The Council of Bishops have gathered in Dallas for the latest round of discussions about United Methodism’s future. We eagerly and anxiously await a word. Many United Methodist are praying for wisdom for our leaders, for good outcomes, for unity. In my daily prayer time, I pray for our bishops and other leaders. As I was praying this morning, a thought came back to me.
Let’s say that, by some dramatic move of God, The United Methodist Church remains united. We come through the fire with new life. Where would we stand in general? What challenges would we face?
First, we still will need a core of doctrinal unity, a core that matters to all of us. There is a deep reflex in United Methodism to downplay doctrine for the sake of mission. I sometimes put it facetiously this way, “Yeah, we all know we love Jesus. Let’s just go do something (good for the world).” We should know by now that we cannot trade doctrine for mission. They are inextricably bound together.
So, which doctrines? Take Easter, for example. What do we celebrate on Easter Sunday (and every other Sunday)? The bodily resurrection of Jesus? Do we believe – as a denomination – that Jesus “did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature…?” (Article III of the Articles of Religion)
Either Jesus rose bodily from the grave (by the way, I’m NOT talking about resuscitation, but resurrection) or he did not. If he did, then we think in radically new ways about the world, about human life and destiny, about reality. If Jesus did not rise bodily from the grave, then we may have reason to honor his memory and teachings, but a dramatically different religion emerges than one proclaiming that God Incarnate died and rose again.
Yes, there is overlap in activity of course. If you believe that Jesus rose from the grave, you still take his words to heart, “Just as you did it (or did not) to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt. 25:40) If you do not believe that Jesus rose bodily from the grave, but nevertheless came to show us the reign of God, you take these words to heart. But the motive for doing so is different and the envisioned outcome – what we think we’re bearing witness to – is entirely different.
Think of how the bodily resurrection affects our understanding of atonement. How does the cross look if Jesus did truly rise from the dead or if he did not? Is it God Incarnate hanging on a cross and dying for the world’s sins or is it the heroic death of a human filled with God consciousness? Think of how this belief affects how we structure worship? How we talk about all manner of faith questions.
There can be real value for people in a religion that does not understand Jesus to have risen bodily from the grave, but, whatever else it may be, it is not the faith once delivered to the saints and it is not in keeping with United Methodist doctrinal standards. A future United Methodism will have to get very clear about basic points of dogma like this one. Otherwise, we will repeat a very sad history.
Which leads to a further point: if we stay together, we still will need effective means of accountability and discipline for when we wander from our core beliefs and mission. Any organization that does not have a good accountability measures is not worth joining. If we want to win young people, we had better show them that we take our own stated beliefs seriously enough that we are willing to bench people for not keeping faith with our mission. Otherwise, they won’t bother joining us, and why should they? In a new United Methodist future, we will need to face this challenge squarely, courageously, lovingly, effectively.
Can we be flexible and generous? Of course! Accountability does not mean that we’re hellbent on kicking people out. It means that we prove in practice that we believe what we say we believe. If we really believe we serve God’s transforming mission, then discipline in light of that vision is a necessity. It is too important a task to wander from it and act as if wandering doesn’t matter. If we are lax in discipline, we bear witness to the world that we really don’t believe what we say we believe. And that makes us not worth listening to.
Because of these first two reasons, we need, thirdly, to re-assert the critical role of the teaching office in the church. In theological education, we need to teach rising pastors how to be good teachers. Jesus was called “Teacher.” Notice how often the Gospels refer to his teaching. The pastoral letters remind us, as do others, that the teaching office is crucial for the health of the body. Our pragmatist bent in United Methodist culture has been devastatingly bad for our members. My heart breaks when I teach about United Methodist beliefs and structures and hear someone say, “I’ve been a Methodist all my life and I didn’t know any of this stuff.” If a rising pastor is not a dedicated and effective teacher (and there is a wide range of effective teaching styles and venues), that person should not be ordained to the office of elder. We cannot dodge or delegate this responsibility.
I am praying for the healing of The United Methodist Church. If we divide, I honesty don’t know what I’ll do. Whether we split or don’t, we will still be left with the need for clarity about core beliefs/teachings/dogma and for courage in effectively holding ourselves accountable to the vision we believe God gave us.