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.

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.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Recommended reading: The US Supreme Court on trust clauses

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

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

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