IS PROGRESSIVE RELIGION COMPATIBLE WITH HISTORIC CHRISTIANITY?
By Dr. Riley B. Case
The United Methodist Church (and also the Confessing Movement) lost a great leader and a spiritual giant in the death of Dr. Jimmy Buskirk, whose funeral was held September 29 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Jimmy Buskirk was the founding dean of Oral Roberts School of Theology, pastor of First Church Tulsa and one of the founding pastors of the Confessing Movement. I first met Jimmy Buskirk in December of 1967 when he and several others, including Ira Gallaway, Bill Hinson, John Ed Mathison and Maxie Dunnam (present chair of the Confessing Movement board) called together 48 persons for a theological consultation in Houston. The group was concerned about the theological chaos growing out of the 1972 General Conference. Out of the consultation came a statement known as The Houston Declaration.
The Affirmation addressed three issues, The Primacy of Scripture, the Trinity, and Ordained Ministry.
The Primacy of Scripture had been compromised in United Methodism because of the doctrinal statement of 1972 which introduced the idea of the “quadrilateral,” which among other things spoke of reason and experience as sources and authorities in matters of doctrine and appeared to place these on par with Scripture.
The Trinity was dealing with an issue in which feminists in the church were critical of male imagery in the Bible and wished even to replace the Biblical reference to Trinity as Father, Son and Holy Spirit with substitute language such as “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer” even in matters of baptism and ordination.
The matter of Ministry addressed whether or not persons should be ordained to ministry who no longer subscribed to the historic sexual ethics as “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.”
The Houston Declaration became a rallying statement for evangelicals and was signed by 9,500 clergy and 7,000 laity and signaled the growing influence of evangelicals in the denomination, especially in the issues before the 1988 General Conference.
Response to the Houston Declaration was not all positive. Much of the criticism was from individuals and ad hoc groups but one response, from a group in the Pacific Northwest Conference, implied some “official” standing since it was endorsed by the Conference Council on Ministries. Leading pastors and laity in the conference prepared what was known as The Pacific Confession. Two of the signers, Elaine Stanovsky and Mary Ann Swenson, would become bishops of the church. A comparison of the Houston Declaration and the Pacific Confession reveals the nature of the widening theological gaps in the church very present in 1988 but now so significant that it is best the church divide and incompatible groups go their separate ways.
The following are the affirmations of the Pacific Confession.
WE BELIEVE THAT THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD TRANSCENDS ALL NAMES. God should not be restricted by language and theological method. Specifically, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is not the only adequate formula for God and other names and images should be welcomed. Male imagery used to identify God is to be resisted unless balanced by female imagery. So, there is no reason why the ancient name for the Trinity, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” needs to be invoked, even in baptisms and ordination, when non-sexist names like “Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer,” which “draw us more deeply into the fullness of God’s being,” can be used.
Comment from the traditionalist perspective of 2020. This affirmation from the Pacific Confession grows out of extreme religious feminism and is in conflict with ecumenical Christianity, including official statements from the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches. For the record: the 1988 General Conference did respond to this controversy by declaring that ordinations shall be in the name of the “Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.” For most Christians, to invoke any other name in baptism or marriage or ordination would be to render the rite invalid.
WE BELIEVE THAT THE REVELATION OF GOD IS ONGOING. “We reject the current proposal to dismantle the Wesleyan quadrilateral in favor of a narrowed emphasis on “the primacy of Scripture” in which reason…and experience are demoted from sources of revelation to tools of biblical study...we fear that the emerging theologies…of oppressed groups will not be honored if experience and reason are no longer considered valid sources of revelation.”
Comment from the traditionalist perspective of 2020. This perhaps represents the major difference between progressives and traditionalists: whether new “truths” (which often reflect current cultural and intellectual fads) can replace or be added to historic Christian truth. Evangelicals and traditionalists observe that only groups known as cults today add new truth to the Biblical revelation. For the record: the 1988 doctrinal statement approved by the General Conference did, in fact, remove the references to “reason” and “experience” as sources of authoritative truth.
WE BELIEVE THAT FAITH IS A PILGRIMAGE. “We affirm the present Discipline’s understanding of “the conciliar principle” which assumes that theology is a “continuing enterprise.” Thus councils or conferences (such as the General Conference) can offer declarative judgments that supersede previous understandings (such as the progressive assertion that marriage can be expanded to mean not just a covenant between a male and a female but between any two persons).
Comment from the traditionalist perspective of 2020. The very phrase “conciliar principle” is a Roman Catholic concept which assumes that the church can create new doctrinal truth through the church’s ecumenical councils. The Wesleyan understanding of the conference was that it was for instruction and supervision, not for creating new truth. For the record: the 1988 General Conference removed all references to “the conciliar principle.”
WE BELIEVE THAT THE CHURCH, AS THE BODY OF CHRIST, EMBRACES DIVERSITY. “We reject the exclusion of persons from Christian ministry and leadership based solely on sexual orientation and practice.”
Comment from the traditionalist perspective of 2020. This affirmation declares that the church is wrong to insist on a sexual ethic that stands on the principle of “celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage.” For the record: not only the 1988 General Conference but every General Conference since then has affirmed the Biblical position that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.
It is not insignificant that several years after 1988, in 1994, most of the same pastors who crafted the Houston Declaration of December 1987 met in Atlanta and organized what today is The Confessing Movement, dedicated to uphold the historic Christian and Wesleyan message of Christ’s atoning death for the sins of the world and salvation by grace through faith.
Evangelicals and traditionalists are sometimes accused of being divisive. This is an unfortunate accusation since it is evangelicals and traditionalists who have sought to be faithful to the Discipline’s view of connectionalism (para 132) which affirms, with other things, the importance of doctrinal standards and the General Rules. These truths evangelicals have proclaimed even as the denomination’s seminaries and institutional agencies and even many of its bishops have veered off into other directions. Schism does not come about by affirming foundational truths. Schism comes about when a group seeks to replace original foundational truths with different truth claims. The Pacific Confession envisions a different looking church than that identified with historic Christianity. The confession uses modern sociological terms such as pluralism, diversity, new images for God, openness, justice, inclusivity, and onging revelation. It does not even mention words like sin, atonement, the cross, faith, salvation, or grace.
And so we face the probability of division in the church. It will take General Conference action to allow this to take place and the General Conference will not meet until September of 2021. What to do in the meantime? Hold fast. Stay in touch with those who share the same Biblical vision and trust in the Lord’s leading.