by Chris Ritter

There is a growing consensus among United Methodist Traditionalists that exits from the denomination should be pressed and completed as soon as possible. We’ll save for another day the reasoning behind that conclusion. Suffice it here to say that the “wait until 2024 and see what happens” argument is rapidly waning under repeated demonstration that our system of polity is being gamed to the advantage of U.S. institutional interests. The Disaffiliation Process (Par. 2553), far from ideal, is the only exit generally allowed by bishops… until it expires on December 31, 2023. With greater urgency comes heightened communication on both sides regarding the merits of staying vs. going. The prospects for theological orthodoxy in the continuing UMC are one factor in this debate. 

Will United Methodist doctrine change?

Tom Berlin and Adam Hamilton say a decided “no.” Hamilton took up this topic on two recent webinars (here and here). Berlin spoke at a Celebrate UMC event and touted the enduring orthodoxy of United Methodism. Waving the Book of Discipline in the style of an old-time evangelist, Berlin listed off all the doctrines firmly set down in our standards. UM Communications offered their “amen” with a post addressing whether doctrines like “the Virgin Birth, divinity of Christ, or salvation through Christ alone” will change:

“All of these positions are bedrock in the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church, more specifically in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. These cannot be altered without a two-thirds vote of the General Conference followed by a three-fourths aggregate approval of all annual conferences of The United Methodist Church worldwide. There is no basis to conclude such majorities can be achieved to alter the Articles and Confession for any reason.”

UM Communications also shared an article by Michael Adam Beck called “The Weaponization of Orthodoxy” which argues from church history that many “orthodoxies” were once considered acceptable. The weaknesses of Beck’s article are discussed elsewhere. But Bishop Ken Carter hailed it in the following tweet:

“This is seminal thinking, and aligns with The Anatomy of Peace, yet with a deeper immersion in Christian tradition. A statement of clarity, and I dare to say anointed. God’s nature and name is love.
@FLUMC @freshexpression @UpperRoom @dianabutlerbass @bobbordone @umcbishops

Carter is willing to muddy the distinction between maintaining orthodoxy and expanding it in order to make what he sees as the more important point: Those raising the orthodoxy question are of the party of the Pharisees.

Preserved… Under Glass?

But Berlin, Hamilton, attack a straw man version of the concerns being raised by Traditionalists. The charge is not that the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith will be altered on paper. The concern is that they will be placed under glass… like the U.S. Articles of Confederation. The standard sermons of John Wesley are part of our doctrinal standards, too, but I daresay most UM clergy have never read them. When the UMC was formed in 1968, no effort was made to harmonize the 1808 Methodist “Articles of Faith” and the EUB “Confession of Faith.” Instead, a third statement called “Our Theological Task” was added to describe how United Methodists do theology using Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience. When the statement was adopted, The New York Times headline read: “United Methodists Back ‘Theological Pluralism’.”

As Drew McIntyre tweeted: “It doesn’t matter if the #UMC doctrinal standards (such as the Articles of Religion & EUB Confession) cannot be altered. It matters if they actually function as standards for our proclamation, teaching, and practice.” They don’t. And they haven’t for some time. It took Traditionalists over a decade to successfully amend “Our Theological Task” to clarify that Scripture is primary. This has not prevented progressives from using the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral as a theological grab bag.

From Changing Doctrine to Sidelining Doctrine

The tactics of theological revisionists have become more subtle and nuanced over time. In the 1990’s, The Episcopal Church’s Bishop John Shelby Spong directly challenged the doctrines of the Virgin Birth, miracles, and bodily Resurrection of Jesus as myths needing deconstruction. He argued for reopening the canon of Scripture to include a wider selection of books. Spong made the rounds in United Methodist circles and was invited, for instance, to give a series of five lectures in my own annual conference. But The United Methodist Church had its own version of Spong in Bishop Joseph Sprague who wrote that believing in the Virgin Birth “as a historical fact is to do an injustice to its intended purpose and to run the risk of idolatry, namely, treating a means as an end itself.”  In Affirmations of a Dissenter (Abingdon, 2002) Sprague wrote, “If Jesus were born of human parents, as I affirm he was, and if Jesus did not possess trans-human supernatural powers, as I do not believe he did, what sense can we make of the miraculous stories about him in the Gospel accounts?” The answer: They are myths with metaphorical meaning only. On the divinity of Christ, Sprague argued: “Jesus was not born the Christ. Rather, by the confluence of grace with faith he became the Christ, God’s beloved in whom God was well pleased.” (Adoptionism was declared a heresy at the end of the Third Century.) Bishop Sprague also argued that the resurrection of Jesus was a spiritual reality only and did not involve “bodily resuscitation.”

Only two UM bishops, Timothy Whitaker and Marion Edwards, publicly refuted their colleague’s views. Sprague was formally charged with heresy by a group of clergy and laity, but these charges were dismissed. The response team noted “the theological and doctrinal issues raised in the complaint are already a matter of considerable public debate within the United Methodist Church.” Another facet of that considerable debate was the “Re-imagining Conference” in Minnesota sponsored by several mainline church bodies, including the UMC Women’s Division. God was worshipped in feminine language as Sophia. Holy Communion was replaced with a milk and honey ritual. Womanist theologian Delores Williams addressed the gathering : “I don’t think we need a theory of atonement and I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping, and weird stuff.” Such were the battles of the 90’s.

David Livingston wrote this week, “If you have to go back 20 years for your best example of a problem, it may not actually be that big of a problem.” But challenges to orthodoxy did not cease. They changed form.* The overt approach was found by most progressives to be a blind alley. In spite of the big headlines deconstructionists garnered, they created backlash that arguably moved the church in a more traditional direction. The Reimagining Conference, particularly, roused the people in the pews and shone a spotlight on perceived theological drift happening in Mainline agencies.

The following generation of theological revisionists put on a winsome smile and argued instead for a “roomier,” less dogmatic Christianity. Inclusion became the watchword. Diane Butler Bass called for Christianity for the Rest of Us… the “rest of us” being those not wanting to check their brains at the door of the sanctuary. In 2004 Brian McLaren called for a Generous Orthodoxy that is less rigid and incorporates all the various streams of Christianity. I recall my own warm response to Generous Orthodoxy when it was released. McLaren, who then and now travels in UMC circles, described being “both/and”: charismatic and contemplative, evangelical and intellectual. Binding various Christian streams together in humble, authentic new communities seemed like a worthy project for a church seeking to reach a changing culture. But this “emergent Christianity,” too, proved unstable. Samuel James wrote about the death of the emergent church in 2015: “What’s fascinating about these men [Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt] is the way their recent intellectual output seems to fold neatly into categories that they fiercely protested being placed in.” The quest for generosity, some say, consumed their orthodoxy. McLaren’s May 2022 release, Do I Stay Christian?, addresses whether a progressive, spiritual person should bother with Christian faith at all, given the legacy of regressive politics, greed, patriarchy, and anti-intellectualism. After describing ten reasons to leave the faith, he offers ten reasons to stay, including solidarity with those working to change Christianity and the imperfections found in all other religions. While “Theistic theology” must go, there is an opportunity to help Christianity evolve into something new.

Adam Hamilton seems not to be where Brian McLaren is today. But he echoes things McLaren said ten years ago. This year Hamilton offered an articulation of United Methodist theology called “United Methodism’s Gracious Orthodoxy.” On the question of Jesus’ resurrection, Hamilton says: “I not only believe in it, I’m counting on it.” This sounds eerily similar to the response Brian McLaren gave to journalism professor Terry Mattingly in 2012 when asked if he still believes in the resurrection: “Not only do I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, I base my life on it.” Hamilton also seems to be following a path similar to McLaren on issues of human sexuality. In 2006, McLaren called for a moratorium in the church on discussing homosexuality. At General Conference 2016, Hamilton took to the floor to advocate for eliminating UMC teaching about homosexuality from the Discipline. These calls for silence were a transitional stance for both. They each reached a public full-affirmation position within three years.

We don’t have space here to discuss the linkage between orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxy (right practice). And I don’t mean to belabor any comparison between Hamilton and McLaren (or to disparage either). One is a gifted pastor and the other more of a free-lance futurist/author/speaker. Leadership in a living, breathing local church tends to keep teaching more traditional. I know of no one calling Hamilton a heretic, nor should they. But traditionalists have ample examples of theological drift and where it leads. Remember Neuhaus’s Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” One step toward replacing doctrine is to make it secondary. United Methodism seems not at risk of re-writing the 1808 Articles of Religion. It is at risk of treating doctrine as a lesser concern and loyalty to the big-tent institution as the primary test of faithfulness.

The progressive wing of the UMC will enjoy a larger voice in the denomination as separation continues. Reconciling Ministries no longer merely dreams of a UMC with gay weddings. It aims for a “Queer UMC.” J.J. Warren notes that “Queering is a process of perpetual subversion.” This vision of church runs directly counter to the maintenance of theological (or any other) norms. The UMC has proven incapable of describing the perimeter of the big tent it hopes to build. If there is to be nothing out of bounds, it would be most honest to state that now.

Global Methodists, like Methodists in general, are open-minded, rational, and inclusive by nature. The threat of a fire-breathing fundamentalism is nowhere on the scene. The GMC, however, strides toward a serious re-engagement with our doctrinal heritage. Thirty-seven traditionalist Methodist scholars contributed to The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism. It is a play book for a Methodism that is serious about Wesleyan distinctives and a commitment to stand firmly in the Great Tradition. There are plans to integrate the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith into a single document in today’s vernacular. This is not to change our doctrinal standards but make them once again a living part of the church. And, yes, the church will be held accountable to these standards. The Truth, after all, is the only thing that ultimately sets us free.

*This does not mean that overt challenges to Methodist Doctrinal Standards ceased. In a 2018 post called “It’s Time for Progressive Christianity“, UM Clergy Roger Wolsey argued, “Jesus isn’t God. Jesus didn’t die for our sins. Jesus wasn’t killed instead of us… Jesus’ resurrection didn’t have to be understood as a physical one for it to be a real and meaningful one… And Christianity isn’t the only way for humans to experience salvation.” United Methodist seminaries, funded by apportionment dollars, no longer limit themselves to training Christian clergy. Boston University School of Theology trains Unitarian Universalist clergy. Iiliff School of Theology serves pagan clergy. Claremont School of Theology trains Muslim Imams. There is often active disagreement on the UM Clergy Facebook page as to whether Jesus believed himself to be the Messiah, intended to die, died for our sins, etc.

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