I wonder if there’s an “Two Natures” controversy in the midst of the United Methodist Church today. No, not that one. Another one.
The council produced the “Chalcedonian Definition.” The Definition affirms that Christ is “complete in Godhead and complete in humanness, truly God and truly human.” He is “of one substance (homoousios) with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his humanity.”
Jesus Christ is to be “recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation.” The “distinction of natures” is “in no way annulled by the union.” “The characteristics of each nature” are to be considered as “preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence.” They are not to be “separated into two persons.”
So in short, Jesus was two natures without confusion, change, division, or separation…with neither overtaking the other.
It is with this eye towards tradition that I wonder if our leadership and church consultants are making an Chalcedon decision to frame the United Methodist Church as two natures with one overtaking the other. In the fifth century, the debate was over the nature of Christ, of whether Christ was wholly one nature or a coexistence of two natures. In the 21st century, the debate is over the nature of Christ’s body, the Church, of whether it is a movement, an institution, or some blend of both.
In his book “Back to Zero“, Gil Rendle masterfully maps out the differences between polarities, defined as “two equal and competing truths that must be held together in tension.” Consumer v. citizen, member v. disciple, and finally movement v. institution. The polarity between movement and institution is the subject of his last two chapters on how a missional movement and instittuional structure can coexist in the Body of Christ. But in doing so, I was struck by one statement that then reframed his entire argument for me. He claims in chapter six about the “truths” of the UMC being both an institution and a movement:
“Each of these truths is equally true but cannot be held together.”
Now to every reader of Rendle’s book, that may seem true. After all, Rendle paints a stark contrast between each side. Movements are nimble, quick, relevant, and missional. Institutions are bureaucratic, slow to change, global scope but a local mess. Over and over again in Rendle’s book, the claim is that movements and institutions are stark contrasts. Even though Rendle is careful to say that they are not “incompatible” he says that we desire to be “more closely tied to Christ than to Christ’s Church” which indicates a movement is closer to Christ than an institution can be…a claim I find to be false.
Rather, the Chalcedon Controversy for the UMC today is that Rendle paints Movements and Institutions as different natures, as similar kinds of ways of “being church” but that one is clearly better than the other. By framing them as polarities, with charts of positives and negatives from each side, I believe he sides with the Eutyches supporters, claiming the UMC is either movement or institution with the Church responding out of one or the other, like Jesus responded out of his human or divine side. But one is clearly wrong to be too heavily on (the institution) and the church needs to swing back to the other side of the natures.
My claim is different. My claim and experience (nowhere close to Rendle’s but that also means I’m not succumbing to self-fulfilling prophecies…boom) leads to me see the church as two natures, as “same substance” whereby the Institution and the Movement share the same Body, share the same goals, share the same values, share the same glue, with neither overtaking the other and neither existing without the other.
Thus, instead of the UMC being both/and movement and institution, which Rendle claims both are necessary…the UMC is rather one church with two divergent paths to be the Church.
In our time of postmodernity, don’t we need an institution that counter-balances the claims of an anti-authoritarian culture that productive practices can emerge from the institution? That we are more than the sum of our parts when we put part of our sums together? And likewise, don’t we need a nimble church that can respond to cultural changes and postmodern criticism? A movement that calls others to the task through the trumpet horns of enthusiasm and exhortation?
To some this can seem likes splitting hairs. But to dismantle the structures of the UMC, to lay blame to those structures for our problems, and assume a more congregational polity without a commonly collaborative goal and objectives that are more contextual…all that is to commit the sin of Eutyches, to call the Church either/or and we must move the polarity from one side to the other without losing the former.
The better way is to see the Church as homoousion, as “same substance” and see both as “who the church is” and to recognize the strong values that both bring. And beyond that, to be fully Chalcedon, we would need to not allow one side to be overwhelmed by the other.
My advice to delegates who are reading Rendle’s book is to be wary of claims to either movement or institutional exclusivity. I encourage you to rebel against metrics and other institutional practices that would stunt missional movements. To safeguard the instutional structures that accomplish more than the most nimble local church can do on its own. And to not depict the choices as between David and Goliath but to find ways for both sides to mutually coexist in their best forms.
There is a movement-informed structure and a structurally-aware movement in the United Methodist Church that is more than the best parts of either side. And my prayer is that, guided by the Holy Spirit, the Delegates can find them.