By Walter Fenton
“Given the current challenges directed to the unique place of the Bible in the church, we affirm that the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture as “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3; NRSV). We look to the Bible therefore as our authority and trustworthy guide, which “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16; NRSV). Illuminated by tradition, reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.” – The Wesleyan Covenant Association’s “Statement on Biblical Authority”
Given this succinct statement on biblical authority, members of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) find it odd that some have taken to calling us “fundamentalists.”
Here are just a couple of examples.
Last August, Bill Mefford wrote, “[I]n the last few years a new group called the Wesleyan Covenant Association has been created by some fundamentalist United Methodists solely around not allowing gay people to marry or be ordained.”
This spring the Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas warned, “Those adhering to… [a] fundamentalist-type of theology have infiltrated themselves into the life and the leadership of the UMC. Those funding and plotting this takeover are representatives of or leaders in strongly Evangelical [sic] movements and groups like… the Wesleyan Covenant Association….” And then she asks her readers, “Do we want a mindless fundamentalist reading of Holy Scripture to be the centerpiece of the Methodist movement?”
Well, of course not.
Here is at least a little good news for those fretting about the WCA: it is not a fundamentalist cabal attempting a church takeover. In fact, many WCA leaders and members were born and raised in the church (some before it was even called the United Methodist Church). Others joined the UM Church years ago. And ironically, some transferred into the church in order to escape a fundamentalist denomination.
True, WCA members adhere to our church’s interpretations of Scripture when it comes to our sexual ethics, teachings on marriage, and ordination standards. Interpretations, it should be noted, that have been affirmed by the church catholic in all times and in all places. But adhering to these interpretations does not a fundamentalist make.
WCA members mean it when we confess that through the power of the Holy Spirit, “the core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture.” We do “look to the Bible… as our authority and trustworthy guide.” And we honestly believe “it is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.” These convictions do not make us fundamentalists; they make us Methodists.
WCA members are well aware that in addition to being a beautiful and inspiring book, the Bible is also challenging and perplexing. Consequently we believe we must approach the text with humility, praying to the Holy Sprit to illumine our understanding, while turning to the great treasure house of wisdom and guidance handed down to us by our ancestors in the faith who wrestled with the text long before us. We are also thankful for the work of more recent interpretive approaches that have expanded our understanding of the historical, social, and literary context of the Bible.
As we move forward we will call upon all of these resources to help us read aright God’s word for us. That is what the church, at its best, has always attempted to do, and we believe we must continue in that path. We also recognize there are regrettable times in the life of the church when there are honest and deep differences over interpretations of Scripture that bear upon its essential doctrinal and ethical teachings. We are experiencing such a time right now. This is a painful, unpleasant, and uncertain reality, but it is one we must and will face.
Dr. David Watson, a WCA Council member and associate professor of New Testament at United Theological Seminary, has recently written that, “through the Bible, God has revealed sacred truth to a community of people committed to living in that truth” (Scripture and the Life of God. Kindle edition, location 180). As the WCA prepares for what is next we want to be part of that community of people.
Walter Fenton is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference, and the WCA’s vice-president for strategic engagement.