Thursday, July 21, 2016

Robert Hunt: Culture, Not Geography, Defines Global Church, Part II

Today's post 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. It is the second of a three-part series. The first part can be found here.

In the previous blog I described three processes of decision making from outside the West. All western structures for making decisions are equally a product of culture and cultural assumptions. And there is simply no reason that the various cultures of the modern west should be privileged in determining key values, who makes up the membership in the church community, and how decisions about the community will be made.

Yet that is what the United Methodist church, in its long history of colonial domination of Methodists outside the US, has done. It has privileged its values, its rules of order and its form of community discipline over all other cultural forms of decision making and discipline.

We pretend to be global church, but the designation is purely geographical, because so long as our decision making processes are carried out under the illusion that our patterns of decision making are somehow a-cultural and universal we are really just a Western church with colonies worldwide.

Will this be changed by the recent decision of the General Board of Global Ministries to reorganize into regional centers across the globe? Or by the shift in the majority of General Conference delegates to those outside the US?

I doubt it. What appears absent in the GBGM announcement, as was entirely absent in the recent General Conference debates, is the recognition that the UMC is made up of a complex plurality of cultures and that cultural difference does and must pervade all our decision making.

Let me offer some examples.

In the extensive debates about same-sex marriage and ordination both “traditionalists” and “progressives” have worked within and debated within the same dichotomy of “modern/postmodern” versus “traditional.” References to the world outside the US, when they were made at all, were sweeping; treating Africa, Asia, and Europe as mere extension of American theological traditionalism, aka orthodoxy. It is as if the whole world is theologically divided between the modern and the non-modern, and other cultural differences are irrelevant. As if the whole evangelical - liberal debate in the West was determinative of the coming shape of global Christianity.

This has been particularly true with regard to the majority that now controls the General Conference. It is perfectly willing to allow the continuation of a structure that grants central conferences the privilege of adapting the discipline to their contexts, but refuses to make the United States, or its regions, into similar central conferences. Why? It appears to me that this is the continual privileging of the US context as the universal context of theology struggle (between orthodoxy and modernity). Other people have cultures that vary. We have the universal.

This is a bogus understanding of the United States and the West more generally. Serious social scientists know that we are a nation of different cultures. The recent work of Colin Woodard on America’s Nations is just one example. But the General Conference, as well as advocates on both sides, have thus far has steadfastly refused to recognize culture as a factor in understandings of marriage.

I expect we’ll quickly discover that those cultural differences we have steadfastly ignored are relevant. American United Methodism’s acceptance of divorced clergy and bishops is unlikely to be accepted in cultures for whom divorce and remarriage is unacceptable. (It is completely unacceptable in the churches I served in Southeast Asia) At the same time polygamy, unacceptable in American culture, is acceptable in many African Christian cultures. Different cultures have different constructions of gender and gender roles, and these influence both family structure and responsibility in ways that are bound to affect ideas about marriage and child rearing among clergy and laity.

In the end agreement between American traditionalists and United Methodists in the rest of the world on same-sex marriage will prove to be a superficial cover over substantive cultural differences regarding gender, gender roles, child rearing, and structures of authority in the family. The same can be said of superficial agreements between American progressives and such allies as they find in Europe and parts of Latin America.


  1. Robert,
    Well said. You've named important examples of US cultural myopia preventing the UMC from truly becoming a worldwide church. I offer similar arguments in Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church's Witness (University of Tennessee Press, April 2016): I'd love to hear your thoughts, as a missiologist, on my study written from a social ethics perspective.
    Darryl W. Stephens

  2. Insightful, Robert. Along with Darryl's excellent recent reflections on General Conference, we have much food for thought as a church. A key difficulty, as I see it, is that once we admit that culture goes all the way down in human affairs, so to speak, then what? Back of this question lies a fundamental anxiety in our so-called postmodern times, namely, the collapse of the "house of authority." The egalitarian move now in vogue to locate normativity in "cultures" merely relocates the problem. Perhaps our current culture wars invite us to ask some old-fashioned questions: Is normativity a function of culture without remainder? Is truth? Yes or no, what is gained and what is lost for our life together as a denomination?

  3. What if both authority and truth are emergent as the church in dialogue with its own experience, society, and nature is able to approach however distantly the kind of experience and knowledge of the world that God has? What if incarnation indicates God's way of knowing with and not just God's being with the world? Normativity is a function of culture only when culture is a locus for cross cultural dialogue.

  4. To be sure, the Incarnation inspires (or ought to inspire) epistemological humility--and thus a recognition of the incompleteness and fallibility of all knowledge. As such, the search for truth coincides with a desire/need to cross boundaries. This missionary posture has a long history in Christian thought (logos spermatikos). At the same time, this posture presupposes, and thus stands in deep tension, with revelation-based truth claims. This missionary posture also has a long tenure. Much of the debate about normativity and truth in world Christianity today seeks to negotiate this tension in intra-Christian and societal contexts that largely lack the requisite intellectual frameworks for it.

  5. Robert I hope you will consider serving on the Bishops' committee to respond to sexuality issues. There has to be a better way than endless demoralizing fighting. We need some "gospel and culture" folks on that committee.

  6. Excellent. Picking up for UM Insight, with your permission.