Thomas Lambrecht –
I recently read a diagnosis that says that many diseases in today’s society can be traced to blurring or ignoring boundaries. That same diagnosis can serve to describe much of what plagues the United Methodist Church.
Limits in doctrine
John Wesley was clear from the beginning that clear boundaries were needed to sustain the Spirit movement that had become Methodism. These boundaries begin with a clear understanding of what we believe and proclaim. The purpose of our doctrinal standards (Religious articles, confession of faith, Wesley’s Sermons i Notes) is defining the boundaries of our doctrine.
The primary shortcoming of the United Methodist Church is that our doctrinal standards functioned mainly as “guidelines” that can be reinterpreted or ignored at will. Throughout the recent history of united Methodism, we have had clergy — and several open bishops — taught such beliefs as: Jesus is not the only Son of God, that he did not rise from the dead, or that he was imperfect in knowledge and teaching. In such cases, the boundaries of our faith do not function properly. When the clear teachings of Scripture can be ignored or interpreted, the boundaries of our faith do not work properly.
The proposed Global Methodist Church (information) sets clear doctrinal boundaries that do not differ from what we currently have in the UM Church. What is different is the commitment to hold each other accountable for maintaining and teaching the doctrines we say we believe in. That commitment makes those boundaries meaningful and clear.
Limits in behavior
It is often overlooked that it is General rules (do no evil, do good, and follow God’s ordinances) are also part of our doctrinal standards. Methodists were expected not only to believe and teach certain things, but also to behave in a certain way. The General rules are very specific in giving relevant examples of general warnings – prohibitions of things like swearing, working on the Sabbath, drunkenness, keeping slaves, fighting, cheating others, etc. They also promote the specific goods we need to do, such as giving food to the hungry, dressing the naked, visiting or helping those who are sick or in prison, teaching others in the faith, sponsoring Christian affairs and diligent and thrifty.
Christians in general, and the United Methodist in particular, have given up living in accordance with the standards of Christian behavior set forth in our General rules. It does not help when the church has established special rules that are then ignored or disrespected, whether it is a ban on re-baptism or same-sex marriage.
Our society today has a problem with the boundaries around the truth – lies, misinformation and slander are ubiquitous. We also have a problem with sexual boundaries. Many consider the very idea that sex is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman to be strange and outdated. Yet our society has reaped the consequences of sexual free-thinking in shattered homes, damaged children, an incredible number of abortions, a thriving pornography industry that has led to sex trafficking, the fact that a high percentage of children are born to unmarried parents, and the list goes on.
The proposed Global Methodist Church believes that we should have clear boundaries for what constitutes Christian behavior. More importantly, the GM Church will strive to nurture an atmosphere of personal responsibility and growth in holiness. A life like Jesus is not an instantaneous transformation at the time of salvation, but a process of growth in grace and obedience throughout life. Participation in student groups will be highly encouraged. Such groups form the foundation of personal growth by supporting believers along the way, taking personal sin seriously, offering grace and forgiveness where needed, and raising the goal of resemblance to Christ to which we all aspire. As Wesley said, there is no such thing as “lone believers.” We need each other for support, encouragement, and responsibility to become all that God wants us to be.
The boundaries of politics
The primary reason for the separation in the UM Church is because the way the church is organized no longer works. The decision-making procedures of the General Conference and the Judicial Council are largely ignored. Provisions from A book on discipline are lowered into “guidelines” to be followed when it is convenient or in the person’s interest to do so, but are otherwise ignored. The same bishops can neglect the responsibility of the clergy when they disagree with it, while at the same time punishing some local churches for following even the smallest detail. Discipline.
Crossing some boundaries in church politics has diminished all such boundaries. Why would I abide by this provision Discipline to disagree or to be embarrassed when the bishop lets other provisions not be enforced? The church is turning into a chaotic mess of individualism, undermining the “rule of law” and elevating the rule of individuals to positions of authority. This situation exhausts the strength of the church in its inability to gather a common effort toward the common goal of evangelizing the world. The power of Methodist connectionism is constantly being eroded by the acid of ignoring the boundaries of our politics.
The proposed GM church is dedicated to a healthy, functional way of organizing. Instead of creating various general feudal estates, each going in its own direction, there will be greater centralization and directed unity in how it functions. The GM church is pairing a lower connection fee based on a fair and equal percentage of church revenue with the expectation that those percentages will be paid. Local churches will be expected to abide by them Doctrine and discipline and maintain and teach GM doctrine, behavior, and policy.
Boundaries and centered sets
Today, it is a popular idea that borders can be replaced by the idea of a “centered set”. Boundaries determine the outer perimeter of an organization’s identity. The centered set focuses on a central attraction that holds people together without the need for boundaries. For Christians, this could mean that considering Jesus as our central attraction and our goal to be like him may mean that we do not need boundaries to determine who a Christian is or how we are progressing on the path of holiness.
There are elements of wisdom in this idea. But without a sufficient definition of the center, the whole idea falls apart. What does it mean to keep Jesus as the center? Who is Jesus: the miracle worker, the wise teacher, or the Son of the living God? Was Jesus ’intention primarily to show us a better way of life or to provide atonement for our sins on the cross and bring us eternal salvation? How does Jesus expect us to live?
Unless these and many other questions are answered with enough definition, the central attraction is so amorphous that it can mean anything to anyone. One could be attracted by Jesus the wise teacher, and the other by the Son of God. When those who seek the Son of God learn that the church they are in sees him only as a wise teacher, they become frustrated with the bait and change and become disillusioned with the church.
Defining the center that should attract us is very similar to another set of boundaries. This should attract us, but not that. Jesus expects this, but not that. The notion of centered gatherings seems appealing, but it does not save us from working hard to define a common faith. The less defined the center, the less attractive it will be. (Could this be one of the reasons why many centrally united Methodist congregations do not attract new members? There is little clear definition of what the church stands for and what it wants its members to believe and do.)
Narrative for a continuous united Methodist church
One of my disappointments with a document recently drafted by the Episcopal Council describing their hopes for the United Methodist Church after the separation is a lack of clarity. In the midst of a lot of good and healthy language, there is no clear idea of what the UM Church stands for and what it believes in. (Perhaps this is not the intention of the document and there will be other clarifying statements in the future.)
Primary message Narratives is that UM is a church for everyone, everyone is welcome, and there is no clear description of what it means to be a united Methodist. One could be “liberal, evangelical, progressive, traditionalist, middle-class, conservative, centrist, or something else.” The document speaks of “unity in the essential”, but raises the question of what they are essential. Does anyone in power at a given moment define what matters? Will it change from time to time and from place to place? Is the priority of Scripture essential? Is same-sex marriage necessary?
The document states that it is “deeply rooted in the doctrinal standards of the UMC”. How will this differ from the current situation described above, where standards can be redefined in almost infinite ways?
The Christmas vow and other proposals that would regionalize the structure of UM would only further confuse and exacerbate the lack of a clear definition or boundaries. According to these proposals, there would be one set of practices in one region, with different practices in another region. What it means to be a united Methodist in Germany can be very different from what it means in Kenya, Ohio, or California. What happens when people who are attracted to one understanding of Methodism in Germany have to work together with people who have a much different understanding of Methodism than Kenya or the US? They may have fundamental disagreements about what it means to be a united Methodist, other than the idea that anyone and everyone can be a united Methodist.
There will be clear elections on the other side of the General Conference, if Separation protocol passes. After separation, a continuous unified Methodism can easily aspire to be a “big tent” church with space for everything and a little clear definition of identity – more than what we have today. At the same time, the Global Methodist Church will be clear in its definition of its identity, beliefs and practices, retaining responsibility according to that definition.
The GM church will define what its foundations are. It will also allow flexibility where needed in different contexts to allow for maximum effectiveness and fertility. But again, there will be clarity about what it takes for everyone to follow, and what things are able to be flexible (contrary to the current situation in the UM church).
We have all seen during the pandemic how important clear and consistent communication and a clear understanding of borders is. In the past, that clarity was lacking in the UM church and, based on what has been publicly shared so far, it is unlikely to be clear below. Those seeking clarity and consistency will find it in the Global Methodist Church (information). While not perfect in this regard, the GM Church aims to provide a clear and consistent testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Savior of the world, and Lord of all, and a clear and consistent path of transformation through the Holy Spirit for all who would be disciples of Christ.
Thomas Lambrecht is a priest of the United Methodist Services and vice president of Good News.