It got my attention – the title of a blog post: When the United Methodist Church Sold Its Soul. Though I originally saw it shared on Facebook, it was posted on United Methodist Insight by Doyle Burbank-Williams.
The author’s foundational claim was that the UMC sold her soul when the General Conference (the only body that can speak officially for the whole Church) adopted the mission statement, “To make disciples of Jesus Christ.”
It should not have surprised me, but it did. The author blamed our understanding of evangelism (as expressed in our mission statement) for the fact that the church is not affirming same-sex marriage and the ordination of “practicing” homosexual candidates. In making the case, the writer, in the style of many ideologues, made blanket assertions that are strangers to reality and used definitions that are stereotypes not generally true, setting up straw men to destroy. For instance, as he defined it, evangelism is, “join us the way we define us or burn in hell,” against Wesley’s “in all things charity.”
Burbank-Williams used the stereotypical notion that evangelicals share their faith to “carve a notch in some spiritual gun butt” in contrast to his claim that progressives follow Jesus because “it makes the world at least a little bit better.” He confessed, “I have no desire to share my version of the faith.” Yet, I don’t know a more dramatic expression of sharing his version of the faith than what he wrote in his post.
He criticized the mission statement “making disciples of Jesus Christ” because he claimed there was nothing about making this world a better place, or making us better. Our interest and commitment, he said, was about numbers and trying to reverse the membership decline, and, he added, “we have been obsessed with numbers ever since.”
I wonder what he thinks a disciple of Jesus does.
The disciples I know in Memphis are the ones who are making our city a better place; they are the ones who are committed to and are making progress in revolutionizing public education so that a child’s zip code does not determine that child’s potential for a good education. They are the ones who are feeding the hungry, challenging a punitive, not redemptive, criminal punishment system, and are advocating for alternative responses than jail time for drug users. They are the ones who are caring for single moms and are providing shelter for abused women and their children.
These disciples of Jesus Christ I know are not demanding that people be like them; they are loving people where they are, and offering the transforming power Christ provides when he becomes Lord of their life. Because they are loving Jesus and loving like Jesus, most people with whom they share receive their witness gladly.
The writer who contends we lost our soul when we adopted the mission statement insists that “love God, love neighbor” would be a better mission statement from a “Wesleyan” perspective. Would you not think that love for our neighbors compels us to share Christ with them, that doing justice and loving mercy is for the transformation of the world and is at the core of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
Burbank-Williams’ assumption that the General Conference adopted the mission statement because the denomination was diminishing in numbers is patently false. Scott Jones (now Bishop) and the people who shared with him worked for years to get the Church to define herself and her mission for the sake of integrity and identity. They were not thinking of numbers but rather were seeking to be faithful to the Gospel and to renew a denomination that was aimlessly floundering because of the lack of clarity and commitment to a commonly shared mission.
The original statement of the mission was “to make disciples of Jesus Christ;” later the phrase “for the transformation of the world” was added. The first part of the rationale for our present mission as stated in the Discipline is:
to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.
How the Church could be selling her soul for a mission like that is difficult for me to imagine.
It is obvious that there is confusion about the nature of evangelism and discipleship. We have falsely sought to separate the two. The writer is not alone in this confusion. More evangelical, independent churches have sought to make converts without making disciples; mainline churches, such as the UMC, have sought to make disciples without making converts. The mistake should be obvious from both perspectives; being a Christian means being disciples of Jesus Christ, and being a disciple involves a personal saving relationship with Jesus.
But the author seems to make all social issues equal and demanding acceptance from the church. He contends that his generation adopted a more moderate and reasoned response to biblical authority. He snidely describes the Bible as scripture as, “God’s actual words somehow divinely transmitted via inspired human conduits,” saying those with a high view of scripture pay, “no attention to changing culture or even newer and better translation of ancient words and anthropologies.”
Yet what of highly esteemed, outstanding biblical scholars like N.T. Wright, Ben Witherington, Richard Hayes, and William Arnold? Incidentally, all of these and countless other biblical scholars disagree with the writer’s convictions about human sexuality, but are constantly calling us to acknowledge and confront culture with the Gospel.
His closing focus on the presenting issue of human sexuality that is threatening the division of the UMC makes clear what his issue really is. He asserts that in adopting our mission statement, we sold our souls by formalizing a narrow orthodoxy/evangelism that denied LGBTQ persons full inclusion. That’s a long leap which I believe is not only inadequate, but falsely reasoned. This kind of reasoning demonstrates disrespect for the largest segment of the Church who are committed to scripture as God’s word and are not, by and large, backward folks who refuse to wrestle with cultural issues; this kind of reasoning has brought our denomination to the brink of division.
If there is formalized division that matches the existing crevasse, I’ll be casting my lot with those who want to live out a mission, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and by exemplifying Jesus’ command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God’s reign and realm in the world.”