Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Ever feel caught in the middle?

I‘m not the first person to observe that in the UMC our church politics looks very much like secular politics. In both worlds, it is the most extreme positions that grab headlines. Yet most people in the UMC don’t fit neatly into the ideological polarities. As they think through the vast array of issues that we face both in secular politics and the church, no single political platform appears to have all the answers. Clearly, for some, the cluster of ideas gathered at the polarities of the political/ideological spectrum simply make sense in relation to one another. Pro-life, pro-traditional family, anti-ACA, anti-gun control? Sure, why not? Pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-ACA, pro-gun control? Makes perfect sense, right? Well, for some people, yes, it makes a lot of sense, but for others, not so much.

The ideas that are clustered together often have no organic relationship to one another, yet they function quite powerfully as markers of tribal identity. We call them “platforms” or “agendas” and lump them under larger rubrics, such as “Democrat,” “Republican,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “progressive,” “evangelical,” or some other such descriptor. It tends to be important moreover, for members to promote the whole agenda, rather than just a part of it. For example, when someone such as Jim Wallis claims to be “evangelical” but dissents from many other evangelicals on matters of public policy, his evangelical credentials are questioned or denied.

A challenge we face in the UMC is that our covenant includes people from a variety of tribes, and the warfare that characterizes debates around public policy very naturally makes its way into our denominational discourse and politics. After all, the UMC, like the USA, makes policy decisions based upon votes from elected representatives.  I’m not saying this is a bad way of doing things. I certainly don’t know of a better way. It does, however, have its own liabilities.

Our tribal warfare in the UMC tends to be over matters of practice, the kinds of things one finds in the world of secular politics: gay marriage (and ordination), war, the ways in which we use money, and abortion. We tend not to have doctrinal arguments because the place of doctrine has been relativized by the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. De facto, then, we hold that ethics is more important than doctrine. We argue vociferously about sexuality; rarely do we become as animated about the doctrine of the Trinity.

This way of doing things, however, is backward. We would have a much better chance of maintaining our unity were we to conceive of our primary identity in terms of doctrine, rather than ethics or politics. This has, in fact, been the way that the Church (the Church catholic, not the UMC) has traditionally functioned, except for quite recently in mainline Protestantism. The creeds of the Church are doctrinal statements. There has never been a widely held creed of ethical behavior or moral imperatives. Rather, the Church’s claims about God have always been central, and its moral life has generally been a matter of debate and negotiation.

Let me put the matter differently: we have doctrinal standards in the UMC, but we have social principles. A standard is a normative measure of adequacy. A principle is a generally accepted truth upon which we base other claims or actions. In its current iteration, the Discipline gives pride of place to doctrine over ethics, while our denominational discourse functions in just the opposite way.

I’m suggesting that the UMC should be a place in which we front a deep and abiding commitment to the Holy Trinity, the Incarnation, atonement, and the Resurrection. These doctrines are organically related to one another. They make sense in relation to one another, and when we take one out of the equation, the other doctrines make less sense. They are also embedded within the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Within these sets of commitments, we can abide a great deal of debate and disagreement about a great many issues, but at least we will have common doctrinal ground for our discussion. If you are a committed Republican, a committed Democrat, a progressive, an evangelical—or someone who doesn’t fit well into any of these categories—you have a place in this community of Trinitarian faith.

Wesleyanism is a branch of the orthodox faith of the Church with a heavy emphasis upon sanctification. It assumes all of the basic faith claims of the Church’s creedal tradition, stressing the claim that the Holy Spirit works progressively within us to recover the image of God that has been tarnished by sin. Many have seen Wesleyanism as defined by a commitment to Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. This is wrongheaded. Read the Wesley corpus. Wesley was concerned about God and the ways in which God worked in the lives of people. He cared about the poor, the last, and the least—because of his prior commitment to the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

I don’t really know what to call such a position, one that would be defined particularly by doctrinal claims but would have more room for dialogue regarding the moral life of the church. It is neither particularly conservative nor progressive. The term “evangelical” tends to carry with it a conservative social ethic. I don’t like the terms “moderate” or “centrist” because they sound like we are lukewarm in our convictions, when in fact that may be the farthest thing from the truth.

Please hear me: I’m no antinomian. Our ethical claims are important. They are very important; but they are not as important as our claims about God. Unless we have a basic sense of who God is, what God is like, and how God has acted for our salvation, we cannot properly reflect as Christians upon our moral life together. The UMC has long privileged ethics rather than doctrine in its corporate discourse. This may be why things seem so fractious now: we haven’t historically had a clear sense of the basis of our unity.


  1. I tend to agree. A proper view of the incarnation will go far in determining our ethics.

  2. How would you structure that conversation? I have the sense that we are just as capable of bogging down into intractable disagreement over the nature of the incarnation or the resurrection as we do over the ethical issues.

  3. John, I would presuppose the descriptions of these doctrines in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Internal theological debates would take place within these boundaries. This would not be to say that everyone has to understand these doctrines in the same way, but rather that the UMC presupposes certain truths about God and God's relationship to humankind.

    1. Thanks, David, for the reply.

      I hear in your post something similar to what Pope Francis wrote in his apostolic exhortation. He wrote that the secondary concerns can only be understood in light of the church's primary concerns, but that too often we talk about secondary issues detached from the context that makes them intelligible.

      Unfortunately, our bishops do not have the kind of singular voice or authority to make similar statements.

      On the larger issue, I do think we have a fair number of clergy who would not affirm the Articles and Confession. Article III on the resurrection, Article VII on Original Sin, and Article IX on Justification would get significant dissent in brought up for votes at Annual Conference. And we have scads of laity who would find them both at odds with their own sentiments.

      So I find myself wondering how the UMC should respond in light of that situation.

  4. John, I like the way you've framed this up in light of Pope Francis's comments. I also think there's a difference here between clergy and laity. The baptismal vows and church membership process for laity do not involve a wholesale affirmation of the doctrinal standards. The ordained, however, are explicitly servants of the Church. We are ordained not just into service of Christ, but into the United Methodist Church. We need to develop a culture whereby we understand more clearly what this means, particularly in terms of core doctrine.