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A CRITICAL CHALLENGE TO THE "CONFESSING MOVEMENT"

(See also the Confessing Movement Response)


INTRODUCTION

A caucus in the United Methodist Church calling itself a "Confessing Movement" has released its "confessional statement." That statement asserts a "crisis of faith", whereas many faithful United Methodists would define the problem differently. The statement which has been widely distributed throughout The United Methodist Church is misleading. Therefore, we believe the issues raised by the statement require a critical analysis in the context of our Biblical faith, Wesleyan heritage, diversity, and our global mission.

We acknowledge with appreciation other critical analysis such as the Trinity United Methodist Church (Atlanta) document, "A Call for Renewal of Theology and Mission in the United Methodist Church."

Our analysis examines the "confessional statement" through a variety of lenses. We have attempted to point out some of the implications of this statement from the perspective of scripture, the early church, Wesley, theology, and ethics.

SCRIPTURAL PERSPECTIVE

Scripture can be faithfully interpreted in a variety of ways. The "confessional statement" has nothing to say about Biblical interpretation. Jesus the Christ as son, Savior, and Lord is adopted as the norm with no recognition of the Moses-like Jesus of Matthew and Luke-Acts, or the accepting and transforming Christ of Paul. The "confessional statement" does not recognize the heavenly-priest Christ of Hebrews, the exemplary Christ of I Peter, or the conquering Son of Man Christ of Revelation. A narrow scriptural understanding of Jesus the Christ is adopted with no recognition of the diversity of christological interpretations contained in the New Testament.

The "confessional statement" reduces the scriptural interpretations of Jesus the Christ only to his death and resurrection, and to a narrow understanding even of these. Therefore, in repudiating "teachings that . . . offer substitutes for the atoning death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus, at the "confessors" are in effect repudiating much of the New Testament's understanding of the basis of salvation.

It is clear that perhaps half of the New Testament understands obedience to the will of God as expressed in the teachings of Jesus to be the criterion for salvation. Matthew reports Jesus as saying in the Sermon on the Mount, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven." (Matthew 7:21) In other words confession without obedience is inadequate. The book of Acts reports Peter saying that God is not partial but that anyone, "Who does right is acceptable to him." (Acts 10:34-35)

EARLY CHURCH PERSPECTIVE

The "confessional statement" identifies "the apostolic faith" with selected creeds, reflecting little of the diversity of theological interpretation in the New Testament and many forms of confession in the early church itself. This results in a truncated and reductionist representation of the apostolic faith. The statement operates with the incorrect assumption that orthodoxy requires speaking with one unified voice in The United Methodist Church. In the Christian tradition, orthodoxy does not mean unified belief, but rather is a centuries-long process of defining parameters for faithful theological exploration.

It is historically inaccurate to claim, first, that the early church "Fathers" are of one mind with regard to the faith and interpreting it, and second, that there is only one way of understanding and articulating the apostolic faith. Faith is always formulated in context and the creeds of the ancient church come from a particular historical, cultural, and social context.  They are the product of debate framed by Greek and Roman philosophical categories, and come from an overtly patriarchal, classist, and pre-Copernican (pre-scientific) society. They were developed within a church that was unified with an imperial government, and reflected strong political as well as theological influences. The vast majority of believers were excluded from the conversations; no women or "common folk" were even involved in the process.

Giving almost exclusive attention to the credal expression of the apostolic faith effectively discredits much authentic and faithful theology since that time. Many authentic Christian theologians are lost along the way including John Wesley, so also the voices of the diverse and faithful feminist and liberation theologies of modern time.

The position articulated by the "confessional statement" raises difficult questions. Did authentic human understanding and interpretation of Jesus the Christ end with the formulation of the historic creeds? Has God ceased to work in the lives and understanding of faithful persons now struggling to be in ministry in the world? How can The United Methodist Church continue to respond faithfully to its present context involving new problems and possibilities if our theological resources are limited to those of "the apostolic faith" as defined by the statement?

WESLEYAN PERSPECTIVE

As the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley is the theologian who has the greatest influence on the theological method and self-understanding of The United Methodist Church. Wesleyanism and the components of United Methodism were never a part of the "confessing" tradition. The confessional (credal) approach to doctrine is characteristic of the Reformed tradition, stemming from John Calvin, but not of the Anglican tradition which is the doctrinal home of Wesleyanism. In doctrinal matters the Wesleyan tradition uses the "conciliar" approach, by conferencing and discussion, rather than the "confessional" approach. Characteristically Wesley identified the "essentials" of doctrine as including original sin, justification by grace through faith alone, holiness of heart and life. In addition he speaks variously of basic doctrine as including the deity of Christ, the Atonement, the Holy Spirit, and the Trinity, although not in any one definitive listing. Even so, he refuses to identify any specific absolute number of fundamental articles. He further understands that there is no one definitive interpretation of the "essential" doctrines, "such is the present weakness of human understanding" (Standard Sermons, ed. Sugden, II, p. 132f.), hence the inescapability of doctrinal diversity.

Faithfulness to the Wesleyan tradition calls for practicing diversity in the catholicity of spirit that recognizes that we have finite minds with partial knowledge, and no one person or group has a monopoly with regard to the saving revelation of God, and to accept that reality as a source of blessing.

The "confessing statement" assumes that there is a significant and destructive movement in The United Methodist Church challenging the primacy of Scriptures and accepting beliefs incompatible with our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Ignorance of our tradition characterizes some segments of our Church, but this certainly is not the demonic heretical monster conjured up by the "confessing statement". The tone of the statement suggests that the interest is not really in defending the primacy of Scripture, but in trying to disguise the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture only) which is no part of the Wesleyan tradition. This doctrine was overwhelmingly rejected by the 1988 General Conference.

The statement assumes that our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith provide their own interpretation and hence there can be only one acceptable interpretation of them. These documents do not interpret themselves, and in the Wesleyan-Methodist-Evangelical United Brethren-United Methodist traditions a diversity of interpretation has from the beginning operated within the accepted boundaries of doctrinal affirmation. When used positively, creatively, and responsibly this diversity of interpretation has been and is a major denominational strength. It is, as the 1992 Book of Discipline says, "by the discerning use of our standards and in openness to emerging forms of Christian identity that we attempt to maintain fidelity to the apostolic faith." (Par. 68, p.80)

A preponderance of United Methodists believes that the existing doctrinal standards identified in The Book of Discipline are sufficient guides to Christian thinking. Moreover, the existing discipline of The United Methodist Church is sufficient for holding United Methodists accountable to the existing standards of doctrine. The United Methodist Church needs no revisionist "confessing movement" for these standards and this discipline.

Never in the Wesleyan tradition is the identity of United Methodism defined by right doctrine, important as this is, but by right living. The test of authentic faith for Wesley and our tradition is the practice of holiness of heart and life that is manifested in love of God and of one's neighbor. This practical holiness defines our mission, our identity, and our life together.

THEOLOGICAL AND CHRISTOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE

The "confessional statement" has a number of troubling theological implications that need to be named and explored. It seems most troubled by feminist theology which it views as diluting the true faith. The "confessors" want justice for women, but they do not want theology to be affected by the perspective of women or other voices from previously silent people. It appears that being free from gender prejudice does not involve any openness to hearing women speak in their own voice unless this conforms to traditional patriarchal patterns.

While claiming to be concerned with "the renewal and reform of the United Methodist Church," the implicit theology of the "confessional statement" is divisive and exclusive. The statement severely threatens the survival of the significant theological contribution of our United Methodist heritage which has come to be called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Instead of allowing United Methodists to incorporate scripture, reason, tradition and experience in seeking to be faithful, the "confessional statement" places selective portions of scripture and tradition as the only authorities in theological thinking.

The "confessional statement" also exhibits a strong faith in human power and control. The statement claims the power to define narrowly among other beliefs, the "truth of Jesus Christ" as well as what constitutes "true authority". It has an enormous confidence in the capacity of language to capture and define the truth of Jesus Christ. Indeed, it has so much confidence in its own narrow formulations that it seems prepared to exclude from membership those who disagree.

The "confessional statement" serves as a thin veil for an authoritarian and exclusive christology. It uses patriarchal imagery and language almost exclusively. It continually uses language of exclusion to "repudiate teachings" that fall outside its narrow vision of "the apostolic faith." The statement reduces "inclusiveness and tolerance" to mere "principles," ignoring the gospel witness of inclusiveness and liberation embodied by Jesus the Christ as testified to in scripture.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this christology is its subtle idolatry. In effect, the "confessional statement" deifies apostolic formulations of the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ. It codifies a narrow christology which seemingly takes the place of God. This christology is not about personal or social transformation, but is one used as a weapon against others. This is not life-giving christology but rather is life-denying christocentrism.

ETHICAL AND SOCIAL ACTION PERSPECTIVE

It is our understanding that Christian faith always has ethical implications. Our belief in Jesus the Christ effects who we are and how we act in the world.

In examining the "confessional statement" from an ethical perspective, we are especially aware of the omission of pressing social issues which are addressed in scripture. The statement attempts to provide legalistic requirements of belief and practice by selecting certain ideas as essential to the Christian faith while remaining silent about others that Jesus and the apostles stressed.

The "confessional statement" says nothing about peacemaking, love of enemies, rejection of vengeance or capital punishment It is silent about crimes of war, starvation of whole peoples, child and spouse abuse, torture and imprisonment, and the exploitation of labor with less than a living wage. Instead, the "confessional statement" chooses to emphasize issues never mentioned by Jesus such as abortion and homosexuality.

The "confessional statement" also exhibits an understanding of salvation which is primarily personal and privatistic. The statement omits Jesus' references to liberation from oppression as his purpose (Luke 4:18-19). It fails to relate sin to social structures that oppress, instead leaving the impression that sin relates only to personal vices. The statement also fails to confront the established powers that Jesus challenged and that led to his death.

The "confessional statement" has nothing to say about freedom, (Gal. 5:18). Instead, the "confessional statement" is an effort to set forth a new law of orthodoxy to which all United Methodists must subscribe. Methodism, however, is a grace-filled faith both in belief and practice.

The "confessional statement" furthermore says, "We deny the claim that the individual is free to decide what is true and what is false, what is good and what is evil." The "confessional statement" seems to suggest that neither individuals nor groups may follow the leading of conscience. The responsibility to resist evil in a prevailing religious or social culture requires obedience to God and not human authority. (Acts 5:29) The denial of conscience is a dangerous change of doctrine that threatens the faithfulness of The United Methodist Church. For example, for years the church at all levels sanctioned slavery and the subordination of women. It was the voices of conscience and marginalized groups who finally called the church to accountability. Individuals and marginalized groups discerned what was true and good, and it was their insights that were eventually acknowledged by a reluctant church.

Finally, there are ethical implications for us as Christians living in the late 20th century world. It is our hope that confidence in the Christian faith will enable us to deal with other religious peoples with respect. We exist in a global context, and our faith calls us to be in ministry in many settings with persons from a variety of religious traditions.

CONCLUSION

The "confessional charge" at the conclusion of the "confessional statement" should be profoundly disturbing to United Methodists. In effect it says that the movement will support only activities, groups, programs, and publications that support their "confession". In other words, they are prepared to support The United Methodist Church only on their terms. This approach is not calculated to enhance the unity of the United Methodist Church, but will lead inevitably to the kind of conflict and disunity that strangles the church's attempts to witness faithfully to the gospel. With this kind of un-Wesleyan spirit, can schism be far behind?

Although United Methodists have the right to set limits on their support of the denomination, the "confessional statement" sets limits that are extraordinarily narrow and un-Wesleyan. Of course there are doctrinal parameters in which theological diversity is to be exercised, but the statement announces that the movement is not open to any criticism of the positions they espouse. It is difficult to fit this authoritarian spirit into a conciliar church where clergy and laity participate in open and faithful discussion to shape the future of The United Methodist Church.

An alternative vision is that the church is healthier when it is confronted and responds to the challenges of prevailing injustices within the church and society. It is a healthier church when it confronted diversity in scripture out of a recognition that different New Testament writers presented different theological interpretations of Jesus, the place of women, and other social and cultural systems of their day. In short, controversy, in love and with civility, has certain value over dogmatism.

When the "confessional statement" is viewed and weighed in its wholeness, the evidence suggests that the movement is promoting a Reformed theology and confessional stance rather than and at the expense of Wesleyan conciliarism.

We are confident that The United Methodist Church will continue its struggle to be faithful in our chaotic and changing world, mindful of and responsive to the Biblical faith, our Wesleyan heritage, authentic diversity, and global mission. This is best supported when we celebrate our heritage of unity in diversity. In the end we know that there is hope for the future of The United Methodist Church only through the continuing gift of God's grace.

 

Reverend Frank L. Dorsey
Dr. Charles Baughman
Dr. John B. Cobb, Jr.
Dr. E. Dale Dunlap
Reverend Evelyn Fisher
Dr. J.M. Lawson, Jr.
Dr. Don Messer
Dr. Lindsey Pherigo
Reverend Jeanne Audrey Powers
Reverend Nanette Roberts
Dr. Tex Sample
Reverend David Shoeni
Reverend Edward P. Stevenson
Dr. John M. Swomley

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