Two Churches, Two Faiths
By Rob Renfroe
In last week’s Perspective I wrote about a professor at a United Methodist seminary whose lengthy article stated that the death of Jesus does not save us. In fact, Professor Miguel De La Torre wrote that such a belief disenfranchises the marginalized and threatens women. The response to my criticism of the professor’s article reinforced my belief that not only are we different tribes within The United Methodist Church – we are, in fact, two different faiths.
When I speak to a church about whether disaffiliation is the right path for their congregation, I outline three important differences that divide The United Methodist Church. First, I talk about how differently United Methodists see the Bible. I finish with our divergent views regarding sexuality. But the main difference, the most important and essential difference that divides us, I tell the audience, is what we believe about Jesus. Before I go any further, I tell them that if we have significant differences about Jesus, then the question is not “can we share the same church?” but “do we share the same faith?”
That’s a fair and valid question because Christianity is Christ. Other religions are different. Islam and Buddhism have revered originators whose teachings create a path to enlightenment. Hinduism and Judaism do not have founders in the same sense, but they have teachers and prophets who are admired for their closeness to the divine and for what they have revealed about how to live a righteous life. But what “saves” a soul in these religions is not the founder or the teacher but the path that he revealed.
In other words, Buddhism is not Buddha. Islam is not Mohammad. Judaism is not Moses or Isaiah or Jeremiah. Hinduism is not any one of the gurus. In each case the truth that saves is what they taught and a person’s obedience to that revelation.
But Christianity is different. Christianity is Christ. Jesus was a teacher of profound spiritual truths which we strive to follow. But what saves in Christianity is not his teachings and our efforts to obey them. What saves in Christianity is Christ – his life, death, and resurrection. What makes Christianity different is that Jesus himself is “the way, the truth and the life.” What saves us is not our attempts to reform ourselves, or our efforts to seek justice or our striving to follow the teachings of Christ. What saves us is Jesus – the sinless life he lived, the atoning death he died, and the transforming power of his resurrection.
So, if we have fundamentally different views of Jesus within the UM Church, we don’t simply have different theologies within one church, we have different faiths.
Of course, not every pastor or leader that is remaining in the UM Church following disaffiliation has an unorthodox view of Jesus. Some, perhaps many, pastors remain true to a traditional Christian understanding of the faith.
The problem is that the UM Church has given up the idea of proclaiming “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). Our doctrinal standards have no compelling or authoritative purpose. Instead, every pastor can proclaim their own version of the faith. The result is a confused laity, an unclear witness to the world, and a church devoid of the power that comes from a consistent discipleship.
Back to my critique of Dr. De La Torre’s claim that the death of Jesus does not save us. Of course, many who responded agreed with what I wrote. But others, United Methodist pastors primarily, felt a need to take me to task.
Some were respectful. One pastor wrote very politely that he disagreed with me. He stated that he had taught all his ministry that the death of Jesus “was not a substitution but a showing that we must follow the way of love to the end.” I appreciated the spirit of his comment, but we see Jesus very differently. He understands Jesus to be an example. I see the life of Jesus to be our example and the death of Jesus to be our salvation.
Some were predictable. They, again UM pastors, wrote that my critique was not helpful, that I was bashing the church and dividing it. They wondered why I had to be so negative. Amazingly, they thought my pointing out that a professor at a UM seminary denies that the death of Jesus saves us was more of a problem than the professor denying that Jesus died for our sins. I wonder how these pastors respond to Jude calling false teachers “ungodly,” “blots on your love feasts,” “trees without fruit,” “waves casting up the foam of their own shame,” “stars for whom the outer darkness has been reserved”? How do these UM pastors react when Paul tells the Galatians that if teachers among them preach a different Gospel “let them be under God’s curse.” Jesus himself told us to be wary of false prophets. Pointing out our differences about who Jesus is doesn’t create division. It simply reveals that division exists. And one must wonder why so many UM pastors find that shining a light on our differences is so offensive.
Some responses, of course, were more belligerent. They attacked the idea of substitutionary atonement as “divine child abuse.” The idea that God required a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin according to one UM pastor is “morally reprehensible.” And then he wrote exactly what I have told traditional congregations wondering if they can stay in the UM Church: “And this is precisely why in America right now, we don’t have one church, we have two. And they are as different as Hinduism from Buddhism. We just need new names for them.”
Exactly. There are two different churches within the UM Church. Really, two different faiths. That’s what this pastor, a progressive, believes. That’s what I, a traditionalist, believe. And we’ll both tell you that. But you’ll never hear a centrist bishop or pastor say that we are two churches, even two faiths. I could tell you why, but that’s another article.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president of Good News.