Methodists Charge Chicago Bishop with Heresy
Methodists Charge Chicago Bishop with Heresy
Wednesday, January 22, 2003
By The Leader-Chicago Bureau
- Heresy: An opinion or doctrine at variance with established religious
CHICAGO -- The office of the United Methodist Church's Chicago Bishop is similar in responsibility and influence in the Methodist hierarchy as the office of Cardinal of the Chicago Archdiocese is for the Catholic Church. Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, who directs the United Methodists' Northern Illinois Conference based at the Chicago Methodist Temple, is being challenged on what some are calling "heretical teaching."
Bishop C. Joseph Sprague’s unorthodox statements deny the virgin birth of Christ, deny that Jesus was born the son of God, deny that Jesus was physically resurrected from the dead and deny Christ died for the sins of mankind, positions which collide with church's traditional teaching.
These theological positions have stimulated an outpouring of complaints and protest letters from other Methodist Bishops, evangelical pastors and lay people, some of whom are seeking his removal from office.
Bishop Sprague’s previous claim to fame was having been arrested at the quadrennial United Methodist Church Conference held in Cleveland in 2000. Sprague led in a demonstration opposing the Methodists' disapproval of marriage between homosexuals. The convention delegates, as a whole, did not agree with the demonstrators.
Those Who Hold to Traditional Teaching Labeled “Neo-Literalists”
A nationwide coalition of twenty-eight ministers and lay people, headed by the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, the pastor of the Faith Community United Methodist Church in Greenville, Wisconsin, has started proceedings aimed at getting Sprague to renounce his heretical views or be removed from his influential office.
Northern Illinois Methodists are not yet demonstrating in front of the church’s Chicago Temple located across the street from Chicago's City Hall and the Daley Center. In fact, no one from Illinois signed the coalition's letter of complaint about Sprague. Because Bishop Sprague has the authority to transfer ministers from church to church, much as the Director of state agencies have the right to transfer employees from location to location, Illinois pastors are concerned that they may experience unwanted changes in their assignments if they participate in the complaint.
But opposition to the Bishop is growing, even in Illinois. A group of opponents from Des Plaines, Elgin, Chicago, among others, met Saturday at Wheatland-Salem United Methodist Church in Naperville to discuss what should be done about the controversy.
From the group that met on Saturday Illinois Leader has obtained a copy of the formal complaint calling for Sprague to either renounce of his controversial views or be removed from office. The letter notes that Sprague first made public his views at Iliff Seminary in Denver a year ago and, more recently, published them in his new book, Affirmations of a Dissenter.
Dissemination by Bishop “Fundamentally Fraudulent”
The process of challenging a lack of orthodoxy in the Methodist Church involves, first, a request to the jurisdiction’s presiding bishop, in this case Bishop Bruce R. Ough. That request was also obtained by the Illinois Leader.
Bishop Ough serves the United Methodist Church in a position similar to that of an Illinois state’s attorney. When charges are brought to Ough, as with a state’s attorney, he has the discretion to either prosecute the accused or dismiss the charges. Just as a civil trial does not occur if a state’s attorney decides the charges are not credible, Bishop Ough will decide whether the complaint concerning the church official will go forward to trial or end up in the wastebasket.
Disagrees on Jesus’ Birth as Son of God and from Virgin Mary
Sprague further argues, “Jesus was not born the Christ; rather by the confluence of grace with faith he became the Christ . . .” In other words, the bishop believes that Jesus developed into or morphed into the Son of God.
In contrast to Sprague’s views, the filers of the request for a church trial cite the Methodist Articles of Religion, which say,
Disagree on Resurrection
Those dissenting from Sprague’s viewpoint again quote the church’s Articles of Religion:
Disagree on Route of Salvation
“I must dissent from Christocentric exclusives which hold that Jesus is the only way to God’s gift of salvation,” the Chicago Bishop says.
In contrast, those signing the letter to Bishop Ough once again quote the Articles of Religion, maintaining they accept and affirm the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone, by faith alone, and through Christ alone:
Disagree on the Atonement of Jesus Christ
“Obviously, such an understanding of atonement,” explains Sprague, ”leaves no room for me to affirm the substitutionary atonement theory that portrays Jesus’ blood on the cross as satisfying an angry deity through one majestic sacrificial human death, much like sacrifices of unblemished sheep and goats in ancient Israel were understood to appease God and atone for the sins of all.”
Again, the Articles of Religion are quoted by those disagreeing with Sprague:
Having laid out what might be called a “bill of particulars” to Bishop Ough, the complaint then suggests, “ . . . even these summary illustrations indicate Bishop Sprague’s address and book to fall under the chargeable offense of disseminating doctrines contrary to our established standards,” further suggesting that they are “particularly egregious because it is being done in an academic context.”
Complaint Alleges Disobedience to Church Order and Discipline
Bishop’s Ordination Affirmations Questioned
The challengers also point out one of the qualifications of ordination is that the person “be accountable to the United Methodist Church, accept its Doctrinal Standards and Discipline and authority, accept the supervision of those appointed to this ministry, and be prepared to live in the covenant of its ordained ministers.” (emphasis as indicated in the original letter)
“We believe the evidence given above shows that Bishop Sprague has violated these promises and qualifications,” the letter continues. “We further believe that the role of the bishop is not to flaunt those boundaries (as Bishop Sprague has done by his statements quoted above and by calling the Doctrinal Standards literal understanding of the Christian faith ‘idolatrous,’ but to uphold and defend them”).
The group declares that Sprague should be removed from office if he holds to his statements, writing, “The integrity of the clergy covenant of the United Methodist Church demands no less."
Bishop Ough will be making his decision as to whether the complaint progresses.
Editor's Note: The original version of this story published on January
22, 2003 contained two references to an Illinois group participating in
filing the complaint on Bishop Sprague. The current version deleted those
references, as the statement was erroneous.
<Back to News