Thursday, August 14, 2014

Donald Messer on Grace Upon Grace: A World Transformed by Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by Dr. Donald E. Messer. Dr. Messer is president emeritus and professor emeritus of The Iliff School of Theology.  Currently he is Executive Director of the Center for the Church and Global AIDS, co-chair of the United Methodist Global AIDS Fund Committee, and a consultant to the United Methodist Office of Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns. Dr. Messer is commenting on the tenth section of the document, "A World Transformed By Grace." Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.

“A World Transformed by Grace” (Paragraphs 56-65) sounds utopian and idealistic, far from realistic, but this dream has long been the vision that motivated Christians to move out of their comfort zones, seeing to create change in cultures and society.  Idealism and realism are not polarities but a continuum; dreams can become one’s destiny.

I have always marveled at Christians who, despite their lack of wealth or other resources, have repeatedly set out to bring hope, health, and help to persons around the world.  Though the apostles numbered but twelve, they aimed to transform the world.  Despite all odds and obstacles, missionaries established hospitals, schools, universities, and churches around the world.  They battled slavery, infant genocide, witchcraft, hunger, and disease. Dreams were transformed into destiny.

Years ago Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in the darkest days of apartheid, was asked if he were an optimistic about the future of South Africa.  He responded, “Oh, yes.  As a Christian I’m a prisoner of hope.”  Hope differs from optimism in that it soberly recognizes realities like sinful persons and social structures, yet never despairs about the possibility for grace to break through seemingly impossible impediments.

If persons become cynics about the possibilities for human or social change, they limit the potentiality for conversion or transformation.  The United Methodist missional statement “Grace Upon Grace” (Par. 56-65) affirms that Christians should envision through “eyes of faith . . . a world transformed by grace.”    In my own lifetime, I have seen both church and society change for the better; even when but a few years previously it seemed impossible for such transformation. 

Globally United Methodists agree that “God’s good creation has been bent, distorted, and broken:  gods of egoism, nationalism, racism, classism, militarism, and sexism work their havoc.”  What United Methodists fail to see is that heterosexual privilege and prejudice has also stigmatized and discriminated against our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered neighbors.  In fact, the depth of our disagreement today threatens schism in United Methodism and imperils our missional outreach to the world.  The unity of the church is threatened.

Reading the document “Grace Upon Grace” in light of United Methodist’s division on LGBT issues prompts one to ask what it means to affirm the proclamation of the Gospel.  Are we really affirming the inclusive love of God in Jesus Christ or do our biblical and theological interpretations inevitably exclude some persons?  Is the evangelism we affirm really for everyone or is it intentionally making heterosexuality normative for all of humanity?  Many a person in the LGBT community has found Christianity lacking in grace, unjust, unwilling to offer equality, and unwelcoming.  As long as United Methodist polity and leaders insist on saying “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” language about grace will have a hollow, if not a hypocritical, ring to many both in the church and world.  Is this document simply a lovely treatise on theology or does United Methodism actually seek to practice what it preaches when it declares “Inclusiveness of all people is to be characteristic of the missional church.” (Paragraph 51)

This document suggests that “one audacious form of mission today is for Christians to obey Christ and diligently love one another.”  Is it too much hope that a future revision would add “sexual orientation” at the end of the sentence that declares “Resisting principalities and powers, we love one another across limits of country, color, clan, creed, class, or culture”?  Or are we more inclined to follow Leviticus or Paul than to obey Jesus’ clear command to love our neighbor? 

Besides the global struggle for human rights, the document needs an updating to reflect the challenges of the 21st century—issues like terrorism, torture, drones, privacy, HIV/AIDS, Ebola, cyber-threats, etc.  The challenge of grace transforming the world has become more improbable rather than easier.

What is timely is that the essay challenges us to recognize God’s prevenient grace in all people.  Respecting the religious faith of others remains a challenge to many United Methodists.  Yet increasingly in dialogue and action together we discover meaningful spiritual dimensions.  Even today as Ebola threatens Africa, we are reminded of the urgent necessity of Christians and Muslims working together, and in Sierra Leone we have witnessed such cooperation between a United Methodist bishop and Islamic leaders.   In places where HIV and AIDS are being addressed most effectively in Asia and Africa, one witnesses persons of differing faiths recognizing the sacred worth of every human being, promoting prevention and care together.  But in other places and on other issues too often we witness discord and division.  War still plagues humanity; peace will never come to nations divided by religious strife. 

Let us pray United Methodists continue to experience the grace of God’s inclusive love in Jesus Christ and seek in every way to witness by word and deed to that marvelous gift.  If we do so, we shall be harbingers of hope helping to usher in at least a foretaste of what we envision when we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.”


  1. I affirm much of what Dr. Messer writes in his post. For example, his thoughts on prevenient grace and the need to find common cause with people of other faiths as all work together toward common goals are laudable and in keeping with standard commentary on this section. However, his repeated reading of the LGBT debate into the section seems opportunistic and distracting.

    According to the opening paragraph of “A World Transformed by Grace,” modern societies are guilty of idolatry when they make peace with behavior that is contrary to God’s will. Since the fall, sin has woven itself into the fabric of culture. It corrupts individuals as they are socialized into fallen world systems. Not only does it taint culture, it also distorts the image of God in the individual. In light of this, we should ask how a fallen world that has been “bent, distorted and broken” by sin can be transformed by grace. More precisely, how does the UMC give witness to the transforming power of the Gospel in the context of broken societies and fallen human nature?

    According to the referenced section, we do this by preaching the Gospel as we witness to God’s kingdom by word, deed and sign. We do it by inviting people to receive the good news as they enter into God’s reign. We do it by incorporating new believers into a community of faith that tangibly manifests the new life so that they are transformed by God’s grace and remade in God’s image; an image that evinces the fruit of the Spirit, radical love, servanthood, and the new creation. In Jesus Christ there is hope for the drug addict; there is hope for the philanderer; there is hope for the child abuser; and there is hope for the one who lives in spiritual captivity far from the light of God’s truth in Christ. The preaching of the Gospel does not seek to baptize the old order and call it good. Rather, it seeks to “make all things new” (2 Cor 5:17 and Rev 21:5).

  2. In light of the above summary, I offer an expanded response that goes beyond Dr. Messer’s original post.

    First, Dr. Messer’s appeal to the “inclusive love of God in Jesus Christ” becomes his foundation for envisioning how the UMC should assess the LGBT debate. After arguing for the priority of love, he asks, “Are we more inclined to follow Leviticus or Paul than to obey Jesus’ clear command to love our neighbor?” He believes that the UM Book of Discipline should change its “incompatible with the Gospel” language because it is “lacking in grace, unjust, unwilling to offer equality, and unwelcoming.” Also, it reflects a “heterosexual privilege and prejudice [that] has stigmatized and discriminated against our lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgendered neighbors.” After arguing for the inclusion of “sexual orientation” in the section, he writes, “As long as United Methodist polity and leaders insist on saying ‘homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,’ language about grace will have a hollow, if not a hypocritical, ring to many both in the church and world.”

    Often, this type of appeal has been associated with a quiet universalism, a creeping antinomianism, and progressive politics. If one accepts Dr. Messer’s premise, one must wonder what the end state of the UMC’s engagement with society should be. Based on his words, it will resemble a westernized vision of social justice; one that reflects the values, aspirations, and ideology of a privileged group of western academics and ecclesial bureaucrats instead of Christ’s radical vision for the holistic remaking of individuals and society. Additionally, his position discounts the social location, culture, and theology of much of the global connection even as it minimizes traditional UMs within the US connection.

    Second, since sin separates people from God and damages human communities, all agree that it must be challenged in the name of Jesus. The partial list of sin in Paragraph 56 names egoism, nationalism, racism, classism, militarism, and sexism. The Bible’s expanded list includes wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust, envy, gluttony, idolatry, false religion, materialism, consumerism, hate, murder, drunkenness, carousing, selfishness, cursing, bearing false witness, unbelief, and all forms of sexual immorality. Under the sexual immorality heading, the full canon of scripture does not approve of homosexual sex. Every reference to it is negative. For this reason Dr. Messer seeks to emasculate Paul and Leviticus by appealing to a canon within a canon.

  3. Third, the gospels from which Dr. Messer discerns the all-inclusive “Gospel of love” do not demonstrate that Jesus actually approves of homosexual sex or gay marriage. Clearly, the Jesus of the gospels did not support a lot of sinful behaviors that our society ignores, encourages, or rewards; (e.g., adultery, lust, divorce, self-righteousness, unbelief, or systemic exploitation of the poor). He condemned the religious leaders as the “blind leading the blind” (Mt 15:14). His affirmation of run-of-the-mill sinners led to their personal redemption and transformation, not to guilt-free continuation in patterns of behavior that separated them from God’s will. He says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more” (Jn 8:12).

    In contrast to the Gospel of love, the Jesus of the Gospels offers an exclusionary caution. He says, only the one who does the will of my Father will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt 7:20-22). He warns that the broad way leads to destruction (Matt 7:13-14). In fact, many will be cast out into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 13:42-50 and Lk 13:28). Would be followers who do not bear the right fruit will be like branches that are pruned from the vine and thrown into the fire (Jn 15:2). They will be like the fig tree that does not bear good fruit. It is cut down (Lk 13:6-9). Followers are commanded to bear fruit that demonstrates repentance because the axe is already laid to the root of the tree. The winnowing fork is in his hand. He is separating the wheat from the chaff (Matt 3:8-12). In the end he will separate the wheat from the tares and the good fish from the bad fish (Mat 13:24-47). In numerous places Paul reminds his readers that those who practice certain vices will not inherit the kingdom of God. Likewise, in the judgment things will not go well for those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev 22:15).

    Even if one does not read the above warnings in a literal fashion, take them seriously, or assumes that they refer to faithless Israel, it is hard to reconcile these texts with Dr. Messer’s all inclusive “Gospel of love.” This is why early Methodists warned their hearers to “flee from the wrath to come.” It is also why they maintained the discipline and purged the societies of those who were not seeking after holiness. Furthermore, a casual reading of John Fletcher’s Checks to Antinomianism will show that Wesley and pristine Methodism did not subscribe to Dr. Messer’s Gospel of love.

  4. Four, academics are not free to rewrite the Bible in their own image or edit it as they see fit. The tradition affirms contextualization but not a type of radical deconstruction that robs the scriptures of their position as the primary witness to God’s will and character. Also, the UMC affirms that the entire canon is scripture. A hermeneutical practice that seeks to minimize the epistles in favor of a select reading of the gospels is problematic and self-serving. When properly understood, the whole Bible is God’s gift to the whole people of God. All too often, clergy let their political commitments, ideological affirmations, and academic conditioning determine what they emphasize and what they ignore in the biblical witness. This leads to preaching a truncated gospel that domesticates the scriptures. In light of this, Paul’s warnings against those who mishandle the world of God (2 Tim 2:15, 2 Cor 4:2, and 2 Pet 3:16) and preach another Gospel (Gal 1:7-9 and 2 Cor 11:3-4) should be reviewed.

    Five, as the section states, “We tell the story of God’s gracious initiative to redeem the world.” In the redemption, God works to undo the consequences of the fall and bring creation back into a right relationship with God. Evangelism announces this as it invites people into God’s reign. It offers them freedom from sin and its consequences in this life and in the life to come. Human sin points to the fall and gives evidence to human bondage. In the same way that Dr. Messer would not extend uncritical inclusion, special privilege, and gracious acceptance to a person who harbored feelings of sexism, xenophobia, and hate, he should not assume that his “Gospel of love” constrains the UMC to affirm gay marriage when the General Conference repeatedly discerns that homosexual practice is contrary to the teaching of scripture.

    Six, the issue is larger than homosexuality. Activities associated with adultery, cohabitation, pornography, child sexual abuse, lust, cybersex, zoophilia, pimping, the sex trade, promiscuity, sex tourism, sex addiction, the culture of “one night stands,” and all forms of sexual exploitation need to be reassessed from the perspective of the in-breaking kingdom and God’s design for humanity as it is outlined in the scriptures. Many people who are caught up in one or more of the above feel trapped; like they are in a cage from which they are unable to extricate themselves. It is as if their brains have been rewired to empower a fallen proclivity and overcome an inner desire to live a different life. It can be as overpowering and consuming as drug addiction. Additionally, many have claimed that victimization formed them into what they are and that it has become their default condition. Of course, some choose their sin because they have been socialized by an over-sensualized society that glamorizes sexual perversion. All such people deserve to hear the Gospel of transformation. They need hope to believe that they can be changed by God in this life. To these, the proclamation of the transforming power of grace is good news!

  5. Seven, the church should not oppress those who struggle with sexual sins. Additionally, homosexuality should not become the “scarlet letter” of our time. That is why the UMC affirms that homosexuals are people of scared worth and commits itself to be in ministry with them. Still, the Gospel calls people in every location to surrender their human sexuality and natural inclinations to God’s lordship. As such, the preaching of the Gospel of the kingdom is not oppressive. It is an act through which people encounter God and find grace to live under his lordship.

    Eight, despite pleadings for social justice, the implementation of God’s reign is the decisive measure of biblical justice. Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The divine kingdom is not build around a secular ideology that advocates a humanistic vision of utopian justice. Biblical justice strives for the in-breaking kingdom of God as it seeks to align all things with it. Viewed from this perspective, a rift may exist between the aims of social justice advocates and those who witness for God’s kingdom on earth.

    Finally, in the end, all disciples will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account for their ministry and to receive good or bad according to what they have done in the body (2 Cor 5:10). Knowing this, I cannot give my “amen” to what Dr. Messer affirms even if I would like to do so. For the same or similar reasons, millions of other Ums will not avow Dr. Messer’s vision of sexual justice. In light of this, we must acknowledge the obvious. The connection is badly polarized.

    We will not achieve unity by forcing others to compromise conscience or act in ways that violate what they believe the scriptures teach.
    Additionally, the connection will not achieve lasting unity by telling UMs to think and let think on this issue. Two fundamental issues should drive our conferencing on this topic. What is our theology of scripture and to what extent do we allow the spirit of secularism to shape our corporate and theological identity. A final caution, our Wesleyan heritage includes practice and theology. In fact, practice is the backdrop from which we will best discern a cogent Wesleyan theology that will guide us through the current impasse.