by Chris Ritter
Bishop Mike Coyner has written a compelling article about the quagmire in which we find ourselves in the UMC. His history of our church up through the 1968 merger is superb and falls into the category of must-read material. I question his interpretation of some of our more recent history and strongly disagree with his suggestion of a temporary “local option.” I am a big fan of Bishop Coyner. But if doctrinal amnesia and loss of missional focus is the problem (as he so convincingly suggests) then a widening of our denominational tent pegs cannot be the solution.
I say this as someone who is vulnerable to the accusation of authoring tent-widening structural proposals for the UMC. My three Jurisdictional Solutions and Love Alike Plan are all aimed at helping us somehow live within the same house. My only defense is that my proposals are not aimed at widening the tent but partitioning it so that each side can find renewed focus without being in open combat with those in another room. Recent events in the church have seriously complicated those plans of mine that include a unified general superintendency.
An uncomfortable fact in Methodist history is that our splits, while unseemly, have had no negative effect on mission as measured by numeric expansion. The same cannot be said of our mergers. Here is my thesis: The relationships necessary to make a church or movement effective must have their basis in a vision of Christian living so strong, so focused, and so compelling that those involved will sacrificially submit to one another in binding covenant to bring that vision into reality.
WHAT IS COVENANT?
There are all sorts of cooperative human relationships in our world. Most don’t have the power to meaningfully change us. The kind that does transform us is a most potent tool in service to the Gospel. It is also the kind that is in short supply in a fractured church.
You might have a relationship with the folks at your local grocery store. They provide you with quality goods at a fair price and you provide them with a paying customer. It is a consumer relationship and it is based on mutual benefit. You also perhaps have a relationship with a financial institution. They provide you with money to purchase a car and you respond by making regular payments that include a rate of interest. This is a contractual relationship. It is based on mutual obligation with “if” being the operative word. If Party A fails to do what was promised, Party B is relieved from their responsibility, as well.
There is another type of relationship that is much more comprehensive. It is not based on a signature (although paperwork might be involved). We instead make solemn vows… and the words “if,” “but,” and “unless” are not used. The obligations are complete, open-ended, and without qualification: “I will… I do.” This is covenant relationship.
We don’t take vows for things that are easy. Vows are reserved for difficult and demanding relationships that have the power to define and shape us. My oldest son recently took an oath as he prepares to enter the U.S. Navy. He didn’t dare ask if he and Navy could just “live together” for a while and see if it works out. They would have never accepted him under those terms.
The assumption is that a recruit, left to him or herself, will likely want out of the the relationship at many points in the process. If this doesn’t happen during the rigors of basic training, it definitely would happen in the eventuality of war. Recruits sign on to a larger mission with the promise of becoming something more than they could make of themselves. For the Navy to do what they need to do to make my son a sailor, they need to “own” him. A consumer relationship or even a contractual relationship is not enough. They will shape him well beyond the tolerances of his comfort. His mother and I know that he will come back to us a changed man. He will be disciplined into a sailor.
Marriage is another such covenant relationship. When officiating a wedding, our liturgy does not ask the couple if they are really in love with each other. As wonderful as mutual affection is, this is irrelevant to the proceedings. Feelings are fickle, fleeting, slippery things and marriage is a comprehensive, exclusive, life-long covenant. Neither do we ceremoniously inquire into a couple’s compatibility. We already know they are incompatible and that is sort of the point. Marriage is a relationship that will shape the groom into a husband and the bride into a wife. Hearts will be grown as love, honor, and faithfulness are exercised in the hard times. Marriage is not ultimately about our happiness but our holiness. The bride and groom are vowing themselves into a God-given discipline of living.
Vows and covenant also form the only possible effective foundation for faith and ministry. The core Christian confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord” is replete with the understanding that we accept an authority higher than our own desires and comprehension… and higher than any other human allegiance. To even speak of discipleship is to imply the presence of a Master. For the Gospel to shape us it must be allowed to take us beyond our comfort, our desires, and even our understanding. Jesus must own us to make us. Otherwise we would bail on him when the honeymoon is over or when our basic training gets difficult. Paul told Timothy to think of himself as an enlisted man (2 Tim. 2:4). It is no longer about you. There is a higher authority.
THE DISCIPLESHIP FREEZE
The nature of covenant is an important conversation for our denomination as we frantically search for some basis for unity beyond the dated institutional house that we share. Nothing of what I have described thus far provides resolution to our struggle. Both sides use the language of covenant. It is worth noting, however, that when vows are broken (even in keeping with the highest personal ideals of justice) the breakers of covenant are stating that they will no longer be shaped by this covenant or this community’s vision of discipleship. Mutual discipleship freezes at that very point.
For all the talk about the virtue of unity, we can only ever be as unified as our definition of discipleship… with its related view of authority. This is particularly true of a tribe like ours that has named “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” as our sole mission. Mutually exclusive visions of discipleship existing in the same disciple-making institution is the reason we can go no further together. I can learn from those with a different definition of discipleship. But I can’t be meaningfully discipled by them.
HOPE AT THE ROOTS
The good news is that the DNA of our heritage can help us get unstuck. John Wesley took his vows in a troubled, fractured, and ineffective church. He was a clergy among other clergy and often unpopular with his colleagues because of his various stands. This is not why we remember him.
We remember Wesley because he joined in covenant with like-hearted colleagues, lay and clergy, and demonstrated the formative power of real covenant community… over and against the dry clericalism of his day. Joining the United Societies was completely voluntary. But there was no ambiguity about who was in and who was not. Being a Methodist in those early days cost much but delivered much more. When we read about the lives of the people in the early days of the movement we realize these were great souls… made great by locking themselves under authority and to one another. The internal integrity of the movement made it unusually effective in outwardly-focused mission. It was covenant for the benefit of others in the power of the Holy Spirit.
I want that. And this is part of the reason why I joined the Wesleyan Covenant Association. If WCA is just a formidable political lobby in the midst of an intramural battle for control, my interest is limited. If it enables me to enter into renewed covenant with like-hearted brothers and sisters avowed to spur me on to love and good works, I am in… heart and soul. I am not looking for a new denomination. Denominations are mere relics of past moves of God. While expecting integrity of the institutions I am part of, I am looking for something more than they could possibly deliver.
United Methodist Christians are not the only ones looking for more. There is growing talk in the wider circle of American Christianity about The Benedict Option, described in a recent book by Rob Dreher:
It’s the choice that all believing Christians face today, in post-Christian America: Do we keep living as if these were normal times, or do we embrace our status as exiles in Babylon, and start building a way of life that enables us to hold on to the faith in this new Dark Age upon us? The name comes from the famous final paragraph of philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book After Virtue, in which he compared the moral chaos of late modernity with the decadence of Rome before the fall. He said that in those days, there were men and women of virtue who quit trying to “shore up the imperium” – you might say, “Make Rome Great Again” – and instead set about building out new forms of community within which they could live out their counter cultural convictions in a time of great trial.
Wesleyans started as this type of alternative community within a larger church, so returning to it should feel like coming home. Our first generation found a way to exercise a form of the Benedict Option without protectively cloistering themselves behind walls. Their rich covenantal life propelled them outward in love, service, and evangelism to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.
The real promise of our future will not be found in issuing statements or negotiating the orderly fracturing of a denomination. Talk is cheap. The institution is passing away no matter how artfully it is divided or glued. The real treasure is to be found at the roots. It is only here only here that we can be transformed… and transform our increasingly idolatrous culture instead of anemically playing chaplain to it.
Disciplined believers gathering together around a common and compelling vision of Christian mission to live consecrated lives and hold each other accountable in covenant and in love… that’s how Methodism started. That is how it multiplied. That is what we are missing. And that is what we must recover if ever we are to unfreeze discipleship and transform the world.
*I also want integral covenant for my Progressive brothers and sisters. I realize that my presence in their midst is thwarting their efforts for an enforceable covenant built around their understanding of love and justice.