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. Joon-Sik Park, Professor in the E. Stanley Jones Chair of World Evangelism at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.
“Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP), an important and timely statement on ecclesiology, is to be welcomed with appreciation by those who grapple with the question of what it means to be the authentic church. It deserves wide reading and careful study, as it intends to engage United Methodists in inquiring into the nature and purpose of the church. A critical reflection on the church is crucial to aligning our life and ministry as a community of faith and witness with God’s purpose for the world.
WLP rightly seeks to set an ecclesial vision of The United Methodist Church (TUMC) within an ecumenical context, stressing that unity is both a gift and task. It keenly recognizes the massive demographic shift of Christianity toward the global South that brings about “the increasing visibility and involvement of United Methodists from other countries” in the leadership of TUMC and challenges the adequacy of its long-standing U.S.-centric polity. It is good that WLP searches for “a renewed ecclesial vision” with a full awareness of the partial character of TUMC understanding and expression of the church and with a proper desire for mutual affirmation and reciprocal correction through ecumenical dialogue.
Yet, there are some areas in WLP that might need greater attention or further development. First, WLP appears to give rather too much priority to its engagement with the WCC document, “The Church: Towards a Common Vision.” It is important to recognize the significance of an ecumenical statement on ecclesiology, and to engage in sustained conversation with it. However, ecumenical sensitivity and humility, although an indispensable virtue, might have kept WLP from more fully exploring and presenting the distinctive characteristics of TUMC understanding of what it means to be the church. Considering that at the heart of ecumenism is a gift exchange, a greater focus on identifying and sharing the unique gift of TUMC would further enrich the ecumenical dialogue on ecclesiology.
Second, although the missionary nature of the church is acknowledged in WLP, it does not become a central concern of the document. The church’s identity and calling defined in WLP is not intrinsically rooted in the conception of the church as a “sent” community. The three distinctive theological convictions that have shaped and guided the life and witness of TUMC are clearly laid out, but their concrete implications for the mission or structure of the church are not fully examined. It would have been desirable for WLP to ground its ecclesial vision more firmly in the essentially missionary nature of the church, whose calling is to participate in the missionary action of the Triune God.
Third, WLP fails to offer an account of the nature of the relation between church and world. Yet, a perception of the world in relation to the church is an element of great import that cannot be overlooked in an integral ecclesiology. It would be necessary to define the church vis-à-vis the world, as the church’s view of the world significantly affects its vision of mission, and its faithfulness is measured at the point where it encounters the world.
Last, perhaps the most notable omission in WLP is the understanding of the church as an eschatological community. As Lesslie Newbigin argues, “the Church can be rightly understood only in an eschatological perspective. Whenever we seek to define it simply in terms of what it is, we go astray.” When the eschatological nature of the church is not fully appreciated, the tension between the present reality and the expected future of God’s kingdom may get lost, and the church’s missionary responsibility between the times may not be paid careful heed. Furthermore, the presence and work of the Holy Spirit—the first fruits and down payment of what will ultimately come—in guiding and empowering the church to fulfill its mission may not be sufficiently recognized. “The Church: Towards a Common Vision,” a point of reference for WLP, clearly presents the church as “an eschatological reality”: The Church is “already anticipating the kingdom, but not yet its full realization. The Holy Spirit is the principal agent in establishing the kingdom and in guiding the Church so that it can be a servant of God’s work in this process. Only as we view the present in the light of the activity of the Holy Spirit, guiding the whole process of salvation history to its final recapitulation in Christ to the glory of the Father, do we begin to grasp something of the mystery of the Church” (para. 33).
The WCC has produced two separate documents in recent years: one on mission (“Together towards Life” in 2012) and the other on ecclesiology (“The Church: Towards a Common Vision” in 2013). Yet, TUMC would not necessarily have to follow that pattern. Considering that the church is missionary by its very nature, that Methodists became a church for missional reasons, and that every church in the 21st century—whether in the West or in the global South—is in a missionary context, to create one document in which ecclesiology and missiology are integrated might be equally appropriate. And such document that faithfully reflects the Wesleyan understanding of the church and mission could be a unique gift to the Church Universal.