Line Dancing and Church Community

Line Dancing is America’s cultural dance. This is my opinion, contrary to all of the square dancing lessons I received (endured) in elementary school. I came to this conclusion as I was watching a school dance. There were several different songs that were played that each had specific moves that most everyone knew. That was when I realized I hadn’t been to a wedding in a really long time, or I would have seen these dances.

It is quintessentially American, as well. In other types of dance, partners are needed. In many types of dance, entire groups are needed. Line dancing is completely individualized. If I know the moves, I can dance without anyone else around. It looks better if there are lots of people around, all doing the same moves at the same time. Yet even if it is just me, I can dance by myself.

My fear is that, in America at least, we have reduced community in the Church to a line dancing mentality. My faith is mine alone, and if there are others around who are doing the same thing it can be better. Nevertheless, I really do not need anyone else to be with me. I can dance by myself with God.

This is not the community Jesus Christ created in the Church. In truth, this does not even reflect community in its most basic form. God is a community of Father, Son, Spirit. Ultimate reality is Community, and when Jesus Christ began the new creation he did so with a community. He founded a Church that would reflect the principles and power of the new creation within the broken pieces of the old one. He founded a Church that would be able to storm the gates of hell. He did not create a bunch of individual believers who would gather together every once in a while. The images of the Church are a body and a temple–unified structures made up of different pieces, but all contributing to the whole together.

Community is essential to the Christian experience. John Wesley once said, “Solitary religion is not to be found there. ‘Holy Solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection.” In other words, we need one another for our own faith and salvation. Without the community, without the social aspect of faith (us being in community with one another), we will be lost. No one can be a Christian by herself or himself. We all need each other in the Church.

Line dancing may be a wonderful American dance, where individuals can get on a dance floor and all be individual together while maintaining their individuality because they really do not need anyone else, but it is a lousy model for Christian community.

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Article XXIV-The Church-The Lord’s Supper

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶125 The Church–The Lord’s Supper

The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death. To those who rightly, worthily and with faith receive it, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ. The supper is also a sign of the love and unity that Christians have among themselves.

Christ, according to His promise, is really present in the sacrament. But His body is given, taken, and eaten only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. No change is effected in the element; the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Nor is the body and blood of Christ literally present with the elements. The elements are never to be considered objects of worship. The body of Christ is received and eaten in faith.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Mark 14:22-24; John 6:53-58; Acts 2:46; 1 Corinthians 5:7-8; 10:16; 11:20, 23-29.

This Article is one on which, as a denomination, we are actually on shaky ground. The classic Methodist understanding of the Lord’s Supper, also called variously Holy Communion, the Eucharist, or the Sacrament, is that somehow Christ is present in the sacrament. We do not know how he is present, only that it is not the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation.

John Wesley, who was a faithful Anglican priest through the day he died, believed that the elements of Communion themselves became the means by which God communicated his grace to us. He did not believe that the elements transformed on a microscopic level into flesh and blood, but they were the actual, physical vessels that communicated the body and blood of Christ to those who would receive them in faith. This is the classic Methodist understanding of the Eucharist as well.

This article shows how the Free Methodist Church has a convoluted understanding of the sacrament. The first section is the classic understanding inherited from Wesley, and thus the Church of England. The second section is more anabaptist in its denial of any meaning to the bread and wine. This may sound like splitting theological hairs, but here is the issue: In the first section, the bread and wine are necessary for the sacramental experience of receiving God’s grace. In the second section, only faith is necessary.

In fact, the first sentence of the second section is actually contradicted by the rest of that section. Either Christ is present in the bread and wine or he is not. If the presence is spiritual, i.e. through the Holy Spirit, he is still present. It really does not matter whether we can explain how Christ is present (especially because we can not do so).

Methodists have always been a part of the Church that believed in Christ’s real presence in the Lord’s Supper. It is a mystery how that occurs, but we have always believed it is true. Not only does Scripture back up this interpretation, but so does almost all of the history of the Church’s understanding of the Eucharist. We may have debated exactly how Christ is present, but we have always believed he is present in the bread and wine.

The portion of the Article that reads, “No change is effected in the element; the bread and wine are not literally the body and blood of Christ. Nor is the body and blood of Christ literally present with the elements…The body of Christ is received and eaten in faith,” runs counter to that understanding.

We would do well to stop trying to define exactly how Christ is or is not present in the sacrament and simply state that we believe Christ is present in the sacrament. We would be on much more solid biblical ground, as well as historical ground with the entire Church (not to mention our own Wesleyan heritage).

Article XIX-Salvation-Restoration

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶120 Salvation-Restoration

Christians may be sustained in a growing relationship with Jesus as Savior and Lord. However, they may grieve the Holy Spirit in the relationships of life without returning to the dominion of sin. When they do, they must humbly accept the correction of the Holy Spirit, trust in the advocacy of Jesus, and mend their relationships.

Christians can sin willfully and sever their relationship with Christ. Even so by repentance before God, forgiveness is granted and the relationship with Christ restored, for not every sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit and unpardonable. God’s grace is sufficient for those who truly repent and, by His enabling, amend their lives. However, forgiveness does not give believers liberty to sin and escape the consequences of sinning.

God has given responsibility and power to the church to restore penitent believers through loving reproof, counsel and acceptance.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Matthew 12:31-32; 18:21-22; Romans 6:1-2; Galatians 6:1; 1 John 1:9; 2:1-2; 5:16-17; Revelation 2:5; 3:19-20.

This Article hits upon a topic that seems to have a lot of baggage within it. This is because it deals with the very real issue of sin in believers. There are some who think that if someone is truly in Christ, he or she will not sin again. Ever. There are others who believe that humans cannot help but sin and that it is merely a demonstration of God’s mercy and grace that there is a Church at all because of that fact. Reality lies in the middle.

We are called not to sin. We are called to be holy. And we know that we can fail at this high calling. When we do fail, we must repent and seek healing of our relationships with the people against whom we have sinned and God. There is no way around the fact that all sin requires repentance, especially if we are in Christ. God is not dumb and knows when we sin.

There is also the unfortunate reality that people who were once in Christ can walk away from him and renounce their salvation. I have numerous Christian friends who believe that a Christian can never lose their salvation, but that is not the issue. This is not one of losing salvation, but rather one of voluntarily giving it up. Again, God is not dumb. We may confess with our lips that Jesus is Lord, and even confess with our attendance on Sunday mornings that we believe, yet if our hearts and minds and actions and attitudes are far away from God, God will not ignore the reality of our lives.

The way I usually say it is like this: If our faith is not strong enough to change the way we live, it is not strong enough to save us. We are called out of darkness into the marvelous light of Christ. If we accept that call, we must endeavor to walk in the light. If we fail, we must repent. If we do not repent, we will not be forgiven. Without repentance and forgiveness, we are in the dark and only delude ourselves into thinking that our words or attendance mark us as in the light.

Sin is serious. God is equally displeased with sin in our lives before conversion as after conversion (and perhaps more so after conversion). We must confess, repent, and seek forgiveness for the sins in our lives to continue to have a relationship with God.

Think of it in terms of one of the most-used metaphors of our relationship with God in the Bible–a marriage. The wedding ceremony is our conversion and entrance into the fellowship of the Church. The marriage is every day after that. Just as in a human marriage, the wedding might have been perfect and wonderful and beautiful, but that does not mean the marriage will also be those things or continue. Sometimes people who are married grow apart. Eventually the wife confronts the husband and says, “You are having affairs. You are distant. Even when you are home, you are not here. Your attention and your energy are always directed somewhere else and at someone else. I don’t care what you say, you are not here.” And that would be the reality. If human beings can figure this out in our own marriages, do you not think that God may have to say the same things to people with their “relationship” with him?

Our love for God must be not in words only, or in attendance only. It must be active, faith-filled, and true.

Article XVIII-Salvation-Sanctification

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶119 Salvation-Sanctification

Sanctification is that saving work of God beginning with new life in Christ whereby the Holy Spirit renews His people after the likeness of God, changing them through crisis and process, from one degree of glory to another, and conforming them to the image of Christ.

As believers surrender to God in faith and die to self through full consecration, the Holy Spirit fills them with love and purifies them from sin. This sanctifying relationship with God remedies the divided mind, redirects the heart to God, and empowers believers to please and serve God in their daily lives.

Thus, God sets His people free to love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love their neighbor as themselves.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Leviticus 20:7-8; John 14:16-17; 17:19; Acts 1:8; 2:4; 15:8-9; Romans 5:3-5; 8:12-17; 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 6:11; 12:4-11; Galatians 5:22-25; Ephesians 4:22-24; 1 Thessalonians 4:7; 5:23-24; 2 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 10:14.

John Wesley called the doctrine of sanctification the “grand deposit” God gave the people called Methodist. It is this doctrine that sets us apart from other denominations. It is not because it is new or different. On the contrary. It is because we have been called by God to make it one of the hallmarks of our preaching and teaching.

As one can see by the many Scripture passages above that reference sanctification, this is not a new concept. Another way to describe the same idea is Christian maturity, although sanctification is more traditional.

Put simply, we believe that God can truly conform us to the image and likeness of Christ and enable us to live a holy life in his power here and now in this life. Full salvation from the power of sin is not beyond the power of God, nor is it beyond the purview of humans in this life. As we respond to God’s grace, we are gradually transformed from grace to grace and glory to glory. We see nowhere in the Bible where it states that God can only complete the good work in us at the moment of our death.

As well, we have witnesses of sanctified lives among us. There are numerous stories of people who were truly the salt of the earth. We know people who did truly perfectly love God and neighbors. And we pray that those ranks will increase.

Article XII-Humankind-Good Works

Continuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶113 Humankind-Good Works

Good works are the fruit of faith in Jesus Christ, but works cannot save us from our sins nor from God’s judgment. As expressions of Christian faith and love, our good works performed with reverence and humility are both acceptable and pleasing to God. However, good works do not earn God’s grace.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Matthew 5:16; 7:16-20; Romans 3:7-28; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Timothy 1:8-9; Titus 3:5.

In this Article, we try to show the distinction between living a Christian life and how we are saved. Free Methodists stand firmly in the tradition of the Reformation and boldly declare that we are saved by grace alone. Yet we also know that this salvation is for a purpose, and it is to live a holy life in Christ Jesus. Therefore, we also boldly proclaim that our lives ought to exhibit good works because of our faith.

faithworksTo put this very simply, and to try and avoid a lot of debate on the nature of good works and faith, we believe that we need faith in Christ to be saved, but it must be a faith that is strong enough to change the way we live. If we say we have faith but continue to live a life as if we were never brought into contact with God in Christ–never having an experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives–then it really is a faith in words only. If my faith does not prompt me to yield my life to God and allow God to transform me from the inside out into the new creation God wants me to be, then it is not a faith that is worth anything.

John Wesley said essentially the same thing when he said that we are not saved by good works, but neither are we saved without them. Our good works become the result of our saving faith as we are transformed more fully into the image and likeness of Christ.

Article VIII-The Scriptures-Authority of the Old Testament

2639302-Torah-Scroll-Stock-Photo-ancientContinuing on the series of the Free Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion (see here and here for an explanation of the series and format):

¶109 The Scriptures-Authority of the Old Testament

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New. Both Testaments bear witness to God’s salvation in Christ; both speak of God’s will for His people. The ancient laws for ceremonies and rites, and the civil precepts for the nation of Israel are not necessarily binding on Christians today. But, on the example of Jesus we are obligated to obey the moral commandments of the Old Testament.

The books of the Old Testament are: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi.

¶131 Scriptural References

The doctrines of the Free Methodist Church are based upon the Holy Scriptures and are derived from their total biblical context. The references below are appropriate passages related to the given articles. They are listed in their biblical sequence and are not intended to be exhaustive. Matthew 5:17-18; Luke 10:25-28; John 5:39, 46-47; Acts 10:43; Galatians 5:3-4; 1 Peter 1:10-12.

This Article continues from the first one referencing the authority of Scripture. Here, specifically, we speak about the Old Testament and affirm that it is just as much divinely inspired as the New Testament and just as much a testimony of who Jesus is as the New. This combats an ancient heresy propagated by a man named Marcion who taught that the god of the Old Testament must necessarily be a different god than the Father of Jesus. He saw nothing but wrath and anger in the Old Testament god and could not reconcile that with the image of a loving Father Jesus proclaimed.

This view is sometimes subtly still taught in churches today. “The Old Testament is about law; the New Testament is about grace.” This is a soft version of Marcion’s heresy. It is also not true. God chose Abraham without giving him a law to follow. God delivered the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt before he gave them the Law. God offered to heal and restore the Israelite nation repeatedly if they would only repent and return to him. There is grace all over the Old Testament.

Two other points to notice in this Article. One is that we make a distinction between the ceremonial and civil laws for the Jewish nation and Jewish worship and the moral laws that apply to interpersonal relationships and actions. This is a classic distinction of what parts of the Old Testament are applicable to the Church today. There is a long history of applying the Old Testament in this way. This is why Christians have no problem affirming (in some of the most adamant ways sometimes!) the Ten Commandments, and yet also not following the laws concerning the kosher diet or wearing clothing of mixed types of fabric.

The other point to notice is that the list of Old Testament books is the Protestant list of them. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox list of books in the Old Testament is longer. Protestant Bibles will print these books sometimes, and include them in a different section called Apocrypha or Deutrocanonical Books. These books were a part of the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, that was used by the early Church. As such, they were always a part of Christian Scripture. When Martin Luther translated the Bible into German, he decided to use the Hebrew list of books, which did not contain those extra books (or portions of books, as Esther and Daniel are longer in the Greek). There are many reasons why this decision was made, and there are many reasons why the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox retain those books to this day.

John Wesley included one reading from Tobit in his readings for the Lord’s Supper when he first composed a service book for the Methodists in America in 1784. This shows some of the Church’s conflicted opinions about these books. Essentially, they are seen as good for teaching many things about a Christian life. On one level, they can be considered “inspired” in that sense, just as many people have considered What’s So Amazing about Grace? by Philip Yancey or Surprised by Hope by N. T. Wright as inspirational. But at the end of the day, we trust that the books listed above are the ones out of which we draw our understanding of who God is based upon our reading of His self-revelation within them.

James 2:26 and Dead Faith

2013_08_FaithI have lived in many places over the years and every once in a while I end up in a community that is adamant that Christians can’t have “works” because we are saved by faith alone.  Apparently those Christians have never read James.  It would not be surprising.  Martin Luther, that venerable reformer, wanted to remove James from the Bible (why not, he got rid of several Old Testament books!) but was prevented from doing so by others.  James didn’t fit his theology of sola fides or faith alone for salvation.  Here’s why:

As the lifeless body is dead, so faith without actions is dead.

That is pretty clear and straight to the point.  If you want to read it in context, here is a link.  In fact, the only place the phrase faith alone occur in the Bible are in James 2:24:

So you see that a person is shown to be righteous through faithful actions and not through faith alone.

Luther was fighting against a corrupted system in the Roman Catholic Church of his time in which there was no discussion of faith, but only a system in which people worked for God to work off their sins.  His message of salvation by faith alone was a radical return to the idea that God saves us by grace so that we can live a Christian life.

Christians today who say there is no place for works in their lives take Luther’s statements (consciously or unconsciously) and try to apply them to a radically different situation.  They would do well to reexamine James, because James has the antidote to much of what is wrong in many Churches in the West today.

Faith is not really faith if it is not strong enough to lead to a transformed life.  This is because faith is not an agreement to a group of ideas about God.  It is a relationship with the Living God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–that leads us to be transformed step by step, grace by grace, and glory by glory, into the likeness of Jesus Christ.  If there is no transformation, if there is no changed life, if our lives do not increasingly look like Jesus, there is no faith.

John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, said that we are not saved by works, but neither can we be saved without them.  If we say we believe in Jesus Christ, but our lives do not show that belief, what does it say about our profession of faith?

Does this mean that in order to say we have faith we must be perfect?  Absolutely not!  If we have faith we must struggle against sin and seek to do God’s will, obeying Christ’s commands–for if we believe in him we acknowledge him not only as our Savior, but also our Lord.  We obey our Lord or we are unfaithful.  As we try to live the life Christ calls us to live we seek his help in fulfilling his calling upon our lives.  God gives even more grace to those who pray for it so they can live the Christian life.  This transformation occurs over time, as our relationship with God grows deeper.

Do not be drawn away by the idea that we are saved by saying we have faith alone.  Faith is not faith unless it results in a transformed life.