Friday, August 17, 2018

Lisa Beth White: The Hopefulness of Mission, or Why I’m Not Worried about the Future of the UMC

Today's post is by Rev. Lisa Beth White, founder of Sister of Hope Ministries, an organization that exists to equip and support short-term mission teams, churches and non-profit organizations with training, resources and evaluation tools with the aim of enabling the faithful practice of Christian mission. This piece is reposted with permission from the author's personal site.

I am a United Methodist. My denomination recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, remembering how it was formed by a union of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1968. This church has formed me as a disciple of Jesus Christ, has taught me grace, taught me how to sing grace, preach grace, and practice grace. I have given my life’s work to Christ through the United Methodist Church.

United Methodist Church’s Difficult Season
But the United Methodist Church is having a difficult season. To be honest, it’s been having a contentious season for about 40 years. If you are a United Methodist and you’re on social media, you are likely aware of our struggles. If not, let me try to summarize.

The issue is inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church. Our denomination has been in the news for holding clergy trials when pastors officiate same-gender weddings, even for their own children; for holding clergy trials and stripping clergy of their credentials when they admit their identity as an LGBTQ person; for having protests and debates at our quadrennial gatherings during which church legislation is considered. We’ve had study commissions, we’ve added language to our Book of Discipline (the text that holds our constitution, our Articles of Religion, our structure and order for ministry), we’ve argued and argued. Most recently, our last General Conference (that once every four year gathering) asked our Council of Bishops (all bishops, active and retired) to form a commission and advise the church how to move forward as a united denomination, despite our continuing and harsh disagreement over LGBTQ inclusion.

And so, the commission has held meetings, prayed and discussed our difficult season. In the end, they recommended three plans to the Council of Bishops – the Traditionalist Plan which would essentially maintain the status quo; the Connectional-Conference Plan, which would allow churches to affiliate with other churches that their perspectives align with, rather than our current geographic structure; and the One Church Plan, which allows decisions about ordaining LGBTQ persons to be made in local areas and removes all restrictive language from the Book of Discipline. The Bishops are recommending the One Church Plan to the special session of General Conference that will meet in February 2019. You can read articles here and here about this recommendation.

And So, Anxiety Reigns
Now, if you’re not United Methodist, this may all seem confusing and tedious. Methodists have a decision making process that isn’t simple. We don’t have a pope and cardinals to make decisions for us. We don’t have a simple majority rules vote. We hold our church buildings and land in trust for the church that will come after we are gone, so we understand that the brick and mortar in which we gather isn’t “ours” but God’s for the work of God’s people.

And it’s exactly at that point – God and the work of God’s people – in which I take great hope for the United Methodist Church.

In the midst of all the debates, clergy trials and commission reports, people have been getting very upset and anxious. At a recent pre-conference meeting (yes, a meeting before our annual meeting, it’s how we do things in the UMC) I heard such anxiety from the people gathered as they discussed what our future may look like. “If this happens, then…” or “if that happens, then…” The proposed resolutions we were voting on were contradictory, as people wanted to be ready for whatever comes next. If things don’t go according to their desire, they want to be able to split the denomination, to take possession of their buildings, to ensure their beliefs and not have to compromise or change.

Such anxiety. Near panic. Judgment and suspicion. The one thing we could agree on is that we disagree.

I was only able to attend the meeting because I had been visiting my parents. When I got back home, I found in my mail a letter from our Board of Pensions, which administers all clergy retirement accounts. The letter opens with “concerns” and “expressed worries…during this time of change.” The whole purpose of the letter was to reassure anxious clergy, who, as the meeting had made obvious, were still anxious.

They Will Know You Are My Disciples By Your Love
I am not anxious about the future of the church. No matter what happens in the United Methodist Church, I have faith in the work of the Holy Spirit to call people into partnership with God in mission. God is always at work in the world, reaching out in mission in, to, and for the world. The church is the Body of Christ, and God uses the church to share God’s grace and love with the world. No church split or union will change the mission of God.

In the book of Acts we read about the early church, and how the Spirit moved people to show love for their neighbors. Chapter 2:44-45 states that Christians were together, collecting funds so that if anyone had a need, it could be taken care of by the group. This care for others is reinforced in chapter 4:34-35, that there was not a single person in need among the believers because the people trusted the apostles to use their funds to care for everyone. By chapter six, the group of believers had grown so large that seven people had to be appointed to manage the funds for common care.

The disciples and the early church were not afraid to care for those who were on the margins. In Acts 8 we read the story of Philip and the Ethiopian treasury official. Despite being a eunuch and barred from entering the temple, he had traveled from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship. In his chariot as he rode home, he was reading Isaiah and Philip helped explain how this passage revealed the good news of Jesus Christ, unbothered by the fact that he was with a person who was considered impure. Immediately after this, we read in chapter 9 that Peter healed Tabitha, who ministered to widows in Joppa. Widows led a fragile existence, often on the margins, without the legal protection of spouse or family. In chapter 10, Peter shares the good news of the gospel with Cornelius, despite the fact that it was unlawful for him to visit the house of a Gentile.

These early practices of mission – care for those on the margins in the face of difficulty and/or legal restrictions continued in the early church. Takanori Inoue argues* that during a time of plagues and rampant disease in Roman cities, “Christians ministered as a transformative movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the Roman Empire.” The basis for this ministry is love of God and love of neighbor “because it is God’s pleasure that they should share [God’s] generosity with all people.”

In Mission By Grace
The inspiration of the Holy Spirit moves us to love God more deeply and enables us to live out God’s love for and with our neighbors. This participation in God’s mission was a witness to the gospel by the early church – love made visible – and it continues in the church today. I know that people will continue to participate in mission practices – to go on short-term mission trips to offer disaster relief and recovery assistance, to make UMCOR kits to distribute around the world, to make meals to share with those who are food insecure in their communities, to volunteer in free clinics, to sit and listen with humble spirits and open hearts. I know this because people are moved by the Holy Spirit to live out the Great Commission and the Greatest Commandment with Great Compassion – and they will not stop loving their neighbors because our denomination is struggling.

We live out the call of Christ to go and make disciples, to love one another and to care for those on the margins because we have heard the call in our local communities. In our local churches we worship, pray and study together. In our local churches we learn about the needs of our neighbors near and far. In our local churches we invite each other to participate in mission practices. I choose to live in a posture of hope, knowing that ordinary United Methodists will continue to practice mission as a witness to the world of their faith in Christ. I choose to live in a posture of hope because the mission work of everyday United Methodists reveals the ongoing call of God through the gift of the Holy Spirit to live in love. I choose to live in a posture of hope because I trust in God’s unfailing grace.

* The Early Church's Approach to the Poor in Society and Its Significance to the Church's Social Engagement Today by Takanori Inoue. Quotes from pages 11-13.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Missional Ecclesiology: Affirmations about Mission: Viewing Our Place in Mission Rightly

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.

As indicated previously, I had the honor of preparing a document for the Commission on a Way Forward for use in developing their Missional Framework. This is the third post in a series explaining what I sent to the Commission and why. In these posts, I speak about my own writing and am not commenting on how the Commission used that writing or the final Missional Framework they developed.

The document I prepared is structured into three sections: a set of affirmations about mission, a set of affirmations about the church, and a set of values flowing from these two sets of affirmations. In this post, I want to reflect on the affirmations about mission.

As I noted in the introduction to this series, these affirmations were not intended to reflect my own personal thoughts about mission but rather important pieces of consensus on mission United Methodists and others reached over the last half century. In particular, the six affirmations included in my original version, reduced to five in the condensed version, reflect important ways in which missiologists have sought to move past a colonialist model of mission.

At the height of the Western missionary movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mostly white missionaries went from the United States and other Western countries to mostly non-white countries, where they sought to convert the people there to Christianity and get them to adopt Western culture. This effort often was entangled with political colonialism and capitalist expansion. Such a model of mission has been rightly critiqued for its pride, harm, violence, and misunderstanding of the gospel.

Yet echoes of that model still persist in The United Methodist Church. We still too often think of mission as something that goes from the “haves,” who are more often than not well-to-do white Americans, to the “have-nots,” who are more often than not the poor, people of color, and/or non-Americans. Any decent missiological document, I thought, had to be based on some of the most significant mission theology pieces that have been used to deconstruct such a view of mission and instead construct a view of mission in which all Christians, regardless of who they are, have a part in God’s mission.

The first affirmation, about the missio Dei, is one that relativizes all human contributions to mission. The notion of the missio Dei, that mission belongs to God, undercuts human pretenses to control mission. In particular, it undercuts Western pretenses to control mission, since Western Christians have traditionally been the ones to control mission.

In my longer version, the second affirmation was about the role of the poor and marginal in mission. I cut that from the condensed version in an effort to save space, though I now regret that decision. If the goal is to see mission as something belonging to all Christians, then the affirmation that the poor and marginal have roles as agents of God’s mission is very important. I should have left this affirmation in, and I repent of not doing so.

The affirmations about the missional nature of the church and that mission is from everywhere to everywhere both get at this notion that all Christians regardless are part of mission. Since the church is missional, all Christians should be involved in God’s mission, regardless of background, role in the church, or any other factor. Since mission is from everywhere to everywhere, all Christians regardless of geographic location can be both agents in and recipients of mission.

At the same time that I wanted to emphasize the universality of participation in mission, I also wanted to stress the particularity and therefore diversity of ways in which mission is expressed. I see the two points as intertwined – since all Christians are called to be in mission, we must not expect mission to look exactly the same in all places. If we define just one type of mission as true mission, we run the risk of setting up new forms of inequity in mission.

The affirmation that mission is incarnational draws on a lot of the conversation about inculturation/contextualization in the missiological community. Although understandings of the relationship between gospel and culture vary, missiologists have definitively agreed that respecting cultures and contexts is an important aspect of mission done right and failure to do so was one of the most grievous sins of the colonial era of mission.

An affirmation about the distinctive gifts and graces given to Christians for mission both follows Paul’s writings on spiritual gifts and missiological discussions about the varieties of mission work. Whether one uses the Five Marks of Mission or some other scheme, it is clear that mission contains a broad range of activities. This acknowledgement allows Christians to find their place within mission. Thus, answering the call to mission is not about fitting into one particular box, but about identifying the places in which one’s God-given gifts and graces connect with the varieties of mission work.

The goal, then, of these affirmations, is that none would think about their relationship to mission either too highly or too lowly. One is not more important in mission because of one’s social location. At the same time, no one is excluded from mission because of their social location or other factors, and all have something to give in mission. May we all view our place in God’s mission rightly.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Recommended Reading: Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies

This week, dozens of Methodist scholars and leaders from around the world are in Oxford, England, for the Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies. This conference, held once every five years, is a major event in the academic life of global Methodism.

The theme for this meeting is "“THY GRACE RESTORE, THY WORK REVIVE”: Revival, Reform, and Revolution in Global Methodism." A description of that theme is available on the webpage for this year's meeting.

The theme is interpreted in ten different "working groups," including ones on topics of interest to this blog such as mission and evangelism, history, and interreligious studies. Descriptions of how that theme is interpreted in each of these working groups are available here.

In addition, the Institute includes a number of keynote addresses for all participants. The names of presenters for these keynotes are available on the Institute schedule.

For those who are interested in more, about the Oxford Institute, archives of previous meetings are available on the website. Moreover, GBHEM just published a book containing papers from the previous Oxford Institute meeting in 2013.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Our Sikh Neighbor

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

We must have at least heard of some famous contemporary Sikh personalities; from the last Premier of India, Manamohan Singh, a renowned economist who became the thirteenth Prime Minister of India, to the famous Sikh film actor Waris Ahluwalia, who has played a number of roles in commercials and Hollywood films, including The Life Aquatic and The Inside Man, from Amrit and Rabindra Kaur, contemporary British artists of international standing, to Ravi Bhalla, who recently became the Mayor of Hoboken, NJ. But my question is, have we ever explored our Sikh neighbor’s faith?

Following a series of interfaith seminars, on July 18, 2018 Mission Theology Desk of Global Ministries of the UMC Atlanta invited Mr. Kuldip Singh of Sikh study circle and gurdwara of Stone Mountain, GA, to conduct a mission dialogue forum for the staff. Mr. Singh is the public relations liaison for the gurdwara in Stone Mountain.

A modern Religion
Mr. Kuldip Singh began his lecture by offering a basic introduction to the Sikh faith, which emerged on the Indian sub-continent. The Sikh religion is one of the most recent religions of the world, which originated during the late fifteenth century and finally formalized in the early eighteenth century.

The emergence of Sikhism took place in the Punjab region of South Asia, which now falls into the present-day nation states of India and Pakistan. The main religions of the area at the time were Hinduism and Islam.

The word “Sikh” means learner or disciple. This term is close to the Christian concept of discipleship.

The total population of Sikhs world-wide is estimated at around 29 million, or 0.4 per cent of the world population in mid-2000, with their presence in 34 countries. In India, Sikhs account for 1.9 per cent of the population, with more than seventy per cent living in Punjab, a province in North India.

Guru Nanak
The Sikh religion was founded by Guru Nanak (born in 1469 AD). Guru Nanak was born about 40 miles from Lahore (now in Pakistan) in 1469. Martin Luther of Germany (1483-1546) was a contemporary of Guru Nanak. Sikh tradition teaches that his birth and early years were marked with many events that demonstrated that God had marked him out for something special and was keeping an eye on him.

Sikhism as a faith began around 1500 CE, when Guru Nanak began preaching and teaching a faith that was quite distinct from Hinduism and Islam. Guru Nanak was followed by nine more Gurus.

In 1708 AD, the Guruship was ceremoniously bestowed by Guru Gobind Singh upon the Sri Guru Granth Sahib (SGGS), the Holy Scriptures of Sikh faith. Since then, the SGGS is revered as the living Guru in the form of scripture/word.

Salient Features
Among the many points what Mr. Singh taught on that day, I wish to summarize six main points.

1. Sikhism is a monotheistic religion; accordingly, there is only one God. God is without form, or gender. Everyone has direct access to God. It’s a virtue to keep God in one’s heart and mind always. Sikhs focus their lives around their relationship with God and being a part of the Sikh community. The Sikh ideal combines action and belief. To live a good life, a person should do good deeds as well as meditating on God.

2. Everyone is equal before God. Mr. Singh emphasized the gender equality in the Sikh faith in detail.

3. A good life is lived as part of a community, by living honestly and caring for others. The believers are called to be generous to the less fortunate. Social action is a very significant aspect of faith.

4. The Sikh scripture is the Guru Granth Sahib. Sikhs consider this scripture a living Guru.

5. The three duties that a Sikh person must carry out can be summed up in three words: Pray, Work, Give. Nam japna – Keeping God in mind at all times. Kirt Karna – Earning an honest living. Since God is truth, a Sikh seeks to live honestly. This doesn't just mean avoiding crime; Sikhs avoid gambling, begging, or working in the alcohol or tobacco industries. And Chhakna – Giving to charity and caring for others (literally, sharing one's earnings with others).

6. The meaning of the symbols – 5 Ks: The 5 Ks taken together symbolize that the Sikh who wears them has dedicated themselves to a life of devotion and submission to the Guru. The 5 Ks are 5 physical symbols worn by Sikhs who have been initiated into the Khalsa (some thing similar to Baptism in Christianity). The five Ks are:

Kesh (uncut hair): Throughout history hair (kesh) has been regarded as a symbol both of holiness and strength. One's hair is part of God's creation. Keeping hair uncut indicates that one is willing to accept God's gift as God intended it. Sikhs should wear a turban. In the western cultural settings this has caused and can cause many problems and misunderstandings. Educating people on Sikh identity and faith is crucial in developing cross-cultural understanding, Mr.Singh insisted.

Kara (a steel bracelet): A symbol to mean that a Sikh is linked to the Guru. It acts as a reminder that a Sikh should not do anything of which the Guru would not approve. It also symbolizes God has no beginning or end. This reminds the faithful of good deeds.

Kanga (a wooden comb): This symbolizes a clean mind and body; since it keeps the uncut hair neat and tidy.

Kaccha (cotton underwear): This is a pair of breeches that must not come below the knee. It's a symbol of chastity and self-discipline.

Kirpan (steel sword): This symbolizes the spirituality, defense of good, defense of the weak, and the struggle against injustice.

Mr. Singh also lamentingly highlighted some of the cross-cultural challenges that Sikhs are faced with such as micro-aggression, bullying, hate-crimes and physical harassments. These need to be addressed peacefully. Educating the community on world faiths and cultures from middle school to adult settings is the only way to overcome such situations, Mr. Singh resolved. However, given the above salient features of Sikhism there can be significant possibilities for interfaith dialogue between Christianity and Sikhism for global compassion, peace and development. That’s the hope!

Sikhs have lived in America for over 150 Years. They helped build the transcontinental railroad. They served valiantly in WWI and II. The first Sikh Gurdwara was established in 1912 in Stockton California. There are 0.6 Million Sikhs in the USA.

Obviously, India has taken a lead in the ministry of dialogue between Christianity and Sikhism. The Christian Institute for the Study of Religion and Society (C.I.S.R.S.) in Bengaluru has been a pioneer in this field. From the Sikhs side, Punjab University, Patiala, and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, also have given leadership to a great extent. However, we have a long way to go, especially in western countries.

Stanley Samartha, a renowned scholar in interfaith relationships, writes “dialogue is one of the critical areas of relationship between Christians and people of other faiths today where sustained theological reflection must continue not in isolation of academic discussions but in the midst of our life together in the community where all pilgrims on the high roads of modern life.” (in an address to the WCC central committee, 1971, in Ecumenical Movement: Anthology of Key Texts and Voices, ed., Michael Kinnamon, WCC 2016.p 348).

Are Christians ready for this missiological challenge?

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Missional Ecclesiology: Preamble: Change and Continuity

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.

As I indicated last week, I had the honor of preparing a document for the Commission on a Way Forward for use in developing their Missional Framework. This is the second of several posts explaining what I sent to the Commission and why. In these posts, I speak about my own writing and am not commenting on how the Commission used that writing or the final Missional Framework they developed.

In the original missional ecclesiology document I drafted, I included a long, historical “Preamble.” I had to remove this Preamble from the short version I sent to the Commission because of space constraints. Thus, this portion of my writing had little bearing on the work of the Commission, but I still wanted to share what was in this portion and why I included it.

The heart of this section is its third and fourth sentences: “Much has changed about how Methodists have understood mission and church over the last two plus centuries. Nevertheless, certain constants have persisted.” As a historian, I thought some historical perspective on this tension between continuity and change was useful background to the commission’s work.

Although I wrote the document to be neutral with regard to the three specific plans under discussion by the Commission, I did presume that it was the Commission’s job to recommend some sort of changes in the UMC. Therefore, I thought it would be useful to reflect theologically and historically on the nature of change within the life of denominations and its relationship to continuity.

As humans, we have a strong tendency toward presentism. We assume that the way things are is the way things have been and will continue to be. Yet historians know that is not true. Things used to be different, in some cases quite different. As British novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Knowing that the past was different frees us a little from our presentism.

And if we are able to recognize that the past was different, perhaps that will also free us to recognize that the future will be different as well, and in ways that are neither all good nor all bad. Just as the past contains a mix of good and bad relative to the present, so the future is likely to contain a mix of good and bad relative to the present. Knowing this allows us to face the future with less anxiety and a less totalizing and catastrophizing approach to the decisions we face as a denomination. Certainly, The United Methodist Church faces some potentially significant changes at this juncture of history, but change per se is nothing new for Methodism.

At the same time that there is value in recognizing the ways in which the past is different from the present, there is also value in trying to identify the continuities between the past and the present. We do not recreate Methodism completely anew every new day; instead, we reshape and refashion traditions we have inherited. What, then, are the hallmarks of these traditions? Amidst the change, what has remained the same about Methodism?

This question – What has remained the same about Methodism throughout its history? – and two related questions – What is true about Methodism in different geographic areas? And what is true about Methodism among different Methodist denominations? – were questions I grappled with as I sought to develop the “ecclesiology” part of this missional ecclesiology.

The answers I arrived at – Methodism is missional, ecumenical, connectional, conferencing, appointive, and episcopal – are in the “Affirmations about the Church” section of the document, and thus I will address them more fully in a future post. The “Preamble” gives a quick historical sketch of Methodism drawn around these foci, from its early days as a frontier revival movement to its current existence as a complex, multinational, corporately-structured church, showing the ways these hallmarks changed but also had continuity throughout the centuries of Methodism’s development.

Seeing how Methodism has been faithful to its understanding of how to be the church and has also continued to incorporate these hallmarks despite significant changes is again, I hope, freeing for future change. We have been able to remain faithful to our Methodist DNA despite changes, and therefore we can remain faithful to our Methodist DNA despite whatever future changes the Commission on a Way Forward or General Conference 2019 or other actors might decide upon. Change does not preclude faithfulness to our heritage.

Hence the conclusion to my “Preface”: “Amid this [present] change, faithful United Methodists continue to develop new understandings of mission, connectionalism, conferencing, appointive ministry, and general superintendency. We continue to be faithful to these Methodist principles, even as we seek to understand anew how they may best serve the church and the world.”

One of the themes that runs throughout the document and is introduced at the beginning of the “Preamble” is that Methodism is both a missional movement and a church. This dual identity introduces a variety of tensions and dynamics into Methodism, but one result of this duality is that change and continuity must both be part of who we are. If we do not change, we cease to be a missional movement; if we have no continuity with our past, we lose our sense of church. Both are necessary, and the tensions between the two are at their best a productive driving force in the development of Methodism. I hope they will be so in our current time.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Recommended listening: How to do short-term missions without long-term harm

Ministry Matters has posted a podcast from Youth Ministry Partners that interviews Jen Bradbury, youthworker and author of A Mission That Matters: How To Do Short-Term Missions Without Long-Term Harm. In it, she discusses youth-oriented short-term mission, including the evolution of short-term missions to a youth-focused endeavor, the associated shift of motives in short-term mission trips, the possibility of doing harm in short-term mission, and the importance of partnership. While most of the material in the podcast will be familiar to those already participating in the conversation around short-term mission, the podcast can be a useful introduction to those not previously familiar, especially those for whom a podcast would be a more accessible format than a book. The podcast is about 36 minutes long.

Friday, August 3, 2018

What are United Methodist views on homosexuality in the Philippines?

 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.

Recently, United Methodist Insight published a story about students at a United Methodist seminary in the Philippines participating in the Manila Pride March. The story includes pro-LGBT quotes from several United Methodist youth leaders.

For those who have a dichotomous view of regional opinions on homosexuality in The United Methodist Church, this story might be surprising or confusing. Often, the narrative in the UMC goes that northern and western Americans (and Europeans) are pro-gay marriage and gay ordination in the UMC, whereas southern Americans, Africans, and Asians (i.e., Filipinos) are anti-gay marriage and gay ordination. Yet there are reasons to be wary of overly simplistic narratives, including this one.

First, we should not assume that the conversations happening about homosexuality are the same in all places in the world. There are significant differences between countries where gay marriage is legal vs. countries where gay marriage is not legal vs. countries where homosexuality itself is a crime. There are differences between theology, marriage, ordination, membership, and acceptance in other aspects of the life of the church. These are all different conversations, and different countries are having (or not having) different conversations about homosexuality. Americans, however, tend to conflate this wide range of conversations into a binary pro/con conversation that mirrors our own experiences of the theological/culture wars in this country.

Second, as most Americans experience in their own areas, there are a range of opinions, even in supposed liberal or conservative areas of the US. There are conservative United Methodists in Oregon, and there are liberal United Methodists in Mississippi. Geography correlates with but does not determine one's views on homosexuality (or any other topic). We should not be surprised if the same is true elsewhere, including the Philippines.

Given these considerations, where then does The United Methodists Church in the Philippines stand on questions related to homosexuality?

A word about the context of the Philippines is in order. The Philippines as a whole actually has relatively accepting views on homosexuality, more so on average than the United States, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study. Gay sex is not criminalized. Gay marriage, however, is not legal in the Philippines, though there is a case under consideration by the Filipino Supreme Court that could change that. The Philippines is facing a variety of justice-related challenges under the rule of current strongman president Rodrigo Duterte. While LGBTQIA+ Filipinos seek for greater rights, gay rights issues are only one of a variety of active rights struggles in the Philippines currently.

Filipino United Methodists exist as a small minority church within that context. The country is overwhelmingly Catholic, and United Methodists are a minority within the country's Protestant minority. Nevertheless, Filipino United Methodists have some good connections to the center of society in realms such as education, health, and social services. Thus, Filipino United Methodists also have a different sense of their relationship to the rest of society than American United Methodists, who, while recognizing America's religious diversity, retain some sense of when they were the country's largest denomination.

These two pieces of background set up a better understanding of Filipino United Methodist views on homosexuality. In short, Filipino United Methodists are, on the whole, opposed to gay ordination and gay marriage in the church, but a variety of opinions exist, and Filipinos do not see this issue as central to the church's identity.

As the article about the seminarian students clearly shows, there are Filipino United Methodists who are pro-LGBT inclusion in the church. Some might see the students in this article as a minority fringe in the church, but there are other indications that a variety of opinions exist. A United Methodist forum on LGBTQ issues held in 2016 gives some sense of the variety of opinions held by Filipino United Methodists. Retired Filipino Bishop Daniel Arichea has been public in his support for gay rights in the church, after his son came out as gay. As in the US, younger and more urban United Methodists tend to be more supportive of LGBTQ inclusion.

The majority of Filipino United Methodists do remain opposed to gay ordination and gay marriage in the church (though the latter is currently less pressing, since as noted, Filipino law does not allow for gay marriage). Nevertheless, Filipino colleagues have suggested that the division of opinion is perhaps somewhere in the 70/30 to 60/40 range of opposed/affirming.

What is just as important to note is that, whatever the exact percentage of opinions in various camps, this issue is not as salient in the Philippines as it is in the United States. In the United States, views on homosexuality are a litmus test in the culture wars and theological wars in the UMC. In the Philippines, this issue is one among many issues facing the church and the culture. It is not the most pressing, and it does not serve as a proxy for people's views on other political, social, and theological issues in the same way that it does in the US.

Moreover, given the denomination's role in Filipino society and overall Filipino views on sexuality, there are good reasons for even those opposed to homosexuality in the UMC in the Philippines to not make this opposition a central issue for the church. Minority religious groups in general pick and choose carefully what issues they want to challenge society on. Currently, the UMC is trying to challenge the Filipino government on a variety of other issues - extra-judicial killings and indigenous rights among them. Challenging prevailing social norms could reduce the support they need from people outside the UMC to make traction with the government on these other issues.

None of this is predicative of what Filipino delegates will do when they are in the global United Methodist context of General Conference 2019. As two recent UMNS stories ([1] and [2]) make clear, there are Filipino United Methodists supportive of the One Church Plan, and there are those supportive of the Traditional Plan. This is, however, a reminder to see all people and regions in the connection as complex, with a variety of objectives and views that cannot be quickly reduced to the objectives and views that people in our own contexts hold.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Missional Ecclesiology: Engaging the Commission on a Way Forward on mission

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.

As I mentioned in a post last week, I had the honor of being asked by the Commission on a Way Forward to assist them in developing a document on mission to guide their thinking and discernment in their work. To help readers engage in conversation about the Commission’s work around the issue of mission, I want to provide some reflections on my role in the development of their “Missional Framework.” In so doing, I will not speak about how the Commission members used and refined my contribution (most of which I do not know) but rather about the work I shared with them and what my intentions were in crafting it in the way I did. This post will be the first of several on this topic.

Late last year, I received an invitation to submit a document on “missional ecclesiology” to the Commission. I believe I was chosen for this assignment because of my role as Director of Mission Theology for Global Ministries. By the term “missional ecclesiology,” I assumed that the Commission was looking for a document that would comment theologically on mission but would also connect those comments in some way to reflections on the church (hence “ecclesiology”). Thus, in writing the document, I attempted to do three things:

My first objective was to share key highlights of ecumenical thinking about mission from the past half century. The document I prepared for the Commission contained a set of “affirmations” about mission that I sought to craft to reflect not my own personal thoughts about mission but rather important pieces of consensus on mission among United Methodists and others reached over the last half century. That is why I chose the term “affirmations.” These points are not doctrine, but they are widely affirmed by people other than just me. I am sure every missiologist would have her or his own list of most important insights, but I choose particular ones I felt most significant and most relevant to the task at hand.

My second objective was to give a description of the key ecclesiastical practices that have defined Methodism broadly over its history. Given the recent release of Wonder, Love and Praise, I did not feel it necessary to reflect on the theological nature of the church (e.g., as rooted in grace) in my document. That was perhaps a lacuna, but I preferred to let Wonder, Love and Praise speak to these issues and instead focus on key attitudes and practices that have given Methodism its distinctive flavor as a Christian tradition, as I felt less attention had been paid to such practices. Again, I called these points “affirmations” to indicate that these are not dogma but are widely adhered to within Methodism. It is worth noting that these attitudes and practices characterize Methodism broadly and not just United Methodism.

My third objective was to describe a set of values or spiritual dispositions that I hope flow from the first two objectives. In this regard, this set of values or attitudes are the pay-off of the document. Presenting the conclusions of my document as a set of values reflects my conviction that the issues facing The United Methodist Church are primarily matters of the heart, not of polity. Hence, I wanted to present attitudes of the heart that would help us live out our calling to mission. In crafting this section of the document, I was trying to be a bit more creative and not merely reflect consensus positions. I did try to draw connections from the first two lists to the list of values to show how I saw these values as logically related to the widely-held affirmations from the first two lists.

It is important to note that at the point at which I wrote the document, the Commission had released its midpoint update with thumbnail sketches of what became the three proposals now being sent to General Conference 2019. I did not consider it my job to comment on the merits of these three proposals, but rather to offer theological reflections on mission, which the Commission could use in their on-going discernment. Therefore, the documents were intended to be neutral regarding the main questions regarding sexuality and polity with which the Commission was grappling.

I completed an initial version of the document, which was about 2900 words. I was then asked to revise it down to 700 words. That was difficult for me, and I had to cut out a good deal, some of which I regret not leaving in. I delivered the 700-word version to the Commission (with a link to the longer version that I wasn’t able to let go of!), and they further revised this version to produce their own Missional Framework.

This project was undertaken in a lot of prayer, more than the amount of prayer I have used in any other professional undertaking. Nevertheless, I do not pretend to have accomplished any of my objectives perfectly, and I’m sure others would have taken a different approach than I did and set up different objectives for themselves. Moreover, as an individual, I could offer my gift to the Church, but it required the work of the Commission as a whole to discern how to transform my gift into something that reflected the Church more broadly. Having shared that gift with the Commission, I share it now with you readers, hoping it will spark more conversations about mission in The United Methodist Church.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Recommended Readings: Global Young People's Convocation 2018

The Global Young People's Convocation took place July 18-22 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Here are a variety of stories and videos related to that church-wide gathering of United Methodist youth and young adults.

Press release about GYPC before its start
UMNS summary of the event after its conclusion
UMNS article about translators at the event
Video summaries of Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3 of the event
Blogs posts from Johnston Taylor of Susquehanna AC about the event
Articles about young adults from South Carolina and Michigan who participated

Since this event was a gathering of young people, more information, images, and videos about the event can be found by searching #GYPC2018 on social media.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Connectional Conference Plan and the Scope of the Commission on a Way Forward

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.

As United Methodists look to the called General Conference in February of next year, supporters are lining up behind both the One Church Plan and the Traditionalist Plan. A third plan put forward by the Commission on a Way Forward, the Connectional Conference Plan, does not seem to have a constituency advocating for it.

The conventional wisdom is that the Connectional Conference Plan is a non-starter because it would require constitutional amendments to pass. Prognosticators are not optimistic about GC2019's ability to pass constitutional amendments, which require a 2/3rds supermajority to approve. Moreover, even if approved by GC2019, such amendments would then require 2/3rds of all aggregate votes at annual conferences to become church law. The plan thus faces two high hurdles.

Whether or not that analysis is true, it is unfortunate that the Connectional Conference Plan will largely be dismissed out of hand. There are elements of the plan that raise important questions that can foster conversations from which it might be possible to learn as a denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan, more than the other two plans, rather than trying to solve the debate about gay ordination and marriage in one direction or another, uses that debate to ask fundamental questions about central aspects of Methodism such as connectionalism, conferencing, episcopacy, itineracy, and mission. Whether or not you agree with the answers provided by the Connectional Conference Plan, these are important questions worth raising. The Connectional Conference Plan raises these questions because it proposes to make substantial changes that touch upon all of these aspects of Methodism. That's why it would require constitutional changes.

By contrast, the other two plans seek to make less significant changes to United Methodist polity. The One Church Plan probably makes the fewest changes, removing existing prohibitions against gay marriage and ordination and inserting safeguards for those who do not want to be part of either. The Traditionalist Plan make somewhat more changes, by adding new systems of accountability to United Methodism, but otherwise does not change existing structures.

The Connectional Conference Plan, however, separates at least the U.S. portion of The United Methodist Church into three theologically defined Connectional Conferences with differing positions on sexuality. It also converts all Central Conferences into Connectional Conferences and allows Connectional Conferences to "opt-in" to some current boards and agencies. It thus changes the meaning of connectionalism, how conferencing works, and what sorts of decisions are made at which levels of conference. It limits episcopal itineracy within the Connectional Conferences and establishes rules about clergy itineracy between Connectional Conferences. It offers a missional rationale for this separation and contain explicit references to the church's work in overcoming sexism and racism. Thus, while it may or may not provide the right answers, the Connectional Conference does raise questions about how United Methodists should understand connectionalism, conferencing, episcopacy, itineracy, and mission in the future.

In so doing, the Connectional Conference Plan may go a bit beyond the Mission of the Commission on a Way Forward, depending on how narrowly one construes that mission. The mission mentions "exploring the potential future(s) of our denomination in light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions." One could see this mission as only about resolving the debate about gay ordination and marriage. If so, then the Connectional Conference Plan starts with that debate, but certainly is not the simplest way to resolve that debate. Yet if one sees the "light of General Conference and subsequent annual, jurisdictional and central conference actions" as illuminating issues other than the debate about sexuality, then perhaps the Connectional Conference Plan seems more in keeping with the mission. The conversation with the Commission about this plan (in the Commission Report) makes it clear that while the plan attempts to manage the sexuality debate, it also seeks to accomplish additional objectives related to what its designers see as important changes for the future of the denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan does seem to be the plan that most fully lives out the Commission's scope, however. That scope states, in part, "Therefore, we should consider new ways of being in relationship across cultures and jurisdictions, in understandings of episcopacy, in contextual definitions of autonomy for annual conferences, and in the design and purpose of the apportionment. In reflection on the two matters of unity and human sexuality, we will fulfill our directive by considering “new forms and structures” of relationship and through the “complete examination and possible revision” of relevant paragraphs in the Book of Discipline." The Connectional Conference Plan does all these - it suggests new forms of relationship (connectionalism and conferencing), understandings of episcopacy, etc.

Again, the Connectional Conference Plan may or may not contain the best answers to these various questions. But, given the (admittedly large) assumption that General Conference 2019 is able to provide some sort of resolution to the current debates on sexuality in the denomination, the Connectional Conference does point us in the direction of the next set of questions we need to be asking ourselves as we discern together how to be a people called Methodist in the present age.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Robert Hunt: The Connection Between Text and Context, Part 3

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 third of a three-part series on contextualization. Here are the first and the second parts of that series.

As the Church carries on its mission in a multi-cultural world, it is critical to understand what it has learned from its engagement with the Word about that world.

In the Bible human history begins with a generic human, Adam. This human is first separated into male and female, and then over endless generations into families, clans, tribes, and ethnic nations. Thousands of new peoples and cultures come into being, and notably God is with each, guiding its history. (Amos 9:7)

Part of the story of the generic human is the introduction of sin into human life. As a result, the story isn’t just about a happily growing diversity of cultures spreading away from Eden. It is also about how humans move further and further from what God intends for them.

What the story doesn’t tell us is how the sin which entered Adam’s life (Genesis 3) is perpetuated in the lives of Adam’s descendants. All we know is that is it ubiquitous, reappearing in every people and culture and manifesting itself in behavior characterized as “unrighteous.” So one thing we know about the world we inhabit is that it is a realm in which sin is present.

The Bible also tells a story about differentiation and diversity. God’s fundamental command to Adam, reiterated to Noah, is “be fruitful and multiply and cover the face of the earth.” As humans are fruitful they quickly diversify, stopping only once (at Babel) to try consolidate themselves before God blows that plan apart and essentially forces them to spread and thus diversify.

After the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 the Old Testament increasingly focuses on the life of Israel as a community knowing God, beginning with Abraham and moving forward in narrowing circles to the original tribes from which the ethnic nation of Israel traced its descent. This focus on Israel is hardly surprising since the Israelites wrote the Old Testament. Naturally it is all about them and their special covenant with God.

But the story offers plenty of evidence that it isn’t the only story about God accompanying humanity, with Amos 9 being notable as well as Isaiah 19:19-23. Psalm 87:5 and many passages in Isaiah create a fascinating narrative arch, in which Zion becomes not only the final destination of all human nations but also somehow retrospectively their birthplace as well, the urquelle of their peoplehood. There are many human communities that know God, because despite sin (which in any case is found in both Israel and the Church) God is involved in every human society.

This story of finding God’s self-revelation among the nations, and indeed righteousness among the nations is continued in the story of Jesus, whom the gospels depict as continually coming into contact with God’s work outside of Israel. And this is ratified by Peter’s vision in Acts and the subsequent conversion of the gentiles to Christ. Those visions in Isaiah and the Psalms suddenly become much less eschatological dreams and far more a historical movement of discovery of God among the nations embodied in the Church.

Unfortunately, and I’ve documented much of this in my The Gospel Among the Nations: A Documentary History of Inculturation, the Church, imbued with the Roman exceptionalism that was part of its earliest cultural context, struggled to see God at work among the “barbarians” and “heathen” encountered on the edges of the empire. It was a struggle that continues to this day, now articulated in terms of the newly invented word “culture.” The concept of culture gives us the ability to talk about “inculturation” as a way of doing mission (a term which I and other missiologists have tended to use anachronistically.) It also gives us the ability to dismiss non-Christian cultures as lazy, ignorant, sinful, totalitarian, and so on. And unfortunately it can mislead us into believing that there is some divine “text” that can be separated from its cultural context, and that this cultural context can somehow be differentiated from its human community; a true distinction without a difference.

The concept of culture can become particularly problematic when we speak of “the gospel and culture." We mistakenly assume, as I suggest in Part 1, that these are two distinct things; the first needing to be expressed in terms comprehensible to the second. It is far more accurate to understand that the Church in its ongoing life in mission with God’s Word continually enters into dialogue with other bodies of human beings who have likewise been engaged in a life with God. The Church engaged with the Word enters into dialogue with others whose societies are also engaged with God in different ways. And this means that each has the possibility of learning things about God that it did not know. And of course each has the responsibility of questioning and rejecting so-called knowledge of God contradictory to its own ongoing encounter with the Divine.

Put in other words, “inculturation” isn’t planting the gospel in another culture, nor is it clothing the gospel in another culture. Inculturation is the emergence of new expressions of the Church's engagement with the Word arising out of the ongoing life of the church in mission.

One should not imagine that these new expressions are limited to matters of music, dress, language, and so on found in worship. They may be, as we find in Anselm’s doctrine of the atonement, a new way of speaking about Christ’s work on the Cross that couldn’t be conceptualized within the limitations of Greek and Roman culture.

Or they may be, as found in modern political theologies and the understanding of the equality of men and women, new ways of knowing what it means to be a human in society that couldn’t be conceptualized in the pre-modern culture of European Christendom. The United Methodist Social Principles Creed, for example, arises of the Methodist church engaged with God’s word in ongoing dialogue within modern societies, and it reaches conclusions impossible in European and American Christianity only a few hundred years earlier.

What makes this process of dialogue between the Church and the societies (and thus cultures) it encounters in mission both challenging and troubling is that our inner life of encounter with God’s Word can never give us complete confidence in our grasp of who God is and what God wants of us. At the same time God’s life with societies outside the church means we can never dismiss out of hand their insights into God’s righteousness. We may not always be right, and they may know things we don’t know. Thus, our only confidence, given the limits of our humanity and the ubiquity of sin, is confidence in God’s grace and forgiveness in Christ.

That is why we begin our worship with confession, placing ourselves in the context of our limited grasp of God’s righteousness and our ability to enact it. It is only after confession and absolution that we can meaningfully speak the words, “And now with the confidence of children of God. . .”

For many Christians, faced with the assaults of a contemporary society that denies God and worships its own self-sufficiency, engaging in dialogue within this sometimes-hostile culture is psychologically impossible. Being the Church engaged with the knowing of God outside the church is too difficult, too threatening, too complex. They are not prepared to open themselves to the possibilities that even an apparently hostile culture is a realm in which God’s Word is at work.

And that is okay. CS Lewis in his letters to Malcom on prayer noted that we are not all called to the front lines. There is a place for the keepers of the flame just as there is a place for those who bear it into the tempest to seek out the lost. There is a place for those who keep a warm hearth and welcome the refugees from modernity, as there is a place for those looking for new outcroppings of solid rock on which to build new houses of God. And for all there is the Word of God, abiding outside our doors even when we cannot recognize it.

Which means, and this is good news, that it is also abides within the Church even when we cannot see it within ourselves.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Recommended Reading: Commission on a Way Forward Theological and Missional Frameworks

The inadvertent release last week of the report and associated proposed legislation for General Conference 2019 from the Commission on a Way Forward has gotten a lot of attention. Most of this attention has been focused on the details of the three legislative proposals - the One Church, Connectional Conference, and Traditional Plans.

Yet also included in the Commission's report are two short documents worth reading on their own right: the Theological Framework and the Missional Framework developed by the Commission. These two pieces can be found on p. 7-10 of the Commission's report, which is p. 138-141 of the released PDF.

Gil Rendle, the consultant who facilitated the Commission's work, referred to these two pieces as "the two most important parts of the work [the Commission has] done," just not "the pressing issue." (You can see his remarks starting at 2:50 of this video of his overview of the Commission's work.) While none of the various legislative plans were endorsed by the Commission as a whole, these two theological pieces were affirmed by the entire Commission, further indicating their significance.

I have a personal interest in the reception of these pieces, as I had the honor of assisting the Commission in developing the Missional Framework. (Members of the Committee on Faith and Order consulted on the Theological Framework.) Yet beyond my personal involvement, I hope these two pieces can spark conversations about The United Methodist Church's theology and mission that go beyond the work of the Commission and the issue it was formed to address.

We in the UMC have a habit of taking all conversations and turning them into conversations about sex. It is my prayer that we will be able to do the reverse as well - take a conversation about sex and turn it into a conversation about something else - theology and mission.

Friday, July 20, 2018

Jerome Sahabandhu: Our Jewish Neighbor

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Following the series of interfaith engagements, Global Ministries’ Atlanta office organized another Mission Dialogue Forum on June 27th, 2018. This time our lecturer was Rabbi Joshua Lesser, who leads Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta. Rabbi Lesser belongs to the tradition of Reconstructionist Judaism.

Reconstructionist Judaism
Reconstructionist Judaism is a socio-politically and religiously progressive Jewish movement that is the smallest and youngest of the so-called “big four” American Jewish denominations; the big four being the Orthodox, the Reform, the Conservative and the Reconstructionist. Reconstructionist Judaism was founded in 1922 in the US by Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan (1881-1983) in an attempt to adapt classical Judaism to modernity, science, art and reason.

Rabbi Lesser has emphasized several key ideas of reconstructionist Judaism. Let me highlight four of them:

1. Judaism as a civilization: Judaism is understood not just as a religious movement but as a movement of civilization which is active in the world and responding to the changing world and society at large. For Kaplan the term "civilization" has been central to explain his reconstructionist form (Judaism as a Civilization (1934 by Kaplan). Judaism was the evolving religious civilization. Influenced by the ideas of modern social sciences, Kaplan retold the story of Jewish history through the conceptual framework of evolution, arguing that change was central to Jewish development over time. His concept of civilization embraced the aesthetics, artforms, music, laws, science and social transformation in an open way.

2. Inclusive community: Judaism should be inclusive people where Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers are accepted as fully Jewish, non-Jews are welcomed as major participants in community life, intermarriage (with some restrictions) is permitted, women have full rights, and people of any sexual orientation are accorded equal rights. Reconstructionists appreciate the universal nature of human dignity, rights, values and the global nature of humanity.

3. Social Justice: Judaism and working for social justice are inseparable. Tikkun olam - which means 'repairing the world' through social action - is a way to live out Jewish values. Therefore, working for social justice is a spiritual practice, like prayer, meditation and study. Working for social justice takes humanity closer to realizing "a Messianic age" in this world. Working for social justice is the way to achieve salvation in this world, which is the only world in which salvation can be achieved.

4. Prayer Life: Reconstructionists don't believe that they must pray in order to comply with religious law, but they do regard prayer as being very important, because it is a way of finding and expressing meaning and values. The effect of prayer is the change that it brings about in the person doing the praying, or in the praying community as a whole. Prayer serves many purposes: prayer reinforces values, prayer creates community and brings the community together, prayer connects the individual with other Jewish people, prayer connects the individual to history, prayer acknowledges that human beings are not all-powerful, prayer deepens spiritual lives, prayer increases connection with God (or with godliness), prayer increases awareness of what people hope for in their lives, prayer increases awareness of what people are grateful for in their lives.

Jewish Demographics
Recent Pew research says as of 2010, there were about 14 million Jews around the world, representing 0.2% of the global population. In 2050, the Jewish population is expected to number about 16 million. The share of the world’s population that is Jewish – 0.2% – is expected to remain about the same in 2050 as it was in 2010.

A Washington Post article analyzing the US Jewish demographics highlighted that ‘in 2016, the American Jewish Population Project at Brandeis University estimated the U.S. Jewish population at 7.2 million. The American Jewish Year Book estimated 6.9 mllion’.

Rabbi Lesser also emphasized the need of Jews and Christians to engage in dialogue and also of all faiths working together for a better world, global peace and justice. There has been a growing interest in Jewish-Christian Dialogue in the last several decades; some of these encounters have been led by the World Council of Churches and others by the individual denominations. Encouraging Jewish-Christian dialogue, the United Methodists also have resolved (Book of Resolutions 2016) that:

"While the Jewish and Christian traditions understand and express their faith in the same God in significantly different ways, we believe with Paul that God, who was in Christ reconciling the world to God’s own self (2 Corinthians 5:18-19), is none other than the God of Israel, maker of heaven and earth. Above all else, Christians and Jews are bonded in our joyful and faithful response to the one God, living our faith as each understands God’s call."

The same resolution emphasized that as United Methodist Christians, we are deeply affected by the anguish and suffering that continue for many people who live in the Middle East region that includes modern Israel. In responding to this call, the UMC mission agency Global Ministries has partnered with the World Methodist Council and the Methodist Church UK in creating a liaison office in Jerusalem to work for peace, justice and reconciliation.


Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Robert Hunt: The Connection Between Text and Context, Part 2

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 second of a three-part series on contextualization. The first can be found here.

In the first part of this series, I argued for the close connection between the biblical text and its cultural and religious contexts. We find this same problem even more deeply embedded in matters of what is commonly called “worldview.”

From beginning to end, the Bible assumes that the world is divided into the waters below the earth, the earth, and the heavens above. That worldview continues to be reflected in the apostolic tradition and specifically in the creeds. (“He ascended into Heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”) Nor is this spacial understanding of the world distinctly “Biblical.” While disputed in parts of the Greek philosophic tradition, it is found in the Aristotelian assumption about the centrality of the earth and the Ptolemaic calculations of the movement of the planets.

For centuries this was the bedrock of a Christian worldview but as context, not text. As my colleague Roy Heller notes, “the Bible does not argue for what it assumes.” And this worldview is the context of all Biblical story telling and all Biblical pictures of the interrelationships of God’s created order.

The spacial structure within which the Bible places the creation of the world and its subsequent history through to the creation of a new heavens and a new earth is closely matched to a metaphysical structure that is likewise assumed by the Bible. In that metaphysical structure there is a distinction between that which is visible, changeable, and temporal, and that which is invisible, unchanging, and eternal; it is the difference between body and spirit.

This metaphysical distinction between body and spirit is not distinctively Christian. It is also found in Greek philosophy that both significantly pre-dated Christianity and provided a congenial home in which emergent Christianity's basic metaphysical assumptions were widely accepted. In other words, both the physics and metaphysics of the Bible aren’t text, they are an assumed context - indeed a widely shared context across many cultures.

That philosophical and scientific context has now passed out of Western culture. We find ourselves in a cultural context that has adopted a different worldview. It is a culture that regards the spacial worldview of the Bible as naive. For this reason, Christians in our cultural context, when pressed, reject the Bible as a normative text telling us the physical structure of the universe. They recognize that the corollary to Roy Heller’s statement is “That which the Bible assumes isn’t necessarily that which it asserts.” Instead, if our culture regards the Bible at all, it regards the assumed special structure of the universe found in the Bible as just one possible context in which some deeper meaning is communicated. So we find that an assumption that runs through the Bible from beginning to end, and influences every aspect of its presentation of reality, is now seen as cultural context.

Do we now assert that it is text in contestation with an alternative text provided by science? That has been tried in the 19th century and it has largely failed to be convincing. The explanatory power of the Bible with regard to the natural world simply cannot match that of science. And as a result, Christians have large abandoned treating the Bible as a text in natural philosophy and see it as a context in which the truth of the gospel is expressed.

What about the metaphysical worldview of the Bible? Of the distinction between body and spirit? Is that a normative claim, a part of the text? Or is it a cultural context within or beneath which we seek a text?

This was the question addressed by Rudolph Bultmann in his famous effort to “demythologize” the Biblical story and thus distinguish the text (God’s Word) from the context (the metaphysical distinction between body and spirit.) Those Christians typically identified as Evangelicals have pushed back. They say that Bultmann, and indeed liberal theologians from Schleiermacher forward, have simply reduced the text to context and lost sight of God’s Word entirely. They assert that Christ without myth becomes simply an empty hole into which we Christians can pour our own context; whatever humanism is the order of the day.

Lesslie Newbigin, and others, offered an alternative. Newbigin pointed out (and I reduce a sophisticated body of argument to terms Newbigin himself doesn’t use) that the distinction between text and context is artificial; whether the text is scripture and the context is ancient culture, or the text is nature and the context is post-Enlightenment epistemology. What we know is always known in the context of a knowing community. There is no context-free observer reporting on a pure text, whether in science or in theology. There is no context free truth whether scientific or dogmatic.

This displaces the problem of abstracting the text from its given context so that it can be contextualized it in a new context. Newbigin shows that the real challenge is knowing which community is most appropriate to the type of knowing in question. The community of science is a marvelous community for a large but ultimately limited body of knowledge about those aspects of reality that its instruments interrogate. It can know a great deal about that world, but as a community it isn’t capable of even perceiving what the Bible calls “spirit” much less examining its meaning. By deciding that nature is its only text, it can’t possibly understand other texts.

Newbigin, following long Church tradition, argues that there definitely is another body of knowledge, knowledge of God and all that pertains to God. And the appropriate community for knowing God isn’t made up of hypothetical disembodied observers, whether scientists or theologians rationally interpreting scripture according to the rules of critical hermeneutics. The appropriate community is the Church and its ongoing life with God. The church at worship and in mission.

With this realization, we can approach the issue of contextualization without the naiveté found in efforts to distinguish a dogmatic text from a cultural context. Instead we can see that there really is no text, only the living relationship between what is known and the knowing community. The “living Word” insists on its own autonomy and refuses to be merely an object of study. Even the Bible isn’t a text as commonly understood. While it is the normative (for Christians) record of God's self-disclosure in the apostolic community, it is not so much revelation itself as it is the world into which Christians enter to meet God. The life of the Church with the Bible, pre-eminently in worship but also in study and service, continually forms and reforms the knowing community.

(Note that I’m not asserting that the Bible is merely a record of the responses of humans to the Christ, a typical post-Schleiermacher liberal tradition. That would make it mere history and not the embodiment of the living Word as has been affirmed by the church through the ages. We might think by way of analogy of the CD recordings that I have of Mozart’s French horn concertos. They are arranged so that I can play along with an orchestra and soloist long past. These recordings both require that I play along, but also offer me the chance to improvise my own credenzas. If I merely study them, score in hand and full of all the analytical knowledge gained from study, both the history of Mozart and music theory, I will never actually understand them. For it isn’t their purpose to be studied, it is their purpose to teach me to play French horn. So the purpose of the Bible isn’t to be studied, but to form the Church in the image of Christ.)

So we see that the Church does not bring a fixed text into new contexts. The Church as a community knowing God is led by God’s Spirit to invite others to join it in its knowing. It invites them to become part of the ongoing process of shaping a community suited to the encounter of humans with God.

This ongoing process begs the question of whether other communities, those invited to join the Church, actually have anything to bring into the Church’s ongoing dialogue with God, or whether they simply adapt to what the church has already learned. I’ll take this up in Part 3.

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.