Archive: Unity Among Dis-United Methodists

Condensed from an address by Dr. C. Philip Hinerman
Vice Chairman, Good News Board of Directors
Pastor, Park Avenue United Methodist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Our ultimate hope is Jesus Christ, rather than human wisdom, plans, organization and programs.

Isn’t it ironic that we’ve formed a new denomination and chosen for a title the United Methodist Church? That would be funny, if it were not so tragic.

Here we are, a group of evangelicals, and we can’t even agree among ourselves. About 150 points of view are represented here tonight among all of us. Every one of us has a different idea, and a different approach. If we tried to get a resolution passed here, if it had any teeth in it at all, it would fail to pass muster.

There is just one thing holding us together, and that is our love for the Lord Jesus, and our great desire to see His Gospel proclaimed to a whole world.

Let me say two or three things about what I think is going to happen or not going to happen. I see several things I think are already happening.

First, I do not see any great spiritual awakening happening in the immediate future in America. Nor do I see a great conservative or evangelical renewal taking place in Methodism. I’m not worried about being charged with being a pessimist when I say this.

I’m not worried about being charged with being the carrier of bad news or one who depresses the people. What I am concerned about is to make sure that I’m reading the signs of the times correctly.

Nothing could be more wonderful than for a great spiritual awakening to break out tomorrow, to come and save America and the world in this sad and mad hour when we’re about to destroy ourselves. And I pray that out there somewhere in the tomorrows there is a new Wesley, a new Luther, a man of God’s appointing about to be raised up for just such an hour as this. But I’m only reporting to you that tonight I do not see this happening, as of this hour.

I think a rather overpowering case can be made for the exact opposite of spiritual awakening in our time. Instead, you and I are seeing the most terrible falling away from faith and Christian morals that has ever happened anywhere, in any land, at any time in the whole Christian Era. The spirit of antichrist fills our land.

Nor do I see any great swing back theologically or spiritually in the United Methodist Church, in the decade or in the immediate future.

Look at the power structure of our denomination. You must if you’re going to understand the realities of power and political force and the prevailing ideology in the church that exists today.

I know fellows that are very optimistic about the future and about our church. These friends attempt to put the very best connotation possible on every little event that happens at their annual conferences. If it’s a little bit more conservative this year than it was last year, that’s a source of hope. Or if there’s an evangelical or neo-evangelical article that appears in “Together Magazine,” that seems to imply a great trend is taking place. Or if a mild evangelical gets employed in a great bureaucratic office in Nashville, that seems to give you hope. Maybe we’ll be saved by the bureaucracy after all!

But these are not the realities of power politics in the church. These hopeful signs are not affecting the men and the ideas that control budgets and control boards, and control agencies.

To know what’s really happening in the church today you need to read the various journals. For instance, “New World Outlook,” the official publication organ of the socalled Board of Missions. You need to read the latest social pronoμncement of the Board of Evangelism. You need to note the radical social action of some of our theological seminaries. You need to read that sociological document called the Episcopal Address. But above all these things, if you want to know where the church is, and where we’re going, and what kind of politics prevail, then you must study the budgets of the church. These show where Methodism’s heart and mind really is!

These all show one thing: these all show the real spiritual condition of the United Methodist Church today. They show the intellectual ideology of the power structure of the denomination. It is no longer to save the souls of men and women. The prevailing ideology of the church is no longer to rush out with importunity to reach men possessing eternal souls and bring them in their lostness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and into the eternal relationship with God that’s possible only through His shed blood.

I’ll tell you what the prevailing ideology is in this church that I love, this church that I was born into and have been a servant of all the days of my life. It is total dedication to the improvement of men’s social and physical conditions.

It is a church dedicated to providing better housing, better lighting, better streets, better air to breathe. I heard of a fellow who has just been appointed to be Chairman of Water, Sanitation and Garbage for his annual conference. In this polluted environment of ours, that’s a job devoutly to be sought! It is a church dedicated to fairer employment practices, to better race relationships, to better international relations. (And that, of course, is contingent always upon the international and political prejudices of the particular board or agency.)

I don’t have any trouble saying all of this. This is the church that I read about today in all of our journals. I think without hesitation it is possible to say that this is the central thrust of our boards, our agencies, the episcopacy, our college faculties, our theological seminaries.

I read an amazing document by one of the evangelism leaders of a large American denomination the other day. He said that we are not to convert the souls of men in America in the name of evangelism – because 80% of the Americans have already been converted to Christ! So social action, social involvement, improving the bodies, and the physical conditions of the men constitute evangelism today.

For 20 years I’ve lived in an interracial community and served in an interracial church situation. I think if anybody in this room cares about the bodies of people, I care. If anybody in this room cares about living dangerously, I care. If anybody in this room cares about changing the structures of society, for the human betterment of the people of this country, I care about that.

But that’s all secondary, if you’re a Christian man! If you believe men have souls, and that they are alienated and estranged from God (that’s a nice way of saying that they are lost) then I’ve got to fight for something better than better plumbing, better housing and better race relations – long overdue as some of these civic and cultural and social issues are. I must become a man possessed to pluck brands from the burning, as John Wesley said. That’s terribly old hat, terribly old fashioned. And it is utterly antiquated as an ideology in our church and in our time.

But if it is true, and I have neglected it, then in that hour when I stand before the living God in judgment I must give an accounting of the deeds that I have done, and the kind of trumpet that I have sounded. I do not see any great revival coming. And I do not see any evangelical turning in the United Methodist Church in the near future. But one thing I do see happening in the future is the rapid emergence of COCU as a great ecclesiastical and political reality. This, I believe, is coming with fantastic speed. It may well be an institutional reality in this decade. And it is coming, as you all know, from the top down, rather than from the bottom up. But it is coming none the less. And we are all going to be swept into this great debate in the next quadrennium, about whether we want in or whether we want out. We shall all be driven to decide whether we want to belong to a great super denomination with junior and senior bishops controlling the political realities of the church. And it will be a church with a creed that is surely the lowest common denominator of a doctrinal statement, written so very carefully so as to offend the fewest possible people.

The COCU planners are having a great deal of difficulty deciding whether to let us out if we want to get out. That is, local congregations. That’s rather interesting, isn’t it? I think they’ve already changed their mind two or three times. I rather feel boxed in already!

I read in the “Christian Century” a report of one delegate who was at the committee writing up the proposed plan of union. And when they were debating whether to let local congregations vote to get out, one of the fellows, according to the “Century,” said: “Absolutely not! Don’t give any local congregation this option. Else, all those conservatives will leave us.”

So apparently, at least some of the delegates want us all to stay in COCU’s bosom. That surely ought to make for the happiest fellowship this side of Pentecost.

Recently Dr. Donald Bloesch, who teaches at the United Presbyterian theological seminary in Dubuque, Iowa, wrote an amazing prophecy about all of this. He said “I hesitate to predict the future course of the ecumenical movement, but I can suggest one possibility on the basis of present trends. Instead of one church, there might be very well two churches emerging in the not too distant future. One of these will be Hierarchal, Monolithic, and Syncretic, concerned with worldly power more than biblical truth. The other will be Evangelical, Spiritual, Charismatic, and authentically Catholic. This spiritual church will be a church under the Bible intent on bringing the world under the dominion of Christ; the worldly church will be a church that practically deifies its own tradition and external forms. The spiritual church will be missionary minded: it will see its mission as going out into the world and upholding Jesus Christ as the Savior of the lost. The worldly church will seek to promote dialogues with the world religions as well as with Marxism and other forms of secular humanism, in order to discover a common unity. The spiritual church will be intolerant, and exclusive in matters of faith, but its intolerance will be based upon the love of Jesus Christ that goes out to all men. The worldly church will seek to advance itself, and therefore will be preoccupied with correct forms of ministry and polity. The spiritual or charismatic church will gladly die for the advancement of the Kingdom of God and for the conversion of the lost.”

There will be a noticeable tension between the spiritual church and the secular culture, whereas the worldly church will tend to reflect and embody the values and the goals of the culture.

Dr. Bloesch concludes: “True ecumenism does not deny structural unity, but it does seek to bring all things in subjection to Jesus Christ and His Gospel. It does not even rule out the papacy. But as Bonhoeffer has affirmed, only a Pope who submitted unreservedly to the Word of the Bible could be the shepherd of a united Christendom.”

Now please hear me clearly. I do not say that we are not to trust men. I do trust people. But I will not put my ultimate trust into the hand of any man, any institution. I want to belong only to One – to entrust myself only to that Terrible and that Awful and that Saving Name.

I was preaching in a Western conference, this last year, and I was talking about the Good News Movement. I got through preaching one day, preaching about like I have here tonight. Various people came up and made good comments or critical comments. And after a while, a young fellow that I’ve known for some time came up to me. He’s been out of seminary about eight years. He’s gone from a little tiny church to a great big church, and to a number of very prominent political positions in his annual conference. He knows the right people and knows how to say the right words.

He came up to me and he said, “Hinerman, you know what you are? You guys with Good News are a bunch of losers.”

I said, “You mean I’m a loser?”

He said, “Oh no, Phil, I didn’t mean you. I meant all your friends are losers. They’re just not smart. They just don’t know how to play the game. They’ve lost out. They lack expertise. They lack sophistication. They just don’t know how to make it in today’s church, and in today’s world.”

That’s what I like about the new breed – their modesty, their humility, their never-failing self-effacement. It’s beautiful.

The sad thing is he really believes that. But I want to tell you that it doesn’t take very much brains to be political in today’s church. And it doesn’t take a great deal of personality to get ahead in today’s church. What it does take is a thing called loyalty. You join up. You belong to the Machine. And you don’t make your criticisms of the great denominational monolith in public, or on the printed page.

I believe the committed evangelical will work for true ecumenism, seeking fellowship with evangelicals in all the denominations. I think Bloesch is probably right: God is preparing His Church, His elect, that company of believers. You are not self-righteous, my brothers, when you believe that Christ died for your sins and when you know that you are a sinner who has been saved by grace, and that you could go to hell even yet if you lose contact and fellowship with Him. To declare this is not being self-righteous.

I believe God is raising up in all denominations a band of His own, a band of believing people who are willing to die for Jesus’ sake. I don’t believe it matters much what label is over the door anymore. When people leave my church and tell me they’re moving to Chicago, or to Duluth, or to Dallas, and they say “Do you know anybody down there? Do you know a good Methodist church there?” I say, “You find some place where your soul is fed, out of the Word of God.”

I believe that the committed evangelical will work harder than anybody else in the church for real human justice. I believe that we evangelicals will work harder for the alleviation of human suffering and for the changing of all corrupt and prejudiced social structures. This canard that the evangelical has never been socially involved has been put to the lie and it is by scholars like Timothy Smith who magnificently point out that it was the revivalism of the 19th century that produced many of the great social institutions of the 20th. If we do have a revival today in America, out of that revival will come more human justice, more compassion for our brothers, whatever the color, than out of all the social pronouncements of the church to this hour.

The evangelical will do something more than be born again. He will do something more than just get converted. He will put his total trust and make his surrender totally to Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and as the Son of Man, The Savior of the world. He will continue to work within the denomination, and within the denominational structure as long as possible, until he is driven out or led out. But he will not make his commitment to any man or to any Machine. He will get rid of that terrible fear, in the visceral areas of his life. He will stand up, Luther-like, God’s free man.

I grew up in the South, and I grew up in the evangelical tradition. I remember that great old southern prophet, of the early half of this century, Henry Clay Morrison. I will remember one thing he said after I have forgotten all the other things. Henry Clay Morrison had been a Methodist all his life. When he was 80 he was still saying, “I don’t belong to the Methodist Church. I am a member of the Methodist Church. I belong only to God!”

The true evangelical man has a mighty faith, he has a victorious hope. He isn’t a pessimist; he is God’s supreme realist.

Because his hope is in the Lord of history. The lord who speaks. And he trusts the Lord who acts in man’s time and in man’s history.

His hope is in the Parousia*, the hope of His blessed appearing. The world’s darkness deepens all about us. Times become more venal, and men more evil, and institutions more corrupt. But this man of faith looks up, because his redemption and his salvation draws nigh.

*Parousia: the physical return of Jesus Christ, as prophesied in the Bible.


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