Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Comparative Global Wesleyan Polity - Concluding Thoughts, Part I

This is the fifth in an occasional series of articles comparing the different ways in which Methodist/Wesleyan denominations historically related to The United Methodist Church structure themselves as global bodies.

This series of blog posts comparing the various approaches to being a global Wesleyan/Methodist denomination has thus far looked at four denominations and compared them to The United Methodist Church and each other: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene. While it might be possible to continue the series by looking at other churches (the AME Zion, the Salvation Army, the Methodist Church of Southern Africa, etc.), these four and the UMC cover significant and distinct examples of how a Methodist/Wesleyan church might approach being a global denomination.

After surveying these various examples, what are the overall takeaways from this exercise in comparative polity? There are two main ones related to being a global church:

1. There are several ways to be a global Methodist/Wesleyan body, and they all have their advantages and disadvantages.

The AME, the Wesleyans and Free Methodists, and the Nazarenes have each taken distinct approaches to trying to craft a global denomination that is not just dominated by Americans but fully supports and recognizes the gifts, ministries, and voices of members around the world.

The AME pursues that goal through denominational bodies (the Global Development Council and Committee on Global Development) with significant power to make changes in the denomination to better accommodate non-US members.

Both The Wesleyan Church and the Free Methodist Church pursue that goal by allowing the creation of separate General Conferences with separate Books of Discipline, united into one International Conference with a common kernel of shared doctrine and polity.

The Church of the Nazarene pursues that goal through emphasizing three-self theory and the creation of Phase 3 districts around the world which are self-supporting, self-led, and self-propagating.

The United Methodist Church has elements of the AME approach (in the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters) and the Wesleyan/Free Methodist approach (in the provision for central conference adaptation of the Book of Discipline) but has not gone as far as any of these denominations.

Yet the takeaway should be that there are many possible models for The United Methodist Church to adopt as well as the possibility of crafting a unique model of its own.

2. There are windows of opportunities for denominations to make changes to structurally reflect the global/international nature of their membership more fully.

Surveying the other four denominations as well as United Methodist history, it seems there have been three eras in which questions of how to be a global denomination have been particularly pressing.

The first is an era of early missionary expansion. Especially for the Church of the Nazarene, but also for the Free Methodist Church, mission was integral to the beginning of the denomination, and questions of global polity were already being worked out in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The Methodist Episcopal Church, forerunner of the UMC, was also experimenting with its global polity at the same time, creating central conferences and missionary bishops, but the MEC stepped back from fully thinking through the implications of these new structures because it wanted to focus on the upcoming merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and Methodist Protestant Church.

The second is an era of decolonialization, staring in the early 1960s and running through the early 1970s. For the Wesleyans, Free Methodists, and Nazarenes, this period was an important time for beginning to shift structures to reflect a more international membership.

The Methodist Church and Evangelical United Brethren has such conversations at the same time, especially through the Committee on the Status of Methodism Overseas (COSMOS), but real changes were sidelined because the major focus of the time was on working out the merger between the two denominations.

The third is an era of world Christianity starting in the 1980s or 1990s and running through the present. All four other denominations have made significant changes in their polity in response to shifting trends in membership, with overseas membership increasing significantly and American membership declining or growing slowly.

The UMC has changed the mandates of some of its general boards and agencies and adjusted formulas for membership on boards of directors but thus far has not made the same sort of significant changes the other denominations have. While such changes (including creating a US central conference) have been proposed and even passed by General Conference, major changes have been sideline by ongoing conflicts about human sexuality (which has been much less a debate in the other traditions).

We are not yet done with the era of world Christianity, though. There is still a chance for The United Methodist Church to join with its Methodist and Wesleyan sibling denominations to try to more fully live into the goal of being a global church that unites members from around the world while recognizing and enabling the variety of vital ministries each engage in. Focus on mergers prevented Methodists from taking such opportunities in the past. The question for us today is whether focus on separation will do the same thing.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Global Ministries Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part IV

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 the fourth of four written by a group of Global Ministries staff persons on behalf of the agency. That group includes Malcolm Frazier, David Logeman, Emily Richardson-Rossbach, Jerome Sahabandhu, and David W. Scott.

There is much to be appreciated and affirmed in “Wonder, Love and Praise,” the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology document drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order (CFO). Global Ministries is grateful for the work of CFO is preparing this document for comment by the church. This piece is intended as a response to that call for church-wide feedback, and is offered in hope that other United Methodist individuals and entities will also heed the call.

While “Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP) does include useful pieces of theological reflection, Global Ministries would like to lift up four ways in which the document could go further or explore more theological territory than it does. These four areas are the role of laity, the church’s relationship with the world through mission, the church’s nature as a community, and the church’s nature as an institution.

Institution
Another area in which we at Global Ministries appreciated what WLP said but wished it would go further was in talking about the human dimension of the church. As WLP states, “The truth—the theological truth, even—is that the church is indeed also a very human community, an association of often all too like-minded individuals, and that it does also serve human purposes quite distinct from, and sometimes counter to, the purposes of God.” (lines 406-408). The document also makes frequent reference to the “human uses” of the church and draws on the language of the “visible” and “invisible” church to talk about the distinction between the church as God intends it and the church as humans have made it for their own purposes. We found the recognition of the failings of the church contained in these discussions useful.

Yet we also felt that it was possible to go beyond what was already included in the text. While the text explores “human uses” of the church and “human abuses” of the church, these discussions are not grounded in a theological anthropology or a theology of sin, both of which would give greater insight into what it means to be human and when humans depart from the will of God. As we noted in our discussion, merely being human is not itself problematic. Indeed, in light of the Incarnation, God highly values the human. Wesley affirmed the imago Dei in humanity. Humanity is not inherently deficient or broken, but sin is a rejection of our “humanness” as God created and intended it to be. Thus, the problem is not the church being at times human but the church being at times sinful in its actions and attitudes. WLP does not contradict these theological affirmations, but could benefit by stating them more clearly.

This discussion of the human aspect of the church would also be strengthened by a thorough theology of institutions. At the same time as the church is a movement and a community, neither of which are institutions, it is also an institution. A solid understanding of institutions could also help us better understand Methodism as a movement by allowing us to draw clear distinctions between the two categories. Moreover, many of the conflicts within The United Methodist Church revolve around the institutional structures of the church. A theology of institutions would complement a theological anthropology to help us understand our church institutions in more than a solely functional or merely political way but also help to make sense of the political and functional dimensions of the church.

Admittedly, there are fewer resources to draw on here, as modern institutions are in general under-theologized. Nevertheless, some conclusions are possible. Such a theology of institutions would have to balance the natural human tendency toward organization with the sinful human tendency to use institutions as a means to pursue power, control others, and indulge our base and selfish motives. Thus, a proper theology of institutions should be confessional, prophetic, aspirational, and humble.

There are moments at which WLP does strike confessional notes on the ways in which Methodists and their institutions have failed to live up to the calling of God. It makes brief nods to the racism and colonialism that characterize the history of the church. Yet there is more for United Methodists to confess. We have also sinned in our treatment of women, the poor, immigrants, foreigners, and God’s creation. Moreover, our sins are not entirely behind us. We as a denomination continue to be Americentric in our structures and thinking. We let money distort relationships and the mission of the church. We exclude, denigrate, and discriminate against people based on a whole host of characteristics. We choose our own comfort over God’s calling. We continue to reflect rather than challenge the world around us in too many ways.

Thus, we thought it important for WLP to not only confess the sins of the church but to affirm and model the church’s prophetic calling. WLP chooses to use Christ’s threefold offices as priest, prophet, and king to frame its discussion of ordained ministry. However, this framework seems at times forced to encompass the ways in which United Methodism has structured its ordained ministry. While a prophetic dimension is theoretically part of ordained ministry in the UMC, our theological documents and structural practices frequently discourage the exercise of such an office. For example, we might note here how the 1968 Book of Discipline, quoted and discussed in lines 724-746 of WLP, defines ordination primarily as being entrusted with special authority over Word, Sacrament, and Order. Priestly and kingly functions (as well as administrative responsibilities) are clearly contained within this understanding of ordination, but prophecy is conspicuously absent.

Too often we expect our members and our ordained leaders to keep the system going rather than to challenge it with a prophetic vision of God’s calling for our institutions. Since this document is intended as a teaching document, it should not only reflect the church as it is, but also project a vision of the church as it should be.

Thus, a good theology of institutions must also be aspirational. The prophetic voice should not only condemn the injustices that are but paint a picture of the church and the world as God intends them to be. It should show how our deepest theological convictions are expressed in the church currently but also what a fuller expression of those beliefs would look like – in structures, in practices, in attitudes. At several points, WLP does recognize the aspirational nature of the church as the document describes it, and we appreciated these moments. For instance, WLP recognizes that the Methodist distinctives we proclaim are often aspirational. Such an affirmation seems a very Methodist statement – proclaiming that we are individually and collectively going on toward perfection but are not there yet.

Thus, the final necessary element for a good theology of institutions is humility. In present day American if not global culture, there can seem to be a tension between being prophetic and being humble. Yet this tension resolves when both are properly understood. Prophecy is not shouting loudly about how one is right and others wrong. Prophecy begins with the ability to be self-critical, a deeply humble and humbling activity. Pride binds us to institutions as they are, but humility frees us to imagine them another way, thus allowing the Holy Spirit to grant a prophetic vision for change. Humility allows us to recognize, to borrow an ecumenical term from Karl Barth, that ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church must always be reformed. Finally, recognizing the common root of humble and human, an ecclesiology with humility allows us to embrace an ecclesiology with humanity, even as we reach toward the divine.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Middle and the Margins in Methodism

American United Methodists seem to have generally come to accept that the proposal of the Commission on a Way Forward will include some sort of “loosening” of the connection that involves separate structures for different groups of American United Methodists under a common umbrella. This being seen as fait accompli, the debate among American United Methodists has shifted to one between conservative incompatibilists (i.e., those opposed to gay marriage and ordination and are unwilling to live in the same structure as those in favor) and compatibilists (i.e., those of whatever opinion on homosexuality who are willing to live in the same structure with those of different opinions).

This debate has progressed along two main lines – one structural and one rhetorical.

The structural question is whether the US should be split into two or three sub-denominations. Many conservative incompatibilists would like the denomination to split into two – a “progressive” denomination for those unwilling to live with the current Book of Discipline restrictions, which is expected to be small, and an “orthodox” denomination that continues current Book of Discipline restrictions, which is expected to contain the majority of the current US church. Conservative compatibilists assume that they would be positioned to control this orthodox-majority church.

Many compatibilists, however, would like the US church to split into three – an “orthodox” denomination for those seeking hardline prohibitions against homosexuality, a “progressive” denomination for those seeking immediate full inclusion of gays and lesbians, and the rest of the denomination, presumed to be the majority, which would tolerate a diversity of opinions, perhaps through some sort of local option. Compatibilists assume both orthodox and progressive churches would be small and they would be positioned to control the tolerant majority church. Thus, the fight between conservative incompatibilists and moderate compatibilists is over who will have control over the majority of the US church.

Along with this basic fight for control through structural arrangements has been a rhetorical fight over which group is the “middle” in United Methodism. American moderate compatibilists claim that, by willing to engage people of all opinions, they are in the middle of American Methodist views on sexuality. American conservative incompatibilists claim that they actually are a majority of American Methodists and, if not, they are certainly in the middle of United Methodist views on homosexuality globally.

Thus, this debate is, at heart, a debate about being in the center and therefore having the power to determine the rules for those on the periphery. Moreover, it is clear that for both sides of the debate, United Methodists in the central conferences and progressive American United Methodists are not at the center and therefore should not have the power to determine the rules for the rest of the denomination or even, in some cases, themselves.* Thus, center/periphery functions as both a geographic and a theological distinction.

There are, however, two good, theological reasons to question both sides’ framing of this debate and their objectives within it.

First, one may take issue with the central objective of being at the center and wielding power. Jesus cautions, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is not an invitation to seek the center. Paul adds, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” because we follow “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Seeking the center is not seeking to be like the crucified Christ.

This rush to the center and avoidance of the margins also goes against the best in contemporary theological reflection on mission. The margins are often where we best encounter God and where God does some of God’s best work. As Together Towards Life states, “We affirm that marginalized people are agents of mission and exercise a prophetic role which emphasizes that fullness of life is for all. The marginalized in society are the main partners in God’s mission.” Seeking the center can take us away from participating in God’s mission.

Second, one may take issue with how the wielding of power is conceived. In Mark 10, Jesus says, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” For Jesus, being a ruler, being great, being at the center, is not about “lording it over” those at the margins; it’s about serving them.

Cast in secular political terms, several commentators have expressed sentiments to the effect that the true moral test of a democracy is how it treats its minorities. The United Methodist Church is a democracy and moreover one that is not set up well to impose the will of the majority upon a substantial minority; hence the large amount of local disregard for General Conference directives.

This is not to say a church can’t set boundaries to its teaching or membership, but does mean that those who would see themselves at the center, whether conservative or moderate on issues of sexuality, should ask themselves what they are willing to do to support the mission, ministry, and spiritual development of those at the margins, whether that’s Filipinos, racial minorities in the US, Africans, American progressives, or Europeans. Last weekend's events in Charlottesville dramatically demonstrate how threatened those at the margins can be from systems of sin and oppression. How can those in the Methodist middle, as John Wesley would say, first do no harm to minority groups and second do good to minority groups’ ministries so that all may stay (and grow) in love with God?

Both sides in the current UMC debate accuse each other of accommodating to the world while proudly proclaiming the counter-cultural witness of their own side. More than anything, the world seeks power and privilege. True Christian witness that goes against the ways of the world seeks humility and gives power away.

*Conservative American incompatibilists say that Africans should be allowed to determine the rules on the issue of homosexuality, where they agree with conservative Americans, but by and large conservative American United Methodists do not argue that we should follow Africans’ lead in other regards, expect perhaps an emphasis on revivalism, which is already a value for conservative Americans and thus not something that they support because they were led to it by Africans. American compatibilists largely do not talk about non-American United Methodists.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Global Ministries Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part III

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 the third of four written by a group of Global Ministries staff persons on behalf of the agency. That group includes Malcolm Frazier, David Logeman, Emily Richardson-Rossbach, Jerome Sahabandhu, and David W. Scott.

There is much to be appreciated and affirmed in “Wonder, Love and Praise,” the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology document drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order (CFO). Global Ministries is grateful for the work of CFO is preparing this document for comment by the church. This piece is intended as a response to that call for church-wide feedback, and is offered in hope that other United Methodist individuals and entities will also heed the call.

While “Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP) does include useful pieces of theological reflection, Global Ministries would like to lift up four ways in which the document could go further or explore more theological territory than it does. These four areas are the role of laity, the church’s relationship with the world through mission, the church’s nature as a community, and the church’s nature as an institution.

Community
Community is an important term for WLP. One of the three core theological convictions that shape the document is, “The saving love of God creates community.” Global Ministries appreciates and affirms this focus on the church as a community. Nevertheless, we also felt there were important ways in which this focus on community could be extended and given additional Wesleyan theological grounding.

Such additional grounding could be achieved by noting the connections between the three theological emphases of WLP: that the saving love of God is for all, that the saving love of God is transformative, and that the saving love of God creates community. Put another way, WLP could enrich its discussion of community by focusing on community as not merely a static state, part of the unchangeable essence of the church, but by focusing on community as an active entity, the body that carries out the works of the church. Such an active understanding of community would highlight the connection between community and mission (related to the first emphasis) and between community and discipleship (related to the second emphasis).

We have already noted the need for a greater mission-orientation in the ecclesiology presented in WLP. In addition to the already given reasons for doing so, such an orientation could help uncover important insights into the nature and activities of the church as a community. The church as a community is always invitational. It is perpetually reaching beyond itself, seeking to bring new members into itself. Even in the face of rejection, the church continues to extend the invitation of Christ to the world, thereby participating in God’s mission of redemption.

Yet to say that the church is (or should be) such an invitational community is to make a claim that sets the church apart from many other communities. Community of any type presumes some level of similarity. All too often, however, similarity implies group boundaries, and those boundaries make it difficult for those outside of a group to join it. In our world today, we see the tragic consequences of such an approach to community formation in nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, tribalism, and sexism. These chauvinistic forms of community wound the world and the church. The church is called to bind these wounds inflicted by false understandings of community and to seek reconciliation in such conflicts.

The church can most effectively do so when it remembers its missional, invitational nature as a community. For the church, unlike almost any other community, the commonality that brings us together also impels us to reach beyond ourselves, rather than focus within or on precisely drawing the boundaries. The saving love of God in Jesus Christ is the commonality upon which Christian community is built (as WLP recognizes). Yet our experience of that saving love must, according to Wesleyan theology, lead us to respond by seeking to share that love with others. Thus, any community that is not actively engaged in God’s mission to share the saving love of God in Christ cannot claim to be a fully Wesleyan expression of the church. We recognize that we as a United Methodist community are still, as WLP puts is, “in pursuit of God’s gift of community,” and thus imperfect in living out this task, but the task should be named.

Just as Christian community cannot be separated from active participation in God’s mission, so it also cannot be separated from the process of forming individual believers as disciples. As WLP notes, “the saving love of God is transformative,” and as it further notes, “growth in love and in the other fruits of the Spirit is possible only in community.” Yet given the emphasis that Wesley and other Methodists have placed on this practice of social holiness – growth in discipleship in community – it is disappointing that WLP does not spend more time discussing this aspect of the church as a community. Classes, bands, and other small fellowships have been central Methodist means to make disciples in community, and it would be nice to see such groups lifted up in the document.

Moreover, a discussion of the relationship between community and disciple-making would be an opportunity for WLP to bring additional Wesleyan theological insights into the conversation. In particular, WLP could talk about the communal practices involved in Wesley’s means of grace. Methodism as an expression of church originated in just such a setting – believers joining together in class meetings and bands to hold one another accountable in their process of growing as disciples. By acknowledging the importance of community as a context for experiencing the transformative love of God, WLP would have an opportunity to exposit key Wesleyan ecclesiological concepts such as discipline. Such a discussion could help laity better understand such historically important practices of Methodism, commend them to Methodists today, and emphasize the practical nature of Methodist ecclesiology.

Furthermore, a discussion of the communal means of grace could further enrich WLP’s exploration of the relationship between koinonia and ekklesia. The two Articles WLP cites from United Methodism’s theological affirmations both mention the sacraments and the word of God. Wesley mentions the importance of both communion and Bible study as communal works of grace. While sermons are certainly not the only means for studying the Bible, they are a means. Affirming communion and group engagement with the Bible as elements of both koinonia and ekklesia would make an important connection between the two, one that highlights our Wesleyan theological heritage.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Recommended reading: Annual Conferences act on immigration

Immigration is a hot topic in the United States, so it is not surprising that recent UMC annual conference meetings in the US should address the issue. 17 US annual conferences passed some sort of resolution regarding welcoming and caring for immigrants and/or reform of the United States' immigration system. Both Church & Society and UMNS have rundowns of the actions:

Church & Society summary of annual conference actions on immigration

UMNS story on annual conference actions on immigration and other topics

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Global Ministries Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part II

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 the second of four written by a group of Global Ministries staff persons on behalf of the agency. That group includes Malcolm Frazier, David Logeman, Emily Richardson-Rossbach, Jerome Sahabandhu, and David W. Scott.

There is much to be appreciated and affirmed in “Wonder, Love and Praise,” the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology document drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order (CFO). Global Ministries is grateful for the work of CFO is preparing this document for comment by the church. This piece is intended as a response to that call for church-wide feedback, and is offered in hope that other United Methodist individuals and entities will also heed the call.

While “Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP) does include useful pieces of theological reflection, Global Ministries would like to lift up four ways in which the document could go further or explore more theological territory than it does. These four areas are the role of laity, the church’s relationship with the world through mission, the church’s nature as a community, and the church’s nature as an institution.

Mission
While there are times at which WLP discusses the missional nature of the church, such an understanding of the church could use greater emphasis in the document. Although the document makes regular references to the “mission of the church,” it spends relatively little time exploring mission as an activity of the church or sent-ness as a characteristic of the church, i.e., the church’s missional nature. To make this assertion is not to take issue with WLP’s choice to use the Wesleyan theology of grace as a framework, but to call for the inherent missional nature of Wesley’s theology to be more clearly explicated.

Indeed, many commentators have seen Methodism as a missional movement at its core. Both in its efforts to “spread scriptural holiness” and in its efforts to “reform the nation” (in John Wesley’s words), Methodism has served missional goals, and much of the theology and structure of The United Methodist Church evolved to serve these missional ends. WLP references Russ Richey’s remarks on the missional nature of connectionalism in lines 196-203, but it does not seem to have taken these remarks to heart. An emphasis on mission as part of the nature of the church would seem appropriate, even necessary, for a United Methodist ecclesiology.

Such a focus on mission would be furthermore appropriate because of the significance of ecumenical theological reflections on the missional nature of the church. Several ecumenical theologians have opined on the essentially missionary nature of the church, including such famous statements as Emil Brunner’s “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.”

Even if one might like to interject that mission is not the entirety of the church’s nature, it is beyond dispute that mission is a central aspect of both what the church does and what the church is. As Article V of the EUB’s Confession of Faith indicates, the church exists for worship, discipleship, and mission. In this formulation, mission is one of the three primary tasks of the church. WLP recognizes this aspect of the Article but could do more to expand upon it. Such an expansion is especially important given that mission is the only of the three tasks that is primarily focused beyond the church. This makes it an essential task for the propagation of the church throughout time and space.

The outward-facing nature of mission highlights something about the church’s nature as well as its activity. The church is not a closed set. It does not exist merely for the sake of those who are already members of it. Indeed, Anglican Archbishop William Temple famously remarked, “The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members” (emphasis added). As WLP recognizes in its discussion of grace, the church is a gift of God to the world. Thus, the church is sent from God to the world; or in other words, the church is an expression of God’s mission in the world. A focus on mission as an essential aspect of the church would help The United Methodist Church reclaim this vital theological insight and move past much of the organizational and theological navel-gazing that has beset the church in the past half century, to deleterious ends.

As this discussion of mission suggests, an adequate ecclesiology must explore the relationship between the church and the world. The world does not define the church, but the church must be defined in relation to the world. World may be taken in several senses here: The church itself is part of God’s created world. The church is in the world but not of the world, in the sense of the social order of things. The church is a sign from God to the world, here understood as that which is not church. And the church seeks the redemption of the world, in all three senses of world.

In its introduction, WLP does mention several significant features of the world today. Nevertheless, after raising these issues, it does not explore them or their meaning for the church today. Issues such as globalization, migration, economic inequalities, and climate change can and should have profound implications for the church, especially a church that views “the world as [its] parish.” Yet WLP does not go into any of these issues.

Some might argue that this omission is an indication of a primarily privileged white, American perspective pervasive throughout the document – only those with such privilege could ignore the implications of these trends in the world for the nature of the church. Such an allegation is another instance in which the document would benefit from more serious engagement with mission as an aspect of the church, as such as discussion would entail a theology of culture. As The United Methodist Church seeks to live into its nature as a “global” or “worldwide” church, it is in sore need of such a theology of culture. How are we to understand the church both as a community that includes people of all races, cultures, and nations and as a collection of particular communities, each shaped by their own cultural understandings of the world? WLP is silent on such questions.

While the concept of diakonia or service is distinct from the concept of missio or mission, the two are related in their orientation toward care for a creation that “groans for redemption.” WLP does make some scant references to mission, but the concept of diakonia is completely missing from the document. Some exploration of this term would help United Methodists understand not only the church’s relation to the world but also its internal leadership structures, as the order of deacons is predicated on this concept.

WLP shows significant interest in ecumenical questions, and this is another area in which a discussion of mission, service, and the church’s relation to the world would benefit the document. The document does note the connection between mission and the unity of the church in lines 91-96, but this insight is not carried out in the rest of the document’s discussion of ecumenism or unity, nor does this paragraph define mission or unity. Yet the challenges of the world are often them means through which individual churches are prompted to work together and recognize their unity in God’s calling to serve the world in mission.

Mission can potentially be a means to foster internal Methodist unity as well, to distinguish between so-called “legitimate” and “illegitimate” forms of diversity (mentioned in lines 599-639). The authors of WLP claim that we possess “no workable means of resolving this question” about legitimate v. illegitimate difference. Could not a focus on mission (as well as an emphasis on the importance of humility and love the authors mention in the concluding section of the document) give us some common ground upon which we could adjudicate our differences? Wesley indicates that missional unity aimed at helping people grow in the love of God and others, which is Wesley’s definition Christian holiness, should create a sense of fellowship among Christians, even when they are separated by significant and deeply held beliefs about aspects of the Christian religion.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Recommended Viewings: SAIH Norway videos

After last week's Nordic-inspired reflections on giving, here are some more Nordic-originated thoughts on how to do mission well:

SAIH Norway (the Norwegian Students' and Academics' International Assistance Fund) has put out thought-provoking and entertaining videos meant to cause Westerners to question the stereotypes they have of Africa and aid to Africa. These funny videos could be quite effective at provoking important mission conversations in classroom settings.

First are several videos promoting a non-existent "Africa for Norway" aid campaign for Africans to sent heaters to Norway:
Africa for Norway
Radi-Aid - Warmth for Christmas
The Radi-Aid App

Second are a couple of videos skewering the types of attitudes and practices that go along with Western aid to Africa:
Let's save Africa! - Gone wrong
Who wants to be a volunteer?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Global Ministries Response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part I

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 the first of four written by a group of Global Ministries staff persons on behalf of the agency. That group includes Malcolm Frazier, David Logeman, Emily Richardson-Rossbach, Jerome Sahabandhu, and David W. Scott.

There is much to be appreciated and affirmed in “Wonder, Love and Praise,” the United Methodist Church’s ecclesiology document drafted by the Commission on Faith and Order (CFO). Global Ministries is grateful for the work of CFO is preparing this document for comment by the church. This piece is intended as a response to that call for church-wide feedback, and is offered in hope that other United Methodist individuals and entities will also heed the call.

While “Wonder, Love and Praise” (WLP) does include useful pieces of theological reflection, Global Ministries would like to lift up four ways in which the document could go further or explore more theological territory than it does. These four areas are the role of laity, the church’s relationship with the world through mission, the church’s nature as a community, and the church’s nature as an institution.

Laity
We will begin with the role of the laity. WLP, following the example of the WCC documents The Church: Towards a Common Vision and Baptism, Eucharist, and Ministry, explores issues related to the roles of those set aside for leadership within the church through ordination. Such an exploration is worthwhile, as ordained leadership is a significant aspect of the church. Yet WLP fails to give sufficient attention to an exploration of the theological understanding and significance of the laity within the church. The document could have drawn on other United Methodist theological resources such as By Water and the Spirit to discuss the common Christian calling that all members of the church enter into through their baptismal vows.

Overlooking the role of the laity is a significant miscalculation for several reasons. First, it seems a missed opportunity in terms of the document’s envisioned purpose. WLP is intended to serve as a teaching document for the church, similar to This Holy Mystery and By Water and the Spirit. If the document is used as such, the primary audience who will engage it will be laity. It is important, therefore, that laity see themselves in the document. If they do not, the chances it will be adopted and used as a teaching document will significantly decrease.

Second, by overlooking the laity, WLP also overlooks a primary Methodist distinctive. Section III of WLP examines three aspects of The United Methodist Church’s distinctiveness within the church universal: the scope of grace, connectionalism, and theological reflection as a task of the whole church. While the wording of this last aspect of distinctiveness might seem to indicate some attention to the role of laity within theological reflection, the discussion here is about General Conference without any specific references to the laity. Moreover, while WLP asserts that theological reflection is a distinctive mark of Methodism, we felt that practically, not enough space was created for such reflection. Few would call General Conference a space for deep theological reflection.

Although the laity are not mentioned in this section or in the rest of the section on United Methodism’s distinctiveness, arguably a large role for laity in the church has been one of the most distinctive aspects of Methodism since its beginning as a movement led predominantly by lay preachers, lay class leaders, and lay stewards. Methodists have taken Luther’s concept of the priesthood of all believers and thoroughly applied it. In Britain, in America, and around the world, Methodism often spread through the initiative of laity. Laity have long held crucial leadership roles within the church, both on the local and general church levels. United Methodist governance structures are set up to reflect equal participation by clergy and laity. Thus, by omitting specific attention to the role of the laity, WLP overlooks what is one of the most important aspects of United Methodist distinctiveness and therefore one of its contributions to the church universal.

Third, a more thorough theological exploration of the role of the laity within the church would have served to better ground WLP’s discussion of the role of ordained clergy within the church. Since significant leadership roles are available to laity within The United Methodist Church, confusions frequently arise about what the distinctions between laity and clergy are. How are lay licensed local pastors and clergy elders different when they serve similar functional roles? How is a deacon who serves as a social worker different than a lay person who serves as a social worker? Such questions must be answer not only through a theology of the clergy, but a theology of the laity, or a theology of the whole people of God, as well.

By omitting such a theological discussion of the laity and their relation to the clergy, WLP inadvertently reinforces a tacit hierarchical understanding of The United Methodist Church, one with laity at the bottom. Too often, United Methodists view the church as a pyramid of prestige proceeding from laity to licensed local pastor to deacon to elder to bishop. Deconstructing such a view of the church requires a firm understanding of the common baptismal ministry that all Christians are called to, regardless of ordination status. Indeed, Methodists have always emphasized witnessing to Christ in the world in vocations of daily life and service through secular occupations. Such faithful living is a primary and not secondary aspect of what it means to be the church.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Nordic Theory of Giving

I recently read Anu Partanen’s book, The Nordic Theory of Everything. One of the arguments she advances in the book is something she calls “the Nordic theory of love.” According to this theory, relationships between people represent the truest expression of love when they are not encumbered by any form of dependency of one party on another. Dependency is seen as introducing power dynamics that negatively affect both giver and receiver. Moreover, it shifts the basis of the relationship from love to need or power.

The alternative to this type of dependency is to guarantee certain things as a right within society so that people are not dependent on family, other individuals, companies, municipalities, etc. to provide them. This “Nordic theory of love” is operationalized within society by creating social and government systems that emphasize the autonomy of individuals and provide basic needs for all through collective programs so that people are not dependent upon one another. Certainly, many Americans are uncomfortable with the state playing such a role in people’s lives, but my point is not to argue for an active state; it is to use Partanen’s ideas about dependency to reflect on the UMC.

To give a few instances of how the Nordic theory of love plays out in the Nordic countries, college students are not required to report their parents’ incomes on financial aid forms, since college students are presumed to be financially independent of their parents and should not be forced to rely on parental assets to determine their futures. The government runs health programs so that people are not dependent on their employers for health insurance and thus forced to continue to work at jobs they hate just to keep their health insurance. Married couples file tax forms separately to avoid fostering financial dependency of one spouse upon the other.

Let’s see specifically how this theory works out with the imaginary example of Wi-Fi. The American system is that everyone should pay for their own Wi-Fi. For those with the resources to do so, that works out great. If someone doesn’t have enough money to pay for Wi-Fi, then they would have to rely upon a neighbor or friend to share their Wi-Fi password with them, perhaps, or go without. The neighbor or friend may ask for favors in exchange or set conditions on the gift – the password recipient may not watch Netflix in the evenings or must wash the password-giver’s car, perhaps. The recipient thus becomes dependent on the giver. As a consequence, they are not free to use their internet and other resources as best they see fit.

The Nordic solution would be to provide Wi-Fi through a municipal utility, as some cities in the US have done. Thus, everyone gets Wi-Fi – the poor are not left behind, but no one is dependent on another person for their Wi-Fi access, since it is a basic service provided to everyone. Note, that this is not charity Wi-Fi for the poor; it’s Wi-Fi for everyone that the poor can use along with the middle class and rich. Moreover, under the Nordic theory, everyone contributes to the Wi-Fi, to the extent they are able (and barring severe temporary circumstances such as loss of a job), through their taxes. Wi-Fi is thus not an issue of charity; it’s a basic public service.

I was thinking about this system as I was thinking about dependencies that are created through mission giving in the UMC. There are many instances in which American or European United Methodists share generously with their fellow believers in Africa and the Philippines. Yet, like the person giving out his or her Wi-Fi password above, American and European giving can come with conditions or expectations of return favors. These conditions may range from naming rights to restricted uses of donated gifts to expected support for polity positions. When such conditions or expectations are attached to them, the gifts create dependency. As a result, the receivers are not free to use the gifts or their other resources as best they see fit.

There are several ways to move beyond such dependencies. One way is to revamp giving along the lines of the methods described in When Helping Hurts, Toxic Charity, and similar books. This is an important approach to overturning dependency-creating models of mission, and readers are encouraged to explore these books if they have not already.

Yet I wonder whether it would also be possible to institute some Nordic theory of love solutions to the issue of dependency in the UMC. What common services would we want as guarantees for all churches, regardless of location? What services would we want our general agencies to provide to ALL churches or annual conferences – rich or poor, Western or Southern? Construction assistance? Disaster relief coordination? Technical assistance for annual conferences? How could we structure contributions to the World Service Fund or other means such that all annual conferences can contribute to these basic public services, to the extent they are able and barring severe temporary circumstances?

Such a shift would require significant changes in mindset and sacrifice of privilege by American and European churches. It’s nice to be the donor and to be able to dictate the terms or call in favors when needed. There are advantages to being the patron in a patron-client relationship, and Westerners would need to self-sacrificially give up those advantages for the sake of striving toward the gospel equality to which Jesus calls us.

Yet Methodists are supposed to be known as a people of love. It’s worth thinking, therefore, about what Anu Partanen’s Nordic theory of love might have to say to us as we seek to better love our Methodist neighbors as ourselves.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

James Labala: Comment on Wonder, Love and Praise

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 Rev. Dr. James Z. Labala, Associate Dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology and Conference Secretary for the Liberia Annual Conference.

We are living a in time in the life and history of the church when the need for our self-understanding is very critical. There are challenges within and without that make this need very acute. From the general global, continental and local contexts, the image of the church as a sign of hope has become so blurry that there seems to be very little difference between the church and the world which the church is called to transform. At such a time in the varying contexts of The United Methodist Church, I see “Love, Wonder, and Praise” as a necessary instructive construct which invites us to engage in an intentional process of critical reflection on our nature, vision and mission as a church.

Drawing from the historical, theological and missional roots of the church and locating The United Methodist Church in that general background, the document develops a framework that provides much needed insights about its distinctive convictions. The distinctive convictions include the following: the saving love of God is intended for all people everywhere; the saving love of God is transformative, transforming the life of everyone that embraces it by the power of the Holy Spirit; and it is a love that creates community, a community in which love is learned and lived out.

The document uses the three convictions as a foundation to cast a renewed vision that is relevant for the present and varying contexts of The United Methodist Church. This renewed vision challenges the church to see itself as a gift of the triune God, a communion whose life is sharing in the life of the Triune God. The new vision of The United Methodist Church, gleaned from careful analysis of the core belief or creed of the Christian tradition as well as the ecumenical document, Towards a Common Vision, presents the church as a community whose life is generated by the very life of Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. It describes the life of the church as “a sharing in the life of the Triune God,” and the mission of the church as communicating “that possibility to a world in need.” As koinonia, “the church is not an association of like-minded individuals serving purposes they may have devised for themselves.” It is rather a community established by God and rooted in the very life of God. But “Wonder, Love and Praise” is quick to point out that the church is also a human community which serves human purposes that sometimes counteract the purposes of God.

Our awareness of the church as human community lifts up its need of constant self-evaluation of its self-understanding and missional effectiveness. As such, the church must be intentional to engage in self-critical reflection in an effort to determine its areas of need for reformation and renewal. The document argues that Wesley himself presents a lesson to learn in this regard: the church is to exercise a realistically self-critical capacity when it comes to the quality of our own life and witness as Christians and Christian communities and be sensitive to the danger of self-deception and be aware of our own permanent need for repentance and renewal… we are to also be open to the presence of God, and open to the love of God that might come to us through them.

Critical in the life and structure of the community is the theology of ministry, “Wonder, Love and Praise” argues. It is a theology that is rooted in the “threefold office” of Christ as prophet (bearing witness to God’s word), as priest (offering the life of a life lived in discipleship), and king (serving as instruments for the establishment of God’s reign). In this new age our participation in the ecumenical forum, reaffirmation and exploration of the triadic pattern of “Word, Sacrament, and Order” would serve to strengthen our theology of ministry.

Finally, the document discusses the question of locating The United Methodist Church within the global Christian community and the impact its participation in the ecumenical conversations might have in addressing the issues of its diversity. The effort is to construct a renewed ministry theology. Amongst the points the document uses in fashioning this ministry theology, two really stand out for ministry context particularly in the west Africa Central Conference: the first is the fact that our connection is intended for “the strengthening of all by the gifts of all.” We are stronger together as we value one another for who each one is and for what each brings to the table for the common good of all. The other is the emphasis on theological reflection. This is the tool that helps to keep us in check as a people of God when appropriately utilized, for the un-reflected life is not worth living (Socrates in Plato’s Apology).

The last portion of the work discusses diversity and conflict leading a new vision of the church that is relevant to the present reality with which the church is faced. As called out people from diverse backgrounds, we are challenged to see our differences as a gift that enhances our unity. Our differences should be seen as an opportunity to open ourselves to learning from those who do not see things as we do. This means that such learning experience should empower us to be who we are and at the same recognize and honor those with whom we might not agree. This is the church we are called to be, a sign of hope and life to a hopeless and dying world.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Recommended Reading: Philippines Quadrennial Plan

United Methodists may be familiar with the plans and priorities of their annual conference or perhaps an agency or two that they may be particularly invested in. But how can United Methodists find out what it really is that their religious compatriots around the world really care about and where they are focusing their efforts?

Here is an opportunity to do just that for the Philippines. The Philippines Central Conference has made its 2017-2020 Quadrennial Plan available through Google Docs.

While few may want to read the entire 54-page program spreadsheet, this document offers good insight into the priorities of fellow United Methodists around the world. The document details efforts that the Philippines Central Conference will make over the next four years in the following categories: develop[ing] vital congregations; developing principled Christian leaders; certified coaches; financial support to UMC theology students; happy, health, holy clergy and deaconesses, financial independence; performance evaluation system; ministry with the poor; stamp out killer diseases; caring for the environment; preparedness for catastrophes; and respect for human rights.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Comparative Global Wesleyan Polity: The Church of the Nazarene

This is the fourth in an occasional series of articles comparing the different ways in which Methodist/Wesleyan denominations historically related to The United Methodist Church structure themselves as global bodies.

What would The United Methodist Church look like if three-self mission theology were written into the Book of Discipline? One possible answer is the Church of the Nazarene.

The historical roots of the Church of the Nazarene are many and complex, but they include early leaders such as former Methodist Phineas Bresee, along with others who were part of the diverse holiness movement in late nineteenth century America as well as abroad. The Church of the Nazarene sees itself as a Wesleyan body in the Methodist tradition. It strongly emphasizes the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification, and although there are congregational influences on its polity as well (pastors are called by local churches, not appointed), on the whole, its polity is distinctively Wesleyan/Methodist.

Today, the Church of the Nazarene is the largest Wesleyan holiness denomination in the world. According to its 2016 figures, the church has nearly 2.5 million members across 192 “world areas” (countries or substantially distinct portions of countries, such as Guam). That makes the Church of the Nazarene an extremely well-distributed church globally, more so than the UMC. Among its membership, 26% reside in Africa, 26% in the US & Canada, 16% in Mesoamerica, 13% in Eurasia (Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia), 13% in South America, and 5% in Asia-Pacific.

The Church of the Nazarene is structured into three legislative/deliberative levels – local congregations, districts (equivalent to annual conferences), and General Assembly (equivalent to General Conference). Districts are overseen by district superintendents, and the denomination as a whole is led by six General Superintendents, who have individual responsibilities for specific parts of the denomination as well as shared responsibility for the entire denomination.

The Church of the Nazarene groups districts into six continental “regions,” which are not legislative but instead allow for contextually-relevant administrative structures and upon the basis of which some denominational representatives are elected. Thus, the regions are somewhat analogous to jurisdictions or central conferences in the UMC, though there is no distinction between the USA/Canada region and other regions, in the same way that differences do exist between the UMC jurisdictions and annual conferences.

In additional to regional programs, the Church of the Nazarene also has three denomination-wide agencies covering the areas of education, mission, and Sunday School/discipleship. Though based in the US, these three agencies are intended to serve all Nazarenes throughout the world.

The regions facilitate some level of contextualization. Nevertheless, like the UMC, but unlike The Wesleyan Church and Free Methodist Church, there is one standard policy book for the entire denomination. The Church of the Nazarene’s Manual (equivalent to the Book of Discipline) is about 400 pages long and binding on churches everywhere, including a standard set of committees that are expected to exist in all districts and congregations. The Manual does stipulate contextualization in places, such as the development of educational standards for pastors.

The approach to being a global church that the Church of the Nazarene has taken does not emphasize contextual adaptation of polity so much as thorough implementation of Anderson/Venn “three-self” theory: that the goal for new mission churches should be to become self-led by indigenous pastors, financially self-supporting, and self-propagating through the ability to start new churches themselves. The roots of this approach in the Church of the Nazarene go all the way back to founder Hiram Reynolds, who as a mission executive and then General Superintendent sought to make this approach to mission standard policy for Nazarenes.

This emphasis on creating three-self churches which remain part of a worldwide denomination (rather than become autonomous) has led to a long history of self-reflection by Nazarenes on what it means to be a global denomination. There are many milestones on this path, including important decisions in favor of “internationalization” in 1980.

An emphasis on three-self churches is still part of Nazarene policy. Nazarenes make distinctions between three types of districts: Phase 1, Phase 2, and Phase 3. Phase 1 districts are for new mission work. Phase 2 corresponds to a certain amount of growth in size. A district doesn’t become a Phase 3 district, however, until it is “100% self-supporting in regard to district administration.”

This means that once a district becomes a “Phase 3 district,” no matter where in the world it is, it is able to take its place as a full equal to other Phase 3 districts throughout the rest of the world. A Phase 3 district in Africa is not financially dependent on districts in the US, in the same way that many UMC annual conferences in Africa still subsist on donations from the US to cover basic expenses such as pastors’ salaries. American Nazarenes may donate to charitable work in Africa or elsewhere, but as far as the basic operations of the church, those are fully in the hands of locals.

Of course, the process of internationalization is on-going work in the Church of the Nazarene. Questions about use of the English language and delegate visas for General Assembly still remain. General Assembly is always in the US, as is the denomination’s headquarters. Most of the General Superintendents have been white American men.

However, at the most recent General Assembly earlier this summer, Nazarenes elected two new General Superintendents, both originally from outside the US. That gives the Church of the Nazarene a majority of non-US General Superintendents for the first time ever. Watching the Twitter comments about General Assembly as a whole, one noted the frequency of positive references to the global nature and racial, ethnic, national, and linguistic diversity of the church.

While the Church of the Nazarene still has work to do in its process of internationalization, it is clearly well on its way. Indeed, it may well deserve the title of most global of the Methodist/Wesleyan denominations.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Darryl Stephens: On What Really Divides Us: A Response to Philip Wingeier-Rayo

Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Darryl W. Stephens. Dr. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. He is author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press).

In a recent post, my colleague Philip Wingeier-Rayo wrote about mission to the religiously unaffiliated in the US. He and I are in agreement on many points, not least the importance of faithfully inculturating the gospel so as to reach the nones and dones. However, one aspect of his analysis deserves further consideration: the roots of “our greatest divide.”

Wingeier-Rayo wrote: “I believe that our greatest divide is that certain sectors give more primacy to Scripture and tradition, while other sectors place more authority with experience and reason. These tendencies might be representative of the values of Boomers and Millennials, which generally live within modernist (belief in the Truth) vs. post-modernist (truth is relative) views toward authority.”

Yet, these binary distinctions do not hold up to closer scrutiny. While there exist clear generational patterns regarding attitudes toward homosexuality (see Pew study released June 26, 2017), I believe the roots of the divide are neither primarily generational, postmodernist, nor dependent on privileging one or more aspects of the Wesleyan quadrilateral. It is true that folks differ in how they weigh the different theological sources of wisdom. It is also true that some people might be described as modernist and others post-modernist. However, it is not at all clear that these persons are easily correlated and grouped into identifiable sectors, particularly as an explanation of differing views on the issue of homosexuality, the most visible manifestation of the divide in the church today.

If we want to understand what divides, we need to examine power and authority—not the authority of various sources of wisdom but the authority of those persons wielding these sources and how they choose to exercise their social and institutional power.

Reason. A century ago, Protestants in the US were sharply divided over science as a form of human reason. Modernists embraced historical criticism of the Bible and Darwin’s theory of evolution over and against Christians who embraced creationism as an alternative to science. Nevertheless, there were points of agreement. White Christians of both perspectives leveraged their power, either citing the curse of Ham (Gen 9:22-27) or the new “science” of Darwinian-inspired eugenics, to justify the racial superiority of whites. When the interests of white males in these opposing camps overlapped, the result was a powerful system of social and legal oppression of non-whites in Methodism and society. General Conference repented for past racism in 2000 and for past support of eugenics in 2008.

Contrasting modernist versus postmodernist perspectives does not illuminate any consistent pattern in the selective embrace of scientific reason by Methodists since the 1920s Scopes Monkey Trial. For example, the UMC’s stance on homosexuality, legislated into the Social Principles in 1972, seems immune to advances in scientific knowledge about sexuality and gender. Today, scientific evidence indicates that sexual orientation is naturally occurring (like left-handedness) and is not a choice.

Yet, few United Methodists supporting the current language of the Discipline on homosexuality are anti-Darwinian creationists. Rejection of scientific truths is not a consistent indicator among these United Methodists who otherwise have no trouble “believing” in everyday technologies dependent upon the scientific breakthroughs of the past century (nuclear power, GPS, semiconductors, etc.). It’s not a matter of giving reason primacy or not; it’s rather a matter of how particular rationales are leveraged to support the material interests of those with power. An appeal to other parts of the quadrilateral provides no more clarity about the divide.

Experience. Likewise, it’s not a matter of whether to give experience primacy. Rather, it’s what kind of experience counts as authoritative. For evangelical Christians, experience is privileged over all other sources of theological insight. The quintessential religious experience among evangelicals is being saved through a personal relationship with Christ. Without this experience, one cannot be saved (and consequently, cannot discern God’s will or what is morally right). For charismatics, the ongoing experiences of God’s grace through actions of the Holy Spirit are primary. For many progressives, the experience of God’s grace through the charism of radically inclusive love of all persons (regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity) defines how they understand their faith. Christians across the theological spectrum privilege experience in different ways.

Tradition. Which aspect of tradition counts as a source of wisdom? As I have argued in Methodist Morals, public engagement in the moral questions of the day is a predominant aspect of Methodist tradition. This tradition of social witness is dynamic and responsive, requiring the church to function as a community of moral deliberation as it discerns how to be faithful in the world. United Methodists supporting full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life of the church are faithful to this tradition. Conversely, an insistence on a “literal” interpretation of the Bible as the only faithful reading is a distinctly modern phenomenon, upending a centuries-long tradition of much more varied approaches to scripture, including ways in which the Bible interprets itself.

Scripture. Privileging Scripture as a source of wisdom is no less complicated. It’s not a matter of whether to give Scripture primacy. Rather, it's a matter of how one engages Scripture and on which issues. By what scriptural account did Methodists promote Prohibition of alcohol, that defining moral crusade of the last century? By what scriptural account did Methodists cease to consider remarriage after divorce a moral issue and focus, rather, on homosexual marriage? By what scriptural account do Methodists choose to welcome the immigrant, speak out for war, support international cooperation, or embrace US exceptionalism? Scripture has been used and abused to support a wide variety of moral crusades in Methodism.

Power and authority. There is a pattern among these divisive issues, but the distinction is not between one unchanging Truth and an evolving or relativistic understanding of truth. Nor is the distinction between the primacy of one or more sources (Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason) by various interpreters. Rather, the roots of division reside in human power and authority. To understand “our greatest divide,” we must ask: What existing forms of authority are threatened? Who stands to lose power? Who stands to gain power? What ideologies and which material interests are being threatened?

In a patriarchal, racialized, economically stratified church and society, it is not difficult to imagine whose authority and power might be threatened when Methodists and others decide to discern anew what the Lord requires. The attempt to control our own destinies and to wield control over others rather than to trust in God and to love one another—these tendencies feed what really divides us as United Methodists.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ole Birch: What happened to the worldwide church? A response to Wonder, Love and Praise

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 the second of two written by Rev. Ole Birch, pastor in Copenhagen, Denmark Annual Conference, and member of The Connectional Table.

In the introduction to “Wonder, Love and Praise”, the motivations behind the document are presented and among them, the following is mentioned: 

The dramatic recent growth of The United Methodist Church in parts of Africa and Asia, and the increasing visibility and involvement of United Methodists from other countries in its leadership, are gradually bringing United Methodists in the United States to a greater (if belated) awareness that theirs is, if not a “global” or “worldwide” church, at least not simply an American denomination”.

The text then proceeds to talk about the “adequacy of a polity that has been essentially U. S.–centric, taking for granted a basic, normative national identity for the denomination”.

My intention with these two blogposts is to offer two European (or Central Conference) perspectives on the church that can perhaps deepen this question of center and periphery, and bring something new to our understanding of Methodist Theology on the church.

What if there was no center?
My second point in looking at the text from a Central Conference perspective goes to the identity we try to claim as a global or worldwide church.

In our present church structure, it is fair to speak of a strong center and a periphery. At the center we find the General Conference and the administrative order (the agencies, the commissions and the Connectional Table. The program agencies and the administrative organizations have historically been set up to provide support functions for the connectional system in the US. Their purpose and functions have been determined by the perceived missional needs of the five jurisdictions, and their mandates reflect theological and sociological developments in the American church and society. In 1996, General Conference gave the agencies a new identity as Global Agencies, with a global mandate. At the center, the agencies have their mandate, a budget, some staff and the power to determine how to implement the wisdom of the GC.

At the periphery, we find the church in Africa, Asia and Europe. The seven Central Conferences are very different because they serve in very different circumstances. Some are small, in wealthy countries; some are big, in poor countries. Some are highly dependent on financial support, while others are not. What unites them is that their pastors, laypeople and leadership possess contextual competence in their unique missional situation.

In some parts of the world, the church, under the leadership of these people, has demonstrated astonishing growth over the last 20 years. Today more than 40 % of the UMC membership is in the church outside the US.

If the church in these parts of the world needs support, it can ask the center for it.

The administrative order we have today is heavily dominated by the UMC in the United States. Communication is always determined by the need of the periphery and the power at the center.

All agencies are based in the US. All but one have a US born (and educated) general secretary. All have US bishops as presidents. The boards of the agencies do have CC representation. The Connectional Table of 2016-20 has approx. 85% US members.

The very real problem is an administrative order for at global church that cannot possibly be contextually relevant in Africa, Asia and Europe.

My questions regarding our understanding of our church are these; in a worldwide church, what should be the relationship between center and periphery? Do we need a center? Is our present American center determined by history, theology, need for control or American power?

Let’s presume that the church in the US becomes its own region, and we therefore have a unified structure throughout the world. Then each region (or CC) could establish the administrative order it needs to do the mission of the church (No global agencies) These regional bodies relate to each other and find partners around common projects.

What would that mean?

In terms of contextual mission? It could mean that the contextual competence present in the church in the different parts of the world would gain influence on the administrative order and the programs that were created.

For connectionalism? It could mean that the focus of our connectionalism would move towards mission, instead of policy.

In terms of equity? Less dominance by the already privileged.

For subsidiarity? It could mean that decisions would be made close to, and even by, the people affected by the decisions.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Recommended Reading: Dakotas connecting across the globe

For American readers of this blog, today is the Fourth of July, the country's national holiday. It is good to celebrate one's country, but I thought a novel way to do that would be to share a reflection on what connects our country, and The United Methodist Church in our country, to other countries, and The United Methodist Church in those countries. Thus, here are some thoughts on that topic by Rev. Rebecca Trefz, Dakotas Conference director of ministries, written after a trip this spring to Africa University: https://www.dakotasumc.org/news/connecting-across-the-globe-rebeccas-random-thoughts/

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Ole Birch: What happened to the worldwide church? A response to Wonder, Love and Praise, Part 1

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 the first of two written by Rev. Ole Birch, pastor in Copenhagen, Denmark Annual Conference, and member of The Connectional Table.

In the introduction to “Wonder, Love and Praise”, the motivations behind the document are presented and among them, the following is mentioned: 

The dramatic recent growth of The United Methodist Church in parts of Africa and Asia, and the increasing visibility and involvement of United Methodists from other countries in its leadership, are gradually bringing United Methodists in the United States to a greater (if belated) awareness that theirs is, if not a “global” or “worldwide” church, at least not simply an American denomination”.

The text then proceeds to talk about the “adequacy of a polity that has been essentially U. S.–centric, taking for granted a basic, normative national identity for the denomination”.

My intention with these two blogposts is to offer two European (or Central Conference) perspectives on the church that can perhaps deepen this question of center and periphery, and bring something new to our understanding of Methodist Theology on the church.

Wesley’s threefold ecclesiology
I want to start with some observations made by Ph. D. Jørgen Thaarup[1] about the ecclesiology of early British Methodism. He claims that John Wesley held three dimensions of church in dynamic tension with each other.

First, Wesley formed his societies, bands and classes for the people who wanted to be in association with him and his great sanctifying project. This structure corresponds with the Wesleyan teaching on accountable discipleship and sanctification, as well as demanding and exclusive membership. Its focus is the development of a strong personal spirituality and character. Drawing on the first part of the ecclesiology of Confessio Augustania and the Anglican Art. of Rel. XIII: "The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men ..." Later reformulated in the EU Art. Rel. V: "... the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ." This is ecclesiola, the church within the church. Here Wesley exercised strict discipline and removed people who were not serious about their Christian life. Note that this did not mean that anybody was excluded from the sacraments or the institution

Secondly, Wesley respected and utilized the forms and privileges of the official state church, The Anglican Church. He demanded that his followers attended the Sunday service and made frequent use of the sacraments there. This is ecclesia as the institution. This institutional church structure corresponded with the Wesleyan reformatory preaching on justification. The church was public and open to all people. There were low demands for membership, as well as service for the people of the country coming to the church. Drawing on the second part of the ecclesiology of Confessio Augustana and the Art. Rel. XIII: "... in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance..." Later re-formulated in the EU Art. Rel. V: "... in which the Word of God is preached (...) and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment." This is church as the institution of the means of grace.

The third concept of church in early British Methodism was that of The Evangelical Revival. This evolving platform of pietistic, Calvinistic and later more and more Methodist preachers in Britain was seen and used by Wesley as an expression of Church for his time, and his organizing of “his” preachers in The Conference established a new dimension of church as a connection around mission. This understanding of being connected to a larger movement of God’s activity in the world opens a greater perspective of the Kingdom of God, and in more modern terms, the mission of God (Missio Dei) in the present world. It corresponds with the Wesleyan teaching on evangelism, diaconal ministry, ethics and the task to go out and seek the lost sheep of God. Drawing on what is formulated in the last part of the EU version Art. Rel. V: "Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for (…) the redemption of the world."

Reading our new study document, I ask myself if we still claim all three dimensions of church in the UMC? Becoming an independent church in America, where there was no Anglican Church be the broad, open institution, changed something. Wesley held these three dimensions of church separate from each other, and could therefore benefit from their different perspectives and possibilities. He could have tolerance and openness, and at the same time, he could enforce strict discipline without losing the emphasis on free grace and the availability of the means of grace. He could support the institution and he could act with the agility of a movement.

I would suggest that these aspects of our theology of church be brought into the coming work on the text.


[1] “Methodism with a Danish Face” Jørgen Thaarup 1998, Wesley Theological Seminary, ISBN: 978-87-90828-76-9 and “The Praxis of Wesleyan Ecclesiology and the Effectiveness of the Methodist Mission in Scandinavia” Jørgen Thaarup 2002, Oxford Institute. https://oimts.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/2002-8-thaarup.pdf

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Jacob Dharmaraj: Advocacy vs. Charity, Part III

Today's piece is written by Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists. It is the third of a three-part series.

Our perplexities with advocacy arise primarily because we are offered either charity or advocacy as a missional choice. These two are perceived as mutually exclusive. Since many of our United Methodist constituents are preoccupied with this duality, dichotomy, and double with their favored mission principles and practices, it is imperative to scrap this unfair duality between advocacy and charity, and replace it with missional reality, scriptural faithfulness, and life-enhancing practicality. It can be achieved by creating and practicing a theology of advocacy.

Practicing advocacy takes into consideration the agency of the victims of injustices themselves as they engage in resisting and addressing the barriers and systems that deny abundant life to them.

Charity engages participants in a ministry of care and it facilitates space and means for providing their needs.  Advocacy, on the other hand, addresses the root causes of the problem of victimization, and stands in solidarity with the victims in their resistance and struggle towards wholeness.

Charity and advocacy may complement each other in their common goal and caring engagement of the weak and voiceless, but one should keep in mind that charity serves as anodyne alleviating the pain. Advocacy’s goal is to eradicate the root causes that continue to create the pain.

Advocacy is far reaching and all encompassing. It gives hope to the victims for a long haul. It is time consuming and a slow process, but it will not cease until the cause of its engagement is fully addressed.

We live in a world that is all too familiar with the template for the treatment of "the other." It is a grievous offence to refuse to comply with or show any form resistance in the face of oppressive and capricious institutions and decrees. All too often, it is a capital offence in some parts of the world. Charity plays a maimed role in such a context. Ministering with those victims and taking measures to address the root causes of the problems alone would give victims hope, as such an endeavor that would lead to transformation to recreate their future.

Hope is a thing with feathers
Emily Dickinson defines hope in concise dexterity: “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Many well-meaning Christians don’t hesitate to identify with victims of abuse by journeying with them and sharing meals and means. Yet the root causes of the problems go unaddressed. Survivors of oppression get stuck in a limbo due to the lack of a sponsor to advocate for them. To be honest, in so many cases victims don’t need our tears but outrage and response against injustice, loss of dignity, and oppressive human or institutional cruelty.

It is simple and plain that when people are homeless or hungry or forcefully displaced, they lack more than shelter from the elements. Being a migrant is not a metaphor, or not always. What they are lacking is a stable life, a secure place, and a recognizable identity among others which charity cannot provide.

Public witness to the Gospel through advocacy work and active partnership with allies who share our values would be the way to effectively engage in mission today. Vatican II, a historic Roman Catholic mission conference, urged Christians everywhere to collaborate with secular partners in ways to improve the lot of humanity by building bridges even with those who question our beliefs. It said, "The church sincerely professes that all people, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live."

The United Methodist Church, through its mission boards and agencies is undoubtedly involved in such a ministry. But many of our constituents are bowling alone. They belong to fewer community-oriented organizations and are increasingly atomized, anomic, and apathetic subjects of the community rather than active participants within it. Our voice in public leverage and how to shape humans into transformative agents should never be limited or accrued to just a few tiers of our denomination. It should be picked up from annual conference to local church level.

In the final analysis, advocacy is not only our ecclesial modus operandi, but a timeless missional practice as well.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Steven Ybarrola - Response to Wonder, Love and Praise

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. Steven J. Ybarrola, Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Asbury Theological Seminary.

Let me begin my reflection on the “Wonder, Love, and Praise” document by situating myself in this conversation. I am a secularly trained anthropologist (PhD Brown University) who taught 15 years at a loosely church-affiliated liberal arts college, and for the past 11 years have been teaching anthropology and missiology at a Wesleyan theological seminary (Asbury). Therefore, I approach this document more from a theologically-informed social scientific perspective than a social scientifically-informed theological one. Also, I am not a member of the United Methodist Church, so approach the document from a critical outsider’s perspective, which has its advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that I am not encumbered by longstanding theological discussions and divisions within the denomination when it comes to the topics covered. The disadvantage is obviously the same—I am not evaluating the document based on issues that the UMC may have been dealing with for some time now. What follows is an anthropologically and missiologically Wesleyan-informed outsider’s perspective on this important document.

Based on my reading, I find this document to be a positive attempt to deal with the global diversity found within the Body of Christ. As the demographic shift has taken place from the West to the Majority World as far as the growth and expansion of Christianity is concerned, churches like the UMC, which tend to be declining in the West but growing, and in some cases thriving, in the Majority World, have had to come to terms with how to deal with this cultural diversity. This document, “Wonder, Love, and Praise,” seems to be a welcome response to this demographic shift of Christianity (though I will leave that final judgment to my brethren in the Majority World).

Following the teaching of Christ, and given the limits of space, let me concentrate on love. The document does a very nice job of pointing out that the UMC is but one manifestation of the Church universal, and as such, needs to take a humble and loving approach to our brothers, sisters, and their respective denominations, when it comes to working together in the missio Dei. The mission of God is not confined to any one denominational expression or understanding of God, but is what should unite us, even while we acknowledge and appreciate our different practices and, to some extent, beliefs. As the document states, “We might want to say, then, that, theologically understood, the church is not an association of like-minded individuals serving purposes they may have devised for themselves. Instead, it is a community established by God, grounded in the very life of God, an aspect of the new creation” (lines 400-403). The ecumenical focus of the document is refreshing, emphasizing as it does our unity as the Body of Christ without sacrificing or watering down the key elements of what it means to be the church in our contemporary global context.

The tension between our unity in Christ and our cultural/theological differences is a key theme in the document. As an anthropologist, this is a tension I am quite familiar with, as anthropologists distinguish between the emic (i.e., experience-near) and etic (i.e., experience-distant) in our research and analysis (see Geertz 1983 for an anthropological discussion of this distinction, and Priest 2006 for a more theological discussion).

The Scottish theologian and missiologist cited in the document, Andrew Walls, cogently discusses this tension by delineating the “Indigenizing Principle” and the “Pilgrim Principle.” Most of the readers of this blog will be familiar with Walls’ distinction, but let me briefly outline each of these as I believe it gets at an important element that this document is addressing. The indigenizing principle as Walls describes it is the idea of “[t]he impossibility of separating an individual from his or her social relationships and thus from his or her society [which] leads to one varying feature in Christian history: the desire to ‘indigenize,’ to live as a Christian and yet as a member of one’s own society, to make the Church…‘A place to feel at home’” (1996, 7).

In other words, when people become Christians they do so within their sociocultural context, and as such become Christians within that particular understandings of the world. This may be referred to as the “particular” aspect of the gospel—to truly take root it must always be understood within its local sociocultural environment. But Walls continues that we as Christians should never feel too much at home in these environments, because we are also called to something greater, to see ourselves as pilgrims in whatever sociocultural context we find ourselves. He states,

Along with the indigenizing principle which makes his faith a place to feel at home, the Christian inherits the pilgrim principle, which whispers to him that he has no abiding city and warns him that to be faithful to Christ will put him out of step with his society; for that society never existed, in East or West, ancient time or modern, which could absorb the word of Christ painlessly into its system….Not only does God in Christ take people as they are; He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be” (1996, 7).

This can be understood as the “universal” nature of the gospel, that the Kingdom of God calls us to be countercultural in whatever context we find ourselves, and unites us with believers from all over the world and from very different cultural backgrounds.

What this calls for, and which the document acknowledges (lines 107-109, and elsewhere), is an intentional reflexivity. As culturally different believers in the Kingdom of God we must be willing not only to learn from each other, but we must also be willing to take a critical look at our own beliefs and practices in light of how God is working in these different contexts. This has been one of the great blessings, and challenges, I have had in teaching students from different parts of the world, as well as traveling to different parts of the Majority World. Interacting with these believers has made me realize how deeply affected I have been by a modernist view of the world which, among other things, focuses on the material over the spiritual. I recall sitting in the international airport in Nairobi after participating in a consultation with believers from different contexts in east Africa, and feeling like a fraud because what I said I believed was just a shadow of what the Christians I interacted with had actually experienced. This is one of the real advantages of being reflexive in the context of world Christianity.

I’m certain there are constructive criticisms to be made of the “Wonder, Love, and Praise” document, some of which I’ve read and appreciated, but from a critical outsider perspective I believe the document is a positive step forward for the UMC as it struggles to maintain its unity not only as a denomination, but with Christianity globally, amidst the tremendous cultural and theological diversity that makes up the Body of Christ worldwide.