The Structure of Things

The Structure of Things

Segment of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam (1511). Public domain.

By Thomas Lambrecht-

As Christians, we believe God created the universe. He created it with a certain structure. That structure is reflected in the physical universe – what we call the laws of physics (and biology). He also created the universe with a certain moral and spiritual structure – what we call the moral law or natural law.

When we reject the physical laws of the universe, we suffer consequences. We cannot defy the laws of gravity and survive. The same is true when we reject the moral and spiritual structure that God created. There, too, we suffer consequences.

I would argue that many of the problems in the world today are because we reject the structure of things that God has placed inherently in his created universe.

The Fall

Christians point back to Genesis 3 for the explanation of much that is wrong with the world today. We call it “The Fall.” It was when the first humans, Adam and Eve, chose to reject God’s structure and choose their own way.

God had said, “You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Genesis 2:17). But the serpent persuaded them with an enticing proposal, “When you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, able to make their own determination about what was good and what was evil. As my pastor pointed out in his sermon on this passage last Sunday, the irony is that Adam and Eve were already like God. They were created in his image. They were made to live forever in fellowship with him. They would have expressed God’s understanding of good and evil by virtue of their continued fellowship with him. But they instead wanted autonomy – to make their own moral framework. In doing so, they rejected God’s structure, the structure that he had placed within all of creation, both morally/spiritually and physically. As a result, the whole structure became warped and spoiled, leading to the experience of sin and evil we witness today.

The Consequences of the Fall

Because Adam and Eve rejected God’s structure, sin and evil permeated the world. No part of the world is untouched by it. No person is untainted by it. This is what we mean by “original sin.” As our Articles of Religion put it, “it is the corruption of the nature of every [person], … whereby [humanity] is very far gone from original righteousness, and of [one’s] own nature inclined to evil, and that continually” (Article VII). We cannot reject the inherent moral/spiritual structure of the universe without consequence.

In the process, Adam and Eve are separated from God, cut off from the daily fellowship that they once enjoyed with him. This is spiritual death, and it is characteristic of all people today.

Adam and Eve were also banished from the Garden of Eden and no longer had access to the tree of life. So they began to physically die. As the generations rolled along, the lifespan of people grew shorter and shorter, until we arrive at the biblical “three score and ten” (Psalm 90:10).

All the sin, evil, death, and spiritual dis-ease we experience is traceable back to the human desire for autonomy from God. We reject the structure of things God has created and end up beating our heads against the brick wall trying establish our own structure in its place.

Manifestations Today

Among many examples, we see this tendency toward human autonomy manifested in our inclination to try to determine on our own when life can begin and when it should end. The U.S. is one of less than a dozen countries in the world that permits abortion up until the time of birth. We ignore the God-given structure that creates new life within a mother’s womb, and we choose to end that life that is made in God’s image.

The reason most abortions are “necessary” is that we have also rejected God’s structure for marriage and family. Waiting for sex within the context and security of marriage is considered ridiculously old-fashioned. Rather than following God’s structure of building a relationship that is finally expressed in marriage and culminated in sex, we opt for pleasure first, relationship and marriage later (if at all). Babies don’t conform to this human-made structure, so unwanted or unplanned pregnancies are terminated, compounding the first rejection of God’s structure by another rejection. This is not to diminish those tragic situations when abortion becomes a medical necessity to save the life of the mother. Even then, however, we are cognizant that we are ending a human life, not removing a blob of cells, and we rightly mourn the loss.

Our desire to be autonomous leads us to contemplate physician-assisted suicide. We want to determine the moment of our own death, especially if we feel we cannot endure living anymore. There are times when people are faced with horrible physical or emotional pain that seems to justify calling an end to the suffering through dying at a time and in a way of our own choosing. We have both a desire and an obligation to extend compassion and mercy to all in those situations. We are compelled to offer help, both medical and psychological, to ease the pain as much as possible. But the answer is not to draw an artificial ending to the gift of life God has given us, violating that life-affirming structure.

We see this tendency toward human autonomy manifested in the attempt to remake gender into a personal and social construct, rather than a God-given gift attached to the physical reality of our bodies. Again, we must be sensitive to the very real psychological distress that some experience in connection with their gender. The answer is not to remake our physical reality to align with our perception of ourselves. Rather, it is to reconnect with the structure of things that God has placed within each person, where body, mind, and spirit align together in a human unity.

Redemption through Christ

Fortunately, God has provided a way out of the morass of human autonomy seeking. He sent his Son Jesus to restore the structure inherent in creation and redeem those caught in the trap of rejecting that structure in favor of their own invention. Coming to Christ for salvation, we voluntarily surrender our own self-will to his lordship. The futile attempts to create our own moral universe and the resulting sin, pain, and harm are forgiven – wiped away in Jesus’ death on the cross. His resurrection reestablishes the deeper logic of the universe under God’s sovereignty. As disciples, our minds and hearts are transformed in keeping with God’s will, not our own (Romans 12:2). Although imperfect in our attempts, we strive to grow in holiness, which is conformity to God’s way. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are changed on the inside, leading to a change in our thinking and actions, demonstrating our allegiance to God’s kingdom.

This is what it means to be a Christian – not just a walk down the aisle to the alter, but a transformed life of discipleship. That is why it is so disheartening at times to see Christians adopting the world’s value structure, rather than God’s. Our modern society values individual autonomy in the extreme. As a result, each person becomes his/her own arbiter of truth. Rather than submitting ourselves to the revelation of God’s structure as found in Scripture and taught by the Church through the centuries, we deem ourselves competent to override the apostles and prophets of Scripture and honored teachers of the Church.

Yet, we do not rest easy as rulers of our own individual kingdoms and supposed masters of our own fate. We become unfocused and distracted in life, running after all the things our world values instead of the “one needful thing” that Mary discovered at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:41-42). In the words of professors Jenna Silber Storey and Benjamin Storey (First Things, May 2021, p. 15), “we suffer from something like the pixelated vision of the fly.” We are drawn in so many directions that our lives are sometimes dissipated in fruitless activity.

To be effective as Christian disciples, we find our focus in Jesus Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). He is the guide to the purpose and meaning of our lives. In his structure, we find true freedom. We can learn the lesson of submission to something and Someone greater than ourselves, finding our place in the God-given structure of the universe. Finding that place – our place – is the fulfillment of God’s intention for us, bringing him glory and saturating us with joy.

The Structure of Things

Distinctions, Differences, and the Future of Methodism

What will the future of Methodism look like? This graphic illustrates just a few of the main differences and distinctives anticipated between The United Methodist Church and the Global Methodist Church (in Formation). Links to the primary documents are found in the article below.

By Thomas Lambrecht

What will the proposed new Global Methodist Church look like? How will it operate? In what ways will it be different from what we have been accustomed to in The United Methodist Church?

These questions weigh on the minds of people who are thinking about the option of aligning with the GM Church after the UM Church’s 2022 General Conference adopts the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation.

Change is difficult for us human beings! We tend to prefer sticking with what we are used to. Of course, the whole reason for forming the GMC is because we believe there are some crucial changes needed in how the UM Church currently operates.

Forming a new denomination essentially from scratch is a difficult and complex undertaking. Most United Methodists have never read the Book of Discipline, and they trust their pastor, district superintendent, and bishop to know how the church is supposed to run. Therefore, comparing provisions in the UM Church’s 800-page Book of Discipline with the GM Church’s much shorter Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline would be a tedious task for most United Methodists.

That is why we have undertaken to produce a comprehensive comparison chart that summarizes the main provisions of the UM Discipline ,the GM Transitional Doctrines and Discipline , and the proposals from the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline. The chart shows how most of the important provisions of church governance are handled in the UM Church compared with how they would be handled in the GM Church.

It is important to keep the three documents clear in our understanding. The Book of Discipline governs how United Methodist conferences and congregations function today. It was adopted by the 2016 General Conference (with a few revisions in 2019) and is the result of an evolutionary process extending back to the very first Discipline in 1808. We do not know what the UM Church’s Book of Discipline will look like after the realignment contemplated by the Protocol is accomplished, but we know that significant changes to the church’s moral teachings have been proposed.

The Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline will govern how the GM Church functions from its inception until its convening General Conference meets (an approximately one- to two-year period). It borrows some features from the UM Discipline and some ideas from the WCA’s draft Book of Doctrines and Discipline. It was drafted by a three-person writing team and then amended and approved by the Transitional Leadership Council, which is the governing body for the GM Church from now through the transition until the convening General Conference.

The Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline fleshes out in greater detail than the WCA draft book some of the critical elements necessary to have the denomination running. It elaborates transitional provisions that would help individuals, clergy, congregations, and conferences move into the GM Church. However, anything that was not necessary for the transitional period – such as the manner of selecting and appointing bishops – has been left for the convening General Conference to decide.

In order to minimize the amount of change that congregations would experience during the transitional period, the Transitional Leadership Council sought to maintain continuity with the current UM Discipline where it made sense – such as in the appointment process for clergy to churches (although enhanced consultation with congregations will be required). At the same time, some critically important reforms – such as shortening the timeline for candidacy to ordained ministry – were incorporated in the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline as essential elements of the new church and features that would set the direction of the denomination.

Ultimately, the GM Church’s convening General Conference, composed of delegates elected globally from among those who align with the new church, will have the authority to formally adopt a new, more permanent Book of Doctrines and Discipline. It will undoubtedly build as a starting point upon the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline. The WCA’s recommendations and other ideas laity and clergy wish to propose will be considered and potentially adopted by the General Conference. Notably, WCA recommendations not in the transitional book would not take effect unless adopted by the convening General Conference. However, they are an important indicator of the current thinking of denominational leaders.

The comparison chart is meant to be an easy way to compare how the GM Church will function during the transition and give an indication of some of the directions envisioned for its future. The chart may be reproduced and shared freely. Questions and feedback are welcome and can be sent to info@globalmethodist.org.

Some highlights from the chart, specifically referring to the GM Church’s transitional period:

  • Doctrine– The doctrinal standards will stay the same, with the addition of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and bishops and clergy will be expected to promote and defend the doctrines of the church.
  • Social Issues– Church statements would require a 75 percent vote and would be binding on clergy and congregations (which implies there will be fewer and more general statements). Social witness in the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline is two pages, compared with over 930 pages in the UM Discipline and Book of Resolutions.
  • Local Church Membership Categories– Similar to the UM Church.
  • Local Church Organizational Structure – Flexible structures allowed to accomplish the necessary administrative tasks.
  • Connectional Funding (Apportionments)– 1.5 percent of local church income for general church work, 5-10 percent for annual conference, including the bishop’s salary and expenses.
  • Trust Clause– Local church owns its property (no trust clause). Local churches with pension liability would remain liable if the church disaffiliates.
  • Local Church Disaffiliation– Would allow for involuntary disaffiliation if necessary for churches teaching doctrines or engaging in practices contrary to the GM Book of Doctrines and Discipline. Voluntary disaffiliation possible by majority vote of the congregation. No payments required, except pension liabilities where applicable, secured by a lien on the property.
  • Certified Laity in Ministry – Combines all types into one category called certified lay ministers, who can specialize to serve in any of the previous areas (e.g., lay speakers, lay servants, deaconesses, etc.).
  • Orders of Ministry – Order of deacon contains both permanent deacons and those going on to elder’s orders.
  • Length of Candidacy for Ordained Ministry– Six months to three years.
  • Educational Requirements for Deacons– Five or six prescribed courses before ordination and four or five courses thereafter.
  • Educational Requirements for Elders – Six prescribed courses before ordination and four courses thereafter.
  • Licensed Local Pastors (non-ordained)– Grandfathered in, but transitioned to ordained Deacon or Elder.
  • Funding for Theological Education– Theological Education Fund to make loans to students that are forgivable (20 percent for each year of service to the church).
  • Retirement for Bishops and Clergy– No mandatory retirement, clergy may choose senior status. Senior clergy not under appointment are annual conference members with voice and vote for seven years. Thereafter, members with voice only.
  • Election and Assignment of Bishops– Election process to be determined. Term limits envisioned, perhaps twelve years. Current UM bishops who join the GM Church will continue to serve. Annual conferences without a bishop would have a president pro tempore assigned for the transitional period.
  • Appointment Process– Same as UM Church, with enhanced consultation with clergy and local church. Bishops must give a written rationale for appointing a pastor against the wishes of the congregation. Current appointments maintained where possible during transition.
  • Guaranteed Appointment– No guaranteed appointment. Bishop must give written rationale for not appointing a clergyperson.
  • General Church Governance– Transitional Leadership Council serves as the governing body until the convening General Conference with globally elected delegates.
  • General Church Agencies– None mandated. Five transitional commissions suggested (compared with 15 UM agencies).
  • Jurisdictions or Central Conferences– Optional, may or may not be formed in a particular area.
  • Adaptability of the Discipline– Provisions of the Book of Doctrines and Discipline would apply equally to all geographic areas of the church unless specified. This implies provisions will be more general and consider the global context before being adopted.
  • Annual Conference Agencies– Six agencies required, with additional ones at the discretion of the annual conference (compared with 25+ in the UM Church).
  • Clergy Accountability– Similar to the UM Church complaint process, with stricter timelines and less discretion in dismissing complaints. Laity would be voting members of committee on investigation.
  • Bishops’ Accountability– Accountable to Transitional Leadership Committee, global committee on investigation, and global trial court if needed. Laity would be voting members of the committee on investigation.
  • Many more details, as well as the WCA’s proposals following the transitional period, can be found in the chart linked above.

My wife is a marriage and family therapist. One of her favorite questions to provoke dialog is, “How are things changing and how are they remaining the same?” That question is a fitting one to ask, as we head into a key few years of decision-making ahead. Hopefully, this chart can help provide some of the answers.

 

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

The Structure of Things

The Spirituality of Work

Photo Courtesy of Shutterstock.

By Thomas Lambrecht – 

Labor Day is a holiday in honor of work. Too often, Christians have adopted a secular understanding of work. We view it either as drudgery or as an idol to which we devote all our time and energy. But work is a spiritual endeavor. We are to approach our work as we do everything else in life – under the lordship of Jesus Christ. How would Jesus have us view work? How would Jesus want us to function at work?

The first thing to understand is that work is part of God’s plan for us. When God created us, he gave us work to do. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15). Humanity is given the gift of cultivating the beautiful world in which we live, improving and developing it according to the creativity God bestowed on us. And we are to do so in a way that cares for and preserves the beauty of God’s world that he has entrusted to us.

“For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10). These “good works” are not just what we traditionally think of as works of mercy or kindness toward others, but includes all the work we do. Everything we do ought to be working for the good of others.

Even Jesus worked, both as a carpenter with his father, and then when he went about his heavenly father’s business. He said, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working. … For the works that the Father has given me to finish – the very works that I am doing – testify that the Father has sent me” (John 5:17, 36).

Working is not a result of the Fall of Genesis 3, where humanity rebelled against God, but is an inherent part of being human, as God designed us.

Therefore, we ought to pursue our work, whether as a stay-a-home parent, an executive, a plumber, a teacher, or whatever we do, as a part of God’s calling on our life. The word “vocation” means “calling.” Our work is what God has called us to do with our lives, our vocation. It does not have to relate to church or religious work. Any work that we do can be an expression of God’s calling on our life and a demonstration of our faith.

Further, our work can be an expression of our gifts and personality. Our temperament, talents, and life experience suit us for certain kinds of work, and the way we do our work can also express who we are. This, too, is part of what it means to see work as a vocation.

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, gives us some practical teaching on a theology of work in his sermon, The Use of Money. He fleshes out some implications of owning Jesus as Lord of our work life.

Governing What Work We Do

The first consideration is to choose work that honors God. Again, that does not limit our work to religious or charitable work. Any work that we do that makes life better for others is a work that honors God.

Wesley reminds us “we may not engage or continue in any sinful trade, any that is contrary to the law of God, or of our country.” In Wesley’s day, that was engaging in smuggling and black market trading that was rampant as a way to avoid paying customs duties on imported goods. In our own day, there are any number of lines of work that are either unethical, illegal, or immoral, which are therefore prohibited to the Christian. As Wesley puts it, anything that we cannot do “without cheating or lying, or conformity to some custom which is not consistent with a good conscience” is off-limits to Christians.

Wesley further teaches that we ought not to engage in work at the expense of our life or our health. The gift of our life is too precious to forfeit for the sake of earning a living. He extends that caution to “any business which necessarily deprives us of proper seasons for food and sleep in such a proportion as our nature requires.” While there are some lines of work that are inherently unhealthy and dangerous to life – coal mining, for example – there are other lines of work that might only be unhealthy for a person with a weak constitution. I could never be a dock worker! So the decision on whether a particular job is too injurious to our health might be an individual decision.

This acknowledgement brings up the special case of people serving in the military or as police or fire fighters. These are dangerous and potentially unhealthy. But they are undertaken specifically to help others in a sacrificial way. Just as Jesus laid down his life for us, there are those who willingly risk life and limb to serve and protect the safety of others. This is a laudable exception to Wesley’s rule.

It should go without saying that any work that harms others is something we ought not pursue. Wesley was against the manufacture and sale of “spirituous liquor” – alcoholic beverages that were more potent than wine or beer. This aversion was because he saw the daily consequences of addiction to cheap gin played out on the streets and communities of England. Perhaps in our time this would refer to the tobacco industry and certainly to the illegal drug trade. A more subtle example for Wesley was doctors who prolonged the illnesses of their patients in order to collect more fees. Payday lenders who charge exorbitant interest today might fit into that category.

At any rate, it is important to assess our career or job choices in light of whether we can engage in them while being consistent with our Christian values. The One who feeds the birds of the air and clothes the flowers of the field will surely provide for us through a type of work that honors him and is beneficial to others.

Governing How We Work

Once having chosen our work and obtained a job, we are called to do our work in a way that glorifies God, as well. It helps if we can see our work as of eternal significance. How is your job beneficial to others? Maybe it is making a product that will make others’ lives better. Maybe it is creating a thing of beauty for others to enjoy. Maybe it is providing a service that helps others live a better life. Finding the transcendent goal in what we are doing, so that we are working for more than just a paycheck, enables us to carry out our work with a sense of purpose and meaning.

Finding that transcendent purpose in our particular work is linked to the idea that we work not for ourselves or for an earthly boss, but for our heavenly Father. “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).

The Old Testament Teacher writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Our diligence and effort reflect well upon the fact that we are Christians and is part of our personal witness for our faith. Part of that diligence in work is self-improvement. Wesley says, “You should be continually learning from the experience of others or from your own experience, reading, and reflection, to do everything you have to do better today than you did yesterday.”

At the same time, we need to pursue work-life balance. Working seven days a week or being available to our employer 24 hours a day (except in case of emergency) is unhealthy and unsustainable. Our work should not harm our family life or get in the way of our relationships with our spouse or children.

Love and concern for others ought to guide how we treat customers and co-workers. Our contact with them makes them our neighbors, whom we are to love as we love ourselves. This means acting toward them with honesty and integrity, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and striving to be an encouragement rather than a negative influence on their day. 

We cannot go wrong in applying the words of Paul, “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. … It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (I Corinthians 13:4-7). Treating others with love in our work environment will not only reflect Christ, it will help change the world.

During college, I attended a church where one of the congregation’s leaders was the manager of the local bookstore. A friend who worked for him told me that, while the man might be a pious leader in the church, he treated his bookstore employees harshly and was stingy with pay. It left a bad taste in my friend’s mouth that a man who claimed to be not only a Christian, but a church leader, did not carry his faith over into his working environment.

Work is the one activity that accounts for the most of our time and effort in life. We have the chance to see our work as an extension of our faith, as a way to make the world a better place, and as a way to witness to others about the goodness of the Lord. This Labor Day, let’s take time to reevaluate if we are doing the right kind of work in the right way to make that vision a reality.

 

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

 

The Structure of Things

Speaking Up for Women

 

Noble Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai is the survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt. Her image was on display in 2016 on the complex of parliament buildings of the European Union in Brussels, Belgium. (Shutterstock).

By Thomas Lambrecht – 

​​​Now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, many are concerned about the future for women and girls in that country.

The Taliban has a history of oppressing women and depriving them of human rights, as well as administering harsh punishments for various offenses against Islamic codes.

The U.S. made a big difference in improving the situation for women and girls in Afghanistan, investing $780 billion in women’s equality projects. As a result, millions of girls were able to attend school. Enrollment at the University of Kabul is 53 percent women, and a similar percentage are participating in advanced degree programs there. Women are starting to work in a significant percentage of government positions.

Will women be able to continue going to school and work outside their homes? Will they be able to go out of the house without an accompanying chaperone? These basic freedoms that we take for granted are now in question there.

“Afghan girls and young women are once again where I have been — in despair over the thought that they might never be allowed to see a classroom or hold a book again,” writes Malala Yousafzai, a survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt, in the New York Times. She is the youngest-ever Noble Peace Prize laureate. “Some members of the Taliban say they will not deny women and girls education or the right to work. But given the Taliban’s history of violently suppressing women’s rights, Afghan women’s fears are real.” 

Christians ought to be in the forefront of speaking up for the equality of women. In the first chapters of Genesis, God creates woman as an equal and complementary partner for man (Genesis 2:18-25). Women and men share equally in being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). One can go so far as to say that the image of God in humanity is incomplete if considered only as one gender.

That is why it is so disheartening to read the perceptions of some non-Christians who believe conservative Christians take the same oppressive attitude toward women that the Taliban do. A recent tweet on Twitter about the Afghan takeover reads, “A true cautionary tale for the U.S., which has our own far religious right dreaming of a theocracy that would impose a particular brand of Christianity, drive women from the workforce and solely into childbirth, and control all politics.”

As Dr. David Watson, academic dean at United Theological Seminary, replied, “I know exactly zero Christians who want to do this.” He is right on point. In all honesty, even those in other Christian denominations that do not permit women to serve in leadership roles in the church do not espouse the kind of “Handmaids Tale” hysteria propped up on Twitter. 

Those of us within the Wesleyan/ Methodist tradition have a seriously different way of thinking and processing our spiritual life together than do some Christians who forbid women from teaching Sunday school or leading Bible studies that contain men. In some denominations, women cannot serve as pastors or priests. And in some denominations, women cannot even vote in a congregational meeting.

I am glad to be part of a tradition that honors the place of women as equal to men, both in the church and in the world. In the new Global Methodist Church, women will play an important role in leadership and ministry, for which I am grateful. While I am aware – and saddened – that there are still United Methodist congregations that refuse to accept the ministry of a female pastor, women’s equality will be a non-negotiable issue in the new denomination.

There are plenty of examples of strong women who served in leadership roles in the Bible. Miriam, Deborah, Esther, and others in the Old Testament. Lydia, Priscilla, Junias (an apostle), and others in the New Testament. Men and women are equally gifted and serving as prophets in the Bible. 

In our own Wesleyan tradition, we begin with Susannah Wesley, who taught sons John and Charles (and the rest of her 17 children) in the home, especially regarding the Bible and spiritual matters. Throughout her life, Susannah was a confidant and advisor to John, not afraid to disagree with him and offer strongly worded advice! As the early Methodist movement grew, women served as class leaders and lay preachers. Women were ordained as clergy in some branches of Methodism as early as the 1800’s.

There have been some cultural circumstances where it did not make sense for women to serve in a particular role. For example, women were unsuited to serve as circuit riders in America from the perspective of their own safety, given the physical hardships circuit riders had to endure, as well as the propriety of a woman alone on the frontier. But one should not extrapolate from these particular situations that women are generally unsuited for leadership.

Some quote I Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” Many scholars take this verse to refer to the specific situation Paul was addressing in Ephesus. Otherwise, it would not make sense for this same Paul to extol Priscilla as his coworker (regarding her as his equal), recognizing that she taught the preacher Apollos (Acts 18:24-26).

Of course, women may exercise leadership differently from men. It has been shown that women’s brains are wired differently than men’s, and that women general think in different ways than men. We should not expect that women ought to “lead like a man.” That would be a more subtle, but still insidious, form of discrimination against women.

As Christians, we need to welcome the gifts and perspectives of women on an equal basis with men. One’s gifts and perspectives may be different from the other’s, but that does not make one better than the other. The Body of Christ is not complete and able to function well if some of its members are not fully integrated as working members of the Body (I Corinthians 12). The Body is weaker to the extent that it does not use certain parts to their fullest potential. It would be like the proverbial saying of trying to “fight with one hand tied behind your back.”

As the father of three grown daughters and grandfather to two girls, I am conscious of their great potential as human beings. Seeing the basic equality and freedom of women questioned in other countries makes me appreciate the freedom we have here in the U.S.

The U.S. and its allies enabled a whole generation of Afghan women and girls to grow up receiving an education and able to contribute more fully to the functioning of their society. I hope that the nation’s new leaders will allow those women to continue playing an important role in building a strong and healthy Afghanistan. Failure to do so would be a travesty against those women and a tragedy for their nation.

The same is true of our church. Whether in the current United Methodist Church or in a proposed Global Methodist Church, we must be committed to welcoming and seeking out the gifts and contributions of women on an equal basis with men. There must be no room for a rejection of persons for leadership simply because of their gender. The cause of Christ needs “all hands on deck!” Every person is a valuable team member essential for carrying out Christ’s mission in a darkened and deceived world.

 

 

Why We Need a Denomination

Why We Need a Denomination

Illustration by Shutterstock.

By Thomas Lambrecht –

Denominations are not in vogue right now in American culture. For the past 20 years, the non-denominational church movement has grown across the country until its congregations make up a significant portion of the Body of Christ in the U.S. and in Africa, as well. This reflects the tendency toward “do-it-yourself” (DIY) religion. Rather than submit to a prescribed set of beliefs, many pick and choose from various religious traditions to fashion their own personal religion. This smorgasbord approach to religion is highly individualized and made possible by the acceptance of the idea that there is no such thing as Truth, only an individual’s personal truths. It is amazing to hear some of the bizarre, unorthodox beliefs espoused by some who claim a Christian identity, even though (and perhaps because) they rarely or never attend a Christian church.

The individualization of religious belief is reflected in the non-denominational church movement, as well. Each church creates its own doctrinal statement and members join if they are in agreement (or at least can live with the statement). Church structure varies widely from one church to another, but most congregations have some kind of church board that may be either elected or appointed. Pastors are called or hired by the congregation, and each congregation is pretty much an island unto itself.

Some United Methodist congregations are dipping their toes in the water of non-denominationalism through the disaffiliation process enacted by the 2019 General Conference. The 100 or so churches in the U.S. that have separated under this provision have often become independent congregations, rather than affiliating with another denomination. Many of those churches may hope to align with the proposed new Global Methodist Church when it is formed. Others may find non-denominationalism attractive.

Becoming independent can be exhilarating. No one telling you what to do. No one demanding that you pay for this or that. No one telling you whom you must have as a pastor. You are free to structure your church as you like. You can decide as a congregation whether or not to support particular missions. It’s the same feeling one gets the first time one leaves home to live on one’s own.

Pretty soon, however, reality sets in. The responsibility of making all the decisions for a congregation without any guidance or support can become overwhelming. This is particularly true for smaller and mid-sized congregations.

That is why it is good to remember the reasons for being part of a larger denominational group.

Security in Doctrine

We are not saved from our sins and transformed into the image of Jesus by the correctness of our beliefs. But what we believe certainly influences our ability to be saved and informs the kind of life we live as a Christian. This is true at both the individual and the congregational level.

If we believe that everyone is going to heaven, then it is not important for us to share the good news of Jesus Christ or for individuals to surrender their lives to the lordship of Christ. If we believe the Bible is fallible, then it is all right for us to compromise the teachings of Scripture in order to be more culturally acceptable. If we believe the Bible and the Church historically are wrong about certain activities being contrary to God’s will for us, then we will be comfortable ignoring those biblical standards in the way we live our lives.

That is why it is so important for us to get our doctrinal beliefs right. Incorrect beliefs can lead us away from God and cause us to live lives that are not in keeping with God’s desire for us.

The Christian faith is not up for negotiation, either by individual persons or by individual congregations. The virtue of a denomination is that it has a set of beliefs that are consistent with historic Christian doctrine and vetted by a larger body of people. This helps keep individual Christians and individual congregations from going off the rails in their beliefs and “shipwrecking their faith.” Doctrinal accountability is essential for the Christian life.

That accountability is especially true when our theological perspective is a minority view within the overall Body of Christ in the U.S. Among evangelical circles, the predominant theology is Calvinist, whereas Methodists take a Wesleyan/Arminian perspective on theology. A colleague who is a professor at Asbury Seminary has often remarked that Wesleyan/Methodist churches that go independent tend to become Calvinist in theology within a generation of their departure from a Wesleyan denomination. Doctrinal accountability can keep our churches faithful to a doctrinal perspective that is valuable and needed in the Body of Christ today.

In Africa, many freelance independent, non-denominational churches preach a prosperity Gospel. For churches there, being part of an established Wesleyan denomination can help guard against the adoption of heretical doctrines that are harmful to their members in the end.

Accountability

That leads us to the next value of denominations: a system of accountability for both doctrine and behavior. In order to be effective, accountability has to be broader than what an individual congregation or its leaders can provide. Yes, it should not have to be this way, but in our fallen, sinful condition, we have human blind spots and mixed motivations that prevent us from seeing problems or from acting on the problems we do see, especially when we are close to the situation.

Throughout my ministry, I have witnessed repeatedly a congregation victimized by pastoral leadership that transgresses the boundaries of Christian behavior. Christianity Today just produced a podcast series that chronicles the rise and fall of Mars Hill Church, a megachurch based in Seattle, Washington. The congregation grew from a small Bible study to a multi-site congregation with 15 locations in four states. Weekend attendance was over 12,000. Then the pastor, Mark Driscoll, and other leaders were accused of “bullying” and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior.” Within 18 months, that giant church ceased to exist. Ironically, Driscoll became pastor of another church and continues some of the same dysfunctional patterns.

One can reel off the names of other high-profile pastors and ministry leaders who for years perpetuated a pattern of life and ministry that was deceitful and destructive. Those with oversight responsibility were too close to the situation or the person to see the problems.

In Africa and other parts of the world, the pastor is sometimes given unbridled power in the congregation. Some bishops take advantage of their position for personal gain. The church becomes an environment where the leaders say what is right, rather than looking to Scripture and denominational policies and procedures. In such an atmosphere, pastors and church members alike can be harmed by arbitrary and dictatorial leadership. Denominational accountability is the only thing that can protect pastors and church members from harm.

Denominational accountability systems do not always work the way they are intended (as our own United Methodist Church’s failures in this regard testify). But at least there is a system of greater accountability that can be reformed and made more effective. I believe the system envisioned for the proposed Global Methodist Church enhances accountability and fairness in a way that addresses some of the shortfalls in our UM accountability system. Certainly, there is a much greater possibility of holding leaders and congregations accountable when that accountability comes from outside the situation. We are often much more able to see and respond to the sins and shortcomings of others than we are in ourselves or our own families.

The Power of Collective Action

The United Methodist Church is a small church denomination. Over 75 percent of the more than 30,000 congregations in the U.S. average fewer than 100 in worship attendance. Individually, small churches have limited resources to accomplish large projects. Collectively, however, churches working and contributing together can do great things for God. That is one area where The United Methodist Church has leveraged our connectional system to make a real-world difference in the lives of people all over the globe. When it comes to hunger relief, poverty alleviation, education, ministerial training, and health care to name just a few areas, the UM Church has been able to pool the resources of many small churches to achieve significant results.

It is possible for independent churches to join associations of churches or otherwise link to support missions and ministries they agree with. The value of doing so as a denomination is to have the confidence that the missions and ministries supported by the denomination are consistent with the denomination’s doctrinal and moral standards. A denomination can make a long-term commitment to a geographic area or a certain large project that can be sustained, despite the fact that individual congregations might have to drop their support for a time, as other congregations come on to make up the shortfall. There is a greater chance of consistency and effectiveness with denominational programs that have built-in oversight and accountability from outside (as mentioned earlier).

Providing Pastoral Leadership

One of the most important tasks of a denomination is to provide pastoral leadership to its congregations. The denomination vets and approves candidates for a pastoral position in terms of doctrine, skills, and personal lives. This is work that an independent congregation would have to do for itself, often without the expertise in personnel work and theology to make informed judgments. In the case of independent congregations, finding a pastor takes a number of months and often a year or more, during which time the congregation is without a pastor. Smaller congregations will attract fewer and less qualified applicants, whereas, in a denominational system clergy express their willingness to serve where needed.

Again, the United Methodist system of clergy placement is not perfect. Many appointments are good matches between congregation and pastor. Other times, the match is not good. Part of the reason for this mismatch is the guaranteed appointment, meaning all United Methodist clergy must be assigned a place to serve. The proposed Global Methodist Church will not have a guaranteed appointment, whereby clergy who are theologically incompatible or deficient in skills still receive an appointment to a church regardless. The GMC is also committed to more extensive consultation with both potential clergy and congregations to ensure the best possible match and to enable longer-term pastorates.

The important point is that, when done well, the denominational process can supply churches with quality, committed pastoral leaders who will help the congregation realize its potential. It can help guard against clergy who are doctrinally or personally unqualified to serve in leadership. The process can do most of the heavy lifting that would otherwise fall to inexperienced volunteers in the local congregation.

Practical Resources

What is a good curriculum for your church’s Sunday school? What would be a good Bible study on stewardship? How can we get our youth more involved in the life of the congregation? What outreach strategies might be effective in our community? What type of pension, health insurance, and property insurance should our church provide? How much should we pay our pastor?

The list of questions and decisions that a local church needs to deal with is endless. A denomination can give a local church the resources to address these questions. In some cases (like the pension and insurance question), the denomination can provide a program the local church can plug into that it could not duplicate on its own.

I am excited that the proposed GMC is already working through various task forces to identify and flesh out resources and ministry models that can help guide local churches into more effective ministry in many different areas. A denomination can provide those resources and guidance for local churches in a way that the local church can trust. Those resources will be theologically consistent with the denomination’s doctrine and philosophy of ministry. Those resources will be tried and proven as workable and practical. Each congregation will not have to reinvent the wheel, but can draw upon the pooled wisdom and resources that many churches being part of one denomination can provide. Having one place to turn for ideas and guidance will save time and energy at the local level that can be effectively directed into actual ministry.

Much more could be said about the benefits of being part of an effective denomination. Part of a brief childhood poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow speaks to our situation:

There was a little girl,

Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very good indeed,

But when she was bad she was horrid.

United Methodists have experienced some of the horrid aspects of being in a denomination that is dysfunctional and ineffective in some key ways. The temptation is to jettison the idea of a denomination entirely, believing that we can certainly do better on our own. That is a false temptation.

We are certainly better and more effective as churches and as individuals when we work together with like-minded believers. A denomination gives us the structure and the possibility of doing just that. Together, we can make our new denomination good and experience that it can be “very good indeed!”

The Structure of Things

Lifestyle Evangelism

St. Paul preaching among the Roman ruins. Giovanni Paolo Panini /Hermitage Museum via Wikimedia Commons

By Thomas Lambrecht

​​​​As a declining denomination in the midst of cultural headwinds becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity, we wonder how to be a growing, vital church. Although I have served as a pastor and have been a member of growing congregations at one time or another, I have never in my church membership life been part of a growing United Methodist denomination. That is true of all active clergy in our church today.

Many programs have been tried and much ink spilled in trying to foster a denominational turnaround. The results, however, have been unsuccessful denomination-wide. Our decline is only accelerating as our church gets older. Certainly, the long-running conflict over theology and moral teaching has not helped.

As we think about a new traditionalist Methodist denomination that will no longer have conflict over doctrine and morals, how can we best approach our new societal situation, where Christianity is no longer privileged and the church as an institution is no longer respected?

In some ways, we are returning to the situation experienced by the early church in the first three centuries. Upon the recommendation of others, I have found the book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by the late church historian Alan Kreider to be extremely helpful in unpacking the factors that led the early church to grow.

How the Early Church Grew

Growth in the early church after the first apostles’ generation died out was not primarily due to missions or evangelism. The seeds had been planted around the Mediterranean world, and they grew from there. Kreider summarizes, “According to the evidence at our disposal, the expansion of the churches was not organized, the product of a mission program; it simply happened. Further, the growth was not carefully thought through. Early Christian leaders did not engage in debates between rival ‘mission strategies.’ … The Christians … did not write a single treatise on evangelism. … [In] the best surviving summary of catechetical topics, … not one of them admonishes the new believers to share the gospel with the gentiles. Early Christian preachers do not appeal to the ‘Great Commission’ in Matthew 28:19-20 to inspire their members to ‘make disciples of all nations.’ … Most improbable of all, the churches did not use their worship services to attract new people. In the aftermath of the persecution of Nero in A.D. 68, churches around the empire … closed their doors to outsiders.”

In short, many of the strategies and programs we use today to grow the church played no role in the early Christian centuries up until the Emperor Constantine I began promoting Christianity in A.D. 313.

What caused the church to grow? Kreider identifies several factors. The primary factor he identifies is the “patient ferment” of the church – the bubbling up of spiritual life in the lives of believers that over time attracted tens of thousands of individual new believers, a few at a time, into the growing church.

This approach is summed up in a quote from the writer Cyprian (A.D. 256), “We do not speak great things but we live them.” As Kreider explains it, “Christians, said Cyprian, are to be visibly distinctive. They are to live their faith and communicate it in deeds, and their deeds are to embody patience. Patientia: when Christians make this virtue visible and active, they demonstrate the character of God to the world.” And it is this distinctive, lived-out faith that becomes attractive over time to people unfulfilled by the world’s pleasures and possessions.

The key is that “Christians and their communities must live a life of integrity with no discrepancy between words and deeds,” Kreider states. “Outsiders will judge the Christians not so much by what they say (most people won’t listen to them anyway) as by what they are and do.”

Early Church Examples

How did this work out in practice? According to Justin Martyr (about A.D. 150), it meant living out Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Be patient with others. Be servants to all. When struck on one cheek, turn to them the other (rather than taking revenge). If compelled to go one mile, go two. Do not be angry. Do not quarrel. As Justin put it, “Let your good works shine before men, that they as they see may wonder at your Father who is in heaven.”

In their business lives, Christians were to act with integrity. They were “to speak the unadorned truth about a product they were selling.” Perhaps it meant refusing to retaliate when mistreated by another businessperson. It could have meant refusing to engage in litigation in the law courts.

In an extremely licentious culture, Christians were committed to sexual purity. Justin “points to Christians in Rome ‘and in every nation’ who have repudiated adulterous glances,” avoided polygamy, and committed themselves to a lifelong Christian understanding of sexual restraint and fidelity. By embracing this new ethic, the early church attracted “to the faith an ‘uncounted multitude of those who have turned away from’” sexual licentiousness.

In a rigidly hierarchical society, Christians created a heterogeneous community of rich and poor, nobles, working class, and laborers, masters and slaves, men and women, older adults as well as children. They formed a new type of family that incorporated all its members, including those most despised by society, on an equal and integral basis.

In a society where 90 percent of the people were powerless, Christians experienced the power of God at work in their lives. Miracles were part of their regular experience through the exorcism of demons and the healing of disease. And the leaders of a church were just as likely to be slaves as to be wealthy.

In a society where “65 percent of the population lived close to or below the subsistence level” and it was often “every man for himself,” Christians were known for caring for their poor. As we see in the book of Acts, churches would collect money and donations to provide food and clothing to those in need.

In a brutal society where life was cheap, Origen (about A.D. 250) stipulated, “refusing to participate in ‘the taking of human life in any form at all’ was a basic Christian commitment.” Christians refused to retaliate. They opposed and undermined the gladiatorial games (one of the primary means of mass entertainment, like today’s football). They “said no to abortion or to putting unwanted infants to death by exposure.” And in the early years, this commitment ruled out Christians serving in the Roman legions.

Under persecution, Christians were often courageous. They were not afraid to suffer or die for their faith because they were assured of a heavenly reality following death. They were conscious that they were imitating Jesus, who also suffered and died. Their calmness in the face of persecution stunned and attracted unbelievers.

This countercultural lifestyle appealed to people who were unsatisfied or unfulfilled by the world’s way of living. It prompted questions and inquiries that led to sharing of “the reason for the hope that is within us” (I Peter 3:15). This led to joining a catechism class for an extended time of learning and preparation before one was baptized and received into the membership of the church. There is much more to Kreider’s thesis than I have been able to share here, but this aspect is instructive for how we can promote a growing and vital church.

The Wesleyan Example

John Wesley knew that lifestyle was as important as doctrine. That is why he put forward the General Rules for those joining the Methodist movement. “There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these [Methodist] societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected of all who continue [within the Methodist societies] that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation” by doing no harm, doing good, and attending upon all the ordinances of God (the means of grace).

The General Rules are very specific about the kinds of behaviors that were expected of Methodists.

In a society where alcoholism was rampant, Methodists were expected to avoid “drunkenness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in cases of extreme necessity.”

In a society where slaveholding was common, Methodists were expected to avoid “slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.”

In a society experiencing personal conflict and violence, Methodists were to avoid “fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, or railing for railing.”

In a country where smuggling and the black market were a constant practice, Methodists were to avoid “buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty.”

In a society where ostentatious displays of wealth were expected, Methodists were to avoid “putting on of gold and costly apparel.”

In their personal lives, Methodists were expected to avoid “uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates [government officials] or of ministers.” They were to avoid “such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus” and “singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.” They were to avoid “laying up treasure upon earth” or “borrowing without a probability of paying.”

In a time when Methodists were ridiculed and persecuted, they were expected to “do good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or [striving] to be; employing them preferably to others; buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only.”

The distinctive lifestyle and countercultural expectations of Methodists was not a deterrent, but a positive factor in the growth of Methodism in its first century. When Methodism began to compromise with the world and try to blend in or “be relevant,” it began to plateau and decline in relation to the size of the population.

Implications for Today

Doctrine, what we believe as Christians, is highly important. But if our lives contradict our beliefs, the world will not be interested in what we say we stand for.

Evangelical Protestantism has become so fixated on the Reformation truth that we are saved by grace through faith, and not by works, that we have forgotten the necessity of living the life of faith. We spend much energy on getting people to say the “sinner’s prayer” or commit their lives to Jesus Christ (which is essential), but neglect to help disciples form their lives to live as Jesus did. We emphasize forgiveness and grace more than holiness. As someone has said, American Christianity is more American than Christian.

Of course, we cannot live the Christian life by human effort alone, and our ability to exhibit a holy character is not what saves us. We come to Jesus as we are, he accepts us as we are, he welcomes us into his family, and he offers us the chance to become like him. We depend upon the power of the Holy Spirit to truly transform our desires and affections, as we nurture our relationship with the Lord through prayer, study of God’s word, worship, spiritual fellowship, and the other means of grace. As we are transformed on the inside, our outward behavior will change. But our outward behavior is an indicator of the extent of our inner transformation.​​​​​​​

Our churches will not grow until people see that following Jesus Christ makes a difference in our lives. We must stop trying to blend in to the culture and instead be willing to live counter to the culture as Christians. Authentic Christians down through history have always been thought “strange” by an unbelieving world. We ought not to shy away from high expectations for how we as Christians are to live and act.

Evangelism programs and missional strategies are good and helpful. But people will not buy what we are selling unless they see that it works in making our lives different and more fulfilling than theirs. Otherwise, why make the sacrifices that being a Christian entails?