This post has been updated
In the coming weeks you’ll read a lot about the United Church of Christ in the media. Our General Synod begins July 1st in Atlanta and many of the issues considered will be difficult and controversial. I’ve written about several of those issues – including gay marriage and divestment from companies that profit from the occupation of Palestine. But there are other issues that will also cause a stir in the media and among critics of the UCC in the religious right.
One headline you’ll likely see will read something like:
United Church of Christ Rejects Divinity of Jesus
In fact, that came close to being the headline today in one New Jersey paper.
A small group of UCC members are pushing a resolution declaring support for the divinity of Jesus. The resolution reads in part:
The greatest issue facing our denomination is whether or not to acknowledge the Lordship and divinity of Jesus, which is the most basic of all Christian teachings. A pastor or church cannot deny the divinity of Jesus and claim to be Christian. Our status as a Christian denomination and our loyalty to Jesus as Lord needs to be clarified since it is well known that there are UCC pastors and churches that do not adhere to the Lordship and divinity of Jesus, so much so in fact that the UCC is often referred to as “Unitarians Considering Christ.” It is highly detrimental to the health and growth of UCC churches and extremely embarrassing for UCC pastors and members to be viewed as non-Christians. This resolution provides us with the opportunity to vigorously dispel any notions that we allow non-Christian and/or anti-Christian doctrines, while at the same time providing us the opportunity to boldly declare and celebrate that we are indeed a Christian denomination requiring that all of our pastors and churches adhere to the most essential, indispensable Christian doctrine of all, namely that Jesus is Lord.
Click here to read the full text of the resolution.
If the proposal were adopted clergy and seminarians would have to declare support for this interpretation of Scripture and tradition.
The Rev. Albert W. Kovacs of Woodbridge told The Record and Herald News that the resolution was needed because in the UCC:
We have significant numbers of clergy who don't believe in God.
I called Rev. Kovacs today and asked him if he could name any UCC pastor or church that didn’t believe in God. He said there might be some “Unitarians up in New England” but he could not name any. His comments are untrue and shameful and cannot be backed up with facts.
What the backers of this resolution are actually after is a fundamentalist interpretation of Scripture and it is true that such an interpretation is widely rejected in our denomination. The UCC is also not a creedal or doctrinal church.
The United Church of Christ embraces a theological heritage that affirms the Bible as the authoritative witness to the Word of God, the creeds of the ecumenical councils, and the confessions of the Reformation. The UCC has roots in the "covenantal" tradition—meaning there is no centralized authority or hierarchy that can impose any doctrine or form of worship on its members. Christ alone is Head of the church. We seek a balance between freedom of conscience and accountability to the apostolic faith. The UCC therefore receives the historic creeds and confessions of our ancestors as testimonies, but not tests of the faith.
Ask one UCC church what doctrine means to them and you’ll get a different answer than that of another UCC church across town. You’ll more than likely receive different answers even among members of the same church. The historic cultural and religious differences in our founding denominational bodies have created great diversity of theological thought in the local churches of the UCC. Our fore-parents opposed slavery and owned slaves, believed only in infant baptism and only in adult baptism, and were open to the ordination of women and opposed to the ordination of women. “In matters of worship, and in all other matters, the United Church of Christ is the inheritor of this history with all its splendor and shame and is responsible for appropriating now the great lessons this history is able to teach,” states the UCC Book of Worship.
Robert S. Paul writes in his book Freedom with Order that “the history of the UCC prevents it from having any single fixed pattern of ecclesiology as part of its essential dogma.” As Paul notes, however, this lack of a fixed pattern of ecclesiology does not mean we are not united. When the UCC launched the “God Is Still Speaking” advertising campaign in late 2004 it was noted that of the over 2,000 congregations that took part in the initial phase of training sessions on how to benefit from the advertising the churches were equally divided between former E & R churches, CCC congregations, and new UCC churches formed after the 1957 merger. Churches that “opted-in” to the campaign did so with the understanding that the commercials that aired (which included images of gays and lesbians attending church) represented the welcoming nature of the UCC. Paul writes there are at least seven areas were there is widespread agreement in the UCC:
- We do have, first, a historical priority to follow a form of church government that gives to each and every member his proper respect and due; and second, an ecumenical priority to adopt a form of the church that will enable us to press toward the ultimate unity of all Christians.
- This ecumenical priority also means that we should treat all forms of the church arising from the traditional authorities with seriousness
- We are concerned less with the exact pattern (or rather, patterns) of the church in the New Testament than with the spirit that permeated the New Testament churches.
- Although we do not feel bound necessarily to follow the shape that the church has developed in history, we recognize that this constitutes a valuable testimony to the way in which Christians have tried to put themselves corporately under the Spirit of God.
- There must be freedom in church structures to adapt ecclesiastical forms to meet the needs of the institutional church in each succeeding age.
- Human rationality is not an absolute authority, but it is a God-given gift, and we would hold that it may be applied to the needs of ministry and evangelism in any age, as long as it is made to serve the ends of the gospel and does not become an end in itself.
- The most important principle that arises from UCC history is that ecclesiology should be governed by Christology and theology.
The General Synod of the UCC meets every two years. It is “the biennial meeting of the United Church of Christ. Delegates from Conferences, Covenanted Ministries, and a broad range of interest groups meet every two years to consider the business of the church and its relationship with the wider world. Because every UCC congregation is self-governing, its resolutions speak ‘to’ but not ‘for’ the local church,” according to the UCC web site. The events of General Synod often test the cohesiveness of the denomination. Conservatives have bemoaned that delegates at General Synod have put the UCC on record supporting such causes as gay rights and stem cell research (to name two recent issues). Others in the UCC have hailed the prophetic voice that many feel emerges from General Synod each year. The competing theologies at work in the UCC will be tested again this year as the church debates different resolutions. Since the 1957 merger the UCC has seen membership decline and many churches have left the denomination to become independent or to join more conservative fellowships. Some argue the reason for this decline is because of the “liberal” bent of the UCC. However, the decline has also been noted in other mainline churches and in the Roman Catholic Church (which has become more conservative on social issues).
Louis H. Gunnemann quotes in his book The Shaping of the United Church of Christ Reinhold Niebuhr as saying that the creation of the UCC was “a landmark in American religious history.” There is no debating that the UCC has been and continues to be one of the most interesting and creative churches in the United States. But without a shared ecclesiology can the denomination last? Or is our ecclesiology simply a respect for differences in a tradition that solidly believes than an on-going encounter with the Holy Spirit informs our faith? The divisions in the UCC are real and should not be ignored. At the same time, however, it should be celebrated and noted that this experiment in ecumenism has in many ways thrived and become firmly planted. After all these years since the merger there is growing evidence – as seen in the large numbers of churches opting-in to the God Is Still Speaking campaign – that there is growing unity among our churches along the lines of the principles that Paul noted in his 1987 book.
It is quite likely that the resolution asking the UCC to affirm Jesus’ divinity will be defeated. Does that mean that the UCC does not follow the teachings of the Bible (or more specifically Jesus)? Hardly. What the defeat of this resolution will mean is that we respect that our members have different theological understandings about who Jesus was and what it means to follow Jesus and we welcome the conversation.
Update: Delegates at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ passed an excellent re-written version of the "divinity" resolution. The adopted resolution takes out the section that most concerned me (the part which would have required clergy and seminary students to profess one understanding of Jesus over others) and re-affirms that the UCC "continues to claim as our own the ecumenical faith that Jesus Christ is both human and divine, our Lord, Sovereign and Savior." You can read the full resolution here. Our General Synod delegates took a poorly written resolution and transformed it into something we can all agree with.