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 a three-part response to the document written by Dr. Daniel Shin, Bishop Cornelius and Dorothye Henderson/E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism and Assistant Professor of Evangelism at the Interdenominational Theological Center.
Upon establishment of the United Methodist Committee on Faith and Order in 2008, the much-anticipated document “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church” has emerged from its proceedings at the behest of the General Conference, Council of Bishops, and Connectional Table. The Statement is a theologically rich, ecumenically informed, and deeply Wesleyan articulation on the church. The Committee truly has done a remarkable service and its Statement deserves a close hearing to enhance both the church’s self-understanding and its mission. In this series of blog posts, I will seek to offer a comprehensive reading of the document but mostly focus on the following: the church as both divine and human realities, the invisible church and the question of people of other faiths, the church’s ministry, and the issue of legitimate diversity.
The Faith and Order Committee seeks to articulate a theological reflection on the church that is in continuity with the historic Christian faith, our common Christian heritage grounded in the apostolic witness, and our distinctive Wesleyan heritage (WLP, p. 1). It is a document on ecclesiology that aims to offer a comprehensive understanding in light of current realities of the church and to situate the mission of the United Methodist Church in that vision. As it is still a work in progress, the Committee expresses openness to conversation and suggests interpreting its formulation in conversation with other ecclesial documents, especially “By Water and the Spirit” and “This Holy Mystery,” documents on baptism and holy communion, respectively (WLP, p. 2).
Having stated its goal, the Committee begins by identifying the current realities of the church, such as migration, globalization, plural religious realities, church and state relations in certain regions of the world, dramatic demographic changes in membership, and the issue of “legitimate diversity” (WLP, p. 2ff). This inventory is of significant value in situating the church in the current milieu. However, it is rather unfortunate that all these pressing issues are not given sufficient attention, though plural religious realities and legitimate diversity do receive significant coverage. As far as I can tell, the Statement does not explain why it has chosen to address some but not others and makes one wonder whether it is truly comprehensive or ecumenical as it claims to be, or more reflective of a particular geopolitical context of the church, perhaps North America (WPL, p. 1). Without doubt the two current issues mentioned do deserve reflection, but other issues, such as migration and church and state relations involving civil rights of justice and equity, or even struggles for basic human rights of freedom and survival, are just as pressing as any other in some parts of the world. It would be helpful to hear the rationales for the choices it has made or how other issues will also be addressed.
The Statement then proceeds to make explicit its approach to ecclesiology in the section “Our Approach to an Understanding of the Church” by pointing out the distinctive convictions that brought about the merger of the General Church in 1968 (WLP, p. 10ff). Among many of its convictions, the General Church affirmed that God’s love is for all people, it is transformative, and creates loving communities. Next, it discusses the historical origins of the United Methodist Church in the coming together of the Methodist revival movement led by John Wesley and the Pietist movement from continental Europe, and the history of slavery and the ongoing problem of racism.
In section two “A New Vision for the United Methodist Church,” the Statement proceeds to elaborate on the aforementioned convictions (WLP, p. 17ff). The first conviction “the saving love of god creates community” is addressed under the heading “The Church as a Gift of the Triune God,” which makes it very clear that the church is a gift of the Triune God. The church is a communion “whose source is the very life of the Holy Trinity,” a gift to receive and a gift to share with the world. It is then a divine reality fashioned after the very life of the triune God.
At the same time, the Committee thoughtfully recognizes, here and elsewhere, the stark reality that the church is a very human community that serves a variety of human needs, such as order, companionship, and ethical guidance (WLP, p. 21, p. 30, p. 56). More pointedly, it recognizes that at times the church can be utilized for particular political and economic ends infused with human values and ambitions, sometimes leading to ideological uses of the church for imperialistic, national, racial, ethnic, or gendered interests and dominations.
Two questions arise here. One, concerning its claim that the church is a gift of the Triune God who is the very source of its life, it merely asserts the communal nature of the church without explanation of what that consists of or how it participates in the very community of the Triune God, however feeble that human effort may be. This is a pivotal issue because it claims that the church is a communion the nature of which is derived from God who is understood as the Holy Trinity (WLP, p. 20). A full-blown treatise on Trinitarian ecclesiology is not necessary here, but a brief treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity would bring greater clarity to its claim that the church is communal. This amplification cannot be bypassed because it is foundational to the discussion on the one larger communion; if the One who creates community is the Triune God, then the Statement would need to specify further about the nature of the one larger communion in God. Furthermore, the significance of the church as a Trinitarian community ought to bear on the question of “legitimate diversity.”
Two, throughout the document the Committee has made a concerted effort to maintain that the church is both a divine gift and a human response. This is an important insight and needs to be highly commended. However, it is not clear how it is both a divine and a human reality, and how that relation is to be conceived. If granted that it is a divine creation, then how is that reality related to the polymorphic ways of human beings ordering their lives together? Or, if it is a human reality used for a variety of human ends, then how does it intersect with God’s mission in the world? In other words, how can they be coordinated in such a way that they are sufficiently aligned with one another? This alignment is a critical dimension of our communion with God and others and has deep implications for the two issues it addresses, namely, the larger communion of God and legitimate diversity.