Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Otterbein is a Cool Dude

The UCC for me is the first Denomination that is post-denominational. When you take four unlike streams and combine them into a movement that has been going 50 years strong, there must me something special behind it. There must a great history of doing this. This Generous Orthodoxy that the UCC represents can be traced all the way back to the 1700s in the man Philip William Otterbein.

Philip William Otterbein was born on June 3, 1726 with a fraternal twin, in the town of Dillenberg, Germany. He attended seminary in Germany. He was trained in “Federal Theology” which was in contrast to the predestination theology of John Calvin. Otterbein believed that human beings can make faith decisions that emphasize free will. "What God offers and what Christians need is an interiorly experienced faith relation which permits God to release his power in the continuing transformation of the believer's life."

He went to America landing in NY in 1752 and began ministry in Lancaster, PA. Otterbein and his missionary colleagues faced a period of decline in the religious commitment of the diverse population. During the struggle for American independence and the Revolutionary War, "only about five percent (one in twenty) of the colonial population openly professed religious faith or admitted church relationship." We too are facing a period of decline after being the “Church on the Green” for so long in the 1950s to the 1970s. In a time of closing and fracturing churches, we’d do well to learn from Otterbein’s example.

Otterbein left the Lancaster Church in 1758, apparently disillusioned that the congregation did not achieve the spiritual growth he had envisioned. Otterbein accepted a call to the church in York in 1765. In 1774, Otterbein received a call to the German Reformed Church in Baltimore, a church deeply troubled with division. The church eventually split and there were two churches. One was German Reformed while the other eventually became United Brethren. The biggest emphasis in the new church was on the personal experience of salvation but Otterbein, however; tried to remain faithful to both churches. He found ways to respond in innovative ways to the spiritual needs of both congregations.

Although he was a charismatic leader of an evangelical movement that became a separate denomination, remained a minister of the German Reformed Church until his death. Even now, he is claimed with esteem by both the German Reformed Church and its successor, the United Church of Christ, and by the United Brethren, those continuing as a separate denomination and those who, as part of the Evangelical United Brethren Church, came into the United Methodist Church. It was his "scholarly pietism" wish to maintain "a double relation" with both congregations that is most notable.

Otterbein's concern for vital Christianity within the local church did not cause Otterbein to ignore the larger bond of unity among Christians. He invited everyone to “commune with us at the Lord's Table, although they have not been members of our church, shall be admitted by consent of the Vestry, provided that nothing can be alleged against their walk of life; and more especially, when it is known that they are seeking their salvation.” These words do not represent an indifference to matters of polity, but a subordination of diverse polities to the higher value of common life in Jesus Christ. They are consistent with Otterbein's view of classes in the local church and denominations in the larger church, as ecclesiolae in ecclesia, or little churches within the ecumenical church. In his preaching at the great meetings he often said, "I ask you not to leave your church; I only ask you to forsake your sins."

Otterbein was a moderate in doctrinal disputes. Even his disagreement with Calvin on predestination was expressed with humility and sensitivity. He explained to the synod in Holland: “To tell the truth I cannot side with Calvin in this case. I believe that God is love and that he desires the welfare of all his creatures. I may be permitted to explain myself more clearly. I believe in election, but cannot persuade myself that God has absolutely and without condition predestined some to perdition.” Otterbein's view of the relation of the gospel to social issues was liberal for his time. Personal faith was judged meaningless if it did not bear the fruits of righteousness in daily life. Otterbein thought that cognitive Christianity was deficient. He declared: The question is not whether one has heard or learned something about Christ and his death, or whether one can talk about it, but whether one has experienced the death of Jesus Christ in the putting to death and riddance of the old man [woman]. . . Consequently, if these things are yet strange to you, then your Christianity is merely appearance, imagination, shadow tricks.”

We are awash in apathy, doctrinal disputes, and theological pissing contests. We lose sight that we fight our own fellow Christians. Otterbein would remind us that we are united in Christ, and any division we make is a false one. He would also remind us that we can’t reach salvation by our works, but we can show our salvation by our good works.


Sabio Lantz said...

It was fun to learn about Otterbeing -- you make him unavoidably likable.

One thought:
"Otterbein's concern for vital Christianity within the local church did not cause Otterbein to ignore the larger bond of unity among Christians.

Over the centuries, many preachers have called for the unity of Christianity. They mention virtuous reasons to regain or maintain unity: non-bickering, selflessness, forgiveness, open-mindedness.

But I want to question this almost universal battle cry among denominations that keep dividing. Why is "Christian Unity" important? Why is maintaining one big organization so important? Oh, people could claim, "It is no the organization, but the idea of the universal church or the communion between various churches" -- that would be better, I guess.

I get that people should not be bicker, attack, and hate. But why not "Human Unity". Should Buddhists plea for Unity, Muslims plea for Unity etc... Because who are they united against? I think Unity (tribalism) has a dark side.

Unity for love, I get. Jesus may have taught that. I wonder if he really wanted something called "Me-ianity". Peaceful groups with different beliefs -- much like the principle of Federalism seems a good solution. Why not supportive communities of thousands of different faiths all committed to supportive communities and not their religion.

I know you agree in large part. I just wanted to discuss the potential dark side of something that sounds noble-- "Unity".

Anglican Boy said...

Sabio brings up a good point. Why stress unity? My home church was named was named after Otterbein and was a United Methodist church. Christ's teachings can be interpreted so many different ways that it causes schisms and such among the people. Yet for political power in this country, it is best to band together and have a strong identity and points of agreement. My wife was Anglican and brought me into this faith and I was born again. Strange to hear of a born again Anglican, but I really liked the strong historical identity, the moderate tone the reformers struck through the Reformation period despite the backing of a corrupt monarch. They took Erasmus' writings and applied them to a Catholic structure. No need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

All of this to say that diversity is all well fine and good. But it is also daunting. That is why I give Luke a hard time on the creeds because I have to have some firm foundation in which to order my life around. Some do not need this and can tolerate diversity and even have contradictory notions in their heads. I can't. Luke can. Sabio seems to be able to. I don't know how they do this. I know if I had a blog I would be very particular in who commented on it and I wouldn't say I would have the same tolerance and even acceptance as Luke does of other belief systems and nonbelievers. I like unity. I like a top down structure.

Sabio Lantz said...

"Yet for political power in this country, it is best to band together and have a strong identity and points of agreement."
-- Anglican boy

Boy there is the catch. Government used by religion. You are preaching scary !

If it is moral issues, you can rally around that, but Christians don't agree on gay issues, abortion issues, death penalty or war.

All these issues can be addressed with muster the voice of a god to speak for you and demanding fellow believers to join arms. For in the end, it is your voice.

Luke is incredible at being able to hold contrary notions in tension. His strengths are what will keep people from tearing at each other. He will serve as an excellent pastor.

Anglican Boy said...

I do not think it's my voice substituting for God. Sure there are disagreements within Christianity but that is because even our scriptures do not agree. What we can see is a great history of ethical approaches to gay issues, abortion issues, death penalty or war. We have many guideposts from which to spring from. I do not see this as inherently bad but it can be if people do use the voice of God for their own selfish purposes. Like Palin is doing to my party. That is really embarrassing and I was never fooled by it for one second. The extreme right and left both seek to use God as their reason for their own selfish actions. I think people can tell the difference.

Luke said...

Wow! I need to check my comments more often!

Sabio: Unity is a sticky thing and often those who are calling for it just seek their tribal unity. For me, it's broader than that. I'm in the wide stream of my tradition yet I'm called to serve others regardless of their tradition. like the Pirate said in his recent post, service creates dependency, dependency leads to solidarity. Like when Jesus says things like "Go the extra mile" and "offer your cloak AND shirt." these messages I read as seeking to remind the other that they and you aren't "other" but we are US and while we may disagree, both of us are still human. you know, love your enemy, odds are they have a family and are loved by someone.

you are good to point out the darkside of tribalism. there's a plus side too... identity and such. but we must hold loosely.

i see AB taking the first steps in doing this. his first comments were dismissive and pretty much labeled me a nonChristian. but look at him now! he's even talking to... GASP... a NONBELIEVER! EEEEEEEKKKK!!! ;-) oh, and Sabio, thanks for the comments on being a good pastor, i needed that! going through some interesting stuff that i don't want to post online just yet... but THANK YOU! it was timely.

Gov. and Religion SHOULD be separated. what the constitution states and seeks to do so is that no church or one religion gets financed by the government. no state-church in other words. i think this is a super huge plus! that doesn't mean we can't act on our faith to enact change, Obama is doing that now and is largely using Reinhold Neihbur to do the job. which i find really, really cool! however, i'm glad the billy graham types are out there and umm... maybe not so much on the Pat Robertsons and Joel Osteens... because we need a diversity of views to get to where we need to go as a whole.. as a country. the trick is not to say no to everything.

i need to unidactyl a cartoon about that.