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.
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.