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. Perhaps we could and should convene The Faith and Order Committee, making sure theologians who represent the full diversity of our present United Methodist reality are involved and tell them their task is to resolve the issues that are dividing us. If they came out in agreement we would know our divisions are not really theological in nature.

    • We had a “study committee” that looked at the theological, as well as sociological and psychological, issues relating to same sex intimacy from 1988-92. The 1992 General Conference “received” their report, but otherwise nothing came of it. It’s possible that the church is now ready to do more than “receive” a report, but the “extremes” are talking to each other with respect even less than was the case 22 years ago.

      • Jon, my own opinion is that a study of sexaulity can’t gain much traction when we don’t have a solid theological and doctrinal standard by which to evaluate it.

  2. There is no way that we can have serious reflection/discussion/conversation about doctrinal issues or other issues such as ministering to those with disabilities when our entire life together revolves around the conflict about homosexuality. If that discussion (or better, farce of a discussion) does not come to an end, no new discussions will begin. Discussions and conversation should have some sort of teleological goal. Conversations that go on forever, do not involve real dialogue, or one side refuses to acknowledge the reasonable outcome of the discussion are not real conversations. We United Methodists should be ashamed for allowing this farce of a “discussion/conversation” to go on for so long. It has prevented us from addressing many of the serious issues in our churches and communities.

    David, as a student at Asbury I can tell you right now that there is some serious theological reflection and doctrinal analysis going on there. I have decided that I am going in whatever direction that my fellow Asbury students and professors go in. If people from that circle and those of like mind are given the reigns of the denomination, I guarantee that you will see the renewal of serious theological reflection.

    I think there is an assumption in the blogosphere that evangelicals in the UM are of the same ilk as those who call themselves “evangelicals” in popular culture. That is simply not true. Many of us are repulsed by that group as much as anyone else. I am a UM evangelical and what I want to see is everything that you outlined.

    • Thanks, Pastor J. I don’t doubt that there’s significant theological reflection going on at Asbury, as well as at some other places. It just isn’t making its way into our General Conference in any substantive way that I can see.

  3. Dr. Watson, thanks for these great thoughts. I agree broadly but wonder at the thought of a “clearer and more extensive” body of doctrine. As you pointed out, it is difficult to treat the Sermons and Notes in the same way, doctrinally, as the Articles and Confession. I believe the Articles and Confession should be doctrine, upheld, enforced, and taught in catechesis. The Sermons and Notes, however, are *too* extensive to be doctrine. We should find a way to whittle down our doctrine so that we can hold it more faithfully. Now, if we did that (and yes I know it would be difficult Constitutionally), we would need to take Wesley’s writings and distill them into a new doctrinal statement alongside the Sermons and Notes which would clearly teach Wesleyan soteriology (Wesley’s great contribution to Christian theology). That would be a great theological task for the great Wesley scholars of our day. Then we could release the Sermons and Notes to be what they are.

    On a related note, how do you feel about catechisms? I greeted with joy the publication of Echo (by Seedbed) but a real catechism is such a radical departure from everything we are used to as present-day United Methodist that it would take a lot of preparation to get my congregation / elder colleagues to the point they would accept it (I say as a deacon associate). There seem to be one or two other catechisms in the works as well (including another/shorter one by Seedbed).

  4. David, you make a compelling case here, but does it not run smack into the problem (pardon my low-life illustration) of trying to herd cats? The “cats” of rampant theological pluralism are loose all over the farm. The moment someone proposes to reign this in, the response is “but we are theologically diverse” and cites the quadrilateral. Even some conservatives spume saccharine praise for our antipodes, as though theological contradiction is new gospel.

    • I hear that Gary, but I don’t think that bad responses should prevent our trying to do what is right. I don’t mind theological diversity–I just think it should have some clear parameters.

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