By Bradley C. Knepp (one of the 28 who filed charges against Bishop Sprague)
Dear Bishops Ough, Lee, and Christopher, clergy of the New Cumberland District, and fellow clergy and laity,
Greetings in the name of Jesus Christ,
Below you will find my personal response to the dismissal of the charges brought against Bishop C. Joseph Sprague. I am one of 28 who filed the charges in December, 2002. Our group's official response is being prepared now by our group and will be available to you and the public soon. I write as one person only--not as an official representative of any group. It is my desire to see renewal in the Church by way of, especially, doctrinal integrity.
It is my hope that all United Methodists who support doctrinal integrity and who learn of the dismissal of the charges against Bishop Sprague will be encouraged to stand firm in support of both our historic doctrines as well as all those leaders who uphold our historic doctrines.
My conscience constrains me to write and express my thoughts on these solemn issues, much like Bishop Sprague, no doubt, feels constrained to articulate his views. I claim no special status nor do I even deserve a reading when so many others better qualified than me have already written. I merely offer my thoughts in the hope of helping to correct what I believe to be a serious error occurring in the Church and I also offer them for those who may be able to take encouragement from them.
Sincerely in Christ,
Bradley C. Knepp
By Bradley C. Knepp(one of 28 who filed charges against Bishop Sprague)
Heresy is usually reserved for church history books, but we are seeing it today. Heresy is denying Jesus Christ his divine attributes. Heresy is the making of another Jesus, a different Jesus than the Holy One described in Scripture. Modern United Methodism upholds the orthodox, biblical, trinitarian doctrine of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We believe God is three persons, and one in nature.
Today there are many in the United Methodist Church who do not uphold Christian doctrine. They have a different view of Scripture. They are really a minority in our denomination, but they have a growing voice because of passionate leaders like United Methodist Bishop C. Joseph Sprague, of Chicago.
Bishop Sprague has a history of very liberal views. Since becoming a bishop, Bishop Sprague has had five complaints (that we know of) filed against him, all of which, have been dismissed or not acted upon.
In January 2002, Bishop Sprague delivered a lecture at Iliff (United Methodist) Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and later, in December, 2002, he published a book, Affirmations of a Dissenter, in which he denies the deity of Jesus Christ.
Bishop Sprague denies the apostolic, orthodox, and ecumenical Trinitarian understanding of Jesus as God in favor of a form of unitarianism or adoptionism. He denies the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. He maintains that Jesus Christ is not the only way to salvation and he denies the substitutionary atonement of Christ through his shedding of blood and sacrificial death on the cross. Bishop Sprague denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. These are not insignificant denials. These views are false doctrines that strike at the heart of Christianity. Bishop Sprague’s doctrines are effectively a repudiation of Jesus Christ himself. Such teachings are therefore properly termed heresies.
Paul said, "if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. ... If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." (1 Corinthians 15:14-17).
Bishop Sprague vowed he would uphold the doctrines of The United Methodist Church. Yet his doctrines are radically contrary to the standards of doctrine established by The United Methodist Church, particularly as stated in the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith (¶103, Book of Discipline).
Any bishop, pastor, or lay person who defends and supports Bishop Sprague’s heretical doctrines of Jesus Christ is also a proponent of heresy. Sadly, there are some bishops who hold views similar to Bishop Sprague’s but do not articulate them as evangelically as he does. Probably there are many more bishops who completely reject the God-less Christology of Bishop Sprague but are not courageous enough to publicly and firmly oppose his doctrines.
If our bishops would unite around the Christ of the Bible and stand against such heresies, they would do much to safeguard the sheep over whom they have been given charge. They might, in such a united effort, even convince their colleague to do the honorable thing and resign. Would that the doctrinal boldness of Bishop John Wesley abide in the hearts of all our modern bishops!
Bishop Timothy Whitaker, of Florida, has spoken out in a very serious manner and has called Bishop Sprague to reconsider his flawed doctrines. It is the first such public theological dialogue between bishops The United Methodist Church has ever known. Bishop Whitaker systematically and publicly has tried to show Bishop Sprague that his theology is in need of correction. Thank you, Bishop Whitaker. Yet Bishop Sprague, afterwards, continued with the publication of his book, Affirmations of a Dissenter. Where is the whole Council of Bishops (even a dozen would be welcome) in their corporate renunciation of such false doctrines? Fifty bishops in the Episcopal Church have banded together to oppose the heretical teachings of their fellow, Bishop Spong.
In December, 2002, I was part of a group of 28 clergy and laity who filed a formal complaint against Bishop Sprague. We are from eleven annual conferences including six of the twelve annual conferences of the North Central Jurisdiction. Our charges against Bishop Sprague were 1) Dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church (¶2702.1 f) and 2) Disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church (¶2701.1 e).
We do not deny Bishop Sprague the freedom to believe whatever his conscience and personal study lead him to believe. We maintain, however, that it is fundamentally fraudulent for C. Joseph Sprague to be disseminating these false doctrines under the imprimatur of being a United Methodist bishop.
Our complaint was formally filed with Bishop Bruce R. Ough, President of the College of Bishops of the North Central Jurisdiction. Bishop Ough convened a four-person supervisory response team (according to ¶413.3) consisting of Bishop Ough, Bishop Linda Lee, of Michigan, and a clergy and lay person from the North Central Jurisdiction. The team met in January and February, 2003, to review the complaint and make a supervisory response. On February 17, 2003, Bishop Ough’s team dismissed our charges against Bishop Sprague. Even though the charges were dismissed, the supervisory response team has made several strong recommendations.
As one of the complainants, the following is my open personal response to some of the elements of the supervisory response from Bishop Ough’s team.
The supervisory response team urged Bishop Sprague to issue a public statement clarifying and reaffirming his adherence to the doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Sprague has issued such a statement; it is attached to the supervisory response team’s report. You can read it at http://umns.umc.org/03/feb/086.htm along with the complete text of Bishop Ough’s supervisory response. Bishop Sprague’s response states, in part:
Although Bishop Sprague compliantly affirms his support of historic doctrine (in response the supervisory response team's strong recommendation to do so), his response simultaneously reasserts his belief that Scripture and the historic foundational doctrines of our Church are constantly in need of reinterpretation and improvement for, presumably, the enlightened mind of modern man. Bishop Sprague infers that Christian doctrines and Scriptures as they have stood for more than two millennia are not good enough and are in need of improvements. He suggests bishops are especially suited to add these perfections to the doctrines of the Gospel.
Is it not the zenith of arrogance to stand diametrically opposed to the two thousand year-old core doctrines of Christianity and to those who have faithfully lived by, defended, and died for them? And what kind of esoteric institutional nerve must it take to allow such heresy and hubris to be dismissed? We have seen the false doctrines of Bishop Sprague published and proclaimed by others in the Church for many years, but never before by a United Methodist bishop, and not imaginably by one so bold.
It is more than doubletalk to pronounce in one breath a denial of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and in the next affirm the historic doctrines of the Church. Is such talk authentic apostasy?
Bishop Sprague says the resurrection of Christ is a metaphor, or a symbol, not a literal reality. Perhaps Bishop Sprague’s doctrines are a metaphor for the theological schizophrenia that holds our denomination hostage to the forgetfulness of who we are in Jesus Christ.
The supervisory response team also strongly recommends that the complainants and Bishop Sprague participate in a third-party facilitated dialogue (recommended by ¶413) on the doctrines in question, open to the public. Bishop Ough says, "The purpose of the dialogue would be to discover and explore the points of continuity or disconnect between the traditional and new interpretations of our doctrinal statements." The complainants have agreed to participate in such a dialogue, and I am glad that Bishop Ough and the supervisory response team have recognized Bishop Sprague’s interpretation as "new, " in the sense of a departure from the norm – although church history reveals his doctrines are really just old heresies.
The supervisory response team also strongly recommends that "the Council of Bishops take immediate steps to enter into serious theological reflection on issues of Christology, Biblical authority and the mission of the Church." They ask that this process be open to the public. We would welcome such reflection. No one should object to the examination and interpretation of our foundational doctrines. We should expect, however, that the interpretation and application of our foundational doctrines be consistent with the permanent doctrinal standards given to us by our forbearers in the faith (which we all agreed to upon entering the United Methodist community).
The supervisory response team has also strongly recommended that "the complainants offer a public apology for disregarding the spirit of confidentiality intended in the supervisory response process."
Much hay was made by the supervisory response team and by Bishop Sprague, that Bishop Sprague learned of our complaint via the press. The tone of the statements from the supervisory response team and from Bishop Sprague suggests that we somehow violated Bishop Sprague’s private life as one might imagine him to have been casually reading his morning paper wherein he discovers another complaint has been filed against him.
The fact is that our complaint was mailed to Bishop Ough and a copy mailed to Bishop Sprague at the same time on Monday, December 30, 2002, via first class US mail. Bishop Ough received his copy on January 2, 2003. We did not issue any information to the press until January 7, 2003, more than a full week after the initial mailing. If Bishop Sprague found out about the complaint via the press, it is because he was not aware of the contents of his mail. A simple check of the postmark date would have convinced Bishop Sprague of the good faith effort that was made to supply him with a copy of the complaint days before a press release was issued.
Also, if it is considered unfair for Bishop Sprague to have learned, via the press, of the complaint made against him, then one must also consider it equally unfair for millions of United Methodists to have learned, via the press, that one of their bishops gave a lecture and wrote a book rejecting the core doctrines of Christianity.
There can be no apology from our group because there has been no violation of the Discipline. The Discipline does not require that the issuers of a complaint keep their complaint confidential. This is demonstrated with a simple reading of ¶413, which regulates the complaint process against bishops. A sentence about confidentiality was added to ¶413 in the 2000 Discipline. (Bishop Sprague had a previous complaint filed against him under the old 1996 Discipline at which time Bishop Sprague publicly stated that the complaint should have been kept confidential; alas, changes were made to the Discipline in 2000.) However, the sentence added about confidentiality in ¶413 requires only that "the supervisory response should be carried out in a confidential and timely manner..." It in no way prohibits the complainant from making his or her complaint public.
Furthermore, the nature of this particular complaint was intentionally made a public matter by Bishop Sprague himself! He has given a lecture and published a book! His book was being distributed in his annual conference before our complaint was filed. The last thing Bishop Sprague wants is for his views to be kept quiet and private. Obviously, he has a very public agenda to convince many people to believe his doctrines.
Still further, the nature of our complaint centers on the basic doctrines of a Christian denomination. Why is confidentiality required for this? Yes, confidentiality would be appropriate in any number of personal matters or disputes, but not in the matter of a bishop teaching false doctrines to the Church and world. This issue is not hush-hush; Bishop Sprague has seen to that. The public nature of this matter is even understood by the supervisory response team, and is the reason they sought and received permission from all parties – the complainants and Bishop Sprague – to take their supervisory response public.
It is astonishing that this supervisory response team would slap our hands for making a complaint public, the contents of which had already been a matter for public consumption, due to Bishop Sprague’s personal publicity efforts, for over 12 months!
Would this supervisory response team have been so determined to raise these important theological matters to the whole church, as they now have, had there been no publicity of the original complaint? Why is it easier for bishops to chastise those who complain than to correct a bishop who is wrong? Jesus once asked, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?"
As more and more United Methodists learn of this ongoing travesty, many are asking for a recourse. May I suggest optimism? Please let me share with you why I believe this whole matter is a gift to the Church.
If you wish to write a letter, I encourage you to do so. Please exercise respect and caution. Write as someone who loves and wants the best for our United Methodist denomination. Do not write in anger; anger produces nothing (James 1:20). This does not mean you cannot write with clarity, conviction, and firmness. Write leaders with the attitude of an appeal for them to do something. Suggest what you think they might do. Offer them prayerful support. Let them know you want to be fully supportive in helping bring resolution to these kinds of issues in the Church. Let them know you want to see them succeed.
Do not threaten to leave the Church nor withhold your money. Our local church will continue to pay 100% of our apportionments. We must remember that we are not the margin, we are the majority! There are many wonderful things taking place in United Methodism that we need to be involved in, some of which Bishop Sprague is involved in. Letting a vocal minority put any of us in a financial or emotional cage is a mistake and can only bring us harm.
Also, remember Bishop Sprague is a human being worthy of our respect, love, and prayers. He is a person who has experienced many challenges in this life just as each of us has. He has many good qualities that we must not forget. However, it is unacceptable for a bishop to teach false doctrine.
Below you will find the addresses of some leaders with whom you may wish to correspond.
May God richly bless you as we hold up the simple truths of Jesus Christ.
It is our Easter cry:
Bradley C. Knepp, February 26, 2003
Bishop Bruce R. Ough
Bishop Linda Lee
Bishop C. Joseph Sprague
Bishop Sharon Brown Christopher
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