Love in the Ruins

This week the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church has its Annual Conference. I’m not alone in already having disrupted sleep, messed up digestion, and anxiety gathering across my shoulders as we near the gathering.

Our first and thorniest business is to elect delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our denomination’s global gathering, which will be in Minneapolis from May 5-May 15, 2020. General Conference 2020 is so important because it will likely host the first concrete steps to dismantle the United Methodist Church as an institution. While there are an increasing number of people trying to frame yet another schism of Christ’s one Body as “mitosis,” there are several reasons why we cannot call it that. Reason one: this schism will end some local churches’ ministries due to splits within those local bodies. Reason two: this schism will kill some individual believers’ faith. Reason three: this schism will make the church less able to do works of mercy in the world. Reason four: by this schism we continue to witness to the world that the Church is no different than the world. (We do not love others as ourselves. We do not love across difference. We do not love our enemies. Christ has made no difference for us, so why would anyone want to join us in Christ’s way?)

Finally, mitosis is a term that denies our agency and responsibility. We are not automatically following genetic instructions inside a cell. We are human beings looking at one another and saying we have no need of one another, then deciding to walk apart from one another. The United Methodist Church is pursuing a divorce, and as we elect delegates this week we are deciding who will represent us in our divorce proceedings. Of course it’s causing us anxiety and grief (which may include, yes, anger).

In recent American Christian history, when churches have divorced, some have spent a lot of time and money in court. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was decisively responsible for her denomination’s spending tens of millions of dollars in holding onto property. There are reasons to hope that the United Methodist Church will not follow the same path. But again, this makes it clear that this is not mitosis for the whole body’s growth. This is a divorce, and it contains the disputes that accompany a divorce. It contains massive conflict.

Even in 2016 (the most recent regular General Conference, which set the stage for the 2019 special General Conference), although it was clear that competing visions of Christian sexual ethics were going to be central, there was also a sense that the United Methodist Church was bigger than that division, that because of the context of our larger relationship to one another, our love for one another, there might be some hope for reconciliation within the body. In the 2015 Annual Conference, when we (well not me, since I wasn’t eligible to vote that time around) voted, we could and did send a group of delegates which we knew disagreed on human sexual ethics, and we did so with a clear conscience. Yes, there were progressives unhappily represented by conservatives and vice versa, but as a whole, we generally felt accurately represented in our United Methodist democracy.

This time around, however, battle lines seem to be drawn more clearly. The Traditional Plan is official United Methodist teaching. UMC Next officially rejects that teaching. In my Annual Conference, there is at least one major conservative group and one major progressive group trying to make sure they control who goes to General Conference 2020. That’s not what chromosomes do. That’s what people trying to gain the most favorable terms of a divorce for themselves do. That’s what people trying to win do.

We should consider, then, what our Christian faith says about divorce and then what our Christian faith says about winning.

Jesus’ teaching in Mark is that divorce is always a sin, and not only a sin but a sin which births other sins. But the United Methodist Church joins a long tradition (the other Gospels, the epistles, the teaching of the Orthodox Church) of setting Jesus’ teaching in Mark inside the context of Jesus’ whole ministry and teaching. When I recently preached on that teaching in Mark, for instance, I urged my folks to look at how Jesus actually treats the divorced people he meets (most obviously, the woman in John who has been divorced four or five times). With compassion and love, Jesus turns us broken people into those who proclaim our Healer.

Thus The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2016 can offer this nuanced approach to marriage and divorce:

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and post marital counseling in order to create and preserve healthy relationships. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that women and especially children are disproportionately impacted by such burdens…It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes, encouraging reconciliation wherever possible.

Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration…

Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

¶161.II.D.


Back in 1968, we United Methodists lacked some premarital counseling, even as we entered into covenant in good faith. In the decades since, we could have used some marital counseling for the ways we chose to relate to one another throughout the regular frustrations that come in every marriage. (Of John Gottman’s “four horsemen” which he claims from his research are the most accurate predictors of divorce, at least Contempt, Criticism, and Stonewalling were recently acted out on General Conference microphones, and Defensiveness has since joined the other three for regular rides across United Methodist blogs and social media.) But I am most struck by the Book of Resolutions‘ claim that there is also such a thing as “post marital counseling.” There is no such thing as post-mitosis counseling, because everything is just fine and both new cells are just fine and natural and even good. But if this is a divorce and we recognize it as a divorce, then we can choose to enter the divorce process grieving together that we could not figure out a way to reconcile. In this way we can end one way of relating with a blessing rather than a curse. We can choose the spirit (or Spirit) with which we approach the divorce process. Because of the Spirit this is possible even if you are mad, sad, and hurt as Hell by all that has come before.

Continuing with the Book of Resolutions‘ understanding, if we recognize what we are choosing to do as divorce, then we can be intentional in moderating its effects on the vulnerable people and groups and even institutions and agencies who will be affected by our decisions. As others have already pointed out, there are ways in which we can choose to support some of our important works of mercy, education, and more, even after the divorce is final. But we have to be intentional about that work. More damage is all that will be done if we do this swiftly, haphazardly, or if we assume things will just work themselves out.

This finally brings us to that theme of “winning.” What does our Christian faith have to say about our will to win? Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last. Paul says that certain kinds of conflict we enter into with one another as Christians are losses for all involved. Luther helped clarify the vast gulf between the Way of the Cross and the Way of Glory. Trying to “win” at Annual Conference in order to “win” at General Conference is a game everyone loses.

So how do we seek the one and the ways of the one who took a cross as his throne?
1) We tell the truth. (This is a divorce. It isn’t mitosis.)
2) We grieve together with God. (We are breaking up because we are broken.)
3) We invest as much love in our divorce proceedings as possible.

This week, when we choose delegates, we are not choosing champions to battle and win for us (because we only have one champion, and He won by losing everything). We are choosing people we sense have been gifted and called by God for a particular kind of peacemaking, dreaming, and yes, loving our enemies.

Please pray, and as you turn to the Scriptures as part of your discernment, I’d encourage you to look not just for single Bible verses or laws or principles or precepts, but ask God to bring to mind particular saints of the Scriptures, people who show us how to grieve and to hope and to dream and to plan rebuilding even while the house is still on fire. Here are a few places to start: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, David, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Ezra and Nehemiah, Mary.

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Bartimaeus

I am not Bartimaeus.
I am not the son of Timaeus.

When Jesus summons I do not leap up,
I do not leave everything behind,
I do not fly straight to Jesus,
Forgetting that I am blind.

I sit, I consider, I weigh the call,
Weigh it again,
Ponder my options,
Measure my abilities,
Guess my future.

When I stand, I creak, I groan,
Pins, needles, fire,
Spine having forgotten vertical.

I leave nothing behind.
I pack and repack:
Clothes and extra clothes, food, money, keys,
toothbrush, guitar, dishwasher, HOA dues,
401(k), Netflix subscription.

And now my toes stretch, grab earth, pull me
Forward into the dark,
Utmost concern to never stub,
Never stumble, never bruise,
Arms waving high and low,
Scanning for obstacles.
I take stops to rest,
I reverse, then move ahead again,
It takes years.

When I arrive I find
the Son of David has not moved on.
He’s still stopped in the road,
blocking traffic, waiting for me.

He asks me:
“What do you want me to do for you?”

Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today by Adam Hamilton

“Gifted” is an understatement when it comes to Adam Hamilton. In addition to writing this and 15-20 other books; in addition to planting Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS in 1990, then growing it to over 20,000 members; Hamilton is an incredibly influential preacher and Biblical teacher; and while I don’t know how much pastoral care ends up on his plate these days, his writing has always displayed a pastor’s heart.

Hamilton’s communication skills and pastoral skills are in full force in Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. In the first three parts of Section One: The Nature of Scripture, he gives a helpful and well-done overview of his personal relationship to Scripture, overviews the contents of the Old and New Testament in fifteen minutes apiece, provides some history on how the early Church came to the Scriptures, and talks about the process of canonization.

It’s that last–canonization–when Hamilton begins to stumble. Hamilton opens Chapter 13, “Which Books Made It into the New Testament and Why” by talking about the emergence of the New Testament in the first four centuries of the Church, with reference to the Apostolic Fathers, Marcion, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and Athanasius. I’m not sure where you would find a better introduction for the interested non-specialist than his summary here. As in his sermons, there is always enough depth for the intellectually wired hearers to go as far as they want. Then Hamilton moves to the criteria for canonicity.

“Criteria for canonicity” is the name we give to the reasoning used by the early church to determine if a given book was actually to be included in the canon. As Hamilton writes, “The process by which our New Testament books came to be seen as authoritative was not neat and tidy, but it does involve identifiable criteria. Typically scholars list these criteria as Apostolicity, Catholicity, Orthodoxy, and several others” (pp. 120-121). However, instead of Apostolicity, Catholicity, Orthodoxy, etc., Hamilton offers Usefulness, Consistency, Association, and Acceptance. The problem is not the admirable and pastoral desire to translate academic language for lay ears, but that his is sometimes a poor translation, which goes on to affect his teaching on the nature of Scripture and his exegesis of particular texts.

Hamilton’s first criterion is Usefulness. By this he means that the early Church found some writings to be “useful to large numbers of churches over a period of several hundred years” (p. 121). At one level this is accurate, because the writings achieved universality (or Catholicity, as most writers on the canon would put it) because the Church found that a letter initially written to one church with its particular issues was applicable to other churches and their own issues. That is to say, the Epistle to the Ephesians was always intended for wider consumption than the church at Ephesus. The Revelation of John was likely not addressed and sent only to the seven churches it names.

The difficulty with Usefulness as a criterion, however, is that it injects a big dose of pragmatism into our doctrine of Scripture right at the foundations. Immediately, it makes us ask what happens when a Biblical book or a section of a Biblical book no longer seems to be as useful. Rather than the criterion being the authority, we can easily become the the authority by which the criterion is to be judged. This isn’t just a slippery slope argument. It is actually what Hamilton goes on to do.

On page 177, Hamilton writes, “Christians may legitimately set aside clear teachings of scripture as no longer binding, seeing them as written primarily for another time and not reflecting God’s timeless will.” Hamilton’s examples are how Jesus reinterprets and often seems to break the Mosaic Law, and how the Council of Jerusalem discerned that the commandment of circumcision was not binding on Gentile converts. The problem is that Hamilton then says that we have the authority to do the same thing, but he never names who can legitimately take up the authority to do so, and he never lays out the deeply needed argument for how we make that discernment.

It’s the problem of Protestantism in general mixed with the problems of Wesley and of the US churches. The problem of Protestantism is that taken to its complete end, there is no authority beyond the individual and a single Bible verse. The problem of Wesley (or at least his followers) is a focus on the pragmatic, sometimes without theological reflection. (This is the definition of the work given to and accomplished by the Commission on a Way Forward.) The problem of the US churches is that we still think (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that we are a City on a Hill, here to enlighten the world. Saute this unholy trinity (sorry, Cajun readers) for a while, and you’ve got a great start to one hell of a gumbo.

Yes, Jesus and the New Testament writers read Scripture in ways I would never have read Scripture if they hadn’t first. Yes, the Council at Jerusalem came to a conclusion that was only right if the Holy Spirit was actually present to them and in the treif-filled dreams of Peter. (The Holy Spirit actually was.) No, we aren’t Jesus or Paul. No, we cannot wait for the church to be able to hold a truly ecumenical council once again before we interpret Scriptures for our context. Neither can we ignore that even without an ecumenical council for the last 1000 years, there are indeed interpretations of Scripture on which the Church has spoken with near unison. But Hamilton does not tend to these important interpretive questions, and so Usefulness remains a deeply flawed criterion for canonicity.

Hamilton’s second and third criteria–Consistency and Association–correspond to Orthodoxy and Apostolicity. In the first, I would have rather he simply defined orthodoxy, rather than substituting “consistency,” a definition which doesn’t recognized the chorus of different–not unison–voices at work in the Scriptures. Apostolicity likewise has much greater depth than mere “Association,” but it also requires an understanding of the church and the importance of the apostles, bishops, and elders that is more at home in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches than is common among Protestants. Finally, Hamilton’s Acceptance corresponds to Catholicity. I guess that’s fine, but as a United Methodist who leads people each week to say we believe in the “catholic church,” it seems like a missed opportunity to define an important term in the life of Christians.

As Making Sense of the Bible proceeds into its second half, I’m grateful to see Hamilton arguing for a “high” view of Scripture apart from using the words “inerrant” and “infallible.” I don’t know how these terms function elsewhere and I know they were well-intended, but in the US, they have often led to teachings that can be summed up as, “either you believe the earth is a few thousand years old or you are no disciple of Jesus at all.” I find it easy to believe that this has kept more people from Jesus than it has ever drawn to Him. We would never have had a Saint Augustine if Saint Ambrose had insisted on that belief in his catechesis.

On pages 176-177 Hamilton writes,

As we seek to interpret scripture faithfully, we must not set aside what is inconvenient or challenging to us simply because it is difficult. We will, however, read scripture in the light of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. When we find something that is inconsistent with the way God reveals himself and his will through Jesus Christ, we may legitimately ask questions. In those situations, it is Jesus who serves as the final Word by which other words of Scripture are to be judged.

I feel like I probably have written or preached something similar. I find Jesus to be supremely challenging, difficult, and inconvenient. What about this “light of the life, ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus?” How do we read Scripture in light of those things when it is only by Scripture that we have received a witness to these things? I think this means I need to be constantly having my Jesus lens polished, ground, shaped, cleaned. I’m convinced that this is one reason to read the Gospels and preach from them often. This summer, I should finish up the Gospel of Mark after preaching 67 non-contiguous Sundays covering every verse of the book. I think it does make me read every other verse of the Bible differently, and it’s not even the only Jesus lens the Bible offers.

To finish up this review, I’ll move on to Hamilton’s 100+ pages worth of responses to particular questions (Creation; Historical Adam and Eve; Divine Violence; Revelation; Homosexuality). These are uneven, with some begging to be lengthened a good deal. It almost feels like a different book, because they aren’t truly case studies of an approach offered by Hamilton, but specific arguments about specific issues and texts. The one on homosexuality, which Hamilton must have known would have been the most controversial, is surprisingly weak, likely mostly because it’s very short.

Many negative reviews of the book at its release focused on a framework which Hamilton offers in that chapter, Homosexuality and the Bible. It’s notable, given those reviews, that this is very late in the book, page 272 out of 309 pages in the paperback. (Italics are his.):

As we read and interpret scripture, I’d suggest that there are three broad categories – let’s call them buckets – that biblical passages fit into. There are passages of scripture – I would suggest the vast majority – that reflect the timeless will of God for human beings, for instance, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ There are other passages that reflect God’s will in a particular time but not for all time, including much of the ritual law of the Old Testament. And there are passages that reflect the culture and historical circumstances in which they were written but never reflected God’s timeless will, like those related to slavery.

For my part, I think Hamilton describes this as prescriptive, but I wonder if it’s more useful if it’s descriptive. Yes, we’re always tossing things into the buckets. Sometimes we mis-categorize something in one season of life and re-categorize it later, given new information or new life experiences. But once we notice that this is what our default setting seems to be, do we just continue doing it? Do we ever question our labels or the bucket system? When do we get to the question of how we do this work as a community rather than individuals? (To his credit, Hamilton makes a few slight nods to reading in community.) Do we ever get to the question of the criteria that precede the buckets, where those criteria come from, and what authority we ourselves hold?

In the end, while I could likely choose some quotes or some sections (particularly in the first half of the book) to recommend to others, this is not a book I would recommend for people seeking to develop a doctrine of Scripture. I could not just hand it off to someone and feel like it expresses questions of the doctrine of Scripture and of our relationship to Scripture well. It’s disappointing, because I’ve been looking for a while now for such a book. For anybody who has recommendations, leave it in the comments. (But please don’t recommend Incarnation and Inspiration or How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. I’ve already been disappointed by those too.)

Bonus: The best, brief guide to “How to Read the Bible” is still here. Yes, Dr. Celia Wolff has held the title now for over five years.

Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament

I do not think I’d ever heard of Peter Enns until Inspiration and Incarnation apparently led to his being purged in 2008 from the faculty at Westminster Theological Seminary. It still took me another ten years to read it. I both can and cannot see the fuss.

To Fuss
Westminster Theological Seminary has always been a fundamentalist institution, in the most literal sense of the word, and WTS still tells its own story in those Evangelical vs. Liberalism terms. As someone whose earliest Christian faith was formed in American evangelicalism, I still had very little contact with the Reformed part of that world. In my experience, even religious historians miss some of the diversity present under the umbrella that is American evangelicalism. I’ve been around and worshiped among evangelical Baptists, evangelical Methodists/Wesleyans, evangelical non-denominational Christians, evangelical Charismatics/Pentecostals, evangelical Stone-Campbell descendants, evangelical Anglicans, evangelical Lutherans, and even a few evangelical Roman Catholics. But I’ve rarely actually been in evangelical Reformed circles, despite the fact that they’ve had a muscular presence in American evangelical thought and especially publishing for over a hundred years. I wasn’t formed by Christians who knew or cared enough to have an opinion about Westminster Presybyterianism vs. Princeton Presbyterianism. But it makes complete sense that an institution that was founded in 1929 order to separate to stay theologically pure would still work to stay theologically pure just 80 years later.

Not to Fuss
The title metaphor and thesis is this: there is a similarity between 1) the nature of the God-man, Jesus, and 2) the divine and human elements which together make Scripture. Enns then details “human” pieces of Scripture, such as similarities between the Old Testament and other Ancient Near Eastern texts (e.g., Utnapishtim‘s flood and Noah’s flood), as well as diversity of both historical (e.g., Samuel-Kings vs. Chronicles) and theological (e.g., Proverbs vs. Ecclesiastes) claims within Scripture. All in all, it seems to me exactly what an evangelical academic Biblical scholar would do, one teacher’s attempt to be honest about difficulties that arise when we read the Bible closely and as unique sacred Scripture, then try to reckon with those difficulties.

Review
The title metaphor is so loose that it’s not helpful. The doctrine of the Incarnation says Jesus is unique in being fully human and fully divine. By the end of his book, Enns has argued that the Bible is neither fully human nor fully divine. What’s more, because of the fallout from this book and because of the trajectory of his follow-up books and career into a comfortably progressive (or post-)evangelical space (complete with effusive blurb circles with Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans, Tony Jones, Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle), I wonder if this book was Enns’ attempt to reach for a way forward but also stay right where he was. That is, I wanted a more daring book, and this is a cautious book which reads like Enns is pulling his punches. I will not widely recommend this book, but I am interested in at least checking out an audiobook of his work since.