Why an Emphasis of Christ at the Center?

The words of the great hymn ring out in many a church.

The church’s one Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord;
she is His new creation, by water and the Word;
from heav’n He came and sought her to be His holy bride;
with His own blood He bought her, and for her life He died.
(“The Church’s One Foundation,” No. 545, The United Methodist Hymnal)

The words center us at a focal point of the Christian faith. Theologian Jurgen Moltmann comments, “At the centre of Christian faith is the history of Christ. At the centre of the history of Christ is his passion and his death on the cross” (Jurgen Moltmann, taken from A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight, pg. 61).

Since coming to the Central Texas Conference over 9 years ago, I have operated out of a deep conviction born in prayer and consultation that three core values for our ministry tower above all other aspirants for our attention. We call them simply the Big Three:

1. Christ at the Center
2.  A Focus on the Local Church
3.  Lay and Clergy Leadership Development

Periodically I am challenged by the Christological emphasis being of first importance. Typically the question comes in the form of a skeptical query, “Why Christ? Why not God or Jesus?” Often it is followed by an argument tinged with defiance that the center should be on God in order to indicate the full breath of the Holy Trinity or on Jesus (with a concurrent implicit emphasis on the Lord’s humanity).

The challenge poses a reasonable question, but I believe it flounders in the context of the early 21st century United Methodist Church. An emphasis on God alone without a specific reference to the Trinity leads us into a closet Unitarianism. An emphasis on Jesus without a similar emphasis on Christ denies the redemptive work of the totality of Jesus as the Christ, the Lord and Savior of all. (It is worth noting that the issue of a creeping Unitarianism affects mostly the old “mainline” protestant church. Many on the so-called “evangelical” side of the church/denomination equation, including most Independent Bible churches, suffer from exactly the opposite malady.)

Interestingly enough, the skeptical query almost always (with rare exception) comes from clergy. I submit that they reflect a theological emphasis that has mistakenly led us away from the core center of the Christian faith. Put more bluntly the deeper struggle over theological orthodoxy in The United Methodist Church today centers around the need to more fully embrace a robust Christology. We are in danger of being a Unitarian United Methodist Church, which emphasizes Jesus’ mercy and justice ministry at the expense of the Lord’s redeeming work on the cross.

Make no mistake, we rightly should lift up Christ’s great teaching of mercy and justice. The Great Commandment to love God and the neighbor is to be ever before us ardently engaging in ministries of love, justice and mercy. My pause, which leads me back to a deeper emphasis on Christ at the Center, is that in the process of so emphasizing the human work of Jesus and the importance of the Godhead, we in The United Methodist Church have subtly descended into a cultural version of “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.”

Guiding Beliefs of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism 

1.      A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.

2.      God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.

by Kenda Creasy Dean, pg 14

 

3.      The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

4.      God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.

5.      Good people go to heaven when they die.

Irenaeus, a church Father from the 2nd century, insisted on what we would call a “high” Christology while firmly anchoring creedal affirmation that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. “But following the only true and steadfast Teacher, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.”  Scot McKnight goes on to comment, “The implication of this observation shapes the entirety of what we mean by the atonement: God identifies with us in the incarnation. Without identification, without incarnation, there is not atonement” (Scot McKnight, A Community Called Atonement, pg. 54).

It is significant that the ancient Church Fathers and Mothers welded together a high Christology with a passion for ministry to the last, the least and the lost. They had a saying, springing from the writings of theologians like Irenaeus, that went, “He became like us that we might be like him.”

In a recent dialog between the Central Texas Conference Cabinet and members of the faculty and administration of Perkins School of Theology, conversation around the United Methodist need to embrace a stronger Christology struck a deep nerve. Professor Rebecca Miles followed up on the conversation by sharing her concern in a series of email exchanges (used with permission). She commented, “You bet, Bishop. Is it is clear that I don’t think this (i.e. a weak understanding of Christ and Christology) is just a Perkins problem but a problem of our church generally.” She added in a later email, “Let’s talk about Christology! [Emphasis hers.] I am also concerned about the lack of Christology or the presence of an anemic or unformed Christology in our pastors (laity too). . . . I wonder if there might be a way to link this effort to jointly sponsored Central Texas Conference/Perkins preparation for commissioning.”

Dr. Miles closed with an invitation, which I commend to the laity of the Central Texas Conference. “Regarding laity (especially lay church professionals), we are hosting a course in UM Studies in January with Whitfield, Miles and Campbell teaching. For me, Wesleyan theology is one way to get at the key Christological issues and also to counter the rampant Calvinist theology among our laity (or simple theological apathy). Here is a link to the event. I hope all of you will consider sharing this:  https://www.smu.edu/Perkins/PublicPrograms/UM-Studies-Course

I close with a quote from the great missionary evangelist and theologian E. Stanley Jones:

Christianity is Christ…. We do not begin with God, for if you do you do not begin with God but with your ideas of God, which are not God. We do not begin with man, for if you do you begin with the problems of man. And if you begin with a problem you will probably end with a problem, and in the process you will probably become a problem…. We don’t begin with God, and we don’t begin with man, we begin with God-Man and from Him we work out to God, and from Him we work down to man. In His light we see life – all life. For He is the revelation of God and man – the revelation of what God is and what man can become – he can become Christlike.

 

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