By Brian Hammons
As a lay delegate to General Conference, I’ve been reading a lot to prepare for the upcoming special session on February 24-26. Scripture has been a big part of that, seeking God’s guidance in grace and truth. One passage that I have used frequently over the years keeps coming back to me; It provides important reminders and instructions during this time in our denomination:
“Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Hebrew 10:23-25).
I’m especially struck by that first phrase, the admonition to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering.” That’s especially important now, as we seek a renewed vision for the church, and unity as well as contextuality in ministry for the Methodist movement.
Just what is that “confession of our hope?” Certainly it’s Jesus Christ our Lord. It’s also the core doctrinal beliefs that flow from our proclamation of Christ. During this season of discernment in our denomination, I’ve pondered just what core beliefs we share as Methodists. As I’ve read and studied, I’ve tried to discern a way to clearly articulate in a few key phrases some doctrinal principals that can be very complicated.
I’m wondering – what would those be for you? What are the 5-8 core doctrinal teachings that you hold up as true, that you embrace as essential to your faith and ministry as a Christian in the Wesleyan or Methodist way?
For me, as I’ve prayerfully studied writings of several scholars, I have identified seven. Now, I’m not a learned theologian with an M.Div., just a practical lay follower of Jesus with a J.D. But hopefully I’ve picked up a few things from classes and teachers along the way. Each of these is foundational, with many ideas and concepts as part of them. In fact, exploring them could make for a good sermon series on what we believe as Methodists. Here they are:
1. The Holy Trinity of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit
2. Biblical Authority
3. Our Human Condition – Sin and Evil
4. Justification by Faith – Jesus’ Way of Salvation
5. Transformed Life in the Spirit
6. The Church as the Body of Christ
7. Sabbath – Holy Rest and Worship of God
I’ve come to think of these as “essentials – practical Methodist faith for today.”
As we discuss the future structure of the church, how can we also engage in clarifying essential doctrines and our core beliefs that flow from them? For ourselves, as well as in our witness to all in our communities whom God calls us to reach with the Good News of life with Jesus? And how do we put these beliefs into action through following three general rules (Do no harm, Do good, Stay in love with God) or engaging together in three strategic priorities (Missional Leaders, New Places for New People, Pathway Out of Poverty)?
Whether we consider ourselves “traditionalist” or “progressive” or somewhere in between, I suspect there are many areas of common understanding as we consider essential doctrines, core beliefs and strategic priorities. These are points of unity that we should continue to emphasize and even strengthen as Methodists.
Marriage & Sexuality
Now, I realize that we don’t all agree on exactly how our Christian doctrines play out in specific beliefs and actions. We see that clearly regarding our views of marriage and sexuality. I’ve heard some comments to the effect that we really differ in one or more of the doctrinal points, which could be at the root of our differences in understandings of marriage, sexuality and the future of the church.
For example, I personally have a traditional understanding of Biblical authority, interpreting scripture (aided by tradition, reason, and experience) in a more conservative way than some. I do agonize over the struggle that our United Methodist family has gone through for nearly 50 years regarding human sexuality, often preferring to ignore it and move on to discussing other church matters, especially as the church’s official position has not changed.
In hearing from brothers and sisters who advocate that the church’s position on marriage and ordination must change, it becomes apparent that their understanding of the Bible and God’s revelation is different from mine. Can we respectfully discuss our perspectives and learn from each other? I hope so. Can we continue to uphold the “confession of our hope” – Jesus and our core doctrines? Yes, I hope so. Can we “provoke one another to love and good deeds ... encouraging one another?” Yes, I hope we can do that, too, regardless of what happens at the special General Conference session.
Whatever happens in St. Louis in February, and in conferences and local congregations afterward, I pray that God’s kingdom will be multiplied through the ministries of the people called Methodist.
Whatever structural changes may result, either planned through an option made available by the General Conference’s action or separately as Methodists follow their personal beliefs regarding human sexuality and marriage, I pray that the Holy Spirit will assure the United Methodist family of God’s presence and guide each one into a closer connection with God’s grace and truth.
And I pray that we then will renew our commitments to witness, with greater clarity, to the Good News of the Gospel and truly make disciples of Jesus Christ among those God calls us to reach in our communities and the world (our mission field). The main thing is – to keep JESUS the main thing.
I urge you, then, to join in praying for God’s wisdom and revelation in clarifying for you and church leaders the essential doctrines and beliefs that you “hold fast to ... without wavering.” And pray fervently for the Spirit to calm the atmosphere surrounding the General Conference session and lead the delegates toward respectful, wise decisions. Please pray especially for our delegates from Missouri, Bishop Farr, all of our pastors and congregations, and all the people God calls us to reach. For a list of Missouri delegation members, visit www.moumethodist.org/gc19delegation.
Perhaps, in the months ahead, we may actually see a new awakening of God’s Spirit and a renewal of the Methodist movement – whatever the institution we know as the church may look like.
Yes, we are a people of HOPE – God’s HOPE! Let’s hold fast to it!