The marks of Christ and his Church

The marks of Christ and his Church

By Jason E. Vickers

The United Methodist (EUB) Confession of Faith identifies four marks of the church: oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. These four marks are not original with the Confession of Faith. They derive directly from the Nicene Creed (325 AD), and therefore they originate in the theological reflections of the early church fathers. They are at once contemporary and ancient.

For those with eyes to see and ears to ear, however, the marks of the church identified in the Confession of Faith and the Nicene Creed are not without rival in the United Methodist Church today. Indeed, one can discern in the language of United Methodist clergy, laity, and seminary professors new “marks of the church.” Like the marks of the church identified in the Confession of Faith and the Nicene Creed, the new marks are four in number: inclusivity, openness, tolerance, and diversity.

More than popular buzzwords, these four terms are code for a vision of the nature and mission of the church. If the church is to be the church, then the church should be inclusive, open, tolerant, and diverse. This vision is partly reflected in the current marketing campaign: The United Methodist Church is characterized by “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.”

The new marks of the church generate a whole host of questions. What is one to make of the new marks of the church? Should one embrace them? Are the new marks somehow more in-step with the wider culture? Are they politically or ideologically motivated, or are they theologically motivated? Is it possible to separate politics and theology? Is not all theology political? Is not all politics theological? Most importantly, one wants to know, should the new marks of the church replace the old ones?

Up ahead, I will venture to answer the last of these questions. Before doing so, it is crucial to take the time to revisit the old marks of the church. To be sure, the old marks do not sound as contemporary or culturally sensitive as the new ones. When compared with inclusivity and diversity, apostolicity and holiness sound antiquated at best. Surely the old marks are a relic of the past. Surely the old marks involve an unfamiliar language that turns people off to the church. Surely the new marks make the church sound more attractive to the unchurched.

At the outset, the temptation to give up on the old marks is a strong one. It must be admitted, however, that the old marks have been around for a long time. They have had a good run for their money. If for no other reason than their longevity, one should at least give them a respectful last glance before consigning them to the dustbin of church history. What precisely do the old marks mean? What kind of vision of the nature and mission of the church do they reflect? What, if anything, might be lost if the new marks are allowed to replace the old?

A good way to get at the meaning of the old marks of the church is to take the word church seriously. After all, the old marks are adjectives that modify the noun church. This is important because the meaning of adjectives can change based upon the noun they are called upon to modify. For example, the word “hot” means one thing in the phrase “a hot stove,” and it means something rather different in the phrase “a hot car.” The point here is a simple one. To get at the meaning of the old marks of the church, one needs to ask: what is meant by the word church?

In both scripture and church tradition, an entire range of metaphors is used to describe the church. The church is “a city on a hill,” “the called out ones,” “resident aliens,” “branches of the true vine,” a “royal city,” “the light of the world,” and so on. Yet, the metaphor that is arguably the most central theologically is “the body of Christ.” The church is not just any body. It is not simply a collection of individuals. Nor is it simply a community of persons who share a common story and common practices. The Church is the body of the Christ. The church is connected in a deep, albeit mysterious, way to the person of Jesus Christ.

What does it mean for the church to be the body of Christ? What does it mean to take this metaphor seriously? A simple question suggests itself. What kind of body does Christ have?

The temptation at this stage is to see Christ’s body as representative of his humanity. In other words, Christ’s physical body is the human component of the Incarnation. At a certain level, this makes sense. After all, Christ’s body is broken and ultimately succumbs to death. Naturally, one wants to associate brokenness and death exclusively with the humanity of Christ, preserving the dignity and purity of Christ’s divinity. Surely God, after all, is incapable of suffering and dying. Thus, the tendency is to associate the suffering and death of Christ with the human body that Christ acquires in the Incarnation.

While it is natural to associate Christ’s broken body with his human nature, the leading theologians of the early church rejected the notion that one can neatly separate the human nature from the divine nature in Christ. Rather, they insisted that Christ’s human and divine natures, while distinct, were united in such a way as to make them inseparable. Most importantly, they pointed out that God brought about the union of the divine and human natures in Christ in order to heal human nature from brokenness and death.

What does all of this have to do with the marks of the church? To begin with, it means that, as the body of Christ, the church is not immune to brokenness or even to death. On the contrary, the church is a place in which brokenness is front and center. Every time the church celebrates the Eucharist, her members are reminded that Christ’s body is a broken and mortally wounded body. We are reminded of the deadly consequences of sin. This is the offense of the Incarnation. In Christ, God joins God’s self to human brokenness, even to the point of death.

As the body of Christ, brokenness is a part of the very nature of the church. It is also a part of the church’s mission. The church welcomes the poor and downtrodden. The church opens her doors to those broken by willful sin, by addiction, and by all forms of abuse. The church is home to all persons, regardless of the source or shape of their brokenness. Thus the church is catholic insofar as all persons, no matter how broken, are welcome. Similarly, the church is one in brokenness insofar as all of her members share a common human nature broken by sin.

At the same time, it is crucial to recall that, in Christ, human nature is joined inseparably to divinity. Two natures are united in one person, one broken and dying, the other healing and alive. As the body of Christ, the church is not merely a human community. On the contrary, she is joined mysteriously to the divine nature in Christ every time she celebrates the Eucharist.

This brings one to the two remaining marks of the church. In the body of Christ, broken human nature is united to the healing power of Christ’s divine nature. To be a part of the church is to be made holy. In and through participation in the means of grace, broken persons experience divine healing; we begin a journey of healing and wholeness. Thus while the church is one in brokenness and death, she is also one in healing and the holiness of life that results from her union with the divine nature in Christ.

What about the last of the old marks of the church, namely, apostolicity? Often, apostolicity is associated with apostolic succession. According to apostolic succession, there is an unbroken line of persons extending from Christ all the way down to present day elders in the church. Among other things, this unbroken line is said to ensure doctrinal purity. Yet, there is another way to think about apostolicity in the light of the church’s identity as the body of Christ. As the body of Christ, the church is one both in brokenness and in holiness. Apostolicity testifies to the healing power of Christ’s body, insofar as those who accept responsibility for church leadership are exemplars of Christ’s holiness. Like Paul, they model their lives after Christ so that others can model their lives after them. In Christ, their lives are a testimony to what happens when broken human nature is united with the divine. The Wesleyan term for this is, of course, entire sanctification.

As attributes of the church, the old marks of the church are highly instructive for the church’s nature and mission. The church is a place in which all persons are welcome. The church does not flinch at brokenness and death any more than the One whose body she is. As the body of Christ, the church bears visible wounds, even mortal wounds. Her members are one in brokenness and in the death that is the wages of sin, both their own sins and the sins of others. In this respect, the church is truly catholic or universal.

Yet the church is also a place of radical healing and holiness. The church is a place of union with God. In and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at work in the means of grace, the church’s members find themselves united with Christ. In this union, we find ourselves on a journey from brokenness to holiness. Our wounds are bound up, and they become the image of Christ on earth. As with Christ, visible reminders of the wounds remain. But there is also something more. There is deep healing. There is restoration to God. There is perfect love for God and neighbor. We are no longer the same. The church is holy and apostolic.

In light of the two natures of Jesus Christ, the church’s nature and mission involves both welcoming all who are broken and waiting patiently with the broken for the Holy Spirit to bind up their wounds in Christ. Brokenness is fully expected. But so is healing. This is truly good news.

Compared with this rich theological vision of the nature and mission of the church, the new marks of the church are clearly deficient. On the one hand, inclusivity, diversity, tolerance, and openness can be seen as capturing important aspects of oneness and catholicity. The new marks make clear that all persons are welcome in the church. Unfortunately, the new marks fail to remind persons of the healing power of the church. The new marks can only too easily be taken to suggest that persons should come as they are and remain as they are. They simply do not capture all that has been made available in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and in and through the power of the Holy Spirit. The new marks provide one vital aspect of the good news, but they do not tell the whole story.

Finally, a word needs to be said about the possible origins of the new marks of the church. Why the sudden emphasis on inclusion, openness, diversity, and tolerance? One suspects that the new marks of the church are partly the result of a failure on the part of the church to maintain the delicate balance between the human and divine natures of the One whose body she is. Otherwise put, one suspects that the church has a tendency to stress holiness over catholicity, oneness in sanctity over oneness in brokenness. There is a constant temptation to rush from Good Friday to Easter Sunday. To the extent that this is true, it does not necessitate the invention or adoption of new marks of the church. Rather, the church needs simply to take the old marks more seriously. The church is the body of Christ, wounds and all. The old marks remind us of the wounds; they also remind us of all that is ours in Christ. The old marks make it clear that all are welcome; they also make it clear that, in Christ, the Holy Spirit makes us truly alive unto God.

Jason E. Vickers is Associate Professor of Theology and Wesleyan Studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  He is the author or editor of several books, including Invocation and Assent: The Making and Remaking of Trinitarian Theology (2008), and Wesley: A Guide for the Perplexed (2009).

The marks of Christ and his Church

Actualizing the Holy Spirit

By Shane Raynor

I have a deep conviction that the answer to many of our struggles in the Christian faith lies in our understanding of the Holy Spirit. The walls we often hit (and who hasn’t hit a spiritual wall at some point?) would fall if we took full advantage of the very gift God gave to equip us for life and ministry. Most of us know all about the Holy Spirit. We’ve got the doctrine down, and if pressed we could express our understanding on some visually appealing PowerPoint slides, or at least in a few bullet points on a napkin at Denny’s. But how much of that knowledge is second-hand and how much is from experience?

The cable channel Court TV became truTV last year, and it adopted the tagline “Not Reality. Actuality.” The two words have similar meanings, but one goes a step further than the other. The definition of realize is “to grasp or understand clearly” or “to comprehend completely or correctly.” Actualize means “to make actual or real; turn into action or fact” or “to realize in action or make real.” While in a loose sense, the words could be considered synonymous, based on these definitions, I see actuality as more of a heightened reality. So I could realize something with my intellect, even with great conviction if God reveals it to me, but I don’t necessarily actualize it until I experience it. Confused? Let’s try to make sense of it.

The biggest obstacle I’ve hit in my own understanding of the Holy Spirit is that I sometimes forget that the third member of the Trinity is no less God than the Father and the Son. That means he’s infinite and somewhat unpredictable. It also means he can (and does) operate outside of my own doctrinal rigidity and the boxes I build to contain him. Even Pentecostals and charismatics sometimes try to domesticate the Holy Spirit! A little theology (or pneumatology to be more precise) can be a dangerous thing. When I take doctrine that I’ve learned, combine it with my personal experience, and then try to project it upon others as normative, I’m in danger of limiting God.

That being established, there are certain principles and patterns that are common in Christian practice. One is the principle of expectation. Hebrews 11:1 tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” While God can and does go beyond our expectations, sometimes our lack of expectation contributes to disappointing outcomes. I’m reminded of Jesus’ inability to heal in Nazareth (Mark 6:5). Mark doesn’t directly say that the reason is their lack of faith, but Matthew does. “And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief” (Matthew 13:58). That’s pretty much explicit. I wonder how many of us don’t see much of God’s power because we don’t expect to see it.

In Acts 8, Peter and John pray for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit by placing their hands on them. In Acts 19, Paul does the same with some disciples in Ephesus. The Ephesians may not have completely understood the Gospel at that point, but Acts 8 tells us that there were true believers among the Samaritans. But even so, they didn’t receive the power of the Holy Spirit until Peter and John showed up.

So what does this mean for Christians today? The Holy Spirit is indwelling every believer and working at some level, but I don’t think all believers have actualized the equipping power of the Holy Spirit. (Maybe some of us haven’t even realized that such power exists.) Some people use different terminology here (baptism with the Holy Spirit, release of the Holy Spirit), but the important thing is the principle itself. If we don’t see clear evidence of the Holy Spirit empowering us for service, I think we can ask God for this power. And we can seek out Spirit-filled Christians to pray for us to receive this power. Luke 11:9-13 tells us to keep asking, and guarantees that God will give us what we ask for, not something else.

Shane Raynor is a writer and publisher based in Austin, Texas. He is a certified lay speaker in the United Methodist Church and blogs regularly at

World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit

For years, missions-minded, evangelical Christians from the United Methodist and Wesleyan traditions yearned for a faith-based agency reflecting their priorities that would send missionaries to the largely unreached areas of the world to do evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and leadership training. Critics said it couldn’t be done, or that there was no need for such an agency. But the visionaries persisted, founding The Mission Society ( in 1984.

As was reported in the cover story in the last issue of Good News, The Mission Society has grown like a mustard seed. Today the agency recruits, trains and sends Christian missionaries to minister around the world.  The Mission Society has more than 200 missionaries in 36 countries. It develops diverse programs and ministries in accordance with its missionaries’ unique callings and gifts, ranging from well drilling and the arts to more traditional ministries, such as teaching English and church planting.  Its church ministry department provides seminars, workshops, and mentoring for congregations in the United States and overseas, helping equip churches for strategic outreach in their communities and throughout the world.

“The Mission Society has become a global entity, responding to spiritual and material needs throughout the world,” said Dr. Gerald H. Anderson, director emeritus of the Overseas Ministries Study Center in New Haven, Conn. and former United Methodist missionary. “While retaining its Wesleyan ethos and heritage, The Mission Society has expanded beyond its initial United Methodist orbit. Today it is working with 14 different denominations and independent churches, and its missionaries come from many different denominational traditions.”

Anderson is co-editor (along with Darrell Whiteman, PhD., Mission Society resident missiologist) of a new book that was released on September 11, World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit, in which 31 scholars and Christian leaders examine how Wesleyan theological orientation has shaped the practice of world missions.  Collectively, their essays examine the past, present, and future directions of world missions and provide the most comprehensive account of Wesleyan influence on world missions and evangelism published in the past 50 years.

World Mission in the Wesleyan Spirit is published by Providence House Publishers. To order, visit or fax order requests to 615-771-2002.

The marks of Christ and his Church

You can’t argue with a changed life

By Liza Kittle

If I had a nickel for every time Steve Dodson, my friend and former pastor, said those words, I would probably have at least a thousand dollars. It was truly one of his mantras and has become one of my own as well. I was reminded of this truth at a women’s event I attended this past weekend. The speaker was Liz Curtis Higgs, a prolific writer who has published Christian historical fiction, children’s books, and women’s study books. Her most famous titles are Bad Girls of the Bible, Slightly Bad Girls of the Bible, and Really Bad Girls of the Bible.
A former “bad girl” herself, Liz brought a message of hope and redemptive grace to the crowd of over 500 women, presenting biblical truth amidst hilarious stories that had the crowd laughing and crying at the same time.

A former radio personality, Liz shared glimpses of her early adulthood when drugs and sexual promiscuity took control of her life. One day a work colleague, none other than “shock-jock” Howard Stern, told her she needed to “clean up her act.” Liz related, “when Howard Stern tells you your life is out of control, you know things are pretty bad!” But she finally did just that when she met a Christian couple who just loved and accepted her the way she was, and tenderly guided her into the arms of Jesus. (Read more at

Her story resonated with me on so many levels. As a former “really bad girl” myself, I spent two decades of my life not only wandering down every dark road imaginable, but also running away from every hint of Jesus I encountered.
Even after accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior of my life, I still carried around the guilt and shame from all those years living in the pit of despair. The freedom from that would come much later.

Just like the Samaritan woman at the well, the “really bad girl” in John 4, when Jesus met her face to face, he already knew everything about her—every sin, every disappointment, every wound, and every guilty thought. He knows the same about us, and despite any ugliness in our past, Jesus comes to offer us a beautiful future if we allow him into our heart and life. In Messy Spirituality, the late Mike Yaconelli wrote, “As far as Jesus is concerned, the woman with no future has a future. Jesus sees her present desire, which makes her past irrelevant.” Jesus can redeem any past, no matter what kind of past we bring with us: failure, mistakes, bad decisions, immaturity, and even a past that was done to us.

Jesus meets all of us at different places and in so many different ways. And although walking with him takes daily commitment and action, He’s done the work for us. It’s like the chorus in one of my favorite songs by Casting Crowns, “Who Am I,” “Not because of who I am, but because of what You’ve done; Not because of what I’ve done, but because of who You are.”

There are women all across our churches, communities, and world that are presently living in a pit of despair, struggling with past sin, wounded from present circumstances, and looking at the future with little hope. Renew has a calling, a vision, and a passion for reaching these women. I know that many congregations in the United Methodist Church have vibrant women’s ministries, but sadly, most do not. We want to change that.

Transformed women can be the vehicle God uses to transform marriages, families, workplaces, congregations, communities, denominations, and nations. The church of Jesus Christ is about the transformation of sinners for the redemption of the world. We should never lose sight of that.

Many women and pastors have called the Renew office asking how their church can “join” Renew and partner with us in ministry. In response to these requests, we are launching a new membership/partnership program. You can read all about this on our website at This program replaces our current affiliate membership program. We believe this new partnering program will enable us to better serve the women of your group and congregation. We look forward to what God has in store for the future of this growing ministry.

We also are introducing a very special giving society in honor of the founder and past president of Renew, Mrs. L. Faye Short. The Faye Short Society will be a giving society that will enable us to fulfill the vision God has given Renew for its second phase of ministry. Monies raised through this society will go towards publishing resources that nurture women, such as a comprehensive women’s ministry handbook and topical Bible studies. Funds will also be used in the planning of regional and national leadership events for women in the UM Church. What a wonderful way to honor this faithful disciple of Christ who has given so much to uphold the scriptural integrity of our denomination and minister to the hearts and souls of its women.

Jesus desires the transformation of every living soul, every woman, and every church. Help us minister and share the Gospel as we are mandated. You won’t be able to argue with a changed life!

Liza Kittle is the President of the Renew Women’s Network

The marks of Christ and his Church

What we speak and what they hear

By Duffy Robbins

There’s a brilliant French TV commercial from the French film industry promoting the notion that people need to see a movie in the theater to fully understand the movie. To really get the point of the spot, you have to understand that the documentary film, March of the Penguins, released here in the States about five years ago, was originally released in France under the title March of the Emperors. In the thirty-second ad, a guy is talking to a girl about this wonderfully powerful film he’s seen. But, as he describes the movie and its depiction of the migration and mating habits of Emperor penguins, she thinks he’s describing a documentary about French kings.

For example, when he describes the migratory march of the penguins, she imagines a long line of Napoleon-like rulers walking across frozen tundra. When he describes the danger that penguins face from being attacked by seals, she envisions a giant monster seal that rises up out of the water and terrorizes the long marching line of kings. But the punch-line of the commercial comes when he communicates the wonder and beauty of the Emperors mating with each other and then exchanging eggs; she just looks at him with an expression of eye-rolling disgust.

It’s a basic fact of communication: there’s the message that we speak and the message that our audience hears. We create the first one, and they create the second one. Jesus’ own ministry shows us that even a master communicator is not going to change that (cf. John 7:12-43). In practical terms, that means those of us who speak to teenagers are always alert for that one word, that one phrase, that one line or illustration that will frame the picture—that will somehow put the scene in its proper context so that our kids will hear what we’re saying. We have to do that, because they aren’t just hearing the message; they’re creating the message.

Over the last few issues of Good News we’ve been looking at some of the challenges of speaking to teenagers—whether that’s in a youth group setting, during a devotional for a winter retreat, or from the pulpit on Sunday morning. Understanding that my teenage audience is creating the meaning of my message is only one of those challenges. Let’s look at two others.

1. They aren’t making these choices alone. When you speak to a ninth-grade guy whose friends are skaters, or a tenth-grade girl who’s a cheerleader, or a 17-year-old guy who is part of a gang, or a 16-year-old girl who has an overbearing father, they aren’t just listening to what you have to say. They’re listening through the filter of what their friends, their fellow cheerleaders, the guys in the gang, or their family members might have to say about what you have to say.

Communication theorists call these clusters of friendships reference groups. They remind us that because we’re human, we’re interconnected through a matrix of relationships, and every time we listen to a message we’re asking, “How will my response to this message affect those relationships?” These reference groups may be made up of family members, good friends, kids on the team, the folks at an after-school job, members of a gang or club, or even members of a youth group.

As a speaker, I have to understand that students aren’t listening to me from a position of passionless, isolated logic. All the while they’re listening to me, they’re listening over the voices of their reference group. They’re not just asking, “What do I think about this?” They’re asking, “What will they think about how I think about this?”

2. Our job as youth workers is not to get kids committed; they’re already committed. They may or may not be self-aware enough to name those commitments, but the commitments are real just the same. Unless we’re preaching in never-never land, every time we ask our students to say a “yes,” we’re also calling them to say a “no”—no’s that are just as vivid and just as real as that day four thousand years ago when Abraham left his country and his people and his father’s household to pursue the will of God (Genesis 12:1).

To speak to students as if those commitments aren’t genuine is to be either very naive (about our audience) or very dishonest (with our audience). I’ve got to ask myself whenever I speak, what the commitments already embraced by this group of kids are, and secondly, to what will I appeal to persuade them to exchange their current commitments for a new or renewed commitment to Christ?

I’m convinced that one of the keys to effective communication with teenagers is realizing that it’s not what I say, it’s what they hear that makes all the difference. If I want students to truly hear God’s Word, I need to pay careful attention to how they hear my words.

Duffy Robbins is Chairman of the Department of Youth Ministry at Eastern College in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, and a long-time columnist for Good News.

The marks of Christ and his Church

Church and Society webzine: Sex outside of marriage can be “moral, ethical”

By Joseph Slife

A sex-education column in a recent issue of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society’s web-based publication, Faith in Action, argues that persons can have “a moral, ethical sexual relationship” outside of the covenant of marriage—a position that stands in clear opposition to both historic Christian teaching and the language of the UM Book of Discipline.

The column was written by Unitarian minister and “sexologist” Debra Haffner, executive director and co-founder of the Religious Institute. According to the Institute’s website, the group’s mission is “to change the way America understands the relationship of sexuality and religion.”

Haffner is the former president and chief executive officer of the controversial Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), a strong opponent of abstinence-until-marriage policies.

In the August 31 Faith in Action column, adapted from her book, What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know, Haffner writes that “based on my more than 30 years as a sexuality educator and now as a minister, [I believe] that a moral, ethical, sexual relationship—whether one is married or single, 16 or 35 or 80, gay, bisexual or straight—is defined by five criteria: It is consensual, non-exploitative, honest, mutually pleasurable, and protected, if any type of intercourse occurs.”

In a column published on another website, the Huffington Post, Haffner argued that non-married clergy should not be expected to remain celibate.

“I’ve long believed that the major sexuality problem denominations face is that they are unable to acknowledge that celibacy until marriage doesn’t apply to most single adults,” she wrote in the August 24 article posted on the Huffington Post site.

“It makes sense to require that clergy not engage in sexual relationships with congregants,” Haffner wrote. “It does not make sense to ask them to give up adult sexual lives outside of the congregation.”

Also in that Huffington Post column, Haffner noted that the Religious Institute—the group of which she is the executive director and co-founder—“has long called for a new sexual ethic to replace the traditional ‘celibacy until marriage, chastity after.’ This new ethic is free of double standards based on sexual orientation, sex, gender, or marital status.” (That “ethic” is outlined in the “five criteria” mentioned above.)

In the Church-and-Society-published article, Haffner argues that “[t]hese [five] criteria are more ethically rigorous than abstinence until marriage because they apply to intimate relationships both before as well as after marriage.”

Haffner’s views in the Huffington Post and the Church and Society article run counter to the long-held views of the church, which are rooted in scriptural injunctions, and to the official teaching of the United Methodist Church—teaching that was clarified and strengthened only last year.

The ethic of Scripture, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 6, is that believers should “[r]un from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:18-20 NLT).

Further, Titus 2:11-14 teaches that the ability to resist all manner of temptations is a gift of God’s grace: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (ESV).

The United Methodist Book of Discipline states that “although all persons are sexual beings whether or not they are married, sexual relations are affirmed only within the covenant of monogamous, heterosexual marriage” (Paragraph 161).

That language was adopted by the 2008 General Conference to clearly express the church’s stand on the issue of sexual relations outside of husband-and-wife marriage.

The Faith in Action column by Debra Haffner is the latest in the publication’s months-long series titled “Sex and the Church.”

In announcing the series in February, Bishop Deborah Kiesey (Dakotas Conference), president of the General Board of Church and Society, and Jim Winkler, the board’s chief executive, issued a joint statement saying the series would “help provide needed education to our children and ourselves. We anticipate it may restore relationships, create new healthy ones, and perhaps move people to act.”

The “Sex and the Church” series is overseen by Linda Bales Todd, director of the Louise and Hugh Moore Population Project at the General Board of Church and Society.

Joseph Slife is a certified lay speaker in the North Georgia Annual Conference. He blogs at

What does full communion with the Lutherans entail?

By Riley B. Case

The headlines from the recent Lutheran churchwide assembly in Minneapolis have not been encouraging: “Lutherans Approve Full Communion with United Methodists; Approve Homosexuals as Pastors.”

It is most unfortunate that the headlines have appeared together. Theoretically, there is no connection between the Full Communion action and the action to approve homosexuals as pastors. Even so, there are questions to be addressed.

Since the reports of the Assembly, United Methodists (as well as Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and lots of others) are wondering what the implications of these actions are for United Methodists. If we are now in full communion with Lutherans, which includes accepting their pastors to serve in our churches, will we have homosexual pastors serving United Methodist churches?

We need some clarity on this. We don’t know what the long-range implications of the Lutheran’s decisions are either for Lutherans or for United Methodists. In the meantime, however, some clarification is in order.

1) We are not talking about all Lutherans. We are only talking about Lutherans within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). This church is the largest Lutheran body in America with about 4.7 million members and is the 7th largest denomination in America. However, many of us are acquainted with the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod (LCMS) with 2.4 million members, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod with 312,000 members. Both of these are significant Lutheran denominations within the United States; both adhere to strict biblical principles; neither approves the practice of homosexuality. It is, in fact, rather ironic that the United Methodist Church declares itself in full communion with ELCA Lutherans, and other Lutheran bodies do not.

In other words, we must understand what Lutheran group we are talking about.

2) No pastors, Lutheran or otherwise, can preach in United Methodist churches who do not practice and uphold the moral, ethical, and belief standards of the United Methodist Church. This means that even though we are in full communion with ELCA Lutherans, no practicing homosexual Lutheran pastors can serve in United Methodist churches. This has been re-affirmed by Bishop Gregory Palmer, president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, who issued a statement after numerous persons asked the question about whether United Methodist congregations would have to accept practicing homosexual Lutheran pastors.

3) It is good to understand what the Lutherans approved and what they did not approve. Under the change, Lutheran congregations will be allowed to hire homosexuals in committed relationships as clergy. Before, gays and lesbians had to remain celibate to serve as pastors. The Lutherans are not on record as affirming homosexuality as a gift of God, nor are they, at least at this time, supporting gay marriage. The decision of the denomination, though discouraging to most of us who had hoped for more from the ELCA Lutherans, is still not as extreme as the positions taken by the United Church of Christ and by the Episcopal Church (USA).

4) What is the meaning of the “mutual recognition” between ELCA Lutherans and United Methodists? The “recognition” is in no way a merger. It means both groups are “open to receiving and accepting and acknowledging each other’s ministries.” The churches recognize the authenticity of each other’s baptism and eucharist and recognize that each church has “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic faith” expressed in the Scriptures and confessed in historic creeds and the core teachings of each denomination.

The United Methodist Church approved the “recognition” at its General
Conference in Fort Worth in April, 2008.

5) While many of us are unhappy with the action of the denomination, there is no reason why we cannot work with, affirm, and uphold our Lutheran brothers and sisters on local levels. Lutherans can teach us much. Their churches are in many respects more acquainted with and grounded in the historic creeds than United Methodists. Many local churches and individuals are unhappy with what the Minneapolis Assembly has done. These people need our support and prayers.

The fall-out and implications of both the vote to accept homosexual clergy and full communion with United Methodists are yet to be seen. This is a developing story and relationship that warrants our steadfast attention.

Riley B. Case is a retired member of the North Indiana Conference, assistant executive director of The Confessing Movement, and a member of the Good News Board of Directors. He is also the author of Evangelical and Methodist: A Popular History (Abingdon).