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50 UM Leaders Say "set aside" Charged Bishop's False Teachings

Dear Friends,

Several months ago I mentioned an article by Bishop Joseph Sprague in which he questioned some of the basic presuppositions of the Christian faith. In a possibly precedent setting case, someone brought charges against Sprague for these statements. I think this is a crucial case and clearly delineates the fissures in our denomination. Here is the Newscope article.


Support for Bishop C. Joseph Sprague (Chicago) has been registered by 52 clergy and two laypersons. The group from eight states signed a Jan. 21 letter urging Bishop Jonathan Keaton (Ohio East) "to set aside the charges" brought against the bishop by Carson Daniel Lauffer of Prophetstown, Ill. The group calls the charges "ridiculous on their face." They suggest the bishop is: 1) an advocate for the poor and marginalized; 2) a compassionate pastor who refuses to set his course by the idealogues of our day; 3) a student who approaches the Scriptures with honesty, scholarship, and reverence; and 4) one who believes there is room enough in the UMC for a broad range of beliefs and practices.

The bishop has been accused of preaching false doctrine (see Newscope Jan. 8). Here are public statements by Bishop Sprague on which Lauffer bases his charges:

"Jesus didn't believe himself to be the Messiah or the Son of God. It is important to separate the historical Jesus from the Jesus presented by the writers of the New Testament. My theological position... is of the relational (as oppose to the substantial) tradition, which has a rich, valued place in the history of Christian thought. Essentially, when it comes to Jesus, I believe that Jesus was fully human (how else could he be humankind's Savior?) who in his radical and complete trust in and commitment to the God he called 'Abba,' experienced such at one-momentness with God that he revealed in and through himself the very heart, the essential nature of God. Thus he was fully God, fully human--not by some trans-human altering of his genetic code, but by relationship with God, neighbor, and self."

I personally think Bishop Sprague did violate his oath to uphold the doctrine of the United Methodist Church with these statements. However it is the four points his supporters make that interest me here.

They state in point one that the Bishop is an advocate for the poor. Great, the charges against him are not for being a bad person. You can be a wonderful person and reject basic Christian doctrine. Mahatma Ghandi was a case in point.

They state in point two that he refuses to set his course by the idealogies of the day. It is precisely because he has set his course by idealogies of the day that he has been charged. If he set his course upon the teachings and the doctrines of the church he would not have rejected the basic Christology of the Methodist and the catholic church.

In point three they suggest that he approaches the Bible with honesty, scholarship, and reverence. I believe he does precisely the opposite. It is not honest to suggest that Jesus did not think himself to be the messiah or the Son of God. Even the most simple reading of the gospels indicate that that is the one claim that permeates all four books. You have to go to great lengths to deconstruct that meaning out of scripture. For that reason he is not a very good scholar. Jesus may not have been the Son of God. That is a matter of faith, but the great body of Christian scholarship for 2000 years, including today, at the very least, suggest that he understood himself to be the messiah. Finally, this demythologizing of scripture in not done out of reverence but intellectual pride.

Perhaps most importantly point four suggest that there is a wide latitude of belief in the United Methodist Church. That may be true but it is not a correct reading of our Discipline. Every Elder was questioned rigorously concerning their understanding of the doctrine of the United Methodist Church. The real question that this case raises is, do our doctrines set out in our Articles of Religion, General Rules, Wesley's Notes and Standard Sermons have any meaning at all anymore? This case will go a part of the way in answering this question.

Your Brother,

John Miles, pastor
Heber Springs UMC

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