Two recent comments have me thinking hard about the meaning of ordination.
Dean Snyder engaged me in an exchange about taking ordination vows in a church that is not perfect. It is a place of saints and sinners and its polity, doctrine, and discipline reflect that. Snyder pointed out ways that our history has been filled with problems. If we won’t take ordination vows in a church that is sinful, then we will not get ordained. If we think the church’s current doctrine is without error, then we forget the principle that the church is always in need of reformation. (Morgan Guyton commented in the same vein, I think, when he testified that he feels strongly called to lead the United Methodist Church toward new doctrine and practices.)
In another vein, Holly Boardman commented on her own disillusionment with the UMC. She wrote of coming to see a church in the thrall of riches and too prone to let democratic values trump gospel holiness. These convictions led her to retirement. She came to see too large a gap between what the church claimed it believed and how it acted.
I am grateful that so many people share their own stories about how they have come to balance the competing tensions that are at the heart of ordination and appointment in the United Methodist Church. I am finding that there are really two different questions when it comes to a calling. The call of God is one thing. The living out of that call within a particular church is another.
I have been working under the influence of something Will Willimon wrote somewhere. He said preachers are not called to preach their own faith. They are called to preach the faith of the church. This has set in my mind — certainly in a place that I am inclined to go anyway — in the direction of trying to discern what the faith of the United Methodist Church actually is and what it is I am being called to preach and teach.
I wonder if that is a misplaced thought. Is looking for doctrinal integrity and coherence in the church a kind of idolatry? At the very least, it seems naive.
In The Nature of Doctrine, George Lindbeck argues that doctrine is always born of and in the midst of controversy. It is when there is dispute that doctrine becomes visible and we discover what our doctrines really are.
If that is the case, then far from shying away from controversy, we need to engage it when it occurs.
Lindbeck quotes Martin Luther on this point:
If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved. To be steady on all battle fronts besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.
When I read that, I thought it was a great and challenging statement. It cut me to the quick as it is precisely around the hottest battles in the church that I am least comfortable. And here was Martin Luther calling me out.
Turns out that quote is not Martin Luther, but it comes from a novel, in a passage that reflects on Luther. Here is a link to the very page on which the quote appears.
Or course, the power and truth of that quote should not depend upon it coming from Luther, especially for non-Lutherans. So, I am left with a question I cannot answer at the moment. Is this correct? Is it a failure to confess Christ if we avoid the controversies that roil the church?
Ben Witherington III — not known for theological liberalism — calls for Christians to stop lusting after certainty.
Two quotes from a recent blog post of his:
It’s time to stop putting the dog back in dogma, whether we are Protestants, Catholic, or Orthodox in persuasion. It’s time to lay the lust for certainty on the altar, and accept that God alone is the fixed point in an ever turning world, not my understanding of God, not some ironclad guarantee of salvation, not some certainty that ‘we are the one true church with the one true dogma’ or ‘we have the one true version of the Bible’ and so on.
The Christian life is like a race, not like a math test on which it is possible to score a perfect score or get all the answers right. The runner knows they must run to the end of the race and finish the course. It is not certain when they set out that they will do so. But a runner who follows the lead of the Lead Runner and has trained for the arduous nature of the race can have confidence he will finish. And this is because Jesus is running with us, every step of the way.
Advocates of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral sometimes speak of it as if John Wesley himself treated all four parts as equal. This, of course, is silly, but the idea persists enough that it is worth knocking down as often as possible.
The passage below from Wesley’s sermon “The Witness of the Spirit (II)” is a good response to anyone who tries to recruit Wesley as an ally in an argument using “experience” to refute or displace Scripture as a source of theology.
In the passage, Wesley is listing criticisms of the doctrine laid out in the first part of the sermon.
It is objected, First, “Experience is not sufficient to prove a doctrine which is not founded on Scripture.” This is undoubtedly true; and it is an important truth; but it does not affect the present question; for it has been shown, that this doctrine is founded on Scripture: Therefore experience is properly alleged to confirm it.
Note that Wesley affirms the objection’s content even as he argues that it does not apply to his case. He calls it undoubtedly true and an important truth to say experience alone cannot be the source of doctrine that has no basis in Scripture.
I don’t expect this will stop people from saying things like “I ran that idea through the Quadrilateral and experience trumped Scripture,” but maybe we can at least stop trying to pretend we are being in any way Wesleyan when we say such things.
Arminian Baptist Roger Olson has written a lengthy (as is his usual approach) post about the differences between dogmas, doctrines, and opinions.
The post includes Olson’s own story of growing up in Pentecostalism and being “invited” to leave during his young adult years. He includes a brief mention of “charismatic United Methodist” Oral Roberts.
The point of the post is an appeal for Christian denominations to stop elevating things that should be matters of opinion into doctrines that must be believed by all who wish to be in fellowship together.
I call on all denominations to go through their doctrines and weed out those that 1) have no clear biblical foundation and 2) are historically peculiar in terms of evangelical tradition, and 3) do not really serve any important purpose in terms of strengthening spiritual life. Demote these to opinion status. It doesn’t mean they can’t be taught by pastors and others, but they should not be tests of fellowship.
This is a very Wesleyan thing to desire.
I wonder if we United Methodists (speaking of vows) have doctrines that should be opinions. My first impulse is to say that we barely have doctrine that we all agree on, so it is hard to imagine we have any that has been elevated too high. (Before jumping to sex issues, this comment by Olson that distinguishes between polity issues and doctrine might be useful.)
The more likely place where we have this problem might be at level of the local congregation. Don’t we often have lots of doctrines in the local church that should be matters of opinion?
From the order for ordination of elders in The United Methodist Book of Worship:
In covenant with other elders, will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church, accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline, defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word, and accepting the authority of those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?
I will, with the help of God
From the order for admission into full membership of the annual conference:
Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
I have studied them.
After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
I believe that they are.
Will you preach and maintain them?
To the best of my ability, I will.
When I read these words that I one day may say before God and the church, I think of other vows I have taken. I think of my baptismal vows. Those are vows that I cannot renounce or ignore without renouncing my baptism. I think of my marriage vows. Those are vows I cannot decide no longer bind me without breaking faith with my wife.
Is it any more demanding to ask that I maintain fidelity to my marriage and my baptism than it will be one day to ask that I stay true to my ordination vows, if the Lord grants me the opportunity to make them?
Despite our church’s commitment to theological education, we do not actually teach much theology, and especially Wesleyan theology. We always manage to get sidetracked by the latest fad that will supposedly fix the church’s problems. A simple diagnostic test will demonstrate this point. Ask your pastor if she or he can explain the doctrine of the enhypostaton. Then ask her if she knows her Myers-Briggs score.
This INFP would be outed by this test.
In an attempt to deepen our theological and doctrinal literacy, D. Stephen Long, with the help of Andrew Kinsey, offer pastors and laity the first in a series of little books on Wesleyan Doctrine. Keeping Faith: An Ecumenical Commentary on the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith in the Wesleyan Tradition serves an introduction for the series to come.
The 100-page Keeping Faith includes chapters on God, the Trinity, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, Holy Scripture, the Church, the Sacraments, Justification and Sanctification, the Christian life, and Judgement.
Each chapter explains and illuminates elements of the United Methodist doctrinal standards in the Articles and Confession and includes discussion questions to stimulate conversation. Being such a short book and being a commentary, it necessarily brings up issues that might deserve deeper conversation or makes claims that might not be universally affirmed. The book’s discussion and criticism of “Open Communion,” for instance, would likely spark an interesting conversation in most Sunday School classes. But that is the point of discussing theology in church — to get people thinking about doctrine and how it relates to Christian life.
I would say the best audience for this book would be college-educated laity who have some desire to engage with doctrine. I am not aware of another book or series that serves the need this book and series aim to serve. If you are looking for a book on Wesleyan doctrine that engages with our United Methodist standards as well as materials from the Wesley brothers, this is a good book.
In a back-and-forth in a comment thread, I had an opportunity to attempt to articulate my understanding of why doctrine is important for Christians.
The immediate topic of the conversation was John Wesley’s taking the Athanasian Creed out of the prayer book he sent to the Methodist Church in America. The editing, as I understand it, was in response to earlier suggestions by John Fletcher that wanted to remove clauses from the creed that said people who did not hold the catholic (small c) faith expressed in the creed would be damned. Wesley went one step further and took the creed out of the American prayer book entirely.
Here is my attempt to go from there to make an argument for why doctrine matters.
My suspicion is that Wesley wanted to reinforce the Methodist teaching that people are damned for actual sins not for incorrect beliefs.
And this is where I agree with you on a practical level. Right belief (orthodoxy), to paraphrase Wesley, is not enough to save us. Wrong belief by itself does not damn us. So, you could argue that belief does not matter.
But wrong belief can hinder our salvation. It can lead us to fail to seek or accept the grace of God because we have been taught it is not real or is not necessary or does not come through faith in Jesus Christ. So, wrong doctrine does not damn us, but it can keep us locked in the chains of sin and blind us to grace.
We actual sinners who have all fallen short of the glory of God need salvation. Doctrine does not save us, but false doctrine, wrong doctrine, can mislead us about our need and the means of our liberation.