is a sense of wonder telling you that there is another dimension to who you are —something that science and reason alone cannot explain.
Perhaps, in a time of tragedy and suffering, when you seemed lost and alone, you found yourself buoyed by a strength you knew was not your own. Some little act of kindness, maybe from someone you barely knew, told you that someone cared and that life could be good again. And it was enough to get you through the darkness and pain. It was like a star shining in the night, giving you enough light to move forward and providing you with enough hope to hang on.
On Christmas morning as you open presents with family and friends and find yourself experiencing more pleasure from the gifts you’ve given than from the gifts you’ve received, what do you think that is? It is a sign that at the heart of reality there is a heart of compassion that loves to give and share life with others. It is a sign pointing you to God.
Life is full of signs, and what distinguishes the wise from the foolish is the ability to recognize them for what they are. I pray that, like my wife Peggy and like the wise men, you will have the gift of wonder this Christmas — the eyes of an artist that see the beautiful patterns and remarkable colors God has placed in your life. And I pray that you will be amazed at all God has done and is doing to reach out and reveal himself to you.
Adapted from The Wonder of Christmas: Once You Believe, Anything Is Possible (Abingdon).
Rob Renfroe is the president and publisher of Good News.
The United Methodist Council of Bishops has announced the membership of the Commission on a Way Forward.
“After three months of diligent and prayerful discernment, we have selected 8 bishops, 11 laity, 12 elders and 1 deacon to serve on the Commission,” said Bishop Bruce R. Ough, president of the Council of Bishops. “This group is representative of our theological diversity.”
Ough said the makeup of the 32-member commission is roughly comparable to U.S. and Central Conference membership.
All of the members of the Commission have already indicated their willingness and availability to serve. The team of moderators — Bishop Ken Carter, Bishop Sandra Steiner-Ball, and Bishop David Yemba — will soon convene the Commission to begin to organize their work and finalize their meeting schedule.
The Commission’s mission is to ”bring together persons deeply committed to the future(s) of The United Methodist Church, with an openness to developing new relationships with each other and exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional, and central conference actions.”
The 2016 General Conference gave a specific mandate to the Council of Bishops to lead The United Methodist Church in discerning and proposing a way forward through the present impasse related to human sexuality and the consequent questions about unity and covenant.
The Commission is a group appointed by the Council of Bishops to assist the Council in fulfilling this mandate. As such, the Council has appointed bishops from across the global connection to serve on the Commission alongside laity and clergy. While clergy and laity will vote at a General Conference on these matters, the bishops have the responsibility to lead the church. Thus, the Commission is designed to inform the Council’s leadership of the General Conference. After hearing concerns that the proposed composition did not include enough laity, three additional laypersons were added from the original pool of more than 300 nominees.
At their fall meeting (October 30 – November 2), the Council will make a decision about a called General Conference and will review a plan to conduct additional and complementary work in annual conferences designed to broaden the conversation with hundreds of lay and clergy members.
GOOD NEWS media.
The members of the Commission are:
USA, Florida, elder, male
USA, California, elder, male
Jacques Umembudi Akasa
Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, laity, male
USA, Virginia, elder, male
USA, Illinois, laity, male
Philippines, elder, female
Europe, Switzerland, laity, male
Philippines, bishop, male
USA, California, bishop, male
Aka Dago-Akribi Hortense
Africa, Côte d’Ivoire, laity, female
USA, New York, laity, male
USA, Kentucky, elder, female
USA, Texas, elder, male
Myungae Kim Lee
USA, New York, laity, female
Julie Hager Love
USA, Kentucky, deacon, female
Africa, Zimbabwe, laity, female
USA, Indiana, laity, female
Mande Guy Muyombo
Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, elder, male
Africa, Zimbabwe, bishop, male
USA, Minnesota, laity, male
Casey Langley Orr
USA, Texas, elder, female
USA, Ohio, bishop, male
USA, Oregon, elder, female
USA, Pennsylvania, elder, male
USA, Texas, bishop, male
Jasmine Rose Smothers
USA, Georgia, elder, female
USA, Texas, laity, female
USA, Alabama, bishop, female
Europe, Germany, bishop, female
USA, Florida, laity, female
John Wesley Yohanna
Africa, Nigeria, bishop, male
Alfiado S. Zunguza
Africa, Mozambique, elder, male
Sandra Steiner Ball
USA, West Virginia, bishop, female
USA, Florida, bishop, male
Africa, Democratic Republic
of Congo, bishop, male
Bishop Mike Lowry celebrates Holy Communion.
By Steve Beard-
During the first hour of its launch event in Chicago on October 7, leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) were scrambling to find more chairs to accommodate the standing-room-only gathering, as well as swaying and clapping to the enthusiastic and impromptu participation of African United Methodists during the opening worship time – a visible reminder of the global nature of the denomination.
“I am convinced God is doing a new thing among those of us who claim the historic, orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan expression of our faith,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway, lead pastor of Reynoldsburg (Ohio) United Methodist Church, in his presentation on the group’s purpose. “I believe we are planting seeds today that — when full grown — will bear the fruit of a vital Wesleyan witness and a dynamic Spirit-filled Methodism across the globe.”
Speaking on behalf of the participants from Africa, the Rev. Dr. Edwin Julius Momoh of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, affirmed the kinship between the goals of the WCA and African United Methodism. “We understand that the WCA is vision-driven movement committed to moving forward God’s agenda for the evangelization of the nations, the revitalization of The United Methodist Church, and the transformation of society; as we do in Africa.”
The inaugural gathering was a high-energy mixture of affirmative messages on the Lordship of Jesus, the centrality of the Scriptures in the life of the Church, and the Wesleyan drive to transform the world through Christian discipleship and social holiness.
“We Methodists believe in holding in tension both works of piety and works of mercy,” said the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior minister of Grace Church, a multi-site congregation committed to recovery ministry in Southwest Florida, in his presentation. “Faith expressed without a robust expression of both in the life of an individual follower of Jesus or a local church is incomplete and unbiblical in our understanding of what it means to live in Christ. For us faith is lived best when as a follower of Jesus I work on my prayer life and work to end human trafficking. My local church is being faithful to the way of Jesus when our hands are lifted high in transcending worship and our hands are reaching low to work with the poor.”
The Chicago event was also a show of solidarity to orthodox clergy and laity in sections of the church that no longer adhere to the global United Methodist views on marriage and sexuality. The day-long event culminated with a communion service overseen by two United Methodist bishops.
“We don’t live on the world’s wisdom, we do not exist on the world’s power,” said Bishop Mike Lowry of the Fort Worth Area of the Central Texas Conference, during his communion homily. “You know and I know it is Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. What is at stake for us in this struggle we are in is not ultimately the issue of human sexuality. What is at stake for us is who is Lord, who rules, who saves us. We preach Christ and him crucified.”
Living core of our faith. Interspersed between messages calling for a revitalized Wesleyanism, WCA leaders crowd-sourced affirmation of its theological underpinnings, purpose, and moral principles. “We are reciting the Nicene Creed today without crossing our fingers behind our backs,” said the Rev. Dr. Bill Arnold, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, before leading the group in the ancient affirmation of faith. “These standards and this creed are more than mere historical relics of our past. These are the living core of our faith, rooted firmly, we believe, in the revelation contained in the Old and New Testaments.”
It also christened a new leadership team through audience affirmation by applause and “amens.” As the council members began their work together they elected Dr. Jeff Greenway as the group’s chairperson; the Rev. Carolyn Moore, pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church outside of Augusta, Georgia, as vice chairperson; the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Luling Texas, as secretary; and Ferrell Coppedge, lay leader of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, as treasurer.
With more than 1,800 participants, the Donald E. Stevens Convention Center near O’Hare Airport in Chicago was flooded with enthusiastic United Methodists from every conference across the denomination in the United States and from ten conferences in Africa.
The Rev. Dr. Kim Reisman, the World Director of World Methodist Evangelism, called upon the gathering to find strength in the global church’s witness. “I believe the Wesleyan Covenant Association is a place where we can be encouraged to follow the lead of those beyond the United States and begin rooting ourselves in the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can move beyond self-reliance, and boldly claim, or reclaim, the Trinitarian shape of Wesleyan life and witness.”
Chicago Statement. Through a “Chicago Statement” that was affirmed by a standing ovation and cheers, the group asked the Council of Bishops to “swiftly name the members” of the Commission on the Way Forward and “approve the call for a special General Conference in early 2018 to enable resolution of the conflict that divides us before further harm is done to United Methodist members, congregations, conferences, and ministries.”
“If we are one church, we need to stop acting like two churches,” said the Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, pastor of a multi-site United Methodist congregation around Geneseo, Illinois, in presenting the statement. “If we are two churches, we need to stop pretending we are one. I say these things as someone who has worked passionately for the cause of church unity over the past few years.”
In the midst of dissension and uncertainty within United Methodism, leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association say the group was formed in order to bring a unifying voice of hope and encouragement to evangelicals and traditionalists as they face the future.
“What unites us is that we long to be part of a mighty movement that God uses to change the world,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, pastor of adult discipleship at The Woodlands (Texas) United Methodist Church, during his message to the group. “We did not join the United Methodist Church to debate what the Bible has made clear. We did not enter the ministry to save the church. We are Methodists because we want to be part of a church that God would use to save the world.”
“We don’t know what the future will bring,” said Renfroe, who is also president and publisher of Good News. “We are not here to promote schism. But we are not here to be naïve either. Change is coming to the United Methodist Church. We all know that. The bishops know that and many have said so publicly.”
The Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology (United Methodist) in Liberia, reminded the group about the importance of choosing the right way when two divergent paths are presented at a crossroad. “The only sustainable path to global unity of the people called United Methodist is total submission and loyalty to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and an exclusive obedience to the Word of God as primary authority for faith and Christian living,” said Kulah. “While we live within diverse cultures and religious worldviews, it is important that we love and embrace everyone, but we must continually live within God’s parameter of grace defined by Scripture.”
Light of the world. The temptation to accommodate to the values of the prevailing culture has been a struggle for the Church since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, observed the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson in his presentation. “The Church was not meant to adhere to the values of the world. The Church was not meant to be the handmaiden of the culture,” said Thompson, Wesleyan scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “The Church was rather called to be the ‘light of the world,’ the ‘city built on the hill,’ and the ‘lamp upon the lampstand’ giving light to the darkness beyond (Matthew 5:14-15)!
“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” Thompson continued. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”
In his opening sermon, the Rev. Kenneth Levingston, senior minister of Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Houston, said that the “core of our struggle” is when men, women, and the Church attempt to put other things in God’s rightful place. Levingston said that modern false gods include: salvation without sacrifice, sanctification without submission, mercy and grace without truth and transformation, social holiness without Scripture, and forgiveness without faithfulness.
Reunion of the rescued. The Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel of Asbury Theological Seminary, told the story of the special reunions conducted by the 155 survivors of flight 1549 that was forced to land on the icy waters of the Hudson River in January of 2009. On that day, all the ferryboats in the area were deputized into rescue boats in order to save the passengers who were perched precariously along the sinking plane’s massive wings. The event is known as the “Miracle on Hudson” and the reunions are dubbed “Celebrations of Life.”
LaGrone called the WCA Chicago gathering a “reunion of the rescued.” She reminded the participants that their unified purpose can be found because “together we were saved, together we find hope in our shared faith, and so together we stand. We were, all of us, sinking deep in sin, and Jesus rescued us.”
“We meet not just to find a way forward, but to remember how we found The Way, the Truth, and the Life in the first place,” said LaGrone. “And to remember that to fully know life is not just to be rescued from something, but to be rescued for something. To become the rescued and transformed means to be those intent on the rescue and transformation of others.”
Appealing to the future. Wesleyan Covenant Association leaders announced during the afternoon session that they had run out of membership forms and encouraged participants to sign-up online (wesleyancovenant.org). Two young clergypersons appealed to the future of the church in asking participants to join the association.
“It’s not often that you get to be part of history,” said the Rev. Ryan Barnett, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Kerrville, Texas. “No matter how you think things are going to turn out in the United Methodist Church, there is no question that they will be different for my son than they were for my parents.”
“Today, I’m joining the WCA because I’m desperate for renewal within the church and revival within the world,” said the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners. “I want to support my brothers and sisters in conferences that ostracize them or violate our global covenant. I’m joining the WCA because I believe it will be a vibrant, Spirit-filled Wesleyan voice within the world. Finally, I’m joining the WCA because I desire to be in covenant with brothers and sisters who seek to know, love, and honor God in all they do.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
The Rev. Kenneth Levingston from Houston addressed the Wesleyan Covenant Association. Photo by Steve Beard.
By Kenneth Levingston-
When I was asked by members of my congregation what I expected to occur at the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Chicago, I told them that I expected God to show up and do something with us that we could not have imagined or dreamed of or hoped for. We are given the opportunity to let people know that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still walks the earth. And to let the world know that the God who’s able to go down to Egypt and bring people out of bondage is still the same God who’s ready to redeem, and restore, and renew every life, every situation.
I’m not a genetic Methodist. I don’t have any preachers in the family, I’m not a cradle Methodist. I was raised in a little Baptist Church in Northern Louisiana where there was not a single African American Methodist church in town. But in that Sunday school class at Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, those ladies told me that God created the heavens and the earth. They didn’t have the language but they told me that the whole world was in God’s hands and that he loved all people.
It didn’t matter whether you were red, yellow, black, or white but that God loved everybody and that God had a plan for our lives. It was there that those ladies in Sunday school told me that not only did God create everything but that he is a delivering God. They told me that he delivered Noah from the flood, that he delivered the children Israel from their bondage, and that God will deliver us from our sin. I was taught that God would deliver me from that thing that gets on the inside of me, that makes me want to do what I know God had not called me to do, to live in ways that are not pleasing, and that the only way to be delivered was to trust in God.
One day I was playing street football in the Fifth Ward in Houston and a 1977 green Lincoln Continental stopped where we were playing and the window rolled down. A woman said, “We’re having vacation Bible school at the church around the corner. I want you boys to come.” She came back the next day and said, “It starts tonight, are you coming?”
I went to Brooks Chapel United Methodist Church and I never left because those people believed Jesus was Lord of everything. They believed that the word of God was true, not only for them but for the entire world, for all places and all times.
At age 18, I didn’t know about John Wesley, never heard about a warm experience of the heart but when I heard about it, it resonated with me! I believed that something has to happen on the inside if anything is gonna happen on the outside; and if anything is gonna happen on the outside we must be convinced in our heart and soul that Jesus is alive.
Who is your God? Let me call your attention to Exodus 20 because when we really get down to it, our current circumstance is really about “who is your God?” Oh we can dress it up and all sound theological and epistemological, but when you get right down to it, it’s about who is your God and will you have “any other gods before me.” God says to the children of Israel, “I am the Lord your God. I want you to know who I am.” It’s the same question Moses asks: “Who will I tell them is sending me when I go down to have a meeting with Pharaoh?” God says, “Tell him that I Am that I Am, that ought to be enough. And if he won’t let you go I’ll visit him about ten times and on the tenth time he’ll know what I Am means.”
I’m talking about a God who declares himself to be everything that we need, in every generation, and every circumstance. This is the same God who Jesus says, “before Abraham was, I am.” There is no other name given to men under heaven by which you can be saved. There’s just one name and his name is Jesus and he is the living, true God.
There are so many competing gods and so many competing interests. It’s not enough to be good, it’s not enough to be kind, it’s not enough to be caring, it’s not enough to be a nice person.
Everybody wants to be saved. If you’re drowning, it doesn’t matter to you who throws the rope in. If I’m drowning, I don’t care if the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan throws that rope in. I grab the rope until I get to the dry land. But when I get there, I say, “I can’t follow you Mr. Wizard.”
You see, there are those who want God to save them, but they don’t want to follow him, don’t want to serve him. You can’t be saved by God and then live any way you want to live, talk anyway you want to talk, act any way you want to act.
What is really our issue is that we’ve set up a multiplicity of gods because our humanity is prone to setting up our own god. In the third chapter of Genesis, God has spent time with Adam and Eve and he has told them his will for their lives and then the serpent shows up and says, “What did God tell you?” It’s not that we don’t know what God has said, it’s that we don’t agree with what God said. We don’t like what God has said. It doesn’t make us feel comfortable in our skin.
Let me say it another way: My personal experience does not align with what God’s word says, therefore, I’ll make my personal experience my god. The text says, “what did God say to you?” Well, God’s word says, “don’t touch the tree.” You’d think that would be enough. Just don’t touch the tree. But Satan says, “You know why God told you that? Because the moment you do, you will be like God. You will be your own god. You’ll be able to make your own decisions. You’ll be able to live independently of God.” So the question is whether or not we will have other gods besides the God revealed to us in the Holy Scripture.
I’m convinced that there is only one God. Anything else that calls for my allegiance or calls for my loyalty is a false god. Sometimes it doesn’t look like a false god, it looks nice. After all, it’s dressed up in love, mercy, and grace. It’s dripping with “community” and “relationship.”
Do not bow. In Daniel 3, Nebuchadnezzar sets up a 90 foot god, nine foot wide, and said, “Every time you hear the music, every time you hear the praise, I want you to bow down to this god because it’s just saying that you’re a part of the team, that you’re part of the culture in which you find yourself.” There were three boys – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – and they wore the clothes of the culture, they even worked in the places of employment of the culture, but they couldn’t bow down to another god. It was as if they said, “I can work with you, I can barbeque with you, but I can’t bow down with you. I can’t bow down unless we’re talking about the true and living God.”
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego said, “King may you live forever, bless you and your mama and all your kinfolk, but I can’t bow down because there is no other God but the living God of Israel.” You remember the story. The king says, “How dare you stand up and tell me there’s another god? How dare you stand up and tell me there’s an absolute truth other than my truth? I’ll throw you in the fire.” They say, “King, we don’t know what our God will do, but I sure know what he can do. You can put me in the fire but my God can keep me.”
Friends, we have to become convinced that in this heated time the God we serve is able to keep us. That the God we serve is greater than our fear, greater than our anxiety. Most people think this is a story about the Hebrew boys but this is really about God. God will get in the fire with you. God will deliver us.
There are many false gods.
• Salvation without sacrifice. The idea that we’re saved and it’s a free gift of God and that we have no response to the salvation. Let me tell you, God takes my sin seriously. He died for my sin. He died because I’m a sinner and could not save myself. Salvation must be followed with a willingness to sacrifice for the one who saved you.
• Sanctification without submission. There are those that want to be filled with the Holy Ghost but will not submit to the word of God, the will of God, will not submit to the clear teaching of scripture.
• Mercy and grace without truth and transformation. Everybody wants to talk about mercy and grace. I love mercy and grace. They follow us, but mercy without truth? Grace without transformation? Mercy and grace without justice are an illusion. It’s a temporary, at best, it’s an idol. I love mercy, but mercy didn’t save me, his blood saved me. And mercy is the agent used.
• Social holiness without scripture.
• Forgiveness without faithfulness. I’m alright, you’re alright, everybody’s okay. Let’s just get together in a circle and sing kumbaya, everybody feel good when they leave. Let me tell you, I need some forgiving. I know my sins. They are ever before me. I need to be forgiven by a God who says to me, “Kenneth, you are forgiven. Now will you live faithfully for me? Will you go out and proclaim that Jesus lives?”
God says, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You must have no other gods before me.” Now, I’m suspicious by nature. I don’t trust myself because I’ve found out that when I trust me, God always agrees with me. I’ve learned that I’m not trustworthy, that I have to keep turning back to the Word to lead me and guide me in my life and in my decisions.
Trust God. So finally, let me take you back to that little Sunday school class in Louisiana, in that little neighborhood. Here’s what I remember those mothers saying and I found it in Ecclesiastes 12: “Now everything has been heard. Here is the conclusion of the matter. Reverence God and keep his commandments.”
Oh, there are things I don’t understand, but I trust God so much. There are things I can’t put my mind around, but I trust God so much. There are things that don’t make sense to my carnal mind, I can’t figure it out intellectually but I keep finding it in God’s word. And I trust God enough that God will make his word plain if not in my lifetime, then in the next lifetime. And so I just keep on trusting God. And keep on praising him. I keep on magnifying him. I keep on lifting up his name. Because I’ve learned that I can trust him.
I pray that God will raise up some more Shadrachs, Meshachs, and Abednegos. I believe he will raise up some Sheniquas, some Michelles, and some Elisias. I believe he will raise some men and women who will stand up and say, “God, I draw the line here. Your word is real, your word is alive. You are my God. I will not bow down, I will not give up, I will not give in. You are an awesome God, you are a mighty God. I want my name to be on the list of the faithful. I want to join Abel, I want to join Enoch, I want to join Noah, I want to join Abraham, I want to join Moses and Joseph and Hannah and I want my name on the list.”
The same God who spoke in Exodus chapter 20 is the same God speaking in Chicago. I’m talking about a God who will make things happen if we’re willing to submit ourselves and say, “There is no other God, I will not bow down.”
Kenneth Levingston is the senior pastor of Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Houston. He is the president of the Houston Area Black Methodists for Church Renewal and has represented the Texas Annual Conference as a delegate to the General Conference. This article is adapted from Rev. Levingston’s address at the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Chicago on October 7, 2016.
The Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway addresses the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Chicago. Photo by Steve Beard.
By Jeff Greenway-
God is doing a new thing among those of us who claim the historic, orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan expression of our faith. With the Wesleyan Covenant Association, we are planting seeds today — that when full grown — will bear the fruit of a vital Wesleyan witness and a dynamic Spirit-filled Methodism across the globe.
The various renewal groups within United Methodism have served an important purpose in the history of our denomination — a purpose they will continue to perform as we journey through this season of uncertainty toward what’s next. They placed a stake in the ground that has kept orthodoxy rooted in our tradition. It has not always been easy and not everyone has appreciated their role and function. However, they have done us a great service.
Most of us hold onto the stake that has been placed in the ground at the center of historic, orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan Christianity. We share a similar view of the nature and role of Scripture as has been embraced by the mainstream of Christianity for 2,000 years. We embrace a Wesleyan understanding of salvation that begins to work itself out in holiness of heart and life — and social justice that is connected to personal holiness.
If you were to stretch out a rubber band from orthodoxy’s center point, it would help visualize a stressed and stretched band of relationship called United Methodism — and our connection to another group of folks with whom we share increasingly little in common. We read the same Bible, we pledge to support the same Discipline, and we quote from the same Wesley sermons but we are talking about very different expressions of faith.
Some of us have had it and are ready to bolt. This group sees large segments of our denomination that are living in deliberate breach of covenant and open rebellion against our polity. We are confused about why we are not separating ourselves from those who have broken covenant. Trust has been irreparably breached and we are ready to move on because we see no integrity across the whole of the Connection.
Others have also had it, but also understand that orthodox, traditionalist, Wesleyans are in a positon to help shape what comes next. This group believes that the rubber band has not been stretched so far that the core of the UM Church cannot be pulled back to the center point. We want to give our denomination one last opportunity to right itself — and are prayerfully waiting for the bishops’ Commission to do its work.
That doesn’t mean we don’t have convictions. We believe it is imperative for the Commission to propose a plan that calls for accountability and integrity to our covenant, and restores the good order of our church’s polity. If the Commission determines no such a plan is possible, then we believe it should prepare a plan of separation that honors the consciences of all the people of the church and allows them to go forward in peace and good will. Any plan that requires traditionalist, orthodox, Wesleyan United Methodists to compromise our principles and understanding of Scripture — or that allows for differences in our practices, including any “local option” around ordination and marriage — will not be acceptable to most evangelicals.
The Wesleyan Covenant Association is trying to appeal to both of those perspectives and others in between. While we may be of varying opinions about strategy, I believe we are one in heart, one in love for Jesus Christ, one in commitment to the essential, orthodox doctrines and foundational moral teachings of the Christian faith, and one in our passion to proclaim salvation in Jesus Christ and spread Scriptural holiness across the world.
Change is coming. While we all have opinions, none of us really knows what it will look like. Nevertheless, we can agree that the church that brought us here is not the church that will take us into the future.
This is a crucial time for the formation of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. We need to hang together during this “in between” season as we live into what’s next.
We are a gathering of like-minded, warm-hearted, Jesus-loving, Spirit-filled, Wesleyan, evangelical, orthodox, covenant-keeping Christians who love the church and are committing to be connected together in mission. We are an association of churches, clergy, and laity committed to advancing vibrant, scriptural Christianity within Methodism. We are coming together to support, network, and encourage each other as we live into the Next for our movement.
Jeff Greenway is the lead pastor of Reynoldsburg (Ohio) United Methodist Church and chairperson of the Wesleyan Covenant Association council. This article is adapted from Dr. Greenway’s remarks at the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Chicago on October 7, 2016.
Statue of Constantine in York, England.
By Andrew Thompson-
The people called Methodists stand at a turning point in their history. It is time, once and for all, to determine whether we will “hold fast” to the “doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which [we] first set out,” or whether we will rather “only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism.”).
This turning point is not a crisis point but rather an opportunity. And that means that we stand also at the cusp of a new frontier. It’s the frontier that the Church has always been called to cross into, yet rarely has had the courage. The land that lies beyond it is a land traversed solely by faith — for it is the land of faith, a true and wholehearted faith in God that does not rely on the crutch of surrounding culture.
To understand the frontier we are being called to venture into, a small amount of historical perspective is needed. This is the case for the history of the Methodist movement, but also perhaps for the history of the Church as a whole.
Constantinian fall. Before his crucifixion, Jesus warned his disciples about the kind of reception that awaited them in the world. He told them of the way they would be reviled, of the way they would be persecuted, and of the way they would be challenged. “I have said this to you,” Jesus says, “So that in me you may have peace.” Then he adds: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage. I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).
This basic antagonism between Church and culture was assumed by early Christians to be the norm for those called to carry the gospel of life into a world that knew only death. The Church had the word of Christ through the teaching of the apostles. It had the guiding strength of the Holy Spirit. No matter what the wider world might throw at it, the Church knew it had enough.
Things began to change in the 4th century A.D., when the Emperor Constantine came to believe not only that the power of Christ had given him victory in war, but also that the Christian Church could serve as a vehicle for cultural and political unification throughout the Roman Empire. So Constantine began to favor the Church politically with patronage. With the endorsement of the Empire’s ruler, the Empire’s citizens began to convert to Christianity en masse.
This remarkable change in the Church’s fortunes has been interpreted in widely different ways throughout history. On the one hand, some have seen it as a remarkable act of providence — the Church, finally free from lethal persecution, could set about to evangelize the whole world more effectively. On the other hand, others have seen Constantine’s endorsement of the Christian faith much differently. For if “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (as Tertullian put it), then the end of all persecution, the lowering of moral standards in the church, and a sharp increase in the ease of conversion — all of which happened in the 4th century — could only mean that the Church’s faith would be greatly diluted and its zeal reduced from burning hot to nothing more than lukewarm.
From the late 1740s to the 1780s, Methodism’s founder John Wesley again and again stated his belief that Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity in the 4th century had disastrous consequences for the Church. As he puts it in the 1783 sermon, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” the “grand blow which was struck at the very root of that humble, gentle, patient love, which is the fulfilling of the Christian law, the whole essence of true religion, was struck in the fourth century by Constantine the Great, when he called himself a Christian, and poured in a flood of riches, honors, and power upon the Christians.”
Why the pointed indictment of Constantine? Because in bestowing the imperial blessing upon the Church, the Roman emperor set the train of events in motion that would subject the Church to a process of acculturation. Indeed, the period between the so-called conversion of Constantine until the fall of the Western Roman Empire is often called by historians that of the “Imperial Church.” And that title is fitting, in that the Church came to take on a status and role within the Empire that had previously been foreign to it. We would like to think that the culture became Christianized as a result of Constantine, but the reality is much more that the Church became acculturated.
So what do zealous Christians do in such a situation? For many such Christians during the period of the Imperial Church, the only viable option was the “white martyrdom” of monastic practice. Starting in Egypt and eventually spreading to the West, men and women alike retreated from what they saw as a corrupt society and corrupt Church so that they could live in small communities where prayer, the study of Scripture, and service were the hallmarks of daily life.
Protestants don’t often give this movement the credit it deserves; yet in the centuries following the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire, it was monastic communities that preserved learning, gave birth to great missionary efforts, and kept a vital expression of daily discipleship alive during some of Western Civilization’s most difficult times.
Wesley’s Struggle with Constantine. The story of acculturation, decline, and renewal hasn’t only happened once. It has been, to greater and lesser degrees, repeated time and again over the centuries. John Wesley’s own interest in Constantine was certainly more than just academic; he rather took the time to comment upon Constantine because he believed he was dealing with the consequences of that long-dead emperor’s actions in his own day.
Think about the connections: the Church of England in Wesley’s day was an “established” Church, meaning that it was officially an arm of the English government (with the reigning monarch as its head). Unless you tried very hard to join a dissenting group, you would automatically become a part of the Church of England by virtue of your birth within the kingdom and your baptism in your local parish church. Discipline was lax; faith was lukewarm. All these are features of church life that can be traced to changes begun under Constantine’s influence.
It was in the midst of the English Church’s own struggle with Constantinian Christianity that God raised up the people called Methodists — not exactly to the white martyrdom of the ancient monks, but instead to a deeply evangelical parachurch movement that aimed (in Wesley’s words) to “reform the nation, and in particular the Church, [and] to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (Large Minutes of 1763). When giving advice to the junior preachers of the movement, Wesley told them, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work” (Large Minutes of 1763). There was a gospel of salvation to be preached! A life of holiness to be lived! There were lost sheep to be gathered, and a mission to be pursued in the world!
Wesley cared about Constantine because he knew he had to struggle against what Constantine represented in the Church’s life. The Church was not meant to adhere to the values of the world. The Church was not meant to be the handmaiden of the culture. The Church was rather called to be the “light of the world,” the “city built on the hill,” and the “lamp upon the lampstand” giving light to the darkness beyond (Matthew 5:14-15)!
Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would—in a process that had happened many times over the centuries—be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog. He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self. Indeed, he feared he was seeing that very process happening already in the 1780s, during the last decade of his life.
Learning from the Past. Although we are neither in Constantine’s 4th century nor Wesley’s 18th, we are not immune from the forces that shaped both those other eras. For one, it was early American Methodism under Bishop Francis Asbury and his successors that largely inherited the Wesleyan mission during the first half-century after the Methodist Episcopal Church was established in 1784. Yet the American Methodists — as they grew in number, in wealth, and in social stature — found that their engagement with culture, and their desire to transform culture, left them vulnerable to the same process of acculturation that previous movements had experienced. The historian John Wigger has described Methodism’s shift between the 1780s and the 1840s as moving from counterculture, to existing as a subculture, to becoming the predominant culture in American society.
The Methodists, who numbered about 58,000 in 1790, made up just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. Yet by 1850 they numbered over 1.2 million people — amounting to over 1,900 percent growth over that span. In Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture, the historian Nathan Hatch calls it a “virtual miracle of growth” and notes that by 1850 the Methodists were “far and away the largest religious body in the nation and the most extensive national institution other than the Federal government.”
This is the point where modern-day Methodists usually smile to themselves and think about the greatness of our spiritual forebearers. And to be fair, much of the growth during this period was the result of powerful preaching and powerful communities where men and women learned to live into the joy of holiness of heart and life. Yet there is an underside to this story as well, and it is seen in the way that — especially after about 1830 or so — increasingly lax membership standards, the decline of the class meeting, and the compromise on slavery were the fruits reaped by a Church that became fascinated, or even obsessed, with cultural acceptance and influence.
It’s a story that can be told in a thousand different ways, so let me tell it with just one simple illustration drawn from John Wigger’s Taking Heaven by Storm: The middle third of the 19th century was the great time of struggle for the soul of American Methodism. Old timers who came to be known as “croakers” advocated for a return to the old ways of Wesleyan simplicity and discipline — an approach to engaging culture that insisted that sinners must convert in order for society to be changed rather than thinking that overlaying a paper-thin Christian piety on a largely heathen culture would suffice.
George Cookman was a prominent Methodist who had no patience for the croakers who believed Methodism was becoming more worldly and more indulgent. Cookman wanted to see Methodism and Methodists as leaders of society. The last thing he wanted was to have to endure the old-timers who kept fighting for an out-of-date evangelical zeal and an uncouth dedication to living lives of holiness before God. Writing in the Christian Advocate and Journal in 1841, Cookman exclaimed, “I trust, sir, that Methodism will … keep pace with the spirit of the age.”
Well, what exactly is the spirit of the age? Forgive me, but that doesn’t sound like the same thing as the Holy Spirit. It sounds rather like something Constantine might approve of. And for Methodists to be committed to that as their standard seems to lead inevitably and inexorably to the kind of theological orientation that Christian ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr once described in The Kingdom of God in America as the ethos of liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
If your standard is the “spirit of the age,” then considerations like the sovereignty of God, or the moral law of Christ, or the atoning sacrifice of the cross — these are just embarrassing relics best swept under the rug in the name of “progress.” And when your engagement with culture has moved from decidedly countercultural to enthusiastically pro-culture — that is, when your Church’s life has so given in to culture that it takes its lead from culture rather than embracing that type of life not “conformed to the ways of this world” (Romans 12:2), then you are no longer engaging the culture at all. The culture is simply what you have become.
Into a New Day. As the Wesleyan Covenant Association takes shape over the months and years to come, one of the things it would behoove us to remember is that what it means to be “Wesleyan” and what it means to be “Methodist” are no longer the same thing. Once, indeed, they were, but that has not been the case for a long time.
“Wesleyan” as a label has the ability to retain its original sense because there is a personal history and a body of writing which we can apply to it. “Methodism,” though it was once the label embraced by those who practiced a Wesleyan spirituality and discipline, has evolved over almost three centuries to mean everything and nothing. So if we want to be Methodists as Methodists once were, we have a great deal of work to do in terms of reclaiming, renewing, and rebuilding that identity.
It won’t be easy work. But we can take heart in the sure knowledge that God will never abandon his Church. Whenever the Church becomes stagnant or self-absorbed, God works to bring about a new day. That is the direction of the gospel! It is truly good news for sinners such as ourselves. And if we will repent, then God will surely come to us anew with the transforming power of his grace. God will not allow his faithful children to remain in a place of despair.
He did not leave Joseph in the dungeon. He did not leave the Hebrews in slavery. He did not leave Jonah in the belly of the whale. He did not leave Daniel in the lion’s den. And God most certainly did not leave Jesus in the tomb.
We can therefore be sure that he will not leave us in the wilderness in which we find ourselves at present. Now is the time to join hands, and fall to our knees. With prayer and repentance let us seek his will for our lives. And with the boldness we can gain through our faith in Jesus Christ, let us march forward into the into the new day God is bringing us.
Andrew Thompson is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. He also serves as the Wesley Scholar to the Arkansas Conference of The United Methodist Church. Prior to his current appointment, Dr. Thompson was on the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of The Means of Grace (Seedbed). This article is adapted from Dr. Thompson’s address at the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Chicago on October 7, 2016.