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Controversy has swirled the last few weeks over Rob Bell’s newest book and Chad Holtz’s early departure from his student pastorate. Generally, the discussions related to both have seemed to me to generate a lot more heat than light. For the most part, a welcomed exception was a recent article by Heather Hahn of the United Methodist New Service. Hahn’s article shed significant light on Chad Holtz’s agreement to leave his student pastor appointment before the end of this appointment cycle. The article also reminded me that the blogosphere is sometimes as good at facilitating a rush to judgment as it is helpful in facilitating conversation and reflection among people.

In my view, the article took a turn for the worse when it came to the section “What the church teaches on hell.” This section was confusing and contained information that is inaccurate. Here is the section in its entirety:

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, does not contain any specific statement on heaven or hell.

However, the Evangelical United Brethren Church, one of the denomination’s predecessors, states in Article XII of its Confession of Faith: “We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.”

The Confession, adopted in 1963, and the Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church from 1808 are both part of The United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards in the Book of Discipline. As such, they cannot be altered — even by General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body.

A particular belief about heaven or hell is not part of the denomination’s baptismal covenant, and therefore is not a requirement for membership in The United Methodist Church.

However, Holtz’s status as a pastor puts him in a different category, said the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at the United Methodist Board of Discipleship.

“This is where Chad got himself into trouble,” Burton-Edwards said. “He was articulating doctrine that was contrary to the doctrine of this church.”

Here are my main issues with this paragraph:

1. The paragraph first states that the Book of Discipline “does not contain any specific statement on heaven or hell.” But, as the very next sentence points out, one of the articles of the Confession of Faith reads, “We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.” If “the wicked to endless condemnation” is not a way of signifying hell, then I’m not sure what it is referring to. Moreover, the first sentence of that article, which is not quoted in the UMNS article, makes it even more difficult to believe that this statement is not referring to heaven and hell: “We believe all men stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ, both now and in the last day.” The Confession of Faith is not only in the Book of Discipline, it is part of the relatively small body of material considered to be standards of doctrine for United Methodists. Thus, the first statement of the UMNS paragraph is only accurate in so far as it literally means that the words heaven and hell don’t appear in this article from the Confession of Faith.

2. The article then says that the Confession of Faith and the Articles of Religion are “both part of The United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards in the Book of Discipline. As such, they cannot be altered – even by the General Conference.” This is simply and obviously inaccurate. I think Hahn is referring to the fact that the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith are protected by the first and second Restrictive Rules that say that General Conference “shall not revoke, alter, or change” them (see para 17, 18 of the Constitution in the BOD). In fact, the doctrinal standards can be altered and the Book of Discipline clearly describes the process for changing them. In order to change the Confession of Faith, General Conference would have to approve an amendment to the second Restrictive Rule by a “two-thirds majority of the General Conference present and voting” and because it is a Restrictive Rule a “three-fourths majority of all the members o the annual conferences present and voting” would be required (para 59). The Constitution certainly makes it very difficult to change the Confession of Faith or the Articles of Religion, but it is not true that they “cannot be altered.”

3. Next, the article says that members do not have to have “a particular belief about heaven or hell” because this is not “part of the denomination’s baptismal covenant, and therefore is not a requirement for membership in The United Methodist Church.” Let me say that I love the liturgy for baptism in the UM hymnal. I think it is profound. However, I do not think it is intended to be a comprehensive doctrinal statement. I am not familiar with the precedent that the baptismal covenant is a complete summary of the beliefs that The United Methodist Church expects prospective members to affirm. The sacrament of communion, for example, is not mentioned, so does that mean it is dispensable? Moreover, according to the BOD “a professing member of a local church may be charged with… (d) dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church” (para 2702.3.d), a clear reference to the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. According to the BOD, the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith are not an additional set of beliefs that clergy are supposed to adhere to. Rather, they are an expression of the “established standards of doctrine” of The UMC. Ultimately, I think the distinction between laity and clergy is a false distinction.

4. The quote from Taylor Burton-Edwards at the end of the section adds another layer of confusion. I think this quote is intended to be connected to the previous two sentences, where the distinction between what members have to believe and what clergy have to believe is made. However, the quote from Burton-Edwards contradicts the opening statement of this section. At the end of the article, it seems that the conclusion is that saying you don’t believe in hell is contrary to UM doctrine. So, what are we to do with the first sentence?

This may all seem rather uptight, and that may indeed be an occupational hazard of my line of work. I am convinced that we will have more helpful and productive conversations about issues like the UMNS article raises when we first clearly communicate the facts that can be agreed upon. Before we can discuss what we ought to believe or teach, we first need to be clear about what The UMC does teach. In the areas I have outlined, I fear that the UMNS has actually added confusion (unintentionally) to the conversation about what The UMC teaches about hell.

Update: I just reread an article published yesterday by Heather Hahn and UMNS that addresses some of the same issues as the article I am interacting with here. I noticed that the more recent article has a paragraph very similar to the one above, but it has corrected the mistakes I note in #2. This article reads, “Church doctrine can only be changed through a constitutional amendment process, which requires approval by a two-thirds majority of General Conference and a three-fourths majority of all annual conference members present and voting.” Kuddos to Hahn and UMNS for getting this part right the second time. (Though this part of the article still contains what I think is a very confusing opening line, “The Book of Discipline, The United Methodist Church’s law book, does not make specific mention of heaven or hell.”)

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