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THE CONFESSING MOVEMENT: WHERE ARE WE HEADED?

Leicester Longden: Cincinnati Speech [Confessing Movement] Sept. 27, 1996

As I have listened to the voices being raised throughout our church, one text has been coming to me again and again. It's the voice of Mary Magdalene in the Garden (Jn 20): "They have taken away my Lord, and I don't know where they have laid him!" Mary does not know where the Lord is--although He is standing right in front of her. She doesn't know whether His enemies have carried him away, or his friends......

In her anguish we hear the sense of loss, the groans and sighs throughout our church today? Where is he?... Has he been carried away in the conscience of 15 Bishops crying: "Lo, here is the Messiah! He is on the cutting edge of the cultural remaking of the faith. He is here in our pained consciences...in our sense of compassion."

Or is he somewhere else? Do the Presbyterians or the Baptists or the Catholics have him? Can we find him enshrined in independent congregations who think they can protect him from those who would reshape him in their own image? Are we not surrounded on all sides by those who would co-opt Christ for their own purposes? When you listen to the tensions around church politics, don't you sometimes feel that our Lord's Body has been parceled out--in duplicate cremation urns--to be placed on the mantels of every cause or caucus or concern that wants to claim him for their own?

My task: Preview:

  • What bonded us together in the first place?
  • What has happened since those beginnings and now?
  • What is to happen now?

I. What Bonded Us Together in the First place?

What gave such joy and hope to 900 of us last year, when with one voice we confessed, that whatever the confusions in our church, we were ready to stake our lives on the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son, Savior, and Lord?

When we accepted the invitation to confess Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord, [and when we embraced the cause of The Confessing Movement Within The UMC,] we knew we had taken a decisive step, a new turning in our personal life and ministry. We knew that we were ready to struggle in a new way for the integrity of our church's life--even tho many of us have spent years already in struggle. What was that one thing which gave us hope and joy, which sent us out rejoicing, ready to struggle anew for the integrity of the people God raised up through Jn Wesley? What was it that united us...?

Before suggesting an answer let me take you back to an earlier church struggle. In 1934, the church in Germany was under great pressure to adapt itself to the spirit of the times. That pressure led the church to proclaim the Barmen Declaration. Barmen was their confessional statement--for their time--in which they declared that over against the attempt to impose "alien principles" on the life of the German church, they were bound to Jesus Christ:

They put it this way, in the famous first article of the Barmen Declaration: "Jesus Christ, as witnessed to us in Holy Scripture, is the one word of God to which we have to listen, trust, and obey in life and in death." And then they stated in clear, uncompromising terms, that certain teachings and practices must therefore be rejected: "We reject the false teaching that the church can and must recognize any other events, powers, personalities, and truths apart from and in addition to this one word of God as sources of its proclamation."

Now, we are in a different time, and a different place. We cannot just parrot the words of Barmen. But we can confess, in our situation, for our time, that Jesus Christ alone is God's gracious word to us, and that He is the One in whom truth is to be found and known. Let me remind you, however, that as bold as the church was in Germany, only 4 years later, many of the confessing pastors were discouraged and ready to quit. And so D. Bonhoeffer wrote to struggling pastors and congregations and asked them not to forget what had united them in 1934:

"What was it that united us then and gave us such great joy?" he asked. And his answer: "It was the one, age-old recognition which God himself had granted us again, that Jesus Christ wants to build his church among us, ... a church which obeys him alone in everything that it does. Christ himself will stand by a church like this; he will protect and guide it. Only a church like this can be free from all fear.... That was the beginning of the fight.... Perhaps everyone did not always realize how much both individuals and communities would have to give up... [but] who could hold back as long as Jesus still called, 'Be the church. Be the church that serves none but me'?" [p.165]

Brothers and sisters, What was it that united us in 1995? Was it not the joy of discovering that God had granted to us, unworthy as we are, the privilege in our time to bear witness to His Name? Were we just a crowd of disgruntled Methodists, or were we experiencing the surprise of God's grace by which we were granted the opportunity to confess Jesus Christ above all other voices in the church?

Will you agree with me, that what God has given us is not a caucus, not a political movement, but the freedom and grace in which to stand and be the church which serves him alone? Never has it been so clear that the real question before our church is this: who will be the Master in this house? Is it not a sign of the times that the very title "Master" is no longer allowed to our Lord?

2. What Has Happened Since Then...and Now?

If we are still in agreement, then let us ask now what has happened since our beginnings in '94 and '95? Let me begin with "achievements". Last month the steering committee met to make an assessment of our situation. Let me briefly list three accomplishments which we discussed: [from Abraham's paper]

  1. The CM has provided a measure of assurance to many rank and file United Methodists who have felt that their church has been doctrinally adrift for too long.
  2. The CM has helped the church to become aware of the significance of doctrine in the life of the church as a whole. Although there are many critics who are made nervous by talk about doctrine, there is an increasing openness to the claim that doctrine really does matter.
  3. The CM has raised serious questions about the prevailing consensus of our church that our identity is defined by doctrinal pluralism and the Methodist Quadrilateral. There is at least room now for genuine debate and the possibility that we may embrace an understanding of our core commitments which is more faithful to the gospel and to our heritage.

But not everyone praises our "achievements." A variety of objections and attacks have been voiced against us. Some objections have been so strident they have forced us to remember again that the Name of Jesus is a two-edged sword, it penetrates strongholds, it exposes the hidden assumptions of human hearts, including our own. Most of the objections have come from outside our movement, but a few have arisen within. If we are to understand where we are now, and the tasks before us this weekend and in the years ahead, we must address these criticisms and objections.

I want to set before you the most critical of those objections now. We cannot provide a complete response to all of them at this moment, but we can indicate the nature of the theological and practical struggle before us....

Objection #1: The first question addressed to us is the age-old NT question: "By what authority do you speak?" Who are you? ..... Of course the objection is not always put in biblical phraseology. We have more often heard the complaint, "who does this self-selected group think they are acting outside the normal channels of the General Conference? Is this just one more caucus seeking to exert pressure upon the church?" These are common questions in a denomination plagued with caucus-politics, a church where all our covenantal structures have clogged with caucus-concerns. So we need not be defensive. The simple answer to the question is this: We have no authority of our own. The real question is not "who are you?" but rather "who do you say He is?" [We exist solely to keep that question alive in the Church.]

Objection #2: The most personal objection to our movement charges that we are just plain "mean." The objection comes in numerous forms, but all of them paint a picture of people who bear remarkable resemblance to the less savory members of the Spanish Inquisition. The most frequent form of the criticism is that we are "intolerant"--thus a danger to our "tolerant" society. A corollary of this states that we are "divisive" and therefore a danger to the unity and order of our denomination! The Dean of one of our seminaries recently argued that "many of [the] people [who] believe that confessions are good things...define Christian identity...negatively, in terms of those who are excluded." [QR, p.120]

The most direct attack of this kind was made by the document entitled "A Critical Challenge to the Confessing Movement" and signed by seminary presidents, prominent pastors and theologians. That document catalogs all the adjectives of "mean-ness" and then culminates in the charge that the CM is idolatrous and exclusive. It should not surprise us that the charge of intolerance ends up in the accusation of idolatry. The God we worship will define the character and virtue of our faith. According to our critics, we are intolerant because we do not worship tolerance. We are exclusive because we do not worship inclusivism. Now, it is certainly appropriate for our critics to point out the dangers of using creeds or belief statements in authoritarian ways, but something more is at stake here.

They say we are idolaters because we have "reduced" inclusivism and tolerance to "mere principles." Apparently, for our critics, these things are higher than "mere principles." If you read our Confessional Statement carefully, you will discover that we describe inclusivism and tolerance as good principles that can be "misused." Do you see what is at stake here? There is a contest between Gods. The CM says, JESUS CHRIST alone is Lord, and all principles must be tested against him. Our critics seem to think that all voices and claims must be affirmed because Inclusivism is "lord!" Our critics say, "you are guilty of the exclusivism of Christocentrism." We reply, "guilty as charged! We proudly proclaim Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity. We worship him. We praise Him. We adore him." [Mark Horst] Therefore, let us not take offense when our critics accuse us of unkind intolerance. Instead, let us gently but firmly plead with them to examine themselves to see whether they have elevated or deified Inclusivism, so that Jesus Christ has become for them a servant of this concept rather than Lord over all principalities and powers.

Objection #3: A third objection raised against the CM asserts that we have a "narrow view of Jesus." This criticism tends to take two forms: one having to do with diversity in the Scripture and the other having to do with diversity among the world religions. In the first case, our critics often talk down to us as if we have not studied our Bibles with all the tools of modern historical-critical perspective. The "Critical Challenge" document I referred to earlier gives a long list of NT titles for Jesus, other than Son, Savior, and Lord, and proceeds to instruct us in our lack of attention to "the diversity of christological interpretations in the NT" and our failure to say anything "about Biblical interpretation."

Our response should go something like this. The church is in crisis precisely because we have substituted arguments about Scripture for the Word of God. The church is in crisis because we have allowed issues of biblical interpretation to come between us and the Word of God. Our critics are adept at listing all the available interpretations, but they seem unable to confess how the many "words" of Scripture deliver to us the living Word of God. [Mark Horst]

In the second case, of diversity among religions, our critics take us to task for our use of the title "Savior of the world." There are many savior figures and every religion has its own way of salvation. We are told we may call Jesus "Savior" as long as we are ready to admit the efficacy of savior figures worshiped by other religions. "But religious pluralism is not a new proposal. The attitude was rampant in the world into which Christianity was born. If the early Christians had been willing to include Christ in the pantheon of deities worshiped by the pagans, the martyrs would never have gone to their deaths, but the pagan world would never have been converted." [A. Dulles] It was for this reason that we quoted the Apostle Paul in our Confessional Statement. In I Cor. 8:4-6 Paul says "the pagans have many gods and many lords, but Christians acknowledge only one God, the Father of all, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. Christianity stands or falls with the affirmation that, as there is but one God, so too there is but one name under heaven by whom one can be saved (Acts 4:12); for there is only one Mediator of salvation, the man Christ Jesus (I Timothy 2:5). To proclaim the gospel is necessarily to proclaim that Jesus Christ alone is Lord." [A. Dulles]

Objection #4: Let me offer one more objection from outside our movement before I turn to the issue of internal criticism. Objection #4 says that the CM is totally wrong in its reading of the UM tradition. We are not a "confessional" church, it says. Our Doctrinal Standards are seen merely as historical landmarks but hardly relevant for guiding our faith in a contemporary setting. The whole idea of being "confessional" is a mistake, say these critics, because a confessing church is synonymous with rigidity and being closed to "new truth" and "new revelation."

It is unfortunate that our critics understand "confession" only in static terms. Furthermore, they seem not to have the ecumenical awareness that many of our brothers and sisters in historic "confessional" communions have long known the difference between a static confessional-ism which turns doctrine into law and a dynamic and living confession which explores faith in contemporary terms. A true "confession" is more than a "profession" of belief in certain statements. It is a dynamic action by which the church proclaims its trust in God's self-revelation and protests against misrepresentations of this message. [Arand, 243] Our critics seem to think there is no constructive middle ground between a rigid confessionalism and a free-wheeling pluralism. Either you snuff out freedom and prevent all theological exploration, or you are constantly in search of a faith not yet revealed. Our critics fail to see that creeds and confessional statements and doctrinal standards are maps for taking the journey of faith. Yes, some people get too rigidly focused on the maps and never take the journey. That is why John Wesley criticized "mere orthodoxy." But the long experience of the church is that if you take the journey without the maps, you quickly get lost, and for that reason, the church must always ask: what are the essential signposts and compass bearings of our faith? ....

Objection #5: An Internal Objection Finally, let me put before you some disagreements that have arisen within our Movement. Some of you are looking for a dramatic action which will capture the attention of the whole denomination, a massive public rebuke to Bishops and leaders who see themselves as prophets and bearers of a new revelation and thus set aside the church's teaching. Others argue that we need a patient, long-term, intentional effort to again become the teaching church, to foster doctrinal renewal in ways which will be persuasive to the church as a whole and effective in practice. Some argue that the time for dialogue with the powers that be is long past and that now we need decisive political action in the church. Still others say, No, the time for clear argument has only just arrived because the Confession of Jesus Christ has challenged the style of empty dialogue where all voices and claims are equally valid and no decisions about Christian truth are allowed.

As these disagreements are voiced among us let me say a word of encouragement to you. Disagreements among us can be a very good thing! Our opponents seem to think that we all walk in lockstep in mindless uniformity. But we are a rich variety of evangelicals, and centrists, and moderates, and traditionalists.... To the extent that we can model constructive disagreement while claiming our unity in the confession of Christ as Son, Savior and Lord, we will perform a much needed service for our church. Since Christ is Lord, we have the freedom to argue publicly, giving the Scriptural and doctrinal grounds for our arguments. We don't have to argue as if the Lord has taken a leave of absence and all that is left to us is the application of political pressure. No, our Lord is present, and our arguments either honor or dishonor him. So whether we argue with our critics or between ourselves, let us in all things honor the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul put it (2 Cor. 4): "Since through God's mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret, underhanded ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God."

3. What Is To Happen Now?

I want to turn now from all the objections that have risen against us and ask, "What are we to do now?" Beginning tonight and tomorrow and continuing into the years of struggle ahead of us? First of all, everything will depend on whether God grants us a clear testimony to the work of the Holy Spirit among us. The renewal of our church will never catch fire "unless we plead for it before God in vigorous prayer." [DB] For that reason, you will see that our Conference this weekend begins and ends in prayer. We cannot expect our church to be renewed without our hungering and thirsting after God thru the "means of Grace." [Does our church lack power? Then we must seek the only power that will reform us. No amount of organizational prowess or political manipulation will heal our church. We must confess that "Jesus Christ alone can lead the way." (DB)] Will you look for a moment, now, at the Conference Schedule which we have printed for you?

CONFERENCE SCHEDULE:

-- Panel: --Bible Study: beginning our day with the Word...

--Regional Groups: [assignment]

--Task Groups:....[see list; assignments]

--Plenary Session and Reports --Speaker & Covenant Service

Let me say one final word about the work we will do here this weekend. Our steering Committee has developed a purpose statement to guide us in our deliberations. Purpose Statement: Confessing Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord, The Confessing Movement exists to enable The UMC to retrieve its classical doctrinal identity and to live it out as disciples of Jesus Christ. If you look at it closely, you will see that it grounds all our work in discipleship to Jesus Christ....It begins by confessing who he is. And it ends in obedience to him as the master of the disciples. As we pray and plan together this weekend, let us be clear that all our actions to renew the church must be grounded in our discipleship to Jesus Christ and the mission of discipling he has called us to. If we appeal to our credentials, or the purity of our motives, or the need to address the abuses in our church, we will finally, and rightly, be called just another caucus. But Jesus Christ is not a caucus. He is not one item on a legislative agenda. He is the Good news of the gospel. We have no authority for our work other than to point to him who said: "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you. And surely, I am with you always to the very end of the age." That discipling work of baptizing and teaching is, as Dr. Abraham has put it, "bounded by the comprehensive authority of Christ on the one side, and by the unfailing presence of Christ on the other." Surrounded by that "double blessing of authority and presence...we can cope with [all] our disagreements and we can take on the principalities and powers which stand ranged against us."


Note about the author:
  • Meeting in Memphis Jan. 3, the board of the Confessing Movement appointed a Theological Commission to "reaffirm Wesleyan theology as established in the Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church."
  • The Rev. Leicester Longden, pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Lansing, Mich., was elected chairman of the commission.

Biographical Information

    Dr. Les Longden (Leicester R. Longden) is a:

  • Elder in W. Michigan Annual Conference
  • Graduate of Union Theological Seminary (New York) , B.D.
  • Graduate of Drew Graduate School, Ph.D. (historical theology)
  • John Wesley Fellow
  • Sr. Pastor of Trinity UMC in Lansing, MI
  • Serves on Board of Directors of The Confessing Movement
  • Chair of the Theological Commission of The Confessing Movement

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