Rev. Dr. Thomas Oden, a fellow Oklahoman, is the primary intellectual force behind the renewal groups in the United Methodist Church. The different renewal groups coalition with each other at each General Conference: Good News, Confessing, Lifewatch, Transforming Congregations, and RENEW caucus together (along with the IRD, but only when there’s no daylight: it burns). Oden has personal influence in the three primary groups: He’s currently a board member at the Confessing Movement, but was active in Good News and chaired the IRD board for a time. (Update: Good News VP clarifies Oden’s influence in the Good News as a comment here. Thanks Rev. Lambrecht!) Given Oden’s influence in all three primary caucus groups, it is appropriate to apply his thinking to all three when it comes to an issue close to Oden’s heart: schism.
The Oden Test for Schism
Back in 2012, Tom Oden wrote an article that deplored schism and set forth his singular instance when schism would be valid. First, here’s what Oden outlines that John Wesley claims as the sole criterion for schism:
Though determined to maintain the unity of the church, Wesley concedes that there is one crucial exception: If “you could not remain in the Church of England, without doing something which the Word of God forbids, or omitting something which the Word of God positively commands: If this were the case (but, blessed be God, it is not) you ought to separate from the Church of England.” This would be “separation with cause” and not a needless schism. But if your church does not require you to do what God forbids, you must stay.
Second, here’s Oden’s own claim that reframes Wesley to today:
This is the commitment to date of the Confessing Movement Within the United Methodist Church. With Wesley I say: So long as the church to which I am now united does not require me to do anything that the Scripture forbids, or to omit anything the Scripture enjoins, it is my indispensable duty to continue therein. Even if the general conference denies what Scripture enjoins, I am not required to cooperate with that attempt. I can stay and stand against the distortion. I want with all my heart to remain within the wrenched body that ordained me.
Thus, the Oden Test for Schism is:
- So long as a pastor is not forced to do something that they believe Scripture forbids AND
- So long as a pastor is not forced to omit anything they believe Scripture requires, THUS
- The pastor should stay in the UMC and continue to use our Methodist avenues of change within the church.
Two points. Solid.
Applying the Oden Test
Let’s apply the Oden Test to the most recent event regarding Schism in the Church. Last week, the Good News Board
(that Oden is or was on) released a statement that the UMC’s situation is untenable and called for exploration of amicable separation. You can read it at the United Methodist Reporter. Even if we assume all these claims are true and assume their framework, let’s see what happens as we apply the Oden Test:
- Bishops “unwilling to enforce the Book of Discipline” does not force pastors to do anything they believe Scripture forbids or omit anything Scripture requires.
- Individual pastors “disregarding the covenant” does not force pastors to do anything they believe Scripture forbids or omit anything Scripture requires.
- Disregard of the will of General Conference (which we assume is contained in the Book of Discipline) does not force pastors to do anything they believe Scripture forbids or omit anything Scripture requires.
By the Oden Test, indeed, the Good News allegations fail. Which is curious because
it’s their Test. Update: Good News VP below indicates that the GN board disagreed with the Oden Test and added on two other requirements to Wesley’s prescription.
Even when Good News’ Vice President (and commenter on this blog) Rev. Tom Lambrecht responded to a Q&A on the United Methodist Reporter about the statement above, none of his points indicated that pastors were being forced to do something or leave out some important theological tenet.
One wonders why this championed theological claim, originated by John Wesley himself, does not seem to be on their radar after two short years. It’s amazing how principles can be conveniently forgotten when they don’t fit the narrative for fundraising.
The UMC passes the Oden Test
While this blog is admittedly heavily biased against Schism, the truth is that even when the United Methodist Church affirms the full inclusion of LGBT persons in their midst, there will be a myriad of protections for the variety of theological perceptions in the United Methodist Church.
- Thanks to Judicial Council 1032, pastors have sole authority in determining church membership. If they don’t want the gays in their membership, they don’t have to.
- Pastors have the sole discretion to determine readiness for marriage. If they don’t want to marry gays, interracials, or clowns, they don’t have to.
- Our foundational documents are unchangeable per the Restrictive Rules, so our theological claims will not change. While this means they do have to ordain women and baptize babies, that’s been the case for a while now.
Thus by the conservative mastermind’s own claim, the UMC has not reached the point of no return by either Oden or by John Wesley himself…nor will it even when it affirms full inclusion. If I’m wrong by my analysis, I would like to see some responses.
So my question is:
- To you, dear reader, is the Oden Test a valid approach to schism? If not, why?
- Does Rev. Dr. Thomas Oden still hold his Test to be applicable to the UMC?
- In what cases (currently) are pastors required to do something against Scripture or required to leave something out from Scripture that would necessitate a schism?
Thanks for reading. Thoughts?