A major temptation that the newly formed Global Methodist Church must resist is the tendency to over correct with regard to problems we faced while still United Methodists. The dysfunction of the UMC spanned a range of issues, and the GMC now needs to build healthy theological and structural systems that allow us to flourish without being subject to the problems we dealt with before. Often times, when organizations have major problems, the temptation arises to over correct: if there's a problem with a certain system, rather than correcting the system, we might be tempted to jettison the system as a whole. But this need not be. You don't have to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. I see potential for this in three areas just now. There may be more, but will start with these: bishops, baptism, and seminaries.
I don't have to tell you that the dysfunction on the United Methodist Council of Bishops was a major driver for disaffiliation in recent months. United Methodist bishops are set apart to administer the Discipline, which is written by the General Conference. Many bishops, however, have set themselves against the General Conference by refusing to uphold those parts of the Discipline with which they personally disagree. The situation is analogous to corporate executives intentionally subverting or disregarding the policies enacted by their company's governing board. That sort of situation is easily rectified in the corporate world; the board would fire the CEO and install someone who would run the company according to their expectations. The UMC doesn't have such an easy solution and was left with a conflict between the General Conference and the Council of Bishops. The bishops had enough power and too little accountability, which left them free to circumvent the Discipline with impunity. This lack of integrity on the part of the bishops was a major motivation for churches who desired to leave the UMC. They didn't want to be attached to a hypocritical episcopacy with bishops committed to using their power to create the denomination they want despite the decisions of General Conference.
Coming out of such a situation, it's no surprise that Global Methodists are having conversation around the role of bishops, episcopal accountability, and limits to episcopal power. Sometimes you'll hear the suggestion made that we don't even need bishops. And this is where we come to the temptation to over correct: bishops were one of the major problems; so let's just not have bishops. I don't think this attitude will prevail. We seem to be well on our way to having bishops. The task now is to determine how many we'll have, what exactly they'll be doing, and for how long. I bring this up to illustrate the temptation to over correct. The solution isn't to be rid of bishops. The solution is to have good bishops with integrity who shepherd the Church well. We don't need to do away with the episcopacy; we need to guard it. We need to resist the temptation to over correct.
Another issue on which we may be in danger of over correcting is baptism and our sacramental theology. There's talk in various places of an effort to shift the Global Methodist Church away from a biblical and historical understanding of the baptismal sacrament toward a local option where churches can elect to practice believer's baptism instead of covenantal baptism. I suspect the desire to make such a move is rooted in the reality that we did a poor job in the UMC articulating a robust sacramental theology of baptism. All too often, infant baptism has been administered out of formality or sentimentality. It has not always been accompanied by the clear articulation that the triune God himself is at work in the sacrament to incorporate the child into his mighty acts of salvation. We have not made it clear that the water is a means of God's grace in the life of that child offered by God through the church. And we've not always consistently reminded baptized children that the appropriate response to the grace received in their baptism is to trust Jesus and surrender themselves wholly to his lordship. Confirmation is frequently a rubber stamp that fails to adequately invite students to wrestle with the requirements of a life of discipleship. It's automatic. It's formal. It's sentimental. And many wouldn't dare not confirm a student who isn't ready to make a public profession of faith. None of that is good for the children or the Church.
Given those dynamics, the temptation arises to jettison infant baptism altogether and shift to something more akin to believer's baptism. But this is an over correction, and it's no solution. Rather, we should do the hard work of articulating a rigorous theology of the sacraments that is grounded in scripture and faithful to our Wesleyan tradition. We should equip pastors to teach their congregations that baptism is primarily about what God is doing, that it doesn't represent the choice of an individual, and that it does mean the baptized in incorporated into the covenantal community. We need to equip pastors to teach the church how signs work: they don't point to something that's already happened in the past but rather mark the present work of God and point forward to what he will do in the future. We do not need to dispense with our baptismal theology and shift to a local option when it comes to the sacraments. We need to work harder do biblical and Wesleyan baptismal theology well. Let's not over correct.
The third area where we are in danger of over correcting is our relationship to the seminary and theological education. In the UMC, our official seminaries served traditional churches very poorly. Far too often, students were pressured to dispense with orthodoxy in favor of the progressive agenda. The temptation now in the GMC is to say: we did faithful work despite the seminaries in the UMC, why do even need them now in the GMC? But this question is aimed in the wrong direction, and it represents an over correction. The solution isn't to dispense with an educated clergy; the solution is to do quality control and ensure that the education the clergy receive is faithful and rigorous. At this point, no graduate degree is required for any ordination path in the Global Methodist Church. If this were to be made permanent, where would that leave us in fifty years? We talk about the need for bishops to be teachers of the Church, but we won't have many capable teachers from whom to choose our bishops if we haven't required any of the clergy to do a master's degree. Seminary is the place where the clergy should get what they can't get anywhere else: training in exegesis and languages (What does the Bible say?), Church history (Who are we and what have we done before?), and systematic theology (How do the different areas of the Christian faith relate?). These are formative questions and the classes in which they are investigated are formative experiences. To jettison them would be a critical mistake. The solution isn't to do away with seminary; the solution is to partner with strong and faithful seminaries. And if a seminary falters, we must have courage to break ties with it. Again, the answer is not to dispense with higher education for clergy; it's do the hard work of quality control in the higher education of the clergy.
So let's not over correct. Let's work hard to maintain the theology and structures that make us Methodists and let's work hard to make them strong. We don't need to be rid of bishops; we do need good bishops with appropriate accountability. We don't need a local option on baptism; we do need to be thoughtful and clear on our sacramental theology. We don't need to dispense with grad school for at least some clergy; we do need to require faithfulness and rigor from our seminaries.
These are just a few of the reasons Christ Church Birmingham is hosting Reconstructing Methodism this spring. The conference is designed to help the GMC reflect publicly and together on real solutions to the theological questions we face with the formation of a new denomination. I hope you'll consider joining us April 26-27, 2024, as we gather with key denominational leaders to work on constructing a vibrant, faithful, and thoughtful expression of the Wesleyan tradition in the Global Methodist Church.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Christ Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. A two-time recipient of the John Stott Award for Pastoral Engagement, he is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online and follow @mporeilly.
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