Laity and Doctrinal Practice: A Response to Joel Watts

Recently I read a blog by Joel Watts, a fellow United Methodist and layman in the church, whose blog proclaims a love of Christian history and tradition which we both share. In the blog Joel traces the history of laity voting at General Conference and goes on to suggest that it might be better if this practice, (at least in regards to questions or resolutions at GC pertaining to theology or dogma) were to cease and in his own words we were to:

“Let the ordained lead, let the laity follow, let us all work.”

I wish there were no need for me to preface my response with this, but I am writing as someone who holds no ill will or disrespect to Joel Watts. In fact I read his blog quite regularly and many times what he has had to say makes a lot a sense to me. We share much in common and both love our denomination deeply. He has stated in his blog that he hopes it will be the beginning of fruitful conversation. I hope my own words here can contribute to that conversation.

Let me start by saying that I agree firmly with Joel’s point that it is misguided for laity to come to General Conference expecting to “create doctrine.” This would be very dangerous indeed. But we have to separate the reality from the perception. Is the General Conference “creating doctrine”? Like most questions, the answer depends. It depends on how one defines doctrine. The fact that we United Methodists can’t seem to agree on a proper definition may be one of our greatest weaknesses and the source of many of our disagreements.

For my part, I think doctrine is a lot like onions. On top of sometimes smelling funny and bringing on tears, doctrine has layers, some deeper than others. The deepest layer is what I call essential doctrines, those points of Christian faith that are non-negotiable. Most Methodists agree in the idea of essential doctrines, but of course don’t always agree on what constitutes them. For my part, I would define them narrowly rather than broadly. Within the United Methodist Church the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith constitute essential doctrines both because they affirm deeper, basic Christian principles not unique to us as Methodists and because our constitution forbids any changes or revisions to these documents, which it itself identifies as doctrines. I realize while most other Methodists would agree these constitute essentials, some might not limit the essentials to this definition. Hopefully this has at least established a basis for essential doctrine.

The next layer of doctrine is one I classify as theological principles. These emerge when we as Methodists take the essential doctrines we uphold and begin to ask ourselves what do they mean to us as Methodists. How do we see them in light of Wesleyan identity? This is where we start applying theological techniques like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. This is the layer where timeless Christian truths are translated into contemporary expressions of our denomination. While they help us with our theological tasks and give us our unique Wesleyan voice, they are not as basic or essential in nature as the Articles or our Confession.

Finally comes the layer of doctrinal practice. This layer in itself affirms a tireless truth Methodists have always affirmed: that belief and practice are irrevocably tied together. The way we act tells what we believe deep down and what we believe deep down influences our actions. It’s not enough to say we believe something, but rather we have to live in such a way that affirms our belief. In seminary I wrote that John Wesley’s entire theology could be summed up in his final words:

“The best of all is God is with us.” (Wesley, June 17, 1791)

Then I pointed that while Methodists have no trouble saying they believe these words to be true, we don’t always live like people who believe them. What we believe makes claims on our lives. These doctrines come with the expectation for expression. How we treat each other, how we work, how we spend money and go about everyday activities should all be tied to our doctrines. If I believe in a Triune God who died to save all humanity, how am I living differently from someone who doesn’t believe it? How are my actions informed by that belief? These are questions we have confront and answer as Christians.

So we come back to the question: Does General Conference “create doctrine”? The answer is no. General Conference does not produce doctrine from scratch, nor is it allowed to change the essential doctrines contained in the Articles of Religion. While General Conference exercises some power to influence theological principles, those most basic to our Wesleyan heritage have proven resilient enough to stand the test of time and democratic process. As to the final layer of doctrinal practice, however, General Conference not only has a say in the matter, but is in fact required to develop sound doctrinal practices. In fact one could say that this is one of the Conference’s most fundamental duties.

Perhaps it is these practices which Joel believes only the clergy should determine. In his blog, Joel suggests a division of the duties of General Conference between matters of doctrine and church business. The problem with this division is that it can’t exist. The church’s “business” should and always will be directly tied to its doctrines. As stated before, how we behave, how we spend the church’s money, how we organize ourselves, or even keep our books in order should all be informed by doctrine. It would be ridiculous to trust the business of the church into the hands of people we would not trust enough formulate doctrinal practice otherwise. The fact that churches have often fallen into the trap of leaving one side to formulate doctrine while leaving another to do “the work” is probably the root to a lot of our problems. Doctrine has to be something we collectively own and defend as the church, not something we leave to one party.

So why should laity determine doctrinal practice at all? Why not leave all the church’s business and doctrinal practices to the clergy? Joel talks about Apostolic Succession, which he clearly believes very strongly. I don’t think his blog quite explains the meaning of this phrase and how that meaning varies from tradition to tradition. The earliest references to Apostolic Succession in church writings date back to the 2nd Century. At the time bishops were asserting their status as the true leaders of the true church by tracing their own office back to one of the original apostles in scripture.

“Let them produce the original records of their churches; let them unfold the roll of their bishops, running down in due succession from the beginning in such a manner that [that first bishop of theirs] bishop shall be able to show for his ordainer and predecessor some one of the apostles or of apostolic men.” (Tertullian)

The principle is that Christ passed power into the hands of his disciples who then designated heirs who had it passed onto them. This meant the church was defined by an unbroken line of bishops. If a church did not have a bishop or that bishop could not trace himself back to one of the original apostles then that church was illegitimate. This meant that the power of church depended upon its bishops.

While this was the dominant understanding the episcopacy through in the early church period it was not the only one. Augustine (a favorite patristic among Protestants) argued a very different understanding of what constituted the church. For Augustine the power of the church did not depend on its bishop as much as the power of the bishops depended on the church. Where almost everyone else emphasized the singular importance of the bishop, Augustine believed that the true church and its power rested with all true believers as a collective, not simply the episcopacy. More than anyone since Paul, Augustine emphasized the role of the entire church as the Body of Christ. Sacraments, blessings, creeds, and councils carried power because of this. To be fair Augustine still held to the principle of Apostolic Succession even as he altered the definition somewhat. The bishops were heirs to the apostles, but more because belonged to the right church than because they their diocese could claim St. Andrew or St. James as its founder.

While Augustine’s thoughts did not result in significant changes in polity during his own time, they would be well-remembered during the Protestant Reformation when Luther declared the “priesthood of all believers.” This meant not only the removal of the sacrament of penance and role of the priest as essential intermediary to Christ, but also the bestowing upon all Christians (clergy and lay) of the responsibility to defend, uphold, and practice doctrine. We all had access to the scriptures now and we were all trusted to follow them. It also meant that discipline as a means of enforcing doctrine would be collectively practiced as well and not left to clergy or bishops exclusively. Wesley understood this better than most. Accountability at the hands of fellow ordinary Christians was the hallmark of his societies. To entrust such responsibility to the very limited number of clergy in his movement or non-existent bishops would have been impossible. How can a tradition that depended on the presence of a pious and strong laity for its foundation, now be talking of restricting its role as if it will save the church?

Though the United Methodist Church has historically affirmed Apostolic Succession, it’s worth noting that we understand it radically differently from many other denominations because we believe that under certain circumstances the offices of bishop and presbyter can be one in the same, allowing someone to act as bishop when they have not been consecrated as such. This is how Wesley preserved American Methodism by ordaining Thomas Coke and appointing him as superintendent. Had Wesley held the same strict definition of Apostolic Succession as his own Anglican tradition and many others, this would have been impossible. What’s more while Thomas Coke is counted as the first Methodist bishop, Wesley never intended for him to be declared such. This adds a new level of irregularity to our episcopal heritage. Apostolic Succession is not even laid out in the Articles of Religion.

Joel asks the question, “…you are not part of the Apostolic Succession, then where did you get your Christianity?” While perhaps not a question United Methodists have to answer, I will try to. In the absence of Apostolic Succession I believe the church can still exist, be it irregular. I believe just as Wesley found a way to ordain new ministers in the absence of bishops, God can find a way to build a church even in the absence of an unbroken line of apostles. John the Baptist told Israel not to boost that they were descendants of Abraham because God could call out descendants from ordinary stones. Perhaps we should be just as careful not to boost that we are descended from the apostles, for God could just as easily make a new church out of stones.

So I say, Joel while I understand your concerns and agree that laity (and clergy!) who think General Conference is there to “create doctrines” need to be corrected, I think your cure might be worse than the disease. You say we should let the ordained lead and have the laity follow, but the Christian is also like an onion and some have more layers than others. The office of pastor and even bishop are still outer layers. The deepest part of us, that which all Christians share in common, is that of disciple. In all my life, I would rather it be said of me that I was good disciple than anything else. But a disciple is one who follows first, not leads. Even as we appoint leaders for the good of the church, those leaders remain first and foremost followers, and will never be good leaders without first being exceptional followers.

General Conference gets all the attention because it’s big, diverse, and carries a lot of weight, but we do the same kind of work at General Conference everyday as Christians without realizing it. When I teach Sunday School I am practicing doctrine. When I offer food to the needy, I’m practicing doctrine. When I close my prayers in the name of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Spirit, I’m practicing doctrine. As long as General Conference is tasked to determine how Methodists are to live out doctrine collectively, then laity must have a voice there. If GC will make swiping decisions that will determine how we as United Methodists act, teach, pray, and witness then we must be involved in the process. The pastors may lead us, but not blindfold us. We are all called to doctrinal practice. That calling insists we all have a place a table.

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3 Responses to Laity and Doctrinal Practice: A Response to Joel Watts

  1. Philip, this is an excellent post. I’d like to reprint it as part of a package including both Jeremy Smith’s and Joel Watts’ recent posts on the same subject. Please reply with permission to one.scribe56@gmail.com. Thanks!

    • Philip Brooks says:

      Cynthia,

      Thank you. Absolutely you can use it. Thanks for checking first. Very courteous of you. Let me know when it’s up.

  2. Pingback: more on priorities over position, a continuing discussion #UMC | Unsettled Christianity

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