Editorial: Facing Up

Editorial: Facing Up

By Rob Renfroe

We’re about to find out if we have any face boys.

In 1936 the Olympic Games were held in Berlin.  Hitler intended to use them to showcase the glory of the Third Reich and the supremacy of the Aryan Race. Sparing no expense, Hitler constructed imposing stadiums, all adorned with swastikas. He attended the games in military dress and was hailed with the Nazi salute.

Into this formidable setting stepped the son of an Alabama sharecropper, so sickly and thin as a youth that he had often been unable to help his father and brothers in the cotton fields. After moving to Cleveland, Ohio, so his father could find work, the course of his life was changed when a track coach watched him run the 100 yard dash in 10 seconds. He was 12 years old.

Attending school during the day and working at night, he refused a college scholarship because his family needed his paycheck. Only after the authorities at Ohio State arranged permanent work for his father, did he agree to attend.

Living in a segregated society, not allowed to eat in the same restaurants or use the same restrooms as his white teammates, he traveled to Hitler’s Germany to run for the United States. And there in the Olympic Stadium, with the Fuhrer glaring at him, Jesse Owens won four gold medals, breaking three Olympic records, tying another, and shattering the lie that Nazism was built upon.

Describing the internal strength that had allowed her son to overcome the challenges of sickness and poverty as a child and then the immense pressure of “Hitler’s  Olympics” as they were called, Mrs. Henry Cleveland Owens said: “Jesse was always a face boy…. When a problem came up, he always faced it.”

The United Methodist Church is about to learn if we have any face boys at the top. In this issue of Good News you will read that 59 United Methodist pastors, some leading our largest congregations, have called upon the Council of Bishops to respond together to the 900 United Methodist clergy who have stated that they will break The Book of Discipline and marry homosexual couples. They believe that if enough pastors break the Discipline enough times, the UM Church will not have the resources or the will to enforce the covenant that holds us together. And we will have a new de facto policy regarding marriage and the practice of homosexuality.

Our life together as United Methodists is at risk. We have a problem.  And we need some leaders who will face it.

Fifty-nine pastors from every part of the country have stepped up and put their names on the line. Pastors who love their churches and who love the United Methodist Church. And who can no longer turn their faces away from the problem before us. (You may read the letter they sent in the following pages, as well as learn how to add your name to theirs.)

These pastors correctly understand that an after-the-fact response by the Council of Bishops shows no understanding of the damage widespread disobedience will do to the life and the unity of the church. They are correct in believing that even forceful statements by a few Bishops will be ineffective. And another call to “holy conferencing” (the typical tepid response given in the past) will not be simply pointless—it will be ludicrous, when 900 pastors have declared they are done conferring and conferencing and trusting the process of General Conference.

In essence, the fifty-nine who have signed the letter are calling upon our Bishops to be “face boys”—men and women who will together speak out as the shepherds of the church and the defenders of the faith.

And Good News is calling upon the Council to go one step further. Defend and promote our position regarding sexual holiness. We live in time of sexual confusion and hedonism. And the damage done to families, to marriages and to individuals is impossible to overstate.

The United Methodist Church has a word to speak to our culture and to our members. The Wesleyan way of holiness is a beautiful offer of freedom and dignity that protects the worth of all persons and that offers healing and wholeness for all who are broken.

It is time, past time, for our Bishops to address the most controversial issue facing the church—and the issue that is most likely to cause the church to be torn in two. It is time to create resources for the church that provide a biblical, theological, historical and psychological defense of the Discipline’s position regarding sexuality. In other words, it’s time to be face boys.

Friends, we have a problem. Is there a Jesse Owens in the stadium?

Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News.


Editorial: Facing Up

How Can United Methodists Believe in Hell?

By William O. Reeves

Isn’t it supremely ironic that the ones who preach on hell shouldn’t, and the ones who have the theological basis to do so don’t?

The conservative evangelical world, most of whom derive their theological heritage from Reformed theology (also called Calvinism), has recently been set on its ear by Rob Bell’s book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell is the pastor of Mars Hill Church, a large, multi-campus ministry based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. To many readers, the book presents the argument for universal salvation—that a God of love would not consign anyone to eternal punishment because it would be against God’s nature. Bell says the belief in conscious, eternal torment is “misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.” He has been criticized by a number of conservative scholars and theologians.

But Bell has the logic right. Reformed theology emphasizes the sovereignty of God. The Almighty is all-powerful. Salvation is accomplished by God’s action in Jesus Christ and by God’s election of those who are to be saved. God chooses the elect.

If God is a God of love, and God has ultimate power, then everyone should get saved, because that’s what God wants. Not to do so would be contrary to the loving nature of God. Therefore judgment and subsequent punishment are meaningless. Hell is not an option. Everybody wins!

The problem with universal salvation is that it is not consistent with Scripture. Jesus spoke many times about the judgment of God and the fate of the wicked. The Book of Revelation describes a lake of fire reserved for the Devil, his angels, and sinners. Universal salvation historically has encouraged antinomianism, the rejection of morality in the light of irresistible grace, an attitude which was anathema to John Wesley.

John Wesley had no problem talking about the horrors of eternal punishment with his 18th-century audiences. And our current Book of Discipline affirms that “we believe in the resurrections of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.”

Once again, I am glad to be a Methodist! Those of the Wesleyan heritage, sometimes called Arminians, emphasize human free will in partnership with a loving, yet powerful God. Salvation is not totally God’s choice; faith is a human response. Therefore salvation is not a divine decision but a relationship between God and people.

God is love, so God limits divine sovereignty in order to allow the human response of faith, hope and love. This divine self-limitation enables a relationship through the incarnation of Jesus Christ—God made human.

Salvation as relationship allows human choice and also requires responsibility.  God loves us first, but humans must choose relationship with God. God’s grace is primary, but we are justified by our faith. We are forgiven by God’s mercy, but we are responsible for good works (Ephesians 2:8-10). The continuing relationship between God and a person is the process of sanctification, a particular emphasis of Wesleyan Methodism.

However, being endowed with free will, humans can choose not to relate to God or to stop relating to God. Bell says, “We are terrifyingly free to do as we please.” We can turn away and even fall out of a relationship with God. Again, Bell: “We are free to resist, reject, and rebel against God’s ways for us. We can have all the hell we want.”

Ultimately, unfruitful branches are cut off and thrown into the fire, Jesus said. We can persist in our resistance against grace until we die, at which point we will experience the judgment of God. In addition to the quality of love, God is also just and holy, and these attributes do not allow a relationship with sin. If we turn to God in faith, this is not a problem; God forgives us. But if we persistently choose badly, we will be separated forever from God.

Separation is not God’s choice or desire, quite the opposite. As C. S. Lewis said, the doors of hell are locked from the inside (The Problem of Pain). For one of God’s children obstinately to refuse God’s grace must be very sad and painful for God, like a father with a prodigal son. God is always open to our return, but if there is no turning, God must let us go.

So as a Wesleyan Christian, I believe hell is real. The Biblical imagery conveys the horror of separation, and to use Niebuhr’s phrase, it should be taken seriously, but not literally. Indeed, a “lake of fire” and “outer darkness” are mutually exclusive. But you get the point.

The discussion of eternal punishment inevitably brings up other religions. Unrepentant sinners we can understand being separated from God. But what about sincere believers in other faiths? In fact, the precipitating incident for Bell’s book was a sticky note attached to a painting depicting Mahatma Gandhi. The sticky note said, “Gandhi is in hell.” Bell’s response was, “Really? We have confirmation of this?”

How can we communicate the Gospel in a world of many faiths, yet stay faithful to the Christ who said, “No one comes to the Father except through me”? Surprisingly, Bell echoes the idea of the cosmic Christ working even through other religions, an idea espoused by United Methodist scholars Bishop Scott Jones and Dr. Billy Abraham and others. Commenting on John 14:6, Bell says, “What [Jesus] doesn’t say is how, when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.”

Again, C. S. Lewis has a helpful analogy (Mere Christianity). He says that there is only one right answer to an arithmetic problem, but there are some answers that are not as wrong as others. 2 + 2 can only equal 4. But 2 + 2 = 5 is closer than 2 + 2 = 25. Among the varied spiritual systems of humankind, the only absolutely wrong answer is to reject all answers or not to attempt an answer at all.

It is important to maintain respect for and dialog with people of other religions, yet to remain true to our Christ-centeredness. When confronted with these deep tensions of faith, I prefer to say that the eternal salvation or punishment of any person is a Management decision. I am in sales and customer service!

As a United Methodist pastor, I do not preach about hell. I emphasize the good news of grace and love. Wesley himself only had a couple of sermons on the subject. My lack of attention to eternal judgment is in part a reaction against the emotional manipulation of “hellfire and damnation” preaching. It is also a choice to focus on the positive relationship of faith.

If salvation is relational, there are two implications for Christians: (1) We are responsible for our relationship with God (Philippians 2:12-13). Prevenient grace ultimately should lead to holiness. (2) There should be an urgency in our witness.  It is critical that we share the good news of Jesus, because those who do not turn to God can be lost from God forever.

Romans 6:23 says, “The wages of sin is death.”  That is the tragic possibility. But the rest of the verse is good news: “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Eternal separation from God is possible, but by the grace of God and our responsible witness, nobody inevitably has to go there.

Dr. William O. (Bud) Reeves is the senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Hot Springs, Arkansas. A version of this article first appeared in the Arkansas United Methodist.



Editorial: Facing Up

Lessons on Leadership for Church Leaders

By Vicki Brown

District superintendents and directors of connectional ministries—working collaboratively with church pastors and lay leaders—can lead the adaptive change necessary for the United Methodist Church to have a future with hope, the Rev. Jorge Acevedo told 81 new district superintendents and seven directors of connectional ministries attending a training in early September.

“It seems to many of us in the church that the greatest leverage point for congregational vitality is at the annual conference and district levels. We are a connectional church that by our very nature has a supervisory dynamic that resides in the office of the district superintendent. Leveraging this supervisory role can facilitate healthy, holy clergy who lead healthy, holy churches,” said Acevedo, lead pastor of Grace Church, a multi-site United Methodist congregation at Cape Coral, Fort Myers Shores, and Fort Myers Central campuses in Florida.

“Spiritual leaders who live in community foster transformational cultures and establish fruitful process,” Acevedo said, urging the group to tend to their own prayer life and spiritual discipline practices. He mentioned an article in Circuit Rider magazine which cited a study of 1,050 pastors. That study found that 72 percent said they only studied the Bible when they were preparing for sermons and lessons. Only 26 percent of pastors interviewed for the study said they regularly had personal devotions and felt they were fed spiritually.

“Can I encourage you to live a deeply spiritual life yourself?” he asked. He also urged them to organize their districts so pastors can be held accountable to their spiritual life. For instance, the DS could meet regularly with eight or 10 pastors who in turn met with eight or 10 more pastors with the express purpose of accountability to their spiritual life.

“If you can, trust and unity will grow. Wouldn’t it be wonderful for an entire district to own the responsibility for reaching the lost and broken in their districts? What if an entire district took as its responsibility that every child in the district was fed?” Acevedo asked.

The training event is sponsored by the Council of Bishops, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and the General Board of Discipleship.

Superintendents oversee the total ministry of the clergy and churches for ministry and mission within their district. Directors of connectional ministries oversee program development for the annual conference.

Acevedo said The United Methodist Church in the U.S. has lost the practice of clergy watching over the souls of fellow clergy. Acevedo said he meets regularly with the three clergy he oversees at Grace Church and that they talk about how it is with their soul, if they are abiding with Jesus, and how is their ministry.

“Left to ourselves, even the most wanna-be faithful follower of Jesus will drift, and the drift is always south,” Acevedo said, adding that it is the spiritual environments created by regular practice that can keep people going in ministry.

“In our system, bishops, district superintendents, and local church pastors are charged with creating cultures where clergy and laity work collaboratively together to release the people of God to join Jesus in his mission in the world,” Acevedo said.

Since research on vital congregations has shown that 15 percent of United Methodist churches score high in vitality, that means the UMC cannot assign all the blame for congregational demise at the feet of the “institutions” of the church. “If 4,961 congregations have figured out ways to prevail in spite of our denominational condition, that is hopeful and promising,” Acevedo said.

He urged the DSes to create a culture of relational trust, appropriate vulnerability, and audacious faith. “Radical risk-taking is birthed in a transformational culture,” he said.

Vicki Brown is associate editor and writer, Office of Interpretation, Board of Higher Education and Ministry. This article was distributed by the Board of Higher Education and Ministry.


Editorial: Facing Up

Aldersgate becomes a Place of Spiritual Refuge

By Frank Billman

“Aldersgate has become a city of refuge for me, a place where I can come and I can magnify and praise the Lord—a place where you are stripped of all titles…and you can just enjoy the goodness of the Lord,” Bishop James Swanson of the Holston Annual Conference told participants at Aldersgate 2011. “The Council [of Bishops] has not assigned me to Aldersgate. The Holy Spirit assigned me here. I come of my own volition as I have become a regular attendee.”

The 35th annual national conference on Spirit-filled living sponsored by Aldersgate Renewal Ministries (ARM), was held July 27-31 in Dayton, Ohio.  More than 1,300 children, youth, and adults attended the United Methodist family conference.

Worship at the adult conference was led by a worship team from the University of Georgia Wesley Foundation, singing traditional hymns woven together with contemporary worship songs. Dancers, banner bearers, and an artist all ministered during the celebrations. Worship artist Mary Ellen Martin of Joelton, Tennessee, also led an equipping session on prophetic art. “A question: Why is this an ‘arm’ of the UMC and not The UMC?” wrote one clergywoman from Ohio on her evaluation sheet. “Worship like this should be part of our conferences and churches.”

As a part of the conference, more than 130 “Prophetic Prayer Appointments” took place, offering an individual 15 minutes with a 2-person team with gifting in prophecy and in words of knowledge who would pray and then speak God’s words into the attendees’ lives.

The children’s ministry celebrated the theme “Transformed.” Kids learned lessons from people who encountered Jesus, the ultimate transformer. Highlights included creative games, a global prayer night, and worship leadership in the Sunday morning Holy Communion celebration.

“The Gate 2011” saw more than 300 young people begin to desire and discover an extraordinary life of faith; becoming “Devastated by God’s Love and Ruined for the Ordinary.” One young man said of his experience, “I have been a Christian since I was 12. I thought I was living a life that was very pleasing to God. I never smoked or drank, but that truly was not all that mattered. I found out I need more of God in my life, and I need to give more of myself to Him and now feel that God is giving me a calling.”

Adult session speakers were the Rev. Jasmine Smothers from Norcross, Georgia; the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway from Reynoldsburg, Ohio; the Rev. Jacquie Leveron from Wellington, Florida; the Rev. Dr. Mark Virkler from Buffalo, New York; and the Rev. Dr. Craig Green from Livingston, Tennessee.

When asked, “How has the conference helped you in your spiritual journey?” a lay woman from Pennsylvania answered, “Re-filled, renewed, resting in the arms of my God!” A Kansas participant wrote, “It’s so refreshing to know that there are Spirit-filled Methodists in place around the U.S. and the world. We’re expecting a mighty move of the Holy Spirit to sweep through the Methodist church soon!” A clergy person from Indiana answered saying, “Inspiration to persevere in local church ministry. It gives me hope for the future of the UM Church; God’s not finished with us yet! I’m refreshed, revived, and ready to initiate new prayer ministries in the church I pastor.”

Since the conference, ARM has received testimonies of physical healings, people being filled with the Holy Spirit, and speaking in tongues for the first time.

Does attending an Aldersgate conference really make a difference? A father from Tennessee wrote: “I loved it so much, but I didn’t realize the full extent of what God was doing until the ride home. He has healed areas I didn’t know were broken. He has broken off things I didn’t know I had. Monday, my 11 year old daughter asked me, ‘What happened to you in Ohio? You are different, what did they do to you? You are so much nicer.’ And thanks to the equipping sessions [with Mark Virkler], I now understand my dreams. God is showing me the difference between my thoughts and His voice. He really speaks a lot if I will only listen, and since I left Aldersgate 2011, I have been.”

Bishop Ernest Lyght has already welcomed the Aldersgate conference back to Charleston, West Virginia next July 11-15, saying, “We have started praying for Aldersgate 2012, that it might be a marvelous Pentecostal experience for all participants.”

You can go to www.Aldersgate2012.com  to register for next year’s conference.  Bishop João Carlos Lopes, President of the Council of Bishops of the Methodist Church of Brazil will be one of the keynote speakers for that next conference.

Frank Billman is the Director for Church Relations for Aldersgate Renewal Ministries.


Editorial: Facing Up

News: Worldwide persecution of Christians on the Rise

Christians continue to top the list among the most persecuted religious groups in the world. According to The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life’s recent report, “Rising Restrictions on Religion,” threats to Christians and religious freedom around the world are rising. The report found that nearly two thirds (59 percent) of the world’s population lives under high government restrictions on religion, and almost half (48 percent) live in areas with high religiously motivated social hostilities. Because some of the world’s most populous countries also have the highest religious restrictions, only about 20 percent of the world’s countries have high religious restrictions and hostilities.

The recently released study compares findings from mid-2009 with a nearly identical mid-2006 study. Overall, the study found that within three years, restrictions rose in 12 percent of the world’s countries (23 of 198). Decreases in religious freedom occurred primarily in countries that already had high restrictions and hostilities toward religion, and gains for religious freedom generally happened in countries that already had low restrictions. The report noted a growing polarization between countries with established religious freedom gaining more, while those with established restrictions became more restrictive.

Christians are harassed with the most frequency of any religious group in 130 countries, followed by Muslims in 117 countries. Jews face harassment in 75 countries even though they make up less than 1 percent of the world’s population. Harassment means these groups experience “physical assaults, arrests and detentions, the desecration of holy sites and discrimination against religious groups in employment, education or housing…verbal assaults on members of one religious group by other groups or individuals in society.” Unsurprisingly, government and social harassment is most persistent in Middle East-North Africa, with reports of such incidents from all 20 countries in the region.

Muslims are more often harassed by governments than private groups or individuals, and Jews more often experience social harassment than government, but Christians experience both in almost equal frequency. Coptic Christians in Egypt continue to face persecution, and are barred from public-sector jobs and universities. The study was done before the “Arab Spring,” but reports indicate religious freedom has decreased since the uprisings. In Yemen, Christians are increasingly persecuted. In 2008, a group of Yemenis were arrested after converting from Islam to Christianity. Malaysia is one of the most restrictive countries, and its religious restrictions also increased “substantially,” although the constitution allows religious freedom. In practice, however, the government enforces limitations on Islamic beliefs, and in some cases, sends individuals practicing “‘deviant’ forms of Islam to religious ‘rehabilitation centers.’”

The study also considered laws against blasphemy, apostasy, and defamation of religion. Although these laws are sometimes purported to protect religious freedom, Pew found that “in practice they often serve to punish religious minorities whose beliefs are deemed unorthodox or heretical, and who therefore are seen as threatening religious harmony in the country.” Countries that have laws prohibiting blasphemy and defamation are much more likely to have government restrictions and social hostilities toward religion. More startling, the governments of countries that enforce blasphemy, defamation, and apostasy laws are five times more likely to attempt eliminating an entire religious group. Eighty percent of Middle Eastern countries have such laws, the highest of any region in the world.

Other regions of the world also showed notable trends, according to the Pew study. Though known for its religious intolerance, China’s government did not increase religious restrictions. Social hostilities, however, increased as conflict erupted between Buddhists and Muslims in Tibet’s Xinjiang Province. Europe’s social hostilities and government restrictions noticeably increased in the three year period. Government restrictions rose as France implemented a ban on full head coverings, affecting Muslim women who wear the burqa or niqab. Also affecting Europe’s score was the Serbian government, which refused to legally register some religious minority groups.

Religious freedom is strongest in the Americas, and conditions in the United States remained relatively unchanged in the three year period. Despite the relative calm though, things are not perfect. According to FBI reports, there were at least 1,300 religiously motivated hate crimes annually in the years between 2006 and 2009. The report notes that these years do not include incidents motivated by recent controversies over Islamic centers and mosques in New York and other parts of America.

Clearly there are serious and growing threats to the fundamental right of religious freedom. With 2.2 billion people living under varying degrees of religious restrictions, and Christians experiencing restrictions, harassment, and even persecution in 66 percent of the world’s countries, there is much work to be done to reverse this growing trend.

Kristin Rudolph writes for the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.  She recently graduated from The King’s College in New York City with a Bachelor of Arts in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics.