Recently, after reading a blog from a “progressive” christian blogger who admittedly had some challenges with a few of the “out of the box progressive arguments” (my interpretation of some of the standard answers given). I am not one to fully go down that road either, there are still some thoughts I have not come to concise conclusions on as well. Here is a link to that blog.
One comment from the Facebook share of that blog was, “…good exegesis is central and something I wish we as pastors could teach as a common task.” My response was, “…why can’t we teach that?”
In considering my reply and further thoughts, I can understand more and more why it is difficult. I am in my 10th year as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. I have served 2 and sometimes 3 churches at the same time. Part of the reason is due to the shrinking of congregations and church attenders and the ‘expense’ of having a licensed or ordained paid professional leader. Even right there I cringe a bit and wonder if I should have included that last part. So I asked myself why I cringed. My income as a paid professional clergy is a great expense to the churches I serve, even though by serving multiple churches I ease the financial strain overall.
This creates a dilemma in some ways. I have seen people stop giving to a church or ministry simply because they did not like the pastor or something the pastor has said. A church I was a part of before becoming a paid professional went through a major split because some of the people did not like a particular message given by the pastor who had differing beliefs. So there is a reason to not break out of the “stereotypical lines” a church or denomination has been riding on and teaching, it could cause the whole thing to collapse. But is this a good reason to hold to the old status quo? I would say, “Not if you want to be true to the Gospel lived out and presented by Jesus Christ.” Now I MUST call myself a hypocrite!! I have, just as the responder to my Facebook share of the blog, succumbed to the theology and ideology of the congregation being served, which in turn reinforced the status quo understanding and ‘life as we have always done it’ mentality.
Here is another challenge I have personally experienced in a number of settings. When I speak or use words, even more dangerous here in a blog, I have an idea of what I mean by the words I use. This may not be the same understanding you may have of the same words. Here is an example. Years ago I was leading a church through a study of a book by Sarah Cunningham Dear Church: Letters from a Disillusioned Generation.” One of the chapters in the book dealt with the twenty-soothings view of denominations, that some would not be interested in coming to a church simply from the name or denomination attached to it. I made a comment along the lines of, “I wonder who in this community will not come here simply because of the United Methodist in our name. I wonder who we might attract if we simple became such and such community fellowship or community church. Instantly there was a tirade of why we could never go down that road. This is a group of people with the added benefit of seeing my body language and facial expressions when I made the comment, something you just can’t get through a blog. It turns out that at some point in the churches history someone that divided the congregation in a number of ways tried to get them to leave the denomination and go out on their own. All that to say, without conversation we not only do not understand one another, even when using the same words, we can never go forward and we lose the opportunity to find out our stereotypical thoughts about what others believe and think is not what we think it is.
Then we have the boxes we put people in. I am progressive in much of my beliefs. I am also liberal and fundamental in my beliefs, which I guess makes me a fundogresseral or maybe a progressameneral. Maybe I should coin these words so I can get credit someday. I have met some people that I would have believed were liberal only to find they have a fundamental view about certain areas. I have found that some liberals like the progressive word now because they have similar beliefs but do not want to be associated with the fundamental liberals. Ok so what the heck is a fundamental liberal? By the way, what happened to conservatives? Why didn’t you add them into the mix so you could be a pronseramenteralive. Ok, so maybe boxing people in with labels isn’t the answer either. In a discussion one time with a person who I felt was a conservative fundamentalist I was taken by surprise when they questioned me about why I thought they were a conservative fundamentalist. They agreed to being a fundamental liberal, or maybe that twas conservatively liberal. I am so confused, are you getting there yet? The problem is that too often we are told to believe things we are not sure if we actually believe, like being handed a script we must memorize and never question, which is what some people think the Bible is, but that is a discussion for another day.
I appreciate the Wesleyan heritage as I understand it. Ah, did you see what I just did? I qualified it with ‘as I understand it’. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral as it has come to be known is not for those who are satisfied with trite answers or checking their brains in at the door when they come to church. Just tell me what to believe, I will recite it and when someone asks about it I will repeat it to them again. That is definitely not the Wesley I read about in my studies. Instead of checking our brains at the door, we should be engaging them in all of life. Critical thinking though can be dangerous. When we look at Scripture as the final authority of all matters sacred and secular, we can’t help but misread it. Applying reason and experience to Scripture by engaging our brains to the reality of our life’s experience with the power of the Holy Spirit (An explanation of prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace in the Wesleyan theology would be helpful here, but for now knowing that somehow God’s grace is working in our lives before, during and after our conversion through the Holy Spirit should get you through this thought.) can open us to new understanding. Another important part is tradition, not the ‘we always go to church as a family on Christmas Eve’ tradition, but looking back through history and seeing how the faith has been interpreted from the beginning of Christianity and even back to the Biblical stories starting in Genesis and how those stories, poems, dreams, songs, and history shaped a people called Israel tradition. These are what I have used to come to some of the conclusions I am embracing and still wrestle with.
So, why can’t we teach this? Or why don’t we teach this? Why do we think we have to have all the answers? Fear! Fear of losing my job as a paid religious professional. Fear of causing division in the church. Fear that I may be wrong. Fear that I am asking people to believe something I am not sure I believe 100%. Fear that my interpretation of Scripture will cause others to disbelieve. The list can go on.
So where do we go from here? I can think of a number of Scriptures that could inform us and pray that I am not taking them out of context for my agenda, but that through these people will use reason and experience to test and see if they agree with them. (Which, if I am honest, is that you will like what I have written and agree with it proving that I am right, yet at the same time hoping that if you don’t agree with me you will engage me in some dialogue so you can straighten me out) I think of Paul writing to Timothy that we have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power. (2 Tim 1:7) Maybe consider 1 John 4:1 where we are to test the spirits to find out if they are from God.
While I know I have managed to sidestep answering any specific beliefs I have in this blog, likely for fear of finding out someone doesn’t like me or my way of thinking, my hope is that this will open some honest dialogue about how we engage the world and culture around us with the love of God, reflected in the life of Jesus Christ.
I believe God is bigger than any label we try to put on ourselves and others.
Lord, help me see others through the eyes of Christ. Help me to hear the cry of those around me who need to know your love and grace. Help me to remember to listen to those for understanding, not for how I can change them. Help me to love others as you love them. Help me to invite those around me into the journey of life we will share together. Challenge me to grow more like Christ everyday. Help me to uplift and challenge those around me that you may be glorified in them. Help me to challenge others to take the steps of faith that they may experience the relationship you desire to have with them. AMEN!