Friday, May 20, 2016

Dispatch from General Conference 2016

In spite of what you have may have heard, General Conference was actually a great experience.  And, we did not spend the whole time talking about human sexuality. We spent the majority of the time doing the business of the church, including making plans to provide clean water and education for some of the world's poorest communities, forming partnerships on both halves of the Korean Peninsula for the purpose of bringing peace to one of the most divided parts of the world, commissioning missionaries for work around the globe, and much more, as well as some of the more practical and ordinary business of organizing and running a world-wide church that is able to do extraordinary things because of our connection.  

And yes, we did spend some of our time arguing about human sexuality. This led to the body to taking the unprecedented step of asking our bishops to take the lead in helping us find our way to a solution. Our bishops graciously took the challenge and spent many hours praying, debating, and then finally issuing a plan.

That plan includes forming a commission that will include representatives from the various viewpoints within our church.  These men and women, led by our bishops, will explore creating a plan forward that is acceptable to all parties.  

At first, I was disappointed at the  statement from our The Council of Bishops.  I characterized it as kicking the can down the road, choosing to avoid a difficult but necessary conversation about the real divisions within the United Methodist Church.  But, upon reflection, I realized that how we engage in the conversation matters just as much  as making sure we talk about the issues.   Emotions were running too high to have that conversation during the last week of General Conference.  If we had plowed ahead in that climate, we would not have split the church.  We would have shattered it. 

The special commission removes the pressure of time constraints from the conversation so that we can allow cooler heads and calmer hearts to prevail.  In short, it allows us to handle our disagreements as Christians.  Over a course of time we can discuss how we either move forward together or how we can part in a fair and equitable way.  

So what should our congregation make of this?  I see it as a great opportunity.  Our congregation has many conservative people.  But, we also have many wonderful Christians who are more progressive. We have many different viewpoints within our own church.  And, the opportunity, as I see it, is that we have time to focus on what matters most. We have time to think carefully and deeply about those things which unite us, as we prayerfully consider how to be goo partners in the larger conversation our denomination is having. 

And, this is how I prepose for us to do that. First, we are going to focus on what it means to be Wesleyan Christians in the 21st century. Being Wesleyan is not the only way to be a faithful follower of Jesus, but it is our way and the tradition of our part of the Christian family. And, the Wesleyan tribe represents more than 70 million Christians around the world.  So we are going to focus on what it means to be Wesleyan Christians in our day.

We are also going to talk about what it means to simply be Christian.  We are going to spend time exploring the core beliefs that unite the two billion Christians around the world. 

We are also going to look very closely at the Biblical foundations for our faith.  This will mean looking at the beauty and complexity of the Biblical narrative, as we try to understand ways in which the Bible informs and shapes our faith.   

Finally, after having done that work, we will try to give prayerful thought to some of the tough issues facing us today, including the issue of human sexuality.  

As we enter into this time of conversation, I want to ask you to be brave, truthful, and kind.  I ask you to be slow to speak and quick to listen.  I also ask you to be respectful and considerate of those who differ in opinion from you.  At the end of this this time of Christian conversation, what Wesley called Christian conferencing, we may not all end up seeing eye to eye. We may not find ourselves able to all think alike but, by God's grace, we may still be able to love alike. 

Perhaps we and our denomination will be able to find a way to continue traveling together; but even if we find that  we must part and go our separate ways, we will at least be able to part as friends. 

I believe that the Holy Spirit has given us an unique opportunity to explore what it means to live in Christian community.  What will do with this gift?  That is ours to answer.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

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Episode 3 Notes


The Trinity and the Household of Faith

 

“God has sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, and now you can call God your dear Father.” – Galatians 4:6

 

Rev. Dr. Eddie Bromley                                                     15 January 2013

Ephesians 5:22-33 and 6:1-9

 

Why use this passage?

 

The first quarter of GLA has to do with character and nature of God.  For this reason, some of you may consider my choice of passages to be odd, at best.  In order to explain my choice of passages, I need to share a few of my theological assumptions.  

 

First, I start with the assumption that all of Scripture if first, and foremost about God.  This is what Jesus himself taught his followers on the road to Emmaus.  Luke says,  “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

 

Every passage, whatever else it may be talking about, is about Jesus, directly or indirectly, is about him.  Ephesians 5 and 6 are talking about relationships within a Greco-Roman home, but the things it says about these relationships is based on understanding of who God is.  And, I believe, that we have not done our homework until we are able to say what this passage tells us about God, or, what assumptions about God this passage is based upon. 

 

Second, I believe that we haven’t dug far enough within a passage until we can say, not only what the passage says about God, but also what the implications are for the way which we live out love to our neighbors.  

 

When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus said there were two: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind... ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (Matthew 22:37-40).  A Bible study that simply uncovers interesting bits of historical data and trivia, but leave out the implications a passage has for loving God and loving other people is simply inadequate.  

 

Third, I assume that the Bible has some important things to teach us about nature of power and leadership, and about nature of families and gender roles.  But, I also assume that these topics are and have always been difficult and painful to talk about.  Nonetheless, that does not mean that we shouldn’t talk about them.

 

But, what about your assumptions?  Below are some questions, meant to help you think through some of your own assumptions.

 

When I think about power struggles, I believe...

 

a.  There always has to be a winner and a loser.  

b.  The only alternative to the winner-loser scenario is   a hostile stalemate.

c.   There is always the possibility of a win-win solution.

d.  Other_____________________________________

 

When I hear the word submission I picture:

 

a.  Exploitation

b.  Abuse

c.   Self-giving love.

d.  Something else__________________________

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I think about human relationships I assume:

 

a.  All human relationships are based on a selfish struggle for scarce resources.

b.  Love is really based on people’s attempts to meet their own needs through other people.

c.   All authority is a reflection of people’s desire to dominate and control others.

d.  Power and authority can be shared, and can be used for the sake of others, is given by God and/or the larger community, and can be used for the good of the whole human-family.  

e.  Something else_____________________________

 

 

Ephesians 5:21-33: Household Codes

 

In order to understand this passage, you have to understand that Paul is very intentionally imitating a form of writing that was well known in Greco/Roman culture.  The form of writing is known as a household code.  Greek and Roman writers would, from time to time, give what we might call practical advice for homemaking.  They would do so in the form of a household codes. 

 

In these codes, they would describe the responsibilities of each member of the household; including wives, children, and household servants.  Each would be told how to conduct themselves properly, according to their place in the family unit. Every person had a part to play, responsibilities to uphold, and manners to mind.

 

You might have noticed that I left out husbands.  That was intentional.  In Greco/Roman household codes, men were never mentioned, unless, of course, they were servants.  The man, the head of the house, had no responsibilities for which he was held accountable.  He was the boss.  All accountability was to him.  He reported to no one else.  

 

What immediately sets Paul’s household codes apart from the norm is that Paul actually expects the men to allow themselves to be held accountable to the rest of the household for how they behave and how they act toward the rest of the family.  As Christians, men now have responsibilities which extend beyond providing for the financial needs of the household. They are to act as Christians in their behavior toward the rest of family.  

 

This is revolutionary.  Never before had it every been suggested that men had responsibilities inside the home.  There had always been expectations that the man would represent the home by conducting business, earning money, fighting battles, protecting the home from outsiders, and upholding the honor of the family name in society.  But once he got home, he was king.  He was to be waited upon and served.  He was off duty.  Now, Paul is telling the man that he has an important role to play at home, accompanied by real responsibilities.  

 

Then there is the issues of submitting.   

 

Let me share a fourth assumption of mine: I assume that all of us are so broken emotionally and spiritually, that when a Bible teacher starts talking about human relationships, submission, servant-like love, all of us get a bit defensive, just in different ways.  

 

Some of us get defensive, thinking that the word submit means that we are going to start talking about women allowing themselves to be ran over by chauvinistic-Neanderthals.   While others get defensive because they think that all this talk of submission, servant-like love, and the life of piety is about the feminization of the church; and they picture emasculated men who have been stripped of passion and vigor.  And these two contradictory and faulty pictures both come from the same word: submit.  How broken and damaged we are that we, men and women, hurt over the way these demonic pictures of gender and sexuality have been forced upon us. 

 

So, what does this passage tell us about the word submission and what it might mean for our human relationships?  

 

Here is where real careful attention to God’s word is very important.  We all have a tendency to be selective readers when it comes to the Bible. We highlight those ideas which match closest with our own, and tend to shy away from those passages which make us uncomfortable or challenge our deeply held assumptions and prejudices.  

 

But if we take the Bible to be God’s word, we must seek to hear and apply the whole counsel of God’s word to our lives; not just those pieces which affirm what we already hold to be true. 

 

This passage got a bad wrap several years ago when it was used by one denomination to tell women about their proper place in the family structure.  Women across the country were up in arms over the idea of submitting to their husbands.  No man was going to have that kind of claim over them.

 

The odd thing about the whole ruckus, is that if folks were going to get bent out of shape over the idea of submission, men should have also been up in arms; because they too are being told to submit.  Again, it is imperative that we read the Bible with careful attention to detail.

 

Verse 21 Introduces the whole section that runs from 

5:21 - 6:9.  The introductory sentence says, “Submit, therefore, to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  Who is that being addressed to?  The rest of the section tells us: wives, husbands, children, and household servants.  All of these folks make up to the typical household, as it existed in Greco/Roman culture.  And, it is to each of the members of the family that Paul says, “Submit.”

 

Verse 22 - the verse over which so many were worked up, doesn’t even contain the word “submit”; at least, not in the original Greek. It does in English only because the sentence doesn’t make sense without a verb.  This is where a study Bible comes in handy.  Because, unless you know Koine Greek, it is hard to understand this important point, which most good study Bibles highlight, without boring you with all the details; which is what I am now going to do.

 

In Greek, it is possible to start a paragraph with a proper sentence, and then to construct the rest with sentence fragments, which borrow their verb from the introductory sentence.  This is what Paul is doing.  Verse 21 alone has the verb “submit.”  The rest of the passage contains gerunds and participles, which are action words that help describe or unpack the verb “submit.”  In other words, Paul tells the whole family to submit to one another, and then begins to describe what it looks like for a wife, husband, child, or servant to submit to all the other members of their family.

 

But no one is any more or less on or off the hook when it comes to submitting.  According to Paul, wives are not to submit more, nor are husbands to submit less.  Both submit,  along with children and servants, to each other.  All are to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  If we are going to make a fuss over submitting, let’s at least let the idea have its full impact, so that we can all be offended together.    

 

 

Then there is the matter of servants or slaves in verses 6:5-9.   It is important to say a word or two about the differences between Greco/Roman slavery and American slavery.  As many as 1/4 of the population of the Roman Empire lived in servitude or slavery.  It was a matter of economics, which the Bible does speak about, though perhaps not as much as we would like.  We’ll say more about that in a moment.

 

The difference between this and the type of slavery that arose in the United States and lasted until the late 19th century was that slavery or servitude in Roman culture was more a matter of economics, while American slavery was based on race and a belief that some portions of the human family are more human than others; an idea the Bible nowhere teaches, and in fact, undermines in a number of places.  

 

Another important distinction being, in American slavery the so called “sub-human people where treated like chattel, or just a bit above domestic beasts. In most Greco/Roman households, the servant or household slave was usually a part of the family; something that is very easy to pick up on in the passages of the Bible where slavery is dealt with.  Household servants often came to be adopted by their families, and even became heirs of the family’s wealth.  That of course, does not make it right; but let’s look at what Paul says about it here.

 

Because of war, poverty, or family misfortune, many people in the Greco/Roman world ended up at the bottom of the economic food chain; meaning they would spend most or all of their lives doing work that no one else wanted to do.  They would spend their lives doing menial, or even degrading work, so that those above them would not have to.  A servant would be at the beck and call of their superiors.  Certainly no one would envy their lot in life.  Some of these slaves would be able to improve their lot in life, but most would be stuck in a dead-end situation their whole life.  This of course could cause some to become bitter, lazy, and apathetic about their work.  Now, we do not have these exact set of circumstances in our culture, but it is probably not hard to recognize some similarities.  

 

Paul’s pastoral advice to these folks is:  whatever you are stuck doing, whether it is babysitting, cooking, cleaning up after people, doing the manual labor around the house; whatever it is, do it as if it were your way of worshiping and serving Jesus.  Do it for his glory, doing it to the best of your ability without grumbling or complaining.  Do it with eagerness and joy.

 

Now, here is where the revolutionary part comes in.  in verse 9 Paul says, “And, masters, do the same to them [your servants].”  What does that mean?  Paul is saying, however and whatever your servants are doing for you, you do the same for them.  Whatever consideration and devotion they are showing you, you show the same for them.  What would that look like?  What are the implications of that command?  Paul doesn’t say.  He simply sets it, like some kind of spiritual ticking time-bomb, which is waiting to go off and explode, causing tremendous upheaval to the social fabric of Paul’s world. 

 

There is simply no way that Southern American slave holders could have both, really taken this passage to heart, and, allowed American slavery to continue for centuries.  Idolatry and wickedness are able to take root when we obey God’s word selectively; something, sadly, we are all guilty of.  

 

So what is Paul doing?  

 

He is obviously describing a model of the Christian home.  But what is this model based on?  I believe that the Apostle is basing his model of the Christian home on the Holy Trinity.  If submitting is the key to understanding the various roles of the Christian home, it seem almost obvious that such an understanding comes from a deep understanding of the Trinity.   

 

Picture of the Trinity

 

The Trinity is, after all, an eternal community of three eternal persons, who live in perfect submissive love to one another.  In 1 John 2:5 John tells us that God is love.  Do you realize that this is something only a Christian theologian can say.  Judaism and Islam cannot say that God is love.  Now, it is important for me to say that I do not believe that the followers of Judaism and Islam worship a different God than Christians.  But their view of God is incomplete, lacking the full revelation given in Christ.  

 

Judaism and Islam cannot say that God is love, because love is always the act of self-giving to another.  For God to be love, there must be a beloved.  So, at most, Islam and Judaism can say only that God is loving, but they cannot say that God is love; because God, according to their understanding, would have had no one to love before the foundations of the world.  

 

But according to the Christian understanding of God, God most certainly had someone to love before He created the world.  God is a perfect community of love, in which each member of the Trinity perfectly loves the other two persons of the Trinity.

 

The Trinity is a perfect community of love for another reason 1 John also shares with us.  The love shared within the Trinity is perfect love because it lacks any trace of fear.  

 

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” - 1 John 4:18

 

Because there is no fear within the fellowship of the Trinity, each can fully love the other without a trace of insecurity, suspicion, jealousy, or regret.   Each person of the Trinity can  fully love the other two, without having to worry about their own needs not being met.  They can be completely unguarded with one another. 

 

Now imagine what the implications of such a model are for the family.  If we could even begin to approximate this kind of love, even imperfectly, our families and homes would be a context in which there would be no threat in thought of submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Women could perfectly love their husbands and children, knowing with complete confidence that she would not be taken for granted or taken advantage of.  Men could perfectly love and serve their children and wife, never worrying that by doing so, his needs would go unmet.  Children could fully submit themselves in obedience to their parents, never having to be afraid that their parents would act for any other reason than the best interests of their children.  And even servants would be truly free in such a context. 

 

To think of the family in this way also helps us to more fully understand the Trinity.  When the family begins to love in this way, the family becomes a bit like the Trinity; something even a child can understand.  Whenever I teach children about the Trinity, I like to ask: how many families live in your home?  The answer is almost always 1.  I then ask:  how many people live in your home?  The answer might be five: me, my mom and dad little sister, and the dog.  I then back up and say, “But I thought you said there was only one family living in your home? But you named five people.”  The child will always exclaim, something like, “That is what my family is.  My family is made up of those five people.”  

 

So it is with the Trinity.  We worship God who is three distinct Persons, yet who are together, One God.”  Our God is not three competing gods, but three distinct Persons, who share one common substance, life, will, and purpose.  When we understand God as an eternal community of love, it helps better understand God’s design for the family.  But when the family begins to live out this kind of love, the family helps us to better understand the Triune God.

 

Well, what about the Church?  For it too is a family; a spiritual family.  It is the household of faith.  What would the implications of the Paul’s model of love, based on the internal life of the Trinity, be for the Church? 

 

Questions for Reflection:

1.  How does an understanding of the Trinity change, challenge or deepen your understanding of human relationships?

2.  How does a deeper understanding of the Trinity help us to love one another?

 
 
For Further Study

 

Eldredge, John. Wild at Heart: Discovering the Secret of a Man’s Soul. Thomas Nelson, 2001.

Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. IVP Academic, 1998.

 
Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Yale University Press, 1993.

 
Job, Rueben P. Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living. Abingdon Press, 2007.

 
Johnson, Luke Timothy. The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010.

 
Mathewes-Green, Frederica. Gender: Men, Women, Sex, Feminism. Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2002.

 
Mathewes-Green, Frederica. Mary as the Early Christians Knew Her: The Mother of Jesus in Three Ancient Texts, 2013.

 
Meeks, M. Douglas. God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989.

 
Meeks, M. Douglas, and Oxford Institute of Methodist Theological Studies, eds. Trinity, Community, and Power: Mapping Trajectories in Wesleyan Theology. Nashville, Tenn.: Kingswood Books, 2000.

 
Meeks, Wayne A, and John T Fitzgerald. The Writings of St. Paul: Annotated Texts, Reception and Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007.

 
Witherington, Ben. Women in the Earliest Churches. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

 
Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God). Fortress Press, 2013.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

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