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Debate - Is the United Methodist Church a Confessing Church?

Sponsored by the Athanasian Society


Affirmative Arguments by Leicester Longden

Many United Methodists today - both leaders and longtime members of local congregations are worried about our church. From every side we hear different appraisals of what kind of crisis out church is facing. The Confessing Movement has confronted all these appraisals with the challenge to Confess Christ as Lord of the church and to engage ourselves in a serious retrieval of our doctrinal and confessional heritage. Because I agree with the Confessional Statement of the Confessing Movement that "the United Methodist Church is now incapable of confessing with one voice" that Jesus Christ is Son, Savior, and Lord, I am resolved that the United Methodist Church should identify itself as a confessional church. I believe there needs to be a change in our church's self identification, therefore, I place before you three basic arguments.

First, United Methodists tend to confuse doctrine and theology. Doctrine implies a tradition and a community; theology implies the views of individuals, not necessarily within or committed to the community. Therefore, when members of the Confessing Movement speak of "United Methodist doctrine," we mean those doctrines that have become canonical for the church as a whole; those teachings we have agreed upon as expressing the corporate mind of the church and essential to the identity of the Christian community. Such doctrine has been legislatively established in our church by General Conference action and is protected by the First Restrictive Rule of our Constitution (Section III), which states: "the General Conference shall not revoke, alter, or change our Articles of Religion or establish any new standards or rules of doctrine contrary to our present existing and established standards of doctrine."

However, this distinction between doctrine and theology frequently has been ignored or not understood. Given the diverse and contradictory theological proposals among us and the constant emphasis upon pluralism and diversity, it is not surprising that many United Methodists confuse theological diversity with doctrinal chaos. Fortunately, the United Methodist community has established standards of doctrine, which means we are free to appropriate or reject the ideas and speculations of our theologians. This protects the freedom of the theologian to speculate or explore and it protects the community from bondage to every new theological proposal that comes along.

Secondly, this confusion between theology and communally, constitutionally established doctrine has been furthered by our habit of calling ourselves a nonconfessional church.

If by confessional church we mean a church that defines itself solely by a particular creed, or a doctrinal confession like the Presbyterian Westminster Confession or the Lutheran Augustana Confession, then we are not that. What has been forgotten by most United Methodists is that nonconfessional in its original usage had a positive "catholic" sense. It originated within the Anglican/Methodist heritage as a way of saying "we are not only 'reformed' or 'evangelical,' we are 'catholic."' That is, our roots don't originate entirely in the confessions of the 16th century.

Some may argue that while United Methodists "confess the faith" we are not required in any way to subscribe to specific doctrines. However, at every level of our community we can point to doctrinal accountability in some form or another. The baptismal liturgy calls for people to confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. The membership vows include a covenant to be loyal to the church, which certainly includes belief in and faithfulness to its doctrines. In the selection and ordination of clergy, the Discipline requires a knowledge, a commitment to, and a promise to preach and maintain the doctrines of the United Methodist Church. Similarly. the Discipline mandates that bishops "guard, transmit, teach, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith...." Clearly, United Methodists have to face the fact that we have our own way of being a confessional church and to persist in calling ourselves nonconfessional simply adds to the confusion between church doctrine and individual theological opinions.

Finally, the crisis in the United Methodist Church is, in fact, a doctrinal, or confessional crisis. Unless the parties, schools, and caucuses within the church acknowledge the doctrinal/confessional character of our crisis, they will not be able to move the church to action or reform. Canadian theologian Douglas John Ball has pointed out the connection between "confessing the faith" and the "issues" that are dividing the churches. Both conservatives and progressives must acknowledge the relation of ethical decision making to foundational belief. As Hall puts it, "An ethic is not Christian just because it has reference to 'justice' or 'liberation' or 'love.' ... If it is to have any sustaining power at all, a Christian ethic must be one that can be recognized by Christians as belonging in an essential way to the core of their belief."

Lest you think that only the progressives should look to their doctrinal commitments, let me remind you that conservatives, too, must do more than simply recite the Articles of Religion or assert the "primacy" of Scripture. That can be mere orthodoxy so chastised by Wesley. What conservatives must be prepared to see is that they cannot complacently rest upon an appeal to Scripture. Immersion in the doctrine of the church brings surprises for everyone, and sometimes radical consequences. One of which, I conclude, is a compelling need for the United Methodist Church to identify itself as a confessional church.


Negative Arguments by John Swomley

The Confessional Statement of the Confessing Movement is in my judgment a flawed and highly misleading document. It speaks about a crisis but does not illustrate it with specific facts. It also charges that the United Methodist Church is now incapable of confessing with one voice the orthodox Trinitarian faith. It cites no specifics and doesn't tell us to whom it refers - a few out of millions of members or the General Conference. It concludes that if it succeeds in getting the Confessional Statement adopted. "We will vigorously challenge and hold accountable those that undermine this confession."

My reaction to the Confessing Movement is that it has no faith in the Holy Spirit. It is attempting to systematize God and bolt down our faith to make it immovable. In other words, by what it omits and specifies, it is an attempt to imprison us in the exclusive dogma that the finite members of the Confessing Movement think encompass the Christian faith. It does not serve a living church or world in dire need of liberation.

Never in the Wesleyan tradition is the identity of Methodists defined by right doctrine: it is defined by right living. The test of authentic faith for Wesley is the practice of holiness of heart and life that is manifested in love of God and neighbor. This practical holiness defines our mission, our identity, and our life together. The Wesley quadrilateral, which combines Scripture with reason, tradition, and experience. is an essential theological formula for Methodists. The idea advanced by some in the Confessing Movement that all we need is se lected portions of Scripture and ancient creeds is fallacious.

The Bible, for instance, has to be interpreted, and that requires reason. For example, there are more than 800 passages defending human slavery in the Bible. This reveals a cultural context that only a fundamentalist could describe as inspired and valid today. Not one of the central figures from Abraham and Moses to Jesus and Paul spoke out against human slavery as inherently evil. If God was opposed to it, none of his spokesmen knew it. Biblical or textual criticism is based on reason.

If we turn to tradition, we can examine the Apostles' Creed. The most significant thing about the creed is the omission of Jesus' baptism, his teaching, his fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, his works, or the purpose of his life and death. The Apostles' Creed does not summarize the original Christian gospel. It is an attempt at a doctrinal creed that accents a God of might and power, and omits references to a God of love, to the kingdom of God, repentance, faith, salvation through Christ, or the nature of the Christian life. Although the creed cannot be ignored, it is obvious that there is so more to the tradition of the church and much that needs to be explained or defended in any creed. Surely Wesley was right in his understanding that Scripture had to be complemented by reason and tradition.

Finally, we come to experience. As a young man in law school, I was unmoved by the Apostles' Creed, regular participation in Holy Communion. and attendance at church. It was at a National Council of Methodist Youth meeting in 1937 that I was converted by participating in a group that was integrated on a higher level than I imagined possible. The council's motto was, "Hence forth I shall live as if the kingdom of God were already here. Therefore, if in the kingdom there is no warfare, for me there shall be none. And if in the kingdom there is no racial discrimination, for me there shall be none." There were similar comments about economics and poverty.

The experience helped me understand what Jesus meant when he said. "Unless you are converted and become like little children you will not enter the kingdom of heaven." It became clear to me that children are too young to have become captive of their society's ideology and to have developed vested interests in property, nationalism, war, racial, or other prejudices.

I came to understand that people in the churches that recited the Apostles' Creed and those who believed they were saved by their be concentrating on the sins of sex or drunkenness. They did not concern themselves with the larger sins of militarism, imperialism, war, racism, and forced unemployment. In other words, Protestant recitation of creeds, including mere talk about justification or salvation, ideologically functions to maintain a social system that - when it does not engage as Wesley did in social holiness - kills, oppresses, and exploits living human beings. I am unaware of such concerns in any Confessing Movement literature, its leaders, or actions recommended as follow-up for the declared or confessed beliefs. In spite of Jesus' reputation as the prince of peace and his emphasis, and that of the early church, on a commitment to love of enemies and of nonviolence, that emphasis is completely missing in the Confessing Movement.

James A. Sanders, president of the Ancient and Biblical Manuscript Center. and professor of Intertestamental and Biblical Studies at Claremont School of Theology, summarizes best the whole case against the confessing movement: "No one person, no denomination, no theology, and certainly no ideology can exhaust the Bible or claim its unity. It bears with it its own redeeming contradiction, and this is a major reason it has lasted so long.... Once a theme or strain or thread rightly perceived in the Bible has been isolated and absolutized, it simply becomes available for challenge from another theme or strain also there. The whole Bible, of whichever canon, can never be stuffed into one theological box." (Canon and Community, page 37)

Therefore. I conclude that we should lift the Gospel and let the whole of the Bible continue to inform, inspire, and guide us without imposing on the church a one-sided interpretation of specific verses by any particular group of clergy and laity."


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