Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
May 3rd, 2016 by Joel Watts

Leave or Litmus

There is a common charge leveled at the orthodox/creedal, that somehow we want to have a litmus test. Indeed, my recent petition evoked conspiracy theories of a Southern-Baptist-like takeover of The United Methodist Church. On the flipside of this Weimar Republic mark, there is the refrain that if The UMC was to become affirming, there would never be a litmus test employed against conservatives nor any attempt to winnow out evangelicals. Indeed, the conservatives are told, they would even have ways to avoid having to perform gay marriages or have ordained gay clergy in their congregations. No violation of conscience would occur.

proposed new logo for umcTo be fair, the vows for membership and vows for clergy are in of themselves litmus tests. Answering Wesley’s historic questions as well as vowing, before God, to uphold the Discipline is a sort of litmus test. You simply cannot, or should not, be a minister in The United Methodist Church if you cannot affirm your vows or must hide your real intentions while taking them. But, the orthodox are not insisting on any intellectual assent to the Creed(s) in order to be a member, or even clergy. While Wesleyan doctrine is orthodox, and I would argue creedal, the only affirmation needed is to answer yes to the historic questions as well as to vow to uphold the Book of Discipline — all with the help of God.

From the order for ordination of elders in The United Methodist Book of Worship:

In covenant with other elders, will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and accepting the authority of those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?

I will, with the help of God

When a clergy member is elected to the office of Bishop, they are given signs of the office, including the Book of Discipline. When the Bishop is called to a certain area and installed, there are several key elements to the Liturgy. The covenant notes to the Annual Conference:

A bishop is called to guard the faith, to seek the unity,
and to exercise the discipline of the whole Church;
and to supervise and support the Church’s life, work,
and mission throughout the world.

Later in the same Liturgy, the Bishop is handed his or her signs of office, including the Book of Discipline with the statement,

take this Book of Discipline,
guard the faith, seek the unity,
exercise the discipline of the whole Church,
and supervise the Church’s life, work,
and mission throughout the world.

To which the Bishop says “Amen.”

On the other hand we now have progressives insisting on a different sort of litmus test. The New York Annual Conference is now insisting that their candidates for the episcopal office reject, in part, the Book of Discipline even before they vow to do their duty as Bishops (if elected) which include upholding the Book of Discipline.1

Notice the first two questions:

  1. How do you envision being “a prophetic voice for justice in a suffering and conflicted world?” (BOD Par. 403.1d)
  2. Specifically, how is the requirement of being “a prophetic voice for justice in a suffering and conflicted world in tension with the requirement to “guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine and discipline of the Church” (Par. 403.1), particularly in light of the Church’s current discrimination toward gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transgender people?

As I’ve recently encountered in the New Methodists forum, there is a belief that one cannot be affirming and orthodox. Or, simply stated, progressives now believe one cannot be Christian in the sense understood for nearly 2000 years if you are affirming. This seems to be the new progressive belief and it is enshrined here in the New York Annual Conference. I completely disagree with that sentiment, by the way, and I do not think all affirming Christians believe that.

There are questions asked to prospective clergy and they are historic. But these questions go behind that. Rather, they seek to interpret the key goal of the Bishop as one that ignores the Book of Discipline, and places all other duties beneath this pseudo-prophetic status, a status defined by one view in particular.

Let me note that at certain times in ancient Israel, there were schools of prophets, or prophetic guilds. But, they eventually became a professional status. Jeremiah and Amos both challenged these schools, because the term “prophet” had been co-opted and used to enforce the reign or trend prevalent at the time. No longer did the prophet speak the words of God, but now the prophet was paid to provide ample support for whatever the King (or head prophet) wanted. This notion of “prophetic” is in use today, I fear, with the Church waiting for a real prophet to stand up.

Let me note that the role of prophet was accompanied with poverty. Currently, they make $145,665 and provided a residence. How does this comport with our social creed and principles on poverty, not to mention the biblical witness to prophet

In the CUP/A&W plan, there is the possibility that the conversation could continue. Under the Empire State plan, there is no longer a conversation, but a predisposition that one must break the Book of Discipline, even to the point of refusing to”guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine and discipline of the Church” if necessary. This is the Empire’s litmus test — not if you believe in the Trinity, or the atonement for all, or even if you believe in God — only that one uses their office, even if it is against the rest of the Church, to support one particular view on one particular issue by provocation of the covenant.

Let me be clear. There is no conscientious objector status if the extremists have their way. Indeed, if the litmus test is to force clergy to bend their will or to stand against their understanding of the Gospel (mind you, the same understanding shared by 2000 years worth of Christians), then this would meet the demands of schism by John Wesley who writes,

I will make the case my own: I am now, and have been from my youth, a member and a Minister of the Church of England: And I have no desire, no design to separate from it, till my soul separates from my body. Yet if I was not permitted to remain therein without omitting what God requires me to do, it would then become meet and right, and my bounden duty, to separate from it without delay. To be more particular: I know God has committed to me a dispensation of the gospel; yea, and my own salvation depends upon preaching it: “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” If then I could not remain in the Church without omitting this, without desisting from preaching the gospel I should be under a necessity of separating from it, or losing my own soul. – Sermon 75

Note what is happening in the PCUSA wherein a local option was supposedly exercised. 

  1. Please note, the BoD is representative of the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.
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

7 Responses to “Leave or Litmus”
  1. Know More Than I Should says

    It’s the old battle of lumpers versus splinterers. While conservatives famously nitpick at differences, liberals tend to look for what people have in common.

    • Lawrence Kreh says

      I do not see “progessives’ as being lumpers” in the current divisions in the UMC. “Progressives” are making one issue the defining issue of belief and defiantly using advocacy and defiant actions to divide the church. Indeed too many conservatives as liberals use positions on homosexual practice as a litmus test. It is, as I said elsewhere, the “mouse that roared” whereas orthodoxy is the bigger issue. I am personally open on that one issue but quite alienated at the tactics of progressives in a number of ways:
      1. Representation of geographical and theological diversity on church boards and agencies,
      2. Open defiance of the Discipline with arrogance and and inevitability
      3. Characterization of those who hold to the historic position on sexuality as being homophobic and hate driven.
      This is not a “lumping” mentality.

      • Know More Than I Should says

        Generally, speaking, liberals tend to be more inclusive than are conservatives. This became quite evident half a century ago during the battle of segregation versus integration. Likewise, much the same scenario is currently playing out in the spate of “bathroom bills” around the country. It was also the case with the wedding cake legal food fight.

        • Malinda says

          I didn’t realize that the Democrats during integration were conservatives. Johnson along with the Democats in Congress filibustered the Equal Rights Amendment in Congress before he was forced to sign it as president.

          I also didn’t realize that Bruce Springsteen and other artists who refused to provide their service to the residents of NC were conservatives too. They are excluding certain people.

          And finally those who support the “bathroom bill” are excluding many of us who aren’t comfortable having a person with male DNA in the same bathroom as us. In fact I can guarantee that there is more exclusion now than before considering the transgender population is less than 1%.

          • Know More Than I Should says

            In fact, many Democrats during the legislative battle over integration were diehard conservatives.

            However, Johnson was not forced to sign civil rights legislation. Instead, having been a Senator, he knew how Congress worked. Consequently, he was able to navigate around Southern Democratic congressional opposition.

            It was only AFTER the Johnson presidency that the Democratic Party became LIBERAL. At the same time, conservatives fleeing the Democratic Party turned the Republican Party into the bastion of quasi-fascism that is today.

  2. George Plasterer says

    Thank you for the comments. You are probably too young for this, but there was a time when progressive/liberal meant moral relativism. Today, it means dogmatism. It means the superficial unity of forcing or shaming people into silence. The progressive has become has become morally absolutist.

    • Know More Than I Should says

      Since the Progressive Era was a late 19th and early 20th century cultural phenomenon, it is also equally unlikely that you remember it either. Moreover, it was certainly more diverse than moral relativism!

      Meanwhile, calling liberals dogmatic is little more than presuppositional reversalism.

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