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.

Jesus as a metaphor?

I found the following advice offered to a parent in an inter-religious marriage (Jewish & Christian) who wanted guidance about how to respond to a son who is beginning to feel a tug toward Christianity, but still wants to have his Bar Mitzvah. The web site is one devoted to addressing spiritual concerns of the Jewish community.

Here is part of the answer given to this parent by one of three writers:

I would explain to your son that if he declares Jesus as his personal savior and affiliates with an evangelical Christian denomination, then that would be a choice of Christianity and a move away from Judaism. But if he wants to learn more about Jesus as an inspiring Jewish historical figure, or about Jesus as a metaphor in some of the more progressive Christian denominations, this exploration could be compatible with a Jewish (or interfaith) identity.

In my sermon this morning from John 6:42, I spoke to the kind of contrast that the Jewish writer above draws. I confess to preaching an incompatibility between a Jewish or Muslim view of Jesus and a Christian one. So I want to ask my brothers and sisters* who call themselves progressive whether they feel any tension or conflict in the description above. Is the Jesus of progressive United Methodism “an inspiring Jewish historical figure” or “a metaphor”? Or is progressive United Methodism not among the tribe of “more progressive Christian denominations” that this writer looks to with approval?

These are serious questions for me as I seek to understand my place and my role within our diverse denomination. I hope the answer is that progressive United Methodists do not embrace the kind of Jesus who can be understood merely as a Jewish historical figure or simply as a metaphor. We leave that to others, right?


*I read recently that the new progressive preference is “siblings” rather than “brothers and sisters.” I’m afraid you will have to tolerate my backwardness on this front.

At odds with Aquinas at the table

Please pardon me while I do some thinking out loud about United Methodist sacramental theology. My brain started turning while reading the following from Thomas Aquinas’ lectures on John 6:

Therefore, since baptism is a necessary sacrament, it seems that the Eucharist is also. In fact, the Greeks think it is; and so they give the Eucharist to newly baptized infants. For this opinion they have in their favor the rite of Denis, who says that the reception of each sacrament should culminate in the sharing of the Eucharist, which is the culmination of all the sacraments. This is true in the case of adults, but it is not so for infants, because receiving the Eucharist should be done with reverence and devotion, and those who do not have the use of reason, as infants and the insane, cannot have this. Consequently, it should not be given to them at all.

Is it still Greek Orthodox practice to give the Eucharist to infants and children? Aquinas’ argument that only those who can receive the sacrament with devotion should receive it — and it is not held only by him of course — has often raised questions for me about the sharing of the Lord’s Supper with those who do not understand it or cannot muster a sense of reverence and devotion. My son’s autism certainly is a part of my questioning on this issue, but not all of it.

The statement on Holy Communion approved by the United Methodist General Conference, This Holy Mystery, argues — perhaps with some awareness of the “Greek” practice that Aquinas’ makes reference to — that the logic that applies to infant baptism should apply as well to participation by children in Holy Communion.

The theological basis for baptism of infants and people of varying abilities applies as well to their participation in Holy Communion:

“Through the church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of disabilities or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism” (By Water and the Spirit, in BOR; page 868).

So it is proper to conclude, I believe, that United Methodists do not share Aquinas’ view that reason is required for proper participation in the Lord’s Supper. It is not news that we differ from Aquinas, but I believe we still find aspects of his theology helpful. For instance, the following passage from the same commentary on John 6 is helpful to me in trying to grasp what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ, which Aquinas says we do in a spiritual way:

Thus, in reference to Christ as contained and signified, one eats his flesh and drinks his blood in a spiritual way if he is united to him through faith and love, so that one is transformed into him and becomes his member: for this food is not changed into the one who eats it, but it turns the one who takes it into itself, as we see in Augustine, when he says: “I am the food of the robust. Grow and you will eat me. Yet you will not change me into yourself, but you will be transformed into me.” And so this is a food capable of making man divine and inebriating him with divinity.

I like that final phrase in this English translation: inebriating him with divinity. Since so much of Aquinas hangs on his reverence for reason, I’m not sure if passages like the one above clash with our United Methodist theology of Holy Communion. I’m still working that out, but I like this language about the Lord’s Supper by grace making us like the Christ, who gave us his flesh and blood, when we come to him in faith and love.

What if it was all an illusion?

A colleague posts some piercing and heart-felt questions about the United Methodist Church:

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve spent my entire adult life devoted to a fantasy, something real only to me. Oh, not God – we’re not going there – but, the Church. Is the Church (more pointedly, is The United Methodist Church) what I’ve maintained it is and labored to make it? Or was it just something that existed in my head, and when I quit believing in it, things will go on quite well without my delusion?

Do we ‘dare to believe’ with Wesley?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline could be more precise in its statements about the place of John Wesley’s sermons in our doctrinal panoply. In ¶103 it explains that the Plan of Union for the UMC understood Wesley’s sermons and notes to be established standards of doctrine for the church. In other places, however, the Discipline appears to treat Wesley as a model or example rather than as a measuring stick for our doctrine.

This is relevant to me because my conversion to Christianity was followed by immersion into the works of Wesley. Early in that process, I was continually struck by how far the United Methodist Church as I knew it strayed from the vision of Christian life and the church as I encountered in the works of Wesley. I found myself asking at times whether John Wesley could even get ordained among us if he were a candidate today. Our responses to him often are often more in keeping with his critics than his co-workers.

These thoughts arose again for me as I was reading John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he introduces what will be a 13-sermon series on those three chapters in Matthew and considers the first two beatitudes. In discussing the blessedness that comes from being poor in spirit, tilts into what would later be called revival preaching.

He calls out for sinners to know themselves and wake up to their state.

Know and feel, that thou wert “shapen in wickedness,” and that “in sin did thy mother conceive thee;” and that thou thyself hast been heaping sin upon sin, ever since thou couldst discern good from evil! Sink under the mighty hand of God, as guilty of death eternal; and cast off, renounce, abhor, all imagination of ever being able to help thyself!

To those he calls to wake up, he offers Christ as the cure for their ailments, making no scruple at the mention of being washed in the blood. He then describes in three paragraphs the righteousness, peace, and joy that are offered to us as the inward kingdom of heaven.

Finally, he shifts to an exhortation worthy of any sawdust trail preaching of the century following Wesley’s death.

Thou art on the brink of heaven! Another step, and thou enterest into the kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy! Art thou all sin? “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!” – all unholy? See thy “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous!” – Art thou unable to atone for the least of thy sins? “He is the propitiation for” all thy “sins.” Now believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and all thy sins are blotted out! Art thou totally unclean in soul and body? Here is the “fountain for sin and uncleanliness!” “Arise and wash away thy sins!” Stagger no more at the promise through unbelief! Give glory to God! Dare to believe! Now cry out, from the ground of thy heart – “Yes, I yield, I yield at last, Listen to thy speaking blood; Me, with all my sins, I cast On my atoning God.” (This last is a quote from a Charles Wesley hymn.)

So the question I have is this: Are United Methodists called to treat such preaching by Wesley as mere “models of doctrinal exposition” or as standards by which we can judge our own interpretation and preaching of the Bible?

In other words, if what I preach is incongruous with what Wesley preached – or a direct contradiction of it – am I failing to uphold the doctrine of the United Methodist Church? If the answer to that question is “no,” then what place does Wesley’s preaching have among us and why is it mentioned as a standard of doctrine in our Discipline?

Do we have more than ‘my truth’?

The Preamble to the Social Principles in the United Methodist Book of Discipline speaks with some depth about how we should live with our differences within the church.

We acknowledge that, because it is a living body of believers, gathered together by God from many diverse segments of the human community, unanimity of belief, opinion, practice has never been characteristic of the Church from the beginning to this day. … Therefore, whenever significant differences of opinion among faithful Christians occur, some of which continue to divide the church deeply today, neither surprise nor dismay should be allowed to separate the members of the Body from one another; nor should those differences be covered over with false claims of consensus or unanimity.

The preamble goes on to encourage us to embrace conflict with courage and see it as a sign that God is still working with us and shaping us. It concludes with a call to “respectful dialogue” in a spirit of exploration, honor, and truthfulness.

To me, the key word in the passage above is “opinion.”

I wonder what the General Conference means when it refers to matters of opinion, over which we should embrace differences.

In Western philosophical history, the discussion of the difference between knowledge and opinion goes back to Plato or beyond. I’m not capable of explaining the thousands of years of history of thought about the nature of knowledge and opinion, but I think it is fair to say that a key distinction is that it is irrational to embrace or endorse the idea that there can be differences of knowledge. Matters of opinion admit differences, but matters of knowledge do not.

If the word “opinion” is used in this sense, then the preamble to the Social Principles appears to echo the thought of John Wesley, who said that we should allow differences of opinion that do not strike at the core of revealed Christianity.

The flip-side of this, however, is that there are matters of knowledge, which do not permit differences. For instance, Jesus Christ is Lord. To believe this is to have actual knowledge. Whether you or I believe it, however, does change the truth of this statement. To deny this is not merely to have a different opinion. It is to be wrong.

When writing the above paragraph, I had to keep editing myself. What I started to write was “For Christians, Jesus Christ is Lord.” To write it this way, however, is to treat the Lordship of Jesus as a matter of opinion. For Christians, he is Lord. For non-Christians, he is not.

This is why the word “opinion” stands out to me in the preamble of our Social Principles. I want to know what we mean when we speak of differences of opinion. More importantly, I want to know what we think is not a matter of opinion.

In this vein, it is interesting to note the contrast between the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The Confession is written as a credo. Each article begins with the words “We believe.” In our contemporary context, these statements of belief are easily read as statements of personal opinion, although is not how Creeds were historically understood by the Church. The Articles, in contrast, perhaps reflecting a greater confidence in the knowledge provided by revelation, do not have such a subjective construction. They are not couched as the things we believe but as the things that are.

Hence, Article I reads:

There is but one living and true God, everlasting without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

I understand that there are very good reasons why we find it hard to talk about knowledge and opinion in the ways that previous centuries did. But I can’t escape the thought that if we are going to go about arguing that differences of opinion should be embraced, it would be good to be clear what we mean by that term.

I suspect that most people today use the word the way nearly everyone does. When we say “opinion” we tend to mean whatever I happen to think or believe. We don’t actually believe in truth so much as “my truth.” And so, if everything is opinion and can never be more than that, then I can see why people feel like the church is wrong to ever establish boundaries of any kind.

If the things we believe, however, are matters about which it is possible to have knowledge — and not just opinions — then it would be irresponsible for the church not to have boundaries.

In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth?