Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
April 28th, 2016 by Joel Watts

with Bishops abandoning the Discipline, are we a church?

With the lead-up to General Conference, we have seen more and more refuse to enforce the Book of Discipline, including a candidate for the episcopal office as well as a retired bishop (See Rev. McIntyre’s post).1 Further, we have seen M. Talbert break his vows, twice, with the most recent time after the so-called just resolution.2 This follows last year’s statements wherein a Bishop loudly bemoaned that his hands were tied. This is frightful for several reasons. First, because I understand what independent empires of control absence a mutually agreed-to document looks like (i.e., conservative fundamentalism). Second, on theological grounds: without discipline, we are not a Church (big-c).

Discipline

How do I get that?

There is this word, ecclesiology, that some focus on. Granted, mine is high but I do not give it the time I would to Christology and Pneumatology or even Soteriology. Some see ecclesiology as a branch of soteriology. For me, ecclesiology is, without subtracting anything from the other branches, the river into which all three other branches flow. Christ is head of the Church; the Spirit dwells in the Church; we (who) are saved (are) in the Church. Our ecclesiology will reflect our views of those other important doctrines.

With reading about the latest abdication of vows, I am beginning to wonder if The United Methodist Church retains what it proclaims — joining Christian Tradition in doing so — that is, the requirements of a Church? There are three marks given in Wesley’s sermons (for instance, see above).3 The same three are recognized in the Articles of Religion and in the Confession of Faith:

(AoR) Article XIII — Of the Church

The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

(CoF) Article V — The Church

We believe the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic. It is the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by men divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world.

Indeed, these three marks are enshrined in our clergy orders, so that the Elder must preach, serve sacrament, and uphold the discipline. The Bishop’s role is expanded, slightly, pass that. The Bishop’s role in The United Methodist Church is specifically,

(B)ishops are authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church. The role and calling forth of the bishop is to exercise oversight and support of the Church in its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The basis of such discipleship of leadership (episkopé) lies in discipline and a disciplined life.

I note that all clergy may be charged with

(d) disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church;

What exists, then, if the Bishops forsake the discipline the majority of the Church has agreed to and charged them to enforce? If there is no discipline, then by right, there can be no sacraments (1 Corinthians 11.17-34). If there is no discipline and no sacraments, can (or, perhaps, is?) the word be(ing) preached (1 Tim 1.5)? We can throw out more verses on why discipline (order/leadership) is necessary to the Church and where that fails, I can include the Church Fathers, the Anglican Divines, and the Reformers with all saying the same thing, that these three things are necessary.

In the Book of Revelation, seven churches get seven letters. In Revelation 2.5, Christ promises to remove the lampstand from Ephesus, with the lampstand representing the Church (Revelation 1.20). This is not about the salvation of the individual, but about removing what it means to be the Church from a group of people. It can — and has — happened.

Indeed, Canterbury would claim that because Rome had erred (Article 19), their faithful must now appoint amongst themselves bishops, else they continue in error. Faithful does not mean, simply, loyalty to the institution. There simply is no “centrist” position available in Christianity.

First of all, the term ‘faithful men’ refers to people who are doctrinally orthodox, not just to people who are loyal members of the institutional church. We are not dealing here with a club full of dedicated supporters, but with a fellowship of those who share the same fundamental beliefs.4

This is what Wesley here means as well (see Sermon 74), in regards to faithful. Indeed, by picking up this Article from the Church of England, Wesley likewise knew that what it was saying in regards to the necessity of the order. Fr. John is deeply Anglican here, so much so that we can turn to Anglican sources to understand the Articles.

The visibility of the Church, and therefore of its unity, is expressed in a number of ways: the public reading of the Scriptures, the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, pastoral care, the exercise of episkope and the practice of conciliarity in church government.5

So, the question remains — by any standard, Patristic or Reformed, if our episcopal leaders continue to ignore our discipline and in many ways, our orthodox doctrine, do we remain a Church?

Let me leave you with this from St. Symeon who believed, as Wesley did (although separated by centuries), that at crucial times, the episkope is not necessarily hierarchically bestowed. It is not dire yet, as we have Bishops who are demonstrating an operational polity (regardless of their personal views), but it would appear not many.

Update:

Rev. Scott Sears, a clergy member to the West Virginia Annual Conference, has responded. Unlike most, Sears brings to the table facts and knowledge. Granted, we may differ on interpretation of data, but this is quite refreshing to see.

I don’t want to respond to every point because there is more to agree here than disagree, but I do want to raise a few general issues.

  • There is the Church Universal and the Church, which is a congregation (or division) of the faithful (See Article 13). Having a poor polity or broken government doesn’t mean that somehow the Church Universal is destroyed. It only means that our Church is tattered. Thinking of the faithful congregation like the Anglican Church or the various Orthodox Churches. They are part of the Church Universal, but in can themselves be removed from the earth.
  • We still disagree about what happened between Fr John and Superintendents Coke and Asbury. But this is good. This means we are working from the same source. I (he) just think(s) he’s (I’m) wrong. I maintain Fr. John appointed Coke and Asbury like one would a class president. Once here, without the jurisdiction of the Anglican Church, they made themselves Bishops. Now, over a beer, we can talk about Fr. John’s ingenious use of wordplay here to skirt breaking Anglican canon law, but in the end, Wesley didn’t break the canon law, choosing instead to have integrity.
  • I do think Christ presides at the Table — which is part of the historic understanding of the Church (i.e., faithful congregation). But, as in Revelation, Jesus can remove Himself from the congregation without removing Himself from the Church Universal. Christology is the starting point, but it does flow into ecclesiology.
  • And I do think that we have an overabundance of information. Let us return to the Nicene Creed – because I believe that a proper understanding of the Incarnation will solve a host of problems. Then we can see the Spirit build our Churches (faithful congregations) as He has done in the past, with one to the Russians, one to the Syrians, one to English, and one to the Americans (hey, that’s us, the People Called Methodist).
  1. Rev. Howell insists he would “uphold” rather than enforce. I don’t want to be accused of talking about him, so I’ve asked him the question on Twitter.
  2. Likewise, there is not an attempt to thwart the just resolution process, by co-opting it and making it a political tool. Sympathetic claimants file the complaint so that the result is controlled. Indeed, this is “upholding” the BoD but has nothing to do with actual enforcement, allowing that the process was completed, at least on paper.
  3. I note that in the same sermon, Fr John uses the same marks but adds another, that of an active work.
  4.  Gerald Bray, The Faith We Confess: An Exposition of the Thirty-Nine Articles (London: The Latimer Trust, 2009), 107.
  5.  Paul Avis, The Anglican Understanding of the Church: An Introduction (Second.; London: SPCK, 2013), 98.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

20 Responses to “with Bishops abandoning the Discipline, are we a church?”
  1. You assume, erroneously, that orthodoxy in all respects is immutable, immune to changes in interpretation.

  2. tchrdavidDavid Barbaree says

    “Discipline” is a multple meaning word. I’m not sure that all the times you referenced it that it means “that book.” Calling someone undisciplined because they take issue with some of the contents of the book seems like a peculiliar linguistic trick.

    • or, perhaps, you didn’t get it.

      • If you elaborate on that I promise I’ll read it slowly and carefully.

        • the “discipline” is better understood as the order/discipline/leadership… or in the historic sense (as rendered by the Lambeth Quad), the episkope historically adapted. The Book of Discipline is the hallmark of that, so while it is a linguistic ploy, the use of “discipline” is expanded (as indicated by / ) to the fullness of it. Bishops are ceasing to function as leaders and shepherds, as designed and demanded by the BoD.

          • “Bishops are ceasing to function as leaders and shepherds”…
            OK, my simplistic view. To be realistic, the “discipline” talked about here, regarding the BoD, has to do with judicial punishment. Suspension, lost pay, whatever. The combination of “leaders”, with judicial function; and “shepherds”, with the effective “calling” of caring for, “first, do no harm”, are in conflict.

            Sorry, but again my simplistic view…
            The BoD appears to be a legalistic document, concerning “discipline”, when it involves lost pay, etc..

            So, the way it is now set up, a bishop has to be both a shepherd, lawyer, and judge. The shepherd analogy can’t be carried out too far. You can’t realistically take care of the sheep, and at the same time shear them for their wool, then slaughter them for lamb chops. Not an enviable job. Maybe they need a band of lawyers to carry out the dirty work. I am sure lawyers would have no problem carrying out the function.

            In the Navy, you have a chaplain for the moral guidance, and a Captain’s Mast, to keel haul them. But a chaplain would never keel haul anyone!

          • But, Gary, we aren’t in the Navy and the Bishops aren’t chaplains. They are supposed to be leaders who preside.

          • I did say, “My simplistic view”.

            And I can’t help but think about the militaristic wing of the Methodists. The Salvation Army. LT’s, Majors, LCol’s, Generals (only one at a time, though), Salvo’s. Makes my head hurt.

            But I should note – I’ve always had a hard time with the shepherd analogy, too. Realistically, shepherds main job is to take care of the sheep, so they can later be either sheared or butchered.

            So, even the leader analogy only goes so far. Supposedly, we only have one leader, Jesus. All the others tend to be troublesome, divergent, quasi-leaders. I can only place myself in their position. You may want to help a person with their problems. You do well, so you get promoted. Process continues. You are so good, you become a bishop. Then you’ve got to whack people, instead of helping them. It seems to defeat the purpose of doing well. You move from helping people to whacking people!

  3. Quite arguably Christ was viewed by the Pharisees as “abandoning the discipline” of their legalistic application of the Law.

  4. Article V refers to the “discipline of the Holy Spirit ” not the BOD. It can be, quite legitimately, that those breaking from the BOD are being faithful to their discernment of the Holy Spirit. A very large segment of the Church is discerning the Holy Spirit in the same way. If it were only a few individuals it might be argued that their discernment is flawed but the number is large and growing by the year. Further, the arguments pertaining to sacraments and preaching are seriously flawed. There have rarely been charges that pastors at the local church level have failed to maintain the integrity of the sacraments. Thus, the existence of the “Church” is by no means in question. Such an argument is inflammatory and does nothing to move us forward.

  5. Scott (aka Table97) says

    Joel, my only comment further is “the People Called United Methodist.” I’m one of those former EUB people. (I was three at time of the union but I lay claim to that as part of my tradition!!) 🙂

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