What is wrong with a theological buffet?

Sushi: Flickr Creative Commons Share

Sushi: Flickr Creative Commons Share

An oft-slung insult at Progressives is that they are “cafeteria Christians” who pick and choose what doctrines or biblical passages they will uphold.

I’ve seen that comment in some forms on the 3,000 member UMClergy Facebook group that I administer.While the group often has the most rigid fundamentalist voices in Christendom, there are moments when I appreciate the time-weathered wisdom of the individuals in the group.

The following is a “reclaiming” of that insult–a rebuttal from a retired progressive Methodist minister by lifting up the value of a theological buffet. Take a read:


For me the analogy to a free-for-all buffet is actually a good one. I love buffets! I don’t mean that to sound snarky! I mean, I really do, and to extend the analogy I would suggest that if people can obtain nutrition at a buffet that enhances their health and, in the context of this conversation that it helps them to love God and their neighbor and to grow closer to Jesus as the pioneer of their faith journey and grow in their trust in God, then I think the buffet analogy isn’t something to frighten me, but is quite attractive. Now if I get food poisoning at this theological buffet, I will know it and so will the cook! I won’t be eating at that buffet again. I will find another one.

Boards of Ordained Ministry have been entrusted with deciding which “foods” will be available in the UMC buffet and in some parts of the country what I prepare isn’t going to be palatable for people in other places. Not that it might not be nutritious, but they won’t try even try it. I am reminded of my first time eating at an Indian restaurant and I hesitated to eat anything I was served. Today I love Indian food and cook it myself at home.

I come back, again and again to that tired, but true dictum that, “People don’t care what you know, until they know that you care.” I think that is true for theological knowing. I have served churches that have had pastors with wide ranges in theology and generally people cared far more about being loved and cared for and challenged to grow as disciples than about the doctrinal positions that clergy seem to take.

I think poet Edwin Markham was pretty wise in 1913 when he wrote:

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.


The quote points out that different contexts demand different diets and approaches. The joy of being Methodist is that it does offer rich theological buffet, expressed in the diversity of its clergy and its laity. As someone who has served in three of the five jurisdictions in the United States, I can affirm that the common vocabulary and theological emphases differ widely. And yet they all draw from the same buffet, set forth by the United Methodist Church.

And yet there is a problem with the buffet approach: progressive areas cannot offer the dish of full inclusion of LGBT people that other churches can. It is left off the menu, unable to be served because of 40 years of exclusion. Little wonder that the churches in progressive areas do not grow as fast as those areas with more dominant traditionalist beliefs: they are not able to offer a full buffet that the people appreciate!  They are not able to offer the full menu, even though LGBT inclusion is not antithetical to the Wesleyan tradition.

And like any franchise with regional variance in its menu offerings, for the UMC in progressive areas to be able to offer it wouldn’t change the buffet that other areas serve their congregations–it just allows other congregations to offer a full buffet to empower their context. As I’ve seen with the regional variances on what aspects of United Methodist theology and practice are emphasized, such diversity already exists. And yet traditionalist areas have everything they need on the buffet while progressive areas are missing a vital food dish for their contexts, while constantly being pointed at as failing areas of the church. Little wonder…

So the tension is that to Traditionalist circles of the church, we offer a prix fixe menu: every church must offer the same things. And yet Progressives point out the reality that in the area of practice we are actually a buffet: that every area of the church has regional variances on many theological areas–maybe not the essentials, but at least on this issue of LGBT inclusion.

It may be that Traditionalists attract those people who need a set menu for theological coherence. I remember when this Boston-trained clergyperson was interviewing for ordination that one of the areas of concern was my comfort with ambiguity and encouraging a space for questions, whereas some members of my ordination committee said that people want certainty and solid direction. A buffet isn’t for everyone…but neither should it be banned from United Methodism. Like the example of Indian food above, being exposed to novel variances within the buffet of the Wesleyan tradition can be attractive and transform as many lives as a prix fair menu can–it was the buffet eaters who pushed for inclusion of women, persons of color, and other areas of transformation of the institution.

Your turn:

  1. Is United Methodism a buffet of rich theological food?
  2. Or is United Methodism a prix fixe menu that you must take what you are served?


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  1. says

    I think that there is a reason why doctrine exists, and even why Scripture needed to be written down. It’s because our natural tendency is to turn God and the things of God into a buffet. When Paul went to Athens it was said of the people there that they “spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). This wasn’t a complement. Paul would tell them that their times of ignorance are now over and people everywhere are called to repent (17:30).

    Don’t you think there is more to being a Christian than just having a church set up as one among many self-help stores? This buffet model appeals to the sinful nature in me that simply wants my “best life now” and so long as it sounds good to me, makes me feel better, and doesn’t hurt anyone, great! The problem with this, however, is makes truth completely subjective, and renders you as a pastor impotent to speak truth where people most need to hear it.

    • Zzyzx says

      Funny. The desire for absolute conformity throughout the entire church appeals to the sinful nature in me that wants everyone to think, believe and act EXACTLY the way I do…

      • says

        I said nothing about conformity or making everyone believe exactly like myself. There are other, far more faithful options, between the extremes of “anything you please” and “robotic conformity.” Jesus spoke many hard truths, and turned away many. He said things like “broad is the way that leads to destruction” (which sounds like an open buffet) and “narrow is the way to life.” It’s no wonder few find it.

    • says

      As I said, some people find theological value in a set menu and set beliefs and ready answers for their spiritual life. And some people find theological value in enticing questions, probing ideas, and ambiguity. Are those spiritual temperaments wrong or more self-centered than the former?

      An experimental and engaged theology is what gives us novelty in practice: otherwise, women wouldn’t be pastors, for example. This is not “anything goes” but rather is “why is this dish on the table and will I get sick from it? What advice from others could I get before I try it?”

    • John says

      Chad, I think you’ve hit the nail right on the head. We do want to see God and the Kingdom as a buffet from which we pile on those delicacies that we want and pass by those good gifts of God that we, in our sinfulness, personally find unappetizing. And we do so because we don’t want to let go of Modernism and its exaltation of radical individualism. I’m reminded of the repeated observation in Judges, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” We so much desire to be autonomous that we utterly fail to see our need to submit ourselves to the King of Kings in order to take hold of all that he offers to those who enter his Kingdom.

      It’s true, there is an immutable core of the gospel message that we must communicate. Yet that core must be transmitted into a variety of culture-, social-, and historical-bound groups, and so the ways in which we communicate will differ from community to community.

      Because these communities differ culturally, no two local churches will worship in exactly the same way. (I’ve seen far greater diversity in worship among “fundy” congregations than I have among Progressives.) Yet all Christian communities have bounds within they interpret and proclaim God’s Word as expressed through the scriptures. Our bounds in the UMC, of course, are determined by the contents of the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, General Rules, and Wesley’s Sermons and Notes. So long as we keep within those bounds (which permit quite a bit of diversity, by the way) we remain in connection with other UM communities; stray outside and we’ve become something else.

      No matter what flavors we taste in God’s feast, we so do in community… not as individuals. We would do well to recall that it was just a century ago that the great German Liberal Protestant theologian Adolf von Harnack pledged allegiance to the German Kaiser and the German Empire; Harnack and his fellow Liberal Protestants did do so because their theology (so focused on individualism and an inverted understanding of the Kingdom as contained WITHIN the individual believer and not the other way around) could not prevent them from so doing. Witnessing Harnack and others pledging their allegiance to Caesar so horrified a young Karl Barth that he saw the inadequacy of Liberal Protestantism and began to seek a better grounded understanding of the reality of God’s relationship to those in the Kingdom. A generation later, the theological heirs of Harnack were themselves woefully ill-equipped to resist the Nazi’s oversight of the German Christians. And yet we persist today with this convoluted understanding of God’s Kingdom, convincing ourselves that we’re “just too clever” to avoid the logical end of such an individualistic theology.

      • Zzyzx says

        That’s a complete oversimplification of the history of theology in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries as well as the relationship between the Church and State. On the other hand, you managed to bring in the specter of Nazism with which to implicitly accuse those you disagree with. Which basically means the conversation can only go downhill from here…

        But to at least provide a counterpoint: No theology is immune from the dangers of individualism. Neither “liberal,” nor “conservative,” nor traditional, nor anything else. I could just as easily point out dozens of theologians and pastors who have leant their support to causes just as suspect. Of course the German Kaiser was also not a Nazi (he was still alive at the time Hitler seized power and he was deeply critical of many facets of Nazism) and theological exploration can change within a generation.

        Take, for example, the example of Rudolf Bultmann. He was, in many ways, the epitome of the Liberal Theology movement (Keeping in mind that “Liberal Theology” is a specific theological school and not merely a description of a theology with which “conservatives” disagree. A point that many people, especially people without academic training, don’t realize. It’s important to make sure we’re clear on terms in any theological discussion.) Anyway, Rudolf Bultmann also belonged to the school of Liberal Theology, yet he deeply opposed Hitler and preached against Nazism from the pulpit. Contrast that to the less “individualistic” theologians who showed support for the Nazi regime such as various Catholic bishops throughout Germany and many conservative Protestants.

        Nor is Liberal Theology, as a proper theological movement and perspective, INHERENTLY individualistic to any greater extent than any other theological school. That is to say that it CAN be, but is not necessarily. Just like any other strain of theology. Nor is the Liberal Theological perspective contained just to Protestantism. And Barth has not had the final theological word either. The debate is not settled by any means, although it has evolved with the theological currents like theological discussion always does.

        But, as I said, I can’t help but feel that your last paragraph is a gross oversimplification and basically a “smear job” against those you disagree with. There’s a reason why once Nazis are mentioned on the internet the (rational part of the) conversation is basically over.

        • John says

          If I’d said something along the lines of, “Progressives (or Fundamentalists) are jack-booted fascists,” I’d agree with you. However, I haven’t likened anyone to Nazis. What I said, since you missed it the first time, is that much of the individualism espoused within German Liberal Protestantism inadequately equipped theologians like Harnack for the counterclaims of the State. That failure to resist those counterclaims was itself rooted in a misplacement of the Kingdom within the individual soul. Many others, who had not adequately made adjustments in their Kingdom theology were equally ill-equipped a generation later.

          Obviously, there were conservatives who were also unprepared… some of whom were drawn to individualism, but more so to a conflating of church and state common to Constantinian understandings of the Kingdom.

          Lest you jump to the conclusion that I’m bashing Progressives, I would argue that American fundamentalists have fallen into the same Kingdom-located-within-the-individual trap as Harnack and his followers… although more so. Combine that with a Christendom understanding of the state and you’re left with pick-and-choose-theological-buffet plus a yearning for those selections to be imposed on others through force. I don’t know about you, but I find that a scary scenario… whether it’s done by the Inquisition or the American Christian left or the American Christian right.

          I don’t recall insinuating that Barth had anything close to the last word… only that his horror at seeing his mentors fall victim to hypernationalism brought forth his conviction that their Kingdom theology was flawed. Certainly others, like Bultmann, saw the dangers of National Socialism, and helped to form the Confessing Church in opposition to the German Christians that were co-opted by the State.

  2. says

    one more thought: How is this not an exaltation of the very thing Paul warns against, here:

    For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; (2 Tim. 4:3)

  3. Zzyzx says

    I think it’s rather sad that denominations worldwide are turning their back on “big tent” thinking and people are basically segregating themselves into like-minded theological communities. (Although I think Catholicism has, fortunately, avoided this to a large extent.) To me, this shows an unwillingness to tolerate diversity, which is effectively a denial of reality. But it also shows what I think is an unwillingness to be open to the voice of God. The Bible gives some pretty clear evidence that God has a tendency to speak to his people through the unexpected means and individuals.

      • Zzyzx says

        Of course the irony, to me, is that Protestantism is (almost by definition) a “buffet” methodology toward theology and Church history. I think it is the proper method (keeping in mind that any metaphor can be pushed TOO far) otherwise I guess I’d feel compelled to seek another well. But it’s always odd to me when one Protestant accuses another of “picking and choosing” as if completely unaware of the irony…

        Of course Wesley himself picked from the buffet of Lutheranism (his Aldersgate experience), Anglicanism obviously, Catholic mysticism, and the Moravian Church throughout his life. Not counting all his interactions with Christians of other, less traditional, stripes like Quakers. And then there was Wesley’s vindication of Montanus as a true Christian rather than a heretic…

        • John says

          Of course Wesley also drew deeply from the well of the Eastern church, from which he developed his doctrine of sanctification… the “grand depositum” of Methodism.

          The key to “buffet” eating is to select only those foods which the Lord has placed before us on his own table. Once we begin setting other tables and placing food of our own creation upon it we’re deeply in trouble.

          • Zzyzx says

            And, conveniently enough, the distinction between “what God has placed” and “other tables” aligns perfectly with what we already believe!

  4. says

    I think the UMC is pretty straight forward with its beliefs when it comes to the Articles and Confessions. Though I have found some UMC clergy and seminary professors who claim that the rubrics in the Book of Worship and the Outlerian quadrilateral are as authoritative as the AR/CF statements on the nature and person of Jesus.

    I’m a buffet guy, myself. I start with a large helping of the Ecumenical Creeds as my main dish. the I use those traditions as a lens to understand the scriptures and then the scriptures to interpret and appropriate other traditions of the church.

    But even the Creeds have issues. The Apostles’ Creed is good and I believe what it says. Same with the Nicene Creed; I’m not sure where I land on the filioque clause. The Athenaisan Creed is amazing until the anathema statement at the end.

    • John says

      Kurt, sounds like you have found a healthy way to feast at a buffet.

      I hate to say it, but those who claim the BOW and the quadrilateral have the same doctrinal authority as the Articles and Confessions are just wrong. The Articles, Confessions, General Rules, and Wesley’s Sermons and Notes are doctrinal standards constitutionally protected by Restrictive Rule 2. The BOW and quadrilateral may be changed by a simple majority vote of any General Conference. It is frightening that UMC seminary professors could be so ignorant of what constitute our standard teachings.

      When ordained, our clergy have all vowed that they are in agreement with the Articles, Confessions, General Rules, and Sermons and Notes. Those that are not in agreement either took their vows in ignorance or were less than genuine in giving their assent (or have since fallen into disagreement). Fidelity to those standards doesn’t mean that we’re in lock-step with each other, because there’s still quite of bit of room to maneuver theologically within those standards. But once we move outside our standards, we’re teaching something other than United Methodist theology.

  5. John Handy Bosma says

    Interesting read, but I think your post suffers in two areas:

    1. I don’t see you noting the rank hypocrisy of people making this accusation as they pick and choose which parts of Leviticus should be enforced, and which ones ignored. I think it’s clear said picking and choosing is , as is true of readings of the Bibke itself, motivated by bigotry toward particular groups.

    2. I don’t think it’s a supportable theological position to say churches in more progressive areas should have the option to be more inclusive, and more traditional areas have a valid option to exclude or discriminate. That basically says God’s reach depends on where you live. I get that some clergy want to serve up a diet of vitriol toward lgbt people; I just don’t think they are on sound footing doing it. Nor do I welcome the misleading statements in the BOD alleging UMCdoesn’t discriminate. Isn’t there something in the Bible about telling the truth?

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