The Problem is Still Theological
By Stephen Rankin
A friend of mine pointed me yesterday to a tweet that states flatly, “‘Orthodoxy’ is code for white privilege, homophobia, racism and sexism.” There you have it. One group of United Methodists thinks another group of United Methodists (1) stubbornly persists in holding to long-discredited beliefs and (2) uses those long-discredited beliefs to exclude others. Clearly, as one who claims the orthodox label to identify my own commitments, it pains me to realize how much people like me are seen as enemies to some in our own denomination. It’s impossible not to take this personally.
Let me try to unpack the sentiment. If a person honestly thinks that we orthodox believe things that simply are no longer believable, then she is left trying to figure out why. Perhaps we are just ill-informed and simply don’t adequately understand what is at stake. (I’ve heard this one many times.) But even here one can detect a moral implication. If we ought to be well-informed and we are not, then we have at some point shirked our responsibility to be well-informed. Ignorance implies moral laxity.
It’s more likely the case, then, that we orthodox actually do understand what is at stake, and, realizing the threats to our privilege, we misuse position and power in order to suppress or, if possible, exclude those by whom we feel threatened. Hence the tweet.
It should come as no surprise that we take issue with this characterization. We do not think that the beliefs we hold have been conclusively discredited, nor do we think they are dangerous. On the contrary. In fact, we’re prepared to argue that the church’s central beliefs – as summarized in, say, the Nicene Creed – are not only relevant for today, they are intellectually bracing, compelling and worth our lives. More importantly, those beliefs matter for the sake of all life as God intends it.
In the heat of General Conference debates, tweets and social media spats (going on long before General Conference), please notice the asymmetry to the arguments. We (orthodox) are very happy to talk about ideas and the practices that go with, come from, and embody those beliefs. We want to talk about our opponents’ ideas, too. We want to understand our opponents’ claims, but we also want to explain why we think the orthodox faith is intellectually and morally bracing and critical to living the Gospel. Some of what gets called Gospel doesn’t look like Gospel to us. We think getting this clear matters. A lot.
But what do we do when, every time we orthodox talk about beliefs, our opponents change the subject and charge us with the abuse of power? Yes, I get how language gets used to exercise power. I agree completely. Everybody exercises power when they use terms to define, characterize, explain and evaluate. Everybody. Go back to that tweet.
So, what do we do? We have two options. We can go back to basic theological questions and start exploring them with each other again. What do we mean with talk about the Trinity? The nature and work of Jesus Christ? What is the Gospel? The Christian life? The transforming power of the Spirit? The mission of the Church? The goal of creation? How do we define justice? Love? How do we understand the nature and function and authority of scripture?
Yes, I know. This suggestion sounds like “been there, done that.” Our denominational pragmatism makes us impatient to do this work, but this is the problem and it is a fatal one. I’ve been a United Methodist clergy for more than thirty years. I have known and loved a denomination that has been nothing but divided on basic theological matters.
I have witnessed numerous times our impatience with doctrine and haste just to go do something good in the name of Jesus. It’s the mission, stupid! But our differing understandings of mission tie right back to differing understandings of Gospel, of God’s nature and action in the world. Our impatient pragmatism has wasted a lot of time, effort and resources.
We desperately need honest, basic, theological discussions to find our true doctrinal Center and mobilize for mission. We need theologically competent leaders to lead us in this most crucial of works. We need leaders of character to guide us in this hard theological/spiritual work. And we need participants who are willing to lay their theological cards on the table and have it out until we get some things clearly settled, until our hearts are once again united in love for Christ and his mission. This obviously does not mean settling every question or dispute, but it does mean settling some of them.
Stephen Rankin is the University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition is pleased to congratulate the elected members of the Judicial Council:
Clergy – Oyvind Helliesen (Norway) and Luan-Vu Tran (California- Pacific)
Lay – Deanelle Reese Tacha (Great Plains), Reuben Reyes (Philippines), and Lidia Romao Gulele (Mozambique).
We also congratulate the elected members of the University Senate:
CEO’s – Kasap Owan Tshibang (NW Katanga) and Nathaniel Ohouo (Cote d’Ivoire).
Non-CEO’s – Bill Arnold (Kentucky) and David Watson (Ohio).
Called to be a Witness
We were gratified to have Dr. David Watson, academic dean at United Theological Seminary, testify at yesterday’s Good News Briefing Breakfast. “I was worried that my witness as an orthodox and evangelical Christian would hurt me politically,” said Watson. Although he shared his heartfelt concerns with God in prayer, he heard the Lord reply to his heart: “I didn’t call you to get tenure, I called you to be a witness.”
“Be a witness for the gospel,” Watson told the delegates, bringing a message from 2 Tim 1:7: “God didn’t give us a spirit of fear but a Spirit of power, love, and self discipline.”
“Don’t make winning an idol,” Watson reminded the delegates. “This can’t be about winning; it has to be about witnessing. …When it’s about winning, we’re setting ourselves up against other people.”
Those who are most vocally opposed to the traditional viewpoint “matter to God and God loves them,” said Watson. “These are people for whom Christ died on the cross and they matter. We may disagree with them, but they still matter.
“If this becomes about winning and not about witnessing, then we’re not even in the game. God’s called us to something better than politics; God’s called us to be witnesses of the incarnate word who died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead.”
“Stand up for the truth and conduct self in gentleness and humility and love,” concluded Watson, “even when people treat me with contempt, I hope I can meet them with a spirit of love.”
God’s Hidden Chariots
By Hannah Whitall Smith
Earthly cares are a heavenly discipline. But they are something even better. They are God’s chariots, sent to take the soul to its high places of triumph. They do not look like chariots. They look like enemies, suffering trials, defeats, misunderstandings, disappointments, unkindnesses. They look like ‘vehicles’ that are dangerously out of control, crashing toward us with misery and wretchedness, about to roll over us and crush us. But if we only could see them as they really are.
Here is the secret: Everything that comes to us becomes a chariot the moment we treat it as such. All are chariots waiting to carry you to very heights of victory you have so longed to reach. On the other hand, even the smallest trial becomes one of those out-of-control vehicles to thrust you into misery and despair if you let it. It lies within each one of us to choose which it shall be.
The chief characteristics of the higher life in God are these: entire surrender to the Lord, and perfect trust in Him. This will result in victory and inward rest of the soul. It differs from the lower range of Christian experience in that it causes us to let the Lord carry our burdens … and direct our affairs for us.
—Hannah Whitall Smith (1832-1911) wrote several books including The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life.