No, that’s not me in the picture; it’s a statue of Elijah the prophet looming on top of Mount Carmel in Israel. As a pastor it disturbs me that some people do see me like that. It troubles me that some wish I was more like that.
Someone mentioned once that they’d come to the Methodist Church from another denomination because “we can buy beer and dance.” We were all amused. Thank God we can laugh. But that comment raised an ancient and important question: what is the role of religion in terms of lifestyle, pleasures and having fun? Christians have debated this since the beginning. What should we say “No” to and what is “OK.”
I’ve never been a member of another denomination, but from what people tell me, it seems that some churches do have this image of Elijah over their doors and a long list of “Thou Shalt Not’s.” In the Old Testament bad behaviors were called sins; if you did them you were considered unclean. Such bad behaviors could lead to excommunication, which meant you were kicked out of the community, no longer one of “us,” and no longer right with God. I looked in the 1892 Methodist Book of Discipline where I discovered that the General Conference had adopted a resolution wherein they declared “dancing, theater going, card playing, and like worldly indulgences to be contrary to the spirit of Christianity….(p.391).” And they claimed to speak the perfect and absolute truth about God’s will for humankind, or “Man” as they said in those days. It went on to instruct the pastors on how we are to discipline sinners who indulge in worldly pleasures. Rather than quote all of it, let me just refer you to the picture above.
Today, we know from credible Bible study that Elijah was not at war with pleasures. He was at war against a local god called Baal. He challenged people who put other gods first in their lives. Elijah was most interested in whether or not people kept the First Commandment—you shall have no other gods. If dancing or beer drinking or anything else became your god and took over the center of your life, then that was a problem.
Nor was Jesus at war with pleasures. Jesus seems to have loved eating, drinking, and hanging out with friends, including sinners. What mattered most was loving God, loving your neighbor and loving the life (physical/mental/spiritual) God gives to each of us. If anything causes us to stumble in this path, that is the problem.
The apostle Paul also addressed the issue: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit; the one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by all. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding (Romans 14.14-19).” For Paul the priority is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. So, what can we say about the church’s prohibition against dancing and theater going and card playing and the like?
For Methodists, I suggest that an energetic commitment to Bible study will help in this debate. What does Paul really mean by “mutual upbuilding?” What did Jesus really mean by “love one another?” My wife is incessant in her wish for me to take her dancing. I hardly believe she is acting as the Devil’s agent, just because the church had a law against that. In as much as our lives are centered in God and focused on seeking the Kingdom of God, we will not find ourselves driven to drink, at least not to such an extent that Elijah will return with sword raised in anger and condemnation.
david gilliam, pastor, faith united methodist church, austin. for more about faith church, click here.