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.