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Bish or Cut Bait

by Benjamin S. Sharpe Jr.


The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.

Those lines from Yeats' poem, "Second Coming," come to mind in the wake of the recently reported comments of United Methodist bishop, C. Joseph Sprague. Sprague made the news in the last week of November 1999 when he, along with a group of Chicago area religious leaders, went on record opposing Southern Baptist plans for an evangelistic effort in that city set for the summer of 2000. Responding to the Southern Baptist plans, the bishop remarked, "I'm always fearful when we in the Christian community move beyond the rightful claim that Jesus is decisive for us, to the presupposition that non-Christians...are outside God's plan for salvation... That smacks of a non-Jesus-like arrogance." According to the United Methodist News Service Sprague went on to assert that "Traditional proselytizing [evangelizing] would...create yet another potential for violence. (United Methodist News Service, Chicago religious leaders make plea against proselytizing, Nov. 30, 1999)"

Bishop Sprague's public statements referring to traditional Christian evangelism as arrogant and linking it with hate crimes brings up a question I have asked many times: Why does it seem that the farcical fringe element of the Council of Bishops has cornered the market on episcopal backbone?

Please forgive my choice of words. "Farcical" just seems appropriate when a United Methodist bishop says, in essence, "We don't mind the Southern Baptists coming to Chicago. We just don't want them to talk about Jesus while they're here." Doesn't that seem just a little bizarre? So I ask again, why are these peripheral bishops the only ones who seem willing to defy the herd mentality of the Council and valiantly take a principled, if misguided, stand?

Remember the Denver Fifteen? At the 1996 General Conference fifteen bishops of The United Methodist Church were willing to break ranks with their fellows, spurn the jealous god of collegiality, and passionately speak in opposition to The Book of Discipline's classical, biblical view of sexual morality. They were in error, but they were bold, courageous, and passionate in their cause. They were willing to appeal to what they regarded as a higher moral authority than The Book of Discipline, even if it was the fickle authority of experience.

Why is it that the bishops who seem to want to undermine the very Faith they are sworn to protect and transmit are the only ones who appear to be "full of passionate intensity" for their convictions? Although they frequently plead for the unity of the Church they seem to have no compunction about publicly reneging on the collective statements of the Council of Bishops, defying the spirit (if not the letter) of the Discipline, making schismatic statements, and teaching doctrines that separate us from the mainstream of the classical Christian faith. Conversely, why is it that the best among us – those who actually believe the apostolic faith they guard – seem, in the words of Yeats, to "lack all conviction?"

I realize that these reflections appear to present a rather stark, simplistic dichotomy. Yet, all I can do is observe and comment on what I see in our denominational press and the secular media regarding the position of the United Methodist bishops. Perhaps there are blazing firebrands among the traditionalists on the Council – but they are carefully hidden. Indeed, if there is a passionate bishop willing to stand alone against the rising tide of heterodoxy he or she* is practically invisible. We don't hear a peep from them in the United Methodist News Service or religion sections of our local newspapers.

When will an orthodox United Methodist bishop be consumed with such zeal for the living God in the face of destructive and false doctrine coming from the extreme Left of the Council, that s/he declares, "Collegiality be damned! Such teaching is rank heresy!"? Well, I'm not holding my breath. Not while the traditionalist, orthodox, and evangelical bishops seem more driven by a sentimental notion of collegiality than by a yearning to see a sanctified Church. Not while they say things like, "Bishop So-and-So is a deeply spiritual person. S/he is a person of good will with the best intentions." This is an appeal to sentiment, and does not deal with the fact that the hypothetical Bishop So-and-So denies the Nicene formulation of the two natures of Christ and has overtly rejected Christ's claim to be the Savior of the world.

"Deeply spiritual" is not the same as being a Christian disciple. There are plenty of neo-pagans who are deeply spiritual people of good will. They're nice. They have the best of intentions (whatever that means). They're just not Christian. Could it be that the same is true of certain bishops of The United Methodist Church?

That's the question that someone on the Council of Bishops should be bold enough to ask about bishops such as C. Joseph Sprague. I don't mean that anyone should be gauche enough to inquire into the condition of the Bishop's soul or his eschatological destination. Heaven forbid! We haven't done that since the embarrassing days when we actually required Methodists to make a weekly account of their spiritual health to their Class Leader.

Rather, what I mean is that perhaps a colleague on the Council of Bishops ought to ask if Bishop Sprague is a Christian in the classical sense of the term as defined by the creeds and practices accepted by the Church down through the ages. For instance, is it problematic that Bishop Sprague apparently rejects the Church's claim that Jesus is the "only name given under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)" and believes that such a claim, "smacks of un-Jesus-like arrogance?"

Should it concern us that Bishop Sprague has overtly renounced the Nicene formulation of the two natures of Jesus Christ in favor of the "christology from below? (Bishop C. Joseph Sprague in the Northern Illinois Reporter, May 1997) Does this place him outside the company of faithful witnesses to the apostolic Faith?

Does the fact Bishop Sprague has admitted that, when a pastor, he performed marriage-like ceremonies for persons in homosexual relationships call his interpretation of Scripture and Tradition into question?

Does Bishop Sprague's teaching have more in common with Paul, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, John Wesley and Francis Asbury than Marcion, Arius, Pelagius, Friedrich Schleiermacher, or C.T. Russell?

I suppose it would be considered impolite, probably even "hateful" or "spiritually violent," to ask such questions in today's United Methodist Church. Instead, we are supposed to just "go along and get along." Indeed, that's just what the classical Christians on the Council of Bishops seem to be best at doing. Along these lines, I have heard the warnings of some of our conservative bishops who maintain that asking such questions and insisting upon proper teaching within the Church would endanger us of becoming doctrinaire. I am convinced that the real danger is not that we will become doctrinaire, but that Methodism acts like it is founded on a doctrine of air: tasteless, invisible and having little substance.

The traditionalists among the Council of Bishops should be very careful about congratulating themselves for the way they avoid disrupting the unity of the Council. Why? Because by appeasing their less orthodox colleagues they may, in fact, be violating the essence of the episcopal office.

The duties of the episcopal office are clearly stated in The Book of Discipline. Among these duties, bishops of the Church are enjoined:

"To guard, transmit, and proclaim, corporately and individually, the apostolic faith as it is expressed in Scripture and tradition, and, as they are led and endowed by the Spirit, to interpret that faith evangelically and prophetically. (Paragraph 415.3, The 1996 Book of Discipline)"

That certain bishops have ignored this solemn injunction and have opted to exchange the apostolic Faith in favor of their own designer theologies is irrefutable. However, what is not being said is that there are disturbing implications for those orthodox bishops who, for whatever reason, are accommodating their heterodox counterparts by refusing to publicly disavow theologically outrageous statements made by the likes of Sprague.

The traditionalist bishops fail "to guard, transmit, teach and proclaim" the apostolic faith when they leave unchallenged public statements from their colleagues who link evangelism to hate crimes, who are offended by the very notion of conversion, and who are embarrassed that Jesus claims to be the Savior of the world and not just of those who find him "decisive" within the Christian community. God does not call bishops to remain passive and silent in order to appease shepherds who bleat about unity while poisoning the fold with their toxic teachings. There is no biblical or disciplinary requirement that places the collegiality of the Council above contending for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. Indeed, it is an immoral act – a sin of omission – for our theologically sound bishops to remain quiescent while their heterodox colleagues ravage the Church.

The good news is that the bishop who actually does, from the heart, what paragraph 415.3 of The Book of Discipline says will be marked by a passionate intensity and still be among those Yeats calls "the best." A bishop of passionate intensity for the apostolic faith may find himself or herself standing alone against the accommodationalist forces on the Council. He or she may lose the warm, fuzzy collegiality of his/her less orthodox fellows. Yet, standing for the Faith in the face of opposition from within and from outside the Church is a part of a bishop's job -- it's a part of "bishing." And, in the words of Albert Outler, it's time for our orthodox, traditional, biblically faithful episcopal leaders to "bish or cut bait."


*Readers not from The United Methodist Church need to know that the UMC is similar to the Montanists (the sect Tertullian eventually identified with) in that we have both male and female bishops.


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