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A New Voice for Theological Renewal

by James V. Heidinger II

Episcopal theologian David Mills has said that when churches lose their shared beliefs and unexamined assumptions, they have lost that which integrates them and gives them cohesion. Mills believes this explains the decline in the mainline protestant churches.

It was concern about such doctrinal loss within the United Methodist Church that brought 102 United Methodists to Atlanta in 1994 and led to the formation of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church. In April of 1995, more than 900 United Methodists gathered in Atlanta and joined in issuing the new movement's "Confessional Statement" which said, "The United Methodist Church is now incapable of confessing with one voice the orthodox Trinitarian faith, particularly Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of history and the Church." The fact that some prominent UM theologians and pastors have protested the Confessing Movement's call to confess Christ as Son, Savior and Lord perfectly illustrates the very theological crisis being addressed.

This past September 27 and 28, the Confessing Movement held a second national conference, meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio (see article on page 34). The 500 persons attending acted with boldness and enthusiasm to 1) re-affirm the urgent need for the Confessing Movement, and 2) to move ahead to employ a full-time executive director and establish a central office, staff, and board which will allow the movement to expand its outreach and effectiveness.

Good News commends this action and welcomes the Confessing Movement into its new level of ministry. As we have done with other emerging ministries, we will offer whatever support and encouragement we can to help this new effort, referred to by Dr. Billy Abraham, professor of theology at Perkins School of Theology, as "one element in a fascinating network of renewal which is sweeping through our church as a whole."

Abraham preached during morning worship in Cincinnati and lifted a theme that will be heard often from the Confessing Movement: "Doctrine is essential for the unity, spiritual welfare, and stability of the church." With that, United Methodists evangelicals will heartily agree.

The Confessing Movement had made it clear earlier that it is not asking for "a new definition of faith, but for a new level of integrity in upholding our historic doctrinal standards in a thoughtful, serious, and principled way. We look to our Council of Bishops to assert their traditional doctrinal teaching authority." The unsympathetic response to this call by many UM bishops only illustrates further our theological crisis.

Has United Methodism lost its shared beliefs? We fear so, especially at the leadership level of our church. When we embraced "theological pluralism" in 1972, it was an institutional effort to take our lack of doctrinal consensus, name it, and call it a great strength. Though "theological pluralism" is no longer found in our Discipline, we are still urged repeatedly to celebrate our diversity. Ironically, the liberal leadership of the church continually asks evangelicals to be tentative in our views and convictions while it remains dogmatic, even belligerent, in its relativism.

When a church loses its shared beliefs, it looks to other things for unity. One place the church has sought unity is at the table of dialogue. Unity, we have been told repeatedly, would not be found in our answers, but in our questions, in sharing our experiences and faith journeys. After all, doctrine binds and blinds, we have heard, but experience unites. Dialogue, of course, can bring increased understanding and appreciation of others. However, it will not necessarily bring unity. Why? Because dialogue, if authentic, must still lead participants to some conclusions about basic beliefs. It will not dissolve serious doctrinal differences.

Years ago, John Lawson, then professor of history at Candler School of Theology, made the point that lasting renewal is necessarily linked to theological renewal. He wrote, "...while there have been revivals of Christian devotion that have been revivals of simpleminded and unreflective enthusiasm only, the great and constructive revivals always have been revivals of sound, balanced, and scriptural theology, as well as of `the heart strangely warmed.' The evangelical renewal of the church cannot arise apart from a renewal of her historic and scriptural evangelical theology" (emphasis mine, An Evangelical Faith For Today, p. 10).

According to its foundational documents, the Confessing Movement appears to be seeking exactly that--theological renewal. It asks no new thing, only that the United Methodist Church be faithful to its own doctrinal standards. Our people have every right to expect that of their church. As the Confessing Movement pursues its missional purposes, Good News will be praying for its every success.

The above editorial is reprinted with permission from Good News Magazine, November/December 1997 Issue, Volume 29, Number 11

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