Distinctively Methodist: Entire Sanctification and Small Group Formation

One of the questions that I have been the most interested in over the past decade has been: What makes Methodism distinct? This question intrigues me because if we cannot identify anything distinctive about Methodism in comparison to other Christian denominations, then its reason for being seems to be called into question.

I have also been interested in this question because I have noticed that the things that are often said about Methodist distinctiveness are not at all unique to Methodism. (I wrote about this six years ago in a bit more detail.) An article on umc.org “Who We Are as United Methodists,” for example offers a “brief list of some of the distinctive characteristics of our denomination.” The article consists of a list of eight distinctives:

  • Global
  • Connectional
  • Inclusive
  • Grounded in Scripture
  • Wesleyan
  • Concerned about social justice
  • Mission-oriented
  • Ecumenical

The word distinctive ordinarily means something like a trait or identifying marker that makes something different than other things. The phrasing “a brief list of some of the distinctive characteristics of our denomination” suggests that each item in the list is a distinct characteristic of United Methodism.

This article strikes me as a good representation of how conversations about Methodist distinctiveness typically go. There is a desire to be able to say something about United Methodist uniqueness in the landscape of Christianity. But what is said is usually not at all distinct.

In the list of eight items above, exactly none of them are distinctive of the UMC.

So, what is distinctive about Methodism?

This turns out to be a very difficult question. To answer this question with sufficient precision to say something that is actually distinctive about United Methodism would, I suspect, turn out to not be very helpful or compelling. United Methodism is not only one part of the Body of Christ, it is also only part of the expression of the broader Methodist (or Wesleyan, if you prefer, these are synonyms for me in this context) theological tradition.

I find it most helpful to think about what is most distinctive about the Methodist theological tradition, rather than United Methodism itself. In order to find distinctiveness, you need to look for specificity and detail. In other words, you have to narrow the focus rather than widening it.

We need one more clarification here. Distinctiveness is not the same thing as an essential. I would put many beliefs and practices in the category of essentials for Methodists that I do not list here because they are not distinct to Methodism. The sacraments of baptism and communion are essential but not distinctive to Methodism. The doctrine of justification by faith is essential but not distinctive to Methodism.

The best answer I can come up with for Methodist distinctiveness is a specific doctrine and a specific discipline (or, a specific belief and practice):

The doctrine of entire sanctification is distinctive of Methodism.

Belief in holiness or sanctification is not distinctive of Methodism. There are also a variety of other ways of talking about the goal of growth in holiness that are similar to the Methodist doctrine of entire sanctification, but I think there is sufficient difference for this to be a plausible claim to distinctiveness.

As I’ve written about recently here and here, I believe the doctrine of entire sanctification is deeply relevant for contemporary Methodism. In fact, I think retrieving this doctrine in our preaching and teaching is essential to Methodist renewal.

The discipline of meeting together to “watch over one another in love” in disciplined small groups is distinctive of Methodism.

There are, of course, many churches that have small groups. And there are many non-Methodist churches today that have more effective small group ministries than contemporary Methodism. However, the commitment to small groups focused on transformation and giving an account of one’s present relationship with God, in order to continually pursue growth in one’s faith is a distinctive of Methodism.

Readers of this blog are likely already familiar with the class meeting and the band meeting. These groups were the two key ways that Methodists practiced small group formation throughout John Wesley’s lifetime and the first generations of Methodism. If you want to know more about the class meeting, check out my book. It is designed not only to introduce you to what a class meeting was, but also to equip churches to actually reclaim this practice. If you want to know more about the band meeting, check out the book that Scott Kisker and I wrote together that explains why we believe bands are essential and seeks to help people form new band meetings.

The Methodist theological tradition is best thought of as a tradition that has a radical optimism of the potential for God’s grace to save to the uttermost at its core. A network of beliefs and practices (especially small group formation) come from this core belief. If you are seeking full salvation, you need a group of people to come along side of you. A group can help us keep track of our priorities and whether we are moving in the right direction or need to be redirected.

Methodists believe that Christianity is a team sport. We need each other in order to move all of our lives into God’s house and learn to dwell in God’s will and receive the blessings that come therein. We need a common vision for where we are headed. We need deep unity on where the places of reliable blessing, rest, and renewal are. And we need agreement on where the potholes and gutters are that we need to encourage each other to avoid, and to help each other when we fall into them.

Put differently, Methodism is distinct because of the particular method for living out the Christian life that gives it its name.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Want to know more? Click here.

Entire Sanctification: Power to Love God and What God Loves

I have been thinking quite a bit about the doctrine of entire sanctification, which John Wesley referred to as the “grand depositum” that God gave to Methodism. In a post a few weeks back, I argued that entire sanctification is the reason for Methodism and that any attempt to renew or revive Methodism without entire sanctification at the center will fail.

Here, I want to point to warrant for the doctrine of entire sanctification in Scripture and point to some ways of thinking about retrieving this in our own preaching and teaching.

God is Love

First, entire sanctification is taught in the New Testament. Here is one example:

Finally, brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honor, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.
– 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8

And in the conclusion of the letter, Paul wrote:

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24

I have emphasized parts of this passage that are crucial to a Wesleyan understanding of entire sanctification. Our sanctification is not Wesley’s idea. It is God’s will that we be sanctified.

How sanctified? Entirely!

How can this even be possible? Wesley would unpack it this way:

Entire sanctification is promised in Scripture.

Entire sanctification is God’s will.

God is faithful.

God will do this.

It is essential to notice that God is the primary actor in this understanding of holiness. We are not talking about a grand self-improvement project where we make ourselves better. We are talking about a work God does in us.

Here is an elegant description from C. S. Lewis:

 

“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

(If you have not read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, where the above quote is found, I highly recommend it!)

Entire sanctification is this kind of radical change. It does include freedom from sin and sin’s power in one’s life. But it is far richer and deeper than simply avoiding sin. It involves a radical and often surprising transformation.

One of Wesley’s favorite definitions of entire sanctification is a summary of the greatest commandment to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And to “love your neighbor as yourself.” [Matthew 22:34-40]

At our best, this is a glimpse of what Methodists are called to offer:

God is in the business of rescuing people who are lost, desperate, hurting, hopeless, or abandoned. The Lord freely offers forgiveness and pardon through the gift of faith in Jesus Christ. But God does not only wipe the slate clean. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the power of sin is broken in our lives so that we are free and made pure.

We get stuck when thinking about holiness because it is so hard to stop looking at ourselves. We know that there are things that we are strongly drawn to and often give ourselves to that are not holy. It can be hard to have hope for real change because our own shortcomings are what seem most real.

A related challenge is that we can come to think of holiness as solely fighting against doing that thing that we so often do – and sometimes love to do.

Here is the good news of the full gospel: God is coming after every part of us. The Lord is not interested in merely helping us manage our sin better. Not at all! The gospel is the good news that we can not only be forgiven of our sin but be set free from it. This means that we can be made new so that our hearts no longer yearn for sin.

Entire sanctification does lead to outward change.

It absolutely will impact what we do with our bodies, the words we speak, how we spend our time and our money, and so forth.

But entire sanctification is also an inner change, a transformation of the heart.

This is crucial because it means that God’s sanctifying grace enables us to actually love what God loves instead of loving sin and fighting with all of our willpower to not give in to it.

Can you see the difference that this would make? Where would this connect in your own life? What difference would it make if God touched the place where you struggle so that your affections were changed and you found that you genuinely love what God loves? If this stirs up something in you, please bring it to God in prayer now!

This is the grand depositum that God has given to the people called Methodists.

For too long we have offered cheap grace and gospels of sin management. We have been defeated and powerless in the face of our own failings. And so we have shrugged our shoulders and told ourselves this is just the way things are. Or we have tried to stir up more willpower to fight harder (in our own strength) next time. Or we have blessed what God has not blessed. To be clear, I don’t have one particular part of United Methodism in mind here. We have all fallen short.

There is a better way.

We are to offer to the world the good news that God wants to give us a heart and life that loves God and what God loves.

But before we can offer this to the world, we need to experience it ourselves.

The Christian life is not supposed to be one of ongoing futility and frustration. It is a journey of growing in grace and participating with God as we move all of our lives into God’s house.

Come Holy Spirit! Awaken your people. Raise up a generation that is desperate for you and is captivated by the full gospel. Empower us to receive the gift of full salvation and to preach our grand depositum. Give those who receive this gift the grace to retain it and continue to grow in grace.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Want to know more? Click here.

Methodism Is in the Details: Moving from Breadth Back to Depth

I suspect that one of the legacies of The United Methodist Church will be its stripping away of specificity and a detailed account of Methodist doctrine and discipline in favor of its attempt to erect a big-tent Methodist Church. It is hard to overstate this change.

The United Methodist Publishing House remodel reinforces the generic and distorted use of the “General Rules.” Photo from a meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/bishops-amend-whats-heading-to-gc2019

Early Methodists were a people who were on a journey together. They knew that they were headed to the same place because they were united around a set of concrete and specific beliefs and practices. These were regularly preached and taught throughout Methodism.

From 1968 to the present, United Methodism seems to have pretty consistently favored breadth over depth. To be fair, I don’t think many United Methodist leaders would endorse such a statement explicitly. In fact, I suspect most would be offended even at the suggestion that Methodism cares more about gathering as many people as it can than in raising them up to be deeply committed Christians.

But are we producing deeply committed Christians?

United Methodism’s experiment in big-tent Methodism has resulted in a people whose theological diversity goes beyond the boundaries of mere Christianity. When confronted with this bewildering array of beliefs, the UMC has typically addressed our theological incoherence by moving farther and farther away from giving a specific and detailed account of the good life.

Over the past few years, I have noticed a sloganizing of our theological heritage. We lift up sayings that appear to carry the weight of tradition and a connection to our past, but in a way that strips away the detail and specificity that they included in their original context. Here are two examples:

Frustratingly persistent misuses of Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit.”

There are several favorite proof texts in Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit” that are dragged out again and again to show that Wesley was above all open-minded and committed to letting people “think and let think.” Nevermind that Wesley referred to “being driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine” as “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

Turning the “General Rules” into a cheap cliché.

The renewed interest in the “General Rules” quickly moved from a substantial consideration of the detailed way of life to which all Methodists agreed (as seen in the details of each rule) to a slogan.

I think this hit me the hardest when I noticed Annual Conference Cokesbury displays had decorative pieces of wood that condensed (and distorted) this document into “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” [We will leave aside for now that “stay in love with God” is, at best, an extremely questionable way of rephrasing what the third rule actually says.] The United Methodist Publishing House has since further invested in the distortion of the “General Rules” by having it written on their walls (shown above).

Turning the “General Rules” into a slogan strips away the actual discipline found in the rules, which distorts the document itself and the understanding of Methodism found therein.

The slogan is alluring because it gives the impression that we all know what it means. “Do no harm.” “Do good.” “Stay in love with God.” Who wants to argue with “Do no harm”? But, what does it mean?

“Do no harm” is a meaningless pious platitude unless you define what harm is. Which, of course, is exactly what John Wesley and the first Methodists did in the “General Rules.”

I highly encourage you to read the original document for yourself. (It is about the same length as this post!) Notice that it is describing a common way of life that is defined in some detail and is not merely a list of vague aspirational statements. And it concludes by stating that those who do not abide by it will “have no more place among us.”

Methodism is in the details.

Wesley led Methodism by insisting on the importance of the details. Methodists were held accountable to the commitments that they had willingly and freely made. And if they would not, he removed them from membership in Methodism.

A common objection at this point is to note that Methodism was a renewal movement within the Church of England. It was not claiming to be a church. The problem with this argument, especially for United Methodists who make it, is that Wesley formed a church – our predecessor body, the Methodist Episcopal Church. And when Wesley formed the MEC, he did not strip away all of the accountability and the details of Methodism. On the contrary!

Methodists, in the denominational form of Methodism that was created by John Wesley, were required to attend a weekly class meeting and they were required to keep the “General Rules.” If they persistently neglected either, according to the polity of the church and its documented practice, they were expelled from the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Contemporary Methodism has emphasized breadth and unity beyond the breaking point. It is past time to recognize that Methodism is not a theological tradition built on generic aspirations to let people think whatever they want to think. It is not built on a vague commitment to do good, avoid harm, and stay in love with God.

Methodism is a theological tradition built on a specific and detailed account of the Christian life.

Methodism involves a determination to see people grow in holiness, to go deeper and deeper in their faith in Christ. Unity comes from a willingness to pursue that particular vision. This, quite literally, is the method that gave Methodism its name.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Want to know more? Click here.

Zondervan Premier Collection NIV Large Print Thinline Bible: Thin and Easy to Read

One thing that was not on my short list of priorities when I started exploring premium Bibles was the thickness of the Bible. As with many things with Bibles, this is largely subjective. I don’t think I have ever previously prioritized a “thinline” Bible. When I saw that Zondervan’s new Premier Collection line had a Bible with a combined focus on a thin book with a large easy to read type I was intrigued. Since neither thickness nor font size had been concerns for me in the past, I was also a bit skeptical. But the Zondervan Premier Collection NIV Large Print Thinline Bible has made a great impression.

Cover

The cover of this Bible is nearly identical to the Zondervan NIV Heritage Bible, which I previously reviewed here. This Bible is bound in a goatskin leather cover. I like this cover even more than the Heritage simply because it is larger. The additional size (10” x 7” compared to 9” x 6”) make the cover feel even more soft and limp, which accents the strength of an edge-lined Bible. If you like leather with pronounced grain, this will not be your favorite cover as It is very smooth to the touch. Another quality that this Bible shares with the Heritage is that the edge-lined tab is not an issue for one handed reading. You can roll the cover and a few hundred pages around the back of the Bible from either the front or the back with no problem at all. This has become my favorite part about using these Bibles.

The advertised thinness of the Bible also relates to the main concern I have about using this Bible: It is so thin and floppy with this profile that I wonder if it would be easy to use when preaching or teaching if you are holding the Bible open using only one hand. When I hold the Bible in one hand, with the spine in about the middle of my hand, the far columns on both pages fall away from my hand enough that it would be difficult to read. As I was first using this Bible, I found myself thinking that because of its larger font and thinness that it might be an excellent preaching Bible, especially to take on the go. Ultimately, I don’t think I would use it for that purpose. The font size will still make for more comfortable reading for the vast majority of people who would use this Bible. And I suspect the main way Zondervan expects readers to interact with this Bible is either reading it open on a flat surface or holding it in their lap.

Layout

This is a double column Bible that uses a paragraph setting. The advertised font size is 11.4 point, which is a nice increase from the 9 or 10 point font you will find on most Bibles. The font is noticeably larger than the NIV Heritage Bible. This Bible uses black ink exclusively throughout the text. (This is different than both the Heritage, which uses blue as a secondary color to accent things like section headings and chapter numbers, and the Thomas Nelson NKJV Single Column Reference Bible, which I reviewed here, and uses red as a secondary color.) Most readers will be used to a text that is entirely black, so this is not a complaint. Another question many people have about Bibles is whether the words of Jesus are highlighted in red text. This Bible is not a red-letter edition.

There is one main change I would make to the layout: I would like this edition to use line matching, which means that the lines on one page match the lines on the opposite side of the same page. This minimizes the distraction of seeing the text on the other side of the page when you are reading. The pages in this Bible are thin enough that I think this would have been worth the additional layout challenge. (The Schuyler Quentel uses line matching, for example.)

Other Features

This Bible is not a reference Bible, as a result it does not have many of the features that are standard in those Bibles. This reflects an intentional design choice on Zondervan’s part. This Bible prioritizes large print and a thin profile. To maximize the size of the type and keep the Bible as thin as possible, Zondervan chose to skip references. For the same reason, the Bible does not have maps or a concordance. This Bible is really just the Bible, but a very nice one! To state this positively, the main features of this Bible are that it has the largest font possible in a Bible that is this thin. (Mine is almost exactly one inch thick, including the covers.) The Bible has three satin ribbons that are 3/8 “ wide. I like the design choice here in three different shades of blue. The ribbons add a nice touch of color to the black goatskin cover.

Conclusion

The decision to skip a concordance in a thinline Bible makes sense to me. I am conflicted about whether a Bible designed to last a lifetime should lack references, as this seems to me to be very important for studying the Bible and being able to see how one passage connects to others. Both NIV Bibles that have been published by Zondervan in the Premier Collection line lack references. (Zondervan will release a single-column NIV reference Bible in the Premier Collection line this fall, which I am very excited to see.)

While the lack of references give me some pause, I would recommend this Bible to someone who wants a readable font size in a relatively portable Bible. This is not a compact travel size Bible, as the page dimensions above demonstrate. But it is more portable because it is so thin. And you would never get anywhere close to 11.4 point font in a compact Bible! Given the decisions and priorities that Zondervan had for this Bible, they have done a great job producing a Bible that is wonderful to hold and a delight to read. This Bible is also a great deal. You can often find it online for about the same price as a bonded leather Bible, which is far inferior in quality and feel to this goatskin cover. The Zondervan Premier Collection NIV Large Print Thinline Bible was available on Amazon.com for $84.04 as of this writing, which is the cheapest it has ever been on Amazon. This is an excellent large print thinline Bible with a great cover at as good of a value as you are going to find.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Want to know more? Click here.

Zondervan generously provided this Bible to me for review. As always, I was not required to give a positive review of this Bible, only an honest one.

Full Salvation Now: The Reason for Methodism

Tags

, ,

What Are We Here For?

These are trying times in Methodism, perhaps more so for those connected to the United Methodist Church than others at the moment. I have been surprised over the past few months that I have felt an excitement and a growing sense of anticipation.

Don’t get me wrong, it is very easy for me to find things to be discouraged or even angry about the current state of United Methodism. And to be honest, I no longer have hope for the current configuration of United Methodism.

But there is an undercurrent of expectation in my spirit when I think about the future of Methodism.

Unsettled and even chaotic times can provide an opportunity for reevaluation and they can be clarifying. They can help people refocus on the basic purpose or mission that provides the deeper reason for their ongoing commitment in the midst of disappointment and uncertainty.

I am convinced that there is really one reason that Methodism exists.

I wonder what you would say the reason for Methodism is if you had to limit yourself to one thing? My guess is that if this question were asked in local churches, at Annual Conferences, or General Conference that we would get a bewildering array of not just different, but mutually exclusive answers. Which is, of course, one of the main reasons that we are where we are.

Methodism has experienced a loss of identity. This process has been going on for about a hundred years, though it started in many places well before then. Methodists no longer know who we are as a people. We no longer know who God intends for us to be, our purpose. Why is there a Methodism? Aren’t there more than enough options in contemporary Christianity? Why did God raise up Methodists?

Here is my answer: If we pursue anything other than what John Wesley referred to as the grand depositum that God has given to us, then that new thing will be dead on arrival, stillborn. And I am equally convinced that if a people recommitment themselves to this grand depositum that God will breathe new life into this people for their sake and for the sake of a desperate and hurting world.

The grand depositum that God has given to Methodists is the doctrine of Christian perfection, or entire sanctification.

On February 8, 1766 John Wesley, the key founder of the Wesleyan/Methodist tradition, wrote a letter to one of the early Methodist preachers. After the brief greeting of “My Dear Brother” he got straight to the point.

Where Christian perfection is not strongly and explicitly preached, there is seldom any remarkable blessing from God; and, consequently, little addition to the society, and little life in the members of it. Therefore, if Jacob Rowell is grown faint, and says but little about it, do you supply his lack of service. Speak and spare not. Let not regard for any man induce you to betray the truth of God. Till you press the believers to expect full salvation now, you must not look for any revival.

In a time when the need for the revival of Methodism seems as obvious as ever, what would John Wesley say about the prospects of revival? Based on the above letter, he would say we have no right to expect revival because we have not been pressing Christians to expect full salvation now.

What Has Happened to Methodism?

Some might argue that Wesley’s convictions developed and changed over time and that his insistent emphasis on pressing believers to expect full salvation now was one of those things that changed. But less than a year before his death, John Wesley wrote yet another letter, this time to Robert Carr Brackenbury, that once again insisted on the essential importance of entire sanctification for the very reason for Methodism’s existence.

Wesley started the letter by noting that his health was declining as his “body seems nearly to have done its work and be almost worn out.” Perhaps it was facing his impending death that caused Wesley to reflect on the big picture of his life and involvement in Methodism. It was in this context that Wesley offered a powerful description of why God had “raised up” Methodism. Wesley wrote:

I am glad brother D — has more light with regard to full sanctification. This doctrine is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up.

As Wesley looked back over the more than fifty years of Methodism and thought about the work that he had seen God do during these years, he zeroed in on one particular doctrine as the key explanation for why God had done this surprising thing in his lifetime. The belief in entire sanctification, or full sanctification, was the reason for Methodism.

Methodism exists because God gave us a particular corporate calling – to preach and teach that through faith in Jesus Christ it is possible experience full salvation from sin’s power in your life.

Wesley believed that God raised Methodism up in order to preach and teach Christian perfection. We have so thoroughly failed to steward our own theological heritage that few Methodists have ever heard of Christian perfection. Even fewer Methodists have a sound understanding of Christian perfection. And fewer still have a deep conviction not only that God makes full salvation possible, but that it is possible right now.

It is past time for us to once again press the believers to expect full salvation now.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Want to know more? Click here.

A Dialogue on Biblical Interpretation and the UMC’s Perspective on Human Sexuality

I was asked by my Dean at Candler School of Theology to represent the UMC’s perspective on human sexuality in a discussion with my colleague Kendall Soulen, who represented disagreement with the UMC’s perspective at a dialogue on Biblical interpretation and human sexuality at Dunwoody United Methodist Church on May 8, 2019.

To be honest, I was hesitant to accept this invitation. As I said at the beginning of my talk, talking about human sexuality and forthrightly representing the position of the United Methodist Church on marriage is uncomfortable. It is also not what I would most prefer to talk about at a church like Dunwoody UMC. I would much rather have a chance to talk about my passion for small group formation or the audacious optimism Methodists have that God’s grace can be hope and healing in radical and life-changing ways in the lives of every single person in every one of our communities. One of the main reasons I wrestled with whether to do this was because I worry that the more I talk about human sexuality in the current deep division and dysfunction of Methodism, the less I will be able to be heard on things I care more about and where there may be greater agreement.

I ultimately decided to say yes for three reasons. First, I said yes because my Dean, Jan Love, asked me to do it and I agree with her desire to see Candler become a place where difficult conversations are had across deep differences with respect and intellectual virtue. Second, I said yes because I trust and respect Kendall Soulen. Kendall was my systematic theology professor when I was in seminary and he has impacted my own theological education in important ways. Though we disagree here, I want to understand his thinking as well as I can to challenge and sharpen my own thinking. Finally, and most important for me, I agreed to participate in this conversation because I believe that the United Methodist Church’s position on same sex marriage is good and true. And I don’t see any United Methodist bishops, seminary deans or presidents, General board or agency heads, or hardly anyone in a strategic position of influence in United Methodism making the case for why the current position of the UMC is good and ought to be supported. I have started talking about this in my teaching at Candler because in my 14 years as a student and faculty member in theological education (12 of which have been as a student or faculty member in United Methodist seminaries), I have never heard anyone explain why the UMC prohibits gay marriage or ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” And I have seen dozens of key leaders of United Methodism condemn this teaching in sermons, lectures, articles, press conferences, and so on.

This seems to me to be a serious problem, especially when all candidates for ordination are required to answer each of these questions in the affirmative:

    Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?

    After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?

    Will you preach and maintain them?

    Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?

    Do you approve of our Church government and polity?

    Will you support and maintain them?

If you’re interested in watching the discussion between Kendall and I, there are two videos. The first part has the main talk given by both myself and Kendall and a brief response and interaction between us. The second video includes a question and answer session where Dean Jan Love and Rev. Dan Brown moderated and asked questions submitted by the audience to Kendall and I.

I know that there are many people who deeply and passionately disagree with the United Methodist Church’s understanding of human sexuality. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the UMC position, the recordings of the event at Dunwoody UMC may be helpful to you as they are an example of dialogue between two people who are determined to see the best in each other though they come down on very different sides. For those who disagree with me, I get it. All I would ask is that you listen to my part with an open mind. Thank you for hearing me out.

For what it is worth, the main thing I remember about the event was feeling my energy drop in a way I’ve never quite experienced at something like this, especially in the last thirty minutes. When the event was over, several people came up to me to introduce themselves and chat a bit and I could barely follow the conversation I was so exhausted. (If that was any of you reading this – I am so sorry if that was obvious to you!) Though it was a draining experience in many ways, I am glad that I decided to participate in it. Dean Love and Rev. Brown did a great job organizing and moderating the event. And I learned a lot from Kendall and have continued to think about his argument.

Part I is available here.

Part II is available here.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Want to know more? Click here.

The Thomas Nelson NKJV Single-Column Reference Bible: A Great First Impression

One of the reasons I have continued to be fascinated by the world of fine Bibles is how different each Bible is. I am often surprised by a new Bible when I first get it out of the box. Of the Bibles I’ve reviewed so far here, the Thomas Nelson NKJC Single-Column Reference Bible made the best first impression. It was one of those reactions that was purely subjective. I’m not sure I could have articulated why I liked it so much when I first picked it up, but I was just delighted. This review is my attempt to put words to why this is a great Bible. At its current price on Amazon of $84.96 (as of publication), it is also one of the most reasonably priced edge-lined goatskin Bibles you can buy.

Cover

The cover on this Bible made a very positive first impression. It feels thick, but is still edge-lined and very flexible. (Edge-lined Bibles are bound so that there is no material in between the outer cover and the inner lining, which is what makes the covers of edge-lined Bibles so supple. The spine has gold lettering. The lettering is even and consistent. I typically prefer bands on the spine of Bibles (see this Cambridge NRSV for an example). But there is something about the way that this Bible is put together. I like the spine the way that it is.

One of the things that has surprised me about myself as far as opinions on edge-lined Bibles is how much I care about the hinge getting in the way of the cover. I’ve discussed this in more depth here. The short version is that I think one of the joys of reading an edge-lined Bible is being able to wrap the cover back around itself. But the hinge in some edge-lined Bibles makes this awkward enough it becomes impracticable. This has been my only complaint about the Tyndale Select NLT I reviewed several months back. The Thomas Nelson NKJV Single-Column Reference Bible has almost the same profile as the Tyndale Select NLT, except that it is somewhat thicker. I initially thought this might mean that the hinge on the Thomas Nelson would be more of an issue. I was delighted to be wrong! As you can see in the photo, the hinge does not get in the way of one-handed reading at all.

Layout

Single-column layouts are a non-negotiable for many fine Bible enthusiasts. If this is a must have for you, Thomas Nelson has done a great job with this Bible. There are ample margins at both the edge of the page and in the gutter. The text is easy to read, whether you are at the very front or in the middle of the Bible. The references are in the outer margins, which I like. Instead of spacing the references out so that they are as close to the verse they go with as possible, they go from the bottom to the top. This means that margins on the top half of each page, on average, are blank, with the references towards the bottom half. Of course, this varies from one page to another depending on how many references there are on a particular page. The included photo gives you a sense of it, though I would guess it has less references than the average page.

One interesting design choice is that red is used as an accent in the text. The book and chapter are listed at the top corner of each page in red. Chapter numbers and section headings are in red, as well as the link to each reference in the text, and the chapter and verse in the margin. This system makes finding the references a bit easier in scanning the text. The use of red in the text is not overwhelming, but the accent is different than most fine Bibles. Ultimately, I like the impact, especially with the red under gold art-gilded page edges.

Other Features

The Bible has three ribbons, two black and one red. This is the one design choice I’m not crazy about. I found it confusing initially. I actually kept looking at the two black ribbons to see if one was brown and one was red. I’ve gotten used to it, and it is the least important thing to me about the Bible, so it is not even close to a major concern for me. The quality of the ribbons is good. They seem to me to be the right length and have held up well.

The Bible also includes a presentation page, a concordance, a one year reading plan, and eight color maps. These are all adequate, but will probably not be the highlight of this Bible for most people.

Conclusion

For the first few weeks I had the Bible, I was surprised at how affordable it was every time I picked it up. Of the Bibles I have reviewed here so far, this one seems to me to be the best value, particularly in a reference Bible. If you have been interested in this series of posts and have been considering buying an edge-lined Bible with a goatskin cover, but the sticker price of an Allan, Cambridge, or Schuyler Bible is just too much, this is an excellent Bible to consider. If you are a fan of the NKJV or have been wanting to pick up a copy, the Thomas Nelson NKJV Single-Column Reference Bible is a must have.

Old or New School Methodism? The Fragmentation of a Theological Tradition

My second academic monograph was published a few months ago with Oxford University Press. I wanted to share this news with you here. I realize that the cost of the book makes buying it prohibitive for most of you. (The retail price is $99 and it is currently $78.59 on Amazon)* I really wish that it were dramatically cheaper and did the best that I could to argue for the book to be released at a much lower price. I did not win that argument. I very much hope that the book will be released in paperback someday.

Nevertheless, I wanted to share the news of the publication of this book here because I am convinced that this history is crucial for contemporary Methodism. My academic research has often come out of my engagement with the local church and that is certainly the case with Old or New School Methodism? I received my first copy of the book just after the conclusion of the 2019 Special General Conference and was surprised by its relevance in the midst of the current crisis within United Methodism.

Here is the summary of the book from the dust jacket:

On September 7, 1881, Matthew Simpson, Bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, in a London sermon asserted that, “As to the divisions in the Methodist family, there is little to mar the family likeness.” Nearly a quarter-century earlier, Benjamin Titus (B.T.) Roberts, a minister in the same branch of Methodism as Simpson, had published an article in the Northern Independent in which he argued that Methodism had split into an “Old School” and “New School.” He warned that if the new school were to “generally prevail,” then “the glory will depart from Methodism.” As a result, Roberts was charged with “unchristian and immoral conduct” and expelled from the Genesee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC).

Old or New School Methodism? examines how, less than three decades later, Matthew Simpson could claim that the basic beliefs and practices that Roberts had seen as threatened were in fact a source of persisting unity across all branches of Methodism. Kevin M. Watson argues that B.T. Roberts’s expulsion from the MEC and the subsequent formation of the Free Methodist Church represent a crucial moment of transition in American Methodism. This book challenges understandings of American Methodism that emphasize its breadth and openness to a variety of theological commitments and underemphasize the particular theological commitments that have made it distinctive and have been the cause of divisions over the past century and a half. Old or New School Methodism? fills a major gap in the study of American Methodism from the 1850s to 1950s through a detailed study of two of the key figures of the period and their influence on the denomination.

I am grateful to have received these three endorsements from scholars I respect and admire:

In comparing Matthew Simpson and B.T. Roberts, Kevin Watson has not only provided a much-needed analysis of the fracturing of mid-nineteenth century Methodism but makes a strong case that these same dynamics remain at work today. He shows that what is ultimately at stake are theological issues that go to the heart of Wesleyan, even Christian identity. Future work in American Methodist history must take this book into account.
– Henry H. Knight III, Donald and Pearl Wright Professor of Wesleyan Studies and E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism, Saint Paul School of Theology

This timely book cogently challenges long-received assumptions about mainline Methodism in the United States. Watson shows not simply that the story is more complex than often thought, but that hugely important aspects and dynamics of early Methodism were drastically compromised in the conflicts of the 1850s that provoked the birth of the Free Methodist Church. If taken seriously, this book could help catalyze new life in the Methodist tradition today.
– Howard A. Snyder, author of The Radical Wesley and Populist Saints: B.T. and Ellen Roberts and the First Free Methodists

Kevin Watson’s brilliant, meticulously-researched new study challenges the longstanding myth that American Methodism in the late nineteenth century (and beyond) was largely unified and consistently stayed true to its early Wesleyan commitments. By carefully analyzing the careers of two seminal figures – Bishop Matthew Simpson and Free Methodist founder B.T. Roberts – Watson demonstrates conclusively that two contrasting Methodisms emerged in the Victorian era, each representing the convictions of those who thought they were being faithful to Wesley’s original vision. Watson untangles the complicated roots of Methodist divisiveness, and shows us that debates regarding Methodism’s trajectory are nothing new.
– Douglas M. Strong, Dean of the School of Theology and Professor of the History of Christianity, Seattle Pacific University

* I have said this in other places, but I am still surprised by the anger I often encounter from readers about the price of my books. Authors do not set the price of their books, unless they self-publish them. The price is determined by the publisher. Every author I know wants their books to be priced at a level that will make their writing accessible to the broadest possible audience. Academic monographs are almost always published in hardback and sold for $100 or more because of their genre. The publisher expects that these books will only be read by specialists in an academic field and will mostly be purchased by libraries. As a result, they sell the books for the price that they think will get closest to breaking even on publishing the book from the number of library sales. Again, if it had been up to me the book would be dramatically less expensive.

Is God’s Will for Marriage Dependent on Cultural Context?

Recent discussions on social media have helped me clarify one of my deeper concerns about the way the conversation about marriage has been framed heading into the General Conference that starts today. A key question that faces this General Conference, once again, is this: Is marriage dependent on cultural context?

The One Church Plan (OCP) and the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP) both assume that different cultural contexts require a contextualized approach to marriage. Unfortunately, neither plan actually provides a clear argument for why marriage should be thought of in this way. The Commission on a Way Forward (COWF) Report simply begged the question. [Begging the question is often misunderstood. One begs the question when making an argument that assumes the truth of a disputed assertion.] The report assumes that the solution to the ongoing disagreement about same sex marriage is contextualization. But whether marriage ought to be defined and practiced differently in different contexts is at the heart of the disagreement.

Contextualization itself needs careful and sustained attention. Some things are rightly changed or adjusted based on the cultural context. One obvious example is translating the Bible. The Bible ought to be translated into the vernacular of a particular context. The kind of music used in worship, or the length of the worship service, are other examples. Contextualization is crucial in many respects. But not everything is appropriately considered a matter for contextualization. We do not, for example, consider the canon of Scripture to be a matter subject to cultural context.

Whether one can support the OCP or the CCP largely comes down to whether you believe that marriage is the kind of thing that is dependent on cultural context or whether you believe it is not.

Rather than showing why United Methodists should believe that marriage is rightly thought of as dependent on cultural context, the COWF Report simply asserted that it was. If the current understanding of the UMC does not see marriage as a matter subject to cultural context, the COWF Report in begging the question guaranteed at the outset that the current United Methodist understanding of marriage would not be given a fair hearing. The COWF started by privileging “as much contextual differentiation as possible” and explicitly stated that United Methodism’s unity “will not be grounded in our conceptions of human sexuality, but in our affirmation of the Triune God who calls us to be a grace-filled and holy people in the Wesleyan tradition.” (COWF, 6)

A similar question begging move is made in the statement on mutuality a few pages later: “Mutuality. We will recognize all contextual adaptations and creative expressions as valid expressions of United Methodism. No one expression is normative for all others.” (COWF, 10)

The more I think about marriage as potentially having a definition that changes based on beliefs about marriage in a cultural context, the more problematic I find that belief. The logic seems to suggest that whether the church believes that God blesses same sex marriage is dependent on what non-Christians in the surrounding culture think about same sex marriage. What is the basis within the Christian tradition for such a view?

Again, we are not given an argument for such a view. It is simply asserted, repeatedly. I have not seen an explicit argument to for why we should view marriage as dependent on cultural context by supporters of the OCP or the CCP.

Imagine two people of the same sex desire to get married and they seek a Christian marriage. Do United Methodists really intend to say that our affirmation of their marriage is dependent on the plot on God’s earth where their feet are standing?

It seems to me that the logic of contextualization regarding marriage collapses under any scrutiny. If it is right, for example, for two people to get married in one context because their context affirms same sex marriage, is it wrong for those same two people to get married in another geographical location if that context does not affirm same sex marriage? Does the cultural context that the people are in determine whether we affirm or do not affirm same sex marriage? Or is it the cultural context of the people themselves that determines whether we affirm or do not affirm same sex marriage? If it is the latter, what does contextualization mean when one person comes from a cultural context that affirms same sex marriage and the other person comes from a cultural context that does not affirm same sex marriage? If affirmation of same sex marriage is dependent on the context one is physically in, does one take their marriage with them if they move from an affirming to a nonaffirming context? I cannot imagine anyone would want to argue for such an understanding. But I’m not sure we know why it would not be the case given the insistence on the particular importance of context.

To be fair, I think that many United Methodists who support the contextualization approach to marriage do not actually believe that marriage is dependent on context but agree with the result of contextualization plans, i.e., changing the United Methodist Church’s teaching and practice regarding same sex marriage from nonaffirming to affirming.

Bishop Carter, the current President of the Council of Bishops and one of the moderators of the COWF, does not seem to me to really believe that marriage is a matter of contextualization. In a recent AP News article Bishop Carter is quoted as follows, ““We’ve tried to remain together as a global body,” he added. “The challenge is simply that there are some nations where homosexuality is taboo.” A taboo is not usually thought of as something that reflects a rational or logical argument or approach to something. Particularly as used in Western contexts describing non-Western contexts, a taboo is seen to be an irrational rejection of something that is unwilling to even engage arguments. Carter’s use of taboo suggests that he sees the views of “some nations” that do not affirm same sex marriage as coming from a social prohibition that is not a reflection of God’s will, but is irrationally restrictive. The assertion that we are divided because “some nations” where “homosexuality is taboo” is also misleading because it suggests that United Methodists in the U.S. are in agreement in wanting to affirm same sex marriage, which is not at all the case. (The quotation also suggests that the current beliefs and practice of the UMC have no Scriptural or theological warrant, which I don’t think Bishop Carter intended in this quote. It is also entirely possible he was misquoted or quoted out of context here.)

A majority of the Council of Bishops have recommended a plan (the OCP) that is built on the understanding that marriage is contextually determined. I have yet to see a Scriptural argument that marriage ought to be understood in this way. I don’t think I’ve seen a substantive theological argument to this end either. Rather, contextualization has simply been asserted as a self-evident truth.

This conclusion seems to me to be inescapable: Christian marriage is dependent on God and not on the shifting winds of culture. The church’s responsibility is to discern God’s will as best as we can, relying especially on Scripture and our common heritage as Christians, and to offer the truth to the world. We may be wrong. In fact, many of us must be wrong given how deeply divided we are. This is a serious matter and much is at stake. God help us.

The NIV Heritage Bible: A Great Bible at a Surprising Value

My journey into the world of fine Bibles started right about a year ago, at least in earnest. The first Bible I contacted a publisher about was the NIV Heritage Bible, even though I knew it wasn’t yet in print. It ended up being the last of the Bibles that I requested for this series of posts to arrive. Even with all of the amazing Bibles that I had been able to review, I kept wondering what I would think of the NIV Heritage Bible when it came. Now that it has come and I’ve had a chance to spend some time with it, I’m excited to share my thoughts. There are several things I love and a few things I would change. It is the (relative) affordability of this Bible that is why I am most excited to share it with you. With a coupon you can apply within Amazon, the Bible is currently $83.76 (click here). For goatskin edge-lined Bibles, that is less than half the price you would usually pay.

Cover

I wonder if my favorite leather cover is the one that I’m holding in my hands. While I would say that I have really liked every premium leather cover (as opposed to bonded leather especially) that I have gotten my hands on, I would also say that this cover surprised me right out of the box. Even after getting my hands on a variety of exceptional Bibles, this cover made an immediate impression. It is the softest and supplest goatskin cover I have held. The grain is very smooth. I have a few goatskin Bibles with very pronounced grain and I really like them. But there is something about this cover that is wonderful. The spine is smooth with faux bands stamped on with silver, but they are no more pronounced than the lettering on the spine itself. The lettering on the spine is below average when compared to the other fine Bibles I have reviewed. It seems a bit cheap compared to the quality of the cover. But that is one of the few compromises you make at this price point.

Layout

The NIV Heritage Bible is a single-column Bible. Zondervan has done a great job here. Poetry is laid out as poetry and narrative sections are in paragraphs. The layout is clean and draws you into immersive reading. If I were going to read the Bible through in a shorter period of time, or read an entire Book in one sitting, this would be the Bible I would use. Distractions from the text are at a bare minimum. There are chapters and verses, with occasional headings. Translators notes are in the bottom corner of the page (if there are any). And that is it. There are no references or other material in the text. Each chapter number is in blue, which helps quickly locate chapters and adds some interest in design. Every Book starts on its own page, which is not always the case. The design and layout of this Bible are excellent.

Exceptional Edge-lined Binding

As is the case with almost every goatskin Bible, the binding is edge-lined, which is the most durable binding. As I’ve mentioned before, the tabs in edge-lined Bibles often irritate me enough that I am sometimes unsure whether I would rather have an edge-lined binding than a less durable paste-off binding without the rigid tabs. My initial impression was that the tabs in the NIV Heritage were going to be frustrating. The first two thicker pages have glue through half the width of the pages, which made me concerned that the cover would not readily fold back behind the rest of the Bible. This was the most pleasant surprise to me of this entire Bible. I’m not sure how they did it, but this is the best edge-lined binding I’ve seen from that standpoint. Right out of the box I could fold the front cover all the way around the back with ease and flush against the spine. This is ideal for reading with one hand. The NIV Heritage Bible does this much easier than any edge-lined binding I’ve reviewed.

Other Features

The NIV Heritage Bible has art-gilt page edges that are blue under silver. The page edges are a nice additional touch at this price. They match the interior design beautifully, especially with the blue chapter numbers and section headings. The Bible also has three ribbons that are black, blue, and red. The color of the ribbons with the silver page edges and black goatskin is really striking. The Bible also has a concordance and maps at the end. The concordance is the more concise of the two NIV concordances I’ve seen in NIV Bibles. This one has 2,474 word entries with more than 10,000 Scripture references.

I’ve gone back and forth on the paper and ink in the Bible. My feeling is that the paper is not at the same level as some other Bibles I have reviewed here. I would guess that this was the major tradeoff that Zondervan made in order to be able to offer a goatskin Bible for less than $100. It feels like a top-quality cover married to good but not exceptional paper. This is not a major concern from my perspective, but one I wanted to name for readers. Of the Bibles I’ve reviewed here, the paper in this Bible made the least positive impression on me. I do think the opacity is comparable to other similar Bibles, maybe even better than some. I also like Zondervan’s “Comfort Print” typeface.

Conclusion

I have really enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with readers online and in person about fine Bibles. More and more people read the Bible entirely on a screen, if they read it at all. For this reason, I am all the more grateful for publishers who invest in print Bibles that are made with attention to detail and the best available materials. These Bibles are attractive and a pleasure to interact with and read. They are designed to be used and last. The price is understandably an obstacle for many people who cannot justify spending $200 or more on one Bible. This is where I think Zondervan has made a really important addition. The NIV Heritage Bible is a remarkable Bible that gets a lot closer to the price of a bonded leather Bible. And there is a world of difference between a Bible that is made of leather shavings glued together (which is what bonded leather is) and a single piece of goatskin. The fact that Zondervan can sell an edge-lined goatskin Bible for less than $100 is an exceptional value. I hope it will make it possible for many more people to invest in a high quality Bible that will provide a draw to spend more time searching the Scriptures.

Zondervan generously provided this Bible to me for review. As always, I was not required to give a positive review of this Bible, only an honest one.