Updated: Jul 21, 2020
June 19, 2020 By Bishop Mike Lowry
The searing words of the second paragraph of the letter of Jude both frame and highlight a fight for the Christian faith going on in The United Methodist Church today. “Dear friends, I wanted very much to write to you concerning the salvation we share. Instead, I must write to urge you to fight for the faith delivered once and for all to God’s holy people. Godless people have slipped in among you. They turn the grace of our God into unrestrained immorality and deny our only master and Lord, Jesus Christ. Judgment was passed against them a long time ago” (Jude 2-4, CEB).
The match was lit to this spiritual powder keg at the very inception of The United Methodist Church. The First Restrictive Rule of the Constitution of the newly instituted church clearly stated (and still states): “The General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrines.” Yet concomitant with such a commitment to doctrinal clarity has been great confusion as to precisely what the standards are, what they mean, and how they might in some way be enforced.
The fire was stoked and brought to a roaring blaze with the adoption of the 1972 Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, officially advocating doctrinal pluralism. The resulting theological chaos has lead to a theological instability at the heart of the denomination. Despite a clear re-forming of doctrinal standards by United Methodists in the 1988 General Conference, much of the doctrinal preaching and teaching by United Methodist pastors reflects a vague pluralism tinctured with unitarianism and a rejection of the very notion of a theological standard to which ordained United Methodists must adhere.
A number of anecdotal illustrations reverberate in my mind. The first comes in a conversation with a highly regarded retired clergy person. This man had been a serious episcopal candidate. We were discussing what doctrinal convictions were required for ordination.
I queried, “Would you vote for a candidate for ordination who did not believe in the Trinity; someone who was essentially a unitarian?”
He paused and noticeably thought for a moment. Then he slowly nodded. “Yes, yes I would.”
Consider the implications of such a statement. At the very heart of the Nicene-Chalcedonian understanding of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. The United Methodist Church holds in its Articles of Religion (which are constituted as its core ruling doctrine) a non-negotiable trinitarian commitment. “Article I – Of Faith in the Holy Trinity: there is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite wisdom and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.”
Another incident took place in a conversation between district superintendents. The district superintendent (DS) is a significant middle-judicatory supervision role in The United Methodist Church which is formally an extension of the episcopal office. In a discussion bordering upon an argument with other district superintendents, one prominent DS asserted that talk of crucifixion should be jettisoned. She stated, “we have to stop preaching that Jesus died on the cross for us… it does damage to people.” Another agreed and argued further that “here [in communion] should not be any confessional language at all.” He went on to say, “We have to stop making people feel guilty and like they need to confess sins, when they come to church. We aren’t Catholic.”
As the comments were shared, all I could think of was the apostle Paul’s clarion conviction of faith: “But we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
In a recent conversation with the senior pastor of a large church in my conference, we reflected together on our mission statement, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This man, who has been a delegate to General Conference and served in a leadership position on the Board of Ordained Ministry (the credentialing body for candidates for ordination), argued that we need to leave out the part about Jesus Christ and emphasize the “transformation of the world.” Christology was to him, at best, a minor sideline. Further discussion revealed that he perceived Jesus as a great teacher but could not affirm the Chalcedonian understanding of Christ.
Once again, I could not help but think of the earliest Christians’ three-word creedal commitment: “Jesus is Lord.” The courageously soaring statement of Philippians 2:6-11 echoed in my pained heart “that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
The United Methodist Church as it is currently constituted has lost much of its theological core. We are paying the price today for generations of pastors and seminary teaching having ignored core doctrines of the Christian faith. Like Jude I wish to write about the salvation we share but instead am convicted of the need to “fight for the faith delivered once for all.” However harsh it may seem, “Godless people have slipped in among [us].” Disguised in the form of pluralism and tolerance we have embraced doctrinal indifference. With such an embrace has come the destructive chaos of cheap grace turned into “unrestrained immorality” which denies “our only master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 3).
Scholars debate precisely what was meant by “godless people” in Jude’s day. In all likelihood, those so labeled by Jude saw themselves as good and even godly. There is reason to believe that they were upholding a vision of grace that freed them from a doctrine of sin. As N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird put it, “They deny the moral implications of the gospel, thereby effectively denying the authority of Jesus himself” (The New Testament in Its World, [Grand Rapids, 2019], p. 750).
The application of Jude’s label of “godless people” appears unduly harsh in today’s permissive theological climate. It carries implications of a harsh judgmentalism. Yet once again Jude would instruct us: judgment is real. “Judgment was passed against them a long time ago” (v.4). His argument about judgment takes up the major part of this letter. As Alister McGrath argues in Heresy: A History of Defending the Truth, false teaching is best seen as a form of diseased Christianity. Jude’s harsh label serves as a warning that doctrinal indifferentism too long tolerated and even embraced leads to “godlessness.”
In our day, the disease that infects us brings disguised destructive consequences. Those who advocate an expansive view of grace so as to leech out the moral implications of the gospel no doubt believe they are faithfully reflecting divine grace. “Godless people” may have good intentions, but we should be well advised that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.” The application to our day and time is straightforward. The philosophical climate of radical individualism in American culture (and The United Methodist Church), combined with a hedonistic addiction to the pursuit of personal pleasure, salted with partisan vituperativeness, and soaked in personal arrogance is leading us far from submission to Jesus as Lord.
The doctrine of permissive cheap grace evident in much of The United Methodist Church’s current theological argument is ultimately destructive of individuals and the church itself. Likewise, the tendency to slip into a denial of the fullness of Jesus Christ (fully human, fully divine) carries with it the ultimate weakening of the very moral attributes offered by a Savior who calls us to holy living. Our Lord’s teaching is not just one opinion among many. Orthodox Christology as promulgated by the Nicene Creed matters.
The current dispute in The United Methodist Church is largely a battle over where we draw the line of faith. The presenting issues of whether or not clergy should be allowed to perform same-gender marriages and whether it is permissible to ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” are the proverbial tip of the iceberg in the “fight for the faith delivered once for all.” The massive iceberg beneath the water is the ongoing argument over just what constitutes the theological and moral foundations of contemporary Methodism.
One fascinating example of this lies in the contentious debate in The United Methodist Church over just where the doctrinal and moral lines should be drawn. In my experience, I have dealt with many who advocate an understanding of grace that will cover almost any behavior without repentance or a change in behavior. When pressed as to where a line might be drawn in terms of understanding sin, I often encounter a refusal or an intellectual inability to articulate any doctrinal (and often few moral) boundary lines. Pertinently, Kenda Creasy Dean has stated, “Arguably, issues of identity and openness pose the most daunting challenges facing American Christianity in the twenty-first century.” She went on to query, “Where is the line between identity and openness?” (Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, [Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2010], 36).
The antinomian convictions of modern society that have infected the church are consistently failing people. The spiritual hunger we encounter, while often imbedded in a radical individual hedonism, is a sign of a desperate searching for something better, something deeper. Perceptively Professor Dean remarks, “Perhaps young people lack robust Christian identities because churches offer such a stripped-down version of Christianity that it no longer poses a viable alternative to imposter spiritualties like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (36).
If we turn back to Jude’s witness, we encounter again the outlines of a vibrant orthodoxy that can survive the diseased Christianity of our time. Jude offers us a place to stand in the “fight for a faith delivered once for all.” Jude challenges us in three ways to rediscover radical allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord, recognize reality, and reclaim orthodoxy.
First, Jude can assert a family connection through James to Jesus himself. His pedigree is impeccable. Instead of making such a claim, Jude connects his teaching authority to Jesus Christ. He is “a slave of Jesus Christ” (v. 1) Later in the letter he drives home this cardinal conviction of his relationship: “our only master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (v.4). It is here our fight for the faith must begin. The letter of Jude is a passionate call for modern Christians to rediscover radical allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord. Bluntly put, the Methodist movement must reclaim the central place of allegiance to Jesus Christ as our only master and Lord over and above the standards of secular culture.
In a perceptive piece of writing Matthew Bates notes that our understanding of the word “faith” has become diminished over time. “The Greek word pistis, generally rendered ‘faith’ or ‘belief,’ as it pertains to Christian salvation, quite simply has little correlation with ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ as these words are generally understood and used in contemporary Christian culture, and much to do with allegiance. At the center of Christianity properly understood is not the human response of faith or belief but rather the old-fashioned term fidelity” (Salvation by Allegiance Alone, [Baker Academic: Grand Rapids, 2017], p. 15).
Jude’s strong affirmation of the Lordship of Christ challenges us to submit our preferences to His purpose. Theologically speaking, the fight for the faith delivered once to all is anchored to a foundation of reclaiming Chalcedon Christology and the concept of radical allegiance. Again, Bates comments, “Jesus as the universal Lord is the primary object toward which our saving ‘faith’ – that is, our saving allegiance is directed. We must stop asking others to invite Jesus into their hearts and start asking them to swear allegiance to Jesus the king” (199).
Second, Jude calls us to face reality. Consider for a moment as the brother of James (and thus a brother of Jesus) all the things Jude might well have written about. He tells us at the start of his letter that his preference was to write about “salvation.” Instead, Jude understands the context of his day. He recognized the reality of his time. In our time, the temptation is to be consumed by concerns for institutional connection and possible schism rather than face the deeper doctrinal issue before us. Jude perceived the threat to the heart of the gospel in false teaching. We must do the same in this day and time. He would teach us not to hide from the reality of our time but confront the theological poverty of our day with the truth of the gospel.
In recognizing this reality, Wright and Bird pointedly connect Jude’s insight with the church of today: “Parts of the Christian church today seem ideationally vacuous, with little or no confessional content to their faith. They tend also to be places where manifold forms of immorality are permitted and even celebrated. In such a context, we are to contend for the faith without being contentious over tertiary matters” (755). As Christendom fades into the cultural background, it is time to wake up to the reality of our fight over the faith.
Third, Jude calls us to reclaim orthodoxy. Significantly he speaks of the “faith once delivered,” not of a new or expanded personal interpretation. Jude does not engage in culturally popular proclamation. His scriptural references are tough and to the point. “But you, dear friends, remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 17). Without apology he reclaims the connection of theology with moral practice.
Our modern failure in much of the church to hold to the historic theological core of the Christian faith erodes our very ability to speak to the moral anarchy of our times. For far too many, Christian theological and ethical commitments have been reduced to matters of opinion and political advocacy. It is past time to reclaim the heart of the gospel against the raging hedonism and selfishness of our age.
C. S. Lewis's warning almost three-quarters of a century ago to a group of young
Anglican priests and youth workers still holds today:
I insist that wherever you draw the lines, bounding lines must exist, beyond which your doctrines will cease to be Anglican or to be Christian; and I suggest also that the lines come a great deal sooner than many modern priests think. I think it is your duty to fix the lines clearly in your own minds: and if you wish to go beyond them you must change your profession. This is your duty not specifically as Christians or as priests but honest men… We are to defend Christianity itself—the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers. This must be clearly distinguished from the whole of what any one of us may think about God and man…
We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all. Today, The United Methodist Church (and the Methodist movement as a whole) is wrestling with whether it will rediscover, recognize, and reclaim its roots at the heart of this faith. The time of theological toleration saturated with moral indifference is past. The reality before us is of a diseased Christianity that we must counter by rediscovering radical allegiance to Christ, recognizing the reality of the battle we are in, and reclaiming core Christian orthodoxy.
“To the one who is able to protect you from falling, and to present you blameless and rejoicing before his glorious presence, to the only God our savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, belong glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time, now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 24-5)
Mike Lowry is Bishop of the Central Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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