Perspective: The Confessing Movement Debate - SMU (continued)
I write this newsletter for a number of reasons. One being that I enjoy discussing central issues of faith that confront the church. Last week I discussed an argument against the Confessing Movement given by John Swomley professor emeritus of Christian ethics at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. I was not able to adequately respond to Swomley's closing argument last week. I am particularly interested in his argument because it is very typical of what I encountered and still encounter in United Methodist higher education.
"I came to understand that people in the churches that recited the Apostles' Creed and those who believed they were saved by their beliefs actually were 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."
There are a number of objections I have with Swomley's statement. First, I find Swomley's dismissal of sex and drug addiction as a worthy focus for ministry quite disturbing. Anyone who has spent any time as a pastor of a church must know that addiction is wrecking our communities. How many people in our congregations are either themselves addicted, married to an addict, have a parent who is addicted, or a child or sibling who is addicted. Nearly half of the people in my congregation have been directly impacted by drug and alcohol addiction. As for sexuality, I use to think that addiction was the greatest problem faced by my people. Now I believe it is the break down of the family. Every statistic available is telling us that the loss of the two parent home is having catastrophic effects on the children of America. I can do very little about war, or unemployment. I can do something about helping people break the bondage of addiction and I can help restore marriages and comfort children without fathers with a Heavenly Father.
Another objection I have to Swomley, on this point, is his assessment of evangelicals neglect of racial issues. It is true that the liberals led in the civil rights movement. It is also true that some evangelical churches have sheltered and fostered racism. However, I know of no United Methodist pastor, liberal or conservative, who does not believe in racial justice. Promise Keepers an evangelical movement embraced by many evangelical UMC members is a perfect example of a new desire on the part of evangelicals to proclaim racial tolerance. I sometimes think it is easier of me as an conservative evangelical to talk about racial issues. As a conservative, I have more credibility with my conservative members.
Interestingly one area where Wesley was most adamant Swomley is silent. The issue of
materialism is perhaps my most troubling personal ethical dilemma. When I read the New
Testament and its understanding of the use of money and Wesley's own concern for the
materialism of his followers, who by hard work and moral diligence became wealthy, I
experience a great deal of pain. We as American Christians are consuming resources that
could be going to feed, clothe and employ the needy of the world. In my own community,
there are single mothers who need my help. My life style is too extravagant and yet I have
a hard time changing it. I like it. It is much easier to talk of militarism and forced
unemployment than to address my need for a second new car or cable tv or a new computer.
Finally, it is not even fair for Swomley to say the Confessing Movement does not address social issues. Perhaps the most controversial section of the Confessing Document does just that. It is when we go from Christology to particular social issues that we go from the unity of Christ to divisive political positions. I do not suggest that the Confessing Movement was wrong to do this. Without some social statement we would be open to the charges Swomley does level. As it is, we have chosen to be assertive and there by proving that Christians can and do divide over politics. I will close with the Confessing Documents statement of social issues.
"We repudiate teachings and practices that misuse principles of inclusiveness and tolerance to distort the doctrine and discipline of the Church. We deny the claim that the individual is free to decide what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil. We reject the widespread and often unchallenged practices in and by the Church that rebel against the Lordship of Jesus Christ. For example:
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