Getting the Horse Back in Front of the Cart

I’ve always thought it significant that the great creeds of the church are statements of doctrine, rather than statements of ethics. The teachers of the faith who handed on to us our doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection knew that without a clear sense of who God is and how God has acted for our salvation, we would not have the raw material necessary to order our life together in service to this same God. Even as early as Irenaeus, the core of the faith was expressed as a set of teachings about God’s work through Christ and our salvation. In fact the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” is a doctrinal statement. Of course, how we lived has always been very important. The Christian life is an ordered life, and while we have had outcroppings of antinomianism at times, for the most part our communities of faith have taken the moral life seriously. This moral life, however, was rooted in a set of doctrinal convictions about the nature and identity of the Christian God and the nature of salvation. At times, Christians have rightly adopted more specific theological affirmations about matters such as the nature of human beings which in turn fueled further ethical discernment. The core of our life together, in other words, was doctrinal, and matters of ethics were negotiated in light of these doctrinal claims.

Sound doctrine, however, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for Christian ethical reasoning. Take the matter of war, for example. Christians who are fully orthodox in their doctrine disagree with one another over when, if ever, war is permissible. Basic doctrinal claims will inform our ethical reasoning in important ways, but they will not guarantee a consensus.

I read with interest Dr. Timothy Tennent’s blog post, “Orthodoxy vs. Heterodoxy: The Fundamental Divide in the United Methodist Church.” This post is helpful because it demonstrates that our disagreement in the UMC is not simply around the matter of “homosexual practice.” Rather, there are deep theological issues underneath this disagreement of which we should be cognizant. One question I had after reading this post, however, was, “What about those people who are fully orthodox in their faith, who confess the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed with full conviction, and yet question or disagree with the UMC’s stances on homosexual intimacy, marriage, and ordination?” Are we going to call these people heterodox? In light of their doctrinal commitments, the term “heterodox” doesn’t seem appropriate.

If I’m correct that we need sound Christian doctrine to go about the work of developing sound Christian ethics, then it is no wonder that we in the UMC find ourselves in a multi-car pileup that has stopped traffic for miles around. For decades we have touted the virtues of theological diversity without stipulating clearly the limits of such diversity. Are UMC pastors allowed to reject the doctrine of the Trinity? Are we allowed to preach in our churches that Jesus was a good teacher, but not in the incarnate God? Are we allowed to teach some form of biblical inerrancy? May we adopt in our teaching and preaching the neo-Calvinistic teachings of people like John Piper and Mark Driscoll? We have tacitly embraced a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that has resulted in not only doctrinal relativism, but in our inability to make informed ethical decisions as a body.

One might object that we do in fact have doctrinal standards. Indeed we do, but what is the status of these standards? From a practical perspective, how are they binding on us? How do they inform the decisions we make at General Conference? Are these decisions always thought out in clear dialogue with our doctrinal standards? Further, while the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith are reasonably straightforward statements of Christian doctrine, it’s difficult to conceive of Wesley’s sermons and explanatory notes in this way. As the Outler/Heitzenrater volume of Wesley’s sermons shows, his thought changed over time. He developed as a theological thinker, and the corpus of his sermons and notes is not always internally consistent. How, then, can the sermons and notes function as doctrinal standards?

While I don’t agree with everything in Dr. Tennent’s article, then, I must agree with him that our problems are much deeper than our convictions about “homosexual practice.”

How are we to come to have an informed position on human sexuality, or on abortion or euthanasia for that matter, when we have no real doctrine of what it means to be human (theological anthropology)? This is perhaps why the UMC has not done more to be in ministry with people with disabilities. Denominationally, we haven’t done the theological homework to create a sense of urgency around this very important issue.

How are we to make decisions about who may be ordained and who may not be when we have no clear ecclesiology or doctrine of ordination? This lack of clear doctrinal teaching actually makes the discernment process much more difficult, both for boards of ordained ministry and for candidates. In the absence of theological direction, the process become highly arbitrary and idiosyncratic.

How are we to make decisions about marriage, divorce, remarriage, cohabitation, sexual intimacy, and related issues when we have no clear theology of marriage? Right now we are in an uproar over the issue of gay marriage, but we are neglecting to think through a host of related theological and ethical issues.

I know that some will say that we just need to read the Bible more closely, pay attention to its words, and be obedient to its teaching. Yes, we need to do all of these things, but doing so will not solve our theological and ethical disputes. We can be utterly committed to scripture, but still have different interpretive presuppositions and methods that will result in divergent conclusions about what scripture says and how we should follow its teachings. To provide a historical example, Arius wasn’t saying the Bible was wrong about Jesus. He was saying that his opponents interpreted scripture incorrectly. The witness of scripture is broad and often variegated. Scripture is complex. The Reformation notions of the perspicuity of scripture (its clarity) and its autopistic nature (that it is self-authenticating) have proven over time to be wrong. For the life of the church, we must read scripture in dialogue with a body of doctrine handed on to us through the Great Tradition of Christianity.

A split in the UMC is not what I want, but neither would it be the end of the world. God will still reign, Christ will still live, and the Holy Spirit will still change hearts.The story of our faith will continue. If we do split, though, once the presenting issues of homosexual intimacy, marriage, and ordination are resolved among the two (or three or four) groups, a host of other issues will lie in wait, ready to pry apart our communities of faith once again. We may as well build stipulations for separation into our new polities, because we’ll need them.

Reading scripture, theological reflection, and the establishment of clear doctrine are hard work. Life together is hard work. There is no quick fix for the significant issues of contention in our denomination. Ecclesial disobedience will not fix them; it will only make it harder for us to move forward. Division will not fix them; it will only move the problems we face into smaller denominational bodies.  Believe me–I know what I’m saying here will be rejected by many and, if taken seriously by others, require considerable time, effort, and restructuring. For the generations to come after us, though, the adoption of a clearer and more extensive body of doctrine will be a great gift.


27 thoughts on “Getting the Horse Back in Front of the Cart

  1. David,

    This is a wonderful post and something I have been saying for a while in reference to theology and ethics, but not nearly as articulate as you.

    Keep up the good work.

    • I am not sure which, or what Methodist Church you are talking about, but you are way off base with the little country church I grew up in in WV and the UM church I now attend in Sch Haven, Pa….We are very Evangelical….feed the hungry, poor, etc with the Word and nourishment!..We have tons of Missions going on all the time and prayer, prayer, prayer!!!….AND A BIBLE BELIEVING, PREACHING PASTOR IN DR. CHRISTOPHER FISHER……We are not confused about what is right and what is wrong!…..It is simple “IF YOU DON’T BELIEVE THE BIBLE AS TRUTH AND THE BOOK OF DISCIPLINE AS AN UNDERGERDING OF THIS WORD……..THEN GO TO ANOTHER DENOMINATION!!!!….The Annual Conference is a joke…..People want “anything is ok” church…….Not a Church based on God’s Word!!!!!!SO SPLIT……LET THE GOATS GO WHERE THEY WILL AND BELIEVE WHATEVER!!….TIME TO BE ABOUT THE FATHERS BUSINESS!

    • Why not try this? Start with the non-Trinitarian creed of Jesus (Mk 12:29) and then define Son of God as Gabriel did in Luke 1:35. Then work at the Gospel of the Kingdom as Jesus did, defining the Kingdom as Messianic as Jesus did. Then one might sound like Jesus. At present churches do not!

  2. David, this is well articulated. To go a half step further, because doctrinal unclarity is a denomination-wide problem, schism over homosexuality will not stop the conflict. Whether we are one or two we will still need to deal with the “issue behind the issue” and will be troubled until we do.

    • To state it briefly, we agree that human beings are “fallen.” Yet we also agree that SOME forms of heterosexual behavior are either not “fallen” or sufficiently “sanctified” that Christians (and Christian leaders) can engage in them. Do we claim that same gender attraction is MORE “fallen”? On what basis?

      • You seem to have balled some things up here (a humble farm term referring to entangled twine). The Church agrees humanity is fallen and in need of redemption (“all have turned aside”). This is not a matter of degree. The Bible (both testaments) also tells us God made humanity male and female as binary complements, and that this is the basis of marriage. The Church, citing Jesus and Genesis, agrees this is the order of creation. Homosexual and (some) heterosexual acts appear on sin lists of both testaments, and the historic Church agrees these acts are sinful in God’s eyes. Again, not by degree.

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