Part I: "To Find the Proper Words"

Written by Rev. John H. Thomas

The Rev. John H. Thomas is General Minister and President, United Church of Christ. This lecture was delivered at the 20th-anniversary Craigville Colloquy, July 12 to 16, 2004, in Craigville, Mass.

In 1942 Dietrich Bonhoeffer prepared a draft of a speech that was to be delivered to pastors on the occasion of a successful coup d'etat. The speech, of course, was never delivered, but that fact does not diminish its poignant impact on us nor its appropriateness for our gathering here at Craigville:

We call you to order your lives anew. We have suffered long enough from the desire of individuals to go their own way and separate themselves from their brothers. That was not the spirit of Jesus Christ, but the spirit of individualism, indolence, and defiance. To a great extent it has done serious harm to our preaching. Pastors cannot perform the duties of their office alone. They need their brothers. We call you faithfully to keep regular times for prayer and for the contemplation and study of scripture every day. We ask you to claim the help of brothers who can discuss matters of concern with you and receive your personal confession. We impose on each of you the sacred duty to be available to your brother for this ministry. We ask you to come together to pray as you prepare your sermons and to help one another find the proper words.

To come together to . . . help one another find the proper words. For twenty years the Craigville Colloquy has been an attempt to respond to this challenge to renew the teaching office of the church and the theological vigor of its leaders. On behalf of the church may I express gratitude to those of you who have been faithful stewards of this event, as well as for the invitation to be with you this year.

This year we return to a central vocation of Craigville as we take up again themes first articulated in the 1977 call "Toward Sound Teaching in the United Church of Christ." Convened by the former Office for Church Life and Leadership, a group of prominent United Church of Christ theologians set forth an agenda as urgent today as it was then:

Convinced as we are that our church, along with the American churches generally, is excessively accommodated to cultural values and perceptions, our thinking revolved around the conviction that the ministry of the church must become more intentional and disciplined in teaching the faith of the church, in valuing its theological tradition and in responding to the present place of the church in culture.

Excessive accommodation is the phrase that leaps at us, for surely it is an apt diagnosis of our current circumstance as we are confronted by greed and deception in our society at a scale hardly imaginable, greed and deception that seek to secure the church's quiet complicity and active blessing in imperial schemes of mammoth proportions. It is this excessive accommodation that makes "sound teaching" more than a theological preoccupation of Colloquy organizers, but rather an urgent task of the church in its formation of disciples and in its justice work in every generation. It is a phrase that evokes another compelling moment in the life of the church, namely the Barmen Declaration of 1934 whose seventieth anniversary we observed earlier this spring. And it is the reality of this excessive accommodation that calls us to lift up "God's mighty claim in our whole life!"

The allure of excessive accommodation

The allure of excessive accommodation is nothing new. In the 19th century Horace Bushnell told his congregation in Hartford "that we are so walled in by the respectability of our associations that what lies beyond is a world scarcely known. Sin is here and sin that needs salvation, but it is sin grown so thoroughly respectable that we have lost any just impression of its deformity." Barmen put it bluntly: "

The Church's commission . . . consists in delivering the message of the free grace of God to all people in Christ's stead, and therefore in the ministry of his own Word and work through sermon and Sacrament. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church in human arrogance could place the Word and work of the Lord in the service of any arbitrarily chosen desires, purposes, and plans.

To find the proper words.

The Preamble of the Constitution of the United Church of Christ calls us to sound teaching in each generation: We "affirm the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make [this historic faith] its own in reality of worship, in honest of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God." Sound teaching does not occur in a vacuum. Nor does it happen for the sake of a vacuum, but rather in the midst of the whole of life. Sound teaching, certainly in the Reformed tradition, rejects any form of sectarian withdrawal or a counter-culturalism that is ideological rather than strategic. Sound teaching is for the sake of the commonwealth on earth even as it articulates the architecture of the commonwealth of God. As the authors of "Sound Teaching" themselves put it, "Faithful teaching excludes the unsound teaching that the task of the church is to critique culture without showing how to keep together a civilization. The church can be engaged with culture without being coopted by culture as court chaplain of Civil Religion."

Sound teaching is at the heart of making the Gospel "indigenous" to any culture, and doing it with integrity. Sound teaching is an organic event more than sterile content, an event marked by engagement with the culture in which it is located. It is never a wooden or antiseptic transfer or transmission of an inert "deposit" but a lively communication full of cultural accent and idiom, and therein lies its vitality, but also, of course, its inherent risk. It is the discipline, as Bonhoeffer puts it in Act and Being, that "stands between past and future preaching." That is, we might say, the discipline that is both shaped by the inculturated Word we have received, and that at the same time judges the way in which the Word is being inculturated today for tomorrow. To help each other find the proper words.

To be sure, the church need not be coopted by culture as court chaplain. But it happens with dismal regularity. How is it that we find the proper words, as Bonhoeffer put it, words that will shape proper deeds and proper institutions, that is, ethics and ecclesiology? Jaraslav Pelikan in his introduction to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition reminds us of the challenges and the stakes involved.

It takes a great deal more than mere translation to make a creed truly indigenous in a new culture. The insistent questions are, as they always have been: Which elements of a received statement of faith are accidental marks of the cultural matrix in which the creed or confession originally arose, rather than belonging to its essence? Which components of any particular culture are sufficiently malleable and neutral to be taken over into a statement of the Christian faith? And which elements of that culture are so inherently alien to the gospel, even demonic, that they cannot be baptized but only exorcized?

Read in the memory of Barmen and the Church Struggle, these words take on haunting resonance. Do we hear them today with such urgency? How do we find the proper words amid our own seductions toward excessive accommodation?

Obstacles to sound teaching in our church

Finding the proper words is not easy in the United Church of Christ where sound teaching is a task that often seems to be swimming upstream. The fact that the organizers of this Colloquy have returned to an earlier theme may suggest a suspicion that sound teaching is not happening, or not happening with sufficient clarity and urgency. In the rest of this first lecture let me identify some of the obstacles sound teaching faces in our church and make some preliminary suggestions about addressing these obstacles. In the second lecture we will turn toward today's seductive accommodations and, aided by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to the character of a life together that joins sound teaching with costly discipleship for a community that may wonder if it is still of any use. In other words, what is it in the United Church of Christ that inhibits our capacity to announce and to receive sound teaching, thus rendering us vulnerable to the excessive accommodation to culture named as the urgent danger we face? And how are we, together with the church catholic, to shape a community that not only can articulate in each new generation what it ought to think, but can at least begin to demonstrate how it ought to act.

"The United Church of Christ acknowledges as its sole Head, Jesus Christ, Son of God and Savior." The Preamble to The Constitution of the United Church of Christ articulates the core confession of the church and identifies the ultimate authority in our life. The evangelical principle echoes Barmen, perhaps intentionally, "Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death." Nothing else can claim ultimate authority whether it be pontiff, potentate, prelate, pastor, party or presbytery! Sound teaching begins with this confession and must always be judged by such a confession. 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 in their historical and contemporary manifestations, are dignified. Bonhoeffer helps us here in an important insight from "Act and Being," an insight Gabe Fackre has used to good effect in our Lutheran and Reformed dialogues:

In revelation it is not so much a question of the freedom of God - eternally remaining within the divine self, aseity—on the other side of revelation, as it is of God's coming out of God's own self in revelation. It is a matter of God's given Word, the covenant in which God is bound by God's own action. It is a question of the freedom of God, which finds its strongest evidence precisely in that God freely chose to be bound to historical human beings and to be placed at the disposal of human beings. God is free not from human beings but for them. Christ is the word of God's freedom. God is present, that is, not in eternal nonobjectivity but—to put it quite provisionally for now—'haveable', graspable in the Word within the church.

I take this to mean, at least in part, that by virtue of the incarnation culture and its institutions, including the church, while not to be trusted ultimately, are not to be a priori distrusted ultimately either. Thus, the church, rooted in and responsive to its culture, may be looked to for sound teaching in an authoritative way, always recognizing that it stands under the judgment of the Head of the church, Jesus Christ the one Word we are to hear, trust, and obey.

This is not easily or readily grasped in the United Church of Christ given our ecclesiological ambivalence, our distortion of autonomy, the prevailing individualism, anti-clericalism and yes, even anti-intellectualism of our culture, and our confusion of authority with coercive and corruptible power. In his book, "Freedom with Order," Robert Paul names part of the challenge when he notes that "when the freedom of the gathered church under Christ became 'the autonomy of the local congregation,' it exchanged a view of the church based on divine right for one based on a political or even secular understanding of religious pluralism." Thus the familiar language of the Constitution that "nothing in this Constitution and the Bylaws of the United Church of Christ shall destroy or limit the right of each Local Church to continue to operate in the way customary to it." It takes great persistence to remind local churches that the word "nothing" referred to in this paragraph does not include "Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church," named in the Preamble!

In a fascinating essay on the United Church of Christ that was part of a Christian Century series on "What's Ahead for the Churches," written in 1963, Robert Spike reflected on the ecclesiological anxieties present in the church. Noting that the antimerger Congregationalists mistrusted their own mission boards as much or more than the Evangelical and Reformed partners for what they perceived as an "already overextended centralism," Spike defined the real tension as between "those who cherish an organic view of the church as a compact, integrated people and those who cherish the tradition of functional responsiveness to the needs of the world." Spike declared that these two concerns were now "no longer pulling against each other." I'm not so sure. One could argue, for example, that the latest restructure of the national setting of the church was driven precisely by the same concern for an "overextended centralism," though this time it was the successors of those mission boards themselves who raised these concerns, and by the Missio Dei theology that renders ecclesiology essentially instrumental. Thus we struggle with the meaning of the relationship of autonomous "covenanted ministries," the authority of the Executive Council and the General Synod, the meaning of collegial leadership, the enduring and long lamented "gap," and the honest but often convenient reminder that we never speak for, but only to.

Spike betrayed his own leanings on the tension he described at the end of his article when he wrote, "Can we devise a really instrumental polity of action and witness, with our eyes on the world rather than on committee structures?" Its hard to argue with that, especially for those of us who have endured more than our share of committee structures! Yet the very substitution of the demeaning phrase "committee structures" as the counterpoint to "action and witness" reflects a nearly half-century ambivalence, even neglect, of ecclesiological questions. Louis Gunnemann reminded us of the challenge: "The polity principle is that of mutual accountability of persons and groups who acknowledge Christ as head. The absence of regulations to control and ration that responsibility was and continues to be a risk."

Now we need to remember that Gunnemann quickly added, "the risk is an expression of a fundamental conviction of the Reformed ecclesiological heritage." We bear this risk as part of our confessional genes. The reluctance to provide those regulations to control and ration the responsibilities of mutual accountability under Christ was reinforced by the Revolutionary and democratic impulses of the American republic in which our predecessors were shaped, and the memory of intrusive and at times oppressive political and ecclesial power in Europe. It is compounded by the anti-institutionalism of the last decades and by the betrayal of trust by so many in leadership, not just in the celebrated case of the Roman Catholic Church, but in our own as well. But such resistance to the "regulation and rationing" of the responsibility is a risk, and the risk is profound for sound teaching. For our reluctance to endow any person or group with potentially intrusive and corrupting power frequently becomes one with our resistance to allowing any person or group to speak—or teach—with authority and, thus, we are often left simply with the ascendency of the personal, the experiential, and often the idiosyncratic. Jaraslav Pelikan nicely describes the risks by noting a symptom of what he calls "the new creedal freedom and confessional individualism." I would want to see his evidence, particularly knowing our own seminaries, and I would want to keep in mind the prejudices of his own ecclesial journey. Nevertheless, he challenges a prevailing mood: "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." Sound teaching will continue to be challenged in the United Church of Christ as long as we equate resistance to the exercise of inappropriate power with the reluctance to receive the gift of appropriate authority, and as long as the ecclesiological enterprise is demeaned as at best a tolerated servant of missiology. How is it that we order our life to enable us to, in Bonhoeffer's words, "help each other find the proper words" in the face of excessive accommodation to what is truly demonic?

Inadequate structures for corporate discernment

The ecclesiological challenges have not been completely ignored. Early in the period of restructure a paper on ecclesiology was produced. Yet it is unclear to me how that work really shaped the work of restructure or how it has been received more broadly in the life of the church. And it has been hampered by other factors which continually exacerbate the ecclesiological challenge. I will name these more quickly. First is the fact that we have inadequate structures for corporate discernment in our life together, those settings that could more adequately "control and ration" the responsibilities of mutual accountability to one another and to Christ as the Head of the Church, settings which guard against individual idiosyncracy regardless of whether it be from those in the spell of the latest fad or those seeking to repristinate an earlier generation. Either one is a form of "respectability" that seeks to wall us in. In "Life Together" Bonhoeffer reminds us that "the first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them." And he goes on to admonish the church: "Christians who no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either. . . . 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." There are interesting and hopeful places of experimentation with deeper listening taking place across the life of the United Church of Christ, including discernment processes in conferences, groups like Confession Christ, events like this Colloquy, and even a reconsideration of the form and function of the General Synod which might make it more of a listening body even as it seeks to be a speaking and deliberating body. Our ecumenical full communion agreements all speak about the establishment of structures for consultation and common decision making. Some work to conceptualize that has been done, yet it remains more a commitment rather than a concrete reality. The distortion of what P. T. Forsyth once called "granular autonomy" as opposed to an appreciation for "the great Church," continues to stymie us.

Donald Freeman, in an instructive essay on autonomy in the United Church of Christ, defined it as "the non-transferable responsibility of the church in each setting, in consultation with all other settings, to discern God's will and way for its own time and place." It is relatively easy to imagine local churches engaging in this responsibility, though how they carry this out in consultation with all other settings of the church, including ecumenical relationships, is unclear. It is also possible to imagine Associations doing this, though in an age of appropriate concern for clerical misconduct, many Associations have become little more than regulatory bodies guiding potential ministers through the ordination process or disciplining those who have gone astray. It may be symptomatic that Associations are mandating "boundary training" for clergy, but requiring little else in the way of continuing education to ensure sound teaching, although there are a couple of hopeful signs of attentiveness to this in places like Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and yes, even California! The establishment of a Council for Theological Education that convenes the seminaries of the church has the potential for becoming its own place of discernment and for nurturing other settings. And, perhaps most important for the long term, the publication of the Living Theological Heritage series offers the possibility for a community of discernment in the United Church of Christ that is inclusive not simply in space, but in time. Yet the question remains how larger, more geographically and culturally diverse settings of the church can engage in this "non-transferrable responsibility" a responsibility in those settings that continues to be, if I may borrow and twist Bushnell's phrase a bit, largely a world unknown.

Hermeneutic of suspicion

A second reality heightening the challenges to effective sound teaching is what I would describe as a hermeneutic of suspicion often so intense that it frequently becomes its own reign of terror, paralyzing the theological and teaching enterprise. The emergence of feminist and other forms of contextual theologies have been enormous gifts to the church. In the hands of gifted theologians and pastors they have exposed blinders and assumptions that have clouded and distorted the Gospel. They have revealed some of the very forms of excessive accommodation to culture, particularly in its dominant forms, that sound teaching seeks to expose. They have challenged us to listen to heretofore silenced or ignored voices and have opened up riches in the Tradition, both the scriptures and the texts of the faith of the church through the ages. These theological voices have come from within the United Church of Christ and, most significantly, from global and ecumenical partners. At their best, they have engaged us in a complementarity of mutual affirmation and admonition to use a phrase from our Lutheran and Reformed full communion agreement. And quite appropriately they have called into question, made us rightfully suspicious of received texts, authorities, and assumed orthodoxies that, though penultimate, have claimed ultimacy, particularly in a time when our own traditions becomeing"de-centered" as described by observers like Robert Wuthnow, Philip Jenkins, and Diana Eck. Such a vocation of suspicion has found extremely fertile soil in the United Church of Christ where, as Randi Walker puts it in a forthcoming book on United Church of Christ identity, "the entertainment of doubt" is a mark of our life together.

But this vocation in lesser hands—and there are those!—can turn what is intended to be ultimately constructive into unrelenting, withering critique. A hermeneutic of suspicion becomes a culture of suspicion where not only impact, but also intention is distrusted. Joseph Sittler once spoke of the "joyful thud of ideas in collision." It's a delightful phrase, and if used inside the metaphor of the atomic age, might suggest the releasing enormous and creative, albeit volatile energy. More often, I fear, the anticipated bumps and bruises of increasingly violent collisions keep many of us inside safe and more parochial arenas to the end that sound teaching is compromise and diminished. The ascendency of the therapeutic over the teaching vocation in ministry, so evident across the church, and which is its own obstacle to sound teaching, may in part be a reaction to this reluctance to submit oneself to the thuds of ideas in collision which have little joy in them.

Valerie Russell was surely one of the great saints of the United Church of Christ and a woman whose social location and justice engagements made her rightfully suspicious of much of what passed for sound teaching in the church. Yet one of her favorite stories from the final years of her life was of a visit from the bishop of the Calvin Synod who was also pastor of the church in the community where she was residing in a rehabilitation hospital recuperating from a stroke. Imagine Valerie facing this Magyar bishop in full robed dignity, wanting to argue each fine point of theology implicit in the questions of the Hungarian Reformed communion liturgy, yet finally succumbing to delightful and I think faithful laughter - which the bishop shared - in the koinoinia of that moment. Here was a "joyful thud" not only of ideas, but of the cultures that mediated those ideas. Such moments help us glimpse a world, and an orthodoxy, beyond the ones we have merely received. Would that there could be more moments like this to nurture, rather than inhibit sound teaching in the church.

The confusion of intrusive and inappropriate concentration of power with appropriate structures of authority, the continuing reluctance to attend to ecclesiological concerns in the face of missiological mandates, the inadequacy of structures for corporate discernment and a culture of suspicion that sometimes is more paralyzing than productive—each of these obstacles makes it difficult to "find the proper words" in a time when excessive accommodation is evident. Bonhoeffer's words, cited earlier, bear truth in our own day and age. Note that the admonition is not about a failure to preserve old truth, but the individualism that limits the discerment of truth in new and challenging cultural contexts. : "We have suffered long enough from the desire of individuals to go their own way and separate themselves from their brothers. . . . To a great extent it has done serious harm to our preaching."

At the time of restructure the General Synod inserted a new paragraph into The Constittuion and Bylaws immediately following the Preamble. Titled "covenantal relationships," is reflects, I think, a desire to address each of the obstacles I have named:

Within the United Church of Christ the various expressions of the church relate to each other in a covenantal manner. Each expression of the church has responsibilities and rights in relation to the others, to the end that the whole church will seek God's will and be faithful to God's mission. Decisions are made in consultation and collaboration among the various parts of the structure. As members of the Body of Christ, each expression of the church is called to honor and respect the work and ministry of the other part. Each expression of the church listens, hears, and carefully considers the advise, counsel, and requests of others. In this covenant, the various expressions of the United Church of Christ seek to walk together in all God's ways.

The echo of the Salem Church Covenant is, of course, deliberate, and reminds us of the centuries long effort to be about the task of sound teaching in a church that properly resists coercion and forsakes most sanction save those imposed by God. This new paragraph paradoxically affirms the very thing we most often resist: "mutual correction and structures of accountability." These are the very things we shy away from, perhaps as Gunnemann suggests, because "we think in Enlightenment terms rather than gospel terms." Yet they are precisely what is required if sound teaching is to thrive in our midst as a vital sign of our participation in the catholicity of the Church of Jesus Christ rather than as an unattainable vision engendering self-loathing or as a slogan for those who would import alien polities for the sake of a rigid and elusive orthodoxy.

Helping each other find the proper words. Bonhoeffer describes the task of sound teaching as a lively discipline, not merely recovering what may have been lost, but also discerning what has yet to be found, a discipline "between past and future preaching." It is a dialogue not merely with the Tradition, but also with the culture where the gospel necessarily becomes incarnate, but where it also inevitably makes itself vulnerable to accommodation.. Polities, structures, and cultures of dialogue can either enhance or inhibit this task, and for this reason there is much work to do in the United Church of Christ around ecclesiology, structure, and for lack of a better term, rules of theological engagement! But as Bonhoeffer himself discovered, in the face of imperial intimidation and manipulation, no one thing can guarantee that teaching will be either sound or consoling or that sound teaching will be sufficient for the demands of justice. Every church in America today, of every polity, is susceptible to excessive accommodation. Sound teaching that is accompanied by costly discipleship requires not only the clarity of Barmen but also the distinctive character of our life together, the topic for tomorrow's lecture.

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