The Problem is Still Theological

A friend of mine pointed me yesterday to a tweet that states flatly, “‘Orthodoxy’ is code for white privilege, homophobia, racism and sexism.”  There you have it.  One group of United Methodists thinks another group of United Methodists (1) stubbornly persists in holding to long-discredited beliefs and (2) uses those long-discredited beliefs to exclude others.  Clearly, as one who claims the orthodox label to identify my own commitments, it pains me to realize how much people like me are seen as enemies to some in our own denomination.  It’s impossible not to take this personally.

Let me try to unpack the sentiment.  If a person honestly thinks that we orthodox believe things that simply are no longer believable, then she is left trying to figure out why.  Perhaps we are just ill-informed and simply don’t adequately understand what is at stake.  (I’ve heard this one many times.)  But even here one can detect a moral implication.  If we ought to be well-informed and we are not, then we have at some point shirked our responsibility to be well-informed.  Ignorance implies moral laxity.

It’s more likely the case, then, that we orthodox actually do understand what is at stake, and, realizing the threats to our privilege, we misuse position and power in order to suppress or, if possible, exclude those by whom we feel threatened.  Hence the tweet.

It should come as no surprise that we take issue with this characterization.  We do not think that the beliefs we hold have been conclusively discredited, nor do we think they are dangerous.  On the contrary.  In fact, we’re prepared to argue that the church’s central beliefs – as summarized in, say, the Nicene Creed (there, I said it) – are not only relevant for today, they are intellectually bracing, compelling and worth our lives.  More importantly, those beliefs matter for the sake of all life as God intends it.

In the heat of General Conference debates, tweets and social media spats (going on long before General Conference), please notice the asymmetry to the arguments. We (orthodox) are very happy to talk about ideas and the practices that go with, come from, and embody those beliefs.  We want to talk about our opponents’ ideas, too.  We want to understand our opponents’ claims, but we also want to explain why we think the orthodox faith is intellectually and morally bracing and critical to living the Gospel.  Some of what gets called Gospel doesn’t look like Gospel to us.  We think getting this clear matters.  A lot.

But what do we do when, every time we orthodox talk about beliefs, our opponents change the subject and charge us with the abuse of power?  Yes, I get how language gets used to exercise power.  I agree completely.  Everybody exercises power when they use terms to define, characterize, explain and evaluate.  Everybody.  Go back to that tweet.

So, what do we do?  We have two options.  We can go back to basic theological questions and start exploring them with each other again.  What do we mean with talk about the Trinity?   The nature and work of Jesus Christ?  What is the Gospel?  The Christian life?  The transforming power of the Spirit?  The mission of the Church?  The goal of creation? How do we define justice?  Love? How do we understand the nature and function and authority of scripture?

Yes, I know.  This suggestion sounds like “been there, done that.” Our denominational pragmatism makes us impatient to do this work, but this is the problem and it is a fatal one.  I’ve been a United Methodist clergy for more than thirty years.  I have known and loved a denomination that has been nothing but divided on basic theological matters.  I have witnessed numerous times our impatience with doctrine and haste just to go do something good in the name of Jesus.  It’s the mission, stupid!  But our differing understandings of mission tie right back to differing understandings of Gospel, of God’s nature and action in the world.  Our impatient pragmatism has wasted a lot of time, effort and resources.

We desperately need honest, basic, theological discussions to find our true doctrinal Center and mobilize for mission.  We need theologically competent leaders to lead us in this most crucial of works.  We need leaders of character to guide us in this hard theological/spiritual work.  And we need participants who are willing to lay their theological cards on the table and have it out until we get some things clearly settled, until our hearts are once again united in love for Christ and his mission.  This obviously does not mean settling every question or dispute, but it does mean settling some of them.

Or we can admit that we are too far gone, face the facts, and decide the next steps accordingly.  What shall we do?

Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open and all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy holy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.






About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.


  1. Steve Wilke says:

    I have thought a lot about the conflicts in the early church as well as in church history. Sometimes the differences just work themselves out, other times they don’t. We have lots of folks in the body of Christ that don’t think I was baptized right, or take communion right, and so on. I am thankful to Peter for his food vision and openness to the Gentiles every time I eat a hot dog. Jesus pushed a lot of scriptural doctrine/practice around regarding women, food, Sabbath, inclusiveness/exclusion.
    I also think of the folks I will meet in heaven and worry about what they will ask of me? Why didn’t I help them more? Why didn’t I care about their pain more?
    I think it is very hard to expand one’s circle of concern, but I think God is pushing me always to do so. In that effort I do find a unity in the spirit, even if I don’t find a unity in all views, attitudes, doctrines. This fellowship in Christ is what keeps me going in the midst of difference.

  2. Joel McMahon says:

    Well said, Steve.

    Joel McMahon

  3. It takes real Bishops to lead the discussions we ought to be having.

  4. Rev. Rankin, thank you for your thoughts and comments here about orthodoxy. I have no problem with orthodoxy centered on the Nicene Creed and/or the Apostles Creed. It’s with everything else that conservatives claim to be orthodox. Up until 150 years ago owning slaves was “orthodox”. It was “orthodox” until 70 to 80 years ago that divorced and remarried people could not be clergy. Until 60 years ago it was “orthodox” that women could not be clergy. All of those “orthodox” positions can be backed up with Scripture. Yet the church, sometimes with a lot of argument, embraced new understandings or “orthodoxies”. Why is same-sex marriage and LGBTQ inclusion as clergy in the life of the church now so important to those who claim to be orthodox? Some theological positions which were once orthodox have been reconsidered and changed. So why not this one? [Personally, I think it’s all about sex.]

    • Gary, in order for me fully to address your comment, I would first have to work out how you’re using the word “orthodox” and how I used it. I’ll leave that task aside and take what you stated at face value. First, it is simply not the case (i.e. your historical generalization does not match historical events) that owning slaves was considered orthodox. The Methodist Episcopal Church had an anti-slavery statement very early in the Discipline (after 1784), which became contested until the denomination divided in 1844. It’s actually closer to the truth to say that Methodist orthodoxy was anti-slavery, until it became more contested and regional. Likewise with women in ministry. Since the early days of Methodism, women have been in leadership, including preaching. Social and ecclesial limitations did remain in place, as you say, for Methodist women in terms of ordination until 1956 (if memory serves). But again, your generalization does not speak truth. Did women face discrimination and misunderstanding? Of course they did. Patriarchy is a real problem, but it does not help solve patriarchy by perpetuating historically misleading narratives.

      Since the first two generalizations don’t work as assumptions for your comment about LGBTQ people, I have to answer your question differently and it takes me back to the blog post that prompted this conversation. The present debates in the UMC are loaded with political and moral overtones that make it nearly impossible to have an honest conversation about this topic. Traditionalists and progressives start at different places, and have different terms and categories to define what is at stake. And then there is plenty of talking past each other. We are miles apart on how even to talk about it. Truly, we do not know how to talk to each other. General Conference will never be able to sort this out in a manner that feels just to the most conflicted parties involved.

      • What about changes in regard to divorce? Is there a similarity there?

        • The blog post shows how the church changed its stance toward divorce over time. We can change our policy and we should when we think change is warranted. So, the question becomes, is the manner in which we worked through to liberalize our stance on divorce applicable to the questions on sexuality currently facing us? Some people say yes and we would need to examine their arguments. Some people say no and we would need to examine their arguments. General Conference is not equipped to do this kind of work.

          • My thoughts were addressed to your comments to Gary on the changing nature of “orthodoxy” which, if I read your original post correctly, you defined at least in part as adherence to creed. The Nicene Creed only addresses such issues as divorce in that it anticipates an adherence to the law as set forth in scripture. The prohibition against divorce seems enshrined in scripture to me (as a layperson), yet every modern Christian faith except the Catholic church has accepted divorce.

          • In trying to answer Gary, I did not intend to suggest that the orthodoxy about which I blogged has changed. In fact, one of the reasons it is called orthodox is because it refers to the consensus of the vast majority of Christian communions across time and cultures, languages and nations on the basic questions of the nature of God (Trinity), Christ, salvation, the Christian life and the consummation of all things. I probably should have said more about that. I made reference to it in my first couple of sentences, but did not say more.

            I admit, I don’t agree with how Gary used the word “orthodox” with reference to the two historical generalizations he made. Since I disagree with his narrative of those situations, then they don’t incline me to see them as apt analogies for helping the church work out an appropriate response in the current debates about sexuality.

            Orthodox Christians can disagree on specific ethical questions. Sorting out how to resolve our differences requires recognizing some common conceptual and convictional starting points and working to develop good principles that can be consistently and faithfully applied. I have to admit, I don’t think The United Methodist Church has an adequate mechanism for doing this kind of work.

  5. I think this pretty much applies, cut and paste, in my Episcopal Church as well, except there are not so many of us Orthodox left there. But would that all of us who are might be faithful to bear witness…

  6. matt thomas says:

    I thank you for your comments. I’m not convinced such a table to have conversation is the answer or even plausible. I’m not even sure the answer to Methodist identity issues and all the subsequent theological problems associated with our lost identity can be recovered through more theological discourse. The theological grounding we should share is absent in our tribe.

    I’ll probably pay the price for saying this but the truth is never really popular even among the people entrusted with stewarding it. Our church, for the most part, is not being guided by persons who believe and follow Jesus. Many of our leaders are not really United Methodists as defined by the doctrine and polity of the church. There seems to be a new move to redefine what a Christian and Methodist is and will believe.

    I think I would much rather pull a John Wesley and start a new tribe with a new constitution than have to spend any more valuable time in debate or theological discussion on whether or not homosexuality is a sin or not. We are not following Jesus and haven’t been for some time. People will no doubt get bent out of shape about it. I really don’t care. When the highest leaders in our tribe stand up before the body and advocate something that God opposes then by definition we are disobeying.

    Personally, I love all people and believe the practice of homosexuality is a sin. I think there is something seriously wrong with our culture and identity as humans.

    Eventually, whether now or later, the church will divide. The issue isn’t going away. Jesus himself could preach the sermon against homosexuality and it wouldn’t make a dent.

    While I think it doesn’t hurt to have healthy theological conversation, I think getting behind Jesus and following is perhaps the first order of business. We could make a resolution that the general conference shall never hear a resolution again on same sex unions or ordinations. Then we can get on with the work of the Lord. Actually lets change our constitution to never hear of it again.

    • I wonder what your theological basis is for thinking homosexuality is a sin. Jesus never spoke on the issue. I’ve reviewed the few scriptures and the few verses that are used to support it are not sustainable as a blanket condemnation of all homosexuality.

  7. Robert Hunt says:

    It has become the norm in many circles of academic and ecclesial discourse to say that all claims regarding the truth (of any sort) are an exercise in hegemonic power. The observation of social reality called “post modernity” becomes an ideology that values only limited claims and castigates all metanarratives. But look at the bigger picture, which is as much anthropological as theological. It is a view of human persons that limits their capacity to comprehend reality by the finitude of the intellect and limits their ability to love by their intrinsic “will to power.” It is the harshest form of Protestant theology without the possibility of sanctification. Or more exactly, it is a response to sin in which sanctification is replaced by sentimentality because sinful humans can never entrusted with the exercise of judgment. In the political sphere it becomes pure libertarianism. In the ecclesial sphere it becomes latitudinarianism. Both are characteristic of the emerging US society. (My friend Greg Leffel recently showed me the growing literature on this.) What makes discussions hard is the continual cross-talk from different realms of authority. Biological facts become the basis for theological anthropology. Theological assertions become scientific facts. Underlying it all are at least two (more if one actually looks) ways of experiencing what it means to be human. Ways that are both given by culture and chosen by rational self-reflective adults. History shows that when different experiences of what it means to be human come into contact they will, after long engagement, either grow to a new shared experience with a common (and new) language for expressing that experience. Or they will simply reach a stalemate and discourse at more than a superficial commercial level will cease. Each will believe that its past and present are also the future for everyone. That seems to be where we are now.

  8. Would love as a liberal to engage in the theological questions you raise. I imagine threats of heresy trials and “church discipline” put a damper on providing a space for such conversations.

    • Dwight, how do you want to me to take your comment?

      • I apologise I missed your response but I would love that! I think the theological categories you raised are central ones that depending on the answer can produce very different views of the world, God, the church, almost everything. And they are worth discussing in their own right. The reason many liberals assume power plays is they don’t think this is a theological hashing out of ideas, they presume there is some next step, a heresy trial, a discriminatory law, an effort to squeeze them out of the church. So even the theological language use to buttress such moves are suspect right from the start.

        • Which is a shame because the theological hashing out is really needed.

          • Unfortunately, if a lot of churches have hashed out the theology to get to where they are, they don’t really make it clear what the basis is for certain stances. For example, the UMC has a stance on the gay issues, but they do not cite biblical/theological reasoning behind those decisions. It’s almost as if you are supposed to accept without a need for understanding why.

  9. Susan Innes says:

    Thank you for sharing, well said

  10. In 1993, I returned from the initial conference of what became the Confessing Church lobby in the church. The meeting produced document confessing Jesus Christ as “Son, Savior, and Lord” as the starting point for a discussion about what we all should believe as United Methodists. Upon returning to Greensboro, I enthusiastically provided our Senior Minister of a copy, suggesting that West Market Street Greensboro may want to be a starting place for the discussion. I met with the Senior Minister and our then lay leader, and was informed that is was a fine document, but that half or more of the church would leave if asked to join in such a statement. So much for theological engagement.

    As Robert Hunt noted, the division is at the level of worldview. But I agree that we need to be seeking ways to bring theology to bear on our wounds.

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