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.
In this series of blog posts on “Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church,” I will seek to offer a comprehensive reading of the document. Nonetheless, in this post, I will mostly focus on the church’s ministry and the issue of legitimate diversity. I also follow the Statement’s structure of affirmations that God’s love is for all people, it is transformative, and creates loving communities.
The third section “Faith, Hope, and Love” addresses the conviction “The saving love of God is transformative” (WLP, p. 32ff). It claims that the triadic character of the life in community through faith, hope, and love is Trinitarian and, therefore, there is a Trinitarian character to the way the church expresses God’s love in the world. As stated earlier, there may be a Trinitarian dimension to the triadic manifestation in the community, but it needs to describe how this is so and, more importantly, what is at stake in the claim.
Its assertion about the Trinitarian nature of the church seems to taper off gradually, but continues the theme of triadic structure of the life and mission of the church in its discussion of the doctrine of the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest, and king. The importance of the Committee’s appeal to the threefold office of Christ cannot be stressed enough in understanding the conviction that God’s love is transformative. This section is indeed of great value in warding off temptations to a reductionist, one-office accounts of salvation.
Then what is somewhat disconcerting is its attempt to apply the notion of the threefold office of Christ narrowly on ordained ministry, especially the Order of the Elders, instead of helping the General Church to grapple with munus triplex (WLP, p. 36ff). After its recognition of the work of the whole church, it rushes immediately to theological reflection and ordained ministry. While this section certainly offers a helpful historical and theological account of the ordained ministry, its silence on the mission of the whole church needs to be filled with a clarion call to witness the threefold office of Christ in all spheres of life and ministry. This is especially pertinent given the Statement’s own recognition of lacunae on the subject of ministry in the General Church (WLP, p. 16). Furthermore, a distinction between the Order of Elders and Deacons is well laid out, but this needs to be supplemented by how the ministry of Word, Service, Justice, and Compassion by the Order of Deacons may just as well be informed by Christ’s prophetic proclamations and teachings, priestly sacrifice of love, and reign of basin and towel.
In the section titled “United Methodism and the Church Universal,” the Committee deliberates on the markers of the United Methodist identity we profess and aspire to: the universal scope of transformative grace; connectionalism the aim of which is mutual support and accountability; and commitment to theological reflection (WLP, p. 41ff). It would be advantageous for the church to heed the Committee’s reminder about these markers.
As promised earlier, the Statement does return to the issue of legitimate diversity and underscores some important matters under the heading “Diversity and Conflict” (WLP, p. 47ff). It recognizes that conflicts are real and they arise from complex factors. In a radical affirmation of differences in the church, it goes on to recognize the different human uses of the church and says that we are in communion not because we share the same views and practices, but in fact due to the true gift of koinonia in the Spirit. The Statement also affirms diversity for practical reasons. Diversity in the church need not be seen as a liability in the church’s mission but instead a strength as it faces an increasingly diverse world, which an earlier study by two political scientists have demonstrated. On a more sober note, it recognizes that at times the conflict may be irreparable and beyond our capability through discussion and negotiation. It is a real possibility that the church may not yet be in a position to offer a responsible judgment. But the Committee advises that if we happen to find ourselves at an impasse, we are to deal with conflicts in a redemptive manner through prayer and action with the goal of communion with God and others in mind.
A few observations are in order here. First of all, it assumes a working knowledge of what it means by legitimate or illegitimate diversity, and it does not make explicit the current issue(s) it seeks to address. Unless the reader had a previous knowledge of the document “The Church,” he or she would have a difficult time following the discussion. Indeed, ecumenical conversations are absolutely essential to the church universal but one wonders if it is appropriate to transplant an expression that immediately triggers the notion of “illegitimate diversity,” an expression it actually employs. Though the word diversity suggests openness, the volatile words “legitimate” and “illegitimate” immediately summon a whole host of feelings and reactions. They are charged with binary oppositional logic and add fuel to the fire. We should not sidestep the significance of the issue, but words do matter as they can heal or hurt, so we need the genius and sensibility of all in the church, not only those with juridical minds who write policies and legislate what counts as legitimate versus illegitimate, but scientists, artists, mediators, theologians, pastors, and others who can deepen our understanding. And lastly, I will not psychologize to determine whether the ambiguity on the issue of legitimate diversity was intentional or not, but what still awaits us is the criteria for legitimate diversity that the Committee had promised. At the least, having something in place like George Lindbeck’s taxonomy of doctrines would be of help in moving forward.
In closing, the Faith and Order Committee has done a superb job in helping the church think through some of bewildering realities the church faces. It has pointed to invaluable resources in thinking about the church’s identity and its mission in the world drawing from the historic Christian faith, ecumenical heritage, and distinctive Wesleyan heritage. If there is one remaining task, it is showing the relevance of the title “Wonder, Love and Praise” for its Statement. It is apropos that the Statement ends with Apostle Paul’s words about the treasure in earthen vessels, and the church would do well to not lose its sense of wonder and praise while proving faithful in its quotidian responsibility of love in the world in communion with God and neighbors.