2017 is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, generally seen as starting when Martin Luther’s 95 Theses were issued in 1517. This anniversary is being marked in myriad ways around the world. One relevant resource r…
This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination’s proposed ecclesiology document, “Wonder, Love and Praise.” These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is the first of two written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.
Half a century ago Flannery O’Connor outlined the struggle to “make belief believable” as a struggle for the attention of the indifferent reader. Hence, she insisted that the religious aspect in her work of fiction is “a dimension added,” not one taken away. Then she went on to explain how she did it: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
In an almost similar vein, The United Methodist Church is updating its worn out doctrinal cursives and outmoded linguistic scripts to compile a new and relevant theological understanding of the church and its missional imperatives. The recently proposed document, Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church, is to serve as a theological mirror as well as a window that swings open to the worldwide body of Christ in our time. More importantly, it is intended to enable the United Methodist constituents to see outside themselves and know what it is to be a worldwide connectional church. After conferring with several Asian-American United Methodist laity and clergy, I submit the following comments for further consideration and action.
Settled church versus a pilgrim church
The well-researched and elegantly written current document, unfortunately, is heavily dependent upon WCC documents with an over emphasis on Eucharist, grace, and community, with only ancillary references to baptism, evangelism, mission and the role of the laity. The “paschal mystery” behind the Eucharist (crucifixion, death and resurrection, and Parousia), mission and ministry with people of other faiths, and Christianity on the move through global diaspora has no room in the document, although they are a vital part of Church’s belief and corner stone for Christian mission.
While the document meanders through pages of past Euro-centric Methodist history, it falls short on the interpretation of that history for our changed landscape. If we derive our church and mission theology based on our missional history from just one part of the world, we will be standing on a shaky ground. Contemporary ecclesiology is fiercely divided over how to address the world’s challenges and what those challenges really are in the larger historic context.
Many today are thinking post-religion. Through the pull of cultural and religious pluralism and the allure of openly secular and liberal values, traditional modes of Christian witness and mission engagements have nose-dived in recent decades. Many have left the church in disillusionment. The church needs to offer a new map for them to return. Christian history has repeatedly proven that they will come roaring back, if and when the church’s signs, symbols and message become meaningful to them.
The proposed document is deeply based on the theological understanding of church, mission and ministry of “settled Christianity” of the Christendom era of the global north. It does not have a broader understanding of the church in the global south, including its diasporic and pilgrim nature. A known method can only achieve known results. The method being adopted here is purely “Western.” We need to apply new hermeneutics. New categories. Not just refining but re-defining our ecclesiology, theology and missiology in the worldwide context. A theology-free approach will not transform. Theology moves the church to engage in mission, and mission rightly engaged enables the church to develop theology.
The worldwide church is a church on the move due to its minority status, extreme poverty, and intense persecution. Persecution is a real threat, and not a mere slogan. The church in the global south witnesses, grows, and multiplies in countless methods and among numerous groups, even in the midst of limited material resources. This proposed document elevates the diversity of spiritual gifts, which Apostle Paul talks about in I Corinthians 12, but has failed to comprehend the diversity within the Body of Christ which the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7:9-10, beautifully portrays as the ultimate triumph of the Church: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Church in the world
We certainly wish that this document, which emphasizes proclamation as the responsibility of the community, had explained more about the content of the proclamation and its targeted recipients. Sometimes, the readers find it hard to distinguish between the references made to the community which makes up the church, the Body of Christ, and the larger community that makes up the society. Community is defined in this document in broad neutral terms as the grace of God enveloping all. Yet, no distinction has been made between the Body of Christ and the larger Kingdom of God, in which the Body of Christ is firmly situated. A biblical and theological definition of the role of the Body of Christ in the larger society would certainly enrich the document. In addition, many theological words that are employed in the document have multiple layers of meanings and vary in context. Consequently, the role of the church in the larger society is simply assumed and buried under presumed vocabulary, as the document appears to have in mind only the United Methodist constituents in the global north.
Lastly, this proposed document talks a lot about the First and Third Person of the Trinity but seldom about the Second Person, on whose paschal mystery Christianity hinges, and how it differs from other living faiths. The importance of the Eucharist is preeminent throughout the document, but an equal emphasis of the doctrine of baptism, even as a requirement for the United Methodist church’s membership, would have been extremely helpful. A mere reference to both of them as “Sacraments” would throw many of our constituents off balance during this post-denomination era.
Much has been written online about the Commission on a Way Forward and its work. Yet because of the Methodist blogosphere’s tendency to amplify mostly white, American, male voices, much of what has been written has reflected a certain social location, …
Dr. David W. Scott of UM & Global laments the dearth of global perspectives at the recent scholars’ conference on church unity and human sexuality, because the missing views could offer a path out of the current U.S.-polarized stances.
Last weekend, I attended the theological colloquy entitled “The Unity of the Church and Human Sexuality: Toward a Faithful United Methodist Witness,” sponsored by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry (GBHEM) and the Association of United Methodist Theological Schools (AUMTS). The goal of the colloquy is to bring the best thinking of United Methodist academics from around the world on questions related to debates over homosexuality and discussions of the future of The United Methodist Church as a united institution.
While I was impressed with the faithfulness and the academic insights of the participants, I was nonetheless disappointed that there were not more participants from outside the US (there was one from Mozambique and one from Denmark) and that there were not more papers focusing on elements of United Methodist history from outside the US.
I understand that GBHEM made significant efforts to reach out to schools outside the US, most of whom were not able to participate for a variety of scheduling and economic reasons. Nonetheless, I thought the omission of such elements from the discussion left a significant lacuna in the work of the colloquy.
To get a sense of the sorts of topics that the colloquy could have considered that would have dealt with material from outside the US and have been of relevance to the colloquy, I have come up with ten such possible paper titles below:
“Polygamy and The United Methodist Church in Africa”
“The Impact of Holiness: Controversies and Schisms in Methodist Mission History”
“Disciplinary Flexibility: Lessons from the Central Conferences”
“How Shall We Remain United?: The Legacy of COSMOS for Methodist Models of Structural Unity”
“Schisms Over Who Is Ordained: The Desire for Indigenous Leadership in Methodist Missions”
“The Splits of 1930: Mexico, Brazil, and Korea as Different Models for Continued Unity After Structural Separation”
“Better Together: Theology, Polity, and Practicality in the Eglise Metodiste d’ Cote d’ Ivoire/UMC Merger”
“John R. Mott’s Methodist Vision of Unity”
“Japanese Imperial Rites and Methodism in Korea: Conscience, Expediency, and Polity”
“Uniting and Dividing: Creating the Independent Methodist Church in Mexico by Merging MEC and MECS Missions”
I don’t know specifically which scholars could have presented such papers, and it is certainly beyond my scope of expertise to have written each of them. Nor is this list necessarily the best or only list of such topics. Nevertheless, it is important that the UMC consider its whole history as it moves toward whatever its future may be.
The UMC has experienced significant overall membership declines over the past two decades, but these have come entirely from the net loss of white members, while United Methodist membership among people of color has grown significantly.
What if I told you that United Methodist membership in the US was growing?You’d tell me that I was crazy. The narrative of decline is and has been for years one of the strongest narratives in The United Methodist Church in the US. Many words have been …
This recent UMNS article outlines ways in which Wespath, The United Methodist Church’s pension and benefits organization, in making efforts to encourage and invest in initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Carbon dioxide is seen by scientists …
This blog post is one in a series containing responses to the denomination’s proposed ecclesiology document, “Wonder, Love and Praise.” These responses are written by United Methodist scholars and practitioners around the world. This piece is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director, Center for Evangelism and Missional Church Studies at Perkins School of Theology.
There are two ways of approaching identity, not least the identity of the Christian Church. One is ontological. What is its essence? How is it rooted in the essential characteristics of the God who called it into being? This is the approach taken by the document of the Faith and Order Committee of the United Methodist Church entitled Wonder, Love and Praise.
I’d like to suggest an alternative approach, which is genealogical: seeking out the identity of the church by inquiry into the process by which it was brought into being.
Such an approach might appear to begin with the calling of Jesus’ disciples to their task of continuing his ministry and going into the world to declare the gospel of his death and resurrection. Yet in truth we must begin further back. Jesus, in describing his mission, continually references the prophets of Israel and even Moses. Paul sees the origins of Christian faith in Abraham. And the Jerusalem council looks to God’s covenant with Noah as the way in which to understand a Gentile Church. And of course, there is Hebrews 12. In short, a genealogy of the Christian church should begin with God’s creation of the world through the calling of Israel into being.
Beginning with the Old Testament, and there is no space for a fuller discussion here, has been and will continue to be extraordinarily fruitful for the self-understanding of the Church as it faces the challenge of unity and diversity. This is because among other things we will find in that story two themes: first the demand the Israel be pure, and second the demand that Israel accept and include those beyond its borders who bring with them precisely the danger of impurity. It isn’t a matter of ambiguity. Israel must accomplish two things that in human terms appear contradictory: to remain utterly faithful to God and free of anything that violates God’s law, and to be utterly faithful to God and be continually engaged with the nations who are both the realm of impurity, and the realm of God’s saving action even for Israel. And it is a story in which the demands for purity and inclusion play out quite literally through genealogies, leading up to the mixed genealogy of David and ultimately Jesus.
It is moreover a story that continues through the ministry of Jesus as he and his followers continually address their own insider/outsider status in relation to what was in his time an international Jewish community emerging out of ancient Israel. What it means to be in continuity with Israel yet different from Israel was a question of identity both communities wrestled with as they came to understand themselves in relation to one another.
Yet as important as the story of Israel becoming Judaism is to Christian identity, the self-understanding of the Church as the means by which the ministry of Jesus continues in the world is more encompassing.
To understand the church as the Body of Christ continuing the ministry of Jesus the Christ we must begin with that ministry. This includes not only his preaching and teaching, but his self-declarations (The Son of Man passages for example) his miracles, and his death, resurrection, and ascension. These lay the groundwork for understanding the ministry that Jesus commands the apostles to fulfill, and thus represent both its purpose and the conditions under which the church will evolve as it realizes that purpose. Again, a full exploration of the relevant passages exceeds the bounds of this short essay, but can be reasonably summarized by saying that the mission of Jesus was to both proclaim and enact the nearness of the Reign of God wherever and whenever he was present. Indeed, he can be recognized as the Lord of God’s Reign, the Christ because in his words and deeds he manifests that specific form of Lordship associated with God’s Reign and no other.
Passages in which Jesus then sends his disciple to continue his work (Luke 10) help clarify how the mission of the church is both the same and different from that of the Christ. The disciples are not lords, they are servants, or perhaps better in English stewards, since as servants they have authority from their Lord. (Luke 7:1-9, Luke 9:1, 10:19) We recognize the collective identity of the disciples through the ways in which they imperfectly enact their stewardship of God’s ruling authority. The story is the basis for understanding their imperfect identity with Jesus Christ.
Those passages in which Jesus commands the re-enactment of his death and resurrection, and thus creates the ritual that constitutes the inner life of the fellowship of apostles (Mark 14:12-21) clarify that picture further. While it belongs to Jesus alone to offer his life on the cross, it belongs to the church to remember and re-enact the passion. This reminds us, along with the Pauline accounts of what he received and passed on, that presence of the living Christ within the Body of Christ arises out of faithful obedience to his command, which precedes theological reflection on the relationship of presence to ritual. (I Corinthians 11:23-26)
The post-resurrection commissioning through which Jesus explicitly sends his apostles out into the world gives us a deeper understanding of how the proclamation of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection will become central to enacting the Reign of God. (Matthew 28:16 – 20, Acts 1:8) Their obedience, and failures of obedience, as they live a life in mission then give a distinctive shape to the identity of the apostolic church that emerges both from the apostolic stewardship of the growing body of disciples and their witness to the death and resurrection until his return. (John 21:15-25, Acts 2:15 – 36, I Corinthians 11:26, Romans 8:15-027)
Eventually, if we trace the genealogy of the Church through the various churches as they appear in the New Testament, and the emerging theological expressions of their self-understanding (I John 3 for example, but in some sense the entire New Testament corpus taken as a whole), we begin to get a full sense of what it means to be church. It is rooted in the command of Christ, the enacted fidelity of the apostolic founders of the apostolic church, and the experience in the life of a church of the presence of the resurrected Christ as it engages in faithfully continuing that mission.
Each of these the two approaches I have mentioned, ontological and genealogical, has its merits. Each has its place in the ongoing self-discovery by the Church of its identity. But I would argue that in our time, with the more general cultural ways of understanding identity focusing on narrative, a genealogical approach will be more fruitful than an ontological approach. It will be more accessible as well to those who possess only, or primarily the scripture read inductively as a resource.
Put more simply, if we are learning what it means to faithfully follow the command of Jesus Christ together it may become easier for us to go to church together.
As this blog has been focusing recently on ecclesiology, especially reviews of the UMC’s draft ecclesiology document, “Wonder, Love and Praise,” I thought it appropriate to link to some other online theological reflections on United Methodist ecclesiol…