A response to William Abraham’s “The Rebirth of Methodism” (McCann)


As a layman, I am always humbled by the thoughts of distinguished Methodist scholars like Dr. Abraham. They have insights into the history and polity of the Methodist movement that I cannot hope to share. All I can bring to the table is a lifelong membership in The United Methodist Church, years of observation of how it works (or not) and a sincere desire to continue learning every day.

I read Dr. Abraham’s recent essay on the results of the 2016 General Conference with interest. I have met Dr. Abraham, have heard him speak, and have read a few of his papers. I have one of his books on my table, waiting to bubble up to the top of the stack. I hope that will not take long. What I find confusing is that even though Dr. Abraham holds the Outler chair at Perkins, it seems to be one of his objectives to undo the work of Outler. But that’s for another day.

There are three major themes in the essay that I would like to take issue with: the value of revelation in our deliberations; the financial considerations of a possible schism; and a growing disrespect among Christians for each other.

First, divine revelation. At two places in his essay, Dr. Abraham is dismissive of people who have said that they have experienced divine revelation regarding sexuality issues. These individuals are not casual extremists; one is a Bishop, the other the past President of a widely respected evangelical seminary. (I’ll add that I, too, have had spiritual revelation regarding this topic, but my experience should not carry weight in this discussion.) But then Dr. Abraham goes on to praise conservatives who “reject pluralism in favor of a vision of the church that remains faithful to divine revelation enshrined in scripture and tradition. At bottom they find it well-nigh impossible to live in a church that rejects the truth of revelation.”

One has to wonder which revelation is really the “right” message. And whether one’s viewpoint invalidates another’s revelation. But more importantly, it highlights something that I believe is missing from this discussion – the Will of God.

I know that God has a correct course for us. I am not sure what it is, but I’m certain that if we, as a denomination, truly seek the will of God, he will reveal his message in a way that we will all understand. Perhaps there’s a new way of looking at Scripture. Perhaps we should be asking a different question (a favorite technique of Jesus). Or perhaps the Methodist movement is not blessed by God, and we should reunite with the one of the Catholic bodies.

I don’t know that any of those things are the “right” way. What I am certain of is that we, as a denomination, have not exercised our corporate ability to pray for and discern God’s guidance in this matter. One of the things that the Commission could bring to the table is a period of sincere reflection and prayer, jointly, in an effort to discern the will of God. Does it have to be 40 days and 40 nights in the desert? Probably not. But if we aren’t willing to make that kind of sacrifice, we’ll only be left with human power struggles.

Every time I have proposed such a thing, I’ve gotten shuffling feet and averted eyes in response. Now we have Dr. Abraham, along with many others, saying that a period of prayer is just “kicking the can down the road”. I suggest that we’ve been waiting 2,000 years for Jesus to return. No reason to get impatient about a few months of prayer.

So what is the obstacle? Why do we not want to join in prayer with fellow Christians to try to discern the Will of God?

….

Second, financial considerations. I really dislike having money become a determinant in what should be a matter of theology, but Dr. Abraham brought it forward, so I’ll take it up also.

Somehow, conservatives seem to believe that the money issue is on their side. They are the congregations who can withhold apportionments, and they are the people who will dole out the assets of the UMC. What they don’t seem to realize is that it’s a two-edged sword.

I won’t go into whether conservatives are right or liberals are right, because it makes no difference. What I will say is that any schism in the U.S. Church will be the end of the Global Methodist Church as we know it.
As of right now the U.S. contributes 99% of all UMC funds — and when the new Central Conference apportionments requirements begin, we will still hover around 91% of contributions. Regardless of how any separation plan is enacted, that revenue is going to go down, a lot. Some number of congregations and members will form a new denomination (maybe), will exit to other denominations, or will simply leave Christian life. None of those scenarios are going to provide the funding currently required to support the Global UMC.

So what will happen then? Will jurisdictions outside the U.S. be able to raise their own support? Will they attend General Conference if no funds are available to pay their way? Will they build universities and seminaries with their own resources? These might be imponderable. But in any case, we can see that it’s not going to be the way it is today.

What do we owe our brethren outside the U.S.? We brought them into this fold. Is it our responsibility to keep them there? Will they stay as part of the UMC when we are no longer paying the bills? Do they believe that they get enough from the Connection that they will remain faithful to the UMC? Or will they form their own Wesleyan denomination, or join another existing Wesleyan group? Perhaps we should look at this question seriously before we make a pragmatic decision in the U.S. that will affect the rest of the Methodist world.

……

And finally, disrespect. Dr. Abraham loses no opportunity to slight the liberal wing of the church. I won’t repeat his statements; they’re there for all to read. In his defense, the liberal groups don’t treat the conservatives any better. And EVERYBODY beats up on the Bishops and Centrists.

This has got to stop. The people on the other side of the table are dedicated, prayerful Christian believers. They are dedicated to the same Jesus we all are – the one who says “love God, love your neighbor.” They are not stupid, or intellectual lightweights, or naïve victims of some modern philosophical trend. They are humans who read the same Bible, pray to the same God, and worship the same way that you do.

I propose this test: Before you write something that denigrates the faithfulness or intellectual capacity of your fellow Christian, ask yourself “Will these words be pleasing to God?”. If you can’t answer with a definite “yes”, put down your pen. (or you keyboard or whatever). Probably, that thought doesn’t need to be expressed at all. Or if it is important, find a better way to say it. One that won’t offend the person or offend God.

You have a different point of view. You DON’T have any claim on the True Knowledge of God. We’re all going to have things to answer for at the Pearly Gates. Try to make sure your list is a short as possible.

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26 Replies to “A response to William Abraham’s “The Rebirth of Methodism” (McCann)”

  1. The claim with regard to Outler’s work, as it pertains to the idea of “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral”, is that Outler disavowed his work in championing “the Quad” because of how it would be used by some. I’m not condoning Dr. Abraham (whom I personally saw condemn a UMC bishop as an idiot), but that explains his objections.

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I, too, read Dr. Abraham’s piece, and it reaffirmed my suspicions or expectations. It reaffirms my concern that the beginning of this process the Bishops have set us one needs to be whether or not each person in the representative group can affirm each of the others as a faithful Christian. Dr. Abraham’s position, as I read it, is that one is either a traditionalist, a heretic, or an apostate. Hardly grounds for beginning a process of understanding. It could be a recognition that there is in fact no unity from which to begin a discussion on how to maintain unity.

  3. Joel, I have not read the article by Abraham. I find it difficult to accept a rationale that says “I have a spiritual revelation” that takes one against Jesus on marriage and against the vice/virtue list of Paul, and the household rules segment of the letters. As to the latter, I should say that the NT argues for the transformation of the household. Of course, wives are to submit, but the surprising thing is that husbands are to love the way Christ loved. Of course, slaves are to obey the master, but the surprising thing is that one creator unites master and slave. In any case, such transformations would mean the end of a purely authoritarian approach by the husband or the master and lead to cultivation of the mutuality of the members of the household. In any case, all of this assumes the spiritual analogy of husband/wife. To suggest that a revelation takes you beyond what we have received sounds a bit like what one of the African delegates: you preach a different gospel in America than you brought to Africa. If I understand some of your posts rightly, you claim orthodoxy. I am not sure orthodoxy resides along side revelation that takes you beyond the apostolic witness. An example might be women preachers, which I accept gladly. In the New Testament, I can at least find some conversation about women heading up house churches and women speaking in the churches of the New Testament. I cannot find a discussion about anything other than male/female constituting marriage. Even the trend is away from the polygamy of earlier times to the monogamy of New Testament time. I suppose the entire notion of a revelation that contradicts the expressed theology and moral and spiritual guidance of the apostles and Jesus seems like deserting the gospel (Galatians 1). In any case, I wish you the best, and look forward to the ways you work out such matters.

  4. “I propose this test: Before you write something that denigrates the faithfulness or intellectual capacity of your fellow Christian”
    So the first question is of course what is a Christian…and then probably who is Jesus…etc. etc. etc. Part of what is going on is that there is a sizable majority that is talking about believing in Jesus, but when asked about Him, you get answers well outside of any historic understanding by the church. If, for example, if someone is speaking about their belief in adoptionism, is it denigrating to the faithfulness of my fellow Christian to call them a heretic as that is indeed what they are? What if are following antimonianism, which Wesley called the greatest of all heresies, or are indeed a marcionite? Should we just accept that as faithfulness and move on? I ask because what you wrote sounds good of course, but I need to know what you meant by it before I can support it.

    1. Scott –
      If we use the Nicene or Apostles Creed as our reference point, then Adoptionism is certainly outside what those creeds are talking about. So, no, I wouldn’t consider that person to be a Christian, even if they were a dedicated follower of Christ. (Note that they might still be on a path to salvation, but they just aren’t part of the Christian Church.)

      1. That is an if. What should be our starting point then? Perhaps our articles of religion? The question also needs to be asked, if one is outside the Christian tradition, should their voice be considered in matters of Christianity?

        1. The Christian Tradition has been found wanting in many, many situations. Our traditions should always be under review. Or at least capable of standing up to review.
          If a traditional position is correct in the eyes of God, and is supported by Scripture, then it still needs to withstand the test of advancing civilization. Over time, all civilizations become more humane and more just. If a Christian Tradition is found to be inhumane or unjust, then by all means it should be reviewed, modified, or discarded as appropriate.
          We are called Protestants because we protested against traditional teachings of the Christian Church. We are called Methodists because we improved, through methodical worship, the Anglican Church. We fought slavery because the advancing civilization realized that it was neither necessary nor desirable. We can hope that, at some point, we will have evolved enough to do away with capital punishment and war.
          None of these things, even if they are supported by the Scriptures and tradition, are necessary for a Christian life. We don’t stone adulterers any more.

  5. The Wesleyan Quadrilateral advanced by our distinguished Albert Outler has caught the attention of thinking Christians. We as Protestants do not have a Pope who is supposed to detemine and defend the correct doctrines. We do not have a super structure of of a Supreme Council to legislate the beliefs of a Church which we claim to be the truth by majority vote. We really have the priesthood of all believers with our human limitations. Reponsible theories of knowledge has to deal with the validity of each individual’s experience of rationality, sacred text, holy tradition and experience. Each will be validated by what our faith does to my individual life and the corporate life of the community to which we belong.

    1. That is true, but the man who invented it — Outler — would later recant, because instead of producing thinking Christians as a rule, it produced subjective experiments.

  6. Just out of curiosity, where is this essay found? I’ve searched, and can only find a very old document called “UNITED METHODISTS AT THE END OF THE MAINLINE”. Since this essay is suppose to be about the 2016 conference, I don’t think that is it. Book, Internet article, etc? Hard to argue, if you can’t read the original.

    1. Thanks. Don’t do Facebook. But glad it is elsewhere. Will read it sloooooow. At least the first part anyway. Got to be good to read all of it.

  7. Comparing this to Dr. Abraham’s work defines incompatible belief systems within the not so United Methodist Church. A reliance on Scripture and early church tradition can not tolerate a system that promotes personal revelation as primary. This won’t be bridged by delay tactics promoted by bishops who have already lost theological, administrative and financial credibility. Unity and financial considerations are just
    false idols. The chasm is finally expanded to the breaking point when disagreement is interpreted as hatred, attacks, etc. comparing the writings? We are already split- let’s at least be honest and get on with it.

  8. This response to Dr. Abraham’s editorial disturbs me tremendously, but I’ll only comment on the first point the author makes. Although I read his blog to the end, it troubles me greatly that this author has no regard at all for the authority of Holy Scriptures. The Bible is clear on all these issues, the practice of a LGBTQI lifestyle is absolutely, unequivocally “incompatible with Christian teachings.” There is NO NEW REVELATION that will ever contradict what the Holy Spirit has already INSPIRED in His WRITTEN WORD. Anybody who says they have had a “New Revelation from God” concerning these issues are simply FALSE PROPHETS who follow the corrupt, politically correct, progressive, gay agendas of today. They are listening to humanistic teachings and not to the Holy Spirit at all. There is NEVER any new Revelation that contradicts Holy Scriptures.

  9. Thank you Tom McCann for both sharing your thoughts and doing so in a straightforward manner.

    I agree that we Christians should be seeking God’s will, as a group, through prayer, fasting, etc. I can understand getting uncomfortable reactions to the suggestion that we should seek God as a church–gasp!

    However, I do not think that this definitively solves the issue at hand. Why should we expect that we, the UMC, seek God’s will; and then, somehow, God would make His will known on how to proceed; and we would all go home united and satisfied? No matter how clearly God makes His will known, there will be the opposing side–there is no avoiding this. Jesus (no need to list His credentials) was constantly attacked, criticized, dismissed, etc.

    Both sides–granted, there are more than two sides–have the Scriptures on their side. Both sides are articulating the will of God. Both sides have had revelations from the Holy Spirit. Both sides have prophetic voices. From this, I don’t think we should conclude that the will of God is missing. On the contrary, His will is probably already at work, and has been articulated, to a greater or lesser extent. Don’t you think God has been at work? Thus, someone is right, and someone is wrong. (It would be odd to deny this.) In the OT, there were prophets preaching doom, and others preaching peace; and yet, God’s will was in the mix.

    1. I’m not sure God’s will is at work. It might be – perhaps I am completely off base here. It wouldn’t be the first time.
      But I think we should recognize that it is quite possible for people to go about their business, in the earnest conviction that they are on the right path, while completely ignoring the will of God.
      I’ll honestly say that I am shocked at the number of people who say “the time for prayer is over. It’s been 44 years.” I never knew there was a time limit on prayer.

      If you had a friend who had a gun to his head, but was willing to continue to engage in prayer with you, when would you say “times up”?

  10. “One has to wonder which revelation is really the “right” message. And whether one’s viewpoint invalidates another’s revelation. But more importantly, it highlights something that I believe is missing from this discussion – the Will of God.”

    One does not really have to wonder. I am kind of surprised to see this kind of subjectivity from you Joel. Personal revelation which *contradicts* the words of Christ, and the exhortations of Paul, and the Law given to Israel simply cannot be true, not if the Bible is any kind of credible witness. (Actually I believe Scripture is revelation, but even taking the moderate line of “record of revelation,” this does not work.) I know that you support “inclusion” but I thought you would at least try to get there by a more circuitous route. I like Abraham’s terminology of “dominical teaching.” Sometimes we lose sight of the fact that we have the actual teaching of Jesus the Son of God on marriage. Are the Gospels faithful witnesses or are they not?

    As for the issue of respect, Scott’s questions get to the heart of it. As for the issue of finances and fraying global ties, you make good points, and it is true none of us know what would really happen if the UMC were to fracture.

  11. William Abraham, I think, is overly optimistic about the “Orthodox Methodist” denomination’s future. That ecological niche is already occupied.

    “The critical wisdom now surfacing is the theological challenge that faces the whole of Christian tradition.  Given the current convulsions in Rome there is no safe place to which to run and hide.”…

    “Some wistfully but rightfully envisage a new global, orthodox Methodist denomination that would begin from within United Methodism and then over the next decades expand by adding other Wesleyan and Methodist ecclesial bodies across the world.  They are convinced that if the initial developments were favorable a host of strong Methodist bodies would be delighted to join together to provide and implement a healthy vision of primitive Christianity.”

    I think it already exists. It’s called the Roman Catholic Church.

    1. Supporting facts: perhaps a Northern Irish case of “Catholic Envy”! 🙂

      “Most of United Methodism outside the United States does not merely represent a significant voting block; it constitutes a vibrant form of living faith and witness that will find a way to flourish with or without its partners in the West.[10] So too do the many thriving United Methodist congregations and networks inside The United Methodist Church. These units could readily form the nucleus of a whole new version of Methodism that I have identified already as a global, orthodox United Methodist denomination. In time this could be expanded to take in through stages the many Methodist churches, say, in Asia and South America that would be keen to join in a larger unit of Methodism. It could also provide a home for smaller Methodist bodies across the world like Cuba or Ireland.”

      As I said, The Roman Catholic Church already occupies this niche.

  12. I too speak from the perspective of a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist: What bothers me most is your comment that we have not sought God’s will in the matter re sexuality. What about the multiple times General Conference has come up with the exact same answer? Check out how the Apostles chose the person to replace Judas: they narrowed the choice down to two and a single roll of the dice settled the matter once and for all. General Conference is the only thing designated to speak for the church; it is our “roll of the dice”. What I see now is that we have a group of people who disagree with the answer and instead of accepting that answer and moving on, they decide to keep pushing until the “correct” answer as they see it emerges. And as far as there is any new revelation and enlightenment–that assumes that humanity has evolved in their understanding and are working at some higher level than when Jesus came and died for our sins. My life as a whole and my lifelong experience with the Methodist/United Methodist Church tell me that as people we are as broken and as much in need of God’s amazing grace as expressed in Jesus as the people he walked and talked with during his tenure here on earth. It is folly to disregard the communion of saints who have already walked the walk and talked the talk; they may have lived in a different cultural setting, but when it comes to the brokenness of humanity, nothing has changed. The divisiveness in the The United Methodist Church runs much deeper than the sexuality issue which is only the symptom. I am dismayed that I am part of an organization that does not trust its own processes. No wonder a lack of trust has been identified as being a huge problem within the church.

    I also have a more pragmatic reason to dismiss the liberal/progressive agenda re sexuality: I was born in 1953 so I grew up in the 1960’s the time of the civil rights movement and the sexual revolution. Like other mainline American denominations The Methodist/United Methodist Church was very involved and vocal about the first and had absolutely nothing to say about the latter. I do not have to leap very far to come to the conclusion that the sexuality agenda of liberal/progressives is an unholy alliance of the sexual revolution and the civil rights movement and the church has given them good reason to believe they are standing on solid ground.

    And then there is the fact that I finally became so lost and confused that I finally had to distance myself from all things church. That is when I stumbled into the Heidelberg Catechism and three very modern books about it. They were my lesson in what all the Methodist/United Methodist church had never taught me about basic orthodox Christianity in the first place! Well-taught orthodox Christianity is about God’s amazingly unfathomable love for us; it has absolutely nothing in common with the conservative fundamentalism everybody is so desperate to distance themselves from. Conservative fundamentalism is what took root in the vacuum created by the absence of plainly taught orthodox Christianity. And from what I have seen of the liberal/progressives who are convinced they are right and everybody else is wrong, modern fundamentalism now has a new face.

    1. I think you missed a lot of the conversation about the sexual revolution. I have been reading reports from General Conferences for unrelated reasons. The GCs in the 70’s and 80’s were full of talk about the sexual revolution. The programs they initiated were possibly inadequate, and we see the poor results now in the number of couples in our churches who are living together without benefit of marriage. But the earnest desire to do something was there, consistently.
      I think, though, that I agree with you about catechism. I have heard others say that a good catechism would be a help to the Methodist Church, and I don’t think I disagree. We just have to make sure that it doesn’t become another type of idol like the BoD.

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