Monday, July 16, 2018

Recommended Reading: Lumber River Conference of the Holiness Methodist Church Discipline

Plans are underway in The United Methodist Church to develop a "Global Book of Discipline," a subset of the material in the current Book of Discipline that would be binding on all United Methodists everywhere, with the rest up for adaptation by local units of the church.

This push reflects, in part, that the current UMC Book of Discipline is over 800 pages long. Those 800 pages contain a large quantity of material, not all of which is equally relevant in all cultural, political, or social settings.

While 800 pages, may seem particularly long, Books of Discipline in the UMC and its predecessors have never been short. The earliest Books of Discipline that I have been able to find online, the 1791 and 1798 Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church, still run to nearly 200 pages.

That is why it is interesting to read the Doctrines and Discipline of the Lumber River Conference of the Holiness Methodist Church. It weighs in at a tight 53 pages, excluding an appendix of denominational paperwork forms.

The Lumber River Conference is a small group of mostly Native American churches in North Carolina that established itself as independent in 1900. Certainly part of the reason why its Doctrines and Discipline is so short is the size of the denomination - it has fewer than a dozen churches and no boards and agencies. Yet there were no boards and agencies in 1791, and the MEC still found material to fill over 190 pages. The LRCHMC's Discipline is shorter than its predecessors. Thus, the Lumber River Conference Doctrines and Discipline stands as a reminder that ever-lengthening Books of Discipline are not inevitable; they are a choice we make.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Elaine Robinson: #MyHope4Methodism

Today's post is part of a series that features United Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world reflecting on their hope for the future of The United Methodist Church as a global movement within the larger context of worldwide Methodism as a whole. Today's post is written by Dr. Elaine Robinson, Professor of Methodist Studies and Christian Theology at Saint Paul School of Theology.

United Methodism is at a crossroads. After fifty years as a denomination, we now face the possibility of schism. By the time the 2020 General Conference convenes, the church may be in the process of reforming along lines drawn in the sand over human sexuality.

While I am among those who hope for a solution that might retain our unity, history reminds us that our predecessor denominations experienced schism over a host of issues: slavery and racism; women’s ordination; the authority of bishops; the rights of laity. While the “Trust Clause” in the Book of Discipline complicates separation in ways not present to earlier generations, the reality of human beings holding different opinions on the polity of the institutional church differs little from the nineteenth century. We seek unity, but misinterpret it as sameness.

Moreover, the global nature of United Methodism adds to the complexity of maintaining unity in the midst of diversity. It is this dimension which I intend to emphasize here. Maturing in the capacity to engage in cultural difference with respect and acceptance appears as one of the significant challenges for today’s United Methodists. We want to be a global denomination, but we do not know how to live well in the midst of cultural differences. We do not know how to live well in the midst of differing opinions (especially when scripture is used to justify each position). My hope for United Methodism is that we might grow in our intercultural capacity and compassion, as unanimity of thought and expression cannot be realized this side of the new creation.

Theologically, we must grant the assumption that “now we see in a mirror, dimly” (1 Cor 13:12). Our human reasoning and understanding is subject to our fallen nature, what we sometimes call, “corrupt reason.” Assuming that we know absolutely the will of God always risks the hubris of the human nature asserting itself over the humble way of Christ.

In the nineteenth century, there were those who absolutely knew that God authorized slavery; they even found it inscribed in the scriptures. Whether some of these early Methodists knew they were using biblical passages as self-justification, we can only wonder. Nevertheless, the certainty of their position led to the separation of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South from the Methodist Episcopal Church, mirroring divisions existing in the society. In retrospect, the church understands the complicity of its corruption in upholding slavery and, later, racist structures such as the Central Jurisdiction. If we fail to recognize that our human nature does, can, and will err in its institutional expressions, our hubris can lead us to place human justifications above the way of Christ.

Here we find our first complexity in being a global denomination: the uncertainty of human reason and discernment. As Christians, taking on the “mind of Christ,” learning to discern the depths of the gospel is a lifelong process. We Methodists know this process as sanctification or growing in love of God and neighbor.

When we add cultural diversity to the caution exercised with human reasoning, our ability to find unity is further complicated. The vast majority of United Methodists would claim to “love everyone” and posit our sameness before God. Such understandings are important to our faith development, but insufficient to engage the irreducible diversity created and sustained by God. “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” too often serves as a veneer of cultural domination, in which churches claim to be open, but only to those who will assimilate into the existing cultural norms, rather than recognizing the mutual transformation that inevitably occurs when we open ourselves to those who are not culturally similar to us.

Within the context of the United States, diversification of our congregations is both problematic and increasingly necessary, as the reign of God is not segregated. When we add the global complexity, the United Methodist Church struggles to live together in a way that reflects both unity and diversity. Indeed, unity without the capacity to accept diverse cultural expressions must inevitably fail, as one culture will become normative or considered the “right” way to live. Cultural difference becomes a tool for upholding our way of life, rather than a means of living more deeply into the Gospel.

Perhaps a couple examples can illuminate this point. Predominantly white congregations in the United States often claim that all are welcome. Yet, when pressed to allow for diverse leadership or worship styles, they often refuse to adapt as if Jesus himself ordained the pipe organ and sitting quietly in the pews. Conservatives in the UMC appeal to African delegates to uphold the church’s norm around homosexuality, but turn a blind eye to ongoing practices of polygamy among church members in Africa. Progressives promote liberal understandings of inclusion, but reject African cultural norms as less developed. Most significantly, proposals to restructure the global denomination would appear to have less to do with allowing indigenous development of the church’s mission and more to do with the United States losing majority power (and financial as well as cultural control of the denomination). Caution must be exercised, of course, as not all motivations are self-interested. However, the Gospel provides cautionary warnings into the ways human beings often justify cultural and even religious norms in the name of God.

In response to this dilemma there are few easy answers, given that human beings will always fall short of the fullness of God’s grace and glory. Nonetheless, the more we, as a denomination, develop intercultural capacities, the better equipped we will be to live together and to discern the humble way of Christ.

Human beings are always a “work in progress,” not only spiritually, but intellectually, emotionally, and physically. Intercultural competence is never achieved by declaring that “we love everyone in the name of Christ.” Instead, growing in intercultural capacity is a developmental process like any other. We move along a spectrum from insisting on our own cultural norms to embodying the capacity to accept and adapt to cultural differences in healthy and respectful ways.

The United Methodist Church needs to take seriously the question of how we develop such intercultural understanding and compassion in clergy and laity across the global denomination. Human beings can and do live in various cultures, even multiple cultures simultaneously. Jesus Christ modeled healthy cross-cultural engagement, and called his disciples to grow in this capacity for the sake of God’s mission in the world. In a world so deeply divided by self-interest and narrow cultural perspectives, a UMC capable of deep, cross-cultural listening and understanding could provide an opening for the power of Gospel to weave us together as a denomination. Transforming the world begins with our own transformation into an interculturally capable denomination.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Robert Hunt: The Connection Between Text and Context, Part I

Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. It is the first of a three-part series on contextualization.

Interpreters of contextualization as a theological concept often rely on a distinction between text and context to make sense of the term. Yet the Christian “text,” whether conceived of as the Bible or the Apostolic tradition normalized in the Creeds is inseparable from its context, because historically context always precedes the text, even if metaphysically the source of the text (God's Word) creates the context.

The first of this three-part series will show how this relationship characterizes the Bible and its early contexts. The second part will draw on Newbigin to suggest a different approach to the relationship between textual worldview and cultural context than those taken by previous theologies. The third part will present an understanding of inculturation that draws on these reflections and will explore what this new understanding means for the Church’s engagement with the Word about the world.

The challenge of separating text from context runs through our efforts to interpret the Bible. Take Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. In it we have a clear affirmation of the validity of Jewish law.

Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

In these few sentences Jesus’ text simply reiterates its context in Jewish thought. The righteousness he preaches is non-different from that of other Jewish leaders. Their problem, we learn as we read onward, isn’t that they have the wrong law. It is that they are hypocrites whose actions don’t match their words.

This sermon by Jesus was sufficiently clear that when Gentiles began to seek entry into the church a major dispute arose about whether or not they would be required to follow the complete Jewish law. The context of that debate, which we read about the Acts and the Epistles isn’t just the teaching of Jesus. The debate about the obligations of converts to know and follow the Mosaic law was also part of the Jewish context in the time of Jesus and his followers. As recounted in the Talmud, the rabbis argued over the extent to which Gentile converts to Judaism were required to keep the law. (Shabbat 31a and elsewhere) So the argument among the apostles is taking place not merely in the context of Jesus’ teaching or Peter’s vision or Paul’s call, but a longer internal Jewish argument about what was essential to Jewish identity and thus inclusion in God’s covenant.

Indeed, this context of rabbinic contestation over the meaning and purpose of Mosaic law is in the background of every single saying of Jesus about the law. Much of Jesus' teaching in this regard isn’t unique, and doesn’t set proto-Christian teaching apart from Jewish teaching. As E.P. Sanders showed decades ago, Jesus’ teaching often takes one side of an ongoing debate, so that at least initially Christians could easily be understood to be members of a Jewish sect.

The way in which this distinction between text and context problematizes concepts of contextualization can be found when we examine a paragraph of Bill Payne’s recent essay on contextualization in this forum:

"Furthermore, contextualization is not an excuse for heterodoxy or for affirming practices that apostolic tradition and the witness of Scripture have rejected. For example, the New Testament Church argued against the Judaizers who tried to force Gentile believers to follow certain Jewish practices. Additionally, it rejected many aspects of the receiving cultures. The New Testament vice lists point to the church’s engagement with Hellenistic culture and its rejection of cultural practices that were not compatible with the Gospel. Just because the culture affirms something does not mean that God will affirm the resulting practice or related belief. The gospel is for culture and against culture at the same time.”

Actually both opposition to the “Judaizers” on one hand and to Hellenistic cultural practices on the other were extensions of existing rabbinical teaching by Paul and the apostles into the realm of the Jewish Christian community. They are not the application of a distinct normative text that is now critiquing a cultural context. They are just a new community continuing to debate issues raised in an older context. There may not be anything distinctly “Christian” at work here.

I’ll push the question of what is distinctively “Christian” about the Bible further in the next post as I turn to questions about the biblical “worldview.”

Monday, July 9, 2018

Recommended Reading: Chinese Christians with Methodist Ties

Christianity Today published a piece last fall entitled "10 Chinese Christians the Western Church Should Know." UM & Global is entirely supportive of the idea that Western Christians should learn about and learn from our fellows Christians around the globe, and the piece is worth reading for that reason alone.

Yet it is also worth noting that four out of the ten Chinese Christians profiled had Methodist connections. Look for the stories of Shi Meiyu (Mary Stone), Sung Shangjie (John Sung), Xi Shengmo (Pastor Hsi), and Yu Cidu (Dora Yu).

Xi and Yu's Methodist connections aren't stated, but both had them. David Hill, one of the missionaries mentioned in Xi's write up, was Methodist. After Yu finished medical school, she preached at a Methodist school. She also accompanied MECS missionary Josephine P. Campbell on an early preaching tour of Korea.

To learn more about Chinese Christians with Methodist ties as well as Western missionaries who worked in China, read the collection of China-related biographies from the Methodist Mission Bicentennial website.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Can a (different) book help the church stay together?

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

The Anatomy of Peace is a book that the United Methodist Church's Commission on a Way Forward, bishops, and other significant denominational leaders have drawn on in the process of attempting to find a solution to the UMC's decades-long dispute over homosexuality. The significance of the book at this moment in the church is captured by the title of a UMNS story about it "Can a book help the church stay together?"

Yet the book has also been piercingly criticized by United Methodist pastor Hannah Adair Bonner as "an artifice" that allows powerful white men to put words into the mouths of marginalized African Americans and Palestinians without being fully honest about the role of those white men in creating the book and its characters. As Rev. Jeremy Smith writes in a sympathetic response to Rev. Bonner's critique, that obfuscation does not completely invalidate the book's larger point about moving from conflict to peace, but it does raise significant questions about the book.

I will confess that I have not read The Anatomy of Peace and thus cannot comment on the book one way or another.

Yet if you are looking for a book that can help move the church from conflict between competing groups to a new sense of togetherness in Christ and one that takes seriously (and honestly) the perspectives of minority voices, I heartily recommend Christena Cleveland's Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2013).

Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist and theologian dedicated to intercultural and interracial reconciliation in the church. She is also African American and a professor at United Methodist-related Duke Divinity School (though not United Methodist herself). This presumably would exempt her and her book from some of Rev. Bonner's criticisms of The Anatomy of Peace.

The book draws on both social psychology and theology to describe the ways in which our natural mental processes and desires for self-esteem, security, and control lead us to distance ourselves from those we see as different from us and how we exaggerate those differences to produce conflict between our ingroup and outgroups. More hopefully, Dr. Cleveland also points out how we can go about overcoming those biases that keep us apart and prevent unity in the body of Christ.

While Dr. Cleveland has cultural differences foremost in mind, she acknowledges that most of her arguments apply to differences of any kind, and she frequently cites theological differences as one type of disunity in the body of Christ. As I read the book, I kept thinking how well what she was saying described the current state of The United Methodist Church.

You should read the book to get the full impact of Dr. Cleveland's argument, but among the solutions she proposes are developing a larger sense of group identity that encompasses opposing groups, using "we" language to reinforce that identity, affirming the basis of our own identity in Christ, and the importance of interacting with those from outgroups.

Ultimately, we do not need to choose between reading The Anatomy of Peace and Disunity in Christ. I would hope that United Methodists can read as many resources as possible to prepare us to discern together how to be faithful and in unity with one another. But I do hope that Disunity in Christ will be one of the resources that United Methodists read.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Recommended reading: The US Supreme Court on trust clauses

While a Supreme Court case decided in this summer's spate of rulings did not gather much national notice, it may be the one most relevant for the future of the UMC. In a dispute between the Episcopal Church's South Carolina diocese and breakaway churches over control of property, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal by the breakaway churches. This leaves in place a lower court ruling that upholds the Episcopal Church's version of the trust clause, in which all property belongs to the denomination, not individual churches.

For more on this case, read this Religion News Service article.

The case could have significant implications for the UMC, since the number of similar property disputes within Methodism could increase significantly over the next two years if more congregations try to exit the denomination without permission. This Supreme Court ruling will make it harder for them to do so and take their property with them.

Friday, June 29, 2018

William Payne: Contextualization: The Movement between Text and Context

Today's blog post is written by Dr. William Payne. Dr. Payne is the Harlan & Wilma Hollewell Professor of Evangelism and World Missions and Director of Chaplaincy Studies at Ashland Theological Seminary.

Contextualization is a theological imperative and a mission strategy. Succinctly, in the same way that God incarnated the divine self in Jesus by taking on the culture of a specific people, God calls the church to incarnate the faith into the cultural categories of the peoples that it seeks to reach as it “makes disciples of all nations.” Biblical faith is always a culture-specific faith. For this reason, world evangelization, contextualization, and indigenous Christianity go together.

Contextualization moves beyond cultural accommodation or translation of the Gospel. Through contextualization, God becomes Polish, Argentine, Chinese, and Mexican. In this sense, the incarnation is an ongoing process as the missional church continues to make Jesus Christ a living option to those who are separated from him by an assortment of social barriers related to culture, language, religion, and behavior.

Subcategories of people within a larger cultural group may continue the process of micro-contextualization. In the latter case, Jesus reveals himself to the poor, the disenfranchised, the abused, the neglected, the immigrant, and the unloved in specific ways. In the American context, Black theology is an example of contextualization. Theology is contextualized when a particular people who have internalized the gospel do theology from the perspective of their lived context.

Since there is an essential interplay between the community of faith, the scriptures, the Holy Spirit, and a given context, one should expect global diversity. In fact, global Christianity should reflect distinctive theological orientations and ecclesial practices. The reality of contextualization pushes against the idea of dominant global traditions with homogenous practices.

The diversity that contextualization fosters should be celebrated as a sure sign that the Holy Spirit is leading a people into a deepening encounter with God and the scriptures. Dominant traditions that use power to westernize, civilize, secularize, or Latinize indigenous faith communities are working against contextualization and the Holy Spirit. Since all theology is contextual theology, the imposition of a dominant theology onto a receiving people leads to theological imperialism and works against the goal of contextualization.

For this reason, denominational extensions must be carefully managed so that the receiving population is able to contextualize and adapt the faith to their lived context as they engage the scriptures under the direct leadership of the Holy Spirit. Missionaries are evangelists, guides, encouragers, representatives, and friends; not policemen.

Having stated the obvious, advocates for contextual theology do not argue that church tradition is unimportant or that theological orthodoxy does not exist. In fact, discrete peoples do theology within a given set of orthodox boundaries. Furthermore, all Christians affirm that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one Church. When Jesus inaugurated the new humanity after his resurrection, he created a universal church in which the designation of “Christian” became a disciple’s primary identity marker. Because of that, the Body is not divided by race, gender, socio-economic status, political orientation, denominational affiliation, or geographic barriers. All Christians of every social location are called to strive for mutuality and unity in Christ. There is one, holy, apostolic, catholic church of which all true Christians participate. For this reason, Christians from a given context have a shared accountability with Christians from other contexts (mutual accountability).

Furthermore, contextualization is not an excuse for heterodoxy or for affirming practices that apostolic tradition and the witness of Scripture have rejected. For example, the New Testament Church argued against the Judaizers who tried to force Gentile believers to follow certain Jewish practices. Additionally, it rejected many aspects of the receiving cultures. The New Testament vice lists point to the church’s engagement with Hellenistic culture and its rejection of cultural practices that were not compatible with the Gospel. Just because the culture affirms something does not mean that God will affirm the resulting practice or related belief. The gospel is for culture and against culture at the same time.

In the same way that people have a fallen nature that needs to be transformed by grace, the cultures of the world are infected by the DNA of the fall. This is seen when the culture works against the purposes of God and becomes a means by which its people are kept in bondage, locked away from the truth of God and the liberation that God brings to those who receive Jesus.

Many evils are sanctioned by particular cultures around the world. The fact that a culture sanctions a behavior does not mean that the church should accommodate it. The scriptures do not affirm cultural relativism. For this reason, the church cannot support cultural practices that go contrary to the teaching of scripture.

Since contextualization is a process and not an event, after the people have enjoyed a sustained encounter with the Gospel, the fruit of social transformation should become visible. In the same way that the work of sanctification gradually moves forward in the individual, over time the community of faith will leaven the larger society as it lives into its calling to be salt and light. Social transformation should be an end result of contextualization.

Finally, missiologists do not use the term “contextualization” in the same way as other disciplines. For example, advocates for contextualized learning argue that true learning only takes place when teachers present information in a way that students can construct meaning based on their own experiences. Like a reader-response theological hermeneutic, a literary text or an old constitution does not have an independent or self-evident meaning. Rather, people give meaning to what they read based on their own experiences and social location. As such, the intent of the author is subordinated to the experience of the reader and the interpretation that arises from that.

The theology of scripture that emerges from the above approach views the scriptures as a cultural artifact that needs to be conformed to the modern context and the experience of the western reader. For example, demythologizing the text and the Jesus Seminar both reflect western attempts to contextualize the text to the western mind and its experience of reality. In the ensuing dance between gospel and culture, the culture is the leading partner. The theological outcome reflects the normative aspirations of secular society and creates a domesticated Gospel. That is, one fully decontextualizes the scriptures so one can reconstruct the scriptures in one’s own image. This process devalues the normative authority of scripture, overemphasizes a particular culture, and makes the church the master of divine revelation.

Traditionally, Methodists have affirmed the primacy of scripture and have argued that the church is tightly tethered to the scriptures. The scriptures are not a point of reference or a guide. Instead, they are a divine revelation that reveal God and show humankind God’s will. Even though the scriptures must be contextualized when they move from one culture to another, the meaning and intent of the scriptures cannot be changed. Otherwise, we move from contextualizing the text to reimagining the text. In the end, UM preachers are given authority to preach and teach the Holy Scriptures in light of our tradition. They are not given authority to change the meaning of the text in the name of contextualization or to accommodate culture in ways that the scriptures do not permit.

In conclusion, in the same way that God became a Jew in order to reveal the divine self and communicate God’s will to a people who were embedded within a cultural context, the church is called to “incarnate” the gospel into every culture so that the members of every society (people group) can have a culture-specific encounter with God and God’s revelation so that they can receive Christ and enter into God’s reign.