Thursday, December 14, 2023

An Open Connectionalism and Change as Perfection

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

A pastor I know used to refer to The United Methodist Church as "perfecting the church of the 1950s." While I think he intended this comment to critique backward-looking tendencies in the church, I think it also highlights a danger in how United Methodists think about perfection.

Perfection is an important concept for Methodists historically. For John and Charles Wesley, "Christian perfection" was a synonym for "entire sanctification." Both terms denoted a state in which believers were completely filled with God's love such that all their actions expressed that love and not sinful impulses. Thus, early Methodists were asked whether they were "going to to perfection."

Perfection was a concern for theologians long before Wesley, mostly for those theologians drawing on Platonic philosophy. But this Platonic heritage in Christian theology is the source of a danger in how United Methodists think about perfection.

Platonic theology states that what is perfect is eternal and unchanging. Change, in Platonic philosophy, is seen as problematic and imperfect. This notion that change is imperfect raises various problems in theological philosophy ("How can an unchanging God really interact with a constantly changing world?"), but it also potentially creates problems in how we understand Christian perfection in humans and in the church.

If we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (Matt. 5:48), and part of God's perfection is God's unchanging nature, then we may assume that Christian perfection should imply that Christians, or at least the church, should be unchanging as well.

However, Wesley's notion of perfection wasn't about being unchanging; it was about love. Christian perfection is perfection in love. And love is never static. Recent insights into Trinitarian theology have highlighted how even within Godself, the three members of the Trinity are always engaged in active (not static) love with one another. Many metaphors are used to describe the relationship within the Trinity, but a helpful one here is a dance. Dancing involves movement. It is anything but static and unchanging.

If the Trinity is involved in an active and ever-changing dance of love and we are called to be perfect in love just as our heavenly Father is perfect in love, then we may expect that perfection in love is not static but active, not immutable but modulating, ever responding in new and delighted ways to how others are moving in the communal dance of our collective Christian life.

This insight, I believe, can be extended from individuals to our understandings of the church as well. If God is perfect in an active, loving sense, and if individual Christians can be made perfect in an active, loving sense, then does it not make sense to hope that the church will be perfected in an active, loving sense as well? And if the church is being perfected in an active, loving sense, then we must expect that the church will be ever changing, ever responding to the movement of the Holy Spirit and God's call to engage the changing world around the church.

This claim is more than saying that church structures need to be reformed every now and then. It is saying that our fundamental understanding of what the church is must be open. It must expect and even eagerly anticipate that the church will continue to shift and change as it continues to strive for perfection by reaching out in love to God and the world as it presently is (and not as it was decades ago!). As the church experiences new insights into God's love and as it responds in new ways to the ever evolving needs and nature of the world, the church itself will change.

For United Methodists, an important concept that describes our understanding of our church is "connectionalism." Connectionalism refers to the relationships, structures, and theologies that connect the various components of the church (congregations, conferences, agencies, etc.) to one another as together they join in God's mission to the world. 

An open and dynamic understanding of Christian perfection calls us to an open and dynamic understanding of connectionalism.

Of course, changes in what constitutes the United Methodist connection are a historical fact. The number of annual conferences and the number of levels of conferences have been in constant flux over the 239 years of history of the UMC and its predecessors. Practices of conferencing and who attends conferences have altered. Geographic areas have been added to and departed from the UMC. Agencies have been created, merged, and reconfigured. Relationships among United Methodists have shifted.

But beyond these historic facts, which we may accept or bemoan, a theology of an open connectionalism reassures us that such change is a necessary and important part of the church adapting to its ever new missional call to spread scriptural holiness and reform the world. Therefore, we may expect, even demand, that the church continue to change and adapt for the sake of better loving God and neighbor. Moreover, such changes are not a betrayal of our faith but an expression of it -- an expression of our deepest convictions about the nature of the Christian life.

The end of one year and beginning of another is always a time of taking stock of the changes of the past year and anticipating the changes of the year to come. As United Methodists engage in this spiritual work, may we keep in mind that our connectionalism must be open, and may we eagerly look forward to how Christ will lead our church in new steps in the dance of love in the year to come.

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