Archive: The Dialogue We Need

By James D. McCallie, Pastor, Wesley Memorial Methodist Church, Jeffersonville, Indiana Pleasant Grove Methodist Church, Charlestown, Indiana

This is the day of “dialogue” for churchmen of every persuasion. Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are emerging from their traditional isolation to listen to each other and to recognize valid elements of a common religious ancestry.

Methodism, in keeping with her glorious heritage, stands in the forefront of the ecumenical scene. Wherever there have been efforts for interdenominational cooperation, we Methodists have been involved. We exercise strong leadership in the World Council of Churches, while we consummate union with a sister denomination, the E.U.B’s. And discussions are already underway toward involving the resultant United Methodist Church m an eventual nine-denomination merger.

Meanwhile, there are deep undercurrents of unrest and rumblings of discontent within The Methodist Church. The irony of the situation is that the ecumenical spirit which prevails between denominations is being undercut by internal ideological differences which divide a denomination against itself. The obvious problem in Methodism is that which is found in every other mainline Protestant denomination – the widening gulf between the church’s liberals and conservatives. The basic issue is theological, in other words.

I use the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” realizing their relativity in describing the source of conflict. Both emphases can be found within any theological context. However, there inevitably arises from the theological complexity of our time two distinctly different views of the character and content of divine revelation. One is primarily liberal, while the other is primarily conservative.

The conservative view of truth considers Jesus Christ and the Scripture to be God’s ultimate revelation. The liberal position diminishes the importance of Scripture and stresses the human aspects of Jesus and His work. The liberal tends toward a mancentered view; the conservative toward emphasis on the supernatural activity of a transcendent God, who became immanent in the Person of Christ.

Conservatives accept the absolute authority and complete integrity of the Bible as a witness to Christ’s lordship in terms of His recorded virgin birth, miracles, vicarious atonement, bodily resurrection, and personal return. This viewpoint is basically incompatible with the classical liberal position, which does not regard the complete Biblical portrait of Christ and His Gospel as being essentially definitive of His lordship, or normative for the church today.

Like other mainline Protestant denominations, The Methodist Church has a predominantly liberal leadership, while much of its constituency remains predominantly conservative. This does not discount the occasional conservative voices which have appeared even among the hierarchy, nor the liberal influences active in practically all congregations. Rather, it indicates that the breakdown of vital communications between the leadership of the church and its constituency has a bedrock theological foundation. The tension is greatest whenever the one point of view is considered a serious threat to the vested interests of the other.

What little encounter there is between liberals and conservatives today usually follows the anachronistic pattern of the “modernist-fundamentalist” controversy of a generation ago. Labels are exchanged with libel and caricature gives way to character assassination. The gulf widens between the “liberal” who wants to be rid of the “troublemaking fundamentalist” and the conservative who retreats deeper into his theological ghetto to avoid contamination by the “apostate modernist.”

Smear tactics and ascription of “guilt by association” keep the majority of Methodists in confusion concerning the real issues at stake. Too many non-conservatives apparently are under the illusion that all conservatives are die hard segregationists and supporters of rightest extremism. On the other hand, too many conservatives apparently are convinced that all non-conservatives are allied with Communist fronts, are anarchists, and accept the “death of God” and situational ethics.

This picture may seem a bit overdrawn, for clear-thinkers on both sides of the theological fence. But these erroneous images do persist, and they do divide our church. This sober fact makes some inescapable demands upon us. Basic Christian integrity dictates that liberals and conservatives alike make some mutually honest efforts to understand each other better. Light is needed in place of heat. Openness in place of tight-shut minds. Love in place of fear and suspicion.

It comes as somewhat of a surprise for a conservative to hear fellow ministers in the liberal camp express great apprehension about the supposed strength and influence of the conservative wing of the church. Actually, the conservative constituency is more widely scattered and less easily mobilized than most liberals imagine. Conservative evangelicals who want to be counted as loyal Methodists are often made to feel that they are the ones who face formidable obstacles in order to be true to their convictions.

Since conservatives must give an account to the liberal power structures within the church, many cautious churchmen are reluctant to express evangelical loyalty – for fear of being suspected of denominational disloyalty. They have discovered that a liberal mind-set can be as dogmatic as a conservative mind-set. Some liberals defend doctrinal indifference by glibly mis-quoting Wesley’s “think and let think” philosophy. But apparently these same liberals are willing to apply toleration to everyone – except their conservative brethren. Consequently, responsible Methodist evangelicals are reluctant to express openly the honest difficulties they feel in promoting the use of teaching and program materials which are often antagonistic to an evangelical, a Wesleyan, scriptural point of view.

Liberal inconsistency is exemplified in the recent action of an annual conference to outlaw charismatic teaching related to the practice of “tongues-speaking” – while no similar action was recorded to suppress the humanistic heresies which flourish throughout Methodism today. Liberal leadership obviously tolerates its own “new breed” of radicals to a far greater degree than those radicals who appear in the conservative camp.

Evangelicals face further handicap in the stigma created by reactionaries who use conservative theology to defend social noninvolvement and outmoded forms of piety. Some evangelicals are thus led astray by movements which thrive upon devilish distortion of truth, uncharitable attitudes, and negativism. This weakness feeds liberal suspicion toward all conservatives. And they can hardly be blamed for judging conservatives on the same basis they themselves are judged by conservatives – by the fruits born by their faith.

Probably the greatest hindrance to conservative Methodist strength and influence, however, is the large bloc of uncommitted Methodists who will give only lip service to conservative tenets. They do not question the time-honored creeds and customs of the church. But neither do these lukewarm Methodists take seriously the disciplines of Christian living which are inherent in true Scriptural Christianity. Refusing either to subscribe to the radical social policies advocated by liberals or to submit to the stringent Biblical demands of Christian discipleship advocated by conservatives, the mass of uncommitted Methodists maintain a deadening neutrality.

Thus, conservatives who consider themselves loyal to their Methodist heritage stand in de facto opposition to 1) intolerant ecclesiastical power structures, 2) disreputable conservative extremists, and 3) an undisciplined church membership. All conspire against the cause which conservative Methodists champion.

As a convinced conservative and an unapologetic evangelical who thinks he has had ample opportunity to test his convictions in the academic field and in the laboratory of life, I would offer a challenge to all who are of like persuasion. “Good News” provides a nation-wide medium by which concerned conservatives can begin to have conversation with each other. The result can be sharpened perspective, issues clearly defined, purposes clearly outlined, and objectives agreed upon. Through “Good News,” our scattered efforts can eventually be mobilized so that our witness can no longer be misunderstood, ignored, scorned by our church.

If the air is ever to be cleared, and a favorable atmosphere created for the dialogue we need, conservative evangelicals must take the initiative. I would suggest three ways for us to exercise a responsible and respectable influence in The United Methodist Church.

First, let us witness consistently and convincingly in our own local situations. In order to do this, we must stay with our church. To leave The United Methodist Church under the pretext of finding greater freedom for witness is to abandon the one field which most needs our distinctive witness. If anyone has a right and a duty to maintain Methodist affiliation it is the conservative, standing in the Wesleyan tradition. We need no more specific official endorsement for our position than the doctrines and disciplines of our church.

However small a minority we may appear to be, history reminds us that God has never been dependent upon large majorities for the spiritual renewal of the church and also the reformation of society. His most effective work has been done through dedicated minorities. In my 15 years of ministry, I have yet to find any pastoral appointment to be a complete disappointment. Without exception, God has raised up Bible-believers therein and sealed the evangelical witness with at least one notable transformation of life. The battle is not only ours – it is the Lord’s.

Second, let us seek wholesome fellowship with responsible conservatives everywhere. We must first find them among fellow Methodists lest we suppose, like Elijah, that we are lonelier than we really are. God guarantees a remnant sizeable enough to keep us from becoming discouraged.

We find this remnant not only in The United Methodist Church but also among evangelicals in all denominations. They are also drawn together by inter-denominated efforts such as the Billy Graham Crusades, Youth for Christ programs, Intervarsity Fellowships, and the like, constituting an ecumenical fellowship of sizeable proportions. (30 million according to estimates by the magazine “Christianity Today”.) There is no need to subsist on a spiritual starvation diet when such a trans-denominational spiritual fellowship is available.

Involvement in ultra-fundamentalist groups which distort facts and “grind axes” instead of exalting Jesus Christ do neither our Methodist heritage nor ourselves any positive and constructive good. But our ecumenical involvement with responsible evangelicals can be as refreshing and rewarding as we are willing to make it. Any venture to express genuine conservative unity across denominational lines will strengthen, rather than diminish, our concern for a vital evangelical witness within our own church.

Third, let us stand up and be counted in all levels of Methodist program involvement. We cannot always do this without running some risk of misunderstanding or discrimination. Nor can this ever be done effectively without first having won the confidence of those who may differ with us. Prejudiced liberals have difficulty imagining that anyone can be exposed to the tenets of liberalism and remain unconvinced-unless that person is mentally or emotionally unbalanced.

If, however, we have proven to be reasonably competent in our own local situation, we shall have earned the right to be heard. And after all, there are honest liberals in the denominational power structure. They exemplify a tolerant and brotherly spirit which is the essence of true liberalism. We can count on the mounting array of competent evangelical scholarship. And also working for us is the spiritual bankruptcy of non-evangelical attempts at church renewal. Eventually this will vindicate us in our efforts to uphold Christianity that is Scriptural.

We can find encouragement in the statements of such Methodist leaders as Bishop Gerald Kennedy, who defended the rightful place of evangelicals in The Methodist Church (“Good News” lead article, Winter Issue, 1967). Dr. Harold De Wolf voices an appreciation of evangelical theology and experience in the life of the church (A Hard Rain and a Cross, pp. 32-36). Although such men are not always to be in complete theological agreement with us, we can appreciate their irenic attitude toward evangelicals.

Our task is to convince our liberal brethren that the conservative point of view can no longer legitimately be excluded from the high councils of the church. In order to accomplish this, we must first be convinced that such tolerant recognition can be won only by the disarming characteristics of the warm heart and the clear mind which shall always be the marks of a genuine Methodist.


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