More United Than We Think: A Friendly Reply to Confessing Movement

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Perusing on Facebook–Confessing Movement UMC

This morning, I opened my Facebook app, as I am prone to do roughly 18,000 times per day. I discovered an article from a leading voice in the Confessing Movement of the UMC that several Facebook friends shared. Here it is: http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Happenings-Around-the-Church-8-11-16.html?soid=1101870871517&aid=pj9VxPJ3xwc

Sympathetic to Confessing Movement’s Concerns

I agree with Dr. Case’s understanding of the gospel, and with much of what Good News stands for. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, fully God and fully human, died and rose again for the salvation of the world. Through his death and resurrection, we find forgiveness in him and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, put our faith in him, dying to sin and rising to new and eternal life with him (Matthew 26:28; Mark 1:4; Luke 1:77; John 3:16; Acts 2:32-39; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, 20-21). This new life includes witnessing to Jesus’ love with our words and deeds, in our public and in our private lives (Matthew 28:19-20; James 1:27). With respect to the most contentious issue in the UMC today, I agree with Confessing Movement—and the current UMC Book of Discipline—that the Scriptures describe sexual intimacy as a union reserved for marriage between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24; cf. Matthew 19:4-5; Ephesians 5:31-33).

So I understand Rev. Dr. Case’s perspective, and have similar experiences to the ones he describes. Early in my ministry discernment process, I felt shocked and confused when I discovered that some clergy within “mainline” Protestant denominations did not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ! At other points in my ministry—perhaps even fairly recently—I would see his article, pump my fist in the air with outrage at the UMC’s spiritual and theological malaise, and post his article proudly. Then I would go on with the rest of my day, feeling accomplished.

Unity Exists in the UMC–Core Orthodoxy, Diverse Perspectives

Yet something else happened when I saw his post this morning. I thought two things: (1) as a theologically orthodox, evangelical-leaning, young-ish Methodist pastor, this article doesn’t resonate with my current experiences in ministry with UMC colleagues, and (2) With that core orthodoxy as the source of our unity, we are stronger, long-term, when we seek a diversity of voices within the church.

As to point number one, it is true that some UMC pastors would be a better fit theologically and ideologically in the UCC, or perhaps even the Unitarian Universalist Church. Conversely, it’s also true that a handful of our evangelical colleagues would be a better fit in a Baptist, non-denominational, or Nazarene context. But generally speaking, the colleagues who I know—regardless of political and social ideology—agree on the basics of the faith. As the UMC approaches a fork in the road with respect to its future, we should all find comfort and strength in that unity.

As to point number two, I earned my M.Div. at a UM Senate-approved seminary that many would describe as “liberal” or “progressive.” While I occasionally struggled with the disagreements I had with some professors and classmates, I valued my time there. I was encouraged by the core orthodoxy taught by the vast majority of professors, and had time to reflect anew on the importance of social witness and action as a part of faithfulness to Christ (Matthew 25:31-40). I was challenged by professors with experiences in evangelizing impoverished, non-Anglo communities as to how I can learn from and speak to the truth of the gospel in contexts that vastly differ from my white, middle-class upbringing. My faith and ideas were challenged, but ultimately strengthened and improved, by exposure to ideas about the Christian faith that differed from my own.

Realistically Hoping for Unity Amidst Division and Diversity

Last month, I wrote a post on this blog about possibilities if the UMC were to divide or dissolve. I also wrote that I hope the UMC can stay united. I reiterate and emphasize that hope now, in the face of the conflict and division described by Rev. Dr. Case in his article for the Confessing Movement. I believe that the vast majority of Methodists—even Methodist clergy—are united about the core of our faith, the need to believe in and follow our crucified and risen Lord, Jesus Christ. We often disagree about where that path leads us, and I believe we’re going to have to implement some “tough love” and, when we once again settle on a path forward, require and enforce adherence (even while allowing disagreement) to that path. But that doesn’t mean we cannot come together, rooted in our common faith in Christ, while also learning from one another as to how the risen Christ speaks to us and motivates us in unique ways.

I’m sure Rev. Dr. Case hopes for the unity I speak of. Yet I wish I saw that hope in his article. For even in our disagreements, we can live and grow in our faith with one another. The possibilities are before us, rooted in our Wesleyan heritage, which is centered around growing with God together in mutually accountable relationships. As a pastor serving in a context where the UMC is “dying”—the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where the population is 85%+ Hispanic but the UMC is still mostly Anglo—I still have hope for our church. For I believe in a God who raises the dead, who unites us as a church to proclaim and live into our hope in the resurrection, even if we disagree sometimes as to what that precisely looks like in daily life.

Author: Joseph Tognetti

Joe is a California native who graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio, and never left Texas after that. He grew up Roman Catholic, joining the United Methodist Church in April 2009 at the age of 24. He serves as pastor of First UMC-Edcouch & First UMC-Lyford in south Texas. He loves serving God's church, and has a particular passion for small town and/or neighborhood church ministry. He is also trying to learn Spanish to reach the mission field he serves. Joe appreciates the rich history and tradition of the United Methodist Church, particularly the way Methodism combines the best of Anglo-Catholic and pietist-evangelical traditions. Joe was ordained an elder in the Rio Texas Conference in the United Methodist Church in June of 2016. Joe lives with his wife Leigh Ann, a consumer bankruptcy attorney, their one year old daughter Elizabeth, and Joe's mother, who graciously looks after Elizabeth during the work day, in Lyford, TX.

14 thoughts on “More United Than We Think: A Friendly Reply to Confessing Movement”

  1. From Case, “Progressives have a new gospel, inclusivism, which, when taken to its logical conclusion, leads to the blurring of all distinctions. There is no distinction between the saved and the lost or between believers and non-believers. In the more extreme forms of “inclusivism” there is no judgment and no hell.”

    Not our job.

    1st, Gospel is “Good News”, not “Bad News”. So Gospel is potential, opportunity, news.

    2nd, “distinction between the saved and the lost”, and distinction between “believers and non-believers”, is not our job. So it has nothing to do with our job of spreading the gospel. Spreading the gospel doesn’t include the bad news of, follow our doctrine and BoD, or you are in the “lost and non-believers” category.

    It would be interesting to know if Dr Case considers the Unitarians and the vast majority of Catholics in your small Texas town as either “lost”, “non-believers”, or just a different denomination. Or if the UMC progressives are “lost”. Not our job. God’s job. Part of unity is accepting people that may disagree. Just spread the good news, not the bad. Everything else will take care of itself. Otherwise you are exceeding your authority.

    1. Gary,

      I appreciate what I sense is the thrust of your comment. Too often we “help” God do His (unique) work of determining the saved and the lost. There is but one Judge (James 4:12) and He is quite capable of making those determinations without my help (1 Cor 5:12). My general daily practice is to begin the day listening to Good News via some time in the Text/reflection/prayer, then proceed to the Bad News by watching one of the major network morning news shows. There is a significant difference!

      But perhaps a caution is also in order. Paul has no hesitancy in ‘classifying’ two distinct groups: believers and non-believers (1 Cor 14:22) or those inside or outside the church (1 Cor 5:12 again). That translates into a saved-lost dichotomy–either ‘in Christ’ or ‘outside of Christ,’that is, those who have no hope (Eph 1:3; 2:11-13), assuming in general terms the body of Christ is composed of the saved . Paul (or his fellow apostle Peter) also had no qualms calling out those who disrupted unity in the church or were teaching something other than the gospel (Gal 1:6-9; 2 Peter 2). Perhaps if we don’t like the term ‘judging,’ then maybe ‘discernment’ would be helpful/acceptable (Matt 7:15-20). Even the “Good News/Gospel” — if properly taught, has an element of addressing the final judgment, which will not be such ‘good news’ for some (Rom 2:16; 1 Pet 4:17-18).

      Certainly our Lord was more ‘inclusive’ than many of his (or even our!) religious contemporaries (Luke 15:1f; Matt 21:31-32), but the Good News of Jn 3:16-17 is also the ‘bad news’ of Jn 3:18-21. (see also 2 Cor 2:15-16) As you said, we proclaim, and let those who hear make the decisions that affect their eternal destiny. But there is an eternal destiny.

      1. I am not necessarily disagreeing with you. I will go so far as saying I do agree with you. However…

        A few things jump out at me:

        “Paul has no hesitancy in ‘classifying’ two distinct groups: believers and non-believers (1 Cor 14:22) or those inside or outside the church (1 Cor 5:12 again).”

        So, the “order” of hearing the good news matters? Instead of hitting a Gentile with John 3:16-17 from the start, if Paul hit the Gentile with John 3:18-21 at the beginning, Paul would get kicked out of the Gentile’s home! Not a good way of converting the Gentile to Christianity.

        I reflect on the Mormon Missionaries tactic of presenting milk toast lessons to potential converts. Especially to cite “Families are forever, marriage for eternity”, to people that have recent deaths in the family, to suck them into Mormonism while they are in a desperate mindset.
        The weird theology comes out after they join up.

        Seems rather dishonest.

        Another point –
        Gal 1:6-9 and Matt 7:15-20 seem to be rather directed to various Gnostics floating around at the time. We can stretch it to things like Mormonism, but I really don’t think we can relate that to social changes in our current society. Or, from my standpoint, UMC progressives, which I think is what Case is hinting around at.

        But, as I said, I don’t disagree with you. But I take a lot of this with a grain of salt – don’t want to lose our saltiness.

  2. Speaking from the pew: what you are not taking into consideration is whether or not the person in the pew is receiving a clear teaching of the core doctrine of Christianity and the answer is no, at least not in any consistent way I am a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist; I can claim a multi-generational Methodist heritage including my mother who was a Methodist Director of Christian Education and a United Methodist Diaconal Ministers; her brother and her father who were both ordained elders. I also remember being in elementary school and wondering what was so good about Good Friday when it involved Jesus getting crucified. I also remember spending 20 years as an adult supporting a local UMC to the best of my ability. I can also remember that shortly before my 60th birthday I finally learned what was so absolutely amazing about Good Friday. And the only reason I got there was because I became so lost and confused “doing church”, that when the pedal hit the metal and I really needed my faith to make sense of my life, I distanced myself from all things church and stumbled into the Heidelberg Catechism and three books about it. For the first time in my life I experienced the power and relevancy to my life of the story of God’s creation, our sin and rebellion, and the amazingly unfathomable steps God took to rectify the situation. I had two reactions to the Heidelberg and the books about it: Number 1 was “I wish somebody had taught me these things sooner”. Number 2 was disbelief at the level of comprehensive teaching the rank and file German Christian in the 1600’s received compared to the random dribs and drabs I received. Where the United Methodist Church has gone the most wrong is losing sight of the person in the pew and ensuring they are fully grounded in a robust theology about the triune God of holy love who is most definitely way more verb than noun!

    1. Bingo! Since the mid 60s our concern has been much more with protecting theological diversity of clergy than with providing consistent discipleship of parishioners. A pastor cannot build on what went before because it is doctrinally contrary to his/her perspective. The parishioner can’t add to what went before because it really is unrelated. The result is what you describe as the current state of UM discipleship.

  3. While it is not our job to judge the destiny of a man eternally, it is very much in our wheel house to discern who is and who is not Christian. Christian is a title of sorts, and if it is to have any meaning, then there must be a baseline for the title. Jesus makes some pretty exclusive claims about what the faith is. If you don’t fall into that baseline then you are not Christian. That is not me, or the church judging, that is rather me, or the church, following the teachings and standard laid forth by Jesus. Christianity is inclusive in that all are welcome to accept the grace that God has, and is continually, showering down upon us. It is not inclusive in that you can believe whatever you want and do whatever you want. Yes, there will be disagreements, but that does not negate the reality that there is truth. One of the primary responsibilities of the church is to properly discern and communicate that truth. If the church can not agree about what that truth is, then it can not fulfill it’s function.

  4. Joe, I posted before that I have been fascinated by that Anglo Methodist Church where you now serve. It seems so out of place. I’m still troubled by your mission to evangelize in my old hometown because the historic faith that you would replace is both orthodox and so faithful in service to the poor (Matthew 25).

    I remember flying home from college once on a flight that crash-landed with apparently zero injuries. (The pilot did an amazing job.) Sitting next to me was an Anglo missionary heading to South Texas to start a protestant radio station. His memorable words: “At times like these, it’s good to be ready to go at any time!”

    But, good intentions aside, I’m not sure that his mission was a good one. The oldest, most storied protestant denominations are all failing to uphold Christian marriage. I’m skeptical of the long-term ability of any protestant body to keep the faith. Your post seems to give a protected place in the UMC to the dissenting opinions on marriage — which seems to confirm the basis for my skepticism.

    Sorry if this comes off as unfair. I deeply want the orthodox in the UMC to keep the faith.

    1. Manuel,

      You seem to be under the impression that Methodist clergy like myself would seek to poach active Catholics from nearby churches to grow our congregations. Other Protestant pastors may do this, but I want to assure you that I do not. There are plenty of “fish in the sea,” plenty of unchurched people in virtually every community, for churches to work together to bring people to Christ and have those newly churched (or re-churched) Christians attend the congregation that see feel led by the Spirit to join.

      Much of your comments, this and last time, brings to my mind the theological question of essentials vs. inessentials in the life of the church. What is essential for one to be Christian? For one to be a member of a particular church, etc.? I left the Catholic Church, ultimately, because my personal experience was that the Catholic Church contained so much doctrinal “clutter,” so many mandatory but non-essential beliefs, that it prevented me from having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Of course, many (including some commenters on this post!) have a similar experience with the UMC, and that is tragic. But ultimately, I chose to become a United Methodist because I believe it best reflects the biblical core of Christian faith: faith in the crucified and risen Christ, followed by a Spirit-led drive for personal and social holiness, individually and as the body of Christ. The Methodist tradition has always been ecumenical, and while we obviously think our understanding of doctrine/church life comes closest to God’s intent, we respect and assist other church bodies, for “whoever is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50). With respect to LGBT issues, I think I made my own position–and my support for the UMC’s existing position–clear in this article, and I am, respectfully, confused by your suggestion that I want a “privileged place” for those who dissent. I merely don’t think that otherwise faithful Christians should be pushed out of a church body because their compassion for LGBT people leads them to dissent from church teaching on one particular social issue. If the Catholic Church, let alone the UMC, did that, both of our denominations would be cut in half (or more) in the US! You have to be aware that the Catholic Church has plenty of dissenters in its ranks, some of whom should probably just leave, others who contribute to the body of Christ in plenty of other fruitful ways. Our polity in the UMC simply allows that discussion/argument to be done more transparently–for better or for worse.

      Finally, I serve as pastor at First UMC in Edcouch, and that includes evangelism. But the congregation there knows that, despite the great facility and finances of the church, the current membership will not keep that church open. I only serve there 1/2 time (I serve a UMC congregation in Lyford–which is also mostly Anglo, but is a bit younger and is closer to reflecting the community than the Edcouch congregation). The UMC as a denomination will likely have to provide some form of assistance or outside team to reach the community, perhaps through the existing UMC congregation in Elsa. If/when they do that, they will seek to save lost souls–which does not include poaching active Catholics, to reassure you on that front.

      I hope this answered some of your questions and concerns.

      1. Thank you for your assurances. They are fair, and I appreciate them. I also apologize for any offense I caused you.

        To answer your question and request for clarification, I have no desire to drive out any people from church, regardless of their dissenting opinions. My point is that the dissenting opinions themselves should not receive a protected place. I believe that it is a matter of faithfulness for doctrine to be clear and stable.

        I actually feel this more on the abortion issue than on the marriage issue. Children are dying, disproportionately minority children. The Christian witness for 2000 years has been that children should not be destroyed like this. A Christian church should be faithful to that tradition (or doctrine). I was elated following this summer’s UMC vote on the RCRC. What a breakthrough for orthodoxy on an issue that could not be more essential. It was disappointing to later see UMW bragging about some remaining official UMC statement or other still endorsing access to abortion. I know these things take time. We could definitely use solid, uncompromising witness from the UMC on both Christian marriage and the value of children’s lives.

        If I have not offended you beyond what is forgivable, I’d like to meet you in person next time I visit back home. Your decision to go to the border is amazing.

        1. Manuel,

          Thank you for your comments. I would love to meet with you when you’re in town; grab coffee and trade life stories and theologies.

          I’m on Facebook under Joseph Tognetti. Also on Twitter @joetogs

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