I do not believe you will find a book in the Bible more relevant to The United Methodist Church than the Epistle of Jude.
Early in his letter Jude writes: “Although I was very eager to write to you about the salvation we share, I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people. For certain individuals have secretly slipped in among you. They are ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (verses 3-4).
Jude tells his readers he had intended to send them a letter going into depth about our salvation in Christ. But grave reports about matters in the church have compelled him to write a very different letter. The problem? False teachers in the church are denying Christ and promoting immorality.
What are the characteristics of those leading the church astray?
1. They claimed a wrong source of authority. “Yet in the same way these dreamers also defile the flesh, reject authority, and slander celestial beings” (verse 8, emphasis added). What is the basis for their heretical teaching? Their dreams. Their visions. Their personal experiences that tell them we should embrace a truth that is contrary to what Jesus and the apostles taught.
The false teachers Jude described are similar to false teachers and prophets throughout the ages. They say, “God has told me.” Or “the Holy Spirit has revealed something to me.” What they claim to be their personal revelation now trumps what the Scriptures teach.
In our time the phrase is usually, “The Holy Spirit is doing something new.” And false teachers claim to be privy to this revelation in a way the rest of the church is not. No matter that the Scriptures are clear, and the church has taught the same doctrine for 2000 years, and 95 percent of all Christians around the globe still uphold what the church has taught for millennia. A relatively few, “enlightened” Western Christians in a hedonistic, postmodern culture now believe they alone have been chosen to receive and promote a novel doctrine that supersedes what the Scriptures reveal to be God’s will.
Ask them how they know this is God’s revelation and they have a difficult time responding. They just know it. They feel it. It’s obvious, in their minds, that God is doing a new thing that is pleasing to our culture and anathema to the Bible.
I once asked a respected progressive pastor how he could promote what was contrary to the Bible. He was very frank. He told me, “Rob, the church created the Bible. So, we can re-create the Bible.”
And on what basis? Our feelings, our imaginings, our dreams? A belief that this is what all “good, loving people” would teach as the truth if they were God? For those who taught false doctrines in Jude’s day and for false teachers in our own time, yes, a foundation as flimsy as an individualistic conviction that the Bible cannot be right is sufficient to claim that God is revealing new truth.
2. They possessed a wrong Christology. Past cults have taught that Jesus was not truly divine – they esteem him as a moral teacher, a cultural reformer, or a highly-evolved being who realized his God-consciousness. But they do not believe he was God incarnate.
What does Jude say about the false teachers of his time? “(They) deny Jesus Christ our only Sovereign and Lord” (Jude 4). How exactly they were doing this, we are not told. But in some way, they were diminishing the uniqueness and the Lordship of Jesus. They were making him one of many rather than the One and Only.
Today, what you may hear is “Jesus is my Savior and my way, but there are many ways – all of them valid.” I once asked a UM pastor who was a candidate for bishop if other religious teachers, Buddha and Mohammad, for example, brought the same kind of revelation and truth to their followers that Jesus brings to Christians. Quickly and unashamedly, he responded, “Oh, yes. I tell my students, ‘God is wholesale. Jesus is retail.’” Buddha, Mohammad and Jesus are simply retail outlets for the same wholesale God – just different ways of receiving the same (saving?) truth.
By the way, who were his students? Men and women training to become pastors at the United Methodist seminary where he taught.
A related way the divinity and uniqueness of Jesus is diminished is through implied universalism. This is the belief that everyone will go to heaven and that there is really no need for people to surrender their lives to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. The lack of urgency around evangelism in our denomination betrays the unspoken understanding of many that faith in Christ is a good thing for those who want it, but it is not necessary for salvation and eternal life.
I wish I could tell you these understandings of Jesus are uncommon within the UM Church. But the truth is this false teaching has been propagated in our seminaries for decades and it has infected many of those who are now serving as our pastors and preaching in our pulpits.
3. They promote a wrong understanding of morality. They pervert the “grace of our God into a license for immorality” (Jude 4). Wrong beliefs will lead to wrong behavior. Deny the authority of the Scriptures and the full divinity of Christ, and you can be sure that a compromised morality will soon follow.
Throughout the ages, there have been three responses to God’s grace. One is legalism – those who sin cannot remain in fellowship with the body of Christ. Another is license (what the false teachers in Jude’s letter were and many in our own time are embracing) – because of grace we are free to live as we desire. God will accept us and affirm whatever behavior we believe is right for us. The third response is liberty – through the work of the Spirit, we become free from the power of sin and begin to live a new life.
True freedom is not the right or the ability to do whatever we desire. True freedom is the power to do whatever we should, including dying to the base desires of the flesh and living a life that pleases God.
Jude told his readers and I tell you: The truth is under siege. It’s being undermined by some in the church. By teachers in the church. And the charge for us is the same that Jude gave to his readers “Contend for the faith once and for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).
The United Methodist Church is divided on the most basic beliefs any church can face. Do we follow the Scriptures? Do we confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, the only begotten Son of God? Do we believe grace leads to license or liberty?
We orthodox Wesleyan Methodists are to know the truth; promote the truth; and, where it is under attack, contend for the truth. For it is the truth that will set us free.