Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A Fulsome Orthodoxy

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Matthew 11:28-30

Recently I came across an essay by Mark Tooley, called “Calvinist Evangelicals in a United Methodist Church!” Tooley is President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a right-wing institution committed to demonizing mainline Christianity. He is a longtime critic of the United Methodist Church, and the essay was predictably negative.

What was surprising was the theology he advocated as an alternative to what he sees as the non-biblical drift of “institutional Methodism.”

He tells of walking by a church that once was home to a healthy United Methodist congregation and now houses a new and vibrant Calvinist church filled with enthusiastic millenials. “I was walking by an old United Methodist sanctuary,” he writes, “and heard uncharacteristic music emanating from the windows. Curiosity drove me inside, where I was surprised to see a full congregation of almost all twenty-somethings singing fulsomely as a band performed behind the altar.”

I don’t think he really meant to say that they were singing “fulsomely.” Fulsome is defined as “offensive to good taste,” “disgusting, sickening,” and “repulsive.” On the other hand, his essay certainly was fulsome.

He is saddened, he says, that there are no comparable United Methodist alternatives. “Sometimes over the years I’ve been asked by friends where their young adult child newly arrived in the nation’s capital might find a vital and orthodox United Methodist church. I’ve told them there really are no options.”

As a pastor who feels blessed to serve a congregation where the worship service is always accompanied by the sounds of babies, I share his sadness that there are not more “vibrant” United Methodist churches filled with enthusiastic millenials. But I was immediately suspicious about what he might mean by “orthodox.”

“Think about it,” writes Tooley. “The most powerful city in the world has almost no vital, orthodox United Methodist churches. Instead there are typically small, liberal congregations that celebrate their diversity but have little capacity for meaningful outreach.”

For Tooley, the key word is “orthodox.” And by orthodox, he means a particular brand of orthodox. He doesn’t mean what most Christian theologians would have called orthodox in the mid-twentieth century. He isn’t talking about something that Karl Barth or Reinhold Niebuhr would have called orthodox.

He quotes approvingly from the website of the church he visited: “We believe in the personal, bodily return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The coming of Christ, at a time known only to God, demands constant expectancy and, as our blessed hope, motivates the believer to godly living, sacrificial service and energetic mission.”

I don’t believe in the “bodily return” of our Lord, but I can get behind “constant expectancy,” “blessed hope,” “sacrificial service and energetic mission.” I may understand those terms differently than Mark Tooley does, but the terms themselves are familiar to many, if not most, thoughtful Christians.

But we’re not done. In Tooley’s view, the best is yet to come. He quotes again from the website:

“God’s gospel requires a response that has eternal consequences. We believe that God commands everyone everywhere to believe the gospel by turning to Him in repentance and receiving the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that God will raise the dead bodily and judge the world, assigning the unbeliever to condemnation and eternal conscious punishment and the believer to eternal blessedness and joy with the Lord in the new heaven and the new earth, to the praise of His glorious grace. Amen.”
It’s hard to know where to begin. Given enough time and thought, I could make my way around “eternal consequences,” but do they really believe that “God will raise the dead bodily”? Do they really believe in “eternal conscious punishment”? My guess is that many Christians who say they believe in hell would still be a little squeamish about “eternal conscious punishment.” That takes it up a notch or two.

And the dividing line for these eternal consequences is between “believers” and “unbelievers”. Pay no attention that that parable about the sheep and the goats, “I was hungry and you gave me food,” etc. God only cares about what you believe.

Tooley seems to think that the only thing standing in the way of a massive revival of Methodism in America is our failure to properly believe in hell. When you think about it, it is a remarkably dark and narrow vision.

In contrast to the robust faith he sees in this “orthodox” church, Tooley is appalled by the mission of what he calls “diversity churches.” They have given up a commitment to orthodoxy, he says, and replaced it with “inclusiveness, community building, radical hospitality, affirmation, etc.” And then he quotes the words of welcome from the website of one of these “diversity churches:”

No matter,
– Where you’ve come from or are going;
– What you believe or doubt;
– What you are feeling or just not feeling;
– What you have or don’t have; and
– No matter whom you love
All of who you are
– is welcomed into this community of faith
– by a God who loves you passionately.
Thanks be to God. Amen!

Several years ago when our daughter was doing an internship at the Smithsonian, we heard that welcome given by the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli at Capitol Hill United Methodist Church where our daughter was attending. CHUMC was a small congregation, but wonderfully vibrant and faithful.

Ginger Gaines-Cirelli is now the new Senior Pastor of Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C. The folks at Foundry would certainly fail Mark Tooley’s test of orthodoxy, but they are vital, and vibrant, and they are not small (in any sense of that word).

My guess is that the millenials attending the church that Mark Tooley visited are more positively engaged by the praise band than by the theology. And I don’t think that such a dark vision of Christianity will be compelling in the long run. In fact, that dark vision, supported by a crudely selective biblical literalism, is one of the major barriers to getting young people to take the Christian church seriously. But that’s not the biggest problem with Tooley’s vision. The biggest problem is that in the deepest sense it is unchristian. He advocates an “orthodoxy” which does violence to the teachings of Jesus.

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