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 fourth 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.
Another area in which we at Global Ministries appreciated what WLP said but wished it would go further was in talking about the human dimension of the church. As WLP states, “The truth—the theological truth, even—is that the church is indeed also a very human community, an association of often all too like-minded individuals, and that it does also serve human purposes quite distinct from, and sometimes counter to, the purposes of God.” (lines 406-408). The document also makes frequent reference to the “human uses” of the church and draws on the language of the “visible” and “invisible” church to talk about the distinction between the church as God intends it and the church as humans have made it for their own purposes. We found the recognition of the failings of the church contained in these discussions useful.
Yet we also felt that it was possible to go beyond what was already included in the text. While the text explores “human uses” of the church and “human abuses” of the church, these discussions are not grounded in a theological anthropology or a theology of sin, both of which would give greater insight into what it means to be human and when humans depart from the will of God. As we noted in our discussion, merely being human is not itself problematic. Indeed, in light of the Incarnation, God highly values the human. Wesley affirmed the imago Dei in humanity. Humanity is not inherently deficient or broken, but sin is a rejection of our “humanness” as God created and intended it to be. Thus, the problem is not the church being at times human but the church being at times sinful in its actions and attitudes. WLP does not contradict these theological affirmations, but could benefit by stating them more clearly.
This discussion of the human aspect of the church would also be strengthened by a thorough theology of institutions. At the same time as the church is a movement and a community, neither of which are institutions, it is also an institution. A solid understanding of institutions could also help us better understand Methodism as a movement by allowing us to draw clear distinctions between the two categories. Moreover, many of the conflicts within The United Methodist Church revolve around the institutional structures of the church. A theology of institutions would complement a theological anthropology to help us understand our church institutions in more than a solely functional or merely political way but also help to make sense of the political and functional dimensions of the church.
Admittedly, there are fewer resources to draw on here, as modern institutions are in general under-theologized. Nevertheless, some conclusions are possible. Such a theology of institutions would have to balance the natural human tendency toward organization with the sinful human tendency to use institutions as a means to pursue power, control others, and indulge our base and selfish motives. Thus, a proper theology of institutions should be confessional, prophetic, aspirational, and humble.
There are moments at which WLP does strike confessional notes on the ways in which Methodists and their institutions have failed to live up to the calling of God. It makes brief nods to the racism and colonialism that characterize the history of the church. Yet there is more for United Methodists to confess. We have also sinned in our treatment of women, the poor, immigrants, foreigners, and God’s creation. Moreover, our sins are not entirely behind us. We as a denomination continue to be Americentric in our structures and thinking. We let money distort relationships and the mission of the church. We exclude, denigrate, and discriminate against people based on a whole host of characteristics. We choose our own comfort over God’s calling. We continue to reflect rather than challenge the world around us in too many ways.
Thus, we thought it important for WLP to not only confess the sins of the church but to affirm and model the church’s prophetic calling. WLP chooses to use Christ’s threefold offices as priest, prophet, and king to frame its discussion of ordained ministry. However, this framework seems at times forced to encompass the ways in which United Methodism has structured its ordained ministry. While a prophetic dimension is theoretically part of ordained ministry in the UMC, our theological documents and structural practices frequently discourage the exercise of such an office. For example, we might note here how the 1968 Book of Discipline, quoted and discussed in lines 724-746 of WLP, defines ordination primarily as being entrusted with special authority over Word, Sacrament, and Order. Priestly and kingly functions (as well as administrative responsibilities) are clearly contained within this understanding of ordination, but prophecy is conspicuously absent.
Too often we expect our members and our ordained leaders to keep the system going rather than to challenge it with a prophetic vision of God’s calling for our institutions. Since this document is intended as a teaching document, it should not only reflect the church as it is, but also project a vision of the church as it should be.
Thus, a good theology of institutions must also be aspirational. The prophetic voice should not only condemn the injustices that are but paint a picture of the church and the world as God intends them to be. It should show how our deepest theological convictions are expressed in the church currently but also what a fuller expression of those beliefs would look like – in structures, in practices, in attitudes. At several points, WLP does recognize the aspirational nature of the church as the document describes it, and we appreciated these moments. For instance, WLP recognizes that the Methodist distinctives we proclaim are often aspirational. Such an affirmation seems a very Methodist statement – proclaiming that we are individually and collectively going on toward perfection but are not there yet.
Thus, the final necessary element for a good theology of institutions is humility. In present day American if not global culture, there can seem to be a tension between being prophetic and being humble. Yet this tension resolves when both are properly understood. Prophecy is not shouting loudly about how one is right and others wrong. Prophecy begins with the ability to be self-critical, a deeply humble and humbling activity. Pride binds us to institutions as they are, but humility frees us to imagine them another way, thus allowing the Holy Spirit to grant a prophetic vision for change. Humility allows us to recognize, to borrow an ecumenical term from Karl Barth, that ecclesia semper reformanda est – the church must always be reformed. Finally, recognizing the common root of humble and human, an ecclesiology with humility allows us to embrace an ecclesiology with humanity, even as we reach toward the divine.