a bit monkish.
The paragraphs below are some random thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind for several weeks.
What is a prophetic voice? Is it, as Isaiah wrote, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Is. 40:3)? Is a prophetic voice one that rails against the status quo? Perhaps a prophetic voice is one who advocates for the poor and marginalized in society. Prophetic voices may even exist in politics. Community leaders have prophetic voices as they advocate for the poor in their neighborhoods. Protectors of the environment may have prophetic voices for the sake of the planet against the industrialization of the world. However, as Christians, our prophetic voice should differ from the prophetic voices of those outside of the faith, for the forthrightness of our prophetic message should encompass eternal, not just temporal, issues in the world.
In the Old Testament, the prophets of Yahweh were conveyers of God’s message to God’s people and beyond. They called people not to new ideas about Yahweh, but a return to a more traditional and obedient relationship with Yahweh. God empowered these prophets because the people had abandoned their covenant with Yahweh in order to embrace the worldview of the pagan nations around them.
In Jeremiah’s day, the prophet was criticized (and his life threatened) because he dared to call the people to repentance and restoration with the God they had abandoned. Much of Jeremiah’s life was spent countering the false prophets who advocated new ideas about religious life. Jeremiah 23:13 states, “In the prophets of Samaria I saw a disgusting thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people astray (NRSV).” Voices in United Methodism are doing the same thing: Rather than becoming prophetic voices for a return to apostolic understandings of God, they are calling us, like the false prophets in Jeremiah's time, to abandon the truth of God for the moral fashion trends of the culture around us.
The true prophetic voices of Israel and Judah called for a return to Yahweh as the basis for social justice. Micah's prophetic call “to do justice, and to love kindness,” is grounded in the call “to walk humbly with God.” For Micah, social justice is an offshoot of our faithful covenant with God. Our social holiness sprouts from our personal holiness. Later, when John the Baptist called people to repent, he was calling them to turn back to God, which would result in them treating others fairly and justly (Luke 3:3ff). Without personal holiness, social holiness becomes nothing more than secular social action. Secular social action is needed in our society, but for those of us in the church, we have something more to offer.
Like people standing on a beach believing a hurricane will dissolve before it reaches the shore, many in the UMC refuse to accept the reality of where we are as a denomination. Factions have grown so opposed to each other (and have allowed the politics of social issues to infiltrate the church) that meaningful dialogue cannot exist. When clergy openly and blatantly violate the very Book of Discipline they once vowed to God to uphold - and do so without fear of consequences - it make me wonder what practical role the Book of Discipline has in the life of the church.
Lest one think that I am a conservative proponent of maintaining the denominational machine, please know I believe strongly in the power of prophetic voices. Challenging the status quo has been part of my ministry since I was ordained in 1993. Prophetic exhortation keeps us from regressing into denominationalism and maintaining the system for the sake of maintaining the system. I’m all about pushing the limits of who we are as individuals and as a denomination, particularly through the viewpoints of others. Surrounding ourselves with others who do not agree with us and who push our beliefs is not only spiritually forming, it is also theologically strengthening.
Current issues in the UMC seem to have been hijacked by secular social activists who don’t claim to see life and events through the lens of Scriptural truth. It almost seems as though some in the UMC desire that the media and others in society approve of who we are and what we're doing. In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred many times to the Mosaic law and offered practical interpretations that were more strict than what even the religious leaders of the day believed. Jesus led the discussion of a more obedient life in ways that were in violation of the cultural norm - even the religious cultural norm. He didn't encourage his followers to cater to the whims of society, but to challenge the whims of society by obedience to God.
In the book of Acts, the earliest Christians did not embrace the Roman culture, but prophetically attempted to woo people to Christ and away from the Roman culture. In some ways, we're seeing the opposite of that today: some in the church are rejecting Biblical understandings of what it means to be human in favor of what the culture tells that it means to be human. We're forgetting who we are as people created in God's image.
One constant thread running through the Bible is that God’s people are called to have separate values than the world has. From the giving of the Law in Exodus to the example of God’s faithful people in Revelation, our covenant with God is that we’re to be different - and separate - from the culture around us. This certainly doesn’t mean that we’re to avoid people outside the Christian faith! But this does mean that we should have the influence on society, and not the other way around. We love all people, but as Christians we’re bound to the timeless moral laws set in motion by Almighty God. The spiritually blind should not lead the agenda for those who claim to live in the light of Christ.
How did we get here? It seems our United Methodist Church is anything but united. I've even heard some say that we’re beyond denominational repair. As we approach the Connectional Table’s meeting in May, Annual Conference sessions this summer, and General Conference in the spring of 2016, we’re going to hear a lot about prophetic voices in the church. I hope that when we begin to think about these prophetic voices, we remember they should have thousands of years of Biblical tradition behind them. God's prophetic voices call us back to an obedient relationship with God, not towards an embrace of the culture's changing view of morality.
We should love people as they are. We should accept them as Christ accepts them. As the people of Christ, one of our primary tasks is to invite people into a saving relationship with Christ. May our agenda not be a political party, or a social cause, or even a tradition. May our agenda be the furthering of the life, message, and work of Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible, by the transformational power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, and to the glory of God the Father.
Note: The image above is of a statue of Bernard of Clairvaux. Notice how Bernard's eyes are fixed upon the eyes of the crucified Christ, even as he shares his written words with us. This is the essence of a prophetic life.
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts
Nerd alert: Yesterday I read portions of "Apology" by Tertullian. Tertullian was in a legal profession in the Roman Empire around the year 200. It’s said that when he was in his early 40s and still a pagan he witnessed a group of Christians being executed in an arena. He was so struck by the peace in their lives and the character they exhibited as they were about to face death, he began to explore Christianity and found Christ.
Tertullian’s Apology is rich with real-world illustrations of Christianlife in the Roman Empire. Through Tertullian we how early Christians worshipped, why they took an offering, and their view of the theater, sporting events, gladiatorial games, and other aspects of society.
What strikes me about Tertullian’s description of Christians in the Roman Empire during his lifetime is how removed from Roman society they were. Much of the derision Christians faced came from those who criticized their withdrawal from much of what Romans enjoyed about life. The Christians may have been Roman citizens, but they wanted little part of Roman society.
Church growth experts today tell us that we need to become part of society in order to transform it. By infiltrating the godless culture around us, we’re able to identify with people, so the relationships we have with them will create trust. This trust gives us permission to share Christ with them.
However, Christians in Tertullian’s day intentionally withdrew from society so they would not be negatively impacted spiritually by it - and the church grew exponentially.
What drew people to the Christian faith was, according to Tertullian, the love they exhibited towards one another. Quoting what has been speculated as a phrase he heard often by pagans about Christians, Tertullian writes, “‘See,’ they say, ‘how they love one another.’” It wasn’t a church planting strategy, or church growth model, or a strategic plan, or even leadership development. What attracted people to Jesus Christ was the love Christians had for one another.
Study after study demonstrate that Christians in North America have the same view of morality and culture as those who are not professing Christians. We are not withdrawing from the culture around us - we’re embracing it. For example, it’s becoming common for Christian couples to profess their love for Jesus and see the Bible as the Word of God, yet they live together before getting married. We see no inconsistency between reading or watching Fifty Shades of Grey on Saturday night and then teaching Sunday School on Sunday morning. We sing songs in worship about loving one another, yet we can’t agree on how $50 should be spent in the church or what color the carpet should be. They early Christians had found Jesus. They had no need for what the world had to offer.
When those outside the faith see us, are we known for our character, convictions, and our love, or for something else? The early Christians held very conservative moral positions, yet they were known for their love towards others. Sadly, sometimes we separate those two instead of binding them together.
As one of the many souls in the “great cloud of witnesses,” I wonder what Tertullian and other church fathers and mothers who suffered persecution for their faith think when they see the 21st Century church.
Actually, maybe it’s best if I don’t know.
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.