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 three written by Dr. David N. Field, the Academic Coordinator of the Methodist e-Academy in Europe.
International Connectionalism and the Ecclesia
In this third blog I will look at three themes addressed to varying extent in WLP and argue that when related to each other they have significant impact on the understanding of the church that is absent from WLP. These themes are the international character of the UMC, the terminology of ecclesia, and connectionalism.
WLP briefly discusses the meaning and associations of the word ecclesia and settles on an interpretation of it as community. While it does note the political associations of the term as the gathering of the voting citizens, it does not explore these associations. I would propose that these political associations, along with its use in the Septuagint, are significant. The early Christians did not adopt the normal terms for religious or voluntary associations but a term with social and political connotations. It is also interesting to note how Paul interplays the geographic political location (polis) of the church with its identity as the church of God in the introduction to his letters.
The connotations of these references suggest that ecclesia is not merely to be understood as a general term for community paralleling koinonia but as the transnational messianic/eschatological community of the people God which manifests itself in a particular polis. Ecclesia is a community distinguished by its loyalty to the crucified messiah which stands in tension with the broader civic community of that particular polis. As the church developed and spread, it came into increasing tension with the civic community and its social and political structures for two reasons. Firstly, its loyalty to its crucified Lord relatavized all loyalty to civic authorities, including the emperor. Secondly, its communal order (its polity) undermined the dominant social hierarchies and divisions.
The UMC claims to be a manifestation of this ecclesia in the contemporary context. A particular feature of the way it manifests this ecclesia is its polity of connectionalism. In one sense connectionalism emerged as a series of pragmatic responses to particular issues confronting the early Methodist movement and the churches that emerged from it. The result, however, is a complex network which has horizontal and vertical dimensions. Methodist congregations are linked together across geographical space. There are vertical relationships between congregations and conferences. The superintendency and itinerancy provide another interrelated set of networks. Binding these networks together is a set of interlocking covenant relationships centered on the covenant with God renewed regularly in a covenant renewal service.
The result is a complex network providing mutual support, mutual responsibility, mutual oversight and mutual decision making but at the same time is directed toward equipping local churches for mission. This interlocking network emerged at a time when nation states were beginning to come into being in Europe and later in the Americas. Hence it is of significance that Wesley described the early Methodists as “the people called Methodist”. Methodist together formed a new corporate community – a people in a way similar to the approach of the framers of the US constitution when they began with “We the people…”
Wesley envisaged Methodism as an international network – in his time covering England, Ireland, and America – in his words “Methodists all over the world are one people.” It is not insignificant that he chose a French-speaking, Swiss immigrant John William Fletcher to be his successor. The UMC as an international church is an embodiment of this Wesleyan vision. The significance of this international character is experienced differently by people in different parts of the UMC connection. And for many the denomination is still experienced as very US-centric despite its growing numbers outside of the USA. In Europe, where Methodists are mostly small minority churches, being part of an international church is of particular significance. For some, the international character is a burden and a hindrance to moving in a more “progressive” direction on the issue of LGBTQ inclusion. In the US, where the UMC is a major denomination, the focus tends to be on the US context as is evidenced in WLP.
In my previous blog, I argued that contextuality is of fundamental significance for ecclesiology as different contexts provide for diverse embodiments of the divine love. The UMC in Congo has sought to embody love in the context of wars and continuing factional conflicts in which millions have been killed and wounded; and in which hundreds of thousands of women have been raped. The UMC in Russia and Ukraine is working out what koinonia means in response to civil war in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by Russia. European Methodists are gaining new understandings of what it means to embody love as they engage in ministry to the thousands of refugees and other migrants that are arriving in Europe.
These diverse embodiments are invaluable to the church in other contexts modeling alternatives which challenge, compliment and enrich their own embodiment and understanding of the ecclesia. The international character of the UMC provides a unique opportunity for such mutual learning. However, the present structures of the church remain too US-centric and do not allow for sufficient contextual embodiments of the ecclesia; going into the future, it is imperative that the UMC develops new structures which enable both greater contextuality and more fruitful opportunities for mutual learning and growth.
The international connectional character of the UMC has perhaps more important theological significance in that it provides a remarkable embodiment of the transnational character of the ecclesia of God. In an age of globalization, resurgent nationalism and mass migration the significance of this transnational character needs to be emphasized and expounded.
Three points can be noted for our purposes. Firstly, while a certain love for and pride in one’s own nation is legitimate, to affirm the transnational character of the ecclesia is to submit that legitimate patriotism to critique and in particular circumstances to reject it altogether. Paul’s comments in Philippians that the church’s citizenship is in heaven are worth noting not in an other-worldly sense but in the affirmation that the church is the ecclesia of the ascended Lord who was rejected and crucified by the imperial authorities. When loyalty to the nation and its interests or the pursuit of its greatness compromises in any way our prior loyalty to the crucified Lord and the values and purposes revealed in the cross, they must be rejected. It is always the ecclesia of the crucified Christ and its mission first and the interests of our own nation subordinate to it. Why is it that so many Christians experience the presence of migrants as a threat to their national identity rather than as an opportunity to embody God’s love to them?
Secondly, our relational bonds with our fellow Christians ought to be stronger than our bonds with our fellow citizens. As Paul puts it in Colossians, in Christ there is no longer Greek, Jew, barbarian, or Scythian. We are fellow Christians and siblings in Christ with people from diverse nations, cultures and societies. Together we represent the ecclesia of God in the world.
Thirdly, the church always exists as alien community within particular societies and nations. It is never at home – it is an assembly of foreigners – of immigrants who do not belong. When the church begins to be too comfortable in a given culture or society it is in danger of betraying its true identity as the manifestation of the ecclesia of the crucified and resurrected Lord.
The UMC as an international church is in a unique position to embody the transnational character of the ecclesia – both in its explicit ecclesiology and in its denominational praxis. This can only be achieved when the international character is not viewed as a burden and a problem but as a unique opportunity to discover new ways of embodying what it means to be the church. It will also require a radical questioning of the continuing US-centricity in the structures and mindset of many United Methodists and a critical engagement with the colonialist and paternalist legacy of the past.