Dear Adam (Hamilton) and Other Centrists,
When I wrote, recently, about my conviction that the current United Methodist Church needs to divide, I don’t think I made sufficiently clear that I recognize this admission as a sign of failure. Sometimes, the most sincere and committed people cannot find a way out of their disagreements. I’m convinced that we’ve come to such a point.
I also have been thinking, though, were we – hope against hope – to resolve our differences, what would need to happen? I try my answer to that question in the hopes that it may open up a different sort of public forum than typically happens. I have not been privy to private conversations among top leaders, so this is my attempt to bring to light some topics that don’t get sufficient attention in the wider public conversations, which has led to the conditions we now face.
So, what would need to happen were we to move in the direction of staying together rather than separating? This question raises another one: where do centrists draw the line on what is core for UM faith and practice? What beliefs do you consider necessary, therefore required to be a Methodist in good standing? This question has implications, not only for United Methodist identity, but also for our place within the larger ecumenical body, something I fear is not getting sufficient attention in the heat of our disagreements. Where do centrists draw the line on core doctrines?
Our church has argued fruitlessly, in spite of many sincere attempts, over scripture interpretation and the best use of the Quadrilateral for discerning how to resolve the thorny issues that have demanded so much of our attention. Everyone who has been watching knows the very well-worn paths that proponents have taken in debate. We cannot resolve those matters using the tools we’ve been using, and, as I am desperately trying to convey, we have more basic questions to answer.
Centrists, among whom you, Adam, are primus inter pares, often protest that you share orthodox beliefs with traditionalists, only disagreeing over denominational policy (marriage, ordination) and polity (one church plan, regional conferences). I hear this frustration in your recent response to Tom Lambrecht, which, of course, generated his reply. You claim – and I accept – your orthodoxy of belief. Taking you at your word demands that I or someone ask you these questions that I’m asking. Where lie the boundaries? Any definition of “orthodox” logically requires boundaries. However wide we draw the circle, there is still a circle. Even a really big circle has an inside and outside. We therefore must talk about boundaries. Where are they? And why there? Tell us.
Once clearly stated, we must have consequences for breaching them. Otherwise they are pseudo-doctrines and our mission is impossible to identify. Without enforceable doctrinal standards, virtually any activity can be claimed as in keeping with our mission. Therefore, along with clarifying our doctrinal core, we need effective disciplinary action for members of our connection who deny that core, either openly or in practice. What do you think is an appropriate response for someone who shows unwillingness to uphold our doctrines and discipline? If we do not answer clearly and act resolutely, we will remain a denomination with no integrity, not worth bothering about.
Over the years (I have grown old while the UMC has had this argument), whenever I have raised the question of doctrinal boundaries, I have encountered resistance from the same quarters, who resist by raising the specter of misuse of power. I’ve been told ad nauseum that people who claim the orthodox label are only interested in control. People who talk about power all the time are the ones most interested in power. It’s hypocritical to charge someone with making power moves while one is making them. If orthodox centrists are willing to affirm and live their loyalty to the core doctrines of the faith, you ultimately will have to stand with traditionalists in resisting the resistors of our doctrinal standards. The only other viable option to insisting on adherence to them is to separate and let competing orthodoxies play out accordingly.
I could see some truly refreshing possibilities opening if every faction within United Methodism recognized and admitted that a denomination must have doctrinal boundaries. We thereby would have a common starting point for talking about which doctrines we as a denomination believe are central to our faith and work. Indeed, it would mean that we truly resolve what was not resolved in 1988. Could (should) a United Methodist clergy be in good standing while teaching an adoptionist Christology and practicing forms of neo-pagan spirituality? May a United Methodist preacher on Sunday preach that YHWH is God on and on Wednesday defend the use of tarot cards as a legitimate practice for Christians? Can I remain in good standing if I claim to be a United Methodist Santerian?
These questions, as far-fetched as they may sound to many, illustrate what inevitably happens in a denomination without clear and enforceable boundaries. Yes, far more basic than our fights about sexuality, we are turning a blind eye to an almost incomprehensible and certainly incoherent diversity of beliefs all embodied in concrete locales and called “United Methodist.” Too much in popular culture, we United Methodists are known as the denomination in which you can believe anything and be United Methodist. It shows our condition, right here, right now. Please correct me, if I’m wrong. So far as I can see, we have no effective means of making sure that United Methodists uphold and teach the core doctrines that we say we believe and we clergy promised to uphold and proclaim. Until we face this demand honestly, we run the risk of being superfluous to and maybe even adversaries of the mission of God, who is, we need to remember, the final bar of judgment.
What, then, are the core doctrines that centrists are willing to contend for? If centrists and traditionalists have any chance at understanding one another and finding common cause on any endeavor, present or future, the questions I’ve asked need your answers. I am confident you have them.
In my own small way, and with whatever influence I may have, I am committed – as I have been since I joined the ranks of United Methodist clergy – to work for understanding in what we United Methodists share in doctrine and practice. Once more I ask, then, where do you think the doctrinal boundaries lie? What are the non-negotiables? What lines will you not cross? How will you use your considerable influence to defend and uphold the faith once delivered?
In all sincerity, I pray for you and for us all, a blessed, holy, Spirit-filled Easter season.
19 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Adam Hamilton and Other Centrists: Where Lie the Boundaries?”
Praying for resolution of differences ~ this lifelong Methodist holds the denomination deep in my heart and loves all ~ even those with whom I disagree. Humans are like that ~ we often disagree. Real love does not have disagreement as a relationship shattering boundary.
In His Love,
They dont want any boundaries. “Let me do whatever I want to do however I want to do it and dont tell me I’m doing anything wrong” is the cry of any liberal centrist.
Yes, Becky, agreed. Real love does not cause the rupture of relationship.
Becky, I would ask you, What happens when an ordained clergy member holds and teaches that Jesus is not fully divine, in any real sense? Because this is [presumably] a core Christian teaching, isn’t holding to this belief already already shattering the relationship? What if a clergy person started to promote white supremacy from the pulpit? Would love demand that we not allow disagreement to shatter the relationship?
Steve, thank you for the thoughtful post. I’ve followed your blog from afar — as I am no longer affiliated with any UM institutions — and always appreciate the balance of content and tone you strike.
Your closing paragraphs remind me of a visit I made to Perkins School of Theology as an undergrad at SMU. In their information session, they proudly stated, “at most seminaries, you go there and they tell you what to believe. Here you come to find what you believe.” While I can see value in a season of “unlearning” and being equipped to relearn in the context of graduate studies, this statement always struck me as problematic at best. I think this attitude typifies the core issue you have identified with no clear doctrinal boundaries, no matter what those boundaries may be.
Praying with you and for your denomination. As the church in the west loses influence at large, I long to see a more ecumenical approach among all believers. It may seem counter-intuitive, but I tend to agree that by a willingness to allow for disagreement and potential for departure, we may see greater health and life in each expression of the body as Christ plays in 10,000 places.
Thank you, Max.
I’m in full agreement with your post. I would add that the lack of stated clear boundaries has led to the other biggest factor that impedes unity in mission and that is lack of trust. I can’t really trust anyone who lacks the integrity to be forthright with their positions.
I’ve been in the UMC ministry for 45 years. For my seminary experience, I went to Candler at Emory University. Before going there I was “heartily warned” about that being a group of professors and leaders who would try to “take away your faith.” So I spent half a day with the Dean at Duke who was incredibly kind and encouraging. I shared with him that I was looking at Candler, Asbury, and Duke. He shared after that visit two observations – first that Duke would be a very frustrating place for me and my conservative background. Secondly, he encouraged me to avoid Asbury as it could be a “you’re just great already” experience. He described Candler as a good choice as it would stretch me and train me to “consider all viewpoints.” And that is exactly what took place. There were times in seminary that I would make statements either in class or on papers that were definitely right of center. Nearly all my professors and many colleagues would challenge me to “make a case for that” while respecting the other various viewpoints theologically. These were good growing pains. This training enabled me to work in the last 28 years of ministry as a Teaching Evangelist with more than 1000 pastors and churches across the USA – from the left to the right of issues. The focus was on living out a personal relationship with Christ and reaching others with Christ. There were issues flying in many places but we stuck to the prime beliefs of the Apostle’s Creed. I so appreciated Candler in those years but today that is rarely seen. If you disagree, you’re the enemy. The violence and lasting damage from “winning at all costs” are like cancer being fed. The unconditional love of Christ empowers us to dialogue and be able to agree to disagree.
“Even a really big circle has an inside and outside. We therefore must talk about boundaries. Where are they? And why there? Tell us.” I think this is a valid point, but I think it is a question that needs to be answered by BOTH sides. While traditionalists like us may be concerned about tarot cards and the next bishop appointed being gay, the centrists are likely to have their own concerns about boundaries of a church controlled by traditionalists. If we defrock practicing gay pastors and bishops, stop gay marriages in UMC sanctuaries, is that the end of it? Will gay members of the church be scrutinized for their lack of repentance? Will there be room at all for ministry to the gay community other than some version of conversion therapy?
Yes. Every group, every faction, has boundaries. We all need to be up front about what we think they are and should be.
I think when there are discussions of about discipleship (think accountability) bands in the GMC which some say could be a prerequisite to membership in a congregation, the question arises what enforcement of the Discipline will really look like–will it look more like a revised UMC or an old Wesleyan Holiness church?
Like you I’ve been a Methodist for a long while, and I’ve participated in a number of requested, private meetings with bishops in an evangelical-orthodox effort to set boundaries. None of these meeting generated clarity, and the charity claimed for these sessions was a tease, a chicane, and an obfuscation (cover for unabated radical transformation of The United Methodist Church).
“Dear Hearts! I Believe I Believe in Everything: Every Philosophy! Every Ideology! Every Religion! And that don’t give me no room for no Argument!
Brother Dave, you don’t mean that!
Brother Dave Gardner
Adam Hamilton is a centrist? Have you read his writings.? What a joke!
Thank you, Stephen, for expressing so well what many of us are wondering.
Steve, thank you for your open letter to Rev. Adam Hamilton. If nice people in a voluntary association is truly going to be the Church, they must face and overcome the challenge of declaring ecclesiastical doctrinal/disciplinary boundaries. Even United Methodist Centrists must do this, as you make clear in your letter. I hope that you have forwarded this open letter, by postal service or email, to Rev. Hamilton. His reply would be most interesting — and instructive. Your open letter strongly signals: The United Methodist Church’s search for unity is, first and last, a striving to become the Church more fully. Unity without reformation (which includes the aforementioned boundaries) is a continuation of the current chaos. Unity with reformation is, methinks and mehopes, where Christ is leading us. Continue faithful, to Christ and His Church, for the sake of the world.
thank you, Paul. I have done as you suggest, mailing the substance of this post to Adam.
Curious. Any response as yet from Hamilton or anyone in his camp?