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 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.
Community is an important term for WLP. One of the three core theological convictions that shape the document is, “The saving love of God creates community.” Global Ministries appreciates and affirms this focus on the church as a community. Nevertheless, we also felt there were important ways in which this focus on community could be extended and given additional Wesleyan theological grounding.
Such additional grounding could be achieved by noting the connections between the three theological emphases of WLP: that the saving love of God is for all, that the saving love of God is transformative, and that the saving love of God creates community. Put another way, WLP could enrich its discussion of community by focusing on community as not merely a static state, part of the unchangeable essence of the church, but by focusing on community as an active entity, the body that carries out the works of the church. Such an active understanding of community would highlight the connection between community and mission (related to the first emphasis) and between community and discipleship (related to the second emphasis).
We have already noted the need for a greater mission-orientation in the ecclesiology presented in WLP. In addition to the already given reasons for doing so, such an orientation could help uncover important insights into the nature and activities of the church as a community. The church as a community is always invitational. It is perpetually reaching beyond itself, seeking to bring new members into itself. Even in the face of rejection, the church continues to extend the invitation of Christ to the world, thereby participating in God’s mission of redemption.
Yet to say that the church is (or should be) such an invitational community is to make a claim that sets the church apart from many other communities. Community of any type presumes some level of similarity. All too often, however, similarity implies group boundaries, and those boundaries make it difficult for those outside of a group to join it. In our world today, we see the tragic consequences of such an approach to community formation in nationalism, racism, ethnocentrism, tribalism, and sexism. These chauvinistic forms of community wound the world and the church. The church is called to bind these wounds inflicted by false understandings of community and to seek reconciliation in such conflicts.
The church can most effectively do so when it remembers its missional, invitational nature as a community. For the church, unlike almost any other community, the commonality that brings us together also impels us to reach beyond ourselves, rather than focus within or on precisely drawing the boundaries. The saving love of God in Jesus Christ is the commonality upon which Christian community is built (as WLP recognizes). Yet our experience of that saving love must, according to Wesleyan theology, lead us to respond by seeking to share that love with others. Thus, any community that is not actively engaged in God’s mission to share the saving love of God in Christ cannot claim to be a fully Wesleyan expression of the church. We recognize that we as a United Methodist community are still, as WLP puts is, “in pursuit of God’s gift of community,” and thus imperfect in living out this task, but the task should be named.
Just as Christian community cannot be separated from active participation in God’s mission, so it also cannot be separated from the process of forming individual believers as disciples. As WLP notes, “the saving love of God is transformative,” and as it further notes, “growth in love and in the other fruits of the Spirit is possible only in community.” Yet given the emphasis that Wesley and other Methodists have placed on this practice of social holiness – growth in discipleship in community – it is disappointing that WLP does not spend more time discussing this aspect of the church as a community. Classes, bands, and other small fellowships have been central Methodist means to make disciples in community, and it would be nice to see such groups lifted up in the document.
Moreover, a discussion of the relationship between community and disciple-making would be an opportunity for WLP to bring additional Wesleyan theological insights into the conversation. In particular, WLP could talk about the communal practices involved in Wesley’s means of grace. Methodism as an expression of church originated in just such a setting – believers joining together in class meetings and bands to hold one another accountable in their process of growing as disciples. By acknowledging the importance of community as a context for experiencing the transformative love of God, WLP would have an opportunity to exposit key Wesleyan ecclesiological concepts such as discipline. Such a discussion could help laity better understand such historically important practices of Methodism, commend them to Methodists today, and emphasize the practical nature of Methodist ecclesiology.
Furthermore, a discussion of the communal means of grace could further enrich WLP’s exploration of the relationship between koinonia and ekklesia. The two Articles WLP cites from United Methodism’s theological affirmations both mention the sacraments and the word of God. Wesley mentions the importance of both communion and Bible study as communal works of grace. While sermons are certainly not the only means for studying the Bible, they are a means. Affirming communion and group engagement with the Bible as elements of both koinonia and ekklesia would make an important connection between the two, one that highlights our Wesleyan theological heritage.