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The Instruments of Perfection

The Instruments of Perfection

 

In my previous post I ended a detailed critique with a note of optimism.  While many in our denomination do not believe that further division would indeed be tragic in the full sense, Uniting Methodists and others have an opportunity to offer a vision which shows us real tragedy in the embrace of schism.  This vision would show how further division does not need to happen and ought not happen.  The first element of what I take to be Uniting Methodists’ vision is spirituality and the second, a way of reading scripture.  In this post I will address the movement’s statements on spirituality.

This emphasis on spirituality is most plainly evident in the vision statement’s repeated invocation of holiness.  Contrary to the protestations of some, this emphasis on holiness is a new element in appeals for unity.  Previous centrist rhetoric has focused on the desire to be unified in mission and purpose so that our churches could continue to do good in the world and win adherents to the Christian faith (the transformation and disciples of our mission statement).  The people of the Uniting Methodists movement are to be applauded for moving beyond these appeals.  In joining others in our denomination who have long demanded a real theological and ethical weight in the governing statements and conversations of United Methodism the Uniting Methodists movement has done us all a service.

In analyzing the Uniting Methodists’ statements on spirituality I will draw on a framework used by the ancient spiritual master John Cassian.  In the first dialogue of his Conferences, Cassian distinguishes between perfection or holiness and the “instruments of perfection” through which we strive after that goal.  Perfection, for Cassian, is to attain a heart of peace and tranquility.  However, we can only attain this goal through certain practices.  These are the “instruments of perfection”, such as the mortification of the flesh, fasting, self-denial, and all the other labors of the spiritual disciplines.  Through our obedience to the commandments in these works the grace of God works within us also so that we may receive from God the peace which passes all understanding.

The Uniting Methodists’ statement offers suggestions as to their view of both the nature of perfection or holiness and the “instruments of perfection” whereby we might attain it.   The most important of these “instruments of perfection” appears to be maintaining a covenant of unity with our diverse brothers and sisters in Christ, although other aspects such as following where God leads and returning to the commandments and traditions are also mentioned.  Through these practices the grace of God brings us to holiness, which is defined as the love of God and neighbor.  The question we must ask here is whether this is a sufficient account of the spiritual life.  We will begin with the account of holiness or perfection and then move to the account of the “instruments of perfection.”

Holiness

The chief problem with Uniting Methodists’ account of holiness is that it is difficult to discern what exactly it is.  In settling on love of God and neighbor I have followed this passage from the “Mission Statement”:

“We urge holiness as the rule for our relationships. We affirm the Wesleyan commitment to personal and social holiness. We recognize that we sometimes disagree on how best to pursue holiness, and those differences can lead to conflict. Though we may differ in understanding, we are committed to loving God and neighbor alike.”

This statement, part of which was discussed in my previous post, suggests that the meaning of holiness lies in “loving God and neighbor alike,” even as it also acknowledges, without offering further clarification, that there is disagreement on what exactly this means.

I will obviously not say that Uniting Methodists are wrong in making “love of God and neighbor” the meaning of holiness.  There could be no better definition of holiness than the summary of the whole Law.  But here once again Uniting Methodists offer no account of what they take the phrase to mean.  In this, I find the document’s description of holiness insufficient.  It does not offer a vision, but an empty vessel:  many different drinks can be poured into it but it can pour nothing into us.

On the one hand, it has no mystical side.  It says nothing of our union with God.  It says nothing of receiving the Holy Spirit.  It says nothing of the reign of Christ in our hearts.  On the other, it has no practical side:  it says nothing of praying for enemies or loving them or forgiveness or bearing one another’s burdens or anything else that shows what it means to love our neighbor.  In leaving these aspects of our sanctification unmentioned it risks making the goal of all our striving a mere change in our disposition, an all-too insubstantial shifting of attitudes.

This lack of depth and clarity can also lead to statements which are not just insufficient, but simply theologically incorrect.  Take for example the third conviction of Uniting Methodists that “centering on Jesus Christ is God’s way of reconciling division.”  Is it a reorientation of our mental attention which reconciles division or something more divine?  Whether that division is within ourselves, between the flesh and the spirit or between competing desires; whether that division is within our churches between brother and brother, sister and sister; whether that division is within a nation between parties, ideologies, races, classes, creeds; whether that division is within the human race between male and female; whether that division is between heaven and earth, between God and his creation; whatever the division is, God’s way of reconciling that division is not “centering on Jesus Christ” but rather Jesus Christ himself.  In his flesh he has broken down the dividing wall (Ephesians 2:14), it is in him that there is “no longer Jew nor Greek, , slave nor free, male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).

This is no mere theological quibble.  Statements like this throughout the document represent a confusion of the instruments of perfection for perfection itself.  They confuse our works with God’s work.  There are works which we must accomplish in order to be healed and attain to wholeness, peace, and love, but it is God’s work alone which actually heals us and actually brings about that peace and that love.  There is no fault in emphasizing the instruments, in insisting on what we must do.  Such exhortation is necessary to the Church’s proclamation and reminds us that we must work out our own salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12).  But there is fault when these instruments are confused with perfection itself.  Then we begin to think that we, through sheer force of will and determination, can accomplish the transformation of our souls and our communities.  When we do this we forget that it is God who is at work within us (Philippians 2:13).  We forget that we must be clothed with power from in high.  We forget that without Christ we can do nothing.  We forget that the goal of our lives is not the accomplishing of deeds or the change of dispositions but union with the living God.

The Instruments of Perfection

How then does Uniting Methodists portray these “instruments of perfection?”  Here the document is somewhat clearer.  We are to “keep our hearts and minds centered on Jesus, so we are open to wherever the catholic spirit of God’s love might lead us.”  We are to practice “humble conversation.”  The Holy Spirit “uses diversity to advance God’s mission.” “Returning to God and keeping God’s instructions” is important.  From these and other statements it is fair to characterize the heart of Uniting Methodists’ definition of the instruments of perfection as remaining in fellowship with the diversity of God’s people.

Now, all traditions of Christian spirituality would agree that we must work out our salvation in community and that we learn to love God through loving our brothers and sisters.  Nevertheless here too there is a certain insufficiency in the Uniting Methodists’ statement and an unhelpful vagueness.  If the Uniting Methodists would provide a vision, it must show us something.  What are the ways that we grow in love and grace through the difficult work of remaining in unity with our brothers and sisters?  What concretely must be done?  That is what the “instruments” of Christian life are all about.

Chief among these deeds to be done must surely be the work of forgiveness.  Forgiving and being forgiven, being reconciled to one another, is one of the most fundamental ways we grow in love and grace by living in fellowship with others.  The word forgiveness does not appear in the Uniting Methodists’ statement and yet what is more needed in our present schism as forgiveness?  Wounds cry out unreconciled from all sides.  The lesbian seminarian cries out:  she knew she could not be ordained in the home conference which nurtured her and so she had to seek out a new home and a new region of the church.  And so too the evangelical pastor cries out from a career of belittlement and contempt at the hands of the very clergy colleagues who ought to have been his support and stay.  Most of all our queer brothers and sisters cry out and show their scars from every time Christian teaching was applied without charity or understanding, patience or love, to the wounding of their souls.  These things cannot go unnamed by any group that urges us to unity.  Repentance must be sought and, when offered, accepted.  Mercy must reach out from the wounded and earnest contrition from those who did the wrong so that both may meet in the embrace of reconciliation.  Humility must reign over all, so that all might lower themselves for one another.  And yet how many sacrifices are being offered at our altars when we know that a brother has something against us?

These are no easy acts; hiding them under the pleasant vagueness of “staying together leads us to love” makes them harder still.  It is because they are difficult that they are essential.  We would not be so deep in schism as we are and moving still further and further apart if the work required for reconciliation were easy.  Without these difficult acts of forgiveness there can be no peace in the church.  Any vision for a way forward must recognize that and yet few do.  The promise of some voices on the conservative end, that a wondrous unanimity will be appear once the troublesome parties are ejected from the church or the true faithful depart themselves, does not recognize this.  The strident provocations and inflexible demands of the progressive wing likewise do not acknowledge it.  And despite its hopes, neither does this Uniting Methodists statement.   A path forward undertaken in the diversity they envision can only be traveled by these acts of difficult, almost impossible (but with God all things are possible!) forgiveness.  We cannot pretend it is simple.  We cannot afford to shy away from the frightening, sublime clarity of what it would mean.  If we are to go to war against the sin and hatred which divides us, we must be unafraid of counting the cost (Luke 14:31-32).

 

In this and other posts I have offered a strong criticism of the Uniting Methodists’ statement and I will continue to do so in posts to come.  This is not out of any malicious desire to tear apart a document that has so clearly been the product of assiduous labor and the best intentions for the Church.  On the contrary, I offer these criticisms for the same reason that I was excited for the appearance of the Uniting Methodists’ statement in the first place:  if there is a way forward for the United Methodist Church it must be informed by deeper and clearer theological reflection than has hitherto been the case.  As in our relations with one another we must strive after the genuine love which is the bond of the Spirit, so also in our proclamation and admonitions to one another we must press unhesitatingly forward toward the truth in whose light we shall see light.  If we are willing to settle for less than love we shall not have the perseverance to attain the truth.  If we settle for a murky sort of truth we shall never see the way to love.  Let us rest in neither of these but rather continue doggedly in the works which are ours, so that from the abundance of the grace of God we might share in the love and the truth which are his.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.  You can email him at charles.rivera@yale.edu or tweet @MarEphremsVoice.

Image:  Icon of John Cassian.

Real Disagreement

Real Disagreement

Last week I began a series of posts which will be engaging with the vision statement of the Uniting Methodists movement.  There is much that could be said about this group but my engagement in this and subsequent pieces will be limited to examining their theology.  For these next few posts I am going to be focusing on the sections entitled “Mission Statement” and “Shared Commitment.”  In this post, I want to focus on some of the ways in which the Uniting Methodists statement obscures the reality of our disagreements.  I will do this by posing three questions, each one tied to a specific statement in these sections of the document.  In my next few posts I intend to analyze the kind of spirituality proposed in these sections as well as their way of reading the Bible.

Question 1:  Different ways of pursuing holiness or different ideas of holiness?

In the mission statement, Uniting Methodists asserts “We recognize that we sometimes disagree on how best to pursue holiness, and those differences can lead to conflict.”  On the one hand this statement is unproblematic:  there is great disagreement in United Methodism on how best to pursue holiness.  On the other hand, however, it is a very insufficient description of the present state of the denomination.  We are not just in disagreement about how to pursue holiness.  We are in disagreement about what holiness is.

Take a few examples.  Can you be holy if you do not advocate justice for the oppressed?  Some United Methodists would assert that this misses the point about holiness, that the heart of holiness is a personal relationship with Christ.  The transformation flowing from this relationship might take the shape of advocating for justice, but on the other hand it might not.  Other United Methodists would assert that advocating for justice is the very heart of what it means to be biblically holy.  Any personal relationship or other piety, in the absence of justice, is hypocritical and false.

Consider another question:  can what we do in the body make us unholy?  Some United Methodists would say no, that holiness is a purely spiritual affair and that what matters is whether your heart is right.  Others would say (although rarely in exactly these words) that bodily actions can indeed defile you and make you unholy.  For some United Methodists an example might be participating in kinds of commerce which are economically or environmentally exploitative:  if you are destroying the earth as a petroleum engineer, you cannot be living a life of righteousness even if your intentions are pure.  Some United Methodists might think of sexual sin in a similar way:  there is no morally acceptable way to commit adultery or for a man to have sex with another man.  The mere bodily fact of these actions (pillaging oil from the earth, illicit sex) means you are not righteous.  This is one of many places where the fault line in our denomination does not lie between “progressives” and “conservatives.”

Finally, consider perhaps the most elemental disagreement:  is our holiness affected by the way we live our lives or are we holy through God’s love and grace regardless of how we live?  Many Methodists would tend toward the latter more Lutheran or Calvinist position.  None of us are or can become actually holy.  We are all so broken and sinful that in this life we cannot be actually holy or righteousness.  Nevertheless God calls us beloved in spite of our faults and only in this sense are we holy.  Others would hold the more traditionally Wesleyan position (which is the majority position in Christianity down through the ages).  This position holds that, although sin indeed besets us all, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we can become actually holy in this life, even to the point of being utterly without sin.  This holiness is not achieved solely by God’s action:  we must receive the gift he offers us and work out our salvation in cooperation with Christ who works in us.

All of these disagreements are not merely over how to pursue holiness.  United Methodists who agree that that advocating justice for the oppressed is an indispensable part of holiness might still disagree about how to pursue that holiness.  They might disagree, for example, on the importance of traditional piety such as prayer and Bible study for pursuing justice or whether the Church should work within or outside of government structures (and if outside, whether the work should be conducted as a mild-mannered charity or a radical agitator).  Furthermore, that not insignificant body of United Methodists who do not believe we can actually become holy in this life would likely take issue with the whole idea of “pursuing” holiness in the first place.

Question 2:  In what sense “biblical”?  In what sense “faithful”?

The first of Uniting Methodists’ four convictions states that “the current divide is based on differing perspectives that are biblical and faithful.”  The sense in which these words are intended seems rather clear.  All perspectives in the current debate are biblical, in that all parties will refer to the Bible as an authority and all parties have come to their current convictions through study of the scriptures.  Likewise people of different views have come to these perspectives faithfully in the sense that they have come to them through earnestly seeking the will of God.

These, however, are not the only senses in which a given perspective may be said to be “biblical” or “faithful.”  For many, to say that a perspective is biblical does not mean only that it was arrived at through study of the Bible, but that it is also in accord with the will and way of the God who inspires the Bible.  Thus the antebellum embrace of slavery is “biblical” in the first sense, since it was arrived at through study of the Bible, but no United Methodists today would say that it is “biblical” in the second sense.  Similarly, “faithfulness” might describe not a purity of intentions but a fidelity to the traditions we have received, as in the hymn:  “Faith of our fathers! holy faith!  We will be true to thee till death!”

These differing senses of “biblical” and “faithful” can be illustrated by a brief tour through the writing of Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the great theologians of the early Church.  Irenaeus’ most substantial work was the Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called, which is more often referred to by the shorter title it was given in Latin translation:  Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies.  Irenaeus was writing at a time when congregations all over the Mediterranean were riven with dissension and strife.  The source of this strife was a dispute over a group of movements which scholars refer to as Gnosticism.  You can read elsewhere about the various different beliefs which were held by the different kinds of Gnostics, but for our purposes the point is this:  the Gnostics spent a lot of time reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible.  In fact, so far as we can tell, the first person to write a commentary on one of the gospels was a man named Heracleon, a Valentinian Gnostic who wrote a commentary on the gospel of John.

In his attempt to bring peace to the churches by refuting the false teachings of the Gnostics Irenaeus acknowledged that they were energetic in interpreting the Bible.  But he did not stop with that sense of “biblical.”  He continued on to show the problems with Gnostic interpretation of scripture and offer superior alternatives.  In doing so he employed several methods.  Often he would appeal to the plain meaning of the text, since the Gnostics were fond of insisting that the text said something other than what it seemed to say.  So, for example, when John the Baptist declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Gnostics like Heracleon would say that “the world” means only God’s chosen elect (this heretical view, known as “limited atonement,” was taken up again centuries later by Calvinism).  But Irenaeus and other orthodox Christians would say “No, the world actually means the world.  That’s the plain sense of the text.”

At other times, however, Irenaeus would appeal to the tradition of the Church and the gospel as it had been proclaimed by the apostles and their successors.  The apostles and their successors taught and handed down the “big picture” story of scripture, which Irenaeus called the “rule of faith.”  So when Gnostics taught (based on their reading of the Bible) that there were two Gods, an evil, lower one who created the material world, and a good, higher one who was the Father of Jesus and sent him to save us, Irenaeus could appeal to the “rule of faith” and reply that there was only one God, who was both the creator of the world and the Father of Jesus Christ.  Because the Gnostics did not hold to this received apostolic faith, their interpretation of the Bible went astray.

Irenaeus uses the example of a tile mosaic to illustrate his point.  Suppose a mosaic of a king had become all jumbled up.  Unless you knew what the king looked like, you could not put the mosaic back in order and, since the tiles could be put in any number of configurations, you might mistakenly create a picture very far from the truth.  Like the mosaic, scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways but only through the teaching of the apostolic faith can it be interpreted correctly.  Only those who have seen the face of the king and hold it continually before their mind’s eye can correctly assemble the jumbled picture.

That is a long digression but the point here is a simple one:  earnest interpretation of the Bible is not necessarily correct interpretation of the Bible.   Something which is “biblical” or “faithful” in the first sense is not necessarily “biblical” or “faithful” in the second sense.  And this is where it is important to attend to the rhetoric of a statement like “our differing perspectives are biblical and faithful.”  If you say that without clarifying what you mean, it serves to prevent people from objecting based on other definitions of the word.  Someone holding to the second sense of “biblical” might say “I don’t think it’s biblical to exclude people based on who they love.  The overarching, big picture story of the whole Bible is about God extending his grace to all people.”  But then Uniting Methodists could say “But wouldn’t you agree that they have come to that conviction through wrestling with the scriptures?  How can you say their view isn’t biblical?”  In this way the use of the same words obscures a fundamental disagreement.

In this section I have assumed that Uniting Methodists intends to say our differing perspectives are “biblical” in the first sense and shown how this obscures real disagreement among those in our denomination who are interested in what is “biblical” in the second sense.  Since our perspectives do differ in real ways (as we have seen above in the example of holiness), I have felt it safe to assume that Uniting Methodists does not intend to say they are all biblical in the second sense:  this would amount to saying that God’s will is not one or consistent.  There is, however, a third option:  it could be that the framers of the document do not think there is a “biblical” perspective, in the second sense, on the matters that divide us.  In other words, this would mean that they are matters on which God’s will and the teaching of the Church are not clear.  Thus those who insist on “biblical” perspectives in the second sense are all in error, for they have gone beyond the limits of what scripture teaches.  This brings us to our final point.

Question 3:  Is division always tragic?

The second conviction of Uniting Methodists is this:  “Sole adherence to one’s perspective leads to tragic division.”  Here again I must parse words because there are several senses in which a division may be “tragic.”  “Tragic” might suggest that is senseless and there is no reason for it to happen.  It would thus suggest that it did not have to happen or even that it ought not to have happened. But “tragic” might also be meant in a less pregnant sense.  It might simply mean that something is heartwrenching.

Even many of those who are currently advocating for further and more formal schism would agree that the division would be tragic in that second sense.  Indeed, everyone, in their better moments would agree to this.  It would truly be a heartless Christian, unkissed by the tender mildness of the Holy Spirit, who would greet the sundering of fellowship with stony apathy and feel no pain of remorse.  And yet many would disagree that it would be tragic in the first sense, in the sense that it does not have to happen.  Some would say “It makes me sad that people are turning away from God’s will for marriage and sexuality, but if they are going to turn away then they must depart.”  And others will say “Is the suffering of our queer brothers and sisters really cause for indifference?  Are their lives really not worth change in the church?”

Here again we are faced with a same obscuring of disagreement with the word “tragic,” as we noted with “biblical” above.  But we are also faced with an opportunity:  shall Uniting Methodists give a compelling account of why division ought not to happen?  In my previous post I expressed excitement that this movement had taken a stab a providing such a theological vision, since previous efforts have been rather baldly pragmatic.  As we delve deeper into their statement we will see what that account amounts to and ask how it might be compelling.  But for now I have written more than enough.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.  You can email him at charles.rivera@yale.edu or tweet @MarEphremsVoice.

Image:  August Noack, The Marburg Colloquy 1529, depicting an important debate on the Eucharist between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli during the Reformation.

Vision and Revision

Vision and Revision

Engaging the Uniting Methodists Vision Statement

Last week in this space I put forward a critique and a challenge to the Uniting Methodist movement.  In response to their initial public appearance and the unveiling of their website I offered a simple criticism:  there is no way forward without new theological vision.  I noted the absence of scholars in the makeup of Uniting Methodists’ leadership team and observed that their platform constitutes a reiteration of the status quo.  To my eyes they seemed like so many other centrist movements in our denomination:  doomed to failure because of their pragmatic orientation, helpless to engage the passionate feelings and profound theological disagreements within United Methodism.

Then, sometime later in the week, the theological statement of Uniting Methodists was unveiled.  Suddenly, it seemed as though my exact criticisms had already been anticipated by the leadership of the movement.  As I read through the document I was continually surprised by its seriousness, scope, and depth.  Here was a heartfelt, thoughtful, and serious engagement with scripture and a faithful effort to bring the teaching of the Church to bear upon the struggles in our denomination.  In my initial article I held up the Wesleyan Covenant Association as an example of a group offering a clear and new theological vision for the future of the church, but the WCA has produced no official theological statements comparable to the vision statement of Uniting Methodists.  This vision statement shows that Uniting Methodists is serious about shaping a future for the United Methodist Church and not just “holding the denomination together” or keeping things like they’ve always been.

Over the next few weeks, as I have time, I will be posting a detailed theological engagement with the vision statement of Uniting Methodists.  This is not because I have signed on to their statement or committed myself to deconstruct it.  I will be engaging with this statement because no other group proposing a vision for the future of United Methodism has offered such a rich and ambitious theological statement.  The statement itself calls for conversation and is worthy of it.  And anyway, if you write a blog post demanding acts of theological imagination you can’t just retreat back into your corner when they somehow actually materialize!

Furthermore, HolyConferencing.org was conceived with a vision of bringing deeper and sharper theological analysis to the current affairs of United Methodism (you can read our Statement of Purpose here).  Those of us who came together to form the site felt as though the usual level of discourse about our intra-denominational struggles was not only acrimonious (as is often bemoaned and acknowledged) but also absolutely lacking in theological rigor.  In a spirit of charity, we set ourselves to doing what we could to address this deficiency and offer our denomination another sort of conversation.  It is exciting to see others, more prominently positioned, who are concerned with a similar structural problem in our debates.  We would be remiss in failing to offer both our praises and our criticisms for their venture.

Because my focus will be theological, I will not take time to address the political practicalities of a movement like Uniting Methodists.  Commentators from the traditional wing of the church are right to point out that it is unlikely to have the votes, judging by past precedent of similar measures, such as the “agree-to-disagree” amendment to the Social Principles at the 2012 General Conference.  One may note in this connection that there are no Africans on their leadership team, even though all regions of the United States are represented.  Because such questions are not my forte I will not address them in my engagement with the vision statement, even though they are of vital importance for the future of our denomination in general and the particular place of Uniting Methodists in that future.

 

A First Impression

My engagement with the theological statement will unfold mainly in two modes.  In these posts I will offer critique on the one hand and constructive explorations on the other.  That is, some posts will consist in a minute working out of problems that I see in the contentions or wording of the document, while others will take the document as a springboard for further theological reflections.  Both of these modes of engagement are necessary for fostering the new theological vision which is needed if there is to be a way forward for our denomination.  If the reasoning of a theological statement is undermined by flaws or its wording marred by infelicities, then it cannot bear the weight which it must carry.  And yet if it cannot spur both intuition and intellect to new epiphanies, further reflections, and deeper thought, then it will fail in the potency which true vision must offer.  Is it sound?  Does it inspire?  These are my questions.

Because many of my later posts will focus on details of the statement, I want to take some time now to offer a few general remarks and impressions.  The first is this:  Uniting Methodists’ statement is Biblical and it is Trinitarian.  It is thoroughly orthodox—unless the only shibboleth of orthodoxy is a strict and exclusive adherence to the traditional teaching on homosexuality.  It demonstrates a persistent claim of many who take a progressive stance on homosexuality: they embrace the catholic faith and are orthodox in their doctrine, departing from the tradition of the church only on this contested point.  It shows no sign of the more radically progressive theology which traditionalist commentators are swift to associate with rejection of the inherited teaching on homosexuality.

In particular the statement is eloquent in pleading for unity in itself.  It sounds the old orthodox note (as old the apostle Paul and Ignatius of Antioch and Jesus himself) that unity in the church is a good in and of itself and schism in and of itself is an evil.  While the church holds together institutionally, a space is created for us to love one another, forgive one another, and by the Spirit’s heart-transforming grace come to the true spiritual unity which binds our hearts in Christian love.  Too often another note has been sounded, that there are some things beyond the sufferance of Christian brotherhood which demand a separation and delineation of the false Christians from the true.  Although that other note has its place, Uniting Methodists is to be applauded for sounding clearly and distinctly the traditional plea for unity.

Despite this persistent orthodoxy, however, the Uniting Methodists statement also displays certain unfortunate conceptual frames which are all too much of our moment.  The statement relies heavily on the idea that there are two streams or two poles universal throughout the Christian tradition which must always be held in tension.  This is a dangerous and inaccurate way of thinking.  There are not two streams in the Old Testament, Christian history, or contemporary United Methodism.  Rather, there is one stream—and there are far, far more than two.  The body of Christ is a single loaf—and a cohesion of innumerable precious grains of wheat.  It is eaten by a single mouth—and by a multitude which no one could number (Revelation 7:9).

This is a point, perhaps, where the solely American makeup of the leadership team shows through.  Ours is a nation which now more than ever can only imagine contentious issues in opposed pairs and where unity can only be conceived as a sort of truce or tension between two irreconcilable combatants.  To use Adam Hamilton’s framing, we can only imagine black or white, and if we don’t like either of those, we have to live in the gray in between.  But the world overseen by God’s good providence is far more of an opulent Oz than a dusty Kansas and the Church which he has gathered from all nations stewards joyfully a kaleidoscopic grace (1 Peter 4:10) [1].  Part of the vision which renews our denomination and carries us forward must be to move beyond this world of paired alternatives not by synthesizing them or holding them in tension but by rejecting their imperious dualism altogether.  In its place we must embrace the God who is one and the dazzling multiplicity of the creatures he calls good.

In the end, however, what is most notable about the Uniting Methodists statement was the way it genuinely made me stop and think.  My experience with our denominational affairs is not exhaustive, but I have not been led to expect a statement of this sort to offer anything more than worn clichés and ready nostrums.  Such statements tend either to avoid solid theological argument altogether or rely on slogans calculated to either to congratulate or enrage their given partisans.  In the Uniting Methodists vision statement there is real meat.  I look forward to dining on it.

 

[1] Because I am a scholar, I have to note that the adjective describing grace here in the original Greek (poikilos) is a far more visual word than the usual translation “manifold” suggests.  It is used for all sorts of multi-colored articles of clothing or variegated animal coats, like a leopard’s.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.

Image:  Domenico Ghirlandaio, Saint Jerome in His Study.

 

 

Is Uniting Methodists a Way Forward?

Is Uniting Methodists a Way Forward?

A new voice appeared this week on the landscape of United Methodism.  Or, at least, a new configuration of old voices.  Uniting Methodists hopes “to be a unifying and clarifying voice in a divided conversation and a polarized culture.”  Asserting that we can live together despite our differences on issues of sexuality, Uniting Methodists seeks to “forge a pathway through the current impasse” by allowing space for that disagreement within our denomination.  Prominent United Methodists listed as part of their “team” include Adam Hamilton, Mike Slaughter, and Barbara Boigegrain, General Secretary of Wespath (formerly the General Board of Pension and Health Benefits).

In many ways a movement like Uniting Methodists would seem to be just the place for someone like me.  Although I espouse traditional positions on the subject of sexuality I have never been entirely at home in the circles of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and have in fact spent much of my adult life worshiping in Reconciling congregations.  I count among my mentors, friends, and confidants United Methodists on all sides of the present schism.  Furthermore, I do not think sexual ethics is the deciding issue of our time, when the basic doctrines of the Church—the Trinity, the person of Christ, sanctification—are almost unknown to most United Methodists.

Despite this natural affinity, I am skeptical of Uniting Methodists for two related reasons.  The first is the absence of intellectuals on their leadership team.  Although I myself have serious reservations about the theological emphases which have made their way into the WCA’s materials, there are professional scholars in their leadership (David Watson of United Seminary, Bill Arnold of Asbury, Billy Abraham of SMU).  There are no such scholars on the leadership team of Uniting Methodists.  David McAllister-Wilson, although the president of one of our seminaries, does not hold a Ph.D. and is not a scholar.  Similarly, James Howell holds a Ph.D. but is a pastor more than a scholar.  This omission is puzzling.  As someone in the world of United Methodist scholarship, I can assure you there are a great many of us who would be sympathetic to the intentions of this group.

In many ways, this is a nitpicky sort of objection—the kind of thing you would expect from an intellectual, especially when his tribe is the one left out.  However, the absence of scholars and intellectuals from the leadership of Uniting Methodists points to a second, more serious problem:  simply put, this group advocates no meaningful change.  It seems fair to say that this group wishes to see the current status quo continued.  Nothing makes this so clear as their name, only a few letters different from the name of the denomination itself.  But it is also clear in the theological positions advocated on their website.  Three of these positions amount to restatements of official denominational positions (these are Disciples, Evangelism, and Standards).  Two advocate for making de jure the current de facto condition of American United Methodism (these are Officiation and Ordination).  Only one (Interpretation) might be seen as an actual constructive claim pointing to a way forward, but even that is largely a quarrel of semantics.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association, by contrast, advocates in its written beliefs certain principles which, while not alien to the received faith of our denomination, have never been before elevated to the status of official teaching.  For example, the phrase “classical Wesleyan doctrine and the historic faith” expresses the traditionalist ecumenical theology which has become an increasingly important stream in our intellectual life in the years since the formation of the United Methodist Church.  One might associate it generally with the heritage of Albert Outler, but more specifically with theologians like Geoffrey Wainwright and the late Thomas Oden.  While this has been an important stream, it is by no means a received consensus.  The WCA’s embrace of this traditionalist ecumenism is part and parcel of its rejection of theological liberalism, which, in all its varieties, forms another major but non-consensus stream in our received theology.  But elevating this one sort of theology as a new standard, the WCA suggests a new way forward which jettisons a major part of our current received theology.

Uniting Methodists offers no such suggestion of a new theological paradigm (or a new paradigm of any sort) to guide our way forward.  I am skeptical of the success of anything which offers so little substantive change.  If there is to be a way forward for the United Methodist Church which does not simply involve a hardened schism along the lines already laid down it must be accompanied by serious and rigorous theological imagination.  It cannot afford to be untheorized, because we do not need a technical tweak, but a new way of conceiving of our denomination.  There must be a new framework within which the Church can articulate herself anew.  Traditionalists aligned with the Wesleyan Covenant Association have proposed one and there is likewise a clear theological vision on the far progressive side.  If unity groups like Uniting Methodists truly want to offer the denomination a way forward, they too must paint a compelling picture of who we are, how we shall think, and what we shall believe.

Now there is of course a popular strain in Methodism which eschews doctrine itself as inherently divisive.  No doubt many who are drawn to something like Uniting Methodists would say that the lack of theological specificity is itself part of the vision.  This is certainly a Wesleyan virtue, one which John learned from the deep riches of the monastic spiritual tradition and its suspicion of dogmatic zeal.  Nevertheless, if a non-theological centrism could hold the denomination together, we would not be currently in the midst of schism.  There is not a way forward from our current impasse without new theological vision.

Perhaps an illustration from church history will make this clear.  In the late 350s controversy raged over the doctrine of the Trinity and the person of Christ.  A generation earlier a coalition of bishops referred to by historians as the Eusebians (after their leaders Eusebius of Nicomedia and Eusebius of Caesarea) had been able to forge a consensus which rejected the excesses of both Arius of Alexandria (who separated the Son and the Father to such a degree that the Son was not wholly divine) and Marcellus of Ancyra (who united the Son and the Father to such a degree that there was no real distinction between them).  By the 350s, however, the old wounds were open again and the arguments about the relationship between the Son and the Father raged across the Roman Empire and beyond.  In an attempt to resolve this conflict and permit the Church (and the Empire) to move forward, the Emperor Constantius called a series of councils which forbade bishops and theologians from arguing about the disputed points and banned some of the technical terminology at issue (including the infamous term homoousios or “consubstantial”).  But the conflict ran too deep for compromise unaccompanied by new vision to move the Church forward.  It was not until a generation later when a new theological paradigm was able to unite both the heirs of the Eusebians and the followers of Athanasius of Alexandria (who had been an ally of Marcellus of Ancyra) that the conflict is said to have come to an end.

The Emperor Constantius’ aim was laudable:  he wanted something analogous to “getting the Church back to just making disciples and doing kingdom work.”  Nevertheless, his desire to just bring the conflict to an end caused him to act without boldness.  As such his solution ended up being barely a bandage.  To my eye, Uniting Methodists offers just such a Constantian solution.  Our denomination is too broken for that to suffice.  It was not an Emperor, for all his administrative and political prowess, who was able to bring the Church to a new consensus.  Rather it was a group of theologians whom Church history remembers as some of the most eloquent and profound in all her heritage:  the Cappadocian Fathers.  It is not another Constantius that United Methodism needs.  It is another Gregory of Nazianzus and another Basil the Great.

 

Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University.

Image:  Depiction of the Emperor Constantius from the Chronography of 354.

Schism and Ecclesial Authority

Schism and Ecclesial Authority

United Methodism is in schism. It’s not that schism is coming; it’s already here. It’s not something for us to work to avoid, it’s an evil that we must address.

Andrew Thompson did an excellent job illuminating this distinction in his post about covenant and schism last week. In “Sermon 75: On Schism,” John Wesley exegetes 1 Corinthians 12 in the following way: “Can anything be more plain than that the schisms here spoken of, were not separations from, but divisions in, the Church of Corinth (I.2, emphasis original)?”

Schism, according to father John’s reading of Paul is, “a disunion in mind and judgment, (perhaps also affection) among those who, notwithstanding this, continued outwardly united as before.”[1] What we have seen in recent years is not only a deeper rift of mind and judgment in our beloved church, but also an erosion of affection.

We are deeply in schism, and this is “evil,” a “grievous breach of the law of love.” 

If we do not take time in prayer and conversation to grieve the schism in our connection, then we are participating and perpetuating our failure to love.

We must not stop with lament, and diagnosis.  We must press further into Sermon 75 to find even more fertile ground to know what we ought to do.

In II.7 of “On Schism,” Wesley permits only one reason for breaking fellowship: that the fellowship is forcing one to sin by omission or commission. In all other cases, he offers this judgment: “Suppose the Church or society to which I am now united does not require me to do anything which the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything which the Scripture enjoins, it is then my indispensable duty to continue therein. And if I separate from it without any such necessity, I am just chargeable (whether I foresaw them or not) with all the evils consequent upon that separation.”

This is not an abstract question for Mr. Wesley. He chose, throughout his life, to continue in fellowship in the church of his birth, despite his questions of its faithfulness because there remained space for him to be faithful.

For traditionalists who would like to depart, this is a hard word.  If they are not themselves being compelled to sin disapproves, they are to stay.[2] It leaves traditionalists with an exhortation to keep their vow to “be loyal to The United Methodist Church and do all in your power to strengthen its ministries.”

If we are to follow the logic of “On Schism,” it is the prerogative of the progressives (from their own perspective) and not the traditionalists to break fellowship, due to their sense of the injustice of our current position. This, in fact, is the position espoused clearly by William Abraham in both Atlanta and Memphis. He says that “those who disagree with the teachings and practices of the church should follow through on their own convictions and recognize the moral obligation of exiting The United Methodist Church.”

The problem for traditionalists is that progressives aren’t sliding out the back door and joining different denominations that share their understanding of same-sex marriage. Rather than quietly departing from the UMC, they are breaking the rules set by General Conference. In most cases, they do so fully prepared to face the consequences. And traditionalists are frustrated with the paucity of suitable consequences.  The issue is not simply progressives are blessing same-sex practice, it’s that progressives are blessing same-sex practice as United Methodists.

Progressives’ decision to defy the rules rather than recant their faith and relinquish their membership,  is no new thing in the church catholic. There are manifold examples of dissenters in the church who did not leave willingly, but were instead excommunicated from the church for their incompatible views, leaving future theologians and traditions to judge the church’s decision.

Our current crisis is not primarily about Biblical authority or the movement of the spirit. Those things are a significant (but not the only) component of the theological argument for the question: “Is same-sex marriage in keeping with Christian/United Methodist teaching?” But that’s not the primary question in this moment.

At this point, the primary point of tension relates to the authority of the institutional church.

 

It’s not that covenants should be kept, it’s that the church should be able to offer correction when they are not.

 

Authority (i.e. the possibility of providing accountability to members) is essential to ecclesial coherence. If the church can do nothing to ensure that it is Methodism, and not something else, being proclaimed we have no raison d’être, we have no identity.  About this, traditionalists are right.  Authority is, in fact, the intent of the Trust Clause, to ensure that Methodist Churches have faithful pastors leading them.  About this, traditionalists are right.

Therefore, if we want a healthy institution with an established identity, we must ask: (a) Can the church determine that some beliefs/actions are wrong, and (b) how, if at all, should the church respond when its standards are violated? Furthermore, where should that authority be held?  Furthermore, is the church capable of distinguishing between essentials and non-essentials, and if so, where does fit among those categories?

In summary, the crisis that we are facing is not about the authority of the Bible or about covenant, it’s about who gets to determine what is authoritative for the people called Methodists, and who can enforce the lines once they are drawn. To say it more firmly, it’s about who has the power to discipline (up to excommunication) and who gets to discern what demands such an action. It’s about establishing the essentials of our faith and then abiding in the connection formed by our shared faith.

Such statements are questions of polity that may not be able to be addressed in our current quagmire.  That’s why the #NextMethodism conversation is very important, even if traditionalists upset about Karen Oliveto can’t quote Wesley to justify their departure.

 

This post is by Chad Bowen, an elder in the Tupelo District of the Mississippi Conference.  

 

[1] This is a topic for another day, but “disunion of mind” hearkens back to the 2012 General Conference proposal GC2012 acknowledge that we “are not of one mind” about sexuality.  That proposal, combined with the outcry that emerged when it failed to pass, exposed not only the explicit frustration with the UMC’s schism over sexuality, but was also a (likely unconscious attempt) to subvert our polity. Per our constitution, he majority of General Conference delegates as the legislative authority of the connection. One needs only to consult the voting history of General Conference resolutions to know that we are not entirely of one mind on nearly anything.

[2] This criteria is simply not being met with something like the election of Karen Oliveto. One could attempt an argument that asserts complicity through mission shares, but it would be a stretch. One would have to make an argument that it is sin to give to the church if one penny of your tithe is going support what one deems to be a sin. This would make it nearly impossible for anyone to give to a global church.

Life Saving Stations

Life Saving Stations

 

Romans 12

People in the United Methodist Church, especially people who have been very involved in the debates and battles over sexuality, are frustrated, tired, hurt, and mad. Open Facebook or read a few blogs and you will find a yearning on both sides for “the split” to finally happen so folks can be done with pain and in a place where everybody thinks like them, they don’t have to argue, and they feel comfortable. Two churches in Mississippi just took this route.

I understand this yearning to be done, to feel free, to be with those with whom you have a lot in common, speak the same language, around whom you feel comfortable and welcome. You get to be in a place where people are no longer either disregarding The Book of Discipline or are no longer using the same book to try to kick people you love and respect out of the church. Where we don’t wait on pins and needles for Judicial Council decisions. To stop the arguments, the pain, the constant explanations and dealing with people who are so wrong.

The problem is, to follow through on this yearning is to leave the Church and create a country club. A country club is a place that exists for the comfort and good feelings of its members. But the Church is all about following Jesus Christ, which according to Scripture is not about being comfortable (Jesus says take up your cross (Matt 16:24; Luke 9:23), Jesus predicts pain and problems for his followers (Matt 10:34-39; Luke 9:57-62; John 15:18-25), Paul’s list of degradations in 2 Corinthians 11:22-28, and many more examples). Following Jesus, instead of promising peace and tranquility, is something to which we give our lives for God’s purpose.

A place where we are comfortable is a place that is all about us. Rather, God has created us to be part of the Body of Christ – a bunch of different people working together with Christ as our head. When we are living together as the body what holds us together is not feeling comfortable around other people, not having the same experiences or having gone to the same seminary. What holds us together is the One, the Head, Jesus Christ. When we go to other bonds we turn to idols. What seems like comfort, even in the face of our pain, hurt, and anger, can be such an idol.

Living as the body of Christ is a challenge because we are so very different, and therefore we really, really need Jesus. We come from disparate parts of the world (even, or especially, within the United States). A person who was raised in Boston is going to be different than a person from West Texas, who will be different than someone from the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Korea. These differences are to be expected, not surprising.

There is an immense, yet very understandable, misunderstanding that the church is a place where everyone becomes the same. The opposite is the case. We are a body, with different gifts and different functions. Only in one place in the book of Acts does the church have peace. The rest of the New Testament is people figuring out how to deal with each other.

These differences are God given. We have been created to have different gifts as a part of Christ which we bring together as the body. As Paul has said, the eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you” (1 Cor 12:21). God made us all to be a We. We, as United Methodists, are Arminian. We believe God did not create anyone for the purpose of being rejected. Instead, we are all created to be a part of the Kingdom of God (The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made, Psalm 145:9). Our purpose (which we are free to reject) is to be with Christ and each other. None of us are exactly like Jesus, but God made us with parts necessary for the Body. We need each other to function as the Body. We need each other’s personalities, each other’s experiences, each other as a part of Christ, so that we can function as the life-saving community of Jesus Christ. When we reject each other for the comfort and stability of the country club we are rejecting the Body of Christ.

Some of our differences are theological. There are people in the United Methodist Church who have very different understandings of Scripture. The easiest thing would be to create different country clubs where we can comfortably be with those who think the same as ourselves. However, as the body, we are called to come together and figure out our differences. This is difficult, but we are following Jesus Christ, not a call to comfort.

There is an old story some of you know about a Life Saving Station. A community bands together to save those on ships who have wrecked nearby. However, as the Life Saving Station expands and gets better at what it does, the drive for comfort shifts the focus of the station from the people needing to be saved to the comfort of those called to do the work. The Life Saving Station is then transformed into a country club. I know both sides feel that if they do not win the life-saving work of the Church will not be done. However, if we split so each side can finally get around to doing the work only with those with whom they are comfortable, we have created two country clubs, rejecting the body.

Instead, God calls us to figure out how to be the body. To figure out how to be reconciled to each other as Christ has reconciled us to God. To figure out how to work with each other even when the other drives us nuts or causes us pain. Jesus never gave up on us, even when we crucified him. He came back after his torture and death to continue the work of reconciliation and building the body. Let us continue that work in our present circumstance, instead of opting for the broad road and becoming comfortable country clubs.

This post is by Eric Schubert, an elder in the Iowa Annual Conference and pastor of Greenfield UMC.  

The Order of Elders

The Order of Elders

cornelius

“The disciple of the Spirit is bidden to announce what he has learned to the elders of the Church of Christ, that is, to those who, owing to their capacity to receive spiritual doctrine, possess a ripe endowment of wisdom.”  -Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles IV.11

What is it that ails us?  And how may we amend?  There are as many answers to these questions, it seems, as there are United Methodists.  Each partisan theology, each new trend from the pop sociologists, each “national conversation,” each personal biography furnishes another.  For myself, I favor those which eschew managerial technique for spiritual discipline (as from their different regions of the Church in their different ways Trey Hall and Timothy Tennent both recommend).  How can it be, after all, that the Church, which is the body of the Son of God, formed by his Spirit, can be healed apart from a spiritual healing?  We are not what we are because we were born flesh and blood.  We are what we are because we were born from above, through the One who came down from heaven, and the heavenly Holy Spirit, and the Holy One who is in heaven.

“The health of an annual conference corresponds to the health of its order of elders.”  These are words I heard often spoken by Bishop Scott Jones, now of the Texas Conference, when he served my own Great Plains conference.  He meant them in reference to the order of elders whose shape and character is outlined in our Book of Discipline, the order from whom so many of our pastors are drawn and which holds the place of leadership and primacy among our clergy, the visible order of elders.  In this essay I would like to apply them to the invisible order of elders, the one which is marked off not by stoles and ordinations but by the witness of the Spirit and the holiness of heart and life.  This is the true order of elders, as the Church Father Origen points out in the epigraph above, and I propose that our current situation of discord within our denomination proves Bishop Jones’ words even truer with respect to them.

But what is this business of a visible order of elders and an invisible one?  Well, let’s go over some history.

As the Church grew in the early centuries it recognized the need for a stable institution of leadership which could be passed down in an orderly fashion and command respect regardless of the person who occupied it.  In the second century, authors such as Irenaeus of Lyons appealed to this institutionalized leadership of bishops and elders as an important check on the esoteric spiritual elitism of Gnostic groups like the Valentinians.  The existence of a solid, recognized order of elders preserved the unity and catholicity of the church, whereas a reliance on charismatic spiritual leaders had the potential to fragment the body of Christ in a thousand directions.

However, even as the Church acknowledged and committed to the importance of this visible, institutional clergy, it was recognized by many that the true authority and true leadership in their communities rested with the spiritually mature, whether ordained or not.  While the visible orders of bishops and elders came to be necessary for the good functioning of the Church in this world, authors like Origen reminded the early Christians that this world was not their home:  the true nature of the Church is spiritual and heavenly, not earthly and institutional.  As such, it was those who lived spiritually already in this life, suffused with the divine love of the Holy Spirit and truly walking in the way of Christ, who were the true elders and the true bishops.  Sometimes these true elders also served in the positions of institutional authority, but sometimes, although true priests in the spirit, they were laypeople in the visible flesh.

This wisdom of the early Church, acknowledging the need for visible, institutional elders and bishops while pressing the truth that the real elders and bishops of the church are the spiritually mature, was recognized by John Wesley, a student of the early Church and, in time, a spiritually mature man himself.  This was one of the reasons why he put lay Christians, men and women, in charge of classes and bands and even gave them the authority to preach.  It is why he felt the Methodist movement was necessary for the Church of England in his day, where there were visible elders and bishops aplenty but all too few of the invisible, true, and spiritual ones.

And indeed the Church in certain times and places has gone through dry spells where the true elders and the true bishops are absent, even as she never goes without the visible, institutional ones.  These are the times which Amos calls famines of the Word of God, for it is in the lives of the true elders, the spiritually mature, that the Word of Christ dwells richly.  It is through their lives, their witness, and their prayers,  that we are fed with the spiritual Bread who has come down from heaven, Christ himself, just as it was by the disciples’ hands that the 5000 tasted of the five miraculous loaves.  Without their spiritual pastorate the flock of Christ is led astray and wanders into all the thorns and thickets of worldly delusion, just as when they are present to shepherd us even the corruption or fecklessness of the visible clergy cannot quench the life of the faithful.  They are the leaven without which we cannot rise; it is they who have received the mind of Christ and where the mind is gone the body possesses no direction.

Can our present straits then be anything other than a sign that in United Methodism this true order of elders is not strong?  As the fleshly and visible health of an annual conference or a denomination corresponds to the health of its fleshly and visible order of elders, so its spiritual and true health is tied to the health of the spiritual and true order.  Without this true health of the spirit, even a healthy body would amount to nothing, a lump of institutional flesh, an agglomeration of buildings and books and bonds with no life to animate and move.

And how would our efforts change if we acknowledged this?  We would acknowledge once and for all that an end to what ails us does not lie in reorganization of our visible institutions.  We would acknowledge that it does not lie in doctrinal formulae and legal enforcements.  Indeed, we would humbly confess what we ought to have known, that the Kingdom of God is within us.  We would pray not so much for bishops and pastors who hold to our preferred school of theology, but rather in whom the Spirit of God is pleased to dwell.  Indeed a step further, if we became converted on this score it would demand that we stop putting all our faith in visible leaders and visible efforts, period.  It would demand that we start praying rather to God for spiritual elders, saints all among us, whom the Spirit of Holiness has molded into vessels of honor.

And those of us who are ordained and called pastors and bishops (or any for that matter who are named, we might say, to commissions) might learn to distrust the vain glimmer of our authority, having learned that it is poor and impotent because it is visible and fleshly.  In its place we might seek that true authority, whether for ourselves or acknowledged in others, which is spiritual and therefore mighty.  Let us see our Peters running to the house of Cornelius, that righteous man whose alms were remembered by God, whose prayer went up like sacrifice, who was visited by angels!  And let us see our Peters giving their own hours to prayer and the dreaming of dreams which the Spirit promises.  Let us seek the Lord while he may be found, the kingdom which is the Spirit (and the Spirit’s to give) and its righteousness, which is Christ himself, and with him God will also give us all things.

Charles “Austin” Rivera is a provisional elder in the Great Plains conference and PhD student at Yale University studying Patristics.

Image: The Angel Appearing to Cornelius the Centurion, by Jacob Backer (1608-1651)

Can We Agree in Love?

Can We Agree in Love?

christ-washing-the-disciples-feet-jpglarge

In this blog’s statement of purpose we assert that when theological points are discussed in the United Methodist Church we talk past each other instead of to each other. What does this mean? It means we use words that have a different definition for one side than another. We use terms which only have meaning within a certain theological context that not all parties understand. When we talk the only people who can understand us are the ones who already agree with us.

One of the words with which this happens most often is “love.” This word is used with disparate definitions which leads love to be used in varying ways. Because people don’t often appreciate how others are using the term, we dismiss each other as sinful, heretical, hateful, or abusive. What are these definitions of love, and how can we get on the same page?

Some people use a definition of love derived from John 14:15 and similar verses in Scripture: “if you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Love is following God’s commandments, and loving other people is helping them also follow God’s commandments. This entails warning them when they are going against God’s law and helping them get back on the correct path. This is a Biblical version of love which comes from good intentions but can be perceived as abusive. If one does not agree they are going against God’s law using love in this way does not bring the perceived offender into the body of Christ. Instead, using love this way comes across as condemning someone for an action or belief which God does not oppose. Hence, the person trying to love the other into right action is not seen as helpful, but hurting.

Others use a definition of love which is derived from the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) and verses like it in Scripture: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” This is a love which lifts up the oppressed, which liberates people from bondage, which gives freedom to those who are imprisoned by injustice. In the context of the debates over sexuality, these people believe that since God made people’s sexuality to reflect God’s gracious love to live into that sexuality is to live into God’s liberating love. A person is liberated from the injustice of a heteronormative society and able to live into God’s good plan for them. Because we approach the issue of sexuality from vastly different anthropological perspectives (this is for another post), this way of using and defining love can come across to others as heretical and sinful. If someone believes gay marriage is wrong, they will not be convinced that God liberated them into sinful action.

Are these two definitions, so often at odds with one another, all that “love” can mean for us? One aspect of Biblical love which I have not heard in our discussions is that demonstrated in Philippians 2:3-8: “…regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Neither definition of love described contradict these verses. Nevertheless Paul’s words in Philippians open to us a new way of loving one another. In these verses, the true nature of Godly love is incarnation. Jesus emptied himself to be with us. Jesus came to walk our walk, to feel our joy and pain, to literally take us on to himself so that we can know what true love is. The act of self-emptying makes love known.

The reason we don’t talk about this kind of love is because we as a church we have not emptied ourselves for each other. Instead we have taken sides. Imitating our political climate, we learn enough about what the other side thinks so we can counter with our own one sided position. We have not lived with, loved, and walked with those we don’t understand or disagree with. We speak from afar, through condescending blogposts, or by trying to get 51% of the Annual or General Conference to vote our way so we can win. We create organizations filled with people who already agree with us.

This is not emptying ourselves. This is not what Jesus did. Jesus gave up heaven, a place where God’s will is done perfectly, to come to earth with all its violence, arguments, sin, and despair, so we can know God’s love.

Imitating incarnational love is not most people’s first reaction. It certainly does not usually feel good to be in a place where people disagree, misunderstand, and are in conflict. In fact, it is difficult to be where people are not “us”. However, coming into those places is exactly what Jesus did, and this is the type of love we are to imitate. Jesus did not stay in heaven where everyone agreed with him and there were no theological controversies. He did the opposite. He came to where the need was greatest: to earth, among conflicted peoples, Jew and Gentile, and loved them. Let us show the same love for each other. Let us figure out how to talk to each other. Let us love as Jesus loved.

Eric Schubert is an elder in the Iowa conference and pastor at Greenfield UMC in Greenfield, Iowa.

Maintain the Discipline?  Or Create One?

Maintain the Discipline? Or Create One?

The 2012 edition of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS
The 2012 edition of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS


 

“Why would anyone form a group to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of?

This line, from Chad Bowen’s piece published here last week, has stuck with me from the moment I first read it in an early draft of his essay.  It speaks to something essential to the current strife and discord in United Methodism, but which has not always been visible.  It encapsulates both the frustration of traditionalists [1] with the impotence of certain denominational structures and the indignation others feel as they see an energetic minority of conservatives intent on realigning the identity of the denomination.  In this piece I hope to puzzle out some of why this line strikes me so.

Now, there is a certain genre of writing, native to the internet, in which, starting from such a beginning, I would now promise to uncover for you here some secret meaning, some hint of conspiracy, and inform you on “What’s Really Going On.”  That is not the aim of this piece nor its genre.  That is a sort of writing which not only sheds more heat than light but even obscures things by the heat it creates.  The times call for something better than such games.  They call for us to look things straight in the face.  They ask us ever to strive for clarity in our discussions and our deliberations and so I hope merely here to express clearly for you what I think Chad has put his finger on with that excellent line.

The group in question, formed to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of, is of course the Wesleyan Covenant Association.  They and their fellow travelers would have a ready answer for why one would form such a group.  The United Methodist Church has teachings and standards, they would say, but these are not respected in the actual administration of church discipline nor indeed are they held to by many leaders in the church.  Thus there is need for the formation of a group to advocate for the maintenance of teachings and standards which exist but are not enforced or, rather, which are more honored in the breach than in the observance.

This is a case obviously convincing to many and it possesses a fine coherence.  Beneath it, however, is an assumption about the nature of the UMC’s teachings and standards which can easily go unacknowledged.  This assumption is that the teachings and standards of the UMC are a set of documents.  For the sake of argument it must also be assumed that the interpretation of these documents is not in question.  In some way or other, these documents are also generally assumed to be those contained in the Book of Discipline.

It is because these teachings and standards are believed to be contained in documents that they can be contrasted with the administration of discipline in the denomination—discipline can be compared with Discipline.  The documents can serve as instruments to help adjudicate which versions of Methodism are authentic.  But because the standards are simply words on a page, they are also entirely impotent to bring the living community into conformity with themselves.  Hence it is this assumption which allows us to imagine a situation in which the teachings and standards of the group are one thing and its actual practice another.

This is not the only way, however, to imagine our teachings and standards.  One could say that the teachings and standards of the UMC are what the UMC actually teaches and how it actually orders its communal life.  That is to say, the teachings and standards are not documents, but the actual lived reality of United Methodism.  If one imagines the teachings and standards in this way, then it becomes completely nonsensical to imagine a smaller group being formed within the larger group for the sake of maintaining the larger group’s teachings and standards.  For under this definition one could not be a part of the larger group without participating in the maintenance of its teachings and standards.

I am not a historian, nor does this argument depend on claims of history, but it would be a fruitful exercise to inquire into whether the documents of the Book of Discipline have at any point corresponded exactly to the lived reality of what Methodists have taught and how they have lived.  Those statements of the Discipline which are enforced at any given time (and those things not written in the Discipline which are enforced with equal tenacity) are better evidences of the teachings and standards of the denomination than the text of the Discipline itself.

For example, John Wesley’s advice that preachers get up at 4 in the morning every day to pray remained in the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church until the 1939 merger and had been removed by the Southerners at an earlier date.  Shall we then assume that such a practice of prayer was a standard or an ideal in the northern church and not in the southern church?  Likewise there is the constant and disingenuous formula, with which we are all familiar, that the church has condemned homosexuality “since 1972,” that being the year the language appeared in the Discipline.  Really, I would defer here to a student of American queer history, but I would be quite surprised to find that Methodists did not tenaciously enforce anti-gay norms within their community prior to having some words written about them in 1972.

When we view things in this way, then, it might be better to say that a group like the WCA exists not to uphold or maintain the current standards of the UMC, but to create new ones.  Now when something like this is written by a certain sort of commentator (the kind I mentioned above), we would be in for a sort of fearmongering conspiracy story about how the evil evangelicals are out to steal your church.  That is not my aim.  My aim is clarity and an analysis tending not to excitement but sobriety.

Now if we take the purpose of the WCA to be the creation of new standards and teachings, there seem to me to be two ways that can be understood.  The first is that they disagree with the current teachings and standards of the United Methodist Church and wish to change them into something more in line with their own theology and discipline.  This is the idea held out by the peddlers of conspiracies.  Were this the case, then the WCA would be rightly described as a non-United Methodist organization and those who do agree with the teachings and standards of the UMC would rightly see it as a schismatic agent of discord which must be cut off and cast out.  No pleasant thought.

There is, however, another way.  The WCA could seek to create new teachings and standards because they do not perceive there to be any in the UMC of the present day (more precisely, there are no teachings and standards for the denomination as a whole).  In going about this task, they have sought to begin with the documents in the Book of Discipline which have already been a part of our communal life.  They advocate that these be used in a new way, that they be invested with a new positive authority to create teachings and standards in the life of the church.  They argue that we can fix what ails us with tools near to hand, if we but use them in a new way.

This second understanding accords more closely with what I have heard and read from United Methodists sympathetic to the WCA or actively participating in it.  In a way, it is less fearful than the first.  If this group is seeking to provide for our denomination something which is lacking and whose lack has had debilitating results, then they are doing needed work.  The project is a creative one and its fruits could prove a gift to all United Methodists.  It is an effort to save the denomination.

And yet to me this second way is far more chilling than the first.  For if teachings and standards must be created because there are none, then there is no United Methodist Church and we are already in schism.

So indeed may the God of peace, who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great shepherd of the sheep, preserve and protect us always, that not one of his little ones be lost.  Amen.

 

[1] I refer the reader to Chad’s note on usage of this term.

Charles “Austin” Rivera is a provisional elder in the Great Plains conference and PhD student at Yale University studying Patristics.

Should the WCA Affirm the Discipline?

Should the WCA Affirm the Discipline?

A photo by Hide Obara. unsplash.com/photos/2p1HOcpi14UMany have expressed disbelief at the characterization of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) by Bishop Ough’s statement following the July meeting of the Council of Bishops. In the statement, the WCA was included with annual conferences who have made declarations of non-compliance with The Book of Discipline and the election of Karen Oliveto as realities that have “opened deep wounds and fissures within the United Methodist Church and fanned the fears of schism.”

Critiques have also been lodged more broadly as other commentators have laid out their cases for perceived problems with the WCA:

  • that the issue of homosexuality is THE issue of the WCA (Jack Harnish, Jeremy Smith),
  • questions about their views on scripture (David Livingston, pt.2, Jeremy Smith)
  • a perceived precarious future of women clergy (David Livingston, pt.3)
  • that the WCA is doing harm to the UMC by creating a proto-denomination with its own publishing house, membership standards, and membership dues, and will likely cause increased fragmentation of the church (Jason Valendy, Jeremy Smith)

Responses to these criticisms by Kevin Watson and David Watson emphasize the WCA’s desire to be faithful to current, established United Methodist (UM) beliefs. Posts by Shane Bishop, Bob Kaylor, and Chris Ritter express their anticipation that the WCA could come alongside the UMC in the same manner that the people called Methodists once sparked a revival in the Church of England. The WCA has also posted on their official website in response to some of these developments.

These posts share a desire to defend the intent of the WCA, stating that its purpose is to maintain current Methodist teaching while renewing it with some of the best of the practices that got us started in the first place. There is a strong, consistent effort to say, “We’re not working towards division, we want to gather, covenant, and labor with others who want to be faithful and are working with a similar definition of fidelity.”

Nevertheless, there is a powerful sense that something new and different is happening. Bob Kaylor says that his conference and jurisdiction chose the “nuclear option, rendering moot the work of the commission” by electing Karen Oliveto to the office of bishop.  He likewise quotes Billy Abraham, who argues that the stated goals of the Bishop’s commission to (a) revise the disciplinary language concerning human sexuality and (b) maintain the unity are at odds with one another.  Shane Bishop says, “the storm is not going to pass. I am jumping right.”

The official channels of the WCA are reiterating that they have no intentions to divide the church. Meanwhile, one of their primary leaders denies that there is any discernible way forward for our denomination while others use terms like “nuclear options” and “storms” to describe our current state.  This may seem at first like double-speak, but there is more going on.

There is a tension between the WCA’s desire for unity, that’s no secret. But the nature of that tension has yet to be clearly named.

Those attracted to the WCA are ready for doctrine and discipleship to be the primary foundation of their covenantal community.  (For a powerful articulation of this idea, see Carolyn Moore’s post this week in which Carolyn Moore shares Don Haynes’s thoughts on emphasizing “doctrine and discipline.”) These are the things which they can adamantly affirm about the UMC and its Discipline.

The fact of the matter, however, is that the foundation of UMC unity is not doctrine and discipline, but on property and process. We have standards for belief and behavior, but they are functionally insignificant when viewed in light of our policies and procedures.

Bill Arnold states the case quite bluntly:

“The accountability of our polity is broken.”

The brokenness of our polity is the best tenable explanation for the existence of the WCA.  Why else would anyone form a group to maintain the teachings and standards of an institution that they are already a part of?  Jack Harnish is right that the catalyst for the WCA is the issue of same-sex practice. But the WCA hopes to be much more than a one issue community; it desires to be a source of renewal for the people called Methodists.

Even as the WCA emphasizes its alignment with UM doctrine and practice, it needs to honestly assess whether it cannot affirm UM polity in its current iteration. Broken polity should not be affirmed, it should be repaired. The tension about division emerges when one considers whether our polity is beyond repair, and what members of the WCA might do if such corrections cannot be implemented.

The reality for  traditionalists[1] is that affirming the central teachings of the UMC and following the rules no longer assures one that they will be “at home” in the UMC. The General conference speaks for the whole church. But what we say at General Conference and what we do as jurisdictional and annual conferences, are no longer in accord.

Traditionalists have had the votes. They’ve successfully maintained disciplinary language about sexuality quadrennium after quadrennium. They’ve won elections for any number of boards, agencies, and councils. Our standards are clear, but there is no means of accountability.  In terms of polity, The Book of Discipline is not a friend to traditionalists. As long as due process is followed, there is no way to question the judgement of the conference.  Our polity has proven incapable of ensuring fidelity to the standards established by the General Conference. That means we don’t have standards; we have guidelines or suggestions.

At this point, we’re experiencing multiple systems failure: boards of ordained ministry, annual conferences, and the Western Jurisdiction have all disregarded standards set forth in The Book of Discipline. And that is possible because the standards are subordinate to the discernment of those groups.

This applies not only to standards related to sexuality, but all standards of discipline and doctrine.

Our polity puts us into silos of annual conferences and jurisdictional conferences.  And if an entire conference goes astray, we are learning that there is no means for the general church to correct the course. Annual conferences own the property and are responsible for maintaining clergy ministry standards. When they choose to interpret those standards loosely (or disregard them entirely) in matters of ordination, investigating charges, or seeking a “just resolution,” nothing can be done.[2] Representatives of the conference can decide nearly whatever they please, so long as they follow due process.  Similar things are true for bishops and jurisdictional conferences.

The Judicial Council’s hands are tied, rendering them unable to rectify the problem because it is the prerogative of the annual conference to interpret the standards set forth by General Conference. While traditionalists assert that such ordinations are against the discipline, the Judicial Council has repeatedly directed their attention to questions of due process instead of investigating the faithful application of standards. They have rightly refused to insert themselves into the processes of discernment that are explicitly given to other groups by the General Conference.

Efforts such as the one to establish minimum penalties for performing same sex weddings at GC2016 would have proven to be merely a Band-Aid for our deeper issues of polity.

There is no mechanism by which any body (individual or corporate) in the United Methodist Church can say authoritatively regarding essential teaching and doctrine[3]: That conference is no longer aligned with our theology. Their actions are not representative of what we believe. They have wandered too far afield. Their teachings are heretical. They are not United Methodist.

 

The issue is no longer only about unfaithful individuals or conferences, it is about the viability of the entire connection. And solutions cannot be directed only towards contingency planning for disobedience related to same-sex marriages.

The WCA is seen as a threat to the unity of the UMC because it is a gathering of people who are deeply dissatisfied with our polity.  Traditionalists have pursued and effectively utilized every avenue available to them to establish and maintain standards for ministry. And they still don’t feel at home in their own denomination.  Therefore, they are creating a group that shares the values that the UMC says it has, but cannot ensure.

In this way, Kevin Watson is correct when he says, “The United Methodist Church is not who it says it is.”

If the WCA wants its witness to be coherent, if it wants its efforts to be successful, it must recognize our broken polity and find a way to articulate clear solutions. And it must not get distracted by efforts to maintain its “support of the Discipline,” because the unity currently provided by the Discipline is founded upon property, policies, procedures and pensions, not doctrine and discipleship.

It has proven easy, however, to revert to this cliché of supporting the discipline. Even Bill Arnold, upon declaring our polity broken midway through his article, concludes the same piece by saying, “Through the WCA, I commit myself to uphold and maintain the governance and polity of The United Methodist Church.”

If our polity is broken, no one should not want to maintain it. And if a formal, institutional schism occurs, those who end up chartering new denominations would be wise to avoid codifying the same problems a second time around.

The WCA is gaining steam because our polity is broken. Our doctrine is sound. Our standards for ministry are clearly established.  While we can set and maintain standards for due process, we have proven incapable of doing the same for standards of faithfulness.  That failure dilutes our identity and corrodes our connection, leaving faithful Methodists craving a covenantal community of like-minded people.

There are two logical solutions for our current predicament.

We can alter our language so that we are what we say. We can embrace and acknowledge that we are functionally a confederation of conferences that unite to support our boards and agencies while maintaining local standards of theology and ethics.

Or, we can become who we say we are: we can establish and utilize mechanisms for accountability across the silos of our connection.  The latter would be hard work; it would be an uphill battle of constitutional amendments.

Traditionalists have remained intent on condemning progressives’ actions that ignore the Book of Discipline. In an attempt to avoid being hypocrites, they’ve tried to unequivocally affirm their allegiance to The Book of Discipline. It’s time, however, to make the case that The Book of Discipline is wrong. Discipleship and doctrine should be more constitutive of our identity than property and procedures.

Our polity is broken, and it needs to be mended rather than affirmed.

____________

[1] I use this term as a simple gloss for “those who believe that sex is never faithful outside of the context of heterosexual marriage.” I use this term because there are some who would self-identify as “orthodox” or “evangelical” who have different understandings of sexual practice (e.g., Jack Harnish), and because “conservative” is decidedly imprecise.  “Traditionalist” isn’t perfect either, but we must choose a word to communicate the idea.  If you have recommendations for another, I’d be happy to hear it.

[2] For more on Just Resolutions, see Drew McIntyre’s piece “Just Resolution,” or Just Bullshit.

[3] We also have not, to this point, had a satisfactory conversation about whether or not (dis)approval of same-sex marriage should/shouldn’t be determinative for orthodoxy, an essential of United Methodism. There’s no way to say if it would be adequate reason for something as extreme excommunication.

This post was written by Chad Bowen, the pastor of the Shannon Brewer Charge in the MS Conference.  You can reach him directly on Twitter @chad_bowen.