Dr. David Watson, an associate professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary, has recently written that, “through the Bible, God has revealed sacred truth to a community of people committed to living in that truth” (Scripture and the Life of God. Kindle edition, location 180). I am part of that community of people.
Some among the progressive liberal leadership of The UMC bishops, agencies, and conferences’ leaders, including Rev. Christy Thomas have asked “Do we want a mindless fundamentalist reading of Holy Scripture to be the centerpiece of the Methodist movement?”
This is what they think of those who have historically been described as orthodox evangelical Christians. They are increasingly bold in stating that those who believe that the Bible has been given by God, has been protected through millennia by God, is the standard for truth for believers in God, and to which the followers of Christ (“Christians”) are expected to be obedient are ignorant and irrational. They believe that Reason and personal Experience are superior to Scripture and Tradition and are eager to throw out anything in Scripture that they find inconvenient, uncomfortable, or too demanding of personal sacrifice for the sake of holiness.
The Bible speaks of a wide range of types individuals or groups of people based on their faith/belief positions in relationship to God. They can be observed as a progression in Scripture this way:
Pagans, Idolaters, or Gentiles/No relationship to God
“Hearers of the Word” /Curious “Seekers”
“God-Fearers”/Believers in God
“Doers of the Word”/ Believers in God who actively study and follow scriptural principles & commands
Disciples of Jesus/Followers of Christ
Friends of God/Close intimate relationship through Holy Spirit and obedience; deeper level of commitment
Sons/Daughters of God/Closest relationship, those who do the will of God in the world (and to whom God will give visions/prophecy)
This week as I thought about these descriptions in the Bible, it occurred to me that Saul the Persecutor was a faithful Pharisee among the Jews. Among the Jews he could have been described as a “Doer of the Word” or in the language of the Pharisees “Doer of the Law”, faithful to his understanding of the Old Testament scriptures. But when he encountered Christ and came to see the truth of Christ’s Divine Incarnation, life, and resurrection, the transformed believer Paul had the chance to be instructed in the truth of Christ’s teachings. The Word itself became not the OT laws but its fulfillment as revealed in the life and teaching of Christ. Paul saw that Christ’s teachings were not in conflict with the principles he had heard and done all his life. Instead, his new “vision” brought him to a more mature understanding of the teaching of his historic faith and its fulfillment in Christ. Christ’s teachings led him and other Apostles to recognize that Christ had “reframed” some things in a new context and was himself the continuing Word of God and the New Covenant. They began to learn the difference between the “letter of the Law” and the “spirit of the Law” as Christ taught them the call to a deeper commitment to love God and love others.
Some of the truths Jesus taught were:
God’s chosen people are not defined by ethnic/racial/national heritage, but by belief in him through the transformation of the heart.
Physical circumcision as the mark of belonging to God’s people had been used during a critical stage of their development and self-identity as a cohesive group and now would be replaced by a more substantive and permanent mark described as circumcision of the heart, carving out the impure passions and practices by the refining work of the Holy Spirit. They were equally definitive, but one was carried out by God’s representatives and evidenced in the body, the other would be carried out by God himself and evidenced in the spirit, soul, and conduct.
Obedience was not to be defined by doing religious duty or good works in view of others, like animal sacrifice or almsgiving or mandated times of presence in the temple to have others mediate for one before God. Rather, it would be defined by pursuit of an intimate relationship with God evidenced by sacrifice of one’s own selfish desires, obedience to God’s will, becoming a sacred dwelling place oneself for God’s presence and learning to love others as God loves.
These New Testament reframed contexts, as Jesus taught them and as his Apostles conveyed Jesus’ teaching after his death and resurrection, became the Word of God through Christ communicated in the texts of the New Testament as his Apostles were inspired to write them down for all to know and follow. It did not dismiss the Old Testament but showed how Jesus, the Incarnate Christ, had provided for an enlarged, Spirit-led instead of Law-led understanding of the definition of God’s people, his covenant with them in Christ, and how they are to live. The evidence for the NT fulfillment in Christ of OT prophecy is clear.
The liberal progressives of the Christian faith today would have us believe that we evangelicals are now the Law-bound and uninformed “Doers of the Word”, like Saul the Pharisee before his conversion, who have become stuck in ignorant duty-bound faith to an instrument instead of faithful to the Source. It seems that they believe that evangelicals have failed to evolve as Christ intends and now need to have Christ’s teaching and purpose reframed for us by these more enlightened and more highly-evolved spiritual next-testament believers.
However, the things they are teaching as representing the “higher” law of love and unity that they say Christ desires dismiss much of what has been clearly spoken in the OT and NT. Further, it introduces new teachings that have no foundation in the Word (NT or OT) as believers have known and practiced the Jewish and Christian faiths. And some are, in fact, in direct conflict with biblical teaching. They are, in effect, creating another “gospel”, in fact another religion, that accepts only what they, as individuals or dissenting groups, are willing to obey and reframes everything else in light of whatever they desire…..in terms of sexuality, sanctity of life, discipline, relationships among people in family and community, power, “progress”, creation care, and more.
Throughout history the monotheistic faith that progressed from the early Hebrew faith to Christian sects today have done so as their ability to understand God’s work among humankind, especially in the incarnation through Christ, has been documented and become more and more broadly understood and taught among a wider and wider number of people. However, along the way others have sought to add another testament and have begun new religious groups- Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others. Their beliefs fundamentally took a significant departure from biblical teaching and apostolic traditions.
It has been clear for the 45 years I have been a Methodist and it was brought home to me clearly during ordination interviews in The UMC that the liberal progressives of today’s Protestant church, including Methodism, are attempting to do exactly that. This is the reason The UMC, like other Protestant groups before it, is facing a probable split in the near future. A community’s view of Scripture as an essential and non-negotiable standard for belief and practice will not be minimized or abandoned by true followers of Christ (“Christians”). There will always be some who believe they are more enlightened and have a better way than what God has given.