Re-Imagining the Gospel

Many of us will remember the 1993 Re-Imagining conference held in Minneapolis which drew so much national attention.  The central purpose of the conference, as I recall, was to help the wider church more fully support the role of women in leadership in the church.  This was, and continues to be, an important conversation in the church and I, for one, support the full participation of women in the life and work of the church.  However, the conference (sponsored by the World Council of Churches) quickly became a time to “re-imagine” the doctrines of God, church, salvation and so forth.  So what could have been a careful reading of Scripture and the history of the church in light of new and real challenges, became an open denunciation of historic Christian faith.  Songs were sung to a God/dess Sophia.  One of the plenary speakers was famously asked about the doctrine of the atonement.  She replied that we “don’t need a theory of atonement” and then went on to say that “I don’t think we need folks hanging on crosses, and blood dripping and weird stuff.”  That statement speaks for itself.

It is perhaps time for a new Re-Imagining conference, but this time a call to re-imagine a church faithful to the gospel and historic faith. Perhaps this General Conference, or a future one, could truly become a re-imagining conference.  I would like to re-imagine a few things by invoking our collective memory of the following:

First, let’s remember that the United Methodist Church is the greatest church planting movement in the history of the United States.  No other denomination in our history has planted a church in every county in the country.  That is an astonishing feat.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great new church planting movement?

Second, let’s remember that our movement has produced some of the most effective, reproducible models for Christian nurture and discipleship in history.  Our very name, ‘Methodist’ was a reflection of the strict ‘method’ we used for discipling new believers.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a great discipling movement?

Third, let’s not forget that the Wesleyan doctrine of salvation was fully Trinitarian.  It wasn’t enough to be justified by Christ.  One must be sanctified by the Holy Spirit.  It wasn’t enough to be “declared righteous” (alien, imputed righteousness), we must be “made righteous” (imparted righteousness).  The linking of prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and glorifying grace in the writings of Wesley remains one of his great legacies.  We have a message of transforming grace.  Can we re-imagine ourselves as a movement of grace and life?

We live in a day when the church seems to work overtime to erase every possible distinction between the world and the church.  However, the world needs Jesus Christ.  The world needs to hear the gospel.  The world needs the wonderful ministry of the church as an embodied community living out all the realities of the New Creation in the midst of a broken world.  Let’s not forget this.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves with a prophetic imagination.  Let’s re-imagine ourselves as a gospel proclaiming, church planting, disciple making, grace filled movement bringing life and hope to all!

Is this possible?  Do I have hope for the United Methodist Church?  Yes it is.  The very Christ we proclaim in the gospel is the greatest impossibility made possible. In fact, the gospel emerges in the context of two “impossibilities.”  As someone once noted, He entered the world through a door marked “no entry” (a virgin womb).  He left through a door marked “no exit” (a tomb).  Two “impossibilities” made possible in Jesus Christ.   Yes, we can imagine the “impossible” made possible again!

Is Mormonism a Cult or a Christian Denomination?

This past week there was a huge political flap about a Baptist minister named Robert Jeffries over his claim that Mormonism is a cult and that Mitt Romney should not be considered a Christian.  The remark set off a firestorm because this was the ground for encouraging people to not vote for Mitt Romney. All of the major GOP rivals for the nomination immediately released statements that they regarded Romney, and fellow Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints members, as Christians and that religion should not be an issue in the GOP nomination.

My own view is that whether a candidate is a Christian or not is only one of a myriad of considerations which one must weigh in an overall decision to vote for or against a candidate.  I would never say that someone being a Christian carries no political weight for me at all. However, I would also not say that someone being a Christian or not carries the entire weight in my decision.

The more interesting part of the discussion has to do with whether the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints should be considered a cult or just another denomination or branch of Christianity such as Methodism, Lutheranism or, for that matter, Eastern Orthodoxy. What makes all the diversity of denominations or branches of global Christianity share a “family resemblance” despite our differences is that we are all built on a common confession rooted in the Council of Nicea and, in particular, the Nicene Creed.  The Nicene affirmation is the ground of unity upon which the entire global church is built.  This is why it is known as an historic, ecumenical creed.  It is, of course, true that there are dozens of churches (especially those who identify with fundamentalism) which boldly proclaim that “we have no creed but the Bible” and would not recite the Nicene creed in their services.  However, if you look carefully at their church covenants or statements of faith, they fully resonate with Nicea.  Furthermore, as Protestants, they trace their heritage back to movements which fully resonate with Nicea.

This is why Arianism back in the fourth century was declared a heresy or a “cult” at the Council of Nicea in 325 even though they ardently claimed to be Christians.  They, like modern day Jehovah Witnesses and Mormons, do not fall within the “family” of Christianity primarily because they rejected orthodox Christology.  The Arian claim that “there was a time when he was not” is, of course, the same stumbling block which is fallen over by both Jehovah Witnesses’ and Mormons.  The former (JW) is a closer version of Arianism (though JW deny the personality of the Holy Spirit which Arius accepted), whereas the latter (Mormons) is a more complex, nuanced view due to the insertion of the Book of Mormon (rather than merely the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses).  Suffice it to say here, Mormons do not believe in the eternal pre-existence of the eternal second person of the Trinity.  Mormons believe that He existed eternally only in the way that generic “matter” is viewed as eternal.  Any movement that does not affirm the eternal pre-existence of the second person of the Trinity is sub-Christian, regardless how fervently they declare that Jesus is God and that He is the sole savior of the world.  At root, Mormonism is about a man becoming God; Christianity is about God becoming a man.  Thus, Mormonism has, quite rightly, not been considered a Christian movement.