Tract Number One
Our Doctrinal Standards and Theological Integrity
AT ISSUE: What does the scriptural confession of Jesus Christ as Son, Savior, and Lord, as interpreted according to United Methodist Doctrinal Standards, require of us regarding the recovery of doctrinal integrity in our theological seminaries and Conference Boards of Ministry?
Throughout church history there have been times when the Gospel has come under serious attack. At such times it has been necessary for Christians to state clearly and confidently the apostolic faith. We believe that such a time has now come for the Church we love and serve. We are now witnessing a host of attempts to alter and diminish the faith. We have seen enough to conclude that the integrity of the Gospel as proclaimed in our church is at stake. The United Methodist Church is now unable to confess with one voice Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of history.
The United Methodist Church is in a time of theological ferment. Some have opted for vagueness, claiming that our Church has no tradition of professing classical Christian faith. The result has been doctrinal ambiguity amid a hollow pluralism which has left United Methodist laity without reliable foundation.
It was out of concern for our faithful witness to the historic Christian faith that the Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church was founded. In April, 1994, laity, pastors, and bishops issued an “Invitation to the Church” to join in confronting the crisis of United Methodist identity and belief by exalting the sole Lordship of Jesus Christ in an era influenced by notions of absolute doctrinal relativism. Many thousands have responded to this invitation with signatures and official board endorsements.
The Confessing Movement encourages the General Conference to ask four questions about theological education:
- In addition to Bishops and pastors, who are recognized as official teachers in the training of United Methodist pastors?
- How do we responsibly fund these teachers?
- In what way are academic teachers accountable to the church as well as to the academic institution?
- What role should Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry play in this accountability process?
In light of these questions we identify the following challenges to the integrity of theological education:
Immediate Challenges in Theological Education
- Teachers within our official seminaries, who educate our future pastors, can repudiate and demean our Church’s clear teaching on atonement, trinity, and Almighty God and still be continued as key teachers of our Church.
- The present formula of the Ministerial Education Fund requires the laity to support seminaries without adequate assurances that faculties will be accountable in some measurable way to our church’s doctrinal standards.
- The faculties of our seminaries can currently reproduce themselves according to notions of academic accountability without concern for our doctrinal standards, as if accountability to the church were the sole responsibility of our Boards of Ordained Ministry.
How will we respond to these challenges? This is what we are asking you to search for with us.
Needed Seminary and Ordination Correctives
When faithful United Methodists become powerless to implement in their own seminaries their own historic doctrinal standards in terms repeatedly defined in our books of Doctrine and Discipline, some more constructive remedies are required. The appeal to academic freedom in the seminaries becomes a way of avoiding criticism from the churches. When this happens, lay people must take an active interest in the seminaries they fund. If seminaries teach counter canonical doctrines and conjectures unfriendly to the health of the church, the church has no indelible moral obligation to give them support or bless their follies.
It is time for laity to become more engaged in education for ordination and ministry. Many faithful lay persons hope for a deeper experience of the Holy Spirit in the renewing of their pastors’ lives. A new determination is emerging to support pastoral work which is grounded in sound textual exposition of the apostolic tradition. United Methodist laity are coming to grasp more clearly that they have a decisive interest in the right grounding of the ordained ministries. Trustees and financial supporters of church-related educational institutions and ordinary churchgoers are increasingly demanding the right to know why clergy leadership is so prone to imposing theological fads upon the laity.
Confessing United Methodists think it unfair that costly tuition is extracted from candidates with sincere evangelical and traditionalist beliefs who come to study God, yet find that much of what they study is pop psychology or comparative sociology or Marxist class analysis or political partisanship. This dilemma is intensified when ministry candidates are pressured to attend only those seminaries approved by the University Senate. Yet these schools may be less accountable to Wesleyan teaching and more overtly hostile to our doctrinal standards than other comparable educational settings which are non-approved.
The Emerging Vision of Theological Integrity
The Confessing Movement challenges those who deliberately undermine our doctrinal standards. We stand ready to contest those who preach and lobby against our doctrinal standards while holding official roles in the teaching office. Those who challenge the primacy of Scripture and justify the acceptance of Religion and Confession of Faith must be reminded that The United Methodist Church has never offered an institutional guarantee of doctrinal diversity without boundaries. Our Church suffers from privatized versions of the faith that do not find their root in Scripture.
We seek theological integrity that will neither slide toward heterodoxy and imprudence nor become inwardly turned toward resentment and reactionary defensiveness. The Confessing Movement sees a common vision sharable by traditionalists and evangelicals, for renewal of our institutions, our seminaries, and bureaucracies, We are offering feasible goals for the rehabilitation of a tradition-deprived church. Some have questioned the need for a Confessing Movement, arguing that ours is to a confessing Church. Every United Methodist is asked at baptism, “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord?” The Confessing Movement Within The United Methodist Church is not proposing some confession that is not already embedded in this baptismal confession, and in our church’s long-standing affirmation of the Apostles’ Creed, which confesses Jesus Christ as “his only Son, our Lord.”
Furthermore, our doctrinal standards are not a mystery. The Restrictive Rules of our Constitution direct that the General Conference does not have the power to amend, revise or otherwise edit or diminish the Twenty-five Articles of Religion or the General Rules or Wesley’s Standard Sermons and Notes Upon the New Testament, or the 1962 Confession of Faith. These are standards which every candidate for ordained ministry is called honestly to profess. The Discipline requires acknowledgment of, commitment to, and a promise to preach and maintain these doctrines of The United Methodist Church (Par. 425, p.226)
Our purpose is to contend for the apostolic faith within The United Methodist Church. We rejoice that our Wesleyan theological tradition stands firmly within classical Christian teaching. We pray for its renewal in each United Methodist congregation and conference. The confessing Movement seeks to reclaim the Church’s ancient ecumenical faith in Wesleyan terms within contemporary society.
Principles for Integrity in Theological Education
We offer these principles for the 1996 General Conference to use as guidance in seeking theological integrity:
- On the principles of public accountability and honesty in representing ourselves, we respectfully urge that the General Conference require United Methodist seminaries to include within their mission statements that they are sincerely trying to be accountable to United Methodist doctrinal standards.
- On the principle of increased democratic accountability, we recommend that the Ministerial Education Fund be reallocated by means of vouchers to these ministerial candidates themselves who are officially approved as United Methodist candidates by their Board of Ordained Ministry, to attend whatever seminary is found acceptable to the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry. This would shift the energy and momentum for theological reform to the conferences and candidates, rather than to the seminary faculties alone. It would immediately have the effect of encouraging the seminaries to become more responsive to the ground level needs of the churches.
- For a hundred years after Wesley the title of our Methodist Church book of church order was The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church. On the principle of our fiduciary role in guardianship of our doctrinal tradition, we hope that the 1996 General Conference will signal its commitment to recover our doctrinal standards in this simple way: by returning once again to the former title, The Doctrines and Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The spine and cover of the book should contain that title as a reminder of our determination to bring Wesleyan doctrinal standards back into the Church.
Dear Reader: You may or may not agree with all that is said above. But we know you love the church and we invite you to join us as we think together about doctrine and our life together. “If your heart is as my heart, then give me your hand.”