Posts Tagged ‘Doctrine’


What’s Your Next Step?

vickersHaving read Jason Vickersbook Minding the Good Ground: A Theology of Church Renewal, I’m continuing to ponder next steps. Here is a second installment of those thoughts. You can read the first installment, A Death Embrace, here.


Selfishly, one of the things I appreciated about Jason’s book is that it confirmed my own thoughts. From my perspective, historically the church has not always held together the relationship between the personal and the corporate in a holistic fashion, which (again from my perspective) has in turn undermined evangelism in significant ways. Nicholas Perrin is on target when he say’s that many Christians are conditioned to read Scripture as God’s saving Word to them as individuals rather than God’s saving word to the church. He goes on to say that this kind of understanding has led to ‘a notion that views the church as little more than a loose association of the equivalents of Jesus’ Facebook friends.’*

Over the years, much evangelistic activity has focused on the person as an isolated entity, as though that was the entire focus of Jesus’ message. But that’s somewhat of a distortion. In Christian faith the personal and the communal don’t cancel each other out, they’re bound together, with each reinforcing the other.

That’s why Jason’s critique of the idea of the church as the ‘community of the already saved’ is so important. But it’s not so easy to swallow. Where I grew up, we’d say Jason’s gone to meddlin’.

But I can’t think of a more important word at this juncture. Salvation is not simply a private transaction between an individual and Jesus. Sin is not just about transgressing divine laws. Atonement is not merely the juridical event of pardon. And (thankfully) the church is not a ‘waiting room for heaven’ or ‘a good place to get something to eat and make a few new friends while we wait to be called home to glory,’ or even ‘a good place to come together for civic involvement or…political caucusing.’**

What is at stake, especially for evangelism, is the recognition that salvation is dramatically more far-reaching and comprehensive than a simple private transaction. Sin is deeper and more complex than the breaking of a few commandments. Atonement is far more sweeping and transformative than the receipt of pardon. And (thankfully) the church is instrumental in all of it – the very context of the Holy Spirit’s activity and the chosen vehicle through which God works for radical transformation.

But convincing folks of all that can seem like a really hard sell these days – especially in the United Methodist Church. And it’s not just because many of us think of the church as an afterthought when it comes to salvation.

Kim Reisman

Kim Reisman

One of my seminary professors, George Lindbeck talked about the importance of church doctrine to the formation of communal identity. He said that ‘Church doctrines are communally authoritative teachings regarding beliefs and practices that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question…they indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.’ Think about the Quakers, for instance. If I’m a Quaker, but I oppose pacifism, I’m not going to be viewed as a good Quaker, because that’s not what a member of the Society of Friends should be. Lindbeck says that if you don’t draw that conclusion, then it’s most likely because ‘the belief has ceased to be communally formative.’*** The belief may still be a formal or official one, but it’s no longer operational.

That’s the heart of our current crisis in the UMC. Not only have we forgotten that the church is instrumental to salvation, it may also very well be that the doctrinal heritage of the UMC is no longer communally formative (at least in the US). If that’s the case, then (sadly) we really aren’t much more than a loose association of Jesus’ Facebook friends.



*Nicholas Perrin, ‘Jesus Eschatology and Kingdom Ethics: Ever the Twain Shall Meet’, in N. Perrin and R. Hays (eds.), Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N. T. Wright (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 100, 102

**Jason Vickers, Minding the Good Ground: A Theology of Church Renewal (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 83

***George Lindbeck, The Nature of Doctrine: Religion and Theology in a Postliberal Age [1984], (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 60

Kim Reisman

Kim Reisman

I’m puzzled by the assertion of the New England delegation to General Conference that the body of Christ might have no common identity…

I’m also wondering how exactly we are to be ‘resourced but not controlled’ by the support structures of the Church?

Read on for the full New England Delegation Statement…

New England ACAnd no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.  (Mark 2:22 The NIV)

In 2012 the United Methodist Church came of age. We may not know it yet, but when the motion to adjourn General Conference came at 10:45 on Friday evening, May 4, from Joey Lopez of North Carolina, we were launched from the cozy confines of the nest that had sheltered us for the last 44 years into a new world that we can hardly begin to imagine.

Some of us may have sensed it at the time, but for most of us there has been a growing realization that what we have been counting on to save our church will never be sufficient for the task. If we were depending on getting our legislative house in order, we failed to do so. If we were hoping that instituting strong centralized leadership would be the panacea, all the plans went up in smoke. If we thought a common theological perspective, or a unified worldview, or new language around inclusion would rescue us—none of these were anywhere to be seen.

The reality is that the United Methodist church is too big and too diverse to be held together by any of the centers we have relied upon for more than four decades. We will not be saved by our bishops, our polity, our structure, our metrics, our theology, our doctrine, our social principles, or by Roberts Rules of Order. Thank God! What Tampa taught us is that the vitality of United Methodism is not to be found in any of its structures. Our strength and our unity lie in our identity as a spiritual movement, grounded in the grace of God and linked by common practices of personal and social holiness. Nothing more, nothing less.

We in the New England delegation are convinced that all efforts to impose a common identity on the Church theologically, ecclesiologically or culturally are not only doomed to failure, but actually thwart the attempts of United Methodist Christians to follow faithfully in the ways of Jesus Christ. We believe that the old Church with its old myths of a common identity imposed from the center has failed. We further hold that any new structures that emerge in the years ahead must emphasize relationship among the wonderfully diverse parts of our communion rather than uniformity of practice across the connection. Further, such plans must not only permit, but must encourage communities to freely meet the needs of people in their own contexts, resourced but not controlled by the support structures of the church. Such structures includeThe Discipline, the episcopacy, the General Conference and the boards and agencies.  Each exists only to equip and serve the servants of God’s people. (emphasis added)


  • We are not defeated or dismayed by what happened and what did not happen at the General Conference. We in the New England delegation, while recognizing that much of what we had hoped for may not have come to fruition, understand that the aftermath of General Conference presents us with new opportunities to reshape the church in a more just and equitable fashion. This opportunity is offered not just to those who attended General Conference but to all in the UMC who are called to serve God’s people.
  • The expanding role of the Central Conferences, both numerically and politically, has created a new reality in the church. The church can no longer operate from a US-centric perspective at General Conference, nor will the theological and cultural norms with which those of us in the US have become familiar suffice for us going forward. Our future will not be a recapitulation of our past. There are difficult challenges ahead as the UMC attempts to address worldwide structure issues. Ours is a church divided by language, culture, theology, social perspective and economic means, just to name a few. We are hampered by the reality that enabling legislation to create the framework for a new worldwide structure failed four years ago because many in the church were afraid of what it might portend. (Proposed Constitutional amendments that would have eliminated the term “Central Conferences” in favor of “Regional Conferences” and would have included the US as one of those regions were passed by General Conference, but not endorsed by the required number of persons voting in the annual conferences.) Still, we can find hope and unity if we can envision ways for our Wesleyan heritage to keep us in relationship and our structure to allow us to minister freely and fully in our unique contexts. If we can rise to this challenge, we may well be on the verge of the richest blessings our church has yet known.
  • Any plan for reorganization of the church needs to begin almost immediately and have broad buy-in from many voices, so that it arrives at GC 2016 with momentum and consensus already established. We must move away from the notion of proportional representation (i.e. areas with the largest membership get the greatest say) and ask instead which perspectives need to be represented in creating our new church. It may well be that constituencies that are entirely under-represented at the moment are key to the future of the denomination. Whatever we do, it must be crystal clear that the purpose of any plan is to enable ministry and not to consolidate power.
  • Annual Conferences must monitor closely the new power that has been put in the hands of the bishops to withhold appointment from elders in good standing in order to make certain that this tool is not being used to inhibit prophetic and/or inclusive ministry. Clergy sessions of the annual conference must be especially vigilant in this area. Additionally we need proactive guidelines for missional appointment-making that protect prophetic preaching and preserve racial, ethnic and gender diversity in our pulpits. The legislation passed by the General Conference was intended to ensure more effective pastoral leadership in our churches. We remind ourselves and our appointive authorities that effectiveness can only be truly assessed by taking into consideration the contexts into which persons are sent.
  • The New England Delegation is clear that the unity of the church cannot come at the expense of being a fully inclusive church.  Council of Bishops President Rosemary Wenner’s apology to GLBT United Methodists for the harm that our church has caused was a much welcomed and long overdue word, but we need more than words. The majority of our delegation remains committed to the creation of a UMC where all God’s people are welcome to share all of their gifts.
  • We believe that the most fruitful change in any organization always comes from the edges and never from the center. We are encouraged that the conversation has continued in so many places after General Conference. We are concerned that these conversations are still confined to the US and challenge those who are engaged in them to expand the circle to the Central Conferences. Still, we are pleased that so many people still care so passionately about the church we all love.

One word from the New England delegation is that ‘any plan for reorganization of the church needs to begin almost immediately.’

So what’s our next step? Let the conversations begin…

General Conference 2012 ~ Random Thoughts


Tampa, Florida

Sunday, April 22 ~ The view out my hotel window is gorgeous and I already have the feeling that I won’t get to enjoy it except in the dark after about 10pm.


I’m totally bummed that I forgot my camera. I can take pictures on my iPhone, but I’m never as happy with the way they come out (probably user issues). I’m pretty good with taking pictures on my iPad, but look like an idiot when doing it. Now that I think of it, looking like an idiot hasn’t ever really stopped me from doing anything.


I’m bummed about forgetting my camera, but ashamed that I forgot my Bible (except the version on my iPhone). But I have my Discipline! I guess I’m walking proof that Jason Vickers is right.


Monday, April 23 ~ The Council of Bishops has assigned me to the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters. We began our work this morning – voting on officers. Odd that over half of the people on this committee are newly appointed but are now expected to vote on people they don’t know to serve in a position for four years. Basically the same people were reelected to serve again. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, just interesting.


Best news so far: Our Nothing But Nets campaign has been instrumental in cutting the death rate from malaria in half.


Best first encounter: As I sat waiting for the beginning of the Central Conference meeting, I caught the eye of Alexis Nzabonimpa from the Gisenyi District in Rwanda who greeted me with a joyful smile. He came over and introduced himself and we shared about ourselves. Our time of getting to know one another ended with Alexis offering an amazing prayer of thanksgiving for our meeting. Afterwards, he said, “I am always so glad to meet a fellow servant in the Lord! Working together for the Lord brings such joy – like being in heaven!” That provided me a fresh context for the next two weeks.


There really is some theological stuff going on here, I just don’t think it will make it out of the legislative committees. Case in point: A Declaration from the Church in Africa (Petition #20921), which will come before the Faith and Order legislative group. This declaration was brought before the 2008 General Conference but no action was taken. Here are some interesting excerpts:

We are convinced that our connectedness has only been possible and solidified over the years because of our devoted loyalty to Jesus Christ as our only Savior and risen Lord. Our uncompromising belief in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the redemption of the whole world, and our obedience to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18-20), is the primary reason for our commitment to “making disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

The Church in Africa believes the totality of the Holy Scriptures (the 66 canonical books) as the Word of God for belief, obedience and practice. And, hence, we believe in the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ as the only “Way, Truth and Life” to eternality with God (John 14:6); and of his eternal co-existence and of one substance with God the Father and the Holy Spirit (Gen. 1:1-2, 26-27; John 6:5-15).

As we conclude the 2004-2008 quadrennium, and look forward to the commencement of a new one (2009- 2012), it is incumbent upon us, as a global Christian community to evaluate the past, understand the present and thereby anticipate a realistic future of the Church of Jesus Christ which he has entrusted to our care. Against this background, we wish to make the following inquiry for our consideration: How well is global United Methodism doing in ministry? How spiritually healthy is the Church? Is it growing, declining or stagnant? What is the Church’s priority? How does that priority measure up with its call by the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ, to fulfill the Great Commission? How many Churches have been planted during this past quadrennium? Have we as United Methodists, along with feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, building hospitals and schools, and responding to the physical needs of the poor, intentionally and significantly invested in evangelistic outreach, and discipleship ministries resulting in the planting of new churches for new converts?

The above inquiry is based on the fact that we of the Central Conferences of Africa are deeply concerned that the global United Methodist Church is beginning to speak with different languages, and not with the common speech that presents Jesus Christ as the Good News of salvation, our only Lord, and only Savior. As a result, the global witness of United Methodism is being threatened with the proclamation of different kinds of “gospels.”

We in Africa are deeply concerned that some Euro-Western Churches seem to be deserting the biblical path of Church planting, disciple-making, of prayer, and evangelistic and missional endeavors to an inward focus. This inward focus of some Churches has almost changed the biblical mandate from the “Great Commission” to the “Great Omission.”… Five years before his death John Wesley entertained the fear that in decades to come “the people called Methodist” would not cease to exist but would exist merely as a dead sect, having the form of godliness but no power to live for and proclaim Christ, unless they held fast to the Doctrine, Discipline and Spirit with which they first set out. We are painfully saddened that these current trends within the Euro-Western Church are, unfortunately, confirming the fears of John Wesley.

We in Africa hear the lamenting voice of the Apostle Paul when he says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- which is really no gospel at all” (Gal.1:6-7a). By such actions and attitudes towards the Gospel we are throwing both our adults and our children into confusion and, without words, telling them that Christianity does not have all the answers to their spiritual longing…

Therefore, we declare:

That the Lord God Almighty is the creator of heaven and earth and everything that is in it (Gen. 1:1; Psalm 24:1-3); That God made humanity in his own image and set humanity apart to be his vicegerent to manage and care for his creation (Gen. 2:15-17); That humanity willingly made a choice to sin against God, beginning with our original parents, Adam and Eve. As a result sin entered into the human race, bringing all humanity and all creation under the damnation of sin (Gen. 3:1-7, 14-19; Rom 3:10-12,23); That “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him might not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16-17; Rom 8:1); That Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, voluntarily submitted Himself to be crucified for us, under Roman authority, as a sacrificial offering, taking upon Himself the guilt of all humanity, standing in our place, atoning for our sins, forsaken as a criminal on a rugged Roman cross (Is. 52:13-53:12, John 10:18); That Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, arose literally and physically from the dead, victoriously resurrected to life in indestructible bodily form, presenting himself to hundreds of eyewitnesses over 40 days (John 20:19-30); That Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, literally ascended into the clouds and now sits on High as our Intercessor at the right hand of the Father (Acts 1:1-11; 1 Cor. 15:1-8); That Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, will literally return on the clouds to reign with his faithful and true Church, his Bride and Body, for all who have been rescued by his atoning death (Acts 1:10-11; Rev. 21:1- 8); That anyone who will confess that Jesus is Lord and believe of the heart that God raised him from the dead will be saved, resurrected bodily like Him to live and reign forever with the Lord (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

Kim Reisman

Kim Reisman

The declaration goes on to address a host of other issues such as evil, the authority of and faithfulness to scripture, spiritual decadence, use of our tithes and offerings commensurate with the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ worldwide, the equipping of seminaries, evangelism, and just and proportionate representation – to name just a few.

The Church in Africa is deeply worried about all of us Euro-Westerners. I’d like to hear more about that, but I don’t think I’ll get the chance. Petition #20921 is really long and cumbersome to read. I’ve also been told it’s misplaced. That likely indicates it probably won’t get very far – no sense talking about something that’s cumbersome and misplaced.

Alexis provided me a fresh context. I need that as the work begins. It really is a joyous thing to come together with other servants of the Lord. I just hope that the work we do really is the Lord’s and not just our own.

UMCGC 2012 logo

UMC General Conference 2012





Tampa, Florida



A word from Mr. Wesley as we come to General Conference…

Wesley statue - Asbury Seminary

John Wesley ~ Asbury Theological Seminary

In the quad at Asbury Seminary, we have a statue of John Wesley preaching in the public market. There is a plaque on the statue with some words of Wesley. I had these words put there because I wanted our students to be constantly reminded of the peril in which we stand in the United Methodist Church. I encouraged our students read that plaque and pause often there in the presence of Mr. Wesley, and pay attention to what he said:

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

These words have special meaning as we participate in the upcoming United Methodist General Conference (April 24-May 3). It is clear that we are not holding fast the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which the Methodist movement first set out.

Another word from Mr. Wesley is our challenge:

If you preach doctrine only, the people will become antinomians; and if you preach experience only, they will become enthusiasts; and if you preach practice only, they will become Pharisees. But if you preach all these and do not enforce discipline, Methodism will become like a highly cultivated garden without a fence, exposed to the ravages of the wild boar of the forest.

We are seeing it happen. The wild boar of the forest has been loosed not only in the highly cultivated garden of the Wesleyan movement, but in all mainline churches. So there is,

  • experimenting with pagan ritual and practice
  • consuming the world’s goods without regard for the poor
  • accommodating the prevailing patterns of sexual promiscuity, serial marriage, and divorce
  • resigning ourselves to the injustices of racial and gender prejudice
  • condoning homosexual practice
  • ignoring the historic Church’s long-standing protection of the unborn and the mother… nearly 50 million abortions in the last 3 decades
Matrix Mentor, Maxie D. Dunnam

Maxie D. Dunnam - Kingdom Catalysts

God called Israel to be “God’s own people…a holy nation.”  The church, as the “new Israel,” is to function in the same fashion. So God’s call to us is, “Be holy as I am holy.”  While we will spend a great deal of time dealing with structural issues, which is essential, my prayer is that we will not compromise on the critical social issues: care for the unborn, attention to the “strangers in our midst” (immigration), the practice of homosexuality (same sex unions, ordination of avowed homosexual persons), what merits a supposed Christian nation to initiate war, and peace in Jerusalem and care for Palestinians – particularly recognizing how we have given far more attention to Jews than to our Christian brothers and sisters in that “Holy Land.”

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if we would discipline ourselves to spend as much time strategizing on how to live out our mission – “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” – as we do on how we will structure the governance of the church?


Weight-bearing Walls Revisited


Load bearingMany of you know that my husband, John, is not a professing Christian – he has not claimed the Christian faith for himself. As you might expect, that makes for much deep, meaningful and always lively discussion in our household.

John was raised as a Unitarian Universalist, and as a result has always had difficulty understanding why we United Methodists continue to argue over the wide range of issues that absorb our attention every four years at General Conference. Around this time surprising elements seem to enter our conversation in direct proportion to the volume of General Conference literature that inundates our mailbox.

This week we received a newspaper mailing from Mainstream United Methodists which prompted a no longer new (but always awkward) question from John: “Since there are so many different ways for people to live out their Christian faith, if the United Methodist Church’s doctrines don’t fit a person’s way of living out their faith, or if there are parts of being a United Methodist that violate a person’s conscience, why do they stay United Methodists? Why don’t they become something else?”

John asks this question on a fairly regular basis. I never seem to have an adequate answer.

But what always intrigues me about his question is that he recognizes that United Methodists have doctrines – foundational things that bind us together with Christians across the world and throughout the ages, as well as things that define us as a community of Christians with our own unique place in the body of Christ. If you didn’t already know, those things are our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith as well as John Wesley’s Sermons and Explanatory Notes on the New Testament.

Interestingly, the “Methodist Quadrilateral” isn’t actually included in those foundational things, as many would like to think. The Quadrilateral is about method, not doctrine. It’s about the process not the content. It is not contained in our constitution. It is not protected by any restrictive rules. Unlike our United Methodist doctrine, the Quadrilateral can be changed or even eliminated from the Book of Discipline altogether if that is the desire of the General Conference.

As I was thinking about John’s recognition of the role of doctrine, the metaphor of weight-bearing walls returned to my mind. Now here is something that can bear the weight. Here is the very thing that has born the weight of 2000 years of Christians continually seeking to live into the kingdom of God unfolding in their midst.

The problem is we United Methodists are in the midst of a 40+ year identity crisis. Our identity has become muddied by an emphasis on process rather than content, by thinking that the most important thing is how you come to your conclusions, not what your conclusions actually are. As a result, we’ve deceived ourselves into thinking we are a pluralist church – or at least “doctrinally diverse” – when in actuality we are, at least according to our constitution, confessional.

But I suppose that we really are a confessional church is a moot point if nobody realizes it or if few people even know what our doctrines are, or if those doctrines have been systematically ignored or set aside.

Over fifteen years ago, Billy Abraham asked some questions that are still pertinent today:

  • Can United Methodists identify the content of their doctrines and their doctrinal standards?
  • Does United Methodism really accept its own doctrines?
  • Does it take them seriously in its work and ministry?
  • Does it know how to teach them across generations?
  • Does it know how to interpret them and relate them to new situations?
  • Does it have ways of ensuring that the teachers of the tradition, most especially the presbyters, are really committed to the doctrinal standards of the church?
  • Does it have ways of ensuring that its overseers and guardians of the tradition, namely, its bishops, both own the tradition and hold themselves and the church as a whole accountable to these traditions?*

As I head for Tampa, I have an uneasy feeling that none of the decisions we will be asked to make actually addresses what lies at the heart of our struggle as a denomination – the identity crises that stems from doctrinal confusion and chaos. There is an unspoken divide between those who would like to abandon the classical faith of the church and those who want to keep it front and center. We seem to have lost our doctrinal and spiritual focus and have allowed the culture to set the agenda and norms for the church.

I believe Billy Abraham was correct all those years ago when he asserted that:

The church cannot endure without a body of systematic and coherent doctrine. This was not a problem Wesley faced two centuries ago. His challenge was to take the doctrine the church already possessed in her canonical traditions and make it accessible to the masses of his day. Hence he did not make doctrine a high priority in his efforts to renew the church of his day. Two hundred years later, the situation is radically reversed. We have become so doctrinally indifferent and illiterate that the church is starved of intellectual content…It is the recovery of doctrine that in part makes one acutely aware of how crucial continuing intellectual engagement is in the life of the church. We have to find our own way to deploy the doctrines of the faith and to offer the kind of interpretive investigation that will be relevant to our own times. We have to try to solve the problems and questions that lie buried in the tradition; we have to deal with a host of objections that occur to insiders and outsiders; and we have to make our own contributions to the life of the Christian mind. This continuing work is not done in a doctrinal vacuum. It is done precisely in and through the owning of the doctrines of the faith in our own space and time.*

The issues of this General Conference will come and go as they always do – some will resurface, others may not, but nothing of substance will change if we don’t do exactly as Abraham suggests – own the doctrines of our faith in our own space and time.


*Billy Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 50-51, 104-105