UM Clergyman Boldly Speaks Out Against Bishop's Tacit Support Of Church Heresy
November 26, 2002
An Open Letter to All UM Bishops
All I have ever wanted to do since becoming a Christian in the United Methodist Church was to join in the battle for truth combating evil and sin side by side with my compatriots. I wanted to join in the celebration when one of us was successful in rescuing a hostage from hell and lend a hand of support and encouragement whenever one of us was ambushed by the enemy. Although I am an ordained Elder I have always considered myself just one of the "grunts" in the trenches. I have always endeavored to lead my soldiers in Christ with dignity, honor, courage, and compassion. I have always been so proud to serve God in this branch of His army under your supervision and leadership. You are our Generals. Although every member of this army has direct access to our Commander in Chief, I have always trusted and believed that you have a special calling with regard to His will and plan for the war on sin. I looked to you not just with admiration but with confidence in your ability to lead us into victory proclaiming the righteousness and holiness of God in Christ.
Just as each branch of the military serves a unique and focused purpose, our branch of God's army (Methodism) was to lead the way in spreading scriptural holiness across land. And that we did with roaring success in the early days of Methodism in general and American Methodism in particular. Our Circuit Riders are as legendary in the Lord's army as Navy Seals, Green Berets, and Army Rangers are in the United States military. John Wesley is to Methodism as George Washington is to American history: a Founding Father whose wisdom as a leader was unquestioned and courage as a General leading his troops against superior forces unmatched. America is still enjoying the fruits of General Washington's wisdom and courage. Sadly, I believe we are in danger of wasting the legacy of John Wesley.
I cannot begin to describe the disappointment and even shame and embarrassment I (and many others) feel concerning the direction that many of you are taking all of us and the tone of animosity some of you are engendering towards specific groups within our denomination. Through your leadership (or lack thereof) we are no longer known as warriors for Christ who spread scriptural holiness wherever they go. Thanks to Bishop Sprague and those of you who support him and condone or minimize his teachings we are known as people who do not believe the Bible and whose main goal in life is to spread toleration throughout the land. Leaders have to make tough decisions but it seems to many of us that you have decided the best course of action to take is inaction.
Is it not a foundational role of the Bishop to lead his or her flock? Is it not to feed His sheep? Tell me, Bishops, how is calling all those faithful United Methodists (and Christians of any denomination) "idolaters" for believing in the physical resurrection of Jesus leading or feeding God's flock? When Bishop Sprague characterized all those who believe in the Virgin Birth and Resurrection as true events in history as "neo-literalists, persons who fail to understand the symbolic nature of religious language" how does that qualify for effective and/or wise leadership? Does his categorization of all those who embrace the blood atonement of Christ as people of "unexamined thought" strike you as a valid way of feeding Christ's flock? I do not like being called an idolater simply because I believe what the Church has taught for thousands of years. I do not appreciate the intimation that because I believe in the reality of the Virgin Birth and Resurrection I am an ignoramus who does not know the difference between a symbol and an actuality. Nor do I take it lightly that because I believe in the blood atonement of Christ as necessary for salvation I am a moron with a head full of "unexamined" thoughts. Bishop Sprague has not just assaulted foundational Christian doctrine. He has insulted millions of faithful United Methodists. His entire career in the Episcopacy seems geared to a vindictive campaign against evangelicals.
How many of you who sit as Bishops would turn a blind eye or run to my defense as you have Bishop Sprague if I was serving in your Annual Conference and a complaint was lodged against me with accompanying proof that I stood in the pulpit and insulted my congregation by calling them stupid, arrogant, and a pack of idolaters? Would you say to all my outraged parishioners as Bishop McCleskey puts it, that I was merely "discerning the essential doctrines of the faith"? Or would you put it as he stated further "What we have in... Bishop Sprague's [Rev. Rooney's] speech [sermon] is a combination of traditional Christian affirmation coupled with theological reflection and exploration" (from the Bishop's paper entitled "In Pursuit of Doctrinal Integrity"). And if the insulted congregation responded by saying "that is just a bunch of religious double-speak!" would you reply as did Bishop McCleskey that that response is nothing but "ugly, mean-spirited, and virtually devoid of responsible theological content"?
Or would you respond to calls for my removal from an insulted congregation as did my Bishop, Kenneth Carder, concerning Bishop Sprague: "If concern over Bishop Sprague's lecture [Rev. Rooney's sermon] will spur us to dig deeply into our basic beliefs for the purpose of shaping our lives and congregations, then I am encouraged and applaud both Bishop Sprague [Rev. Rooney] and those who resist his interpretations" (http://www.mississippi-umc.org/bishop_carder_questions.htm). So we are to applaud one who insults those he or she has been given to shepherd? I love my Bishop and respect him greatly but that is almost like saying we should applaud a racist for causing a race riot if in the long run it helps to curtail racism. Should we applaud an abusive husband who beats his wife if in the end, her life is made better because her last beating caused her to leave him?
Bishops, please be careful and give a little extra thought to how you address those of us who are shocked and wounded by the comments of Bishop Sprague. I do not think you have an adequate grasp of the feeling of betrayal that is widespread in United Methodism now due to his tirade against evangelical believers and your own attempts to minimize it by telling us that we do not know the difference between doctrine and theology. Telling us that Bishop Sprague was merely theologizing about doctrine is analogous to saying "It all depends on what the meaning of 'is' is." That is nothing but lame doublespeak and we all know it. If saying that Christ did not truly rise from the dead is not subverting doctrine but is theologizing about doctrine then anyone can proclaim whatever they want and hide behind the shield of "theologizing." There is a big difference between theologizing about the implications of a doctrine and asserting a change in an already established doctrine.
In The Problem of Pluralism: Recovering United Methodist Identity Dr. Jerry Walls addresses this very thing. He says,
The notion that doctrine can be accorded a status of finality follows from the conviction that the central meaning and message of Scripture is determinable. To say the central meaning of Scripture is determinable is to say it can be established... there has been a consensus throughout the church that the central doctrinal message of Scripture was established in the early creeds. Thus, the doctrinal consensus expressed in the creeds can be accorded a status of finality (p. 109).
Knowing this, Bishop Sprague said in his now infamous address at Illif that he wanted to go beyond "the stilted Christological language of the ancient creeds." Those "ancient creeds" assert our doctrine or, as Dr. Walls points out, the central message of Scripture that has been accorded a measure of finality. Our Discipline states, "Such creeds helped preserve the integrity of the church's witness, set boundaries for acceptable Christian doctrine, and proclaimed the basic elements of the enduring Christian message" (from "Section I Our Doctrinal Heritage"). And yet you Bishops are saying that your colleague was not promoting false doctrine when he said Christ was not physically raised from the dead and stated quite clearly that to say or believe the blood of Christ occasioned the means of salvation for humanity "is superstition at best..."
Bishops, the very first phrase of "Our Doctrinal Heritage" reads, "United Methodists profess the historic Christian faith in God..." Are you really saying to all of us that Bishop Sprague's comments about Christ "profess the historic Christian faith in God"? He has openly said that Jesus Christ did not actually rise from the dead. He has said that the blood of Christ is neither atoning nor efficacious. And you are telling us that not only is he not guilty of disseminating doctrines which are contrary to the historic faith of the Church but he is to be applauded for his progressive theologizing? Not only are we hurt from Bishop Sprague's attack on our intelligence and integrity but we are further wounded by your patronization of us. You are playing word and semantic games with us.
Not only do you defend your colleague but some of you agree with him. In writing his defense of Bishop Sprague Bishop McCleskey calls "the Virgin Birth of Jesus [as] a biological fact; and the resurrection of Jesus mean[ing] that his physical body was resuscitated..." "extreme views." The traditional and historic views of the Virgin Birth and Resurrection of Christ are now "extreme views"? I think I am beginning to understand how American soldiers in Vietnam must have felt about their leaders: sold out and betrayed.
My understanding is that some of you (retired Bishops) have initiated a campaign along with certain laity and clergy to investigate and challenge evangelical groups within the denomination such as The Institute of Religion and Democracy and maybe even Good News and/or the Confessing Movement? And then you have the temerity to call us to halt what you characterize as "ugly, mean-spirited" responses? I do not doubt that many if not all of you have received letters, phone-calls, and e-mails calling you names and laced with profanity over this crisis created by Bishop Sprague. But that is part of the job, isn't it? Please stop publicly whining about it. In the 1996 General Conference a baker's dozen of you stood up to publicly protest what has always been the will of the substantial majority of Methodists concerning the prohibition to ordain practicing homosexuals. A couple of you (one of which was Bishop Sprague) was arrested at the 2000 General Conference for illegally demonstrating again against our prohibition of homosexual ministers. Now you are seeking/condoning/permitting a study to condemn evangelical groups within the denomination? Are you seeking a theological cleansing of the denomination?
Therein lies the problem does it not? Clergy and laity do not know how widespread among the episcopacy the belief is that traditional and historic Christian views are deemed "extreme views." You seem to be closing ranks, circling the wagons, and planning counterstrikes against those intolerant evangelicals.
Romans chapter 8 speaks of walking in the Spirit, being led by God, and being affirmed by the Spirit that we are His children. Since when has it become an Episcopal responsibility to compel, insist, and demand? One among your number has likened our expectation to be led by those who at a bare minimum faithfully adhere to the Apostle's Creed as "thought-police." Let's see, evangelical Christians who love Jesus Christ, His Church, our denominational heritage, and want to see our Bishops uphold basic Christian doctrine have been called by our own Bishops, "idolaters, neo-literalists, ugly and mean-spirited, thought-police, superstitious, and filled with unexamined thought" whose reaction to Bishop Sprague's vitriolic lecture has been "devoid of responsible theological content." And Bishop Carder tells us, "Hatefully arguing over doctrine and using differences as occasions for political posturing...are distortions and abuses of both faithful doctrine and sound theology." Thank you, Bishops, for assailing us with all manner of spiteful insults and then telling us how hateful we are for standing up against attempts to alter historic Christian doctrine and shameful abuses of power wherein a Bishop calls professing Christians idolaters. Is that how it is to be led by the Spirit of God? Is that how you bear witness that I am a child of God?
If you are supposed to be leading United Methodism by example, what kind of example are you setting? Is ridiculing, mocking, scorning, and categorizing an entire segment (a rather large segment) of those you are supposed to be leading setting the proper example for us to experience and the secular world to hear and see? I realize that calling for a Bishop's resignation is both sensational and maybe even a bit scintillating but for that Bishop to publicly respond by describing the call as "predicable and of no consequence" further stating that the "IRD [Institute of Religion and Democracy] is grounded not in the Christian gospel" and that the one who called for his resignation and all those loyal and faithful United Methodists who support that call "can follow a secular program if he so chooses, but I will continue to follow the call of Jesus Christ" (from a September 20, 2002 article in Newscope) is nothing less than juvenile and tit for tat. Is the congeniality and courtesy you all extend to Bishop Sprague for disseminating his views not to be afforded to those who take issue with them?
You have called upon all United Methodists to repent of racism both past and present, both institutional and personal. You frequently appeal to clergy and laity to be sensitive to and understanding of the wounded feelings of homosexuals caused by what you claim is both institutionalized and personal acts and feelings of discrimination. What about the conservative and evangelical United Methodists you routinely humiliate and criticize? Will there ever be a call by the Episcopacy to repent of the elitism that is routinely practiced in the United Methodist Church? Will you ever admit you have said unkind and unjust words to evangelical Methodists? Do we need a study or commission authorized to see if there has been institutionalized discrimination at the Episcopal level against vocal evangelical ministers and churches?
What kind of church are you creating and fashioning for all of us? One Bishop says she is afraid of a church controlled by the "thought police." Isn't that precisely the kind of church you are molding and shaping? I cannot speak for any other conservative evangelical United Methodists but I for one am getting quite tired of the euphemisms whose goal is to alarm people and warn them that I am a danger to religious thought, freedom of religious expression, and the survival of the United Methodist Church just because I believe that Jesus Christ was truly born of a virgin and physically rose from the dead and that the New Testament gives no Christian the license to proclaim any hope of salvation outside of the atoning blood of Jesus Christ.
Bishops right now we need your leadership. More than that we need accountability. Many of you do not mind stepping to the forefront of politics and social justice issues. We have head you chastise the current Administration for its commitment to the war on Terror and the ultimatum to Iraq. We have seen some of you step front and center into the limelight to promote toleration and acceptance of homosexuality. Tell me, what is more important than letting your members know where you stand concerning basic Christian doctrine? How many of you besides Bishops Sprague and McCleskey call belief in the Virgin Birth and Resurrection as understood and professed by some of the most prominent Christian thinkers of all time and for thousands of years "extreme views"? How many of you believe evangelical Methodists are the "thought police"? How many of you honestly believe that the complaints against Bishop Sprague are "part of an organized effort of a small, very vocal minority"?
How many of you are willing to admit that there is a crisis of confidence in the Episcopacy? Are you going to pretend it does not exist? Are you going to continue to insult conservative Methodists saying that they are of "no consequence."? Why do we know that you oppose the war on Iraq but are left to wonder which of you believes in the atoning blood of Christ? No longer is it assumed. You can thank Bishops Sprague and McCleskey for that.
Your public statements concerning this controversy have been both disappointing and hurtful. You have gone to pains to support and affirm him, even those few of you who have publicly distanced yourselves from his affirmations of dissent. What about those he has outraged and offended? We are the ones who support you with our prayers. We are the ones who fund your salaries. And yet we are the ones you routinely dismiss as "of no consequence." It hurts.
Reprinted with permission: Copyright © 2002 Raymond J. Rooney
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