Theological Gumbo

Gumbo
Gumbo by Three Points Kitchen, on Flickr

I grew up in the Southern Baptist church. I went to church every Sunday. I spent time with my Southern Baptist grandfather praying with the sick, visiting homes, and reading the Bible. I professed my faith and was baptized at 12 (the age of accountability);  I went on mission trips and choir tours. I went camping and know every Baptist retreat center in a 6 state radius. But somewhere around college I lost the faith. I really begin to question whether my faith was just all heart (emotion). The big question for me was whether I was a Christian or if I was just going through the motions of Christianity. After I got married, my wife told me we had to go to church, but I was still skeptical. How could I know if my faith was real? (Much later I would discover John Wesley wrestled with the same question). We joined The United Methodist Church mainly because she worked at one.

It was in The United Methodist Church that I finally found a place that balanced a rich tradition in the past with a look toward the future. I found a place that held things in the tension of the cross. I found a place where all four spiritual types were held in balance: heart (passionate, evangelistic, Emmaus, Cursillo), head (theologically deep, intellectually stimulating), kingdom (social justice, outreach, missions, VIM, UMW, UMCOR), and mystic (sacramental, The Upper Room). I believe this is unique to our denomination.

Someone once told me that The United Methodist Church is where Roman Catholic people go when they marry a Baptist. Maybe this is more true than we fully understand. Yes, the UMC has been compared to the University of Phoenix when it comes to beliefs, but I don’t think this is because we have too many expressions of faith or people who join the church from other denominations. I think that we get labeled as the church where you can believe anything because we have forgotten our core basics.

We’ve lost our roux!

In Louisiana, we make a dish called gumbo. It comes in different types: seafood, shrimp, chicken and sausage. The main ingredients are always the same: roux (your base of flour and oil–the binder ingredient), the trinity (celery, onions, green peppers), and rice. Even though the main ingredients are always the same, every gumbo I have tasted is slightly different. Some folks use okra, while others think that okra is one of the seven deadly sins. In one area of the state, folks add potato salad (I picked up this habit while I was serving a church so now I do to), while other areas of the state are purist and only use rice. My wife substitutes carrots instead of green peppers for the trinity, so she would probably be labeled a heretic in the state. Gumbo recipes are prized possessions that are handed down through the generations. One of the first thing that families teach their children in Louisiana is how to make the roux because before you make the gumbo, you have to make the roux.

Maybe instead of theological hodgepodge, we are theological gumbo.

Maybe the conversations we have had up till now in the UMC have all been about the extra flavors. What if the real conversation we need to have is about our roux? If this is the case in The United Methodist Church today, then our first and primary objective is not to work out our extra flavors, but to rediscover our main ingredients. What is our roux (binder)? What are our common core theological values and doctrines as United Methodists? Who is our Holy Trinity? Can we agree upon the nature of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit? What is our rice? What are our identifiers that make us United Methodists?

I am wondering what would happen if we spent more time recovering our main ingredients. What would we do if we could remember what it is that makes The United Methodist Church so great?

10 comments

  1. My sense is that people have different and possibly incompatible ideas about what the main ingredients are. People like me go back to Wesley and those who subsequently carried the torch in revivalism and social action (not unrelated movements). But, others would look to the liberal, Schleiermacher-influenced currents of thought which became dominant in the later 19th and 20th Centuries. It is my sense that the divisions and the distrust in the is UMC are rooted in people’s sense of being divided along liberal/conservative lines. And, this keeps people from discussing anything fruitfully, since they distrust the people to which they are speaking.

  2. Drew, great article and question: “What is our roux (binder)? What are our common core theological values and doctrines as United Methodists?”

    For me, this statement sums it up:
    What We Believe: United Methodists stand squarely in the middle of the Protestant strand of Christianity. Founder John Wesley once claimed that anyone who loves God and neighbor could be a Methodist. Distinctive emphases include a stress on the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God (called grace). We believe this love draws us towards God even before we are aware of it. We believe that, once converted, we continue to grow in the life of Christ, and that by the power of God we can be made holy for love and Good works.

    United Methodists believe in personal and social holiness, faith and good works, and mission and service. Wesley had three General Rules for Methodists: Do no harm; Do all the good you can; Attend to the ordinances of God (i.e., public worship, small group participation, Supper of the Lord, family and private prayer, Bible reading, fasting).

    This link gives the details: Our Wesleyan Heritage: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/our-wesleyan-heritage

    – Courtesy of Mulberry Street UMC, Macon, GA

  3. WOW….as a ‘closet’ chef I love your analogy. I think your spot on when you say we have lost our roux. But I think it also goes deeper than that, because not only have we lost our roux their has been a group that has also chosen to look outside the foundational Trinity that is suppose to be found in every roux.

  4. Excellent points, Drew. I think you are right that we have lost the sense of an agreed-upon common theological makeup of our church. We believe that the debate over sexuality issues goes much deeper to the question of revelation and biblical authority, which is definitely part of the roux. (How do you pronounce that, by the way?)

    At the same time, there is one group in our church that thinks the approval of homosexual behavior is part of the roux, and we must be for it. Another group thinks it’s part of the roux and thinks we must be against it. There are two other groups (for and against approval of homosexual behavior) who both think that issue/stance is not part of the roux.

    So we are in a theological mess at the moment. But your main point is that we need to determine what is the roux. I would say that our doctrinal standards are an important part of the roux by constitutional definition. The discussion over the roux could be very helpful. Or we might discover that there is much less agreement on that issue than we thought!

    1. First of all Tom thank you so much for reaching out and talking with us. It is our desire to get conversations going on these very issues facing the UMC today.

      I believe our roux(pronounced rue) is much deeper and much more important than issues of sexuality. My guess is that if we had deep discussion about what our beliefs are in the UMC we might be able to then discuss issues of the day in a better manner.

      Many of us believe, as you have articulated so well, that the UMC would be served very well by engaging in some good conversations about our core beliefs. As Dr. Billy Abraham articulated so well in 1995 the UMC needs to wake up from our doctrinal amnesia.

      However, I believe we erred on both ends of the theological spectrum. Yes there are some elements of theology that exist in the UMC that better belong in a UU Church or a UCC Church. But there are also elements of theology that exist in the UMC that better belong in a Southern Baptist Church or a Reformed Church. I see this especially as a Methodist minister in the south where theological thought is dominated by the SBC.

      1. Thank you for your response, Stephen. I agree that the roux of our denomination goes much deeper than the sexuality issues. I also agree that there are some conservatives in our church whose theology is much closer to Southern Baptist. I come from a very liberal conference, where the bulk of the clergy would more fit the UCC, if not the UU. It is the clergy who “admit” other clergy (via the board of ordained ministry process). If the BOM is not clear on what our doctrinal core is, they will either admit nearly anyone, or they will follow their own theological presuppositions and discourage/exclude those who don’t fit them. We would be well served by having a much clearer and more broadly shared understanding of what our UM identity really is. Let me know where to sign up!

  5. Love the analogy. I have enjoyed being part of a church whose members include both Rush Limbaugh and Hillary Clinton. However, our openness to various flavorings has always left us vulnerable to the situation we face today. We are no longer talking about denominational gumbo. We are trying to maintain contrary religions under one administrative body.
    This is not about sexuality. Speaking only for myself, if the “progressives” were looking for an inclusive church regarding sensuality, they had an early ally in me. I reject it not because of the outcome but because of the arguments they insist we accept. Listen to the argument and replace sexuality with anything else–it is blasphemous. The validity of sacred text(s). The person of Christmas. The nature of Trinity. Atonement. New birth. The uniqueness of Christian revelation. These differences are not merely denominational. They are different religions.

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