Thomas C. Oden
The Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church is most
happy to join crucial issues using the same criteria that our partners in dialogue have
already affirmed and utilized. They have stated that they wish their views to be assessed
in the light of biblical faith, the early church, the Wesleyan heritage, cross-cultural
and intergenerational diversity, and the global mission of the proclamation of the gospel.
These are all criteria to which we gladly consent. Hence it should be possible to have a
serious and fruitful dialogue.
We pray, as we join these issues, for the grace of the Holy Spirit to
guide us in patience and forbearance so that we may have the courage to speak the truth in
The statement on "A Critical
Challenge to the Confessing Movement" (hereafter Challenge) has
inaccurately charged The Confessing Movement with making misleading statements, but this
charge is unfortunately accompanied itself by misleading statements that cannot be left
We intend here to clarify our intent in anything that might have been
viewed as misleading, aware that there is a tendentiousness in the critique that appears
intentionally to look for skewed and unintended ways of viewing our language and mission.
There are thirty-three paragraphs in the critique. We see at least that many statements in
these paragraphs that are either themselves misleading or need to be corrected or
challenged in some way, so we will proceed paragraph by paragraph. When I say
we, I do not presume to speak for The Confessing Movement, but to speak as a
voice within its leadership, inviting others to join me for further clarification.
1. The Confessing Movement is not a caucus. A caucus is a political
dynamic and description. Our literature and essays repeatedly insist that our focus is not
on political action or policy formation within the United Methodist Church, but on
Please note that our correct name, of course, is The Confessing
Movement Within The United Methodist Church. This is not just a generalized
confessing movement, but a movement within and accountable to a particular community of
faith, the UMC. We are neither a caucus nor are we a movement of withdrawal but a movement
within the United Methodist Church, and we intend to stay within. We have an enduring
intention to remaining in the church that baptized us, despite any erroneous talk that we
are trying to secede. What disturbs our critics more than that we should leave is that we
The ecclesiological reform models for many of us are the evangelical
Anglicans who were a minority in the early 20th century but now by diligence and
persistence have a substantial leadership voice, including many Anglican bishops. We seek
to have the same long term time frame and patience with the UMC that the evangelical
Anglicans have had with the Church of England, and to flourish in due time.
2. The total number of people in our network of friends and literature
distribution is now well over one half million. The Confessing Movement is a grass roots
network of mostly lay persons determined to pray and work for the renewal of the UMC.
Since the Confessing Statement is a statement that has been signed by
over a thousand churches, and many thousands of individuals, it is incommensurable to set
it side by side with a statement of a single church. We have already answered that one
church thoroughly, and welcome other critiques from other churches.
3. We welcome the criticism through a "variety of lenses"
through which our partners in dialogue wish to examine the confession. The lenses they
themselves look through must thereby become, by their choice, the subject of further
critical assessment. We will show how these lenses are to some extent distorted and myopic
4. It does not serve the purposes of civil discourse to demean or
diminish language intended to be confession one is ready to die for.
As a case in point, our critics have a right to know that it is
demeaning from our point of view to put the term "confessional statement" in
quotation marks so as to seem to imply rhetorically that it is only a supposed confession.
Whether it is a full confession from the heart we leave it to God to judge.
We welcome the five modes of speaking of the diversity of
Christological interpretations in the Challenge. That they have not passed my attention is
clear from my Systematic Theology vol. 2 in which all five of these motifs are discussed
in detail. As for others in the Confessing Movement I doubt that they would disagree with
the five motifs.
5. The genre of a confession does not allow for discussing all
subjects, nor does any genre. So to argue that silence speaks either consent or dissent is
to argue unconvincingly.
If we were to apply the same criterion to criticism to the Challenge as
it applies to us, then anything they failed to mention in their paper would be regarded as
an overt negation. This is their constant habit. It is of course a logical fallacy, and we
do not intend to commit it in our response, but it recurs in this paper dozens of times.
We are by no means "in effect repudiating" those metaphors of
the NT that we do not specifically mention in the confessing statement, nor does their
paper "in effect repudiate" items on which they have chosen to be silent. They
know that the argument from silence is empty and can always be turned against its
assertor. The rhetoric and logic of alleged repudiation is hostile and inconsistent. If
silence implies repudiation, then their document repudiates all that it does not
explicitly address. That is obviously absurd.
6. We are glad to be reminded by our partners in dialogue of the words
of our Lord and "not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord will enter the
kingdom of heaven". But for our critics this seems to be used as a generalize
argument to counter confession of the Lordship of Christ altogether. Otherwise, the
context does not reveal any other interpretation.
We agree exactly that "Whoever does right is acceptable to
him", remembering that there is no right doing, as Paul makes clear in Romans 1-3,
without faith in the only Son of God.
7. It is not we who have arbitrarily "selected creeds" out of
some obscure private motivation, as if in the last ten minutes. They have been selected by
an extensive consenting process that has reconfirmed apostolic teaching for almost twenty
centuries, and done so in the prototypical form of early baptismal creeds. The western
tradition has especially honored these three confessions (Apostles, Nicene, and
Athanasian) long before the Anglican and Methodist traditions confirmed them
Orthodoxy has spent many centuries defining parameters, but for the
purpose of showing how those parameters are scripturally grounded, and commendable to the
communio sanctorum. They help us not to be blown by every wind of doctrine.
It is an odd idea that orthodoxy is not concerned with unity of faith.
That is its central intention, and it defines boundaries only in order to insure the unity
of faith in the apostolic witness.
We are indeed free "for faithful theological exploration"
within these boundaries, but not apart from them, which appears to be the consistent
intention of our critics. If not, they need to inform us where the boundaries lie.
8. The orthodox teachings of the early Christian writers are seldom of
one mind in cultural assumptions, but they are of one mind in consent to apostolic
teaching and in rejection of counter-apostolic teachings. All say no with one voice to
Arianism, Macion, Donatism, Pelagianism, etc. We have a documentary history of these
ecumenical negations. They are of one mind when they confess the apostolic faith in their
There are many ways obviously of articulating the apostolic faith, and
that is the purpose of the world wide mission of Christian preaching after Pentecost, but
any way of articulating that tends to erase or distort or fail to guard the apostolic
tradition as conveyed in Christian canonical Scripture is rejected. These varieties of
affirmation and consensual rejections have a documentary history into which anyone can
There is no small vibration of hatred and disdain in the long list of
unpleasant terms intended to dismiss classical Christian teaching, as if it were best
described as: "patriarchal, classist, pre-Copernican, pre-scientific", and
"imperialistic". Classic Christianity deserves a better hearing than that. It
has not received a fair hearing from those who are uncritically committed to the
assumptions of the Zeitigeist of modernity as the final judge and arbiter of Christian
It is an insult to women who died for the ancient ecumenical faith
defined by the ancient ecumenical councils, and there were many women who died, to assume
that they had no level of consent to these teachings. That would make their martyrdom
disingenuous. Some forms of feminist advocacy insult the integrity of the women martyrs
who died on behalf of their triune baptismal confession. The seventh ecumenical council in
particular shows the decisive role that women have played in ecumenical consent to
apostolic teaching. Christian women have a profound history of fiercely resisting all
attempts to dilute conciliar teaching. Such attempts are at stake today in some
hyper-feminist attacks on the atonement, Sonship of Christ, the servant or submission
ethic for men and women, and the protection of life.
It is an error of historical judgement to say that there were no
ordinary folk, no general lay consent, that shaped and influenced the decisions of the
ecumenical councils. Read the decrees of the councils and you will see that they appeal
frequently and seriously to the general consent of the whole intergenerational loas. Where
the laity in fact did not eventually confirm the councils, even though they were thought
to be "ecumenical", they were not received as truly ecumenical. Ecumenicity in
its ancient sense requires general lay consent, and the laity made up of more than half
women, and mostly of "ordinary folk".
9. The Wesleyan doctrinal standards condemn only those ideas that are
asserted as scriptural teaching but which are demonstrably inimical to scripture.
There is no intent to discredit faithful theology since Wesley or since
the patristic writers. Our call is precisely for faithful theology under the instruction
of the revealed Word, as known in the written Word through the guidance of the Holy
Feminist and liberation theologies that remain faithful to that Word
are to be received and lauded, and some do.
10. It is obvious that the confessing statement does not say, as
asserted, that "God has ceased to work in the lives and understanding of faithful
persons now struggling to be in ministry in the world" --- that is precisely what we
are calling for. This makes us wonder whether the critics have even bothered to read the
confessing statement carefully or with any shred of empathy.
11. It is truly misleading to argue or even suggest that we are covert
Calvinists, whereas the liberal defenders of the status quo in the UMC are the true
It displays exceeding ignorance of the Anglican tradition to argue that
the XXXIX Articles of Religion were never intended as a confession. That demeans those who
died for that confession.
The mode of conference is truly Wesleys mode, but read the
Conferences minutes and see how constantly he makes judgements on the basis of scripture,
and how Wesley himself does not follow a consensus if it is in discord with scripture.
If there is no confessing tradition Methodism, as they claim, why did
Wesley amend the 39 articles into 25? Why were these articles guarded as "our
doctrines" by the earliest Conferences? Why were they explicitly cited in the
conference minutes as our doctrinal standards? We have a clear documentary history of
this. And why would the 1988 General Conference confirm them once again formally as our
doctrinal standards? The writers of this critique appear to be still chafing over the
defining of our doctrinal standards in the 1988 discipline. They then opposed, and
apparently still oppose these confessional standards, but they are written into our
constitution. We urge them to try to change the constitution if they disagree with it, and
see how far they will get. They know there is no feasible way to do this.
We are first confessing Christians, then confessing United Methodists.
We are deeply committed to the Wesleyan tradition because it is committed to scripture and
classic Christian teaching. It is disingenuous to try to revise classic Christian teaching
and claim to do so under what pretends to be a Wesleyan flag, but which is little more
than the latidudinarianism he deplored.
12. Wesleys sermon on the Catholic Spirit, which they quote
tendentiously, specifies twelve detailed paragraphs which, by way of penetrating doctrinal
questions, set forth key parameters of classic Christian teaching. Only on this thoroughly
orthodox basis does Wesley plead in this sermon to "stretch out your hand." The
Catholic Spirit is not latidudinarianism.
Absolute tolerance is not an argument for tolerance, but an undermining
precisely of those criteria by which tolerance can be honored and pursed in the pursuit of
13. The view that sola scriptura is "no part of the Wesleyan
tradition" is easily corrected by reading Wesleys moving sermon "On
Corrupting the Word of God", and his letter to John Dickens: "I allow no other
rule, whether of faith or practice, than the Holy Scripture". "The Church is to
be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church. And Scripture is the best
expounder of Scripture". (WJW X:142).
It is a gross distortion of the 1988 General Conference and all
subsequent Disciplines to imply that sola scriptura was "rejected"! Far from
rejecting it, that Conference made ever more clear than the 1968-88 disciplines the
primacy of scripture. To assert the sufficiency of scripture alone for salvation, as do
our doctrinal standards, is not to deny or delimit the importance of tradition (which is a
history of exegesis), or reason, or experience which is formed by scripture.
14. It is absurd to argue that there can be only one acceptable
interpretation of the XXV Articles. We invite all critics who would wish seriously to join
in various interpretations of the XXV Articles to do so. It is just this dialogue that we
are calling for, and asking the leadership of bishops to develop.
We join with any serious attempts to "maintain fidelity to the
apostolic faith" in a spirit of "openness to emerging forms of Christian
identity". But that cannot imply any emerging form of identity that, by the way,
rejects the Incarnation and Resurrection and the authority of Scriptures. We thus agree
fully with the Disc. Par 68, p. 80.
We respectfully ask our critics to be more specific about how they
understand that the Methodist tradition has "from the beginning operated within the
accepted boundaries of doctrinal affirmation". We agree and wish to hear more detail
about precisely what these boundaries are. If some argue that there are no boundaries
whatever to doctrinal inquiry, both our critics and we ourselves seem to agree that this
is to be rejected.
15. We could not agree more that "the existing doctrinal standards
identified in the Book of Discipline are sufficient guides to Christian thinking".
But this makes us wonder whether they may have forgotten that we are the ones who are most
urgently calling the UMC back to these very existing doctrinal standards? Do they somehow
imply that we seek some revision of UM doctrine? How could they, if they have read our
literature? And yet that seems to be the obvious implication of paragraph 15. We are not
doctrinal revisionists but oppose doctrinal revisionism if it is contrary to apostolic
16. "Right living" must not be treated as if somehow
unconnected with "right doctrine"? They are right to affirm holy living as the
test of the Christian life, but not so as to diminish the importance of the apostolic
teaching informing it.
17. Our chief executive officer is a woman. We have a larger proportion
of women on our executive board than they do signatories of their critique. How
hypocritical it is, then, for them to say falsely that we "do not want theology to be
affected by the perspective of women"!
We regret that our critics view "feminist theology" as a
single-minded monolithic reality. There are many feminist theologies, one of which is
evangelical. Another with similar interests is better as orthodox. If they do not see the
legitimate themes of feminism as combinable with classic Christianity, they have not been
reading the growing literature of evangelical feminism or the vital responses of orthodox
women to feminism.
We respectfully make a distinction between evangelical feminists and
those feminists who advocate abortion and lesbian legitimization. In order to make this
distinction we have sometimes used the term "radical feminists", but that is
only to distinguish one type of feminism, not all types. It refers specifically to that
feminism which is strongly shaped by social location arguments that are largely grounded
in a quasi-marxist understanding of oppression, and an interpretation of religion as
power, along with very determined lesbian and abortion advocacy. The women of the church
are not all "radical feminists". That is a mistake that only a few feminists
make nowadays, and it is indeed a fatal mistake to make.
18. Methodist theology existed long before the quadrilateral was
formulated, and will continue long after it disappears, if it should disappear as a formal
construct. I have defended the quadrilateral in John Wesleys Scriptural Christianity
and Billy Abraham has challenged it in his profound writings, and on criteriological and
epistemological grounds that are to some degree plausible to me. So there are differing
ways of weighing in on the quadrilateral among us.
But it seems a gross exaggeration to say that the confessing statement
"threatens the survival" of the quadrilateral formulation. Where is there any
possible evidence of this?
Under the rhetoric of inclusion, we know that evangelicals have been
excluded in many quarters of the UMC. Anybody can see this. Inclusiveness has become a shibboleth
of exclusiveness: no evangelicals need apply. So bureaucracies have been systematically
built without courageous evangelical voices that would represent better our laity.
Those who speak up for the apostolic tradition are not divisive; it is
rather the objectors to the apostolic witness that are divisive. The most divisive event
in recent years is the Reimagining Conference which wrongly linked ecumenical advocacy
with abortion advocacy and lesbian advocacy. We are responding to such divisiveness with a
search for unity grounded in truth, the truth that is in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Lord,
which makes us free.
19. It is misleading to say that the confessing statement
"exhibits a strong faith in human power and control." Where can they find that
in any of our documents? It is a fantasy.
There is no proposal from the Confessing Movement to excommunicate or
exclude from church membership those who disagree with the confessing statement. Nowhere
is that implied. That fantasy is concocted out of hysteria and despair, and probably some
diffuse hatred of evangelicals.
The apophatic limits of our frail human ability to use language to
speak of God is affirmed just as firmly among us as it is in the document.
Within the genre of the short confession the issue of apophaticism was
not included, nor were many other important things. Just as within the genre of their
critique they do not include every possible qualifier.
20. We would not ordinarily use the term "exclusivist
Christology", since that is not a term found easily in either scripture or classic
Christianity, but we think we understand what they mean: that no one is saved by any other
name in heaven than the name of Jesus. To this we consent.
It seems an exaggeration to think of Jesus as an advocate of their
distinctly modern forms of liberation and egalitarian "inclusiveness", which as
we have said is a covert strategy for excluding evangelicals. Read Wesley' sermon
"Of Hell" or "The Great Assize" to correct the assumption that either
Jesus or Wesley was an absolute tolerationist. It is difficult to sustain after this the
latitudinarian model of Jesus espoused in the critique.
21. Apostolic formulations are not deified only God who is attested as
Almighty by the apostolic formulations.
22. Faith has ethical implications, but those implications are
enervated if there is no depth of scriptural or doctrinal grounding for them, and no
criterion of truth to which they can appeal. While previously the critics have appeared to
diminish the importance of the tasks of rigorous doctrinal work, in the later part of
their document they seem to appeal to belief as a ground for their ethical imperatives. We
fully agree, and we wish to hear more about how they make this connection, especially in
the light of their polemic against doctrinal continuity, constancy, reliability, and
23. The gospel of grace is not a new legalistic requirement. Christ is
the end of the law as a means of justification. The laws justification is no longer
needed for one whose sins are atoned for in the cross of Jesus Christ.
Our critics seems to assume that we are silent about care for the poor,
but this is a continuing concern of the preaching and literature and spiritual formation
of the Confessing Movement. In Christian history the most effective and far-reaching
initiatives in caring for the poor have been grounded in classical Christian pastoral care
and evangelical vitality.
24. Arguments from silence are unconvincing. It is evident that our
critics statement itself is totally silent about many important matters. We do not
thereby conclude that they are unaware or insensitive to these concerns. Could we not
expect the same respect from them?
It seems an amusing literalism that our critics fall into (which they
elsewhere bemoan), that if Jesus does literally not mention something, he has no concern
for it. They argue that since abortion and homosexuality are not literally mentioned by
Jesus, the implication is that he apparently had no concern for such matters. Yet Jesus
was accountable to the scripture of the Hebraic tradition. He came to fulfill the law. The
law is sufficiently clear on sexuality. The NT is sufficiently clear on the implications
of the gospel for monogamous sexual fidelity. With this literalistic "red letter
hermeneutic", our critics seem to imply that Jesus had and has no concern whatever
for sexual ethics. This we deny.
25. Again more unconvincing arguments for silence: "The statement
" So does their statement omit many important affirmations and negations.
We indeed are seeking to relate sin to social structures, and the most
evident social structure for which we are immediately accountable is the UMC, and our own
churches within the UMC. We oppose privatistic ethics, because we understand the gospel to
be proclaimed in a community of faith. The gospel is all about liberation, but it is a
liberation from sin that impacts social responsibility, not more simplistically a
political or economic liberation from oppressive social structures, as if economic
oppression were more fundamental or determinative than the history of sin.
26. In our baptism we confess our sin and our faith in Jesus Christ.
That is the core confession to which "all United Methodists subscribe", and
which we confess. No one who has been baptized as a United Methodist can claim that there
is no confession in Methodism.
Again our critics resort to a misleading charge of legalism. This has
been previously answered. It is already countered by the confessions strong appeal
Human beings are indeed led by conscience and reason. Even apart from
the history of salvation they are valid instructors. But within the history of salvation
they are instructed by scripture and especially by that sensitized conscience which is
guided by the Holy Spirit.
Far from denying freedom of conscience, we strongly affirm it, and call
for it. It is not conscience that threatens the UMC but what Paul calls a "seared
conscience" that is so filled with idolatry and self-assertiveness that it cannot
hear the truer voice of conscience.
The critics purport to be concerned about "marginalized
groups". It is not evident that evangelicals are among the most "marginalized
groups" within the UMC? Though we have large numbers, we are spurned by the
bureaucracy. We do not claim victimization status, but rather declare our intent to be
heard and to remain within the church. WE have the right to be heard. We will be heard.
That in fact is what our detractors most fear --- our being fairly heard.
28. No one comes to the Father except by the Son. As long as this is
kept in place, dialogue is open to the great world religions, and urgently needed. But
dialogue which has no self-identity is not dialogue.
29. We deny that it is an "unWesleyan spirit" to do what
Wesley himself constantly did: call the church and the world to scriptural holiness. If
that involves conflict with defensive, waning, bureaucratic knowledge elites, we will face
it with equanimity and pray for the grace to speak the truth in love.
It is misleading to caste the confessing movement as
"unWesleyan" when it is clearly committed to the renewal of Wesleyan teaching,
and hence ancient ecumenical teaching, within United Methodism.
30. We stand under the authority of the revealed Word as it meets us in
written Word under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If that is what some mean by
authoritarian, we happily confess it. It is the truth that sets us free.
It is misleading to suggest that we are not open to any criticism. We
have repeatedly solicited it. We welcome it. We hope it will so continue as to bear some
fruit instead of simple enmity and distrust.
31. The critics of the confession plead for "civility" in
discourse, yet if this document is an example of civility, with all its false charges and
misleading statements and miscontruals and deliberate misreadings, we can only hope for a
spirit of repentance in all parties that might lead to greater civility and trust.
32. To be caricatured as "promoters of Reformed theology"
instead of Wesleyans is so patently untrue that it does not require a reply. Please read
my studies of Doctrinal Standards in the Wesleyan Tradition, and John
Wesleys Scriptural Christianity and my book on the Transforming Power of
Grace, as a beginning corrective of his assumption. And better, read the powerful
writings of Wm. Abraham and Geoffrey Wainwright and Maxie Dunnam and above all Albert
Outler to correct this misimpression.
33. As I look at the list of signatories I see old and dear friends
among them: John Cobb, Charles Baughman, Dale Dunlap, John Swomley, and Jeanne Audrey
Powers whom I have known longer than any of the others. I am surprised to see your names
on such a reckless and misleading document. I think you should be ashamed. But that is a
matter for further conversations.
Thomas C. Oden