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. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj, President of the National Federation of Asian American United Methodists.
Half a century ago Flannery O’Connor outlined the struggle to “make belief believable” as a struggle for the attention of the indifferent reader. Hence, she insisted that the religious aspect in her work of fiction is “a dimension added,” not one taken away. Then she went on to explain how she did it: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.”
In an almost similar vein, The United Methodist Church is updating its worn out doctrinal cursives and outmoded linguistic scripts to compile a new and relevant theological understanding of the church and its missional imperatives. The recently proposed document, Wonder, Love and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church, is to serve as a theological mirror as well as a window that swings open to the worldwide body of Christ in our time. More importantly, it is intended to enable the United Methodist constituents to see outside themselves and know what it is to be a worldwide connectional church. After conferring with several Asian-American United Methodist laity and clergy, I submit the following comments for further consideration and action.
Settled church versus a pilgrim church
The well-researched and elegantly written current document, unfortunately, is heavily dependent upon WCC documents with an over emphasis on Eucharist, grace, and community, with only ancillary references to baptism, evangelism, mission and the role of the laity. The “paschal mystery” behind the Eucharist (crucifixion, death and resurrection, and Parousia), mission and ministry with people of other faiths, and Christianity on the move through global diaspora has no room in the document, although they are a vital part of Church’s belief and corner stone for Christian mission.
While the document meanders through pages of past Euro-centric Methodist history, it falls short on the interpretation of that history for our changed landscape. If we derive our church and mission theology based on our missional history from just one part of the world, we will be standing on a shaky ground. Contemporary ecclesiology is fiercely divided over how to address the world’s challenges and what those challenges really are in the larger historic context.
Many today are thinking post-religion. Through the pull of cultural and religious pluralism and the allure of openly secular and liberal values, traditional modes of Christian witness and mission engagements have nose-dived in recent decades. Many have left the church in disillusionment. The church needs to offer a new map for them to return. Christian history has repeatedly proven that they will come roaring back, if and when the church’s signs, symbols and message become meaningful to them.
The proposed document is deeply based on the theological understanding of church, mission and ministry of “settled Christianity” of the Christendom era of the global north. It does not have a broader understanding of the church in the global south, including its diasporic and pilgrim nature. A known method can only achieve known results. The method being adopted here is purely “Western.” We need to apply new hermeneutics. New categories. Not just refining but re-defining our ecclesiology, theology and missiology in the worldwide context. A theology-free approach will not transform. Theology moves the church to engage in mission, and mission rightly engaged enables the church to develop theology.
The worldwide church is a church on the move due to its minority status, extreme poverty, and intense persecution. Persecution is a real threat, and not a mere slogan. The church in the global south witnesses, grows, and multiplies in countless methods and among numerous groups, even in the midst of limited material resources. This proposed document elevates the diversity of spiritual gifts, which Apostle Paul talks about in I Corinthians 12, but has failed to comprehend the diversity within the Body of Christ which the Book of Revelation, Chapter 7:9-10, beautifully portrays as the ultimate triumph of the Church: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Church in the world
We certainly wish that this document, which emphasizes proclamation as the responsibility of the community, had explained more about the content of the proclamation and its targeted recipients. Sometimes, the readers find it hard to distinguish between the references made to the community which makes up the church, the Body of Christ, and the larger community that makes up the society. Community is defined in this document in broad neutral terms as the grace of God enveloping all. Yet, no distinction has been made between the Body of Christ and the larger Kingdom of God, in which the Body of Christ is firmly situated. A biblical and theological definition of the role of the Body of Christ in the larger society would certainly enrich the document. In addition, many theological words that are employed in the document have multiple layers of meanings and vary in context. Consequently, the role of the church in the larger society is simply assumed and buried under presumed vocabulary, as the document appears to have in mind only the United Methodist constituents in the global north.
Lastly, this proposed document talks a lot about the First and Third Person of the Trinity but seldom about the Second Person, on whose paschal mystery Christianity hinges, and how it differs from other living faiths. The importance of the Eucharist is preeminent throughout the document, but an equal emphasis of the doctrine of baptism, even as a requirement for the United Methodist church’s membership, would have been extremely helpful. A mere reference to both of them as “Sacraments” would throw many of our constituents off balance during this post-denomination era.