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Who Says So?
February 8, 1981

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

The other day I saw an ad on television for new and improved Excedrin. The slogan was, “When life gets tougher, we make it stronger.” Sign of our time. The pressures, uncertainty, anxiety, confusion are getting to us so that even aspirin needs to be strengthened. Well, if aspirin needs to be strengthened, how about our faith? Who can make it in this day in which we live? Who can survive but those who have strength within themselves, those who have a strong faith, those who know what they believe, those who can stand solidly on what they believe, and those who can act on those beliefs. Those who can face their daily lives on the basis of their beliefs will make it. Is there any task more urgent than your beliefs and formulating your faith? Those who founder will be drowned. Those who are wishy washy will be swallowed up. Those who waver will be blown over. And those who sell their soul, that is those who will accept anything to believe in order to get attention or a sense of belonging, they will be devoured, they will be sucked up. 

We're starting a series of sermons today on the major beliefs of the church in the hope that they will help you formulate your beliefs, that you may be strong and firm in your faith as you live your life. That's the hope of these sermons. There is an insert in the bulletin about the sermons. I invite you to take it home and do some of the reading. I invite you to take notes during the sermons or whatever you'd like to do in order to use this as an opportunity for you to formulate your beliefs. 

One of the first primary important questions one asks is, “Who says so?” One of the questions asked of Jesus by the chief priest, the elders, the authorities of the day was, “By what authority do you do these things? What's your authority?” Jesus moved among them as a person of authority—calmly, confidently steadfastly because he had great authority within himself. John Wesley was a man of authority. We heard one of his incidents read by Pam. John Wesley was attacked by the church people, by the officials, by the magistrates of his day. He was refused permission to preach in churches. In many places where he went he was received by mobs, by riots. As you read his journal, as you read his story, you're impressed by how this one small man (evidently he was quite small) would face his antagonists very quietly, very calmly, unafraid. He would move among them, walk among them, asking them questions, telling them of the love of God. Most of the time, they backed away, and were impressed with his authority. He was a man who had authority within himself. 

Ted Noffs is a Methodist minister in Australia in the Methodist Church. Before it merged into the new Uniting denomination, he was brought up for heresy at one time by the Methodist Church. He was a very creative and innovative preacher who ministered to youth in Sydney. They didn't use that ugly word “heresy”, they used the phrase “unfaithfulness to the doctrines of the church”. The charges were ultimately dropped because who says so? Who has the authority to decide such matters?  He found through his experience, he was surprised to find that because he stood up for his beliefs and because he came as a person of authority, he received all kinds of letters and inquiries from people who were questioning their own faith, especially people who were questioning the traditional church. They saw in him another voice. They saw in him a man who had authority and they in their searching and struggling, which is a sign of our time, looked to him for help.


A question to ask is, “Who says so? Where do you get your authority? Who says what's right and what's wrong?” Ask that question unashamedly of those who push their beliefs on you. It's another sign of our times that the fastest growing religions today have a common denominator of being very authoritarian and dogmatic, and who ask of their believers to give them their authority, and then they will tell the believers what to believe, “We will tell you what to believe, just give us your souls.” From the Moonies who are very dogmatic to the TV preachers, people flock to the dogmatists, the authoritarians. They are willing to give up their own personal freedom and responsibility because someone will tell them what to believe. The techniques and the methods used are  “Anything Goes, the ends justify the means.” Any method is okay as long as you get a convert. The cults kidnap people, but it's okay because they get converts. The TV preachers promise health and wealth if you just send them your money, and if you do send them your money, and you still end up sick and poor, then they tell you you didn't have enough faith. It wasn't the promise, it was that you didn't have enough faith. These religions are manipulative and authoritarian. 

I was questioned the other day, “What’s the difference between this church—St. Paul’s—and another denomination which they named?” Part of my answer was that we try to be very intentional about not being manipulative, about treating people with their freedom and their dignity, that we refuse to use emotional, rhythmic, hypnotic type music that psychologically conforms the whole assembly, the whole crowd. We refuse to use psychological techniques to manipulate people to get converted, to get saved. We refuse to brainwash people. We don't grow as fast either in this day and age because we demand of people, we demand of you that you decide what you believe. Our church’s answer to the question “Who says so?”is “You say so. You have the responsibility.” Your relationship to Jesus Christ is at stake, and our church refuses to dogmatically tell you what to believe. We refuse to be creedal. The opening sentence of the insert in the bulletin is the sentence that we took from the Book of Discipline, “In charting a course between doctrinal dogmatism on the one hand, and doctrinal indifferentism on the other, the United Methodist Church expects all its members to accept the challenge of responsible theological reflection.” The responsibility for what you believe is yours. We are not dogmatic and we are not indifferent. The church gives you guidelines. The church gives you sources. The church gives you encouragement as you work out your faith. 

In our church, there are four primary guidelines, frameworks, sources of your beliefs. Number one is the scriptures. Build your faith on the Bible. The Bible is the only authority. No church, no preacher, no other person is your authority. Only the Bible. The scriptures are the records of God's self-revelation to the world. Build your faith on the Bible. In the church, we preach the Bible, we teach the Bible, we encourage you to study the Bible. And we encourage you not to manipulate this book and not to use this book, but to let the book use you. Let the Holy Spirit move through this book. As you open your mind and open your heart to the Bible, you will find your faith. You will find it vital, alive and dynamic. The church offers you the Bible as you formulate your beliefs. 

Second, tradition. The Bible has been interpreted so many different ways by so many different people. To help you interpret the Bible, we encourage you to think of tradition and our history. If there's a passage that is confusing, ask first of all, “What did the great people of the church believe about it? What did john Wesley say? What did Martin Luther say? What did john Calvin say? What did St. Augustine say? What did the great people of the past say? When the church was at its best, what did it believe?” Use tradition and history for God has moved through history to bring us to this day. Use history in formulating what you believe. 

Third, a third guideline and a source of faith is experience. Intellectual beliefs are dead without experiencing the love of God in your life. The church provides the experience of a community of people experiencing God. Trust your experience, trust what you have felt, and what you have lived through as valid in deciding what to believe. 

A fourth guideline is reason. Use your mind. God gave you your mind. Your thought processes are as good and as adequate as anyone else’s. Jesus told us to love the Lord with our minds, not to park it outside on the street and let someone else tell you what to believe. God gave you your mind, your thought process, your intelligence, to put it all together. Take the Bible through tradition, through your own experience and the experience of others, and thinking it through, put together a belief system that is strong and will enable you to stand. 

One further statement about beliefs. For a system of beliefs, for a faith to be adequate these days, that faith should ground you, grab you and grow. A faith should be grounding, grabbing and growing. Faith to be adequate should be grounded. It should ground you solidly so that you don't short circuit, but have security and stand solidly on a rock. That grounding is the Bible through tradition, reason and experience. Take the first letters of those words, they spell the word “rest”. R is for reason. E for experience. S for scripture, T for tradition spells the word “rest”. Rest your faith and rest your life on a faith that grounds you and sustains you. 

Secondly, faith to be adequate these days needs to grab you. It needs to be living, vital and dynamic. It needs to capture you, catch hold of you and hold you. It must be much more than just a system of statements, just a bunch of words. Samuel Angus in his book Christianity and Dogma has written, “We dare not treat truth as something we can imprison in formularies to which we sign our names and insist on others doing likewise. Truth is rather something that holds us, that comes possessively upon us with its imperativeness.” Your faith to be adequate must be a system of belief that opens you to the Holy Spirit so that Jesus Christ can grab you, embrace you, sustain you, and give you new power and vitality. It must be a living, dynamic faith. 

And thirdly, a faith to be adequate these days must be growing. The next sentence on the blue insert from our Discipline, “Theological reflections do change as Christians become aware of new issues and crises.” Do not be afraid to change a belief, to update it so that it might live today. What you believed ten years ago, what you believed twenty years ago is not adequate today for the world is far different. Those beliefs of yesterday need to be updated, need to be enlarged, expanded, to let God grow it in you so that you can live today adequately. 

My prayer through this series of sermons as we look at the hard beliefs of our church, is that you will do everything in your power to formulate your own beliefs so your relationship to Christ may grow and be strengthened. And that you may put together a faith that is grounded, that grabs you and is growing in you as you face the future.

© 1981 Douglas I. Norris