The opinions expressed on this blog are the personal views of Andreas Kjernald and do not reflect the positions of either the UMC congregations in Skien or Hvittingfoss or the UMC Norway.

tisdag 20 augusti 2019

A response to bishop Alsted's article on Emergent Methodism

Introduction

Thank you, bishop Alsted, for this article/reading, https://www.emergingmethodism.com/new-article/remembering-the-mission-during-disagreements, of the events that took place in early Christianity and your thoughts on how it relates to the current UMC situation. 
As I read and tried to understand your reasoning, I found this to be your over-arching theme and message: 
The mission of the church {making disciples…] was the ultimate concern for the early church, to the extent that certain traditions (you mention circumcision as an example) weren't allowed to "stand in the way". The periphery of the faith, as you read the text, wasn't allowed to stand in the way of the center. Practice was made secondary to profession. 

If this is a correct understanding of your article it becomes clear to me that your underlying point is to show the UMC a historical precedent for how a church can live with seemingly mutually exclusive practices, a position that if plausible and Biblical, offers hope and promise to our current situation. You do note that the precedent has to do with membership, which is both correct and a little perplexing to me since the current UMC problem doesn’t deal with membership but Christian living, i.e. discipleship, issues.


Reflections on the reading by bishop Alsted

I enjoyed reading the Biblical material and bishop Alsted's well put together reading of them However, I felt that an important and perhaps crucial part was missing. 

First, the devil is in the details, as they say. The practice of circumcision and the practice of homosexuality aren't an "apples to apples" comparison. We are talking about two different things. One has to do with admission into the people of God and the other has to do with how then such people should live to stay in covenant with God. Making converts or making disciples.

Second, the mission of the Church has never been about just helping people get “admission” into God’s kingdom/family but more about making new creations, born again people. Holiness. To limit the mission of the Church to making converts for the transformation of the world is to miss the point of the church. Allow me to quote Ephesians 4:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature[perfect/teleios] manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
(Eph 4:11-16, emphasis mine)

The mission of the Church is so much more than making sure people find God. It is to be the body of Jesus, infused with His Spirit, offering God’s transforming grace that makes people grow up in Christ. New. Holy. This is why I believe that we can’t put a spotlight on the center and leave the boundaries to “missional contexts”. 

Making disciples is both. It is about the center and the so-called boundaries. This is clearly recognized in many other areas in the Christian life as otherwise the word “disciple”  would just float around in a sea of subjective feelings and desires.


Back to the reading by bishop Alsted

As previously mentioned, Paul and James and Peter and the others in Acts 15 were confronted with who the salvation of and in Jesus Christ was for. We (the UMC) are discussing what that life looks like.

Jesus or ethics. Center or boundary. Which comes first? Which is more important? 

I see a resemblance here to the Reformation and how it took Christendom 500 years to agree that salvation isn’t just about the initial salvation moment but the whole life of a person. We are being saved daily is the Biblical term. Luther/Paul was right, our salvation is only by grace through faith. Rome/James was also right, we are saved by our works. The only possible combination of these two seemingly opposites is to reconcile what we mean by “saved”. 
Is it only about the center (Jesus and the cross and what we believe and salvation from sin when we repent and confess) or is it about the boundaries (ethics and morals) OR is it both? 

The German Lutheran church and Rome agreed recently that it is both. We are saved by grace through faith that produces good works/behaviors in the new life of the non-believer turned disciple in a creation-making-new process called sanctification.
Makings disciples/Christians is about both center and boundary. Jesus and ethics/morals. Holiness.


Making disciples is both center and boundary because the goal is holiness

As the early church started to find its way we see that it/she understood her position as both a continuation and a superseding of the old covenant. The Sabbath/Saturday become Resurrection day/Sunday. The sacrificial system became the cross. Circumcision became baptism (adherents of infant baptism especially highlight this link). 

However, not everything was changed or transformed. Remembering Jesus' words about not cancelling the Law the early church understood that the mission of God in the world hadn't really changed that much. The Old Covenant was God's mission of creating a new people for Himself and make them into His likeness, i.e. holy. This is evident from Leviticus 19 ("Be Holy, as I the Lord your God is holy). To be an old covenant "christian", or person who belonged to God, was to become like God. This is echoed in 1 Peter 1:13. God is, curiously, very interested in ethics and moral living.
The New Covenant is no different. Jesus was sent to Earth to invite everybody to become part of His new people (the born-again ones). This included ethical and moral commands (“-Go and sin no more”, "-To love me is to obey me") and the Pauline letters are full of examples of what this means/meant. To be a christian was, and is, to be somebody in the process of being transformed from darkness to light, from sinful to holy. 
Same story as under the Old Covenant. Intriguingly, the Council of Jerusalem included "sexual immorality" in their list of 4 commands (the others were to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, blood and anything that had been strangled. The inclusion of ‘sexual immorality is a curious but crucial inclusion) for the new, gentile Christians. Obviously, this included homosexuality as it was clearly an immoral act as they had understood God’s revelation. Nothing existed to make them change that.

It's about living in a covenant with God moving towards holiness. As is clear from multiple (tragic) scriptures that covenant can be broken by people's behavior, whether it was idol worship, immorality, unbelief or other perversions of God's covenant. Seemingly, sexual immorality is something that can break the covenant/relationship between people and God after it has been entered (whether by circumcision or baptism). The Pauline letters and Revelation point this out vividly.


The mission of the Church

I agree that Jesus/God and his love and desire to save the world is at the core of what a church should be about. However, without any definition of who this Jesus is and what He wants and what He wants from His church it quickly becomes very difficult to understand what this mission is (notice also that there is very little mention in the Bible of “how” God wants us to this). Without a guiding church, itself awash in the Holy Spirit, humanity is lost. The means become goals and the goal is whatever is in fashion.

This is so because many things in the Christian life and in the Church and in the Bible are not self-explanatory. In fact, many are quite difficult to understand and/or practice. What is a “disciple?” What is “holiness?” Who is “God?” How is the “church” the “body of Christ?” The list goes on even before we get into ethics and Christian living.

One could argue that the point of the Bible is to allow humanity to see and read and understand God’s revelation of His will for humanity. However, I also believe that He created the Church to guide humanity in understanding and living this out, i.e. in and with God's holiness, mainly because it doesn’t happen automatically. People don’t follow and love and live the covenant with God as per the Bible by themselves. Sin will see to that.

If there is truth about God and mankind and Creation and the relationship between these parties to be found the Church must not be confused or downright wrong about it. If the Church doesn’t know what it means to be a disciple of Jesus then what does She know? 

This is why the church can’t disagree with Herself about things/issues that are in themselves destructive for the life in covenant with God. This is why in the Old Testament God instructed the Israelites to destroy all the idols in the land. This is why in the New Testament God demands a pure heart with a death to the old self. Holiness is and must be the goal and it is also the means, or process, of the life of a disciple.

In short, I don’t think we can separate the center from the boundaries when it comes to the topic of human sexuality. Not all so-called boundaries are connected with the center in the same way but as is clear from Scripture, sexual immorality is destructive to the covenant relationship God desires with humanity and thus unable to exist where a covenant with God is desired. To allow sexual immorality as a church is then to be grossly mistaken. 

The center, Jesus and His love and mission for the world, can’t be divorced from the boundary of human sexuality simply because human sexuality is included in what God the center desires to restore, renew, recreate. That must also be the desire of the church. Holiness is all encompassing.


Final thoughts

Bishop Alsted and I share the same missional challenges of a post-secular society of the likes the world has never seen. Scandinavia is the new frontier. 

His question at the end of his reading asks how the church in such an environment can “realistically balance faithfulness towards the center and missional impact?” I think the key word is “realistically.”
What does he mean by that? Does it mean that it is unrealistic for the church to hold on to unpopular boundaries (especially in the context of human sexuality) and still expect to have any missional impact in secular areas? Does it mean that the church must adapt to the world to have a missional impact as long as the adaptation only touches so-called boundary issues? 

I don’t know what he means but I can recognize the frustration of trying to find out how to be “the Church” in a culture that has already been here, bought the t-shirt and moved on to Netflix and whatever cause is currently trending on Twitter.

There really are only two options. Either surrender to the culture and maximize whatever (boundary-?) adaptions felt necessary to have any missional impact or maximize the connection between the center and boundary so that the offer given by the church is something radically different, true and fully involving a whole new life for the whole person. Holiness.
In short, either the church adapts as much as possible or it combines the center and the borders as much as possible. 

Personally, I would argue for a maximizing of as much of the center and the so-called boundaries as Biblically and historically possible, into a beautiful whole, where every aspect of life is connected to its center, Jesus Christ. 

The goal is holiness, maximum Jesus in our lives. We shouldn’t limit God’s mission in the world to the absolute minimum, even if it was possible.

We don’t circumcise new members anymore. We offer them holiness.

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