The Context of Our Theological Task

Our journey begins as we rehearse these words from The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church:

“Theology is our best effort to reflect upon God’s gracious action in our lives. In response to the love of Christ, we desire to be drawn into a deeper relationship with ‘faith’s pioneer and perfecter.’ Our theological explorations seek to give expression to the mysterious reality of God’s presence, peace, and power in the world. By so doing, we attempt to articulate more clearly our understanding of the divine-human encounter and are thereby more fully prepared to participate in God’s work in the world . . . As United Methodists, we are called to identify the needs both of individuals and of society and to address those needs out of the resources of Christian faith in a way that is clear, convincing, and effective. Theology serves the Church by interpreting the world’s needs and challenges to the Church and by interpreting the gospel to the world.”

(Paragraph 105, p. 80)

As we think about the theological position of the Desert Southwest Conference (DSC) and, in particular, the DSC Way Forward, we affirm that our theological directive is set within this broad mandate, and also affirm what the Discipline says about the nature of theological reflection. This inquiry is both critical and constructive, individual and communal, and contextual and incarnational (Paragraph 105, pp. 81-82). The very nature of this task compels us to think broadly, deeply, and creatively about how God’s grace and love works in our world to bring about transformation, discipleship, and witness. The DSC takes serious its mission statement, that we are to be “A Courageous Church loving like Jesus, acting for justice, and united in hope.”

Our contemporary culture is a remarkable cacophony of voices that come from social, cultural, political, economic, and religious diversity. These expressions have always been present, to a greater or lesser degree, but the tenor of the times has bought increased dissension and outright conflict over many issues. The perspectives in the prevailing culture are pitched to heightened levels of dialogue and frustration, fueled by the continued growth of diverse secular attitudes; the voices of groups that have long felt marginalized by society; a strong ethic of individualism in contrast to communal ways of living; the recognition of science and technology as persuasive aspects of our lives; and changing feelings that deemphasize as well as challenge the role of religion and the institutional church. In the midst of a great diversity of voices within the American United Methodist Church, we must also acknowledge the total spectrum of voices within United Methodism embedded in the cultures of Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The Wesleyan Quadrilateral

We not only claim a solid theological foundation as stated in The Discipline of The United Methodist Church, but also recognize the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as articulated by Albert Outler as helpful in integrating our points of view as United Methodists. Based on the distinctive theological orientation of John Wesley as it emerged from both his pietistic experiences with the Moravians as well as his classical theological training at Oxford, Wesley built a theology of personal holiness and social justice, seeking and living God’s will in our personal and social lives. Wesley never used the phrase, “Quadrilateral,” but Outler, in catching the nuances of Wesley’s thinking, has given expression to it with these terms: Scripture, Experience, Tradition, and Reason.

Scripture:

We affirm that the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian New Testament disclose the love of God for humanity and for all creation. It is “the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine” (Paragraph 105, p. 83). It is one of many witnesses to God in the world, but for Christians, it becomes the primary standard by which we judge faith and practice. For John Wesley, Scripture was foundational, both timely and timeless, and he always recognized that it must be relevant to the church and in the lives of believers. Scripture may be approached from different perspectives and examined with different lenses. However, the best tools and skills of biblical interpretation are needed to do contextual study so as to draw out the most accurate meaning that a writer intended. Sound interpretation must always prevail over any approach that compromises an accurate understanding of Scripture. There is always the danger of a reader imposing his or her presuppositions, agendas, or biases into the interpretation of a biblical text.

Experience: 

We all bring our collective and individual experiences to the understanding of theology. We have all been shaped in the caldron of our environment. We are a product of biological, social, historical, and location factors. Our core values, norms, mores, beliefs, taboos, and fears (real and perceived) have all been influenced by dynamics in our families of origin (including genetics), educational opportunities (positive and negative), political exposure, socio-economic circumstance, geographical environment (e.g., urban, suburban, rural), and religious practices. Our personalities, each unique and precious, have not been created in a vacuum. We are each unique persons of the world that has molded us. Thus, we recognize our differences that originate from many sources as we engage our free will with situations thrust upon us.

Tradition: 

The legacy of our faith embraces a four-thousand-year history. The traditions of Christianity and Judaism bring long and complex histories. In the awareness of rich and gifted contributions of laity, rabbis, clergy, and social and spiritual movements, we nonetheless acknowledge that, at times, our traditions have been driven, and even complicit, in promoting prejudice, discrimination, alienation, and physical and cultural genocide. The United Methodist Church is passionate about facing and changing inequities of all kinds. Traditions are worth preserving but must never be used to defend or maintain injustice.

Reason:

The Book of Discipline recognizes that any adequate theological statement addresses the importance of reason. We believe that all truth is from God and that, through reason, we interpret Scripture, clarify our Christian witness, articulate and ask questions as we seek God’s will, and check the internal coherence of our witness with Scripture, our experiences, and our traditions. Reason helps us to discern a holistic view of reality that joins together “knowledge, experience, and service.” (p. 88) Further, we affirm the importance of reason to discriminate “the connections between revelation and reason, faith and science, [and] grace and nature.” (p. 88)

The Challenge of Preserving Unity in Diversity

We are currently in a struggle that will determine the preservation or fragmentation of The United Methodist Church. Our disagreements are not over the fundamental doctrinal and theological foundations of our denomination nor are they over the distinctive Wesleyan emphases. We articulate our personal interpretations but we generally affirm the great doctrines of the Orthodox Church. Also, we affirm Wesley’s teachings about justification and assurance; sanctification and perfection; faith and good works; mission and service; and the nature and mission of the church. These beliefs found roots in German Moravian pietism and later were also found in the Evangelical United Brethren tradition as articulated in the theology of Phillip William Otterbein, who came from a Reformed background. As United Methodists, we share in the Reformed tradition and, as some would say, we are reformed and are always reforming! In all these traditions, God’s grace, empowered by the Holy Spirit, is the dynamic that gives substance and vitality to Christian life. Wesley never drew back from the communal form of expression that he believed built the community of faith in worship, prayer, witness, and social justice. This thinking was instrumental in forming what would later become the “connectional mentality” of the Methodist Church.

What is crucial to understand is that, in spite of what divides us today in the United Methodist Church around sensitive and important issues, there is much that all United Methodists hold in common and celebrate. Although we have differences in how we interpret Scripture and apply it to a rapidly changing world, this has always been the case. We have always struggled yet affirmed and rejoiced in the gift of diversity and inclusion. We have believed that we could all live together under “One Tent,” honoring our diversity and believing that made us stronger as the Body of Christ.

The Passion for Inclusiveness

The DSC Way Forward continues to maintain, without apology, its position and support not only of embracing diversity but also of achieving the goal of full inclusion. Full inclusion as the goal of The United Methodist Church has always been a priority. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, “Called to Inclusiveness” section states:

“We recognize that God made all creation and saw it was good. As a diverse people of God who bring special gifts and evidences of God’s grace to the unity of the church and in society, we are called to be faithful to the example of Jesus’ ministry to all persons. Inclusiveness means openness, acceptance, and support that enables all persons to participate in the life of the church, the community, and the world; therefore, inclusiveness denies every semblance of discrimination. The services of worship at every local church of the United Methodist Church shall be open to all persons. The mark of an inclusive society is one in which all persons are open, welcoming, fully accepting, and supporting of all other persons, enabling them to participate fully in the life of the church, the community, and the world. A further mark of inclusiveness is the setting of church activities in facilities accessible to persons with disabilities.”

(Paragraph 140, p. 101)

The voice of inclusion within the United Methodist Church has been an integral part of its history and theology. The past decisions of our denomination demonstrate that it has changed its collective mind from one of exclusion to inclusion in many cases, usually through a slow and painful process. It has occurred with respect to individuals, groups, and/or classes of people who were judged as inferior, defective, or inadequate because of some social, cultural, or physical characteristic or feature. There has always been a gap between the ideal and reality. Full inclusion is rooted in the radical hospitality of God’s grace and forgiveness. We all come to the Lord’s table needing the Lord’s grace and forgiveness. We are each a work in progress and so is the Church. Thus, we recognize the inequality that has existed and continues to exist along lines of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, disability, and national origin. We also believe that addressing policies, procedures, guidelines, and behaviors that continue to bring physical, psychological, and social wounds to persons need to be boldly confronted and changed.

The Task Ahead

We believe that, in addressing these contradictions, we are giving expression to our confirmation and reception vows of membership into the Church (Paragraph 217, p. 157). These vows, in part, state we are to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of [our] sin.” We are also to “accept the freedom and power God gives [us] to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” Anything that diminishes or denies the full humanity of an individual is evil and may lead to inconceivable injustice. It denies the creative work of God who “knit me in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139:13 NRSV) It is hard to go on and have a full life when one has been judged as defective or inadequate by society or by the church for reasons that are arbitrary and subjective. We believe that full inclusion is the outgrowth of the unconditional love of God. That love is the root of justice. We seek full inclusion for all persons whose voices need to be heard. All are children of God.

In particular, this means addressing those statements in The Book of Discipline that articulate those Social Principles of The United Methodist Church (pp. 105-144) that are in conflict with its own theology of full inclusion. However, in stating this position, we also recognize the nature of variant cultures in which the United Methodist Church is implanted. Full inclusion may be understood in different ways given a cultural and social context. In a diverse denomination, one that holds the hearts and souls of over twelve million believers, let us remember the words of John Wesley: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

We are many voices, but we must be one spirit as we bring together our statements of faith, our theology, our social principles, and our witness to a world that desperately needs to know the love of God in Jesus Christ. In this quest, we seek unity, not uniformity.

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Sources:

  • United Methodist Church. (2016). In The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. Nashville, TN: The United Methodist Publishing House.
  • Psalms. (2017). In The Holy Bible: Containing the Old and New Testaments: New Revised Standard Version. (2007). Nashville, TN: Cokesbury.

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