Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Beyond Indifferentism

I have been in a variety of meetings lately with institutions on whose Boards I sit by virtue of being a Bishop in The United Methodist Church. These include universities, hospitals, foundations and ministries. These various organizations are impressive in their outreach and impact. They often represent true excellence in education, medicine, community service and the like. These organizations are an outgrowth of The United Methodist Church and its ministry legacy. Delve into their history and you discover that they were initially founded as an explicit expression of Christian mission. Theologically speaking, most of these organizations are an expression of what early Methodists called holiness of heart and life. The technical theological term is sanctification. The biblical grounding comes directly out of the Great Commandment (love of God and love of neighbor). As a United Methodist, I am proud and pleased. The various organizations came into being during the time of “Christendom.” (Christendom is a term used to describe the time in which the culture itself was generally Christian, or in some cases Jewish. This was not meant in an intolerant way. It was simply an unconscious reflection of the cultural climate.) Terms like “faith” and “spiritual” had an unspoken assumption that they referred to the Christian faith. Today with the end of Christendom, organizations use terms like “faith” or “spiritual” without reference to the Christian faith. The motive is a good one. It is an intentional way of reflecting interfaith respect, dialogue, and cooperation. The assumption is that people of goodwill share common faith convictions about God and the nature of God. The more practiced result is that “faith” and “spirituality” are references to a vague common deism. Organizations (some, many, most?) give evidence of mission drift. They started as reflections of the Christian faith with a Christological center. They now often reflect a vague sense of cultural goodwill. When asked to define faith, one institutional executive said, “ties to our belief in a certain set of values that tie to a certain set of faith – that’s compassion. The essence comes from Christianity.” No one doubts or debates that they (the various organizations and institutions) are (and are to be) open to all. Virtually all understand that this should not be an opportunity for proselytism. Yet any mention of an explicit Christian witness is greeted with horror. Many organizational representatives can’t imagine an explicitly Christ witness that is not exclusive or intrusive. A significant number of Christian board members are offended by the axiomatic implication that an explicit Christian witness is by definition either exclusive or offensive. They point to the distinction between openness and spiritual indifferentism. The question that hangs in the air is – to what degree are they still Christian? To what degree do they truly reflect and represent Christ and His church? How can a witness to and of Christ be offered that is neither offensive nor a theological surrender to vague and content-less platitudes?


  1. I am confident many of these organizations are supported financially through UMC monies...either special offerings or funds collected through apportionments. Is it time that we financially support organizations that do in fact claim their services as a witness for Christ, not limiting the services to only Christians, but provided by Christians? To go further, is it too offensive to significantly limit funding for organizations that have diluted their mission to "cultural goodwill"?

    Possibly this watered down indifferentism is driven by the perception of exclusivity, but isn't the continual funding of organizations doing such OUR theological surrender and, worse, confirmation of an inaccurate (and truly offensive) claim?

    I am confident that UMCOR is not limiting their services in Haiti to only Christians, but I am filled with pride to know that these missionaries are truly the hands and feet of Christ, an "explicit expression of Christian mission". And many purposefully financially support UMCOR instead of the Red Cross for this reason. Maybe it is time for the greater UMC to make the same distinctive giving decisions.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. I can't help but think that exclusivism is something modernity was really big on.

    These are interestnig things to ponder for me, especially because I remember having been an exclusivist years ago.

    One experience I had that really helped me develop beyond this was working at an ecumenical campus ministry within the CTC. I worked very closely with a Roman Catholic Deacon.

    He and I developed a deep relationship that was full of theological discussion and difference. I found, though, as we became closer friends, having someone from a different perspective challenge and question my own felt less and less threatening.

    One of the things we get to do as Christians today is invite people to reconsider their impressions of Christianity, Jesus, and the Church in light of who WE ARE, as opposed to how them may have been treated in the past.