Today's guest post is by John Edward Nuessle, retired missiologist/mission executive and author of Faithful Witnesses: United Methodist Theology of Mission.
Does the global nature of the UMC connection reflect a biblical expression of the
body of Christ?
I suppose I would rather state this as “should” the global nature of the UMC connection reflect a biblical expression of the body of Christ? Or perhaps…. “how can…”? Either way, let me suggest the more basic question of “is the biblical expression of the body of Christ necessarily connectional?” To which I would state an overwhelming YES!! Let me be more clear…the only ecclesial expression of the biblical theology of the body of Christ is inherently connectional. All independent and separatist expressions of the Church are not biblical but rather are misguided cultural phenomena, particularly in our US cultural situation. That is, congregationalism is not biblical Christianity.
Connectionalism is not merely a form of ecclesial polity that is optional for the church. It IS the Biblically appropriate way for the Church of Jesus Christ to be organized for the task of witnessing in all the world (Acts 1:8). The Church is, of necessity, connectional - that is, we are people structurally connected to one another by faith and grace. When Jesus,
in John 15, stated the nature of his mission and presence in the world in relation to God the Creator, he used the image of a vine and branches. Branches are of necessity connected to the vine, and therefore also to each other. To be disconnected is literally to be useless. The nourishment of the whole plant moves through each branch from the roots and trunk of the vine. All of this is how we are connected. Our church structures and relationships can be no less than this, globally not just locally.
Paul speaks of the various gifts for service and the unity of the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12). This describes the essential connections of the whole Church which celebrate our individual vocations. Mission and ministry are only possible for each of us and all of us as we are structured in such a way that we are ALL connected. In historic United Methodist polity, it is through our system of conferences (i.e. local, district, annual, jurisdictional and central, and General) that we are connected, and connectional, each conference having basic responsibilities yet intricately connected with the other conference levels as well as laterally with collegial conferences.
Paul also states this connectional understanding of the work that is before us in Ephesians 4, calling the church to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” The Church is essentially one unit, one whole, with persons having a variety of functions or gifts lived out in various localities. The purpose of these are not self-aggrandizement or self-reward, but “to
equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” The Connection is this unity, with a unified purpose of growing the Church into a mature visible witness to the reality of Christ in the world.
These Biblical principles are the essential nature of The Connection for the people called United Methodist, and in fact for all Christians of any historic tradition. They enable all of us to engage in our vital and life-giving work on behalf of the missio Dei. Thus…to answer the question…the global nature of our UM Connection is of necessity an expression of the biblical body of Christ theology, for this theological concept is necessarily connectional. How to insure this connectionalism is a larger question that I hope this blog and related conversations will attempt to answer!