by Bob Phillips
A lot of what I read about the denomination today comes across with the underlying current of ‘Let’s kick Mother.’ The problems, woes, hypocrisies, inconsistencies, bigotries and foibles of the church are laid bare, analyzed and autopsied. Even compliments of the church often are couched with disclaimers and conditions. As the church wobbles toward the 2019 Special General Conference, such tendencies will increase, with voices from left, right, center, and no opinion lobbies stacking a lot of whine with their cheese.
In the light of Philippians 4:8 (read it yourself and memorize it), I offer seven examples of what is right about the United Methodist Church. Frankly, much of what I am about to say flows from 28 years serving in seven annual conferences in four jurisdictions in affiliated status as a Navy chaplain. Yes, I saw a lot of messed up stuff also, but that is for another day. The list is not exhaustive and is in no particular order.
1. Support for extension ministry clergy
The United Methodist Endorsing Agency has been the gold standard for denomination support of clergy serving as military chaplains or in hospital, prison and other settings for institutional ministry ‘beyond the local church.’ Remember, John Wesley spent his entire ordained life in extension ministry. The pastoral support, personal contacts, immediate responses in crisis, always timely answer of letters and emails, continuing education events made a difference. The church organized retreats for military chaplains and spouses after the chaplain’s return from combat assignments, paying all expenses to enable the couples (and single chaplains also) to depressurize and reconnect. I was and remain grateful to the church for the UMEA.
2. Knowledge and vital piety are joined at the hip
OK, not always, not by everyone but the heritage is real and needed. I hung around in a lot of Marine Corps offices where I saw a poster of John Wayne from the movie, Sands of Iwo Jima, and the caption: Life is tough but it’s tougher if you’re stupid. The UMC does a lot of things, good and not so hot, but it doesn’t knowingly do stupid. It insists on training and education for clergy, spiritual formation for pastors. Legacy institutions of higher learning and a basic embrace of the need for thinking (loving God with all our mind) is a healthy part of who we are and how we understand the gospel.
3. The main thing is the main thing
You can get as saved, sanctified, Spirit-filled, blood-bought and born again in a UM church as in any church on earth. The core teaching and doctrine of the church are the real deal. Yes, individual pastors and churches can hose it up but the foundation is solid. The 44 sermons of Wesley, his notes on the New Testament, the Articles of Religion and embrace of the historic creeds embrace the apostolic gospel ‘in which we stand and by which we are saved.’
4. Love of God and neighbor
Loving God, in the biblical rather than the sentimental gooey way, is central. “Do you love me” was Jesus’ question to Peter post resurrection, and to us. Love of neighbor, the core conviction that a central metric of whether a person truly believes is reflected in his or her care for neighbor, is a Methodist distinctive. Methodists have flung themselves into numerous battles for social and economic justice (child labor laws, disability pensions, opposition to slavery, public education, etc., etc.) because Matthew 25 is still in the Book.
5. Women in ministry
To be clear, women always have been in ministry but Methodism of all sorts (conservative and liberal) affirm the scriptural precedent of women in positions of spiritual authority…even over men. Among evangelical United Methodists this is a clear distinctive from numerous other evangelical groups. “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” said the prophet Joel. “Believe in it? Man, I seen it done!”
6. Collaborative ministry
Lots of religious groups of right and left really aren’t interested in meaningful cooperation with other Christians who can’t pass their private smell test as suitably progressive or orthodox. Even when pressing community issues that harm everyone are at work, some will stomp out of gathering that seeks to express a unified response because others present are somehow unfit due to defective theology or unapproved social views. Methodists are friends of collaboration, of ‘cooperation without compromise’ as a military chaplain slogan puts it. Some groups will cooperate with others but hold their nose when they do so, something akin to the classic Augustinian notion that sex in marriage is not a sin, provided you don’t enjoy it. Well, Methodist enjoy both sex in marriage and joining hands with others in that soup kitchen, or actions to undo prejudice, or actions that defend those kicked to the curb by injustice or cultural norms.
7. Connected church
The modern symbol for lots of popular churches appears to be not the Body of Christ or the Bride of Christ but a self-licking lollipop, stand-alone, do-it-my-way groups with no last name (owning the historical theological heritage that birthed them) and reveling in the fact they individually are accountable to no one but Jesus. Whatever the flaws, and they are numerous, Methodists claim their last name (Wesleyan) and don’t suggest the UMC suddenly appeared 20 years ago on Joe Bag-a-doughnuts couch when a group of faithful men (its always men) gathered in city X to start a church that ‘really’ honors God. The goddess Athena may have jumped fully grown and armored from the head of Zeus but that is not how God births his family. We are connected to one another, accountable to one another, and exist to support one another with a gospel not limited to the English language or a particular culture or race. The connection may be faulty at times but the vision is biblical, sound and redemptive.
You can add to the list from your own experience. In the midst of discussions in days to come of the various problems assailing the church as a ‘scornful wonder,’ name and reclaim what God is doing in the UMC, what the Wesleyan way offers as gifts of grace to the larger Christian family. And remember the warrantee holds: “I will build my church and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.” So says the Boss. Yes, and amen!
Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005. An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement. He is a delegate to the 2019 General Conference and a frequent contributor to peopleneedjesus.net.
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