Archive: Strategies for Solution of the Church Crisis

Part Two

Condensed from an address by Dr. Leslie H. Woodson
Chairman, Good News Board of Directors
Pastor, Memorial United Methodist Church, Elizabethtown, Kentucky

We must “fight on for the faith” by growing in faith … by praying much in the Spirit … and by seeking to save the lost.

“But you, beloved, build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God; wait for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And convince some, who doubt; save some, by snatching them out of the fire; on some have mercy with fear, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh” (Jude 20-23, RSV).

Not long ago, a United Methodist pastor from the State of New York said to me in a discussion of biblical inspiration, “The Letter of Jude has no message for today.” Many contemporaries must agree with the New York minister, since it is rather obvious that Jude’s writing is a neglected letter. If the modern reader knows anything at all about Jude, it is probably limited to the magnificent doxology at the end of the epistle.

And yet, it may be that Jude is one of the most relevant books in the New Testament for the end of this millenium. Moffatt calls it “a fiery cross to rouse the Christians.” Barclay refers to it as “a trumpet call to defend the faith.” The letter was written to combat the heresy of gnosticism and antinomianism within the Christian fellowship-and to exhort believers to faith, hope and love. This brother of our Lord, as some believe Jude to have been, suggests three basic ways to “contend for the faith once delivered unto the saints.”

The Church of Jesus Christ must contend for the faith through personal integrity built on apostolic faith. Jude believed passionately in a creed. There is a move afoot today to scuttle the creedal statements and reduce the dogma of the faith. Jude would have been incensed at such a suggestion. The Christian life is founded on a holy faith. That faith is revelatory in nature. It was “delivered” once and for all to the early Church. That faith is authoritative and binding on all who name the Name of Christ. It is not manufactured by man, but given by God. Thus, it is unaffected by opinion, current fads in theology or currents in sociology, anthropology and psychology. It has always been true that correct belief determines good character. Orthodoxy lays the groundwork for orthopraxis.

Teachers of heresy tear down the fellowship and wreck the Church which Christ built. Believers, on the other hand, must build up the fellowship. According to Jude, Christians are not to criticize the Holy faith revealed to us by God, not to amend it to suit our wishes, not to correct it where it does not agree with human wisdom. Rather, the faith of the Apostolic Church, centered on Christ, must regulate our lives.

No life can be soundly constructed unless it has a definite point of reference. Something has to be absolute or everything becomes relative. We grow as we bring ourselves into line with the “faith once delivered unto the saints.”

Now, there are three ways of “building up” one’s life. First, by praying in the Spirit. Heresy is impossible when one is guided by the Holy Spirit through prayerful communion with the Eternal. B. Reicke says, “The success of the Church in the world is to come through holy prayer and not through sly tactics.” Today the Church is long on tactics and short on prayer.

Second, we build up our lives by staying in the love of God. Knowledge of His love is a bulwark against despair in troubled times. As United Methodists, we still believe that our security is conditional, that it rests on fellowship with God.

Third, we build up our lives by hoping for the parousia, or the second coming of Jesus Christ. Though there is little talk about this consummating event, the parousia is the crowning glory which will finalize the coming Kingdom. We must keep prepared.

The first way to contend for the faith, then, is by personal integrity built on apostolic faith. What we believe is basic to what we do.

Another method of contending for the faith is by evangelistic witness based on a compelling urgency. We must not give up on the Church or the world. It is not easy to keep one’s faith alive in an alien culture. The Hebrews discovered this in the land of captivity when they wept, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”

Today there is an alarming mass exodus from the United Methodist Church. Multitudes of our people are leaving because they have seen strange fire upon the altar. It is not holy fire.

We cannot evade our mission, however, by running away. There is no possible monastic insulation in the twentieth century. Thomas Carlyle, deeply disturbed about his own times, wrote to Emerson, “A man has no right to say to his own generation, turning quite away from it, ‘Be damned.’ It is the whole past, and the whole future, this cotton-spinning, dollar-hunting, canting and shrieking, very wretched generation of ours. Come back into it, I tell you.”

We cannot be leaven unless we are in the meal. We cannot be light unless we function in the darkness.

The need for evangelism has never been greater. “Convince some who doubt,” exhorts Jude.

The time is ripe for a return to the kerygma* of the New Testament. We must let in the light on the confusion of our time. When Robert Louis Stevenson was a small child he was attended by a nurse due to his frail condition. One night, as he stood at the window with his nose pressed against the pane, the lamplighter was making his rounds lighting the lamps one by one. Suddenly, Robert cried out, “Nurse, there’s a man out there punching holes in the darkness!”

Never has the darkness been deeper nor the need for evangelists to punch holes in it been greater than now. Certainly, we have no desire for an evangelical “fuss-box.” But we must challenge our pagan society and secular church to rethink its philosophy.

When Einstein was asked how he discovered the theory of relativity, he said, “I challenged an axiom!” It is our duty as a Church to challenge the axioms of our secularized world.

But Jude goes farther. “Save some,” he cries, “snatching them out of the fire.” The Church must again proclaim divine judgement upon sin. Ours is a soft age, an age without discipline. The prophetic voice is nearly dead. Must it be 400 years before we hear it again?

The world and the Church are flirting with falsehood and, therefore, playing with fire. We must confront the world with the reality of divine judgment – but we must do it in love.

A church was looking for a new pastor. On two consecutive Sundays the guest preachers preached on hell. One was called in preference to the other. When asked how they made their decision, the pulpit committee replied, “One man told us we were going to hell and seemed to be glad of it. The other told us we were going to hell but it broke his heart.”

And this brings me to the third and final way of contending for the faith once delivered to the saints. We must take care to have a perspective balanced between truth and love. Evangelicals have often been accused of lovelessness. In our stringent defense of Truth we have been guilty of neglecting the individual. It is possible to become so intent on our Father’s business that we have no love for people who are not likewise employed. The elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son was faithful to his father but loveless toward his brother. And that annulled all his goodness. There is a little quatrain which sobers me,

To dwell with the saints in Heaven

Will be bliss and glory;

To live with the saints on earth

Is often another story!

Far too often we have been like James and John in wanting to call down fire upon those persons who refused hospitality to our Lord. This is not in keeping with His Spirit. And because of this harshness, we have been accused of bigotry, hostility, and unbrotherliness.

Some of us act as though we belong to a spiritual aristocracy which is characterized by snobbery and Pharasaism. This must not be! The Church is engaged in its own brand of civil war and everyone is sensitive and suspect. In 1861 William Pitt Fessenden, U.S. Senator from Maine, wrote to his wife, “When a man feels as if he could cut everybody’s throat and that everybody wants to cut his, he is in a pretty bad condition.” This attitude must not be found among us.

Some evangelicals are like jabbing needles, dulled from much use! We must be on guard not to display a jungle mood where only the fittest are allowed to survive. We must not become sarcastic, bitter, abrasive and caustic. It is not good when our more liberal brethren insist that they c1nnot tolerate us without novocain!

Tennyson once expressed the desire to take the “hiss” out of the English language. At least, we ought to remove it from the Christian vocabulary.

A bitter dispute once developed between Newman Smith and Robert Hall. Smith was the author of a widely read pamphlet entitled, “Come to Jesus.” In his dispute with Hall, Smith wrote a bitter pamphlet against Hall. Unable to think of an appropriate title, he asked a friend to read it and make a suggestion. After having read it, the friend said, “Why don’t you call it ‘Go to Hell’ by the author of ‘Come to Jesus’?” Evangelicals must learn that we cannot verbally invite men to Jesus while at the same time self-righteously consigning them to hell!

Truth and love must not be polarized. There is much fear of polarization today. I have no alarm whatsoever about much polarizing. Man has to choose which side he is going to be on. We cannot be spineless like a jellyfish. But, I am afraid of polarity between truth and love. We are enjoined by Jude to “hate even the garments spotted by the flesh.” That is, we must expose heresy and resist falsehood wherever it is found. We cannot condone evil. There must be moral distinctions. But, while we “contend for the faith” we must beware lest, in the process, we become contentious!

I am not afraid of atheists or secularists, bishops or kings, persecution or death. But I am terribly afraid of losing my love in the intensity of the conflict. Retaining the balance between truth and love is hard!

While Jude exhorts us to “hate the garments spotted by the flesh” he also enjoins us to “have mercy.” There must be a personal warmth and love in all we do. Thomas Merton once said, “Do not be too quick to condemn the man who no longer believes in God; for it is perhaps your own coldness … that killed his faith.” There are far too many orthodox icicles among us. We must “defend the faith,” but we must do it with a magnanimous spirit. Paul was right, “If I … have not love, I am a noisy gong!” We can make a lot of racket and still get nothing done because we lack love as the primary motivation.

Heywood Brown once accused Christians of using their shepherd’s crooks to beat one another over the head. Sometime ago, in the “New Yorker,” there appeared a cartoon depicting two seminarians walking inside the cloistered walls of the seminary. One of them was saying to the other, “The thing that gets me about this place is that they expect you to love people you don’t even like!” Exactly! That is what God expects, too. My task in this troubled world is not only to “contend for the faith” but to do it in love. That is, I must “love my crooked neighbor with all my crooked heart.”

Some polarity is needful. If I did not believe that, I would not be here today. Nor would I be involved with the cause which “Good News” represents. But there must not be any polarization between truth and love. Truth without love is cold and bigoted. It produces only isolates who fail to communicate with the world. Love without truth is sentimental and weak. It produces a flabby fellowship like we can see among many in the Church.

I know of no better way to conclude these remarks than by reading from one of John Wesley’s moving sermons. Let the founder of Methodism speak for himself:

“Beware of the most distant approach to disdain, overbearing, or contempt. With equal care avoid all appearance of anger; and though you use great plainness of speech, yet let there be no reproach, no railing accusation, no token of any warmth, but that of love. Above all, let there be no shadow of hate or ill-will, no bitterness or sourness of expression; but use the air and language of sweetness as well as gentleness, that all may appear to flow from love in the heart.”


*Kerygma: The heart of the Gospel message about salvation effected by Christ’s atoning death for sinners.


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