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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 beliefs

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”
Bishop Sprague believes those who challenge his unorthodox views are “neo-literalists.” On the other hand, some who disagree with him suggest Sprague is a “heretic,” flaunting church doctrine. They believe that Sprague should no longer be allowed to lead the church’s Northern Illinois Conference.

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”
Sprague's book is "an attempt to deconstruct the theology and doctrine established by the United Methodist Church, as evidenced by" the fourth chapter of his new book, the letter charges. “We believe it is fundamentally fraudulent for C. Joseph Sprague to be disseminating these doctrines under the imprimatur of being a United Methodist bishop,” it adds.

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
The formal complaint focuses first on Sprague’s contention that Jesus was not born to the Virgin Mary. Sprague contends that the virgin birth is a “myth” and, “To treat this myth as historic fact is to do an injustice to its intended purpose and to run the risk of idolatry itself . . .”

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,

The Son, who is the Word of the Father, the very and eternal God, of one substance with the Father, took man’s nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin;


And in unity of this Godhead there are the three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity--the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. (emphasis as indicated in the original letter)

Disagree on Resurrection
Chicago’s Bishop and his critics also disagree on Christ’s resurrection. The bishop believes in the resurrection of Jesus, he writes, "but I cannot believe that his resurrection involved the resuscitation of his physical body . . ."

Those dissenting from Sprague’s viewpoint again quote the church’s Articles of Religion:

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he returns to judge all men at the last day. (emphasis as indicated in the letter)

Disagree on Route of Salvation
Sprague's view of how to obtain salvation also differs from that of the Methodist Church, the objectors write.

“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:

We are accounted righteous before God only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith . . . Wherefore, that we are justified by faith, only, is a most wholesome doctrine, and very full of comfort. (emphasis as indicated in the original letter)

The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin but that alone. (emphasis as indicated in the original letter)

Disagree on the Atonement of Jesus Christ
Those affirming church doctrine also suggest Sprague “teaches a novel view of the Atonement of Jesus; that it was not done on the cross.”

“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:

Whereof, it is one Christ, very God and very Man, who truly suffered, was crucified, dead, and buried, to reconcile his Father to us, and to be a sacrifice, not only for original guilt, but also for actual sins of man.

The offering of Christ, once made, is that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual.

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
The letter alleges that Bishop Sprague is not fulfilling “the specific responsibilities designated for our episcopal leaders. Rather than fulfill the teaching office of Bishop, we believe he has used, and intends to continue to use, the episcopal office to undermine and overturn the apostolic faith and the theological traditions of the United Methodist Church.”

Bishop’s Ordination Affirmations Questioned
The evangelical Methodists also point to the questions Sprague answered when he was made an elder of the church and reaffirmed when he was consecrated as a bishop. They include:

  • Have you studied the doctrines of the United Methodist Church?
  • After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
  • Will you preach and maintain them?

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.


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