As we enter into Part 2, we thank you again for being gracious in your words toward persons who have chosen to be a part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and those who will align with the future Global Methodist Church. In an era where there is much venom and mistrust in our denomination and our culture, we note your tone is one of goodwill. It is noted and appreciated. We seek to do the same.
As we have shared Part 1 and now move into Part 2 of our response to your presentation on May 11th, 2021, in Birmingham, we open with the following story:
A man leans over and kisses his wife goodbye in the morning as he leaves home for a day’s work. Later in the day, while her husband is away, another man arrives in his car in front of the house.
As this man walks toward the front door, the neighbors are aware that the wife’s husband is away. The man knocks on the front door. The wife, whose husband is away, opens the door and greets the man with a warm smile and a warm kiss. Wearing what appears to be a short cover-up similar to what one might wear over a swimsuit, she invites him into the house. The door closes behind them.
Our heart grieves over another marriage in trouble. We grieve the brokenness and the hurt it will cause. We grieve the effects on children and relationships.
One could ask, “Would you want your spouse to invite someone of the opposite sex into your home while you are away, or would you rather have a spouse who demonstrates healthier boundaries?”
The question is, of course, rhetorical.
But what if, upon deeper examination, all the facts were not given in the story? What if there’s more to the story?
A man leans over and kisses his wife goodbye in the morning as he leaves home for a day’s work. Later in the day, a man pulls up in his car in front of the house. By virtue of the Domino’s sign on top of his car, as well as his uniform, it is obvious he is there to deliver pizza. As the neighborhood kids play in the pool in the backyard of the house, the wife quickly throws on a cover-up to greet the delivery person at the door. This young man also happens to be her son, who is working a summer job while he is home from college. She greets him with a warm smile and a kiss on the cheek as he walks into his own house.
What do we learn from the second rendering of the story? Context matters. Without context, we risk arriving at misleading conclusions.
At the one-hour nine-minute mark in your presentation, you made the statement, “But, if I am going to choose between Jesus and kill 48,000 people, I’m choosing Jesus” (You repeated variations of this phrase several times in your presentation). And, based on how you framed the story, the choice seems obvious. However, there is an irony to your using this story to make your point.
The irony relates to the context of the story itself and the fact that Jesus himself referred to the context of this story.
We find Jesus’ reference to that context in His words to the church at Pergamum:
“But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, so that they might eat food sacrificed to idols and practice sexual immorality.” Revelation 2:14 (ESV)
You invited listeners to choose between Jesus and an episode out of Numbers 31. And because Jesus lifts up the context of what led to the circumstances in Numbers 31, an understanding of the context would be a wise choice for any thinking Christian. Here is a summary of that context based on Numbers 22-25; 31; and Revelation 2:14 –
Balaam is a man who is known as a prophet. He was also a man of questionable integrity. He lived in the area of Mesopotamia and possessed a prophetic gifting.
Unfortunately, Balaam was also open to the highest bidder.
In the book of Numbers (Numbers 22-25; 31), we are told that when Israel was on its way out of the wilderness and heading toward the Promised Land, they passed right through an area known as Moab. And the king of Moab (King Balak) became greatly afraid of the nation of Israel because they were passing so near his nation and seeking to settle as his new neighbors in Canaan.
The king decided that the best way to weaken or destroy Israel was by putting them under some type of curse. So the king contacted Balaam, offered him money, and said, “Come and curse the Israelites.”
Balaam initially went to the Lord and asked for His guidance. And the Lord makes it clear that Balaam is not to curse them. These are God’s people. Therefore, King Balak of Moab sent more influential people to Balaam to try to persuade him with more compensation, saying to Balaam, “Come curse the Israelites, and we will give you even more money.” This time Balaam goes back to the Lord and says, “What do you think about me going now?
They’ve really upped the ante.”
This time the Lord tells him to “go” but “speak only what I tell you.”
Balaam finally comes to a place in the mountains overlooking God’s people in the valley. But every time Balaam opened his mouth, out came blessing. King Balak attempts to manipulate the process and suggests, “Let’s try another mountain top.” Only when they do, only words of blessing flow from the mouth of Balaam.
King Balak and Balaam expend a great deal of effort, yet it didn’t work.
So, after a period of time passes, Balaam comes up with another idea altogether.
Balaam informs King Balak that “the God they worship is a jealous God.
If we can’t defeat God’s people from without, then we can defeat them from within. So, here’s the plan: send some of the most attractive women in your nation into their midst, scantily dressed, and they will entice the men of Israel into sensuality and the worship of our gods.”
They will be destroyed from within by the judgment of their own God.
So that’s what King Balak did.
And guess what? It worked. God does judge Israel for her sin. And, by the time we get to Numbers 31, God judges the entire culture of Moab for their evil practices and for her evil influence upon the people of Israel.
Balaam, who is in a position of authority as a prophet, introduces sexual immorality to God’s people and the worship of other gods. Thus, as Jesus illustrates, the doctrine of Balaam is to introduce godless practices and ideas into the household of faith.
When someone promotes false teaching that endorses sexual immorality and Christianity, that’s the best of both worlds for a fallen human being. I can live like I want now, and when I die, God will take me to heaven.
That’s the sin of compromise. That’s the sin of Balaam. That’s the sin of many church leaders in church history. That’s the sin in a great many parts of the western church. And Jesus shares there’s only one way forward…
“Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth.” Revelation 2:16 (ESV)
How interesting. The story you refer to, without giving context before suggesting a new sexual ethic for the church at the one hour and fourteen-minute mark of your presentation, is the same story Jesus gives the context for when warning Christian leaders not to invent a new sexual ethic for the church. The irony is stunning.
As one who spent so much time speaking about the importance of biblical interpretation, you gave no attempt to frame the story in its context, but you did frame the story in light of our modern sensibilities.
Does this story disturb our modern sensibilities? Yes. But is that not also true about many stories in the Scriptures? “What is it with all the violence?”
These realities are not merely found in the Old Testament in relation to 31 city-states. There are multiple places in Scripture where people, made in the image of God, are embracing evil at deep levels. And God, out of love for human beings and all of creation, must judge. And when God judges, there are stories of God’s wrath being poured out through floods, armies, natural disasters, angels, and other means. At times, God’s judgment and wrath are poured out upon entire cultures. It seems that there is a point when evil abounds to such dark degrees, causing so much harm that God can no longer be indifferent. Out of love, God must act.
In the words of theologian, J.I. Packer,
“God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil” J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 151
The greater problem is not that God expresses judgment and wrath upon a culture in the Old Testament. The greater problem is that we would find ourselves minimizing God’s capacity for expressing wrath and judgment.
The danger is in distorting the very character and nature of God.
- Are we uncomfortable with God pouring out wrath and judgment on men, women, and children in the great flood (Genesis 6-9)? Put it in a little bucket!
- Are we uncomfortable with God killing all the first-born male children in Egypt (Exodus 11:4-5)? Put it in a little tub!
- Are we uncomfortable with God pouring out wrath on Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18-19)? Put it in a little pail!
- Are we uncomfortable with God using Babylon’s armies as a vessel of judging God’s own people (Jeremiah 25:8-9)? Put it in a little container!
- Are we uncomfortable with God judging Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)? Sift it out of our colander!
- Are we uncomfortable with Jesus referencing the historicity and lessons of God’s wrath being poured out upon people and then declaring it will take place again (Luke 17-30; Matthew 10:15)? Put it in a thimble!
- Are we uncomfortable with God’s judgment and wrath at the culmination of this age (Revelation 15-16)? Sift it out of sight!
We are all capable of minimizing these occurrences in Scripture, albeit consciously or subconsciously. Yet, as we do, we lose something important that we all need to understand about God’s complete character and nature. When people in a denomination begin coming to the Bible believing that none of it should be offensive to us, and it should not contain any content that does not align with our values, there is a strong likelihood we will end up fashioning a god in our own image by minimizing facets which make us uncomfortable.
It’s also important for us as Methodist Christians to understand why John Wesley, through the influence of the character of God reflected in both the Old and New Testaments, the patristics, and eschatological statements in Scriptures, required the early Methodist to work out their salvation by responding to the question, “Do you desire to flee the coming wrath and be saved from your sins?”
We are all capable of becoming too enlightened to buy into the sexual ethic of the New Testament, and we are equally capable of becoming too enlightened to buy into a biblical understanding of God’s judgment or capacity to express wrath.
And in our enlightened states, pitting two categories against one another through inviting people to “choose Jesus over violence” is a paper tiger argument.
We all know no decent or caring person would choose violence over Jesus. However, understanding the context of why God would express wrath is appropriate for any thinking Methodist Christian.
So, to ask the question, “Would you want your spouse to invite someone of the opposite sex into your home while you are away, or would you rather have a spouse who demonstrates healthier boundaries?” is inappropriate because it’s not relevant to what actually took place once you had context.
And because context matters, choosing between “Jesus and violence” becomes irrelevant because we recognize out of the one bucket of Scripture, there are times in which God has chosen to express wrath. There are times when the Scriptures affirm God will choose to express wrath again in the future.
For additional understanding regarding violence in the Old Testament,
Violence in the Old Testament, Part 1, by Dr. Lawson Stone
Violence in the Old Testament, Part 2, by Dr. Lawson Stone
Violence in the Old Testament, Part 3, by Dr. Lawson Stone
Once again, thank you for being gracious in your words toward persons who have chosen to be a part of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and those who will align with the future Global Methodist Church. In an era where there is much venom and mistrust in our denomination and our culture, we note your tone is one of goodwill. It is noted and appreciated. We seek to do the same.
Rev. Dr. Tommy Gray, Senior Pastor, Asbury UMC Huntsville/Madison
Rev. Dr. Tiwirai Kufarimai, Senior Pastor, St. Paul-Triana UMC
Rev. Paul Lawler, Senior Pastor, Christ Church UMC Birmingham
Rev. Cam Price, Founding Pastor, Turning Point UMC, Locust Fork
Rev. Dr. Robin Scott, Lead Associate Pastor, Asbury UMC Huntsville/Madison
Rev. Vaughn Stafford, Senior Pastor, Clearbranch UMC, Birmingham/Argo