God is Not Through with Us

wesley monogram
John Wesley’s personal monogram.

The following is a statement that the curators of Via Media Methodists, along with a few other clergy colleagues, have drafted in an attempt to articulate common theological and ecclesial ground in the midst of dissension and fragmentation. We welcome your thoughts. 

God is Not Through With Us: A Statement of Methodists United

“Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together.”
-Mark 10:9 (CEB)

We are a group of United Methodists who recognize that we are living in difficult times. We confess that we, too, have not always been faithful to our common covenant; our fears, frustrations, and perspectives have at times caused us to demonize, slander, and ignore our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.

Yet in the midst of our brokenness, now more than ever we are committed to unity:

  • Our worship and adoration of the Triune God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — unites us.
  • Our baptismal covenant unites us.
  • Our Eucharistic fellowship around the one table of God unites us. It is at the table where we pray together for the Holy Spirit to come upon us and make us ‘one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world’.
  • Our submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ unites us.
  • Our commitment to Scripture as authoritative for Christian faith and practice, along with the aid of tradition, experience, and reason unites us.
  • Our common mission of love and service to the world unites us.
  • Our daily witness through our congregations and other ministries unites us.
  • Our call to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world unites us.
  • Our need for and celebration of God’s prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying grace unites us.

While we acknowledge disagreement among us, we do not support acts that intentionally breach the covenant to which we have voluntarily and collectively submitted our lives through ordination and membership, or, conversely, which seek a false resolution to our divisions by further dividing the Body of Christ.

We are committed to the hard work of relationship and building bridges for conversation, forgiveness, conversion, and renewal. We are compelled to this vocation for the sake of our mission, which is best carried out by a church united “in Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24).

  • We commit to praying daily for our church, her leaders, and her mission.
  • We commit to daily self-examination and confession.
  • We commit to listening to the Spirit and one another, and engaging in intentional speech that seeks to do good and does no harm.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

(VMM would like to thank the following for their wisdom in helping craft this statement: Rev. Kyle Cuperwich, Rev. Ben Gosden, Rev. Josh Hale, Rev. Juan Huertas, and Rev. Matt Rawle).

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10 thoughts on “God is Not Through with Us

  1. I commend this statement for identifying factors of Christian unity among us. I also commend the evenhanded way you address “acts that intentionally breach the covenant” and “further dividing the Body of Christ.” I can affirm everything you say, noting that any move toward separation in my mind is always undesirable and a last resort.

    The question I would address to your statement is, “What is uniquely United Methodist about the factors you identify that unite us?” I think all of the points you make could be as easily said about unity between Christian denominations as within ours. Those are the same factors that I see as giving a basis for unity for Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, Evangelicals (to name a few), and maybe even Catholics.

    Wesley’s sermon on “The Catholic Spirit” is a fine example of the unity that ought to exist among and between Christians of varying denominations. Yet at the same time, Wesley did not hesitate to demand a higher level of conformity among Methodists. He not only evicted people from the societies because of laxity in discipleship, but also for lapses in doctrine, such as excluding the Calvinist Methodists.

    I am comfortable with a kind of generic unity in the Body of Christ, where Baptists can be Baptists, Methodists can be distinctively us, etc. However, your statement seems to reduce unity within United Methodism to that kind of generic unity that allows for very broad variations in doctrine and practice. Doesn’t that lead us on the path of congregationalism? What makes us uniquely United Methodist Christians, other than perhaps allowing for a wide variety of beliefs and practices within the church? And is that alone enough for unity in a denomination?

    1. Tom – we at VMM always appreciate your feedback. Thanks for this comment.

      As an ecumenically-minded denomination, we certainly seek to build theological common ground with sisters and brothers in those other denominations you mentioned, as well as within The United Methodist/Wesleyan fold. I believe that this statement strikes a balance between the two. If you consult our Book of Discipline and the section regarding our theological task and our doctrinal standards (par. 102-105), our theological perspective is in keeping with the church catholic and the ecumenical spirit that we seek to embody. In fact, it spends paragraphs articulating and explaining our theological catholicity. Our BoD also highlights our Wesleyan distinctives; I believe this statement does that. We are Trinitarian, we follow the Lord Jesus Christ, we recognize the need for grace (prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying – how’s that for uniquely United Methodist), and we affirm the Scriptures as authoritative for faith and practice. I am not sure we need more than this as United Methodists.

      I would challenge the statement that this allows for “very broad variations in doctrine and practice.” As you know, we at VMM believe that recovery of doctrinal language and practice is absolutely necessary for The United Methodist Church. This statement sets very clear parameters in such a way that certain doctrines and practices would be clearly heterodox and even heretical. How would you recommend it be strengthened?

      Regarding congregationalism, this statement is focused much more on theology than polity. However, I’m not sure I follow the cause and effect of generic unity to congregationalism. Can you clarify that?

      Thanks again for engaging, Tom.
      -Evan

      1. Thanks, Evan. I appreciate the questions.

        I think what I see missing in terms of outlining orthodox theology would be a mention of the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as the ground of salvation, appropriated by grace through faith in Christ. Most of the bullets in your statement relate to the church (ecclesiology), but there wouldn’t be a church without the intervention of God in human history in the Christ event. I do affirm the bullets that are there as being excellent points to make and ones with which I can agree.

        In terms of United Methodist emphases, the reference to three-fold grace is good. I would add something about free will (enabled by prevenient grace to respond to God in Christ, contra Calvinism), assurance (confidence in our standing in Christ, again contra Calvinism), Christian perfection as the goal of sanctifying grace (being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ), the balanced incorporation of both head and heart in faith, the conviction that good works follow from faith in Christ, and the call of Christ to be in mission and service to the world (social holiness, as popularly defined) (these are all mentioned on pp. 49-52 in the Discipline). You could also talk about our epistemology, where we arrive at the message and mission of the church through prayerful conferencing with one another. We believe in bishops as elders consecrated to the work of superintendency.

        I realize that there are a lot of items in the second paragraph, but I believe these constitute much of the essence of United Methodist doctrine and practice (although I didn’t include itineracy or apportionments!) that belong uniquely to our part of the total Body of Christ. I would not want our concern for unity to water down the distinctive nature of the gift God gave to the church through the life and ministry of John Wesley and his successors. It is these distinctives that make us unique and form a higher level of unity within United Methodism than what we have with our Baptist, Lutheran, and Presbyterian brothers and sisters. We may take them for granted because they are part of the air we breathe in our church, but one quickly finds in conversations with non-UM Christians that we do have a unique perspective that ought not to be lost.

        I hope this makes sense. I think including many of these points would make your statement a much more full-orbed statement of what we are united around, what we are for. Thanks for letting me chime in to the discussion.

    2. Tom, thanks for your feedback. I agree there could have been some more Wesleyan distinctives. I know part of my desire was to keep it as brief as possible, which certainly meant there is much more that could have been said. Something that, I think, has been looked over is the commitment to prayer and relationship building. One of the things that troubles me the most is that, as I try to meet and befriend folks on both ends and all sides, it seems our two extremes don’t know each other. At my AC this year I went to the evangelical breakfast and the RMN worship service, and myself and one other person were the only ones that attended both. There is perhaps nothing more distinctive about Wesleyan spirituality than the emphasis on holiness pursued in community, which demands relationships. I believe it will be difficult to achieve a workable, faithful, and gracious solution if our bureaucratic process is not tempered with relationships.

      Thanks for your insight, as always.

  2. I am reposting this here from FB, after discussing with Drew that this might be a better forum for dialogue:

    Nothing here to disagree with. While some have chosen to focus on what you didn’t include, the same could be done with ANY statement. Statements should be evaluated first and foremost on the merits of what they actually do state, and there is nothing in this one with which to disagree.

    However, when you declare, “we do not support acts that intentionally breach the covenant to which we have voluntarily and collectively submitted our lives through ordination and membership,” are you not essentially making the argument that the so-called radical, extreme, (insert adjective du jour here) conservatives are making? Does not acknowledgement of this beg the question (which many are asking), “Is there really such a thing as a middle way?” While much of life is both/and, there are a few either/or’s, no matter who you are. There are some issues which force one to choose one side or another, and while we may not want to be associated with the radicals on the side we each choose for one reason or another, giving ourselves a snazzy name like “Via Media” doesn’t change to fact that we all really do align more with one side or another on the issues which demand a choice.

    I see that the continued statement, “or, conversely, which seek a false resolution to our divisions by further dividing the Body of Christ,” may perhaps be an attempt at balance by offering the progressive viewpoint, but it leaves me wondering… what do the authors of this statement think an appropriate response to those who ‘intentionally breach the covenant to which we have voluntarily and collectively submitted our lives through ordination and membership” is? More to the present crisis, if that appropriate response is not implemented by those in positions to do so, what do the authors of this statement believe to be a faithful course of action?

    It is not enough to simply say, “They really shouldn’t be breaking the covenant,” but offer no line of thought to what should be done about the fact that the covenant is in fact being broken. Nor is it enough to simply say, “They shouldn’t be talking about division,” without offering some alternative response to the fact that the covenant is being broken with impunity.

    I know: various voices have offered attempts at solutions. Of course, when those suggestions have come from more progressive corners, conservatives have decried them, and when they have come from more conservative corners, progressives have decried them. Again, this begs the question whether a true via media actually exists, and whether we are not already two (at least…the truth is we are probably several) different denominations in practice, if not in writing. And if we are, why should we keep lying to ourselves and the rest of the world? Where is the integrity in that?

  3. This is certainly a good statement of what we all hold in common. There are probably very few United Methodists who could not agree to it in some form. No doubt this was your intention, but, because of the generality, I have trouble following the logic that takes us from the affirmation of what we hold in common to the opposition to both those favoring “Biblical obedience” and those calling for schism. To put it in terms of ancient conciliar documents, I have trouble seeing the connection between the creed and the anathemas. The only logic that seems to be there is something like “Because we are united by these things, we should not be disunited because of other things.” But what is the distinction between the two sets of things?

    What is missing is an account of why calls for schism or disobedience are not in line with the things which unite us. Certainly those pushing on either extreme are doing so because they believe their submission to the Lordship of Christ, their commitment to Scripture, and their call to make disciples of Jesus Christ demand it of them. Why are the present causes of division not legitimate grounds for division? Why does what unites us exclude them as grounds for disunion?

    I think the analogy to marriage, which you introduce with the quotation from Mark, also demands greater clarity on precisely this point. The verse, I take it, is a call to persevere in the unity which God has given to the Church, much as one would counsel a husband and wife going through a rocky patch in their marriage. This is all well and good. Nonetheless, as we know, there is one reason Jesus gives for divorce: adultery. And throughout scripture the imagery of adultery is associated with idolatry and turning aside to other gods. Would not those who feel strongly on either side of things say that those whom they oppose are in fact behaving idolatrously, whether by putting their own prejudice before the commandment of love or by preferring the norms of the world to the norms of scripture (or whatever other way we might want to put it)? Why then are those on either side wrong about there being adultery and idolatry in this marriage? Again, the question is “Why are the grounds on which some call for disobedience or division not legitimate grounds?”

    I write this as someone with little sympathy for both those engaged in “Biblical obedience” as well as those who call for schism, that is, as someone who strongly identifies with the project of this blog (and, Drew, as a fellow proud Duke grad). Nonetheless, the reason why we in the center of the UMC often possesses little energy beyond inertia is precisely this inability to articulate why unity is important in a way as forceful as those on either extreme are able to articulate their reasons for disunity. Such an articulation would require us to give a link in documents like this between the creed (what unites us, what we believe) and the anathemas (what we “do not support”). I think we are far past the point where the sheer weight of the institution can be counted on to give real impact to broad and general statements (as it was able to, for example, in the adoption of the mission statement 20 years ago), and yet that is how we have been trained to draft centrist documents.

  4. SinceI was overly critical in my previous post, here are some positive suggestions as to how we might articulate the link between “the creed” and “the anathemas”:

    “Because we are united through our covenant of Discipline and Conference, we do not support those who advocate for their positions by either disobedience to the covenant we share or calls for its dissolution in schism.

    Because we are united through a conviction of the authority of Scripture and the total sufficiency of God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, we do not support those who advocate for new teachings through belief in either progressive revelation or the abandonment of those parts of scripture deemed “outdated.”

    Because we are united through our catholic spirit of unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and in all things charity, we do not support those who advocate for schism on the basis of doctrines such as the “infallibility” of scripture, which do not represent the teaching of the Church universal.

    Because we are united through a mission which is divine and not human, which concerns the redemption of the world and not the maintenance of an institution, which is characterized by fidelity to our Lord and not success in the world, we reject all calls for doctrinal change or dissolution of our covenant which appeal to the gain or loss of members.”

    If I were to draw a line between what unites us and why it excludes the calls for disobedience and schism on either side, these are some of the places where I might begin.

  5. As a lay person and lifelong Methodist, this is an interesting site.I lean traditionalist, and I would like to see the church stay together. It is going to be difficult, and maybe even impossible.

    In my local church there are occasionally things that really tick me off. However I remain a member because the following applies in each situation: 1) I can live with it, 2) I can work to change it, and 3) everyone plays by the rules. If one of those 3 legs goes away, I would probably have to leave. I see those same 3 factors at work in our general church.

    Just like my local Church, there are lots of things about the UMC that really tick me off. I remain a member, though, because I can live with it, I can work to change it, and everyone plays by the rules.

    Unfortunately, the last factor, playing by the rules, is no longer there. General Conferences are disrupted because people do not like the results, AND NOBODY DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT. Same sex marriages are performed in direct violation of the BOD, and at most receive a slap on the wrist. I am not in favor of division, but the push for it did not come out of thin air. The push for amiable separation comes as a result of disobedience, and lack of enforcement.

    The Hamilton/Slaughter plan won’t work because it doesn’t change the ineffectual enforcement system. The A & W idea would have some progressive churches leaving. but many more would remain out of a sense that’s where they belong or for financial support from the traditionalists. If they remain, so would the problems unless the enforcement mechanism changed. General Conference would still be disrupted, and disobedient elders would still receive only nominal sanctions.

    The only viable enforcement mechanism we have is the Council of Bishops. They are dysfunctional for many reasons, including involvement of retired bishops (I know that is addressed) closed meeting and their method of selection. If the Bishops made it clear that dissent is fine but disobedience and disruption are not, and that there would be significant sanctions for either, such behavior would soon be virtually eliminated. And if that occurred, the push for “amiable separation” would also end.

    I am pessimistic that any of this will occur for two reasons.

    First, it would take a change of heart from many of our Bishops, or a significant change in the structure of the Council. Second, and more importantly, there is no call from the progressives to play by the rules. Certainly not all progressives are rule breakers, but when rules are broken, the outcry only comes from traditionalists (and maybe via media). No one that I am aware of is saying “I agree with what you are trying to do, but not with how you are going about it.” And in those annual conferences and the Western Jurisdiction where the progressives hold sway, traditionalists do not take over meetings, disrupt conferences, and disobey the rules when they are unhappy. And if they did, I believe traditionalists would also be among those condemning their actions.

    I don’t want to see separation, but unless there are significant structural changes to the Council of Bishops (much greater than proposed in A & W, although it is a good start), and unless progressives begin playing by the rules, I think it is inevitable.

    In Christ,

    Mike

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