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Visiting theologians says church should change with the times

Just as John Wesley changed his attitudes throughout his life, the Church can develop new interpretations of its doctrine as circumstances change, say two prominent theologians from the United States who visited New Zealand last month.

Rev Dr Ted Runyon and Rev Dr Rev Dr Philip Wogaman testified as expert witnesses in the Auckland High Court trial that is considering ownership of Otahuhu Methodist Church. Ted is professor of systematic theology at Emory University, and Philip was professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington DC for 26 years.

One of the points the trial raises is whether the Methodist Church of NZ has broken with Wesleyan doctrine by ordaining homosexual ministers.

Ted says he pointed out in his testimony that John Wesley changed his positions under new circumstances.

"A good example is the his decision to license women preachers after he had written in his New Testament Notes that he agreed with the words in Corinthians and Timothy that prohibit women speaking in church.

"When Wesley saw women could be effective in pastoral duties, leading class meetings, and working with lay people he decided to change his position in spite of the fact that it went against those passages of Paul's," Ted says.

There are other cases in which John Wesley did not abide by the literal interpretation of scriptures because he saw the message of scripture as a whole as more important than any individual passage. Examples include his opposition to slavery which the Bible accepts as normal, and his opposition to the doctrine of predestination which is supported in some passages of the Book of Romans.

In his testimony Philip stressed it is critical to distinguish between core Church doctrines and the application of those doctrines to ethical question. He says the Otahuhu case is unique because, as far as he knows, there has never been a challenge on doctrinal grounds to the Methodist Church's model deed under which it owns all Church property.

"In traditional Methodist polity all property of the Church is held in trust for the Conference to assure that it continues to be a place where the Gospel is preached with integrity. The model deed for New Zealand Methodists includes a provision that preaching must be in accordance with doctrinal standards as contained in the standard sermons and notes on the New Testament of John Wesley.

"In the present case the congregation seeks to break away and take its property, and its argument is that the Conference itself has violated terms of the model deed by accepting a gay minister. They argue this is a violation of John Wesley's Notes on the New Testament because he repeats there what the New Testament said about what we now call homosexuality."

Philip says there are two major flaws in the argument against the Methodist Conference.

One flaw is that it neglects the power of Conference to interpret the meaning of doctrinal standards, which was done in a 1993 Presidential ruling on homosexual ministers later sustained by Conference.

The second flaw is that it treats all aspects of Wesley's Notes on the New Testament as being of equal weight. Philip believes a distinction must be made between basic core doctrine and how they are applied.

"The core doctrines of Wesley emphasised love, grace, forgiveness, redemption, the reality of original sin, and other basic core beliefs. Issues like homosexuality are applications of doctrine to factual questions depending on perceptions that may change from time to time.

"Time and changing circumstances give new and deeper insight into doctrines than the original formulators may have imagined. We are in a better position now to judge the phenomenon of homosexuality because we have the example of good Christians who are also gay and lesbian."

Philip says he's inclined to think John Wesley would have been persuaded by such evidence if he had it before him. We cannot know that but in any event, the NZ Methodist Church has the responsibility to interpret its own standards.