Sola Fides: A Wesleyan Pastor’s Return to Faith

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I grew up in what some people still call a faith tradition.  I was taught that it is by grace we have been saved (read Romans) and that grace is sort of activated through faith.  That is standard 4 year old Sunday School terminology in the Evangelical world.

It was reinforced in every grade and every age until I went to college where over time faith took a back seat to every Wesleyan’s favorite buzz word, “love.”  In college and seminary we talked a lot about love.  Love became that word that both began and ended all theological discussions and debates.

So now when I read Scripture my head just naturally bolds and underlines the word “love” in the text.  If love appears in any pericope, I know what my sermon is going to be about.  If it doesn’t appear, I try hard to make it appear, sometimes a bit too hard.

And I think our tradition is justified in that hermeneutic.  After all the great Apostle Paul himself said, “Now three things remain:  Faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is more important than faith, more important than grace, more important than doctrine and knowledge and data.  Love is the crowning virtue, the eternal truth, the reconciling doctrine.  See, just that one verse is enough to get me waxing poetic about love.  I guess you could say that I am in love with love.

And to my great frustration, it would seem the other half of evangelicalism, namely the Calvinist half, doesn’t agree with us Wesleyans on that.  Actually the Calvinists have become so numerous in Evangelical circles that they are not half of us.  They are 9/10s of the movement.

And this huge majority just likes faith better than love.  They talk about it more.  They bold and underline “faith” in the text.  if faith isn’t in the text they find a way to put it there.  And every one of their sermons quickly follow behind, adopting the mantra, “believe or be damned.”  Now, I know that is not a fair generalization but it does seem to at least describe the majority of their tradition.

Lately as I have been reading and studying Exodus, and through Exodus revisiting what Paul has to say about laws, works, circumcision, Abraham, Moses and the old covenant, I have rediscovered they may be onto something.  Faith has incredible value.  After all, “Abraham had faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

As I have studied that one verse and how Paul uses it, I have come to believe that faith didn’t allow God to overlook Abraham’s sins, but faith made Abraham stop sinning.  Faith is what makes us holy and righteous.  Faith is what makes us innocent, though we be guilty.  Simply put, as a good Arminian, this is imparted righteousness, not just imputed.

If I am right about this, that means faith is about holiness and holiness, in turn, is activated by faith.  If we want to express holy love, we must first trust God.  In fact, love without trust is not very loving.  You might say that faith without works is dead and love without faith is six feet under.

And therein lies one of the problems of the entire Evangelical tradition.  The great Reformers, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, fully understood that faith meant trust.  But their heirs, gradually over many centuries, started defining faith as a mental assent to doctrine.  So now when we talk about faith, we are not preaching trust, we are instead claiming that “by correct doctrine you are saved, not works.”

As I have talked to people who preach this false faith, I have come to believe that they think the entrance room to heaven is going to be an SAT exam room.  You will be given a test with a bunch of true false and multiple choice questions and if you don’t pass it, you are going the other way.

But faith isn’t about doctrine.  It is about trust.  We trust God like we would trust any employer, any parent, hopefully any spouse.  We trust that God has our best and the best of the world in mind.  We trust that God created the cosmos and so can save said cosmos.  We trust God to provide for us when we are starving in a desert.  We trust God not to kill us for petty reasons.  We trust this God to heal us, if not in the present, than in eternity.  And, yes, we trust God to raise us from the dead after sin has claimed our mortal lives.

Faith is all about trust.  And when we trust God enough to enter into a loving relationship with God, we become holy.  God’s holy love emanates out to us and saturates us so that we become a people not defined by our hatreds or lusts but by a trusting obedience in the God who created us and everything else.

Correct doctrine will not save you.  The tongues of men and of angels will not save you.  Good works definitely won’t save you.  Only God will save you and only if you trust Him and out of that trust, obey.

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Why I Stayed in the Church of the Nazarene

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I have a few hours this morning with not much to do, so I am spending it jotting down some thoughts.  Unfortunately for the first time in awhile, I have several ideas for blog posts and not much time to write them all.

I am reading a book on Christian nonviolence entitled “What About Hitler?” but I am not through with it yet so can’t review it fairly.

I am also ridding my garage of a mouse infestation.  This has yielded all kinds of reflections about the brokenness of creation.  I might get those posted tomorrow.

Also my family is moving in two weeks to a new ministry assignment.  The move, like all re-locations, is teaching me a lot about discernment and the theology and practice of ministry.  I will post some of those thoughts over the next few weeks.

But all week long I have been involved in an ongoing discussion about the unique experiences of millenial clergy in the Church of the Nazarene.  My friend Danny Quanstrom has done several surveys of young clergy and is preparing to share his findings in several venues.

The discussion ranged from student loan debt (another topic for a future post), difficulties in finding assignments, the ridiculously bureaucratic licensing process and greater theological frustrations.

Out of that discussion, my friend Ric, who was educated by the Nazarenes but now pastors a UMC church, posted a blog detailing why he left the church.

Two huge factors dominated his narrative.  The first is that Ric never felt strong ties to any particular Nazarene congregation, just to the Universities.  He claims, and I believe it, that his professors were better pastors to him than his actual pastors.  The second factor was the growing divide between our universities and local congregations.  Ric had a growing sense (as did I) that he was undesirable as a pastor because he graduated from seminary.  This feeling was confirmed by a disastrous licensing interview where Ric was publicly shamed for not being able to quote the right Bible verses.

Ric’s story resonates with mine on several levels.  I too had to endure a licensing interview where I was asked awkward questions about the differences between the Church of the Nazarene and the Baptists or Assemblies of God.  The questions were not threatening but they did highlight the large chasm between our academic institutions and our congregations.  Our universities are not concerned with teaching us why we are better than the Baptists and Assemblies.  Their primary concern is teaching us how to think biblically and theologically.  But this older interviewer wanted to be certain I could argue in our favor.

More than that, before college I attended a private Christian High School that had been started by a Nazarene church.  Currently the High School is non-denominational and the student body composed of equal parts Baptist, Nazarene and Assemblies, with a few others thrown in.  My New Testament teacher was a Calvinist.  He taught us the New Testament and did a great job.

My Old Testament professor was a Nazarene lay person who taught us Republican politics and apologetics, particularly 6 day creationism.  I do not recall opening my Bible once in the two years of classes I took from him.  Instead he regularly named and listed off professors at the Nazarene universities that we needed to avoid at all costs.  These professors taught theistic evolution and voted for Democrats.  They could not be trusted.

With that said, I went to the University, took Bible and Theology classes and thoroughly enjoyed them.  I actually remember the point where I realized my High School teacher was full of crap.  It wasn’t a huge “aha,” paradigm changing moment for me.  Instead, it was a, “I always knew he didn’t know what he was talking about” moment.  Still, I was aware before most of the animosity between the university and some laity.

Unfortunately some university professors did respond by using class time to publicly shame students who graduated from my high school by responding to legitimate questions with, “You graduated from that high school didn’t you?” and then asking the student a series of questions no Freshmen would be prepared to answer.  In hindsight, I question their wisdom in doing so, though I was never a victim of such a barrage.

In fact, perhaps one point where Ric and my stories differ is that although I deeply respected my professors (or tried my hardest too) I was never really liked by them.  I have spent much time trying to figure out why that was.  I was then and am now hard to like and I could have done way better at reaching out to the professors and showing my respect for them than I did.  Still, they gave me an incredible education and rewarded my efforts with good grades and treated me with respect in class.  I own and read all their books and wholeheartedly support what they are doing for the church.  I just never would have called them my pastors, with one exception, namely my youth pastor.

That exception is probably why I stayed and why Ric and many others left.

I attended the church next door to our college campus.  The youth ministry there was incredible.  We went on mission trips to Mexico and discipleship retreats to monasteries.  We regularly had intensive spiritual formation retreats that involved fasting, studying Scripture, serving the poor, prayer labyrinths and the like.  My youth group had Ash Wednesday services and Holy Week services, all of which were completely rare in the COTN at the time.

On top of that I was a very nerdy Bible quizzer, which more than any Biblical or spiritual benefit, connected me to the other churches on our district and gave me some of the best friends I have ever had.

My senior year of High School, the Children’s Pastor arranged with my Youth Pastor for me to teach 4 year old Sunday School, which led to future leadership in the Children’s Ministry.

And the year after I graduated from High School my youth pastor was hired as a professor at the University.  Yes, that is a plot trope stolen right out of Boy Meets World but it happened.

So my positive relationship with my youth pastor carried over into college and continues today to yield incredible fruit.

With all that said, when I went to seminary, I became aware that my youth group experience was entirely unique.  In comparing notes with other students from around the country I realized that while I was fasting for Holy Week, other Nazarene teens were hiding Easter Eggs.  While I was spending 24 hours in silence at a monastery, other Nazarenes were bowling.  While I was memorizing John to compete at Bible Quizzing Nationals, other Nazarenes were watching Veggie Tales.

At the same I had a growing sense that I was not going to find a pastorate, at least not right away.  The economy was in a downturn and there was so much animosity being expressed towards the University and the Seminary that, like Ric, I supposed I was anathema.

But the opposite happened.  Through God’s providence and guiding, (or maybe just dumb luck) I was hired as a pastor on my home district in a church I had no prior relationship too.  I was ordained shortly thereafter and look forward to a long and fruitful ministry as a Nazarene.

In conclusion, there are a few things that make my story unique from others’ stories.  The first is that through Bible quizzing and an incredible youth group experience with an amazing youth pastor I had very strong ties to the church.  I do not believe that is the norm.  In fact, most evangelical youth ministries are incredibly shallow.

Second, I was involved in congregational leadership (albeit very minor) when I graduated high school.  Note that was not youth group leadership.  It was a position in another ministry in the church.

Third, even with those two things going for me, I am still a member of the Church of the Nazarene because a congregation took a risk and hired me to be their pastor.  If that had not happened I very well could be United Methodist or Wesleyan by now.

I know that what I just wrote is hardly an endearing vote of affirmation for our denomination but it is a story that should be told, if not to highlight both the strengths and weaknesses of our current context and the unique frustrations of Nazarene clergy who are educated in our universities.