Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Daniel Shin. Dr. Shin is the E. Stanley Jones Chair in Evangelism and Associate Professor of Theology and World Christianity at Drew Theological School. This post is part of a series on the UMC's new ecclesiology document, Sent in Love: A United Methodist Understanding of the Church, which will be presented to General Conference 2020 for review and adoption.
In 2008 the General Conference of the UMC established the Committee on Faith and Order in order to assist the church’s theological reflection. Toward that goal, the Committee submitted an initial document on ecclesiology in 2016 titled Wonder, Love and Praise (WLP), and the present statement Sent in Love (SIL) is a revision of the former, providing the church a statement that is theologically rich, global in perspective, and catalytic toward mission in the world.
One of the salient features of WLP is its deep appreciation of ecumenical convergences, and they are carried over into SIL to foreground its Wesleyan ecclesial vision and are interwoven throughout in both organization and content. In fact, there has emerged even a tighter connection between the two, as seen in how its earlier formulations of God’s saving love that invites all people, transforms, and creates community are enfolded into and articulated through the classic marks of the church as catholic, holy, and one, respectively. This retrieval of the classic marks makes the statement easily recognizable ecumenically and globally.
In terms of organization, the statement is structured thoughtfully, situating the UMC in the context of the global church while underscoring its own tradition, grounding its apostolic mission and self-understanding in light of the triune God who is “the missionary God” (20), elaborating its mission in light of the ancient marks of the church aforementioned, and concluding with exhortations. SIL is quite a remarkable statement about the UMC as a global movement incorporating biblical, historical, theological, and contextual perspectives, which will serve the church very well for many years.
Beyond these observations accompanied by deep gratitude, I would like to discuss the statement as a theological resource for a worldwide denomination, especially for churches in regions where encounters with non-Christian neighbors are an inescapable reality. The church’s mission emerges as central in SIL, especially given that the activity of the triune God is understood decisively as a missional work in which the church participates. This vision colors its articulation of the classic marks of the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in a backward move prioritizing its missional imperative in the global context. Though somewhat of an unorthodox ordering, it reflects the organization in WLP, and more importantly the very missional thrust of the Methodist movement from its inception to now.
Reimagining the church’s missional identity in such a way is bold, innovative, and faithful to its tradition, but there is a caveat concerning its linkage to catholicity. The church’s missional imperative expressed through the apostolic tradition has been taken to be universal in scope and has resulted in the “catholic” church. As the statement points out, the missional community has transgressed lines of convention, geography, race, class, gender, language, and so forth, all because God’s saving love is meant for all people (53). And there certainly is no doubt as to the benevolent intentions of opening the church’s door to non-Christians in order to seek global transformation through reconciliation in Jesus Christ (27).
However, the statement can be misunderstood as exclusivistic in its understanding of salvation when it says that “All humanity is invited into communion with the Triune God…baptized into Jesus Christ…into his death…Jesus is more direct…The Risen Lord calls each person by name to take up the cross and follow him…The call of God in its universality leaves no room of human existence untouched” (36). There is far too much going on in this compressed paragraph that addresses all at once the offer of invitation, a demand for discipleship and death in Jesus, and an enclosure of the whole world within the confines of “saving grace,” however salvific and gracious that offer may be.
The church’s apostolic tradition coupled with its universal missional thrust has come under heavy criticism due to unfortunate and destructive legacies of religious colonization, and when collapsed with the church’s catholicity in some parts of the statement, unwanted confusion results. There needs to be sufficient stretches of time and space between each movement in the paragraph and explicit specification of the intended audience of each. It is one thing to affirm that God’s love is universal, but quite another to say “The church is catholic because God intends it for all people, the whole world” (51).
What may be contributing to the difficulty is the confusion between the God’s universal love and the catholicity of the church; the latter has traditionally been referred to ecclesial beliefs, practices, and traditions commonly accepted by the whole church around the world. Catholicity is intra-ecclesial in reference, having to do with unity of the church’s myriad expressions, rather than induction of all people into the church by confessing the Triune God.
Behind the claim that God intends the church for all people lies “the conviction that God’s grace goes before and empowers every human response of love, good will, and saving faith in Christ” (69). Such a conviction points to the wideness of God’s grace that is mysteriously at work “beyond the bounds of visible Christian community….” (70). The statement goes on to assert that “God’s grace is available to all, and that in equal measure” (75). In fact, there is no time and place, no culture or society that is “utterly bereft of the presence of God’s life-giving grace” and, therefore, we need to be open to the presence of God in our neighbors (81-82).
While such open-minded affirmations are appreciated, they still betray Rahner’s anonymous Christianity, which SIL claims to reject. When it says that non-Christians who are recipients of God’s grace respond to that that grace “in a greater or lesser degree,” the outcome is the same—they don’t know, but we know, that God’s “incognito grace” is at work (82). Non-Christian neighbors may have other ways of understanding the world and themselves. Moreover, without further discussion about God’s grace already given to non-Christians, one cannot but wonder about its efficacy, why it is already there but not quite salvific, especially if it is understood as given in equal measure.
In addition to the confusion addressed above, the statement’s treatment of qahal as “an army ready for battle” (42), Wesley as a homo unius libri (46), and the church as militant and triumphant (48) without adequate explanation can send mixed signals about the church as being prone to violence, exclusivistic, and triumphalistic.
But, of course, nothing can be further from the truth, and the statement is not without appeals to humility (71). It calls for a recognition of God’s grace that comes to each one within “their peculiar historical, cultural, social and even ecclesial circumstances,” the church’s past as “the instrument of an ideology of national, racial, ethnic, or gender superiority,” God’s saving love encountered in “other forms and other places,” the “dangers of self-deception,” and the need for repentance and renewal, and openness “to the love of God that may come to us through them” (81).
If this is the case, just as it has taken into serious consideration ecumenical convergences, then what may further enhance the statement is an account of inter-religious realities that allows both convergences and divergences to radically inform its self-understanding and mission in the world.