Will Willimon still causing me trouble

As I enter into the struggles of my people, I have considerably more to offer than myself. I have the witness of the saints, the faith of the church, the wisdom of the ages. A pastor must therefore be prejudiced toward the faith of the church.

— Will Willimon, Pastor

Will Willimon has caused me no end of problems as a United Methodist pastor. His writings were among the first I read when entering into the ministry, and statements like the one above have dug down deep like chiggers.

The problem created by statements like the one above lies hidden in that whole “faith of the church” bit at the end.

You see, when I was in the process of becoming a local pastor, I set out on a search for the faith of the United Methodist Church. I read my Book of Discipline. I read a whole bunch of John Wesley. I started writing on this blog and asking questions about what we as a church believe and teach.

And this is where I started running into trouble.

It turns out that the faith of the United Methodist Church is hard to nail down. In the early days of my blogging, when my readership was more diverse than it is now, I would post a quote from John Wesley and ask why we don’t seem to teach or preach this any more. I’d often get answers about how Wesley is not our Pope or how we can’t be tied down to his 18th century theology. This happened enough to make me realize that at least a portion of our clergy don’t view Wesley as particularly central to the faith of our church. This was disorienting for someone who took Willimon’s counsel to heart and believed that their must be thing called “the faith of the church.” After all, he was telling me to be prejudiced in favor of it. How could I be prejudiced toward something that does not exist?

I can point to our official documents, of course. But when asked what makes Methodism unique, I would have a hard time formulating a doctrinal answer that would reliably mark out the faith as actually preached across the connection. Even if we think in terms of centered sets rather than bounded sets, it is hard to define a center when looking at actual practice.

For many United Methodists this not a bug but a feature. It is not a problem, but one of the things that makes us great. For me and my desire to be, in Willimon’s words, a bearer of the church’s faith and not merely my own, it is a problem. How can you bear what you cannot identify?

What I have done is attempt to teach, preach, and bear a faith under the influence of our Articles and Confession with a heavy dose of Wesleyan free grace Arminianism. I hope this is faithful to my call and certification as a minister in the UMC. I hope that is faithful to my call and certification in the UMC.


26 thoughts on “Will Willimon still causing me trouble

  1. Whatever Willimon means by the “faith of the church,” surely it cannot be limited to the faith of a sect. Surely he means the historic saving, sanctifying faith or “mere Christianity”…

        1. I think it is part of Protestant disease that we are always aware of a need to explain “why us?”

  2. I don’t suppose it’s occurred to you, John, that the problem isn’t that the United Methodist Church has no doctrinal heart to which we hold fast. It might well be the case that what you think that should be and what it actually is are two very different things.

    1. Could be. All I can go on is what the book says our doctrinal standards are. What do you think the doctrinal heart is?

      1. Our doctrinal heart is the Gospel – the declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord. Wrapped up in that sentence are the distinctive Wesleyan emphases of three-fold grace, Christian perfection, and personal and social holiness. You claim in your post that UM clergy do not preach a specifically Wesleyan theology. I’m always interested in such comments, because without a name, a church, a sermon title, they’re meaningless. You should focus less on what you think others aren’t doing, and focus a bit more on what you could be doing.

        1. Thanks for the advice.

          It sounds a bit like, mind your own business, to my ears. I’m not sure if that was meant. I don’t name preachers or sermon titles because it is meant as a general observation rather than a personal attack. I’m sorry if that makes the questions meaningless.

          While I share with you the affirmation that Jesus is Lord, I don’t believe that is the nutshell summary of the gospel as recorded in either our tradition or the Scriptures, unless there is a lot of meaning hiding behind that simple phrase. I would suggest that at a minimum the words “and Savior” must be added to have any fidelity with the statements in our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith.

        2. You don’t believe “Jesus Christ is Lord” contains, the original confession of faith of the New Testament Church, contains all our doctrine, our affirmations of God, centered on the revelation in Jesus of Nazareth? You don’t think unpacking each and all those four words leaves one with our doctrine, our confession, our profession, and even our distinct Wesleyan emphases? We are an evangelical Church – declaring the Good News to the world is who we are, and in so declaring, we offer the world all that God is, has done, is doing, and will do.

          As for the other, when you make accusations that other clergy aren’t preaching what you consider proper doctrine, that’s a very serious charge. Examples are necessary, otherwise it’s just gossip, hearsay, and chatting behind the backs of others. And, yes – it is a variant of “Mind Your Own Business”. We all waste far too much time worrying about what others are doing wrong (or right), rather than tending our own vineyards. I include myself in that, obviously. If you are so concerned with ensuring you are “getting it right” – which, really, you shouldn’t be – then give yourself space to do that. Others, well, they either will or won’t take care of themselves.

          And no, nothing need be added, such as the word “Savior”. That is contained in “Jesus Christ”, “is”, and “Lord”, when unpacked fully.

        3. No, I don’t think the four words “Jesus is Lord” entail all our doctrine or orthodoxy. I know people and know of others who deny the resurrection but call Jesus Lord. Clearly, four words do not suffice. Jesus himself said there will be those who say “Lord, Lord” who he will say he never knew. Paul wrote that if we declare Jesus is Lord and believe he rose from the dead, we will be saved. Again, he felt it necessary to say more than those four words. They are necessary words but not sufficient.

          You suggest repeatedly that I am seeking to bend people to what I think I’d proper. What I am trying to do is be one who can take the vow of ordination with integrity. I seek to understand so I might be faithful.

        4. Of course people deny the resurrection! It’s foolishness to the wise and a stumbling block for those oh-so-concerned with bourgeois correctness. Our job is not to convince them of the truth; our job is only to say, again and again – Jesus Christ is Lord. Apologetics is a sign of what Jurgen Moltmann calls a pusillanimous faith, so weak it doesn’t dare do anything – include speak the Gospel – that might offend or upset or alienate others. To say “Jesus Christ is Lord” is not sufficient is to say that there is a human wisdom beyond the naked, faithful, grace-filled confession of St. Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

          And, no, I do not believe you are trying to bend others to your way of thinking. Indeed, I recognize and celebrate your desire to be faithful, to make clear to yourself what it is you believe so you can tell your story to others. What troubles me is (a) comparing yourself to others; and (b) your disparaging comments of others in our denomination, including the claim there are those who either do not believe our doctrine, or actively do not preach and teach it. The latter is very troubling; it is a serious, chargeable offense under the Book of Discipline. To say it is “an observation” is just not enough. As for comparing yourself, favorably or not, to others, remember – you have your own special gifts and marks of God’s grace in your life. Build that up. Trust that the grace of God goes before you, is with you, and will continue with you on your journey. I entered seminary in 1990, and I am still, and always, learning. There is no final but the eschatological final, where before the Throne you and I shall bow, declare the glory of God, and celebrate with joy the final victory of the resurrection around the table set for all the saints.

        5. I think the difference here is I want the suitcase unpacked. I believe the apostles and early church found that necessary as well.

        6. You asked me what the doctrinal heart of our United Methodist beliefs were. I answered that question. Of course it needs unpacking; that’s why we have theologians reflecting on our confession and experience of faith. No one said anything about NOT unpacking it. Still, that’s the kernel at the middle of all we say, do, pray, teach, and take to the world.

          When Karl Barth came to US, someone asked him if it was possible to sum up his Church Dogmatics. He answered by singing the first two lines of the first stanza of a children’s hymn: Jesus loves me this I know/For the Bible tells me so. I can think of no greater confession of faith, no better profession of the Church’s self understanding, and no better story to tell the nations.

      2. Perhaps we can all agree that John Wesley’s first standard sermon (John Wesley’s sermons are part of our doctrinal confessions of course) articulates the heart of our message. In essence it is an articulation of both our commitment to salvation by faith (Through the substitutionary atonement of Christ) – making us fully protestant, while also articulating our commitment to full salvation/entire sanctification and the availability of salvation to anyone who will choose to accept the redemption that comes from Jesus blood sacrifice (aka were not calvinists.)

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