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The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Lane Butts is minister emeritus of First United Methodist Church in Monroeville, AL.

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First United Methodist Church, Monroeville, AL


Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: A House Divided

November 10, 2011

Friedrich Nietzsche was a provocative Nineteenth Century German philosopher who is still frequently quoted. He was a severe critic of religion, especially the Christian religion. He once suggested that "The last Christian died on the cross". And concerning Christian evangelism, he said, "If the church wants the world to believe in redemption, then the church ought to look a little more redeemed".

There is enough truth in Nietzsche's stinging criticism to trouble those of us who have spent our lives in the effort of Christian evangelism. It is not difficult to find occasions, both historical and contemporary, in which the church has not looked very redeemed. Bigotry and exclusivism have been paraded with embarrassing frequency in the name of Jesus. It started early. Shortly after Jesus broke up an argument among the disciples about who was the greatest among them, one of the disciples reported to Jesus "We saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him, because he was not following us". (Luke 9:46-51, and Mark 9:33-41) Jesus said, "do not forbid him". Misguided disciples even to this day dispute about who is the greatest, the most important, the best informed, and most theologically correct. Like the first disciples we continue to question the legitimacy of those who do good things in Jesus name, but who do not belong to our club. There seems to be no end to those who co-op the name of Jesus for their particular "brand" and exclude those who "do not belong to us". Jesus must be as upset over this kind of behavior today as he was when his first disciples were practicing exclusivism in his name. If the church wants the world to half believe what we have to say we ought to look a little more redeemed. Thank you, Dr. Nietzsche for reminding us.

Then there are extreme proponents of individualism, who in their determination to "have it their way" provoke perpetual dissension. Their failure to get along with others is more often than not a reflection of their inability to be at peace with themselves.

There is a legend about a man who was stranded for several years on a deserted island. When at last he was found the rescue party noticed that he had built three separate huts next to each other. When asked about the huts he said, "I live in the one in the middle and go to church in the one on the right". When asked about the one on the left he said "Oh, that is where I used to go to church". Hummmmm.

My friend and colleague, Dr. David Mosser, Senior Pastor of First United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas, told me a fascinating and true story several years ago. You will love this!

There was a church on the edge of town named the "Wego Baptist Church". Intrigued by this unusual name, Dr. Mosser called several of his Baptist pastor friends to see if they could enlighten him about the name of this church. None of them had any idea about how the church got its name. Pressed by his curiosity, he stopped at the church one day and asked the church secretary. She told him this interesting story.

Back in the 1940s there had been a conflict that divided the church's membership evenly down the middle. Half of the people wanted the church to take one approach to ministry while the other half wanted an altogether different approach. The conflict devastated the church. After much debate and many attempts to resolve their differences, they decided to separate. One group said to the other, "We will go and you stay". In order to commemorate this moment in the history of the church the dissenting group voted to call their new congregation the "Wego Baptist Church".

Now, before we judge this situation and the people too quickly, let me offer a caveat. There is something to be said for people, who when they have irreconcilable differences, to declare those differences and go rather than stay and fight. Constant bickering is not conducive to the spiritual health of a congregation. To be sure, reconciliation is preferable, but it is not always possible. When reconciliation cannot be achieved in good faith, with respect for all concerned, it is honorable to say "goodbye" and go. Any individual or group ought to be able to bail out when they find themselves in a situation in which reconciliation is not possible.

Sometimes the church does not look very redeemed, but it is strange and encouraging that God often takes our mistakes and failures and transforms then into something creative and useful in the overall purposes of God's Kingdom

Lest my Baptist friends think I am casting aspersions on that great denomination, let me hasten to say that I have seen more than a few "Wego" churches in all denominations, including Methodist, Pentecostal, Episcopalian, Presbyterian and every other denomination with which I have been acquainted in more than sixty years of ministry. Sometimes it has not been very pretty, even when it seemed necessary.

None of our churches can truthfully claim to look "redeemed" all the time, but we can work, humbly, to follow the lessons of that Carpenter from Nazareth by whose grace we can find redemption in time.


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