Tom Oden’s Two-Point Test for #UMC Schism

The Good News Movement fails their own test

tom-oden 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:

  1. So long as a pastor is not forced to do something that they believe Scripture forbids AND
  2. So long as a pastor is not forced to omit anything they believe Scripture requires, THUS
  3. 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:

  1. Bishops “unwilling to enforce the Book of Discipline” does not force pastors to do anything they believe Scripture forbids or omit anything Scripture requires.
  2. Individual pastors “disregarding the covenant” does not force pastors to do anything they believe Scripture forbids or omit anything Scripture requires.
  3. 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. 
facepalm 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Clarity Needed

So my question is:

  1. To you, dear reader, is the Oden Test a valid approach to schism? If not, why?
  2. Does Rev. Dr. Thomas Oden still hold his Test to be applicable to the UMC?
  3. 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?

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  1. Doug Widdowson says

    I do believe the “Oden Test” is valid. It seems to me the same thoughts were running through the mind of Bonhoeffer and Barth when they were talking about the Confessing Church and the State Church separating. Bonhoeffer wanted the Confessing Church to pull away and Barth maintained that the State Church would need to be the one to push for separation.

    However, my question is (and I truly do ask it for discussion purposes) – if the Oden/Wesley Test is valid – which you seem to imply that it is – is this not grounds for the Progressive side to leave? Our Discipline continues to prohibit ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and states that our buildings and pastors shall not participate in same-sex ceremonies.” From a Progressive viewpoint the pastor/church is forced to do something that they believe Scripture forbids and omit something they believe Scripture requires.

    While I can agree that the Conservative side should not (based on the “Oden Test” ) be pushing for a schism, does it not make perfect sense from a Progressive standpoint?

    • says

      Terrific question, Doug.

      Instead of answering it, I feel I might make it even more complicated with my next blog post about church and authority. Sorry in advance but it may make it more nuanced than your presentation above.

  2. says

    So in response to question one, if the Oden Test is valid. I’m going to say no. I’d be interested in your thoughts on this, Jeremy, because I haven’t 100% figured out how I feel about this, but I’ll give it a try here and see what happens:

    I think that Oden, and certainly John Wesley–and maybe you, my friend?–have a higher view of denominations/church institutions than I do. (I mean higher in the theological sense, as in “high Christology”)

    Here’s what I mean. Oden says, poetically: “I want with all my heart to remain within the wrenched body that ordained me.” I don’t doubt that he means that, really. But I’m not sure it’s something I’d ever say.

    I’m not ordained (at least not yet) and maybe I misunderstand. But I don’t think the UMC ordains anybody, right? I mean, either we’re ordained in the eyes of the church universal because of apostolic succession (except Wesley sort of messed that up) or charismatic call. Or, if we’re talking about the official body of persons who ordains us, isn’t it the Annual Conference? That’s where I would get my certification from, it’s where my membership would be, etc.

    So perhaps, if I want to remain in the body which might someday ordain me, I should commit myself to the Annual Conference. But Annual Conferences actually could leave the UMC, without any overall plan for schism from GC, since there’s no actual centralized UMC that exists in any real sense, yes?

    All of which is to say: denominations are deeply flawed, and perhaps even outdated, institutions. The UMC might be worth saving, if it’s going to be an effective and faithful instrument of the missio Dei. And I’m certainly willing to help. But I don’t think I’m going to lose too much sleep over staying or not staying in the “wrenched body that ordained”–or at least formed–me. Because the body whose formation and ordination I’m interested in is the body of Christ. I hope that the UMC will be part of that. I certainly won’t dance on its grave. I’ll go to the funeral, because my friends will be there and it will be potluck. I’ll drink to it’s memory. But then, I think, I’ll move on with life and ministry, without too much existential angst.

  3. says

    Jeremy, thanks for engaging with Good News about our concerns for The United Methodist Church. I just want to correct the record regarding Dr. Tom Oden’s involvement with Good News.

    Tom Oden is certainly a friend and colleague of all the renewal groups within The United Methodist Church. We respect his opinions, and he has a lot of helpful perspectives to bring, particularly in the areas of theological education and issues around the trust clause, as well as more generally the history of United Methodism and the influence of the early church Fathers on Wesley.

    At the same time, Dr. Oden has never served on the board of Good News. He was one of a half-dozen contributing editors for Good News magazine between 1992 and 2008. He did address the Good News board one time during that period, when he presented the paper he wrote that formed the basis of the 2012 article you refer to. We had six to eight other theologians, Bible scholars, and church history experts address the board with their thoughts around schism, as well. I would not say that Tom Oden is “the primary intellectual force behind the renewal groups in the United Methodist Church.” In fact, while appreciating and benefiting from Dr. Oden’s knowledge and wisdom, the board of Good News disagreed then (and now) with his rather narrow test for the validity of separation. (He and others have made the point that schism already exists within The UM Church because schism is division within a church body. His paper dealt with whether in light of that schism, separation was a valid or necessary response.)

    Good News has added two rationales for separation to the two adduced by Wesley and mentioned by Oden. First, the official acceptance (by vote of a General, Jurisdictional, or Annual Conference or Judicial Council decision) of false doctrine by the church (contrary to our established doctrinal standards). Second, the persistent and systemic failure of the church to uphold or enforce the doctrinal or ethical standards of The Book of Discipline. This failure would also include the widespread persecution and/or oppression of those who hold to an historic confession of the Christian faith within The United Methodist Church.

    It is obvious to us that we are on the way to meeting (if we have not already met) the situation envisioned by the second criterion. Not only do we have the failure to uphold or enforce the ethical standards of the Discipline, we have examples of evangelical clergy in various parts of the country being penalized for their agreement with the church’s position on homosexuality and gay marriage.

    It is this situation that has led us to consider the possibility of separation. I hope this clarifies the issues you raise, Jeremy.

    • says

      Thanks for this reply, Tom. I’ve updated the post with reference to your clarification.

      It is helpful for our conversation to know that Good News has chosen to “add on” to Wesley’s prescription with your own declarations. Whether Wesley would find those additions to be valid remains, likely, a point of contention.

  4. David says

    (Not the same David as above.)

    The official acceptance of false doctrines and the failure to enforce the Discipline do not seem like additions to Wesley’s rules; they seem more like things that Wesley did not bother to mention because he never imagined that the church would reach that point.

    • says

      The question we are left to ask then: “are we at that point, according to Wesley?” I would charge there are multiple contradictory answers to that question.

  5. Creed Pogue says

    “pots and kettles” “logs and splinters”

    I missed the post condemning Love Prevails for THEIR call to withhold prayers from those they disagree with and to leave The UMC if their bullying tactics aren’t successful in 2016. They are part of the Love Your Neighbor Common Witness Coalition with MFSA etc. I guess that coalition should disband?

    Also the “Wesleyan” Quadrilateral was NEVER articulated by either John or Charles Wesley but is misused to “justify” ideas that John Wesley would never support. It would be much healthier if we had discussions based on facts rather than slanted perspectives.


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