Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
May 20th, 2015 by Joel Watts

Church Unity according to #UMC Doctrinal Standards

Introduction

Our Lord Jesus Christ

Our Lord Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Church unity” seems to be the topic of the day.1

Dr. David Watson, Academic Dean, NT scholar, and all around nice guy, has written something almost prophetically, given the Connectional Table propaganda earlier this week. Drew has said something as well. Scott F. has a piece and so does Chris T. Chad Holtz has something as well. I have little doubt others will chime in. This will be my answer — one of several, perhaps.

Let me begin with a Tweet from the Connectional table:

In a sense, the Connectional Table is correct. We need to understand a few things before we can approach the nature of Church unity. What is the mission? What drives unity? What is our identity?

Let me first turn to Dr. Watson’s post.

Watson has noted the usual claim against  Good News Magazine. Many claim they are schismatics. He disagrees with this assessment.

I disagree with him on this point, as I have said before.

They are.

So is Randy Mickler and other conservatives. On the other hand, the vileness from the extreme left is equally schismatic, but in a different — dare I say, more vile manner?2

It makes little sense for the dominant position in the United Methodist Church to simply pull away because they keep winning votes. While I do not appreciate some of the tactics by the extreme right, I nevertheless believe that some form of schism may soon be necessary — and as odd as this sounds, may be necessary to preserve Church unity.

There is something else at play here and I believe the orthodox in the UMC have caught on before their PCUSA brethren did. I would rather fight for inclusion from within an orthodox denomination than for orthodoxy within a progressive denomination.

But, that is not the topic of this post. Rather, as with Watson, I want to address Church unity. Believe it or not, Church unity is not dependent upon the view of inclusion. I have addressed Church unity before, several times, but this time I want to address what Church unity is via our doctrinal standards.

Scripture 

I appeal to you, my friends, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: agree among yourselves, and avoid divisions; let there be complete unity of mind and thought. — 1 Co. 1.10

Children, this is the last hour! You were told that an antichrist was to come. Well, many antichrists have already appeared, proof to us that this is indeed the last hour. They left our ranks, but never really belonged to us; if they had, they would have stayed with us. They left so that it might be clear that none of them belong to us. — 2 John 2.18–19

As a note, “antichrist” is one who denies the Son has come in the flesh. In a larger sense, it is one who denies “faith once delivered.” It is not a singular person, but a thought system. Note as well, the system of unity mentioned in St. Paul’s letter includes a thought system as well.

Schism is not found in practice, but in thought. Unity begins and ends with the thought:

If then our common life in Christ yields anything to stir the heart, any consolation of love, any participation in the Spirit, any warmth of affection or compassion, fill up my cup of happiness by thinking and feeling alike, with the same love for one another and a common attitude of mind. – Philippians 2.1–2

Our common practice comes from our common thinking. This, by the way, is far from groupthink, but is found in our shared understanding of who Christ is.

Be humble always and gentle, and patient too, putting up with one another’s failings in the spirit of love. Spare no effort to make fast with bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives. There is one body and one Spirit, just as there is one hope held out in God’s call to you; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4.2–6

Further, as history as shown, it (and by now, I mean unity in orthodoxy) does not prevent questioning but rather encourages it so that we may grow together — growing from the same ground of the faith which is that Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God, has come, died, and was raised for our sins, as it were.

I would encourage you to read all of Ephesians 4 and understand there what the author means by Church (and, better, Christian) unity. What is mentioned in this chapter is an argument for the need of doctrinal unity (orthodoxy) and only then the daily life (praxy) of the Christian.

Is the United Methodist Church unified according to Scripture?

Sermons

A particular Church may, therefore, consist of any number of members, whether two or three, or two or three millions. But still, whether they be larger or smaller, the same idea is to be preserved. They are one body, and have one Spirit, one Lord, one hope, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…

….But the definition of a Church, laid down in the Article, includes not only this, but much more, by that remarkable addition: “In which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly administered.” According to this definition, those congregations in which the pure Word of God (a strong expression) is not preached are no parts either of the Church of England, or the Church catholic; as neither are those in which the sacraments are not duly administered.— Sermon 74

In point 19 of Sermon 74, however, Wesley says he could bear most things, even receiving people from error-filled congregations into the Church of England. However, in his sermon On Schism, he says that he can bear most things, except if he was forced to do something against his conscience. And in another place, he speaks about avoiding thoughts and doctrines that strike at the root of Christianity. Finally, from the same sermon:

If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers, no man that is not a Christian believer can be a member of it. If this whole body be animated by one spirit, and endued with one faith, and one hope of their calling; then he who has not that spirit, and faith, and hope, is no member of this body.

Thus, we must understand what Wesley means. He has no problem with the Catholic Church because they are still in a real sense Christian. But, as we know he does have problems with those who deny the grace of God (Calvinists) and the Trinity (Socinians).

I would grandly submit to you Sermon 75, On Schism. You can read it at that link. I will post several pointed quotes.

Well might our blessed Lord say, “Woe unto the world because of offenses:” Yet, “it must needs be, that offenses will come:” Yea, abundance of them will of necessity arise when a breach of this sort is made in any religious community; while they that leave it endeavour to justify themselves, by censuring those they separate from; and these on the other hand retort the charge, and strive to lay the blame on them….

In like manner, if I could not continue united to any smaller society, Church, or body of Christians, without committing sin, without lying and hypocrisy, without preaching to others doctrines which I did not myself believe, I should be under an absolute necessity of separating from that society….

Do not rashly tear asunder the sacred ties which unite you to any Christian society. This indeed is not of so much consequence to you who are only a nominal Christian. For you are not now vitally united to any of the members of Christ. Though you are called a Christian, you are not really a member of any Christian Church. But if you are a living member, if you live the life that is hid with Christ in God, then take care how you tend the body of Christ by separating from your brethren…

I will offer you my interpretation, to which you can disagree. Wesley avoids schism like the plague. If the church is remotely Christian, then stay and fight unless they force you to violate the Gospel (at which point, Wesley would say they aren’t Christian). Indeed, in another place he recommends Church of England Methodists to continue to obey the rules of the Church of England!

Like Wesley, I detest schism. I say this while sitting in a denomination that is separated from the Church of England which is separated from Rome. My personal goal is Church unity and more. While I think Good News and others may be on to something, the time is not now. As long as the Creeds remain, and they do, schism unnecessary.

Is the United Methodist Church unified according to Wesley’s Sermons?

New Testament Explanatory Notes

1. Co 1.13. Is Christ divided?—Are not all his members still under one head? Was not he alone crucified for you all? And were ye not all baptized in his name? The glory of Christ then is not to be divided between him and his servants: neither is the unity of the body to be torn asunder, seeing Christ is one still.

Phil. 2.2. Think the same thing—Seeing Christ is your common head: having the same love—To God, your common Father: being of one soul—Animated with the same affections and tempers, as ye have all drunk into one spirit; of one mind—Tenderly rejoicing and grieving together.

Is the United Methodist Church unified according to Wesley’s New Testament Notes?

Articles and Confessions

Articles:

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.

Confession:

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.

Notice what the Article gives as descriptors: Faithful, duly, necessary. The Confession is better. “True believers” and quotes the Nicene Creed. Discipline. Worship. Edification. Redemption. Lordship of Christ. These are all descriptors of an orthodox view of Christ, the Church, and the mission of the Church.

Is the United Methodist Church unified according to the Articles of Religion and Confessions of Faith?

Conclusion:

Christian unity can be formulated upon a few things, namely the Creeds. Church unity can be formulated upon a few more things, namely shared doctrine, shared mission, and shared identity.

When surveying the United Methodist Church, one can see that we do not have a shared doctrine. While many of us participate in local social justice (feeding the poor, etc…), we do not have the shared mission of preaching the Gospel for the redemption of the world (i.e., sin). And as far as shared identity? Some are orthodox. Many are heterodox. But there are plenty that are heretical.

Do we love the same? No.

Do we think the same? No.

If our mission is to make disciples but discipleship is viewed as political activistism by the left (and sometimes by the right) is that really the same as the view from orthodox and evangelicals? If our goal is redemption of the world, does this happen through political means or through preaching the Gospel by which we preach repentance from sin and the transformation of lives?

I am attempting to refrain from making glaring judgment calls, but I have to ask… In what way can we remain united if those of one opinion view those who do not share that opinion as enemies? In what way are we united if, indeed, we have two different Christs? If we have two different Christs, do we not then have two different heads and if two different heads then two different bodies? If two different bodies then we are divided.

  1. I am using the phrase “church unity” rather than “Christian unity” for a reason. Even Catholics usually admit we have Christian unity because of the creeds. The Orthodox Church in America does the same. Rather, I want to focus on “Church” and use it loosely for the denomination. Do not mistake my words here. I can say “you are not a Christian” or “you are not a methodist” and still not talk about your salvation. Church unity, while a form of Christian unity, can be better understood to be a segment of the overarching goal. There is the Church universal, but so too the Church of England, the Lutherans, and the so on.
  2. Simply fighting for inclusion is not schismatic. Breaking the Book of Discipline and denying the Creeds while encouraging others and all the while calling those who oppose inclusion based on nearly 2000 years of moral teaching enemies and worse is.
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

16 Responses to “Church Unity according to #UMC Doctrinal Standards”
  1. You referenced a link to Pope Francis. I think his quote is worth repeating:
    Pope Francis

    “Commitment to ecumenism responds to the prayer of the Lord Jesus that ‘they may all be one’ (Jn17:21). The credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize ‘the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’ We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face. Trusting others is an art and peace is an art. Jesus told us: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Mt 5:9). In taking up this task, also among ourselves, we fulfil the ancient prophecy: ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares’ (Is 2:4)” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 244).

    Unity can be viewed on a micro level (Methodists), or on a macro level (Christians worldwide), which is what the Pope is talking about.

    Micro level unity is rather trivial, unless a person is wrapped up in the bureaucracy of the Methodist church (clergy, conferences, writing proposals for changes in this Book of Discipline – all things bureaucracy, not beautiful).

    The Pope is talking about macro unity. If micro unity is my priority, and following the creeds word-for-word literally is also my priority, UMC micro unity already deviated from the original creeds and Catholic unity. I must become a Catholic. It was the original Catholic unity that all the church fathers, like Iraneaus, would talk about, and created the creeds to propagate.

    So welcome to Catholicism.

  2. As things stand now, the position of a bare majority that conducting same sex weddings should be a chargeable offense is treated as MORE important than the Doctrinal Standards. That’s “messed up.”

    • Scott Fritzsche says

      There we agree! It was bound to happen eventually lol. I think that the large issue facing the UMC is our doctrinal standards and the blatent ignoring of them and that until that is dealt with, no honest and lasting solution to much of anything else is possible.

      • Whereas a trial on performing a same sex marriage is (relatively) easy (Did you perform one or did you not?), any sort of inquiry on teaching in violation of the doctrinal standards would be quite difficult, as those standards DO permit multiple interpretations.

        • There are multiple interpretations — expect when it comes to certain things. For instance, when one denies that Jesus is God and that he died for our sins, he denies the whole host of doctrinal standards.

          • I’m pretty sure a seminary trained Elder could interpret both those statements in a way that would convince a clergy jury that he/she had not denied either, but which might sound an awful lot like he/she had to you.

          • Jon, you’ve followed the convo on New Meth. Do you think there is any real room to suggest Roger does not in fact deny the doctrinal standards?

          • Had his ordination paperwork come before the Mississippi Conference BOOM and had he maintained the positions he does now, he likely would not have been ordained. Were he currently a member of the MS Conference and someone were to file a complaint with Bishop Swanson, the complaint could well be sustained. How the Rocky Mountain AC and Bishop Stanovsky might respond may be of interest to me, but is not my responsibility under the BOD.

  3. I’ve been a United Methodist pastor for 29 years. We have never had a Church Trial in the Mississippi Conference in that time.(Thanks be to God) When someone has “Withdrawn under complaints or charges” or “Surrendered his credentials” (they’ve always been “hims”) the most common cause has been sexual contact with a woman not the pastor’s wife. On two occasions it was taking money that didn’t belong to the pastor. We may vet the person doctrinally and theologically during the ordination process, but we haven’t lost anyone to complaints about teaching contrary to the Doctrine of the United Methodist Church. That’s just not who we are.

  4. Thanks for another thought-provoking post Joel. I understand your beef with those who disbelieve or waffle on the creeds. But I hope you do understand that the majority of those working towards SSM in the UMC actually share the creeds as foundational to their Christian faith. So why conflate these two points?

    But I’ve a tougher question for you if you’ll allow a hypothetical that you and I are loathe to assume (yet I read here you think it may come to that). Suppose there is a split in the UMC along the lines of orthodox creedal belief with a motivating subtext of different opinion about SSM. Suppose you do go with creedally oriented side and, enjoying the orthodox fellowship, you nonetheless feel called to fight for inclusion. My question is firstly whether you’d be willing to disobey the Book of Discipline to spur the body to inclusion, or would you obey the BoD’s mandate of discrimination against same-gender couples even knowing it is a failure of the great commission to exclude so many? My question secondarily – but more germane to your post – is how will you regard those fellow orthodox members who do flaut the BoD in the cause of Biblical obedience (meaning specifically officiating at SSM ceremonies) … will you consider them schismatic?

    • Dave, you write,

      But I hope you do understand that the majority of those working towards SSM in the UMC actually share the creeds as foundational to their Christian faith.

      But my experience is that this isn’t true, at least not in the historical sense. I don’t want to cast too big a net here, so I’m trying to refrain from generalizations. My point is simple: those who suppose the 8 points of progressivism is true cannot hold to the creeds.

      To your hypothetical:

      I will not disobey the BoD nor would I stand for a pastor who did. This doesn’t really spur anything, except for the hardening of the hearts.

      I believe those who openly rebel against the vows they made are schismatic. This covers Mt. Bethel and Schaeffer equally. Only one of those, however, deny the creeds.

      • Do you have information about Schaefer’so position on the creeds I don’t have? My impression is that he was pretty conservative until he found out he had gay children. I have no information that that changed his doctrinal convictions.

        • he said he identified as theological liberal, even before his sons came out. I hate that this is from Brown, but the whole of the interview is important: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qNlsqNZFavA

          BTW, to be clear, I am not saying someone cannot be a CHristian who is not creedal – only that he or she cannot be an orthodox Christian. Further, I am not confusing Christianity with salvation.

          • A “theological liberal” is not necessarily someone who affirms all eight of the Roger Wolsey’s points. In fact, I don’t know anyone other than Roger who does. My sister is UCC clergy, serving a church in Palo Alto, CA and SHE doesn’t affirm those points.

          • By and large, the “theological liberals” (however defined) have supported LGBT inclusion for decades. The big news is that self-described evangelicals like Tony Campolo, Jim Wallis, David Gushee and Steve Harper are coming around.

  5. I’ll admit that I’d never heard of “8-point progressivism” until Scott F began posting about it on this shared blog. I’d say the notion of adhering to those 8-points as some ticket of admission into progressive circles is not generally talked about. I think some progressives accept the historic creeds, some reject key parts and yet others have found their own accepting view in a way would be too loose for your taste maybe.

    I’ll wager that I’ve attended more gay weddings and known more UMC pastors who’ve officiated such affairs than most UMCers. And I’ve known many more who feel they should and yet feel bound by BoD not to do it. And I’ve never heard one of them argue against the historic creeds. That’s just my experience. I do accept your experience and news reading is valid too. I guess they have a range of opinions on the creeds.

    Every gay-affirming pastor I’ve asked about same sex marriage makes a Bible-based and theologically sound case for it. The evangelicals within the affirming camp make the case somewhat differently from the progressives. There are those you’d consider creedally orthodox in both camps. I’ll assume there is a subset of the progressives, though, whom you’d find creedally deficient.

    Opinion polling tells us that Methodists in America favor legalized same-sex marriage 51-40%. Of that 51%, most are “mainline-but-not-evangelical” and a subset of those are progressives. But a significant number of the 51% are evangelicals. The reverse is true for the 40%. Roughly equal numbers of evangelicals support SSM as as there are mainliners who oppose SSM (roughly 12-13% of UMC in each case – my calculations based on data from PRRI).

    Sorry for the long comment and slowly coming to the point. My point is denominational unity is threatened over differing views on homosexuality, same sex marriage and proper order with respect to ecclesial obedience and change advocacy. For longer than you and I have been in the debate, some have argued mainline denominations including ours are really split over theology and orthodoxy. Yet each recent split has been triggered specifically over homosexuality or heterosexism.

    If UMC splits — either over theology generally or over a very specific definition of orthodoxy — the remaining sides will include both supporters and opponents of same sex marriage.

    I agree with you on creeds as a basis in Christian unity and furthers with Wesleyan heritage and BoD as further basis for denominational unity. But I also appreciate those calling for spacious orthodoxy that highlights agreement without too rigorously policing every doctrinal sticking point. I appreciate leaders skilled at lifting up common ground where we UMCers can unite in common mission and disciple-making.

    I appreciate our point of agreement on the principle of LGBTQ inclusion. And further I appreciate your articulation of othodoxy and LGBTQ inclusion (and SSM) as being compatible. I note we strongly disagree on the RMN campaign of Biblical Obedience which encouages pastors to officiate gay weddings. But even to that last point, I respect your position and your reasons for it.

    Thank you for the stimulating conversation.

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