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

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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.

The Tyndale Select NLT Select Reference Edition: Close to Perfection

When I started asking people who already knew a lot about high end Bibles where I should start, I was surprised at how many people mentioned a Bible with which I was entirely unfamiliar, The Tyndale Select NLT Select Reference Edition. The Tyndale Select checked the major boxes I had on my initial wish list for a forever Bible. It was a single column layout. It included cross references and a concordance. It was available in goatskin. The pages were Smyth-sewn. And it had art-gilded edges. I was worried that when the Bible arrived, I would find that I had gotten my hopes up too much and would feel let down.

But if anything, I like this Bible even more than I had anticipated.

Two Covers, Two Colors

The Tyndale Select NLT is available goatskin and calfskin. Both of these options are available in either black or brown. I am reviewing the goatskin and calfskin in brown.

Simply put, the calfskin cover is the best calfskin cover I have ever felt. I like how soft the leather feels and the firmness of the boards, which I’m finding are breaking in wonderfully. For those of you who want the floppiest cover possible, this is not it. The grain on my calfskin is not pronounced at all, which is part of what makes it so soft and smooth in the hand. The calfskin is a paste-off binding and has gold gilding (and not the art gilding, which is gold when the Bible is closed and red/salmon when opened). The calfskin Tyndale Select retails for $189, but can be found online for around $130.

The goatskin cover is also wonderful. It has a much more pronounced grain than does the calfskin. It is edge-lined, as are most goatskin Bibles. The inner lining is also leather (cowhide, I believe). The edges of the cover are sewn. For a goatskin edge-lined cover, this cover is a bit firmer than some of the others I’ve reviewed. It does not have boards between the two leather covers, but it is a bit less floppy than other covers I’ve seen. Unlike the calfskin, the goatskin has a gold line around the interior that outlines where the text block sits inside the cover, which adds a touch of beauty. The goatskin edition has art-gilded edges, which I love. The other difference between the goatskin and the calfskin is that the goatskin is a semi-yapp cover, which means the cover hangs over the pages about half an inch.

Layout

The layout is identical in both Bibles. And it is fantastic! The Tyndale Select NLT is a single-column layout. The references are in the outer margins. Textual notes are in the footer. The combination of the size of the page (the text block is 8 ¼ “ x 5 ¼ “) and the generous spacing between lines makes this my favorite single-column Bible I’ve reviewed so far. The text is arranged in paragraphs in narrative sections and sections of poetry have generous and attractive spacing. The cherry on top is that the Tyndale Select NLT starts every Book on a new page, which most Bibles do not do in order to conserve space. This does make the Bible slightly thicker than the Cambridge Clarion, for example. For me, the tradeoff is entirely worth it. The layout decisions enhance readability at every turn.

Other Features

The Tyndale Select NLT contains cross references. I find these to be invaluable in reading and studying the Bible. It also contains a dictionary/concordance after Revelation. The concordance is helpful, but by no means exhaustive. It also has 8 full color maps. This Bible has more pages for commemorating key moments in one’s family than any I’ve seen. At the front of the Bible there is a presentation page, a page for listing marriages, a page for listing births and adoptions, and a page for listing deaths. Both Bibles have two ribbons. One of the ribbons on the goatskin Bible is fraying quickly.

There is one thing that I wish were different. Of the goatskin Bibles I have reviewed, this one is the hardest to wrap the cover around the back of the Bible. I think this is the combination of the slightly more compact size of the Bible combined with the tab in edge-lined Bibles that I often find to be a bit frustrating. The calfskin edition is easier to wrap around than the goatskin, so it is less of an issue.

Conclusion

I have reviewed quite a few Bibles over the past several months. One question I’ve been asking myself of late to try to gauge my feelings about these different Bibles is this: If I could only keep one of these Bibles, which one would I keep? Of the Bibles I’ve been able to get my hands on thus far, the Tyndale Select NLT Select Reference Edition is the Bible I would keep if I could only keep one. If I had to choose between the goatskin and the calfskin, I would choose the goatskin, in part because I love the art-gilded page edges. I have to say I love them both, though!

The Tyndale Select NLT Select Reference Edition is an exceptional Bible. Of all of the Bibles I have reviewed, it is the closest to perfection. The reason this is my favorite Bible of the ones I’ve reviewed so far is, of course, largely subjective. I love the size of this Bible. The size combined with the consistent quality across the board makes this a fantastic Bible that I highly recommend.

Other Tyndale Bibles

Tyndale sent me several other Bibles to consider for review. They don’t really fit the focus of this series on fine Bibles. I found myself spending enough time with two of them that I wanted to say a brief word about them.

The Filament Bible is worth considering if you love the layout of the Bible reviewed in this post. The filament edition is the exact same layout as the Tyndale Select NLT, it is just in a much more economical hardcover without the frills of the much more expensive Bible. It is an awesome and affordable single column Bible in its own rite. The filament is an experiment in combining physical and digital media, as the filament also includes an app that enables you to scan the page that you are on in order to uncover substantial study notes, additional articles, commentaries, and videos.

The Wayfinding Bible has three different guided reading plans that take you deeper into the narrative of Scripture. Because of the initial “flyover route” and then the deeper dives that follow, I would consider giving this Bible to a new Christian or someone who has struggled to prayerfully read Scripture on their own. I was really interested in how Tyndale arranged these different layers of reading Scripture.

Return

Like many of you, I have been following the rollercoaster of events in United Methodist denominational politics with some interest and quite a bit of concern. From my perspective, it feels like this is the part where things are going to get uglier, where we follow the all too predictable pattern in our history of starting with good intentions and a commitment to assume the best in each other and ending with fighting and suing over property and assets. I very much hope I am wrong about that. From where I am sitting, it does not look promising.

Image result for ancient paths

Like many of you, I’ve been praying about The United Methodist Church and my place in it. I’ve been asking God to break through. I’ve been wrestling with what faithfulness looks like for me in this time and in this place. And over the past few days I keep hearing the word Return. The first time I heard that word, my mind was going in so many different directions I wasn’t sure what it meant. But as I’ve kept hearing Return, the mist and confusion has been clearing away and one particular image has come into view. I think it is best captured by Jeremiah 6:16:

Thus says the Lord:

Stand at the crossroads, and look,

and ask for the ancient paths,

where the good way lies; and walk in it,

and find rest for your souls.

But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.’

I believe that there are two ancient paths the people called Methodists ought to return to and walk once again.

First, we need to return to the practice of “watching over one another in love” through small group formation like the Methodist class meetings and band meetings. Class meetings were required for membership in early Methodism. A Methodist was someone who attended a class meeting. Class meetings were focused on transformation and not information. The basic question was “How does your soul prosper?” Every Methodist was asked this question in class meeting every week.

Band meetings were smaller groups of three to five people that were voluntary. They focused on confession of sin in order to grow in holiness. Five questions were asked at each meeting:

  1. What known sins have you committed since our last meeting?
  2. What temptations have you met with?
  3. How were you delivered?
  4. What you have thought, said, or done, of which you doubt whether it be sin or not?
  5. Have you nothing you desire to keep secret?

In the past year, I have been tremendously encouraged by the number of pastors I have heard from who have started band meetings, especially through New Room’s focus on “banding together.” My life has been changed in ways I can’t even fully explain through participating in band meetings. The practice of confessing sin to brothers in Christ and receiving the promise of the gospel that “if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9) has been the most tangible place I’ve experienced growth in holiness in my life.

I cannot overstate the importance of small group formation in the history of Methodism. When Methodism has been a vibrant movement of the Holy Spirit, Methodists have gathered together in small groups to share their burdens, to pursue growth in holiness, and intercede for one another in prayer. (For those of you who are interested in resources designed to help you return to these practices, The Class Meeting is designed to help contemporary churches return to this practice, as is The Band Meeting.)

Come what may in UMC politics, it is time for Methodists to return to a Wesleyan approach to small group formation. Many of you already are. We will make mistakes along the way. That is ok! Let’s keep connecting with each other and helping those not yet connected find places of belonging.

Second, we need to return to what John Wesley referred to as the “grand depositum” of the people called Methodists, the doctrine of entire sanctification or Christian perfection. The mission of Methodism in Britain and in the United States was initially to “spread scriptural holiness.” Holiness was the core focus and purpose of the people called Methodists.

Here is what I see as being at stake for us today. I believe that we live in a world where many are desperate for hope and healing. Many have a quiet desperation that comes from the numbness and pseudo connections that have come from spending too much time “connected” to our screens, and far too little time connecting in person in life-giving relationships. Many are desperate because they know that their lives are going in directions that are not going to end well, but they are not able to stop. Many are depressed, discouraged, and simply without hope. The list could go on and on.

Into this world, in this reality, our calling is to preach the full gospel. We have the good news of Jesus Christ. And this news is not news that only brings forgiveness, pardon, and a get out of jail free card in the next life. The gospel is the good news that you can not only be forgiven, but you can be healed. You can be cleansed, restored, set free. We need not limp through this life, defeated, merely surviving. No, “we are more than conquerors through him who loved us!” (Romans 8:37) We can be saved to the uttermost.

There should not be a church in any of our communities that has a more audacious and bold optimism of what God’s grace can do in the lives of every single person in your community than Methodist churches. This, is what is at stake in preaching and teaching Methodism’s grand depositum of entire sanctification. And we preach this not as an idea, but as the fruit that comes from knowing a person – Jesus, our risen Lord. Jesus saves. Jesus rescues. Jesus heals. He has done these things and he will do them again.

I am convinced that the future of the people called Methodists starts with unplugging these two wells: Wesleyan small groups and entire sanctification. There is still living water here. As we unplug these wells and bring people to them, we will see fruit. We will see lives undone by the love of God that has been poured out over the world in Jesus Christ. We will see lives mended and made whole. And we don’t need to wait on the decision of a Special General Conference or Judicial Council deliberation. We can unplug these wells and offer the water that is already in them today to the people in our communities.

Let us return to the ancient paths. Come Holy Spirit, breathe life into your people once more.