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Joe Kilpatrick Sr., a retired CPA, is a lay member of Tucker First UMC and the North Georgia Conference, which has elected him a delegate to the General Conference since 1988. He is currently a Trustee of Asbury Theological Seminary, and formerly served as a director of The United Methodist Publishing House. He is on the Steering Committee of UM Action and the board of directors of the Confessing Movement within The United Methodist Church.
In this guest post, Joe responds to an article by retired Bishop Lawrence McCleskey defending the “One Church Plan” to change the UMC’s standards to allow partnered gay clergy and same-sex unions, an article which was distributed by the liberal “Uniting Methodists” caucus.
Bishop McCleskey gives a historical overview of Wesley’s 1784 transfer of power to a hundred preachers, the Legal Hundred, of the first Annual Conference. He talks about contextualization and leans heavily on “Our Theological Task.” He references our doctrinal heritage noting “sacred and historical” documents, including Scripture. He says, “Those standards are fixed.”
Bishop McCleskey shifts then to our theological heritage which he says is “fluid, ongoing and contextual.” He is contrasting this with the doctrinal heritage which is fixed.
Bishop McCleskey concludes by aligning ordination and marriage as matters of fluid theological reflection vs. the fixed doctrinal standards. He believes our ethical practice, ordination and marriage for example, can be treated with flexibility and diversity because they are distinguished from our identity. He believes our identity more closely hinges on the fixed doctrinal issues.
McCleskey believes the One Church Plan is best because we are not about rules and exclusion but about a connectionalism that will exemplify relationships, inclusion and grace.
I believe this is poor, poor thinking for the following reasons.
First, Bishop McCleskey presents our church history out of context. John Wesley was not about passing his powerful influence along to 100 preachers who would define relationships, inclusion and grace in the fluid “world.” Wesley was about preserving methods for holy and serious Christian life. The Conference was to appoint only those who would “preach no other doctrine than is contained in Mr. Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament and four volumes of sermons.” The Quarterly meetings and the Conference were “under God a center of union to all our traveling…preachers.” Discussions of Doctrine dominated the discussions at meetings when there was controversy as with the antinomians (persons believing Christians are released by grace from observation of moral law.) Surely McCleskey knows that Wesley would never have placed Doctrine and moral standards second to fluid, ongoing, contextual matters in a fallen world. McCleskey is clearly thinking out-of-context.
Second, Bishop McCleskey’s academic inquiry has falsely defined connectionalism. He omits its essence, pastoral rule and care and the safeguarding of doctrine. The Conference exercised great authority in discipline and administration; the power of its officers flowed from the authority of the Conference. The local societies were the Connection written small, while the Conference was the Connection written large. They are not disjointed. Wesley and each conference pursed a single objective, promote scriptural holiness in personal life and in social relationships. The societies were open to all who desired to be saved from their sins. Continued membership required a manner of life consistent with the desire for salvation from sin. Free grace, offered through the “Connexion,” was available to all who desired to be saved from their sins. McCleskey is wrong to say we are not about rules and exclusion; the very essence of our connection, its membership and continued membership, required a focus on scriptural holiness, not on fluid theological reflection. Holiness was to be learned and practiced within a common, connected framework.
Third, Bishop McCleskey appears to corrupt Wesley’s understandings of scriptural holiness. Love and perfect love are deeply involved. Wesley’s sermon on The Character of a Methodist is instructive. It begins by calling attention to diverse opinions and asserting that Methodists believe that “all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God; and…this written Word of God is the only and the sufficient rule of Christian faith and practice. Wesley asserts that” a Methodist is one who has the Love of God shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Ghost…” Wesley says, “For as he loves God, so he keeps all his commandments…Whatever God has forbidden he avoids…his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from which it flows. Wesley asserted that a Methodist of character will not “follow a multitude to do evil.” And finally, Wesley asserts that Methodists know that vice and worldly customs, however fashionable, “must not hinder their ‘running of the race set before us.” The actors at the Council of Jerusalem (Luke 15) became major writers of the New Testament and defined Christian ethics with their lists of virtues and vices for a diverse, pagan world. McCleskey wants to delete sinful practice named in scripture and bless those practices in ordination and marriage in Christ’s Church. This is not connectionalism. It is not love.
I believe and conclude that Bishop McCleskey’s flawed understandings, deviating badly from our history, policy, and doctrine, seriously threaten our union.
References: I have borrowed liberally from The Works of John Wesley, Volume 9, The Methodist Societies, History, Nature and Design; edited by Rupert E. Davis, Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1989.