In other words, he’s a really good United Methodist . . . he just doesn’t know it yet.
And because of a recent post, he’s my newest cyber hero.
On February 7, Olson wrote Why I Am Not A Liberal Christian which, I believe, is a substantive critique of where modern-day Protestant Liberalism comes from and where it leads. And because Olson is not limited by any kind of “Top Five Tuesday,” he lists at least six reasons for his beliefs. He also has a provocative follow up: Why I Am Not A Fundamentalist.
Anyway, all that got me inspired and set me to thinking: why I am not in the progressive wing of the United Methodist Church?
Why is it that I don’t belong to the Methodist Federation For Social Action? Why haven’t I asked Good Shepherd to join the Reconciling Ministries Network? And why do I look with suspicion at the majority of statements emerging from the General Board of Church & Society?
Well, here goes. Five reasons why I am not a United Methodist progressive.
(Actually, before I do, two quick caveats: 1) I am speaking in terms of theology, not politics. While I don’t make my voting record public, just know that on some political issues I’m conservative and on others, not at all; 2) this theological conservative/progressive divide also does not refer to worship style. Many would say that Good Shepherd’s approach to worship is progressive, yet we hope that the modern format is harnessed to ancient, orthodox theology.)
So, with that in mind, here goes:
1. I don’t believe that progressive Christianity holds exclusive rights to the longstanding goals of what we used to call the “social gospel” —
a vital engagement with the poor;
a radical commitment to ethnic diversity;
a continual reminder to the comfortably Christian that Jesus came to make their lives deeply uncomfortable —
because I have seen all those goals come to life within the community of an unabashedly conservative and evangelical church. And Good Shepherd is not at all unique. Throughout our connection there are congregations who are able to live out many of liberalism’s aims while remaining moored to historic teaching. Check here and here and here for examples of multi-ethnic and missionally-engaged churches who stay traditional in their doctrine.
2. I believe that heaven and hell are real and that Jesus will actually return to earth one day to judge the quick and the dead. Progressive Christianity has a strong vein of universal salvation that runs through it. And while I would like to believe in universalism, the consistent witness of the New Testament along with the specific words of Jesus prevent me from doing that.
3. I choose an ancient understanding of authority over a modern one. For Olson, the conservative / progressive divide comes down to differing sources of authority. Here’s how he says it: However, when I read [a three volume] history of liberal theology in America I discern that all these theologians have one thing in common—recognition of the authority of “modern thought” alongside or above Scripture and tradition. According to Olson, what is current and/or personal becomes authoritative in progressive theology. I am of the mind that newer is almost never better when it comes to doctrine. That’s why in the case of homosexual practice, conservative United Methodists believe that 2000 years of the church’s understanding of sexual holiness (celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in heterosexual marriage) takes precedence over newer interpretations that have developed in the last 40 years. So there is a reason why part of our “liturgy” at Good Shepherd includes lifting the bible — not because we worship it but because we choose to surrender to its authority to the best of our ability and understanding.
4. I hope and pray to embrace the heart of the Wesleyan movement — a passionate belief in free will, a celebration of the assurance of salvation, and a promise to spread scriptural holiness — without a particular attachment to its contemporary forms. That’s why in our congregation we have plenty of women’s LifeGroups — but no United Methodist Women’s circles. It’s why we have children and students lead us in worship — but no acolyte ministry. And it’s why, yes, we built our church to include space for a baptismal pool — so that we as a congregation can share in the celebration of new believers going public by getting wet.
5. I don’t read the bible literally. I don’t read the bible symbolically. I read it literarily. Like we say at Good Shepherd, “the bible is not a book; it’s a library.” And libraries by definition have differing styles of literature on their shelves. So it is with Scripture — and you interpret the books according to the style of writing they represent. That’s why the best of evangelical scholarship can read a chapter like Genesis 1 and know at once that it is not pretending to be a scientific essay but is intead a glorious hymn of creation. At the other end of the library, we can read Revelation and know that it can’t mean to us (modern readers) something it never meant to them (the first audience of, hello!, the seven churches). In reading the bible literarily, I come to believe in the miracles of Christ that many in the progressive wing jettisoned long ago — chief among them, his virgin conception and his literal, bodily resurrection from the dead.
These days, homosexuality appears to be the dividing line between progressive and conservative United Methodists. Progressives advocate changing the denomination’s official position (which currently states that homosexual intimacy is not compatible with Christian teaching) while conservatives hope to retain it.
But I suggest that the homosexual issue is not the cause of the divide; it is a symptom of a separation that already exists. The more fundamental issues involve authority and eternity and even congrgational flexibility. And on all of those I land alongside those Methodist who call themselves “conservative” or “evangelical.”
Through all of that, I hope that some day I can be as strong a Methodist as my new favorite Baptist professor.