Thursday, May 29, 2014

Understanding the church in the light of grace - Elaine Robinson on Grace Upon Grace: A Church Formed By Grace

Today's post is the latest in a series of posts that are re-examining the mission document of The United Methodist Church, Grace Upon Grace (Nashville: Graded Press, 1990). Various United Methodist mission professors and practitioners are re-examining this theological statement and how it can inform our corporate life in The United Methodist Church today. This piece is written by
Dr. Elaine Robinson, Academic Dean and Professor of Methodist Studies and Christian Theology at St. Paul School of Theology, Oklahoma City University. Dr. Robinson is commenting on the ninth section of the document, "A Church Formed By Grace."  Use the "Grace Upon Grace" tag to identify other posts in this series.
I pen these words during Holy Week,* the height of the church year, when we shift our focus from the brokenness of the human condition to the healing, life-giving power of Christ to restore and reconcile us to God, others, ourselves, and the whole of creation. It is a powerful reminder that God’s grace is the one thing that can pierce the brokenness of human existence and rise to render new and abundant life. The church can be a conduit for this grace or it can be a perpetuator of the world’s brokenness.

Ecclesiology has never been the strong suit of Methodists. Practical and experiential, reflecting on the nature of the church has seldom been a priority among the Methodist faithful. It comes as no surprise, then, that this section on “A Church Formed by Grace” is suggestive, but misses the mark from both an ecclesiological standpoint and a missional one.

Para. 47 serves as the overarching statement on the church. Claiming that, “to be shaped by God’s grace is to live in covenant as a community of worship and grace,” Christians are to be “self-giving” to God in worship and to others in service. This opening volley conceives of the church in terms of the actions of human beings, rather than focusing on the formative and prior dimension of God’s grace. A more grace-centered theological statement would begin with the suggestion that, by grace, God “ingathers” the church as the body of Christ where God is worshiped and the sacraments administered, in order that the people of God might be sent into the world to discover and participate in the Missio Dei. The church, by nature, is both a sociological or human reality and, potentially, a grace-filled representation of the new creation as a rightly related covenant community reaching out to the world with the healing and wholeness offered by the Triune God.

This understanding of community as self-giving leads into para. 48 on the means of grace; in Wesleyan terms, “the ordinary channels whereby [God] might convey to [us] preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.”[1] As Luther Oconor highlighted in a previous post, here the dimension of synergism, the response of the human community to the offer of grace is a needed emphasis. This synergism of the human and the divine is simply too important in the life of the church to pass without notice or clarification. We, the church, can resist God’s grace and exist merely, or largely, as a sociological organization. The means of grace are thus a lifeline, the light shining from a lighthouse across a dark and tumultuous sea, without which we are left to our own devices.

In para. 49, the turn to mission is a significant and noteworthy claim, which could be strengthened in at least two ways. First, for Wesleyans, the love of God poured into our hearts always and necessarily overflows into the world. If we are growing in sanctifying grace, social holiness will necessarily follow (and, in turn, deepen our personal holiness). Second is the ongoing work of prevenient grace, always and already going out into the world before us, inviting the church to respond and share in God’s mission, to be “stewards of a gift” as Hendrik Pieterse aptly suggested in the first post. While paragraph 49 rightly claims that mission “is the vocation of every [church],” it seems clear that sharpening the focus on “grace upon grace” as the impetus and reason for mission would strengthen this claim.

Paragraphs 50-54 might best be seen as a list of structural and relational commitments that are characteristically Methodist, though conditioned by a modernist perspective (as others have noted), which beg a more careful consideration and expression in the twenty-first century: Connectionalism (para. 50), Inclusiveness (para. 51), Ecumenical Affirmation (para. 52), Global Awareness (para. 53), and Diversity (para. 54). Others writers in this series have pointed to the importance of ecumenicity and global considerations, as well as the shortcomings of their interpretation when this document was created. Hence, I will limit my analysis to the structural commitment to “connectionalism” and the relational commitment to “inclusiveness.”

Connectionalism is appropriately included as a primary and distinctive vehicle for the United Methodist Church’s “missional life.” Yet, the description reads more as an apologia for connectionalism and, perhaps, the church’s general agencies, than as a rationale for the life of mission. No mention is made of the scale at which mission can unfold in a connectional system nor of the work of grace in creating the bond that enables the connection to “discover and support” mission. More importantly, in today’s United Methodist Church, there is a clarion call for the general church to support the local church as the most significant arena for disciple making and mission. This tension, which arises out of our connectional system, warrants consideration and ties directly to concerns for the global nature of the church.

As for the relational commitment to “inclusiveness,” paragraph 51 defines it as “characteristic of the missional church [which] embraces those whose appearance, behavior, mental or physical conditions mark them as different.” This concept of inclusiveness calls for a hermeneutic of suspicion to reveal the U.S.-centric nature of this claim and the normativity of “whiteness” in the church in the United States. To speak of “inclusion” is to suggest inclusion of others into a normative – and often unexamined – center of power from which mission, money, and ministry flow. Until the United Methodist Church in the United States not only recognizes that our church membership (which is 90% white) does not resemble the demographics of this nation (which is 64% white), but is also willing and able to allow that the “transformation of the world” includes the transformation of the church, itself, by virtue of the mutuality of mission, we shall not be the church as the Body of Christ. A commitment to inclusion must be reframed as a relational commitment to mutuality.

No doubt paragraph 55 does allow for just such a self-critical reexamination and transformation. This transformation of the world and, simultaneously, the church itself requires, of course, the work and leading of grace. Indeed, this is the hope and possibility placed before us by the empty tomb and the resurrected Christ.

* Editor's note: Posts in the Grace Upon Grace series are not published immediately after they are written.

[1] John Wesley, “The Means of Grace,” in John Wesley’s Sermons, edited by Albert C. Outler and Richard P. Heitzenrater (Nashville: Abingdon, 1991), p. 160.

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