Sermon Christmas Day 2022

Text: John 1:1-14

Title: “Mystery”

1 “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him not even one thing came into being that hascome into being. 4 In Him was life, andthe life was the Light of mankind. 5 And the Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not grasp it. 6 A man came, one sent from God, and his name was John. 7 He came as a witness, to testify about the Light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the Light, but he came to testify about the Light. 9 This was the true Light that, coming into the world, enlightens every

person. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through Him, and yet the world did not know Him.

11 He came to His own, and His own people did not accept Him.

12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name,13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God.”14 “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

The word “Mystery” is defined in various ways. It can describe a thing as yet impossible to explain, as for example, astronomers who, we might say, explore the mysteries of deep space.

“Mystery” can describe a person whose identity or nature is unknown, as in the phrase “a man of mystery”.

Any mystery will, by definition, create questions. Questions like; What happened? How? Why? To what purpose or end?

But some mysteries are of such a profound nature those questions only open doors to other, deeper questions.

For people of faith in Christ, the word mystery describes a belief based on something God has revealed but it’s very revealing transcends our understanding.

And if we go with that definition, then Mystery is the right word to capture the essence of Christmas.

Because Christmas is about the mystery of the Incarnation. As John tells us in this prologue to his Gospel;

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; (John1:14a)

Christmas is the celebration of the mystery of God who became truly human in Jesus Christ.

So with your indulgence I’ll try to explore this mystery for just a little while through what the apostle John tells us.

And from what I’m able to see, John gives us an introduction to the mystery, the initiation of the mystery, the tragic irony of the mystery and an invitation into the mystery.

How does John introduce the mystery of the incarnation?

He starts by echoing a phrase that takes us all the way back to Genesis chapter 1 verse 1, “In the beginning” – which is a way to describe the time before creation started.

“In the beginning… (he says) was the Word” – the Greek term John uses is “Logos”. What does he mean when he says “the Word”? Well, in verses 1-4 John gives us several clues.

One clue is that the Logos is a person- look at verse 2, “He” was in the beginning with God” So the Word is a person. Personhood is an aspect of the Logos. 

Another clue is this person is divine- he is deity- he is “with God” before creation and, (according to verse 1) the Word was God.

In other words, on equal footing with God. Another way to put it might be that the Word is not something created by God, but with God before creation.

That leads us into the Next clue, in verse 3, which tells us that the Word is the creator – “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him not even one thing came into being that has come into being.”

And 2 final clues in verse 4,

  • He is the source of all life.
  • AndThis Life was the light of all humanity.

So The Word is the Person of God, Eternally Pre-existent, the Creator of all, the Source of all Life and the Light of all humanity.

But by using the term “the Logos” John wants his readers to know something else.

To the non-Jewish culture in John’s time, the Logos was a familiar term used to describe the cosmic order; the way the universe was designed;

the Logos was the structure or the “Logic”of cosmic reality: but “Logos” didn’t only describe the ultimate reality, it suggested that by conforming one’s life to the “Logos”, you would find the best way to live.

And as for John’s Jewish audience, the word Logos was also familiar but from a different angle. Jewish culture already understood that the best way to live was through obedience to God, specifically his word.

For example, First century Jews didn’t speak of the Ten Commandments like we do. They spoke of the Ten Commandments as the “Ten Words.” So their aim, whether successful or not, was to live according to God’s “Logos.”

This is amazing to me. Because in these first four verses, by using just one term, familiar to both Jews and Gentiles, John brings everyone to the doorstep of the Gospel, the Good News.

He says that whether Jew or Non- Jew, whoever we are and wherever we may be on the spectrum, all of the abundant potential for life as it should be lived begins with a Personal God, the creator of all, the source of all life and the Light of the world.

That’s the introduction- the first step that John takes us toward the mystery of the incarnation. Now what about the initiation of the mystery?

In verse 5, he says that the Logos, the personal creator, life giver and light of all humanity… shines. He radiates into our darkness. But the darkness fails to grasp it, (or overcome it.)

What is it that gets in the way of human flourishing? What prevents humanity from reaching as a whole race, the highest good?

We could say human sin and that would be right. We could say it’s that condition of spiritual death that resulted from sin and separates us from God, and that would be right.

But John uses a word to point to another result of that sin – “darkness”; or rather “blindness” – an arrogant ignorance of God. 

Paul in Romans 1 says that the human race, darkened by sin, became “futile”. He said, “Thinking themselves wise, they became fools.”

Groping about in the fog, trying to navigate life successfully but getting hurt and harmed in the process.

I remember hearing comedian Mark Lowry say once that he discovered the hard way why God made the toes on our feet. “They’re for finding furniture in the dark.”

But God had no intention of leaving us blind and stumbling. John says that the Light shines. He radiates his unfailing light into our ignorance.

John gives us another clue to the mystery – the divine initiative. In the incarnation, God moves first to move into our darkness.

At the risk of oversimplifying, let me say that when it comes to the rescue and redemption of the human race, either God does all the saving, or we don’t get saved.

Either God empowers us to reach the highest human good or we don’t reach it. Our salvation, from beginning to end, is the work of God. 

So, The Light shines. And by His Divine Initiative John says, the Logos enters into the world. But with God’s redeeming initiative comes something else.

In The last part of verse 5 and into verses 9,10 & 11, John points out that even though God initiates the shining of his light into our darkness, even though the brilliance of his life illuminates everyone, there’s a tragic irony at work.

The irony is that in the incarnation, the Word, the Creator God, takes the first step towards us, but we don’t get it. We don’t accept it. We won’t respond with a step toward Him.

Verse 9 says – “This was the true Light that, coming into the world, enlightens every person. 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through Him, and yet the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own people did not accept Him.

How ironic is that? How tragic that Humanity loves the darkness more than the light. And yet we do. But it’s more than a tragedy. It’s at tragedy that condemns us.

You’ve heard I’m sure the story of the guy who’s rock climbing. He’s an avid rock climber but on one occasion he makes a crucial mistake and falls. But he somehow grabs a root extending from the cliff face. Helpless and weakening, he cries out, “Help! Is there anyone who can help me?!”. 

Miraculously God answers; “I am the Lord and will help you. Just let go. I’ve prepared a safe place for you to land. You can’t see it, but it’s there. Just let go.”

The desperate man thinks a moment, then cries out, “Is there anyone else up there?”

That’s the tragic irony. Can’t there be someone else? I mean God cannot be the only Rescuer, right?

And yet – the mystery of the incarnation of the Son of God, the Word become flesh, took place for that very reason.

God became truly human in Jesus because there was no other way. Only the Word made Flesh would suffice.

Fairly early In church history there was a false teacher named Arius who proclaimed that Christ was the Savior but he wasn’t God.

He insisted that Christ was a creation of God, he was a lesser, small “g” god made by the Big “G” God.

Over against Arius was an Egyptian church leader named Athanasius who said that Arius’s teaching was false and dangerous on two counts.

First, We worship Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of All. We don’t worship the creation of God. We worship God alone. And if Christ is a part of creation, he’s not worthy to be worshipped.

Secondly- only God can save this fallen world. The Creation cannot save the Creation.

So for God to rescue and redeem His Creation then God must enter it, He must radiate into it. He must infuse it with himself. God must become truly human to effect the redemption of humanity.

That brings us to the final part, and that’s the invitation into the mystery.

John completes the prologue to the gospel like this;

12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name,

13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of a man, but of God.”

14 “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us; and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

In these opening verses of his gospel, John introduces us to the mystery of the incarnation of the Word of God.

And He tells us that God is the initiator of the mystery and that despite the irony of our rejection of him, yet in Christ Jesus, God made his home with us, to rescue and redeem us.

And he calls on us to receive Him, believe in Him, and receive power to be born of His Spirit.

The incarnation mystery connects humanity to the mystery of the Gospel.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul tells them,

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross.

For this reason also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

(Philippians 2:3-11) NASB

So how may we truly celebrate Christmas? There’s only one way. That way is to worship. In the lyrics of Hillsong’s “Arrival”

The One who holds the stars In the creases of His hands;

Is the One who holds my heart Like a mother once held him.

The One who knows what lies Where space has run its course; Embraced a baby’s mind

And now I can know my God.

The monarch of the stars The King above all kings; The ruler of my heart And the Saviour for my sins.

The One who sees what lies In each and every soul; Embraced our finite eyes. And now we can see our God.”

“Oh come now hail His arrival

The God of creation! Royalty robed in the flesh He created; Jesus the maker has made Himself known; All hail the infinite, infant God!”

The (Loss of) Trust Clause”

(Retired Pastor Mike Shockley is writing to his friends, fellow clergy and members of the congregations he served in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for over 30 years as an Elder in Full Connection.)

“The (Loss of) Trust Clause”

Previously I’ve confessed that I’m just a retired pastor doing the best I can to love God, love people and try to help friends and former parishioners navigate with clarity and honesty the confusing and confounding landscape of schism in our church.

Now that the conflict has devolved to the point of name-calling (“demonic”; “haters”; “liars”; “racist”; “stupid”; “ignorant”; “thieves”; along with numerous unprintable others on social media), I’m frankly stunned that Traditionalists and Progressives have sunk to this point.

None of us are immune to caving into “the flesh”. But it is precisely the flesh which we are called to crucify, not the people who oppose us. They are people created in God’s image. They are people for whom Christ died. They are people to whom the Spirit of God calls.

One of the most surprising epithets I saw was rather inexplicable. “Greedy”. Greedy. Really?

I served the itinerant system of the Florida Conference for over 3 decades. A few of the churches had some “rich people”. Some (not all) were generous. That being said, I served churches filled with non-affluent folks. I served churches made up of farmers, farm workers and middle income transplants from “up North”. They were African, African-American, Asian, Hispanic, and White. I served people working shifts in service industries, single mothers raising their kids; grandparents raising their kid’s kids.

They understood their responsibilities. They took pride in paying 100% of their apportioned funds every year. (While appointed there, no church I served ever failed at that). Sometimes it came “down to the wire”, but they always dug deep and found a way to make ends meet. They sacrificed and worked hard. And by year’s end, all bills and all apportionments were paid and thousands more were freely given to missions, to disaster relief, and to the homeless.

In other words, I served terribly greedy people, right?

Most importantly, the people I served trusted their relationship to the Conference. They trusted the Conference leadership. They trusted me. And I trusted them.

And they understood the “Trust Clause”. They knew that the property wasn’t theirs to do with as they pleased. As one put it, their church operated a “franchise” of the UMC. So the walls they painted, the roofs they fixed, the grass they cut and the hymnals they bought were all done for the glory of God and the sake of our Connection.

What they probably did not understand (as I did not at the time) was that the Trust Clause (called the “Model Deed” in early Methodism) had a purpose beyond questions of legal ownership. And It had absolutely nothing to to with who might profit or have control of assets.

The late Dr. Thomas C. Oden, an outstanding Methodist theologian who wrote authoritatively on John Wesley’s teachings, had this to say about the true purpose of the “Trust Clause”:

“The Restrictive Rules have become the central fortress of the United Methodist constitutional system. Their doctrinal standards are embedded in every trust clause of every local church and in the Discipline. The trust clause embedded in the property deed transmission is a legal guarantee in a court of law. The trust clause is not written to protect the Conference, but the doctrinal standards, and to protect the Conference only insofar as the Conference protects the doctrinal standards. The trust clause guarantees the right to use property only to those who are guardians of its doctrinal standards.”

Dr. Oden brings forward a crucial point. If indeed the Trust Clause guarantees the right to use property only to those who are guardians of our doctrinal standards, who are those guardians?

If we say the Conference leaders, then we must ask why they decided to preserve our doctrinal standards on paper but block the defense of those standards in practice? Why did they enact a policy that says, “our doctrine remains, but any who defy it will not be corrected”? Under this policy, are they actually guardians in any real sense? If our leaders have failed their duty as guardians, do they have a right to claim property based on the Trust Clause?

And what does this have to do with the “greed”label slapped on churches who wish to disaffiliate and retain the property? Or on the “greedy” Global Methodist Church ready to receive them if they so choose? Or on the “greedy” Conference who claims the legal right to exercise the trust clause? Nothing. No one here is greedy. This mess has more to do with grief and pain than greed and grasping.

But it’s jaded in the extreme to stick that slur on congregations whose sweat, tears, love, sacrifice, generosity and prayers have been poured into their church ministries and facilities for generations. And not only into the bricks and sticks, but into the ability of the UMC to minister mercy and compassion to needs around the world.

I call upon all leadership of the Conference, the WCA, the GMC and the local church clergy to put an immediate stop to all the senseless, counterproductive name-calling, back-handed memes and social media ugliness. Find a way to separate without biting and tearing at each other. Better still, lead by Christlike example for the sake of the people in our churches. They are the ones paying the price. They are the ones who are asking “what has happened to us?” They are the ones weeping over the loss of a trust that was supposed to be protected.

“Studied Ambiguity”

(Retired Pastor Mike Shockley is writing to his friends, fellow clergy and members of the congregations he served in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for over 30 years as an Elder in Full Connection.)

Earlier this year I attended two meetings, one at Waukeenah UMC, called by Jay Therrell, President (at the time) of the Florida chapter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. (He is now the National WCA President). It concerned options for Florida UM churches desiring separation from the Conference.

The other was at First UMC Chiefland, called by Ken Carter, Bishop of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church. That meeting was presided over by Rev. Wayne Wiatt who serves the Bishop as the Superintendent of the Northwest District of the Conference. It concerned the position of the Conference in response to the efforts of the WCA.

The WCA meeting I attended was rather straightforward. It was to provide information to UM congregations seeking to exit the United Methodist Church. Various options were presented, all except one fell within the guidelines of the Discipline of the Church. Jay Therrell stated that the one option that fell outside the Discipline (civil litigation) was not advisable. A question and answer session followed. Meeting adjourned.

The Conference meeting also was fairly straightforward. Information was provided to explain why UM churches wanting to leave the Conference were being required to pay large sums of money in apportionments and unfunded pension liabilities. It was also explained that one “exit” option being suggested by the WCA (the UM Discipline church closure option) was not a viable one. A question and answer session followed. Meeting adjourned.

Both meetings took about an hour each. In both meetings the presenters took care to be respectful of those on the “other side”.

There was, it must be said, a bit of a flap over the “closed” nature of the WCA meeting (as if the WCA meeting was somehow sinister and ironically as if there was no such thing as a closed meeting in the UMC). The flap was, in my opinion a very avoidable blunder by the WCA (because if you hold a meeting for UM people inside a UM church within the boundaries of a UM District, you really should take pains to invite the UM District Superintendent). On the other hand, Bishop Carter, seizing the chance to exploit the issue, painted the WCA meeting as suspicious and touted the “open to all” nature of his own meetings.

All this said, the most remarkable difference I experienced in comparing the two meetings lay not in the political fuss, but in the atmosphere of each.

The WCA meeting felt like an “urgency to head off an emergency” event. The issues at stake were seen as radically theological. The call was compelling; a call to “contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” (Jude‬ ‭1:3‬ ‭NIV‬‬)

The UMC meeting felt reactionary; a “let me explain” type of meeting. It was asserted that the theological issues were peripheral. All United Methodists were “Bible believers”. The classic doctrines of the church were not at stake. The only real issue was over human sexuality. However, since UM churches want to leave, (unfortunate and unnecessary as it may be) those churches wanting to depart must not do harm to the ones staying, thus the need for them to pay up.

I must say I was impressed by the proficiency in studied ambiguity practiced by the Bishop and his staff. “Studied ambiguity” finds success when it is able to make a claim that on the surface invites the endorsement of all, but really is elastic enough to allow ample room for understanding that claim in very different, even contradictory ways. This is extremely important to the UMC’s aim to preserve a “Big Tent” church on (as Bishop Carter has stated) “it’s journey to be a church that serves all people.”

For example, take the claim that both UM “Traditionals” and UM “Progressives” are “Bible believing” Methodists.

Are all Methodists, both progressives and traditionalists “Bible believers”? Well, I haven’t polled all of the over six million in the country, but I think it’s fair to say that all Methodists consider the Bible to be at the very least a valuable source for Christian faith and practice. In that sense both the Bishop and Rev. Therrell are Bible believing Christian leaders.

However if one were to ask them what they meant by that claim, they would be required to spell out what biblical faith is… and what biblical faith is not. And their respective, definitive assertions and denials would soon reveal that they mean vastly different things by the phrase “Bible believing”.

But that is what the art of studied ambiguity does; it seeks to broaden the thesis of a claim to the point that the antithesis of that claim is obscured.

A lot has happened since those two meetings earlier this year. The Global Methodist Church is now officially established. Hundreds of UM churches have either left the UMC or are in the process. Over 100 UM churches in Florida are litigating (contrary to Jay Therrell’s previous advice) against the Conference.

The necessary support for the “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation” is gone. Now the gloves have come off and high level nastiness is in play. The waters that have moved under the bridge since early this year are now bloody with accusations.

And the practice of ambiguity, well intended as it may have been employed to preserve unity, has proven the UMC’s undoing. It has been used as a vehicle for a completely different gospel to be introduced under the guise of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Many decades ago, the late R.C. Sproul, renowned scholar and Protestant Reformed church leader said, “Precision and clarity, not ambiguity, serve the church best in remaining faithful to its biblical, historic, and confessional roots.”

Looking at the damage done to the United Methodist Church, I’d say he was right.



(This is the third of a series of articles retired Pastor Mike Shockley is writing to his friends, fellow clergy and members of the congregations he served in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for over 30 years as an Elder in Full Connection.)

NOTE: I’m (as you’ve probably guessed) not a scholar. I don’t claim any special expertise. I’m just a pastor who loves God and loves people the best I can. I’m attempting to help friends and former parishioners navigate with clarity and honesty the confusing and confounding landscape of schism in which our church is embroiled.

If a United Methodist pastor were to ask a typical member of their congregation what “the Wesleyan Quadrilateral” is, they would most likely be met with a blank stare, a stare not unlike their own when they first heard the term back in Seminary or Pastors School.

Yet, that strange phrase describes a method by which multiple thousands of UM pastors have been schooled in thinking about God. And how a pastor thinks about God has no small impact on a congregation.

For some 50 years, the way United Methodists have been encouraged to do theological work has been the way of the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”.

I say 50 years because the “Statement of Our Theological Task” written and approved by the 1972 General Conference set this direction for God-pondering by doing two things. The first action effectually suspended our UM standards of doctrine, saying that they are “not to be construed literally and juridically”.

The second action was necessitated by the first. Again, UM Professor and Pastor Kevin M Watson explains: “The (1972) statement then raised the challenge, “By what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling?” (I.e., in the absence of literal and juridical standards of doctrine, how do we search for meaningful unity?) The answer is the quadrilateral! “The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason.”

“The virtue of the quadrilateral is described as follows in the 1972 statement: “They [the four sources] allow for, indeed they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing.””

So, what exactly is the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral”? Well, first it’s a term John Wesley never used. It was coined in the 1950s by theologian Albert C. Outler (an outstanding thinker and expert on Wesley’s theology) to describe how Wesley engaged his own theological labors.

Since Outler invented the term “Quadrilateral”, it’s probably best to read what Outler said about the method it describes:

“When challenged for his authority, on any question, his (Wesley’s)first appeal was to the Holy Bible… Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted point of doctrine… Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that…”

“But Scripture and tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and (reason) as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter.”

I hope you can see in these excerpts from Dr. Outler the origin of the “four sources” of the Quadrilateral as well as their priorities.

First – the Holy Bible

Second – Christian Tradition

Third – Critical Reason

Fourth – Vital Christian Experience

If you’ve dozed off, I apologize. This is pretty boring but please wake up because I think this stuff is very important in understanding why our church is splitting up into “Traditional” and “Progressive” camps.

For many decades, countless UM clergy have moved into pulpits preaching sermons and publishing books developed from widely divergent and misleading applications of the “Quadrilateral” method.

I saw this at work in Seminary, (Candler at Emory, 1982-85) and have seen it spread across my continuing education. One of the perversions of Wesley’s method claims that the four sources of the Quadrilateral are equal in authority. Another is the false idea that “Christian experience” (not such as spiritual regeneration or the “witness of the Spirit”, but rather that of trending western cultural/political moods) outweighs the witness of Scripture. Apparently now the church may transcend Scripture and move “beyond Christ”.

Late in life, Dr. Outler lamented; “…more than once, I have regretted having coined (the term) for contemporary use, since it has been so widely misconstrued.”

Of course, Dr. Outler is certainly not at fault for inventing the term and explaining the method. It has proven very helpful for me personally in biblical study and reflection. However, far from developing the kind of healthy theological variety that nourishes truth, love and unity in the church, the Quadrilateral has instead, by severely misguided and distorted usage, sown seeds of contradiction and conflict which now have grown into a harvest of opposition and division.

In 1972, we the church, in the name of pluralism and “variety”, sowed to the winds of controversy. Now a half century later, we are reaping the whirlwind.

Alike in love?

“Alike in Love?”

(This is the second of several articles retired Pastor Mike Shockley is writing to his friends, fellow clergy and members of the congregations he served in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for over 30 years as an Elder in Full Connection.)

Say a young family from sunny Florida moves to Minnesota. They settle in a neighborhood beside a lake (one of the 14,000 plus in the state). Their next door neighbors are old folks. They have lived in the gorgeous Gopher State all their lives.

Winter comes. The lake freezes over. The new family’s children go out to play on the ice. Cool new experience! The parents go out to watch and enjoy the kids. The neighbors next door also go out, but to shout a warning. They believe the ice is not yet safe. The parents tell them there’s no need for alarm. They believe the ice is safe. The neighbors anxiously beg the parents to get their kids off the ice. (Airhead newbies!)The delighted parents ignore them. (Stuffy old Geezers!) And the kids play on.

At the end of my first article I posed the question of whether the United Methodist Church might arrest it’s trajectory toward schism by leaving doctrinal conflicts behind and return to the priority of “love and goodness”. By that I mean Christ-like love for one another and Christ-like missional service in behalf of all people.

The call to such a return has often been made under the banner of a quote from John Wesley, namely; “Though we cannot think alike, May we not love alike?”

This comes from Wesley’s sermon, “Catholic Spirit” in which he says, “But although a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”

This bit of context hopefully makes it clear that when we cannot think alike on matters of opinion or “modes of worship”, we may indeed (and should)“love alike”. Within Christ’s one holy and catholic (universal) church, such thinking may be widely diverse and still leave our love for Christ and each other unhindered.

But there are other matters on which we must think alike. Crucial matters. In his essay, “The Character of a Methodist”, Wesley identifies a few of those crucial beliefs. He wrote:

“We believe indeed, that all scripture is given by inspiration of God…We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule, both of christian faith and practice…We believe Christ to be the eternal supreme God…But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity we think and let think.”

Wesley distinguished between the “opinions which do not strike at the root” and the core belief statements which are “the root” of doctrine. So, in regard to such “opinions” we may think freely. But when it comes to “the root”, we must think alike. We must agree on what root Christianity is.

So, may we the people of the UMC resolve our crisis by “agreeing to disagree” on our doctrinal differences and focus on Christ-like love for one another and Christ-like missional service in behalf of all people?

Of course not. Because in the absence of authoritative and agreed upon doctrine, we have nothing by which we can measure and authenticate our love and service as Christ-like. They may indeed be loving and beneficial. (A cup of cold water to the thirsty is categorically helpful.) But whether or not they are Christlike expressions (“a cup of cold water in My Name”) depend on our knowledge, understanding and experience of Jesus Christ. That’s where doctrinal standards come in; to guide our theological reflection and help us find unity, and truth in our love and missional service for Christ.

It’s not possible to find unity in dropping our quest for truth and picking up the pursuit of loving relationships. We need divine truth to help us know what love is and what loving relationships look like.

In John’s gospel, (chapter 17) Jesus’s “High Priestly” prayer for his disciples casts a clear vision for his church, unified in both love and truth. And Jesus promised us that his Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth.

Let’s go back to the families at odds in Minnesota. The young family from the Sunshine state is excited to enjoy the new experience of their kids frolicking on the ice. Their neighbors, veterans of many winters by the lake, have come out to warn them, wildly alarmed for their safety.

All these adults believe children should be loved and cared for. But they believe differently on a crucial matter. Consequently their respective expressions of love and care are completely dissimilar.

But only one of those expressions will prove accurate – the one that corresponds nearest to the true condition of the ice. It’s either safe or it’s not safe. Not both. On this, there can be no acceptance of pluralism. It’s going to end either in a round of hot cocoa for the kids, or a frantic 911 call about the kids. The truth about the ice will make all the difference.

Creed Revisited

“Creed” Revisited
(This is the first of several articles retired Pastor Mike Shockley is writing to his friends, fellow clergy and members of the congregations he served in the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church for over 30 years as an Elder in Full Connection.)

Many years ago English journalist Steve Turner penned “Creed”, a satirical ode to western postmodern thinking. He captured with cringing accuracy the jumble of notions which float in our minds; ideas we tend to hold together rather uncritically despite their obvious absurdities and contradictions. For example, in the category of religious thought, “Creed” declares sardonically:

“We believe that all religions are basically the same… they all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God and salvation.”

This part of Turner’s poem came to my mind as I read Bishop Carter’s letter in which he expressed his deep concern for people and
the potential harm to be caused by a lawsuit filed against the Florida Conference on behalf of over 100 United Methodist churches wanting to separate from it.

No doubt our Bishop believes, as I do, in love and goodness. And I’m sure I have my share of inconsistency in matters of doctrine. Still, the letter led me to ponder again Turner’s “Creed”. Consider these assertions from the Bishop’s letter.

“From the perspective of the Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church, our doctrinal standards have not changed and will not change, even as we continue on a journey to be a church that serves all people.”

“A tenet of our faith is that we embrace a Church built in loving relationships rather than uniformity in thought and action. As John Wesley is quoted “though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?”

The Bishop is correct. Our Doctrinal Standards are constitutionally established. As stated:

“The Constitution of The United Methodist Church…protects both the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith as doctrinal standards that shall not be revoked, altered, or changed”.

Most of us think that a “standard” is a norm or level by which we measure the quality of something. However, UMC “doctrinal standards” are no longer used that way. A half-century ago, the General Conference “Statement of Our Theological Task” (which does not itself establish doctrine, but shapes our understanding of it), declared that our doctrinal standards are not to be construed in a literal and juridical manner. As UMC pastor and Professor Kevin M. Watson has observed;

“The 1972 statement, for example, explicitly endorsed “theological pluralism.” It expressed a sense that the “effort to substitute new creeds for old” tends to “partisanship and schism.” And it prioritized “ethical fruits of faith” over “systems of doctrine.” Finally, it asserted, that our doctrinal standards “are not to be construed literally and juridically.””

This understanding was the norm for 16 years until General Conference 1988 when the statement was rewritten to reaffirm the centrality and value of doctrine. But in many ways, United Methodism continues to carry on as if the revision doesn’t exist. As the Bishop said, he endorses the faith-principle of embracing a church built in “loving relationships” instead of “uniformity of thought and action”.

Apparently in the UMC, our immutable standards of doctrine, engraved in stone as they are, do not exist as standards. As in Turner’s “Creed”, perhaps United Methodists should all just “believe in love and goodness” instead of fussing about schismatic things like “creation, sin, heaven, hell, God and salvation.” Won’t that put an end to our current crisis?

Of course not. Why not? That question I will attempt to address in my next article.