That whacky Christian fringe movement known as the United Methodist Church

October 5, 2011

On Monday, I caught the tail end of an NPR Fresh Air interview with someone named C. Peter Wagner, about whom I know very little. He used to be a missionary, and he retired as a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He’s associated with this political-religious movement known as “dominionism.” A dominionist organization he founded, the New Apostolic Reformation, sponsored a prayer rally in which presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry of Texas recently took part. Perry’s involvement is the sole reason there is any national interest at all in Wagner.

I’m being deliberately circumspect in my description of Wagner. I’m sure that he and I share some important theological differences. Based on the interview, I’m guessing he’s Pentecostal, and he has what I would describe as eccentric views of spiritual warfare. I believe in the reality of spiritual warfare and the demonic, as I’ve preached about recently, but I wouldn’t go nearly so far in describing how that warfare manifests itself.

Also, my view of the church’s involvement in politics tends toward Anabaptist separation. In other words, I’m not optimistic that the church can be involved in government in a way that doesn’t hopelessly compromise the church’s witness. If that’s what dominionism represents, I’m against it. (But I’m against a lot of things.)

Having said all that, Wagner seems like a sincere believer. While I don’t share many of his views, he’s hardly any kind of threat to the Republic, as I suspect interviewer Terry Gross and many of her listeners fear. I love secular public radio, but it often treats evangelical Christians like the exotic subjects of a National Geographic special. Is it possible that Gross might have a friend or neighbor who actually is an evangelical? Has she ever gotten to know one before? Are they really so unusual?

But this post isn’t mostly about any of that. What really interests me is Gross’s last question to Wagner, and his response (emphasis mine):

GROSS: One thing about that, and this is something that confuses me. On the one hand, you say that you respect all religions, and that that’s something our Constitution guarantees us. But at the same time, you want as many like-minded Christians as possible in positions in the arts, the media, the government, business, school. And also, you think Christianity is the only true faith. You’d like Jews in Israel to convert to Christianity. It just seems kind of contradictory to, you know, on the one hand, say you respect all religions, but to, on the other hand, say that you really want people to convert to yours.

WAGNER: Well, we – yes, we respect all religions, but we also respect the freedom of exercising our religion. And part of our religion is called evangelization. It’s called presenting Jesus Christ to others and persuading them to become followers of Jesus Christ and walk into the kingdom of God. So – so we’d like to maintain our right in a plural – in religious pluralism of exercising our privilege of winning other people to Christianity.

If I accept the premise of Gross’s question, then I, too, belong to a whacky Christian fringe movement. We’re called the United Methodist Church. We also think that Christianity is the one true faith. We want Jews in Israel to convert to Christianity. And listen to these extreme positions, which come from the 2008 United Methodist Book of Discipline:

The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… (¶ 120)

The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world. (¶ 129)

I thought Wagner answered the question just fine, but I would add that a part of “respecting” other religions means respecting the ways in which other religions’ truth claims compete with Christianity’s truth claims. I am not respecting other religions if I say that they’re really the same as mine or that their competing truth claims don’t matter. Of course they matter! People sometimes die on account of these differences!

Christianity claims that God revealed God’s self definitively in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And if that revelation is definitive, then other perceived revelations are either false or redundant. Like it or not, there is a built-in exclusiveness to Christianity.

Of course, many Christians—and certainly many Methodists—may disagree. But this exclusiveness isn’t a distortion of the true faith by recent fringe groups. It has been near the heart of the Church’s proclamation from the beginning and continues to be so.

Like it or not.

But if you don’t like it, what’s the alternative? One terrible alternative (if we believe in the God of Christianity) is to place ourselves above God and say to God, in effect, “You don’t have a right to reveal yourself in an exclusive way.” But suppose God did? Is God wrong or are we?

4 Responses to “That whacky Christian fringe movement known as the United Methodist Church”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I note my concurrence. And I think one cannot say that she “respects’ any religion if she denies that religion the right to “practice what it preaches”; which, in the case of Christianity, means evangelism. (Of course, at some point the State, which is also instituted by God, Romans 13:1, has to limit religious expression to the extent that such a religion may propose physical violence against others, but otherwise should let religious people argue for their faith in the public square, or private conversations, which is what our government, at least as originally designed, thankfully specifically allows for in the First Amendment’s guaranties of free exercise of religion, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press.) Unfortunately, as indicated by Gross’s question, much of the “secular press” and others really want respect for all religions EXCEPT Christianity on one basis, at least, that Christianity DOES claim to be “exclusive.” “There is no other name given among men [except Jesus] by which you must be saved.” People want to cling to, “I’m good enough” to get into heaven (if there is one) regardless of specific practices or beliefs, whereas Christianity specifically denies that. And that is what most people do not want to hear.

    I do want to make a short note as to “dominionism” and Anabaptist separation. I think I fall between the two. We can’t just avoid “political involvement” altogether. I think it would be wrong (and you probably are not going this far) not to vote for those we think would move the country in the best direction. And I think some should run for public office, if that is their “calling.” I don’t see Peter telling the Ethiopian enuch to resign from his office once he got back home, or Peter telling Cornelius to resign his commission as a Roman centurion. I think part of being salt and light in the world is to engender moral behavior amongst the citizenry, and although that certainly substantially involves “one-on-one” via witnessing and discipleship, it certainly may involve societal and governmental involvement as well. Think of where we would be were it not for that great British statesman William Wilberforce who brought about the end of the slave trade there. Or Abraham Lincoln. Or George Washington. Or Martin Luther King. Etc. “A godly king is a delight to any nation, but an evil king, who can bear?” (Paraphrase from some Proverb somewhere, I believe.) So, while I certainly don’t think we should mandate adherence to the Christian faith by all citizenry (establishment of religion), I also don’t think we should abandon civic and political involvement based on Christian principles.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t disagree, Tom. Mine is a tendency toward the Anabaptist position. I take a few steps in that direction but don’t go all the way.


  2. I’m not sure Gross’ question is such a bad one. We Christians ourselves struggle with what it means to respect those of other beliefs while remaining true to our own. It is a fair question for a secular radio host to ask. (I don’t know Gross’ faith.) Would you prefer the question not be asked?

    • brentwhite Says:

      Nancy, it’s a fine question to ask. She’s obviously confused about the subject, although I don’t think the guy clarified it as well as I would have. 😉 I need to do something notable so I can get on her show!

      I don’t mind her having problems with “dominionism,” whatever that means, and asking about that. But this question implies that there is a problem with the nature of proselytism itself—which is hardly the problem of a Christian fringe movement.

      It’s very unlikely that she would ask, for instance, Desmond Tutu the same question, even though by rights she should. See what I mean?


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