Maintaining the church in a chaotic time

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Editor’s note: This commentary was excerpted from a story in Lifewatch. Read the full commentary.

When the Council of Bishops names the members of the panel that will review and consider revisions to church law dealing with homosexuality, that panel will include members from the three largest organized parties in the church: progressive, centrist and evangelical.

Each of those three parties appears to have an ecclesiological deficit. In general, some progressives, at their worst, seem to maintain a view of the church that is completely culturally accommodated. Some centrists, at their worst, tend to maximize options for clergy and laity and congregations to minimize conflict. And some evangelicals, at their worst, tend to understand the church as the communal gathering for individuals in need of religious experience.

“The United Methodist Church does not have an ecclesiology” is commonly repeated. Unfortunately, this claim appears to be true. Sadly, at precisely this time — when The United Methodist Church is threatened by schism, when the church needs a sturdy, comprehensive understanding of the church — it is not readily accessible. A denomination in chaos needs an ecclesiology, or doctrine of the church.

Scattered fragments of Methodist ecclesiology

Despite the lack of a comprehensive doctrine, the denomination does have fragments of an ecclesiology that can help sustain us in unity through this time. That ecclesiology is found scattered throughout United Methodist faith and life — in the church’s doctrine and discipline, hymnody and history, liturgy and literature, sermons and studies, and so on. (This has been powerfully articulated in a paper from the denomination’s Committee on Faith and Order, entitled “United Methodist Doctrine and Teaching on the Nature, Mission and Faithfulness of the Church.”)

For generations, by the grace of God, these fragments have gotten Methodism by. If recalled, these ecclesiological fragments can now help the church avoid the schism (or division or separation) that threatens.

In the hope of helping avoid division, I will recall several of our denomination’s most important ecclesiological fragments. These fragments present a strong challenge for The United Methodist Church to remain one church.

John 17: Jesus Christ prays for the church: “I ask not only on behalf of these [the apostles], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they [the Church, the followers of Christ] also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” (John 17:20-21)

Commenting on that verse, the Rev. John Wesley declares: “Here Christ prays for the world. Observe the sum of his whole prayer: 1. Receive me into thy own and my glory. 2. Let my apostles share therein. 3. And all other believers. 4. And let all the world believe.” (Wesley’s Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament)

Jesus and Wesley understand that unity, in a fractured world, is a powerful witness.

Confession of faith: “...We believe [the Christian Church] is one, holy, apostolic and catholic .... That is United Methodist doctrine.”

The church is holy:A means towards holiness, for Methodists, is discipline … Institutionally, this [holiness] is present in the discipline that governs our personal, congregational and institutional lives," according to the Faith and Order paper.

The church is apostolic: “[T]he entirety of ¶105 (‘Our Theological Task’) might be considered a Wesleyan statement of the doctrinal or teaching dimension of the apostolic task,” according to the Faith and Order paper. From the beginning, the apostolic witness was unified to serve the church's unity.

The church is catholic: “John Wesley summoned Methodists to a ‘Catholic Spirit’ founded on the common witness of the orthodox heritage, unity in essentials, an orientation toward common mission, a disciplined life, and bonds of love,” according to the Faith and Order paper. Catholicity, from a Wesleyan perspective, unifies.

Liturgy for baptism: “Brothers and sisters in Christ: Through the Sacrament of Baptism we are initiated into Christ's holy church….” reads the baptismal covenant. Christ’s! Holy! Church!

Liturgy for Holy Communion: “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” The key word is “one.”

Bishops for unity: In the service for the consecration of bishops, those who are to be consecrated are asked: “Will you guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church against all that is contrary to God's Word?”

Were United Methodist bishops to divide the church that would be a particularly egregious failure in episcopal ministry.

Two guiding truths

The above ecclesiological fragments (and many more could be listed) remind United Methodists of two basic truths.

First, the church is of God. Our ecclesiological DNA boldly declares and strongly suggests that God creates and keeps the church.

With that in mind, those baptized into Christ and his church, and especially those ordained, are called to approach and serve the church in faith and in faithfulness. Since the church is of God, her members, clergy and bishops should never assume that the church is theirs — nor should they lead the church according to their own light, intelligence, and organizational savvy. We are baptized into God’s church, so we order the church’s life according to God’s Word, for the sake of the world.

Second, the church is one. God gives unity to The United Methodist Church, and God has given the church the ecclesiological truths to maintain that unity.

However, today, there is so much chaos in the denomination over human sexuality. That includes: the election of a woman, in a same-sex union, to the office of bishop; the declaration of several annual conferences that they will not conform to the church’s doctrine and discipline regarding human sexuality; and the statement of several conference boards of ordained ministry that in their work they will neglect matters related to human sexuality.

Responding to this chaos, church leaders are tempted to formulate solutions that would involve division to restore a semblance of order and peace to United Methodists. Well-intentioned leaders, who have been successful in their ministries for years, who have led their congregations and their institutions by making hard decisions often, might respond to the current chaos by trying to take control of the church (or their parts of the church). Their plans and proposals for the church might look good. But precisely such solutions would violate the ecclesiological truth that the church is God’s, and they would breach the ecclesiological imperative for unity that runs so deeply in United Methodist faith and life.

Some will object: “You are making unity an idol.”

My reply: “Unity is not God. But unity is given, by God, to the church, and the church's responsibility is to receive and maintain that gift. Unity is an essential dimension of the church's nature and life.”

A future without division

I propose, for your consideration, three challenges.

First, The United Methodist Church should not divide. (Would the head divide his own body? Of course not.) However, if there are United Methodist clergy and laity who, and congregations that, on the claim of conscience, cannot abide by the church’s doctrine and discipline and insist on disrupting the church, the church should allow them to leave — with their pensions and properties intact. That is not a negotiated division of the church, on which all agree. That is a diminishment of the church, in which disruptive dissenters depart. That, to be sure, would be a sad day.

But a denominational division, in which the church's leaders are collaborators, would be a scandalous day in United Methodist history. Covenant keepers and guardians cannot, should not, and will not negotiate a breach of the church's covenant.

Second, in the midst of today’s chaos, the Council of Bishops would be faithful to appoint to their commission many who are deeply learned in the denomination’s ecclesiology, fragmented and scattered though it is. The ecclesiologically grounded will speak for the church — not for a party within the church.

And third, I implore all United Methodists to recognize and receive anew God’s gift of unity to the church and our challenge to maintain it. God has blessed the denomination with the ecclesiological wisdom to work through this difficult time and maintain unity.

So we United Methodists can step back from plans for division — no matter how attractive and promising they might appear to be. By the grace of God, we can stay the course — by faithfully teaching and living church doctrine about human sexuality, by faithfully upholding church discipline, by faithfully pulling dissent back from disruption, and by faithfully maintaining the unity of the church for which Christ prayed and died and was raised. All the while, we must rely on God the Spirit for gifts of patience and perseverance.

This commentary was excerpted from an open letter to The United Methodist Church that appears as a four-page insert in the September 2016 issue of Lifewatch. Stallsworth is editor and president of Lifewatch.

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