Written by Lydia Veliko
Lydia Veliko is ecumenical officer of the United Church of Christ. This paper was delivered at the 2004 Craigville Colloquy at the Craigville Conference Center in Craigville, Mass.
My task this will not be to view ‘Sound Teaching’ or the earlier presentations through the lens of other denominations, since it’s very difficult really to know another tradition unless it’s yours. Rather, I’d like to view ‘Sound Teaching’ and previous comments through the lens of our ecumenical commitments and, in some cases, even current ecumenical struggles.
I’ll focus my remarks on four broad areas:
* “Self” as arbiter of truth
* “Sound teaching” in other ecclesiologies
* Ecumenical accountability
* Hierarchy and resistance to authority
“Self” as arbiter of truth and as criteria for what is Sound Teaching
Earlier this week John Thomas quoted Jaroslav Pelikan: ‘In some ‘ divinity schools ‘ a course is offered for entering seminarians, with the assignment to each class member of producing a ‘credo’ not of what the church has believed, taught, and confessed in its historic creeds and confessions of faith, but of what that particular seminarian really believes now.’
John went on to describe the impact of that on ‘sound teaching’ based on what I believe to be his accurate connection between this sort of assignment and an ethos of resistance to authoritative teaching. To paraphrase, ‘if it’s someone else’s thought, I will accept it as authoritative and as having a call on my life only with some resistance, since no one can tell me what to believe.’
I’d like to reflect a bit on that, and its impact for our ecumenical relationships. Many of us can probably remember the experience of having been in confirmation class where we were asked to do a very age, developmental-stage appropriate thing: write our credos. I actually don’t think it’s a bad thing for a seminarian to do the same. Our theological perspectives change over time; we can and should expect our understanding of who God is and how God acts in the world to be influenced over time by our experiences. This, of course, is not to say that God, or God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, changes over time. But our ability to grasp realities and to articulate who God is in our lives surely does change. To recall John’s quote from Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’ yesterday: ‘We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God, who will thwart our plans and frustrate our ways time and again, even daily, by sending people across our path with their demands and requests’.’
We should expect that other people and events will of course have an impact on our theological understanding and articulation, and therefore an impact on our lives of faith. I think we should expect that faithful discipleship and servanthood will touch us in ways that will change how we think ‘ and sometimes, even, on what we understand to be ‘sound teaching.’ To move to an example somewhat more recent than that of Barmen or Bonhoeffer, I’ll recall the very recent words of an Orthodox patriarch. In 2001 at a meeting of the World Council of Churches Central Committee, the moderator of the WCC, Catholicos Aram I, spoke powerfully but not uncontroversially about coming to believe there must be room in Christian thought for the use of violence as a last resort. The room, filled with a few hundred Christians from every corner of the globe and from every imaginable Christian tradition, immediately filled with tension, because we could feel the controversy that would erupt. Disagreement came not only among Christians from different parts of the world but between Christians from the same countries and communities, each of which had experienced atrocity which might lead one to presume that common experience would produce common interpretation and conviction. Not so. But one thing was common: nearly every comment in response to the address began something like ‘After I had experienced” or ‘Once we had lived through” My point is obvious. Let us presume for a moment that those who shared a church of origin had experienced ‘sound teaching’ in it. Nonetheless, they had come to different conclusions because of their experience and the way they had heard God’s voice speak to them. I don’t think there’s been an era in the church’s life, no ‘good old days’ (and that includes the era of the earliest teachers) where experience did not influence how people taught, and this included the teaching of those whose teaching we have come to know as ‘authoritative’ or ‘sound.’
Here I’d like to raise a question about Carl’s paper, one which I am certain deserves more careful thought than I’ve been able to give to it in the last couple of days. The piece from his paper that I pull out is actually found in a footnote. In describing foundationalism, he writes that the ‘ground’ ”must stand apart from political, partisan, and ‘subjective’ concerns in relation to which it must act as a constraint’Anti-foundationalism teaches that questions of fact, truth, correctness, validity and clarity can neither be posed nor answered in reference to some extracontextual, ahistorical, nonsituational reality, or rule, or law, or value; rather, anti-foundationalism asserts, all of these matters are intelligible and debatable only within the precincts of the contexts or situations or paradigms or communities that give them their local and changeable shape.’ [Footnote 11, Rasmussen]
I believe that there is valid discussion here ‘ one can certainly see how what is described as ‘anti-foundationalism,’ in its extreme (which may be its defining characteristic), could be seen to be a subjectivism so narrow as to result in idiosyncratic teaching and belief ‘ to put it crassly, ‘if it works for me, therefore it works.’ And clearly this is a dangerous path for a Christian to walk, since there have been clear examples in history where idiosyncratic faith articulation, based on too narrow a set of influences (in this case, namely the experiences of the individual or group) has become harmful to the health of the church, and has not proclaimed a faith supported by the witness of the gospel. I think, for example, of the kind of Christianity espoused during the Second World War.
But that said, I have to say that it is very difficult for me to get my head around a concept which states that questions of faith are not legitimately influenced by experience ‘ though it might simply be that I’ve not clearly enough understood the argument. I know this is an old, old debate; I know that centuries of scholars and faithful laypeople have wrestled with the concept of ‘faith’ apart from our living it out, which is of course contextualized and therefore various in expression. But I have a hard time accepting such an absolute view as helpful, since I cannot imagine any experience of faith, which is all we’re able to articulate, that is not somehow impacted by the particular skins in which we live and the settings in which we find ourselves. Again, I’ll say that this is a topic much too complex to do justice either in this short reflection or in the couple of day’s I’ve had to reflect on Carl’s paper, and think that it merits more discussion.
But back to the seminarian’s task which Pelikan regrets. The difficulty with asking seminarians to write credos is not in the exercise, I think, which is a responsible thing to do ‘ it is part of spiritual and intellectual self-monitoring ‘ the difficulty is when it becomes the end-game, rather than one step on a process of submitting to God’s call, God’s call through our knowing Jesus, the Word, whom alone we are to hear, trust, and obey. The tendency in a tradition like ours, for whom there is a genetic predisposition, as John has named, to be fearful of outside authority, is that too often this kind of exercise becomes the end-game, because we’re comfortable stopping with ourselves as authority. But, in so doing, we’ve simply traded one supreme authority for another ‘ in this case ‘self.’ This is foolishness, of course. And it allows for the same kind of ‘unsound teaching,’ based on too few outside influences. It is in fact the same kind of unbalance which our tradition’s genes subliminally fear will result if we were ever to appropriate something akin to a body of work like a magisterium. We are good at seeing the excesses in other traditions’ patterns, but sometimes not so good at seeing our own.
A form of excess ‘ when this kind of assignment becomes the end-game ‘ has its danger echoed in what John quoted from Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’: ‘the first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them’those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.’ I have often heard that quoted by Reformed Protestants as a bludgeon to use used against those church traditions with, shall we say, prominent roles for ecclesiastical authority. But I think it’s obvious that it is just as applicable to an ethos which sometimes overemphasizes the right and responsibility of the individual believer to discern matters of the faith, particularly if it encourages this in isolation from historic teaching and the guidance of those whose training has made them particularly adept at certain matters. It’s simply a matter of whom one considers to be the community in which one discerns matters of the faith and what its boundaries are. Why is it permissible, for example, to consider the guidance of a congregation’s discernment process as valid and ignore, or not even know the contents of ‘ the leadings of, for example, the apostolic teachers’ Or the ‘sound teaching’ of Christian churches other than our own’ This is a companion to John’s point, I think, about including the church in the part of the world which needs not to be trusted without questioning but which surely needs not to be excluded in our trust as legitimate authority. He said ‘But to acknowledge an ultimate authority does not by definition mean that we must distrust and even demean all other penultimate authorities, for it is precisely in the act of the free God to become subject to the human condition in the incarnation that these penultimate authorities, including church and culture, are dignified.’ I think that the same, however, could be said for any idol formed of a body of knowledge identified by an over-idealized image of an era which formed its own sound teaching, let’s be honest, in its own context and driven by the needs of its day. Barmen and Bonhoeffer were driven by their context, the 19th century theologians were, and the apostolic teachers were. So the issue, from my perspective, is how to avoid idolatry, which will surely lead to unsound teaching.
So, to summarize: Point #1 ‘ that personal credos aren’t bad things, even if it can represent a somewhat narcissistic effort at times. Point #2 ‘ writing a credo, with oneself as the primary sound teacher and the ‘teachee’ at the same time, can’t be the end-game, and a communion which so highly prizes the responsibility of the individual believer must take care to avoid excess here.
But Point #3 is what I’d like to focus on more specifically. It is a great danger to conflate the instinct, born perhaps of ecclesiastical genetics, for the ‘right of individual believers to discern matters of the faith’ ‘ which is a legitimate value ‘ with the sentence in our Preamble that affirms not the responsibility of the individual in each generation to make this faith its own, etc.; not the responsibility of this denomination in each generation ‘ but the responsibility of the Church. That’s what we actually said ‘ Church. Therefore, if we are to be true to who we say we are, it’s not enough that we discern amongst ourselves, whoever the ‘ourselves’ is defined as ‘ oneself as an individual believer, ourselves as a single congregation, ourselves gathered as a Conference, or ourselves as a denomination. Discernment in community is a part of the process of ‘sound teaching’ ‘ because ‘sound teaching’ isn’t a thing, it’s dynamic. Here too I might want to distinguish not with something that Carl wrote in his paper but what I take to be an implication of it. By ‘sound teaching’ I’m not referring to Jesus Christ, the Word of God; if this is what is meant by ‘sound teaching,’ we’re in an entirely different discussion, and one which I also believe would require more time than we have. What I’m referring to when talking about ‘sound teaching’ is that which follows from one’s encounter with Jesus and the good news God has to bring. That ‘sound teaching,’ I believe, includes knowing who Jesus is in one’s own life; it includes the witness of the writers of the gospel; it includes faith statements of those who have gone before. It includes an adequate degree of listening and genuine encounter with the community, as John mentioned. It requires deliberation in community of the whole church, and not discounting the community beyond our self-defined walls. All of this is required for sound teaching to have the impact on discipleship. And one further distinction: I believe strongly, and feel that the experience of Nazi Germany as well as countless other communities has also demonstrated, that ‘discernment’ can’t validly happen in isolation. But that is a different thing from the eventual choices and judgments that each believer, or community of believers, ultimately must make on matters of the faith. Sometimes these decisions will put us at odds with others in the family. The problem comes not, in my view, with being at odds. The problem comes if we choose not to engage the process which includes others and their perspectives. As an aside, I sometimes am frustrated, and more than a little confused, when we deal with our ecumenical relationships as though we do so because it’s the polite thing to do. Consultation and taking seriously the views of the whole of our church family isn’t about being polite and being sure we engage in social niceties ‘ it’s that if we don’t understand their call on us as a part of our responsibility as we discern, our ability to be faithful disciples is endangered. It doesn’t actually matter much, in my view, if we come to a different witness than other brothers and sisters. This will sometimes happen, and sometimes not. And we dare not behave as though we’ve got enough within our own household to make all the right decisions, or always to articulate matters of the faith faithfully ‘ or even to identify ‘sound teaching’ faithfully. We are a part of a larger family.
Finally, in this section, I’d like to say a word based on conversation earlier this week. It would seem that one could say that to know that ‘Jesus Christ is alone the Word we are to hear, trust and obey’ would be the obvious corrective to narcissistic, idiosyncratic preoccupation with a faith formed of one’s personal experience. But, friends, saying it doesn’t keep us from the danger that without the witness of the whole community ‘ the whole Church ‘ and without the witness of faithful Christians throughout the ages, we are as prey to excess here as ever. Saying the words isn’t like a getting a vaccine which immunizes one from the dangers of idiosyncrasies. So I urge a bit of caution about how we say that and what we assume follows from it.
Sound Teaching in other ecclesiologies
An ecumenical word about this which cuts in a slightly different direction: in ecumenical circles it has been historically tempting, particularly when in the context of F/O discussions through which so much important consensus has arisen, to pit one tradition’s claim to authoritative teaching over another based on an assumption about what ecclesial structures of accountability merit for claims to truth. Therefore, one can say ‘well, since there is no emphasis or value placed on the role of the bishop as the sign of unity and defender of the tradition, you can’t play on the same field as [fill in the blank],’ or, alternatively, ‘because you don’t allow for the discernment of the all the people of God, based on experience or God’s work through history, to shape and mould your theological articulation, your theologies and claims to truth are irrelevant.’
I wish I could say that we’ve gotten past this unhelpful, polarizing and foolish caricaturing, but I fear that all too frequently we have not. And because most church people are smart enough to know that there is actually no perfect system, much less perfect people operating in it, we begin to engage in a seductively sophisticated sounding ‘degree of difference’ debate which could lead someone from one perspective to say, just as an example, ‘well, because the [church of your choice] have [these important documents or confessions], they may not have bishops but at least there’s a definitive teaching there, unlike in the [church of your choice] tradition.’ Or, from another perspective, one could be led to say ‘Well, [this church] has bishops, but they’re not like the those other bishops of [church of your choice], and therefore it’s more legitimate.’ And the next thing you know we’re creating ecumenical ecclesiastical food chains which in fact tell us nothing about a tradition’s actual capacity to engage in faithful discernment or genuine discipleship. I hope I’m not the only ecumenist who thinks that this is absolute dead-ending behavior for healthy and honest witness in the world, and one which has as its only result the profound disrespect of partners throughout the church.
We in the United Church of Christ in the face of these situations have sometimes tended, I fear, to do one of two things, neither of which is helpful: either become fairly isolationist ‘ live in our own world as I noted earlier; or to become so eager to ‘prove’ our ecclesial self-worth that we try overly hard to legitimize ourselves in the eyes of what we believe the world perceives as the ‘real’ churches, and then become chameleons in order to be heard and taken seriously in another ecclesiastical language. Either pole, I think can have the potential to damage our church’s mission over time, and our capacity to encourage healthy discipleship.
We have often experienced ecumenical tension in the UCC when our partners do not understand, for example, what it means that the General Synod speaks ‘to’ but not ever ‘for’ the churches. Often the question is asked in a way that implies a not-so-subtle suspicion, of course, that our capacity to teach truth and speak definitively as a denomination is, as a result of this, unclear. I am gratified to know that even in this room are some who have represented us ecumenically in times where this question has been put who have not fallen to the temptation either to behave in isolationist ways, determining that we don’t need to prove ourselves and have nothing to learn from anyone ‘ or to become chameleons making ourselves look as much like what the other needs as possible in order to be understood. But this is no small task, and I think an ongoing challenge for us. Articulating who we are as a church whose structures of authority are distinctively unlike those of the churches with clear-cut hierarchies can cause us, if we’re not careful, either to reject other ecclesiologies with disdain or seek any evidence anywhere to ‘prove’ that we too carry a vestige of what is being held up as the value.
And so I am led to a segment of ‘Sound Teaching’ in 1977 which I think needs some re-consideration in 2004. We read: ‘Polity as church government functions among us in the United Church of Christ with democratic processes. No ‘elitist’ hierarchy is authorized to determine the structures.’ This seems more aimed at caricatured comparison than a descriptor. While perhaps entirely true, it does seem to me that the use of the word ‘elitist’ is, while precisely what many in the UCC think, an unhelpful way of judging a system which allows us neither to easily recognize actual processes for discernment in matters of faith in the Christian traditions whose structures are more hierarchical, nor does it enable us easily to see the log in our own eye. This is a problem. And so I hope that in the century ahead we will avoid, as much as possible, rhetoric which can have the effect ‘ not that this was intended ‘ of facilitating both caricature and blindness to our own issues.
A way in which caricature about an entirely different kind of ‘hierarchy’ can blind us to our own need and simultaneously to the faithful witness and ‘sound teaching’ of other Christians came for me this winter when in a meeting with members of the Reformed Church in America (the RCA). In sharing this I am led to remembering Rick’s paper and his experiences of Southern Africa. In our recent Formula of Agreement, we and the RCA both at times caricatured each other as being ‘too conservative’ or ‘too liberal.’ But if one is but open to the gifts that come through ecclesiologies very different from our own, we can sometimes be astonished. Recently I was. One of the ways that the RCA is different from the UCC is in its historically Reformed adherence to the confessions of the church as authoritative for its life. In January I was in conversation with RCA leaders who told me of a remarkable initiative in the church. The RCA is working through the process of determining whether to add an additional confession to its life ‘ no easy feat if you know anything about the historic resistance to ‘adding’ confessions ‘ rarely done. It is called ‘The Belhar Confession’ and originated with the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, a church which raised to the level of status confessionis the issue of racial discrimination. Following the example of the churches in Southern Africa, and in an attempt to make a faithful witness to an issue which has current, disastrous, implications for the integrity, credibility, and viability of our churches, the RCA is moving through a process to discern whether this confession should become an official one for their church. In its own way, and faithfully adhering to its ecclesiological structure and commitments, the RCA is seeking to do precisely what the Preamble to our UCC Constitution urges: that we make the faith our own in this day. This will, if completed, become ‘sound teaching’ for the RCA, as any confession is understood to be. It will be a profound statement on the part of a Reformed church against an evil which we can all recognize, and all the more profound because of how hard it is to do something like add a confession in their system ‘ a statement which, by definition in the context of their ecclesiology, is authoritative. We have much to learn from our Reformed partner in this most recent endeavor.
And back to the UCC. I hope most of us would applaud the efforts of a partner denomination so seriously grappling with such a vital topic. Many of us would likely consider that for us, such an action, done in our own way based on our own ecclesiology, would be considered ‘sound teaching.’ But I feel compelled to ask a question: would it have been considered ‘sound teaching’ 50 years ago’ Not likely. Would it even have been labeled as ‘excessive accommodation to (and now I’m paraphrasing, of course) the culture of civil rights,’ a culture which shook a segment of this society badly because of the fear of what it would lose in ill-gotten privilege, 50 years ago’ Sadly, by some in all of our churches, yes. Easier sometimes, and Bonhoeffer said it often, more eloquently ‘ it’s easier sometimes to find sophisticated theory’and theology’to extricate ourselves from a situation which has become inconvenient or would dislodge us from a place of privilege. Claiming something as ‘excessive accommodation’ can sometimes be a convenient tactic. Now, I’m not saying that this was that to which ‘Sound Teaching’ was addressed in 1977 ‘ just the opposite, I suspect. But I want to name that I do believe that claiming ‘excessive accommodation’ can sometimes be a very subtle and effective tool in extricating ourselves from discomfort born of a challenge to lose status or privilege. This business wasn’t just tricky for the third decade of the 20th century, or, in other ways, for the 7th decade of the 20th century. And it shows us the great gift of an ecclesiology and its attendant authority structures very different from our own, parts of which give our congregationally autonomous, anti-authoritarian genes hives. It serves us well to look carefully at the gifts that others have to bring.
The truth is that I don’t know of any historic Protestant denomination not engaged in trying to make the faith understood in this day, and the same can be said for the Roman Catholics in their own context of the realities of the magisterium and practical implications for the Code of Canon Law. As I was reflecting on John’s reflections on Bonhoeffer, and his clear call to discipleship, I began to think a bit about charism of different traditions for faithful discipleship. One of our charisms, I think (and charisms are best understood in retrospect, I believe) has clearly been the willingness to boldly proclaim God’s desire for justice, and that discipleship be engaged with that search for justice for all of God’s children. This is good. We need to celebrate this. But there is a corresponding, sometimes not-very-subtle, attitude that can creep in as we claim our charism which amounts to a belief that we have the corner on the market of prophetic witness. Part of our task in the UCC, if we are truly to engage ‘sound teaching,’ is to dispel this exaggerated notion of our charism. We should dispel it not to downplay or camouflage our charism ‘ we should rightly be proud of our distinctive gifts. Rather, we need to dispel the exaggerated notion that we have a corner on the market because 1.) it is arrogant, and God is not pleased with arrogance; and 2.) because I believe it goes to the heart of an identity question for us.
In this day, do we understand ourselves to be a church whose hallmark identity is one where ‘sound teaching’ is understood to be at the service of making prophetic statements about discipleship in our day, and therefore that characteristic which gives us our reason for being; or do we understand that ‘sound teaching’ is a component of a life of faith, a part of what it is to be the faithful church in every time, in every age, engaged by the churches of all traditions in different ways based on their ecclesiological convictions, expressions, and gifts, and at the service of a life of discipleship, which includes but is not limited to bold acclamations and prophetic statements’ I hope it is the latter, but I think I read between the lines of the text of ‘Sound Teaching’ written in 1977 that there are some who believed, at least at that time, that the response is too often the former. If our answer is the former, I don’t think it is by itself a bad thing, but I do think it can lead us to a life which is not as balanced as it might be, and one which will impoverish our ability to be disciples over time ‘ because unconsciously we might be driven to behave as though we are the only authoritative word on which to draw, and that our way of standing under the Word is the way of standing under the word. In addition, it could have the effect of discouraging our seeking discipleship expression, and therefore finding sound teaching in, other venues such as liturgy and public worship, and in other Christian traditions. If the former, we are led in two directions at the same time, neither of which I think is particularly healthy: an emphasis where our action is that which makes us most fully us and most fully faithful; and difficulty seeing the prophetic action and faithful posture of those whose ecclesiological structures lead them to emphasize differently. Confessions, as authoritative, are sometimes very good things, even to this UCC member with Congregational roots, as we see with the recent action of the RCA.
Another, albeit complex, question of ecumenical accountability in the context of ‘sound teaching’ for us in 2004 ff: On p. 5 of ‘Sound Teaching’, we read ‘Polity as church government functions among us in the United Church of Christ with democratic processes.’ True enough. And John has outlined very well the historic and ecclesiologically genetic impulse toward that, and some of the dangers of it for our capacity to grow beyond our instinctive reaction against authority. I’d like to point to an ecumenical learning that might serve us well within our own church. I am not sure, but this question might be engaged even here as we seek to determine what shall be the outcome even of this meeting.
Within the UCC (and I dare say within many of the U.S. Protestant churches) we all understand pretty well, I think, what we mean by this ‘democratic process’ statement. But in recent decades ‘ and most particularly in the last one ‘ we have had some hard ecumenical discussions about this ‘democratic process’ which, while not held in exactly the same way by all Western Protestants, has been experienced by Orthodox as a dominating and unhelpful characteristic of ecumenical life. Decisions are made by majority vote and this has been especially difficult for churches which represent large and important traditions but which do not ‘denominate’ (read ‘numerically proliferate’) (and therefore have fewer ‘votes’). We have had to make important and in some cases painful accommodations to address these ecumenical ecclesial realities. Not only have we learned to become more sensitive to the way we are represented, but have had to learn new ways of decision making ‘ the most popular of which is currently ‘consensus.’ You can probably see where I’m going next ‘ there are some in the UCC, including perhaps some of the drafters of the 1977 ‘Sound Teaching’ document ‘ who have also been concerned about the ‘majority rules’ approach not only to church governance but also to what is understood to be authoritative teaching ‘ a system which often feels exclusive for those who have understood themselves to have ‘lost.’ This is a vitally important issue for us if we believe that discipleship, faithful action, informed and nurtured by ‘sound teaching,’ is important.
I would submit that we can probably learn a few things from our ecumenical experience. First, I believe we must get better at highlighting what is good in this ‘ecclesial democratic system’ of ours. It is a phrase which itself is unfortunately and sometimes very unfairly loaded ‘ one might even say carries a great deal of ‘political baggage’ these days, and one whose implied values we would do well to explicate rather than assume is understood in church circles. But in spite of the values of our system based on ‘voting’ and democratic procedures (which itself can be defined in many ways), coming to an understanding of ‘consensus’ and how to achieve it may well be critical for the health of all of our churches in the future.
Second, I believe that ‘understanding’ consensus decision making is not nearly as easy as it sounds. It is predictable that an individual or group, left out of a decision or whose perspective is not being heard, would desire to change the model either for decision-making or for teaching so that they can be heard. Is accommodating our models of relationship and discernment, so that others can be truly heard, essential to a life of discipleship’ Clearly, I think, the answer to that is yes. And this is critically important if we are to maintain the integrity of our ecumenical vocation as a church. If our models of relating, and therefore of making decisions in community, accommodate only ourselves, we are not in fact engaging in democratic process in its truest sense ‘ we are willfully eliminating the voices of those whose perspectives will not be heard in that model. And we will be offering ourselves a predetermined impoverished meal from which to take nourishment for the work of discipleship. ‘Voting’ actually can be as open to the discernment of the whole group as other forms of consensus-decision making, but one must work hard at it.
But this will also sometimes cost us in ways we’re not willing to pay. For example, in international ecumenical circles some feel, and I’d have to admit I among them, that we have taken a step backwards with regard to women’s leadership in the question of ecumenical worship as a result of our desire to more equitably hear the voices of all, some of whose ecclesial sensibilities do not allow for women’s leadership in the liturgy. We have probably done this for a good reason, and one which I pray will ultimately advance our desire to more fully manifest the unity of the church in a way where all voices are heard, but it can be difficult when something is sacrificed in the process. It’s hard, when a decision about one value is made (or sacrificed) for the sake of another value, to discern wherein the ‘sound teaching’ lies. I’d submit that in each generation of the life of the Church advances have been made toward faithful living and retreats have accompanied them. This is part of what it means to live in community, and we need to be prepared to identify what, for us, are the bottom lines beyond which we can’t go lest we trespass on our integrity’
As I think through this I am reminded again of John’s reflection on Bonhoeffer’s ‘Life Together’: John says, ‘we must be prepared to have our agendas altered, even agendas bearing the noble labels of prophetic ministry or, yes, even sound teaching!’ This is easy to say but very hard to live in concrete example, as we learn in ecumenical circles nearly every day. And, truth be told, I think we could stand a bit of practice at this in the UCC. My sense is that we are far better most days at learning to live alone as a result of our ministry than we are at living with others. Now, I clearly do not mean that we never engage with others. Of course we do. We are among the leaders in community ecumenical engagement and activism, in every setting of our church’s life. But ecclesially, I think we find it easier to live separately, when community requires that we be challenged, than we are in learning to work through that challenge. It would be good if we heeded the words of our recent Agreement with our Lutheran and Reformed colleagues which tells us that we can live, with difference, if we agree to a posture of ‘mutual affirmation and admonition’ ‘ an articulation which was in great part a gift of Gabe Fackre’s to that process. But friends, it’s possible even under the commitment to ‘mutual affirmation and admonition’ to live in splendid and very righteous isolation when there is cost. My concern for the UCC is not that we won’t know how to apply criteria for when to affirm, when to admonish, when to stay or when to go. My concern for the UCC is that in our collective rhetoric, we sometimes don’t act as though those we know that there is a question there. We don’t have a corner on the market of faithful discipleship, but we do have a charism to share, and should do so proudly.
Will changing the model, or the criteria for what constitutes ‘sound teaching,’ ensure sound teaching, faithful adherence to the apostolic tradition, or good discipleship’ No. There is no formula which ensures this, no matter how solid we think our base is and how pure our criteria. Faithful living ‘ discipleship born of faith in the living God ‘ as John has reconstructed from Bonhoeffer and related to today so well, is a constant interaction of worshiping, listening, responding, changing, and remaining steadfast in faith to a God who is beyond our small capacity to be righteous.
In ‘Sound Teaching,’ on page 7, we read ‘Faithful teaching excludes the unsound teaching that everyone is an autonomous individual free to do his or her own thing.’ I think that in the UCC right now this sentence, which I heartily endorse, gets at the heart of what might be one of the most neuralgic and tense ecumenical issues relating to ‘sound teaching.’ It cuts in many directions. I believe that it will be in our disciplined and consistent rejection of idiosyncratic impulses that we will retain our ecumenical credibility, not in a search for some ‘wooden body of material’ which has no flaw, or in seeking to look so much like others that we don’t raise questions for them. Much more important, though, it will enable us to have health in our own life of faith and the discipleship in engenders. So it’s not simply an ecumenical question. In part, it’s a question of how we understand our ecclesial system to foster or inhibit the reception of the faith and teaching about it.
Let me continue with a reflection on another portion of ‘Sound Teaching’. Page 5 of ‘Sound Teaching’: ‘ecumenical engagement places us in accountable dialogue with the structural forms of a worldwide community of faith.’ I wonder if this represents more of a hope than a reality in 2004′ I’d like to explore this just a bit further.
If we take seriously ‘that they may all be one,’ ‘‘that the world might believe that you sent me’ ‘ in other words, if we are serious about the efficacy of the mission of the church’s faithful, we must be engaged in serious work of consensus-building and communion with all the faithful. If that is to be the case, I think we must take very seriously an admonition from a 1977 paper of the WCC Faith and Order Commission titled ‘How does the Church Teach Authoritatively Today,’ (in which we, of course, participated) which says: ‘consensus and communion in conciliar life can be reached only if the ways of teaching become more and more capable of common decision making’ (p. 93, Ecumenical Review, Issue 1, 1977). This is for most of us in the UCC a very threatening statement ‘ even to me, and I agree with it! And yet I believe it is one which we ought at least to take under serious consideration, which requires that we think more deeply about the role of teaching, and teaching authority, in the life of our church. It will cause us to encounter moments where we need to decide what guides our values, and to determine what are the criteria which help us understand whether a teaching is ‘sound,’ ‘unsound,’ or simply convenient or inconvenient.
Hierarchy, resistance to authority and reception
The 1977 ‘Sound Teaching’ text goes on to read. ‘On the one hand, theological reflection of the whole church and all its members is important and is to be taken seriously. On the other hand, and at the same time, it is important that these be sustained, disciplined, and formal theological reflections.’ I do believe that it is critical that we are seen, by ourselves and by others, to engage in formal theological reflection. And from where I sit daily, I can say it’s particularly important for the sustainability of our ecumenical commitments. I suspect that the writers were aware then, as we are now, that our life in the whole community of the church of Jesus Christ isn’t terribly credible if we cannot display any capacity for ‘sustained, disciplined, and formal theological reflection ‘ and that if we can’t do this, we essentially remain unaccountable to the greater church. But I want to press a question based on some practical knowledge. I think the question that churches need to deal with in 2004 is not ‘is there formal theological reflection going on in a sustained, disciplined and formal way, and how does it interact with theological reflection of the whole church’ but rather ‘what is the function of the teaching authority of the church and how does it interact with the belief and practice of the whole church”
There are dozens of examples, on the American scene, of tenets of faith and how they are or are not ‘received’ by faithful adherents. And historically we know that the Reformation era concept of ‘magisterium’ was one of a dialogue between the church teachers and lay church members’ ‘ Sometimes practiced more faithfully than at other times, but the principle nonetheless. With this next reflection I am lead to remember Jim’s comment last night about whether he would consider that a ‘newly found’ text, if proven to have apostolic origins, could become part of the canon, and if so, what is the criteria. Jim, I won’t be able to say it as clearly or effectively as you did, but I do remember your comment that one test was whether, in living with the text, ‘people got weird or not.’ Now, I suspect that anyone not sitting in the room last night won’t have quite the context to appreciate why your comment reminded me of the following, but I was drawn to remember yet another portion of the WCC Faith and Order paper from 1977. Its subject was teaching authority, not canon, but it reads as follows: ‘reception is not only through official endorsement, but also [is] a profound appropriation through a gradual testing process by which the teaching is digested in to the life and liturgy of the community.’ (p. 88 ER) Therefore, ‘digestion’ is not a secondary process, but that which will, if completed, validate the teaching.
On the other hand, it is stated that ‘radical departure from or discontinuity with the apostolic witness is rejected by all churches.’ (p. 80 ER)
And so we get quickly to the heart of the matter. How do we, in the church, and more specifically, in the United Church of Christ, understand whether something being taught is authentically of the Gospel’ Who in our system validates that’ What part of our structure provides a vehicle for ascertaining this’ In the context of reviewing a wide range of ecclesial systems and approaches to church teaching and its authority, and while validating the context as an inevitable and important lens through which such questions are both asked and answered, the statement goes on to say this ‘Some kind of ministerial teaching, some pastoral authority, preserving and promoting the integrity of the koinonia in order to further the Church’s response to the lordship of Christ and its commitment to mission, is equally indispensable for the church.’ (p. 82 ER) Further, in reflecting on the response from the former East German church, the paper goes on, ‘Teaching cannot be imposed, it must be offered as an invitation, and those to whom it is addressed must be in a position to decide freely on accepting or rejecting what is being offered. Authoritative teaching does not exclude variety of opinions. The one Gospel leaves room for various interpretations.’ (p. 85 ER)
We in the UCC need to plumb the depths of such a statement much more fully, it seems to me, if we are to remain a healthy church with an ongoing mission in the world. Our genetic predisposition, as John named on Tuesday evening, may be to shy away from ‘authoritative’ anything, but reacting without reflecting is simplistic in the complicated world where truth is matters and evil seeks to turn us. And it is particularly important today at times when we find ourselves in a culture which seems, more and more frequently, to want to deny the legitimacy of ‘various interpretations.’
It seems to me that this is precisely the question that ‘Sound Teaching’ was trying to address 25 years ago. It’s still a critically important question. We know that at times the church will mirror the structure and values of society; at times it will resist the authority of the state; sometimes it will do both of those things at the same time. At other times it will, in the words of the WCC document, ‘adapt its style of teaching [and I would add sometimes its content] in order to be better heard in society.’ Is this the ‘excessive accommodation’ of which ‘Sound Teaching’ speaks’ Countless theologians have made the observation that, unlike in the patristic era, where identification with ‘what has always been said’ was the hallmark of legitimacy and that for which all strived, more recent centuries have focused more on the virtue of ‘newness’ in striving to be understood to be making an ‘important’ point. For a while one could hardly get published without saying ‘something new.’ Have we in the United Church of Christ adequately understood that tension, and honored it as a tension’ Or do we understand ourselves to be so fully creatures of this day that we don’t remember that there is a question here to be had’ In saying something new, do we understand ourselves to do that in the context of the faith of the ages, or do we think we’re reinventing the church’ One without the other will create unhelpful imbalance.
I’ll share one example of why I think we need to be rigorous about this, rather than relying on simplistic assumptions. Don’t make too much of this, because I’ve not thought it through very carefully ‘ it’s just something that in the last days has been playing around the edges of my mind. On p. 5 of ‘Sound Teaching’ it reads, in the context of naming the mutual accountability which is legitimated in the Gospel narratives the following: ‘Just as Jesus Christ was the teacher of the community, the disciples taught in his name with mutual accountability.’ While this is seen as legitimating our understanding of the mutuality of authority and certainly of the teaching enterprise, and while it’s easy to say, it can be seen, I think, to be a complicated statement dressed in uncomplicated sheep clothing.
Let me think through this out loud bit, and those of you who are professors of church history will doubtless see more than I do, and can correct me. I think, for example, of the evolution, both political and theological, of the role of ‘teacher of the church,’ and how that changed over time from a role distinct from that of the bishop to, by the end of the 2nd century, substantially one of the primary roles of the bishop. Now, I know that it wasn’t alone in the hands of the bishops, and through the medieval period and through the Reformation there were the significant power struggles between the professors at Universities and the authority of the bishops. But understanding the role of the bishops s teachers of the church and caretakers of the Christian tradition and its faithful teaching had begun to develop by the end of 2nd century, and it has always seemed to me that it was bound up in the simultaneously evolving, and particularly post-Ignatian, understanding of the bishop as symbolizing the unity of the church, which was enacted in part through their [the bishops’] faithful teaching of orthodoxy.
Throughout church history, the divergence of perspective of the Pauline school, with its emphasis on the charism of teacher who as different from the ‘episcopoi,’ and certainly in contradistinction from the eventual amalgamation of that role into the role of the episcopoi, created a great deal of tension. In some ways this came to a head in the Reformation, where I think I understand that the role of ‘teacher’ and its relationship to authority was being articulated in ways much closer to that of the very early church. We have inherited much of that, though, unlike our brothers and sisters in a few of the Reformed churches, have not retained the 4th office of ‘teacher.’
‘Faithful teaching of orthodoxy’ ‘ one of the roles of ‘bishop’ ‘ isn’t the kind of language that we’d use, nor is it language of kind of Reformed theology inherited by the UCC. But I think about this in relation to the previously quoted statement in ‘Sound Teaching’. Many Conferences call their Conference Ministers ‘Pastor and Teacher.’ How, I wonder, do we think critically about what we mean by that, and what might we learn not only from the way the Reformation shaped the role of teacher but even from the way the earlier church understood the role of teacher and bishop’ I suspect we could learn something, even if it is not the model we ultimately affirm as Christians of the reformed tradition. How significant might we consider the impact of that role in the church universal in instructing us, but, more importantly, in ‘helping us find the proper words’ to be disciples’ Is there, in other words, a benefit for the UCC, not only eventually in Eucharistic sharing, but also to an enhancement of the understanding of the role of ‘teacher of the faith,’ that we might be willing to recognize and receive as a result of ecumenical rapprochement’ Further, what can we learn from one of our other ecumenical partners, the Reformed Church in America who retains the 4th office of ‘teacher” I’m not suggesting that we adopt models which are incompatible to who we are. Rather, I suggest that models in other ecclesial traditions, if studied, can help us think through how we exhibit these offices. We surely could benefit from an ongoing examination about how teaching happens (and here I think not of teaching in formal settings like seminaries but elsewhere in the church). Because if we think about ‘sound teaching,’ we must think not only about its content, not only about the process, but about who is doing the teaching, and how do they genuinely claim authority (which is not the same thing as ‘coercive power,’as John was clear in reminding us) as they transmit the faith’
And finally, to the question, from an ecumenical perspective, ‘are we still of any use” It is very easy to be cynical. I myself am there more frequently than is healthy for a minister of word and sacrament. I see a church (whole church of Jesus Christ) prone to enormous excesses of accommodation, and by that I mean a desire not to rock the boat, or, when it does, does so with such arrogance that one can hardly believe it. I see our church alternately bold with vision on the one hand and on the other hand periodically paralyzed with inertia born of fear ‘ fear of being told we’re wrong; fear of trespassing when we’ve been asked to stay away; fear of not being perceived as nice enough or sensitive enough; fear, sometimes, of allowing anyone or anything else which appears contrary to the culture we have come to claim as our own; fear, which manifests itself as anger, about one segment of own community going in a direction that another segment doesn’t see as faithful; I am sometimes embarrassed by our denomination’s reductionist impulses unchecked by critical assessment of our assumptions about what our ethos is and what that means for our ecclesiology. To know that precisely the same thing could be said by every other denomination in the country is irrelevant. The fact is that we have responsibility for our church, not anyone else’s, and this is something that I name for our church.
But, in spite of occasional cynicism about whether, as churches, we are of any use in the face of what confronts us, I know for certain we are. I spent a significant portion of my reflection today in one way or another on what we can know as sound teaching in others. The United Church of Christ has charisms which it needs to share unapologetically with the rest of the church; and a church paralyzed by fear, sometimes manifested as anger, can’t do that any more than an individual can share their gifts when under the same burden. We are a church with a wonderful tradition of rigorous desire for seeing God’s work in the world come about. We are a church which insists on the capacity of the mind to meld with heart as we discern what God’s word in Holy Scripture means for us as we live in a world unimaginable to the Apostles. We are a church which knows itself to be so committed to unity that we sometimes, ironically, act isolationist in our insistence on our perspective.
And in one way we are a church no different than any other church since the days of the Apostles: we fall, regularly, into the excesses to which our particular ecclesial genetics predisposes us ‘ as does every other church. Ours are not worse defects than the excesses of other churches with other predispositions ‘ all of them need to be checked.
I don’t believe that there is any such thing as a ‘body’ of ‘definitive sound teaching’ that will protect us from or absolve us of the responsibility of having to be rigorous in matters of the faith, testing our faith convictions born of our knowing Jesus, our reading the witness of the gospels and the rest of the Scripture, the wisdom of the ages our personal experience, our communal experience in the whole church of Jesus Christ, and the events of the world in which we live. I lay this responsibility at the feet of everyone of us who is a baptized Christian, and even more specifically at the feet of those of us who are ordained ministers, because we know how to read, and we know how to think, and one of our fundamental tasks is to teach. It’s that simple.
A postscript on a subject which merits far more careful attention than time allows this morning. The subject of interfaith relations has come up again and again. It first arose when one asked about the uniqueness of Christ. Another asked about the responsibility we have, as Christians, to witness to our way of life to those who are not Christian. It arose again very specifically in the context of one of the groups’ discussions. I have just a moment so let me share briefly, while affirming that this is an area of work to which we must attend in the UCC very quickly.
First, my own perspective is that we’d do better as Christians, in helping others to see a way beyond violence, to live out, in our own backyards, the values implicit in the message of the gospel ‘ and thereby witness to the good news ‘ a gospel which includes a message of faith in the living God, fullness of life for all, care for the least of these and the most vulnerable among us ‘ better to witness by actually living this in our own lives and neighborhoods than by trying to impose it.
And second, we must recognize that this question will not go away, and simply affirming that we believe ‘Jesus is unique’ is not a magic formula which will make all of the complexity of living in a multi-faith community go away, will not extricate us from the work of articulating what we mean when we say we believe Jesus to be unique and savior, and will surely not enable understanding among us as people of different faiths. This question is with us in force, and will not go away, so I look forward to the work that the UCC will do in the months and years ahead, already begun by some of the theologians in this room, to articulate our conviction.