Can starting a new Wesleyan Denomination Really Work?
The mainline denominations in the U.S. are in steep decline. This is fairly well-known. The Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Lutherans, the Presbyterian USA, the Disciples of Christ, and our own United Methodist Church have seen losses for many consecutive years. Each of these has embraced a very progressive theological and moral stance.
Now take a look at the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA, not the Presbyterian Church, USA, but a denomination which split away from the main branches of Presbyterianism back in 1973). While I am certainly not espousing their staunch Calvinism, nor their church polity, their movement shows some interesting trends. The split occurred over the creeping liberalism, both theologically and morally, especially in regards to the changing sexual morals of our American culture. We were just coming out of the so-called sexual revolution of the1960's, and the mainline churches were already beginning to slide.
The new church took a strongly conservative and orthodox stance, even if Calvinistic. The beginning was filled with pitfalls and controversies among the Presbyterians, but the beginning was solid. Now here is the interesting historical fact. The PCA has experienced numerical growth every year since 1973, while its parent denomination has suffered continual loss while sliding more and more toward progressivism.
In 1973 The PCA began with a starting membership of just over 41,000. By 1993, 20 years later it had grown to over 242,000. Last year the PCA reported over 374,000 members.
Here's what's interesting. The Good News Movement within the UMC published its first magazine in 1967! Conservative Methodists saw early on the trend in our denomination but chose, unlike the Presbyterians, to stay in the declining denomination and attempt to reform and renew from within. There is no doubt that to some degree that effort has succeeded. For example, The United Methodist Church is the only mainline church to consistently maintain its biblical stance on homosexuality. This is largely due to the reform movements which have arisen within our church. But the Good News movement, the Confessing Movement, and other movements which have arisen over the years have failed to curb the losses of the UMC. We have continued to lose members to more conservative churches. We have lost many to non-Wesleyan churches. Furthermore, we have found it difficult to evangelize the unchurched and the
United Methodists have been much more reluctant to start a new denomination than Presbyterians have been. There is certainly something unsavory about schism. But one has to wonder where we would be today had the earlier reformers in our church taken the route of the PCA.
Maybe it's time. Maybe it's past time.
Sharing a Common Mission ?
There are loud voices within the United Methodist Church clamoring that if United Methodists would get on with the stated mission "to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world", and would quit bickering over the divisive issue of sexuality, that we could then live and let live and avoid the tragedy of division.
But, of course, this is but one more diversion by the left side of the church. And this is because the various factions of the church, while sharing the same mission statement, do, in fact, mean very different things by it.
If Wesley's words mean anything similar to our present mission statement, then a major part of disciple-making and transforming the world would be "spreading scriptural holiness over the land." Making disciples, then, certainly includes the call to holiness, and the world is transformed by "spreading" holiness over the land...and not just "any" definition of holiness, but "scriptural" holiness.
And once you see the mission statement in that light, you will quickly see that the factions of the church see holiness in quite different terms. Once again we are brought back to a root issue: how is holiness defined? and what is "scriptural" holiness.?The so-called progressives and the traditionally orthodox among us see holiness in distinctly different ways. While most all would emphasize Wesley's focus on "love for God and neighbor" as being at the center of holiness, there would be, and is, deep disagreement on how that love is worked out in practical behavior, and in our present impass, in the defining of sexual ethics and behavior.
I doubt that any would object to meeting the needs of the poor, of helping those who need disaster relief, of feeding hungry children, and much more. But, for the Progressives, a part of the "mission of making disciples" would include what they refer to as social justice for practicing gay and lesbian persons, that is, the right to marry and the right to ordination in the church. On the other hand, the orthodox traditionalists consider the practice of homosexuality as a disordered behavior forbidden by Scripture (and presently by our Discipline), and so if discipleship calls for holiness, it calls for the renunciation of such behavior, and would, as well, affirm our present wording of "celebacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage."
Since our understandings of what constitutes faithful discipleship and what a "transformed world" should look like in the realm of human sexuality, any attempt to unify the church around our shared mission statement would fail to bring the desired unity...because, in fact, we are not united in our mission statement, except in word only.
A Good Conscience in the Church
"...holding faith and a good conscience. By rejecting this, some have made shipwreck of their faith." [I Timothy 1:19]
One element of God's prevenient grace is the human conscience. The conscience is designed by our Maker to distress us when we participate in sin and to affirm us when we practice righteousness (See Romans 2:14-15). And while a conscience can be, and sometimes is, manipulated, and can be, and sometimes is, seared or deadened, whenever a person's conscience distresses him, it is an indication that something is amiss. Something needs forgiven or healed or rectified.
In the United Methodist Church, as well as in most historic denominations, we are struggling with a conflict of conscience. The so-called Progressives in our church believe, apparently conscientiously, that it is an injustice toward homosexual persons if the church does not bless homosexual weddings and if the church refuses to ordain practicing homosexuals into the ministry. On the other hand, we who hold to the historic and orthodox position on Scripture and sexual ethics cannot in good conscience approve of either. The church has repeatedly re-affirmed the historic position, most recently at the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Oregon. And in response, a number of conferences, clergy, and even bishops have decided to break our covenant by which we agreed we would live. In their own minds they believe they are doing this "in good conscience".
But is this a legitimate response? I think not. When there is a denomination as large as the United Methodist Church, it is impossible to get agreement on every single issue. Nor do we have to agree on everything. Minor differences have always been debated among brothers and sisters in Christ without destroying the connection and without defiling the conscience. Even among us traditionalists there is a wide variety of opinions on many things. Some are more open to charismatic gifts of the Spirit; others are more cautious. Some are more liturgical and traditional in worship; others are more contemporary. And so forth... But these do not usually strike at the conscience, or if they do, only slightly. They tend to be emphases rather than dividing lines. But when it comes to moral and justice issues and authority/interpretation of Scripture issues, the dividing lines run deeper and more, on the existential level, to the human conscience.
Here is the way to live with integrity of conscience in the denomination. First, advocate for your conscientiously held belief. If your belief is rejected by the church in the only body that can speak for the whole church (the General Conference), then you must abide by the Discipline of the Church. If, in good conscience, you cannot do that, the only legitimate course left to you is to voluntarily leave the fellowship and find a church in which you can thrive without offending conscience. It is simply not acceptable to stay in the church and live in rebellion against the church's approved Discipline. To do so shows a lack of integrity and a lack of respect for the majority of the church which has continually re-affirmed the church's stance.
As for me, I cannot in good conscience approve of homosexual "marriage" nor of allowing practicing homosexuals ordination. If the church were ever to approve such at a General Conference, I could not in good conscience remain connected. We must "hold faith and a good conscience..." As long as we continue to fight each other and demonstrate against each other, and literally scar the conscience, we do an injustice to ourselves, to the church, and to the world that looks on. If we cannot in good conscience live together under our Discipline, it is time to separate. The conscience is a terrible thing to waste.
KEEP "MAS" IN CHRISTMAS
For decades now, Christians have been pleading with the culture to keep Christ in Christ-mas. But now some Christians may be in danger of losing, not only Christ in Christmas, but also the "mas" in Christ-mas. And to do so would be to lose Christmas altogether. December 25th would then become simply another family get-together for food, gifts, and watching some football on TV.
So what do I mean by keeping "mas" in Christmas? Simply this: the word "Christmas" is the shortened form for "Christ's Mass". Mass is the English word which was derived from a Latin term which referred to the worship service in which Holy Communion was celebrated. For earlier Christians every worship service was a "mass". So, the word "Christmas" literally refers to the worship service in honor of Christ's birth. Thus, in order to celebrate ChristMAS, one must actually be part of the "MAS" , that is, the worship service that celebrates the birth of Christ.
Obviously then, if a person argues for keeping Christ in Christmas, that same person should attend the worship service (the mas[s]). Otherwise, Christmas has not been observed at all...the "mas" has been lost and all you are left with is Christ. But, if we cannot keep the communal worship of Christ, the "mas", have we not also left Christ behind?
It would be similar to saying, "There's going to be a birthday party for Christopher... and I'm going to remember you, Christopher, on your birthday, but, I won't be coming to the party, because, well, I've got other things I want to do that day, like share some presents with my family and have a big meal, and watch some TV...but don't worry, Christopher, even though we won't attend your party, I'll be sure to mention to my kids that it's your birthday."
So, be sure to keep Christ in Christmas...but don't forget to keep "mas" in Christmas, too.
IGNATIUS ON ATTENDING WORSHIP
Even in his day, some were becoming slack in their regular church attendance. As you may recall, just a few years earlier John the apostle, writing to the Ephesian church in the book of Revelation, challenged them because they had left their first love, that is, their love for Christ had grown cool. Ignatius saw that one thing which contributed to this was their laxity in attending the services. So he writes to the Ephesians, "Let no one be misled: if anyone is not within the sanctuary, he lacks the bread of God....Therefore whoever does not meet with the congregation thereby demonstrates his arrogance and has separated himself, for it is written, 'God opposes the arrogant.'" (Letter to Ephesus 5:2a, 3) Later in the same letter he states, "For when you meet together frequently, the powers of Satan are overthrown and his destructiveness is nullified by the unanimity of your faith." (Letter to Ephesus 13:1) In these few sentences Ignatius sees a great benefit of taking the "bread" of God, a reference to the Holy Eucharist meal, which, if a person were absent, he would miss the great power and benefit of that meal. The arrogance or pride of which Ignatius speaks is that of a person who thinks he doesn't really need to attend. He can do just fine without going to worship. Quoting from Scripture, Ignatius notes that God opposes such a person. Ignatius also notes that great victories are won over the Satanic enemy of our souls when we gather together to worship and express our faith in God.
St. Ignatius was an early bishop of the Christian Church in the city of Antioch of Syria. His life overlapped that of some of the apostles, and he was martyred, according to the 4th century church historian, Eusebius, sometime in the middle of the rule of the Roman emperor Trajan. Trajan ruled from 98 A.D. to 117 A.D. We probably would know little of this great bishop if it were not for the fact that he wrote 7 letters during the last few weeks of his life, while he was awaiting his execution at the hands of Rome. These letters were to the following: A letter to the Church at Ephesus, a letter to the Church at Magnesia, a letter to the Church at Tralles in Asia, a letter to the Roman churches, a letter to the Church of Philadelphia, a letter to the Church at Smyrna, and a separate letter to Polycarp who was the bishop of the Church at Smyrna. Of course, this is the same Polycarp who was a disciple of the Apostle John and who himself was later martyred.
These letters by Ignatius give us some distinct insight into the life of Christian churches in that generation which immediately succeeded the apostolic age. They were written within 20 or 30 years of the death of John.
Knowing that his death was imminent, Ignatius wished to give final instructions to these churches, along with encouragement and a taste of his own testimony of faith.
I will close this episode of Ignatius with this tidbit from his admonition to Polycarp, "Do not let those who appear to be trustworthy yet who teach strange doctrines baffle you. Stand firm, like an anvil being struck with a hammer. It is the mark of a great athlete to be bruised, yet still conquer. But especially we must, for God's sake, patiently bear all things, so that He may also bear with us. Be more diligent than you are. Understand the times. Wait expectantly for the One who is above time: the Eternal, the Invisible, who for our sake became visible; the Intangible, the Unsuffering, who for our sake suffered, who for our saked endured in every way." (Letter to Polycarp 3:1-2)
For the next few days I intend to post some interesting quotes from Ignatius' letters. Stay tuned.
Early in my childhood my grandparents moved from New Jersey to Tampa, Florida. We lived in Ohio at the time, and my grandparents' move initiated a great excitement for me and for the rest of our family, because once a year we always took a vacation to visit them...and now, they were in Florida, the mecca of tourist attractions in the south. The beach, the parks, the museums...all of these were anticipated excitements, especially the yearly visits to the Clearwater and St. Petersburg Gulf beaches. We LOVED these vacations, and each year started getting excited adrenaline flowing as the days drew near for our yearly trek south.
Then my dad got one of the greatest ideas a dad could ever get for a kid. He applied for and got a job in Tampa. Yeah!!! We were going to actually live there. So we sold our home, packed our belongings and made the life-altering move to the always-sunny state of Florida with its constant invitation to exciting life.
There was just one little problem. After a couple of months, the whole thing began to feel mundane. The excitement wore off in a hurry. Oh, for a while we tried to keep it going by visiting a lot of the attractions, but after awhile I began to really miss my old school mates and neighborhood friends. Everything began to look darker than I had imagined it would be. Soon I didn't even enjoy trips to the beach.
It didn't take long for me to wish we were back "home". We stayed in Florida. Never moved back (although we did move to Jacksonville). But I learned a very important lesson in that early stage of life. Well, I almost learned it. I still find myself enticed by excitement, but I have come to realize how fleeting and empty it can actually be. Staying in the Father's house, in the long run, always produces more lasting joy than moving to a far country.
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THREE IMPORTANT LENTEN DISCIPLINES
In Matthew 6:1-18 Jesus emphasizes three important Christian disciplines, each of which is a means of grace: giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting. While these practices should be a part of every Christian's life throughout the year, Lent is a season when a re-focus on these important disciplines leads us back to the important aspects of our faith. If giving, prayer, and fasting are to be means of grace, they must be praticed, not to be noticed or praised, but in a private and unseen way. There is a promise attached to each practice. God, who sees in secret, will reward us openly. The nature of the reward is not always known ahead of time, but whatever reward God gives, it is a reward of grace. All of these disciplines are practices in self-denial. In giving to the poor I deny myself material goods that I might have had; in prayer I deny myself of time I might have used on self-centered interests; in fasting I deny myself the satisfying of appetites that might otherwise have led me into self-indulgence.
"While earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease." (Genesis 8:22) From the beginning of time God built natural rythms into the creation. These rythms of time are like opposite poles on a magnet, positives and negatives. It didn't take long for early believers to see the value of seasonal rythms in the life of the Church, and so both Feasts and Fasts were built into the calendar. It was easy to know that the Incarnation (Christmas) and the Resurrection (Easter) were times of celebration and deserved feasting and rejoicing.
And as the life of Jesus was studied, it was noticed that Jesus had both feasting and fasting built into the rythms of His life. The 40 day struggle in the wilderness was not a time of celebration and feasting, but a time of spiritual battle and fasting. The Church year reflects these alternating emotions of life.
Lent helps us identify with Jesus' temptations in the wilderness: 40 days of serious self-denial and spiritual warfare. During this time, while we do look ahead to the glories of Easter, we focus on "doing battle" with the temptations in our own lives. We pray. We fast. We engage ourselves in the Christian disciplines. During these times our faith, though tested, is deepened, so that when the time of feasting comes, we will be well-prepared to celebrate. But for the moment, we cast aside the wine and the fatted-calf, so that we might dig deeply into the wells of salvation. The digging can be laborious and challenging, but it is always rewarding.
Rehoboth United Methodist Church
225 Rehoboth Church Rd
Newbern, TN 38059
Phone: 731 285-3492
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When all of life flows out of the worship of God, all the pieces begin to fit together.
Regular Service Times
Sunday Worship 9:30 a.m.
Sunday disciple classes 10:30 a.m.
Sunday women's Bible Study, 10:30 a.m.
Sunday evening worship -- 5:00 p.m.
Men's Bible Study, Fri. 7:00 a.m. Java Cafe, Dyersburg
Men's Bible Study, Sat. 6:30 a.m. Nana's cafe, Newberna.m. Food Rite, Newbern