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Perspective: The Confessing Movement Debate


Dear Friends,

For the last two weeks I have written about a formal debate sponsored by Perkins School of Theology between Leicester Longden, one of the writers of the Confessing Document and John Swomley a Professor Emeritus at St. Paul School of Theology who spoke in opposition to the Confessing Movement. Wayne Jarvis, a pastor from the North Arkansas Conference, wrote an excellent response in defense of John Swomley. I say excellent, not that I agree with everything he says, but that what he says is well reasoned. Here is his e-mail in defense of John Swomley and the liberal wing of the church.

Your Brother,



I was both interested and surprised that John Swomley was the author of the article in the Perkins Perspective on the Confessing Movement. I was interested because Perkins is quick to provide a forum for the discussion of relevant issues, a habit it has had for over fifty years. I was surprised because John Swomley was one of the people who back in the fifty's and sixty's provided the rationale for much of the anti-war and anti-segregation movement. While he is still an apologist for the left section of the congregation he certainly is not the only liberal spokesman around.

I can understand your uncomfortableness with Swomley's arguments. But using the Wesley quadrilateral shouldn't be one of them. Your characterization of Swomley's argument sounds like he dismisses the Confessing Movement on all four grounds, but I don't think that is quite fair to Swomley. Like your characterization of the Confessors I think it misses some of the subtleties of what Swomley is saying.

I guess where I get my back up is in your seeming to say that the only United Methodists who believe in the centrality of Christ are the Confessing Movement folk (CMF). That is poppy-cock. Without denying your appropriate emphasis upon faith in Jesus Christ, it is inappropriate to characterize everyone on your left (which includes practically everyone in the middle, too) as NOT believing in the centrality of Christ. I have more than a casual interest in and knowledge of liberation theology (which like some other theologies gets over-stated now and then). The one's I am familiar with base their theological thrust on the encounter between the word and the people, especially poor and oppressed people. Their theologies encompass both the evangelical emphasis upon personal responsibility and life-changing commitments through an encounter with Christ and the liberal emphasis upon putting their faith and their faith community (the Church) into dialogue with culture and society in order to bring about compassionate change for oppressed people.

My reservations about the Confessing Movement lay not in its claim to legitimacy as a force within the church to be reckoned with but rather its implied, indeed often explicit, claim that it is the Only legitimate stance on the theological spectrum. John, I will give you your due. But at the same time I will retain my claim to legitimacy.

Somehow, and even John Swomley would agree to this, the United Methodist Church has achieved its greatness and its effectiveness in the world because it was able and willing to keep under its umbrella both the left and the right. If you think being persecuted and dismissed is a unique experience of the evangelicals (which I doubt that it is) then you ought to look up the history of the liberals like John Swomley. He has been spit upon by the best and the worst of them and has risked his life In the Name of Jesus Christ more times than you will take time to find out let alone care about. Swomley may not sound so great to the contemporary evangelical, but he is one liberal who did not chunk it all over in his latter years. And like it or not, the United Methodist Church has listened to (though not necessarily agreed with)

the John Swomleys with great appreciation over the past six decades. I hope the evangelicals will have the integrity and theological clarity to present their case for as long a time.

Let me end with this word from a liberal. Our agenda is not the salvation of the United Methodist Church. Our agenda is the saving of individual souls and the re-

creation of the world over which we hold sway so that all will reflect the love and grace of God. We may and probably will disagree on the way to get that done. But that is our common task Theologically frustrated as we may be with each other, our focus must be on the world into which the Lord has put us. That's our arena, the rest is all His.


Wayne Jarvis

John Miles is:
  • an Elder in the North Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
  • is currently pastor of Heber Springs United Methodist Church
  • is a graduate of Hendrix College and Perkins School of Theology
  • is on the Board of the Confessing Movement of Arkansas and is active in Walk to Emmaus and Kairos Prison Ministry
  • In 1997 his church won the large church of the year award for the North Arkansas Annual Conference

John Miles also publishes a weekly E-mail newsletter on issues facing the United Methodist Church. If you would like to recieve that E-mail write
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