Today's post is written by Dr. Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education, Professor of Christian Mission and Interreligious Relations, and Director of the Center for Evangelism at Perkins School of Theology. This post originally appeared on the author's personal blog, Culture and Christian Encounters. It appears here with permission.
Bob Dylan‘s song “you got to serve somebody“ marked his enigmatic conversion to Christianity. It became popular, and was covered by numerous other artists, because it said something we can all relate to. Schleiermacher himself couldn’t have said it better. No human can escape the web of human interdependencies. And no human can escape that sense, If only fleeting that there is something greater upon which we depend as well.
The genius of the Enlightenment was to seek to make the human response to those human interdependencies, and the absolute dependency on God, entirely voluntary. Humans would no longer be in the thrall to self appointed authorities, whether civil or religious.
American Methodism was a full expression of that Enlightenment ideal. It was born in a twin movement of independence by Americans from the British civil authorities and the church of England. But ultimately American Methodism could not escape from the third grand movement of its opening era; imperialism. With inconsistent exceptions it sent missionaries into the world to create an empire of the spirit. They offered freedom from sin in Jesus Christ but almost simultaneously placed people in thrall to their own Methodist discipline and more broadly Western civilization. At least initially missionaries lacked the perspective to understand either the limitations of their own culture or its implicit diminution of human freedom that it brought.
Put in an other way, the missionaries mistook a voluntary response to the call of the gospel with actual human freedom.
You gotta serve somebody. The American Methodists offered Christ as Lord, but without much subtlety insisted that new converts to the Lord’s service also follow their orders. Initially they made no distinction between Christ and their particular culture of obedience articulated in their discipline.
Still, eventually the missionaries recognized, under the influence of growing bodies of indigenous Christians, the problematic nature of the mission. By the 20th century things were changing.
As indigenous Methodists began to claim their freedom, the more cognizant of the missionaries became partners. Methodists across the world, supported by missionaries, rightly insisted that their hard won national autonomy from western empires be matched by autonomy from American Methodism’s empire of the Spirit. The exceptions, and none went uncontested, were those Methodists who needed the shelter and support of American Methodism in situations of continued religious and political oppression and instability.
The result, by 1968, would be a United Methodist church both managed and supported entirely from the United States but with small and growing appendages in Europe, a few African countries, and the Philippines. All the other former dominions of the old Methodist empire were autonomous. It was this situation that would give birth to a new form of the old imperial fantasy. It would be called Global United Methodism. Many missionaries cringed.
This globalist fantasy came at just the right time to give comfort to American United Methodists observing their own national decline, and to American conservative/traditionalist United Methodists marginalized by the structures of the new UMC and the rapidly changing American culture. Because even in 1968 it was clear that the growing appendages of American Methodism were mostly theologically conservative in the American sense of the word.
Unfortunately exactly what was meant by “Global” wasn’t clear in 1968, nor is it clear now.
The structure of this new “Global United Methodism" was extremely American-centric. Central conferences were given some measure of cultural autonomy. The American church, despite its own cultural
variations, continued to be considered the cultural norm from which the Central conferences varied. All of the major boards and agencies remained in the United States. The result is that today United
Methodists are politically interdependent to the extent that political power is distributed according to membership, but remain highly dependent financially on the US churches. Participation in the Global UMC was theoretically voluntary but with all property and funding controlled at the center participants were hardly free.
So, we must ask, what does “Global” mean as a description of the United Methodist Church? Pragmatically it has meant primarily: 1. Political structures are uniform across its not-really-global reach, 2. Property and funding are controlled from the center, which is presumed to unify. 3. doctrinal and social principles are shared, if not uniformly adhered to, and 4. US boards and agencies extend their mission globally.
And what does “Global” mean theologically?
Self-identified traditionalists have focused almost entirely on participation in three supposedly unifying aspects of being church: credal uniformity (including distinctly Wesleyan notes), uniform
adherence to traditional western family structures, and a uniformly enforced discipline regulated by a democratically elected General Conference. Only the third of these is distinctly United Methodist in either content or tradition. In the end only thing that binds us together into a distinct Church is law.
Progressives, in so far as they offer a vision of a global church, offer vaguer ideas of being “one in the Spirit” that are no more distinctively United Methodist than the theology of the traditionalists. But instead of a uniformly enforced discipline they focus on “partnerships” as the media joining politically autonomous churches together, leaving us only egalitarian structures of shared power to hold us together.
Both traditionalist and progressive ideas of a global church are actually fruitless fantasizing because they have no theological foundation. National Methodist churches that gained their autonomy from US domination are not going to submit to a common discipline just because it is controlled from a different continent. And a global church isn’t created by pragmatic arrangements for power-sharing. You gotta serve somebody, but I'm guessing that no one wants to serve law and power.
What neither fantasy takes seriously is the inculturated nature of Christianity. The church is inculturated precisely because as the body of Christ it is and expression of the incarnation, which is
non-different from the inculturation of God. Given that we now have, as God promises and demands, a diversity of cultures, the theological basis for a global church will need to be intercultural. Culture is the root of difference, and intercultural dialogue is the key to an always emerging unity. And this implies a theology of a sort we haven’t
yet imagined, a theology that is inter-incarnational. More on that in another post.
You gotta serve somebody. Maybe we can find a way for it to always be Christ.