Monday, June 04, 2007

Ecclesiology Conference

Friday and Saturday, The Wesleyan Church had a conference in Indy on the church. It was a very packed schedule of speakers and respondents with almost 100 attending.

Joe Dongell of Asbury Seminary is an incredible mind and heart. He and John Drury win my "smartest presentations" award, the ones that provoked the deepest thoughts for me personally. Joe investigated the word pastor in the NT and found consistent connections with teaching the flock. He suggested that Wesleyans needed to return to "word-bearing" as the focal role of the pastor.

John Drury explored how the relationships of the Trinity might inform how we are the church. Very interestingly, he pointed out distinctions in the three referents "people of God," "body of Christ," and "temple of the Spirit." One thought that relates to membership planning is "particularism" of the people of God (and here I'm Schenckifying his deeper thoughts) as seen, for example, in Israel. Israel was not the whole world and yet God had a particular relationship with them.

Frank Robinson of California captured our popular imagination with tales of healing and rising from the dead today. Why dont we see more miracles in America? They're happening elsewhere?

Jerry Pence, one of our three general superintendents, asked how we might think of Wesleyan worship. He had some thought provoking questions on Wesleyans as orthodox, Protestant, Arminian, evangelical, Wesleyans.

Bud Bence discussed Wesley's eccesiology and argued that it was very practical and driven by his doctrine of salvation. His default was a very high church, but those impulses were always subordinated to his drive to save souls.

I argued that many of the aspects of the NT that we have generally taken in reference to us as individuals are actually oriented around corporate Christian bodies and only secondarily around us as individuals. I wish we had been able to have public discussion time because I really don't know what the specific reaction to any of these papers was, including my own.

Then Tom McCall, a Wesleyan who teaches theology at Trinity, talked about the church as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church and he applied it specifically to The Wesleyan Church.

These papers, the responses and mp3's of the presentations should eventually make their way to

Perhaps the issue that was in the back of many of our minds at this conference was the coming discussions over membership requirements that will almost certainly take place next year at general conference. I think the question might be rephrased, "Within the universal church, what is the identity and purpose of The Wesleyan Church?"

I have two thoughts here:
1. First, The Wesleyan Church is not the universal church. It would be both silly and unwise to pretend like our identity is simply that of generic Christianity. Membership identity in a denomination is not a question of "What is a Christian?" or "What does the Bible require of a person to be a Christian?"

Most of those who frame membership requirements in this way reflect fundamental blind spots in the way they think. For one, the Bible did not set down its requirements with a view to 21st century America and the broader world. Its books addressed various contexts in the ancient world. To think our membership requirements would simply be a mirror of what the Bible required them reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the contexts of biblical instruction.

Secondly, to make the identity of The Wesleyan Church into "every church"--as if we obviously would only require what God requires of every Christian, the lowest common denominator of all Christians--is to insist that the ears be the eyes be the feet be the nose. We can look at the history of churches this last century and see two consequences of this line of thought: 1) either the denomination in question starts to think its members are the only ones going to heaven and it alone has the truth or 2) toward a blase grey melange of generic identity that really has no clear identity. The current non-denominational church is a mixture of both of these, 1) a melange of evangelical grey that 2) thinks it alone has the truth (in contrast to, say, Catholics and non-Calvinist groups).

2) This leads to number two. Denominations do a service to the body of Christ when they do "their thing" well. The Amish do forgiveness well. The question we Wesleyans need to be asking as we look to our denominational identity and our membership requirements is "What do we do well?" Optimism of grace comes to mind, victory over sin as a doctrine, social compassion was mentioned in my small group at the conference.

I've of course already written on this, so I close with two links:

What is a Wesleyan:

What is a Wesleyan university:


ben said...

I would have to say that your presentation was thought provoking for me. I wish that we would have had more time in our group to work out the implications of the "plurality of 'you'" in the scriptures.
A Question I have is, "What does it mean that salvation is first to the body then to the individual?" Also, I think in our tradition, it is important to understand how the priority of plural then singular affects our understanding of holiness. Holiness has been seen by many as a "personal issue", but what would it look like if we first saw it as a group issue? What implication does this have on membership requirements?
I enjoyed the symposium and your presentation. Thanks Ken.

Kevin K. Wright said...

vkKen, thank you for summarizing the symposium's activities. I appreciate the time you took to reiterate what went on for those of us who were unable to attend. First of all, may I say that I am exited that the Wesleyan Church is beginning to ask these hard questions. I think you're right in that membership will become an issue at the next general conference, and hopefully a symposium like this one will help to allow the converation to be theologically driven rather than solely propelled by pragmatisim.

I think that your question of "What do Wesleyans do well," while providing a starting point for how we think about membership, could also lead to an unhealthy way of thinking about Christiand discipleship in general. Perhaps it is merely your example of the Amish doing forgiveness well, but I would tend to think that all Christians should be formed according to an ethic of forgiveness in light of our memory of Jesus as both normative and and normative God. Thus, your question leaves open the possibility that Wesleyans might very well focus only on what we do well over and against other basic or more serious tenets of Christian discipleship.This unfortunate detour has the possibility of encouraging churches to either 1.) major on the minors, or 2.) disclose their irrelevancy by the issues they choose to take up. For instance, a member of the Wesleyan Church is liable to undergo discipline for drinking a can of beer, but is off the hook if he or she bombs a cafe full of civilians because he or she "thinks" that Saddam Hussein might be there.

So this is where I need your help and where I constantly go back to articles that you have written describing the methodology for how Wesleyans discern and remember through the Spirit who we are as a people formed through a specific tradition. Once we answer these questions (and actually become convinced of the answers) we can begin asking what it might look like for a person to be formed in that tradition but operating in the 21st century.

I would use this as a membership standard. Let's ask the question, "What might we expect from someone who is being filled with holy love right now?" Or to coin Wesley's vocabulary, "What can we expect today from someone who is going onto perfection?" Some of our criteria will probably look very similar to Wesley's standards for his classes, bands, and societies. But I am more than willing to concede that some may not as well.

Ken Schenck said...

Ben, thanks for kind words and good questions. They push to the areas to which I referred at the beginning when I suggested that I was not sure I fully knew myself all the implications of what I was saying.

With regard to salvation, I think there are some very controversial possible implications. Being with the body of Christ may have more impact on the salvation of others than we realize, even when the personal faith of those in our midst is unstable or uncertain.

This would have implications for infant baptism, for example. We tend as Wesleyans to be very sympathetic to the most ardent voices for believer's baptism. But I think there is more room than sometimes we admit for the church to exercise faith for a child in the period before the child can do it him or herself.

Then what of those who have faith crises, particularly near the time of their deaths? Can we exercise faith for them?

These are things I haven't fully thought through...

In terms of corporate holiness, this is at least a major blind spot for the pre-boomer generation, who often in their quest for personal holiness (which sometimes came out legalistically) massacred one another judgmentally. In other words, corporate holiness did not compute in deference to an ironically self-centered focus.

I think a lot of the excesses of that day could have been avoided if they had only thought of becoming holy together!

Kevin, good points. The Amish cannot get us off the hook on forgiveness. Unrighteousness in our ranks must meet the prophetic word. But I still think there are aspects of Christian faith and practice that our tradition has "got" better than others. We don't get predestination or God's sovereignty as well as the Reformed Church, although we believe in them in our own way.

I think what will really help us is to have this discussion in concrete terms.

Ken Schenck said...

Kevin, I reflected on your thoughts over lunch and decided that the issue of pacifism is an excellent case study for what I am suggesting. The question of Christians and war is a disputed issue among Christians. Some Christian denominations (Brethren in Christ?) are committed to pacifism as a membership requirement, I think.

Now I presume that the majority of the members believe that this is the Christian position on this issue. I doubt they would deny heaven to many others who have not concluded this, but they think they are incorrent.

However, I imagine there are also Brethren who consider this their personal conviction. Such individuals would not say their personal position is more Christian than someone who scrupulously follows Augustine's criteria. But they do not believe God would allow them personally to participate in war or individual self-defence.

What I am suggesting is that it would be legitimate for an entire denomination to have pacifism as one of their essential "practices" even if everyone in the denomination only viewed it as a conviction, in this case a corporate conviction. As a matter of their identity within the body of Christ, they commit themselves not to participate in war or violence of any kind, even in self-defense or to protect their family.

Drinking for Wesleyans can only be that sort of issue, since we cannot biblically prohibit it absolutely or contextually, in my opinion.

Ken Schenck said...

Ha, let me clarify what I mean by contextually. I mean by the context of the culture in which we live (outside context). We might very well defend it in terms of the inner context of The WC--who the members are and thus an inner corporate conviction.

ben said...

Ken, thanks for your response. Let me divulge my thinking when it comes to corporate holiness. I agree that the "pre-boomers" as you put it, focused too heavily on personal holiness, and I would go even farther to say that they(generalizing of course!) misunderstood what personal holiness is.
My thinking, spurred from your presentation, has been circling around the question, "What would a community look like if it focused on "wholistic holiness" taking into account personal and social holiness? A body of believers that took ecology as serious as alcohol abuse; fair trade issues along side tobacco use; social injustice and personal piety.
I wonder how much "American Individualism" and its influence on our denomination and others, has made us emphasis the singular over the plural, thus we focus on the personal sins while largely ignoring the social/systemic evils. Or, like the already way over quoted Rob Bell says, "We have been good Billy Grahams and bad Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s".

Ken Schenck said...

Ben, great thoughts, I think. Brian Russell did not speak at the conference, but he shared with our discussion group his sense that we best find/embody holiness as we as a community engage in the mission of the church.

Kevin K. Wright said...

Ken, excellent thoughts. However, I would question whether or not it is fair to compare the drinking issue with that of Christian non-violence. While it is true that we cannot Biblically prohibit drinking contextually or absolutely, the Mennonites are going to be quite convinced that such can be done with the advocation of pacifism. In fact, they've articulated this position for the past 500 years. So the real issue then is what is an essential component of Christian discipleship grounded in theological reflection upon Christian doctrine and dogma and what is adiaphora. Ironically, I believe that the fate and delineation of both categories are subject to the community of faith in conversation with the Holy Spirit such that it can be said of any ultimate decision in regards to authoritative statements on what consitutes dicipleship or what concerns indfferent matters that it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.

I agree with you that it would be absolutely legitimate for denominations to set standards based upon conviction rather than doctrine or dogma. However, to suggest that non-violence falls under such a category is to make a judgment call bringing us back to the question of what is a doctrinal conviction and what is a personal conviction of preference.

Wesleyans, in my view, do a great job of upholding an optimism about grace that is not found in every other denomination (5 minutes with my Anglican friends and you'll figure this out for yourself). So let's run with this great gift God has given to our denomination and allow it to inform more than just the issues we find convenient for us. Let's talk about how God's perfect love forms a community around issues of peace, reconciliation, economics, justice, and care of creation. Then it may be that our membership means more than simply voting rights and the ability to hold church office.

Kris said...

“In essentials unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity"

thanks for posting the article on the nature of wesleyan colleges and universities.

Michael R. Cline said...


Thanks for summing this up for me. I really wish I could have been there, that is, if I could have snuck in as a sort of "hey, recruit me to be a Wesleyan" listener.

Where was John Drury when I needed him. I just preached on Trinity Sunday going along with what he apparently spoke on. Figures...

A couple of thoughts are stirring in my mind as I read these comments:

(1) I love social justice as much as the next post-boomer. I am loving Sojourners (peace and justice), Rick Warren (aids), Bono (debt relief, aids, etc...)
, and Coldplay (fair trade). But I am concerned that the "social holiness" push that many of us younger pastors are starting to cry out for is going to get lost as the typical social action.

It's hip to be into social justice right now, but does social holiness and social justice in action necessarily go hand in hand? I think there will have to be a lot of dialogue before we can jump to that conclusion. Perhaps, many would argue, that there are other ways to be "socially a holy people" than wear a "fair trade" arm bracelet. It's going to be a long road if we go at it from this angle rather than "what does a holy people" look like? We'll have to start there.

(2) I complete follow what you are saying about denominations adding a unique flavor based on convictions to the ecclesiastical world, regardless of salvific weight and biblical authority. In fact, this is sort of the line of thinking I take on my own pacifist stance--even though I feel that to be pacifist is to be closer to the heart of Christ, even if I couldn't prove it absolutely on biblically grounds, I would still see it necessary to add such a voice if for no other reason than to counterbalance the war-hawk Christians.

In preaching on the Trinity this Sunday, I talked about how a community of the Triune God would be completely unified in nature, yet vary in design. I believe the line was "the community of God is hardly a monotone blanket, but a patchwork quilt, whereby we all highlight our convictions and add to the mix."

Why not do this with denominations?