By Larry Duggins
Thoughts on Our Theological Task #1
I am unhappy with the outcome of the 2019 Called General Conference (#GC2019) for many reasons. One of the aspects of the conference that I find quite upsetting is my impression that, although much of the debate centered around the retention or rejection of very specific passages within the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (the “Discipline”), the debate itself, both in form and in content, strayed far from the wisdom contained in the Discipline itself. Because of that, I have written this reflection on Section 105 of the Discipline, which describes how our history and our doctrines shape us as Methodist people. My hope is that this reminder of who we are will move us to reject the exclusion and divisiveness I perceived in the work of #GC2019.
There is an old joke that the only difference between a Methodist and a Baptist is that the Methodist will have a beer on the front porch. As funny as that may be, it is simply not true. As Methodists, we are blessed with a wonderful heritage of Wesleyan thought and practice that helps define who we are as a people. We are a people focused on God’s grace and honed by works of mercy and works of piety. Our General Rules caution us to begin our work by doing no harm. Our Discipline reflects that heritage.
The beginning of the Discipline is a rich history of the Methodist movement that walks through our doctrinal heritage as Christian people and our distinctive heritage as United Methodists. It includes descriptions of the distinctive Wesleyan emphases that help define who we are as a people. These descriptions include:
Our doctrinal history, including the work of John Wesley
The doctrinal standards of the groups that merged to form the UMC
The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church
The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical United Brethren Church.
The other sources of doctrine in the UMC, including
The sermons of John Wesley
Wesley’s explanatory notes upon the New Testament, and
The General Rules of the Methodist Church
In Section 105, the community of authors of the Discipline move to help us understand how all these things fit together for Methodist people.
¶ 105. SECTION 4—OUR THEOLOGICAL TASK
Theology is our 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. The theological task, though related to the Church’s doctrinal expressions, serves a different function. Our doctrinal affirmations assist us in the discernment of Christian truth in ever-changing contexts. Our theological task includes the testing, renewal, elaboration, and application of our doctrinal perspective in carrying out our calling “to spread scriptural holiness over these lands.” While the Church considers its doctrinal affirmations a central feature of its identity and restricts official changes to a constitutional process, the Church encourages serious reflection across the theological spectrum. 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."
― from "The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016"
This introductory statement helps us define how our theological exploration interacts with our statements of doctrine. Doctrine helps us to refine our best understandings of universal truths. They are the core of Christian belief—the truth that endures across time and space. Our theological task is poking at those doctrines— testing them, elaborating on them, and continually peering at their frontiers as we stretch to share the gospel with all of creation. Our doctrines as United Methodists can only be changed in the most extreme circumstances, but our understanding of those doctrines is to be continually challenged. We are told to reflect on the needs of individuals and of society, and then to apply the best of Christian faith to address those needs. Our theological task is to apply the Good News to the needs of the world. Our theological task is not to weaponize our doctrines.
This entire process of Methodist theological exploration is based on the assumption that the world will change. If we are not called to reflect upon and react to changes in the way that we understand individual people and humanity as a whole, why should we waste time thinking about the relationship between doctrine and the needs of the world? Our challenge is to try to appreciate and interpret an ever-evolving world, and then to confidently cooperate with the Spirit to bring the Gospel into the world as it is. Differences of opinion are vital to this process as we each contribute the perspectives that have formed through our particular experiences and environment, relying on our diversity to help refine our consensus.