Elders Orders

Answers to The Theological Questions
For Ordination as an Elder in The United Methodist Church

By: Rev. Gregory S. Neal

Originally Presented to The Board of Ordained Ministry of
The North Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church
and Bishop Bruce Blake, then-resident Bishop.

About This Paper:

In preparation for ordination in The United Methodist Church candidates must pass a written and oral theological examination conducted by the Board of Ordained Ministry. This examination includes a defense of a candidate's responses to a series of standard theological questions from the United Methodist Book of Discipline. This file contains both the questions, as outlined in the Book of Discipline, and the responses which Rev. Neal made to each prior to appearing before the Board in January 1994.

In the United Methodist Church there are two orders of ministry: Deacon and Elder. Deacons are ordained to a ministry of Word and Service and are usually appointed by the Bishop as Associate Pastors with responsibilities for Worship, Education, Music, and/or Missions. Elders, on the other hand, are ordained to a ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service, and are usually appointed by the Bishop as Senior Pastors of local churches.

Please note: if you are a candidate for Deacons or Elders Orders in The United Methodist Church, you are welcome to read these responses as reflective of how one might formulate one's answers to the questions. However, I encourage you to spend much time in prayer and reflection and, then, to offer your own honest answers to your Board of Ordained Ministry. You should be advised that members of your BOOM may well be aware of, and familiar with, my answers, so you should take great care to not plagiarize my responses in your answers. In other words, make your responses to the disciplinary questions truly your own answers, and not mine.

Stacks Image 35

Answers to the Theological Questions

Question (1): How has the practice of ministry affected your experience and understanding of God?

During the last five years (1989-1994) my practice of ministry has had an undeniable influence upon my experience and understanding of God. This is as it should be since, in its fundamental essence, faith is not a static life-style. For me, a faithful life involves a continuous process of growth and learning, change and re-formation. Hence, as I have moved in ministry from setting to setting and task to task, I have found my understanding and experience of God growing and developing in relation to these changes. The best example I can give of this process comes from my months of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Up until entering Duke’s CPE program I had done ministry as both an Associate Pastor and as a Student Local Pastor, but my experience in relating to "normal" folk had been somewhat hampered by the academic and intellectual nature of my personal theology. This was especially true relative to my understanding and experience of God. For example, in my answer to the first question for Deacon's Orders I drew extensively from The Articles of Religion, the Sermons of John Wesley, and from such philosophical theologians as John MacQuarrie, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth, and Geoffrey Wainwright. As one might expect, my understanding of God was subsequently couched in highly academic, philosophically complex terms. I spoke of "Ultimate Being," "parental deity," and of the importance of maintaining the personhood of the Triune God in contrast to the functional-modalism which is inherent in "Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer" language. While there is nothing wrong with this way of speaking about God, my experience in CPE showed me that such theological gymnastics simply do not speak very well to the real people in the real world.

Most people don’t care what academic theologians have to say about God, nor do most Methodists pay much attention to the sermons of John Wesley or even The Articles of Religion. Essentially, what most people want to know is that God is with them and that they will not be left alone. And, it is this essential aspect of God’s nature -- God’s Real Presence -- which dominated a large portion of my ministry in CPE. It was a ministry of presence to people who were in dire need of the presence of God in their lives.

This was especially true of Philip, a 59 year old man who had suffered a stroke which left him without speech or movement. Philip had no one -- no family, no friends, nobody to visit or care for him. Before his stroke, and before he was brought to the hospital, Philip had been homeless. Talking to him was like talking to a brick wall, and so many of the nurses didn’t speak to him at all or, worse still, they sometimes acted as if he were oblivious to their presence.

I could only imagine what it must have been like for Philip laying there day and night, unable to cry out for help, unable to do anything for himself. Early on I would enter his room, speak to him about nothing in particular, pray with him, and then leave. This grew increasingly frustrating and artificial, and the temptation was great to leave him be -- to ignore him, as did much of the hospital staff. But something kept drawing me back to his room, day after day, until one evening, as I was saying good night to him, I noticed a tear streaming down Philip’s cheek. I remember reaching out and taking his hand as I sat down in the chair next to his bed. It was as if he had spoken volumes with that one tear -- it was a plea, a cry, a shout for help. It was as if he had said "Don’t leave me!"

After that I quit filling the air with nonsense. When I visited Philip, I would enter his room, sit, take his hand, and spend a while with him in silence. I searched his personal effects and discovered that he was a voracious reader, especially of the Bible, and so I began reading the Scriptures to him. For 5 weeks, day in and day out, I read to him from his well-worn Bible as I held his hand. I made certain that he was the first patient I visited every morning, and the last patient I visited every night. I tried my best to embody something of God’s presence to Philip, and in the last three months of his life I know that I saw something of God’s presence in Philip. I will never forget him.

God is The One Who Is Present -- present through the power of the Holy Spirit even in the most unappealing and unexpected people and places. I have encountered God in my churches: in three Hunt County churches, each filled with people that sometimes didn’t understand me, nor I them, and in an inner-city church filled with people who are afraid of the world and of the future. Rationality tells me that God’s real presence in both of these settings should be hard to see or know, but the same could certainly have been said of Jesus, who revealed The One Who is Present to a world that is not always willing to accept His revelation.

The reality of God’s real presence in and through Christ Jesus has become central in my preaching and teaching. If I were to identify any changes in my understanding and experience of God, it would have to be in the radical nature of God’s continuing presence in the world and, through no merit of my own, in my ministry. This, of course, in no way denies the importance of The Articles of Religion for my understanding and experience of God. Quite the contrary, the experience of God’s presence in my ministry has done more to affirm my acceptance of the doctrines of our faith than any study ever has or could. To put it simply, my experience has made the Eternal God more radically personal than I could have possibly imagined.

Question (2): What effect has the practice of ministry had on your understanding of humanity and the need for divine grace?

The effect that the practice of ministry has had on my understanding of humanity and the need for divine grace must, again, be viewed in the light of The Articles of Religion. As was evident in the previous question, the theological underpinnings of my practice of ministry began with the Articles, but did not end there. Indeed, it is from this foundation, and out of the experiential framework which has since been built upon it, that I currently practice ministry.

Of particular note relative to this question are Articles VII, VIII, and IX. Article VII states that all human beings are "corrupt" in their very nature. Original Sin is the state in which humans are "very far gone from original righteousness . . . inclined to evil, and that continually." Article VIII states that by our own abilities we are incapable of doing the will of God. Indeed, it is only through the prevenient grace of God that humans may even know God’s will. Because of this fallen nature, a state which all humans share, we are without hope if we search for salvation from within ourselves or from creation. Justification can only be found, as Article IX states, in "the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, by faith, and not for our own works or deserving." This should serve to illustrate the dependent nature of humanity upon God, and God alone, not only for creation and continued existence, but also for redemption and eternal life.

In my answer to the related question for Deacon's Orders I was even more explicit as to the radical nature of our dependence upon the grace of God: "Without the grace of God, we are lost. Indeed, we would not even be without God’s grace. Even faith in Jesus Christ is a gift of the grace of God." The last three years of ministry have not given me reason to change my mind on this fundamental point. In the very least, I know that I am just as dependent upon the grace of God today as I was in 1991 -- if not more so. I am a bit more willing, however, to recognize a residue of the Image of God, flickering in the depths of the soul.

John Wesley was clearly opposed to the idea that there was any vestige of the image of God left in fallen humanity. Wesley subscribed to his mother's Puritan belief that humanity was totally stripped of the Divine Image by the Fall. While this total loss of the divine image was made quite clear in Wesley’s Sermon The Image of God, it was nowhere more strikingly stated than in The One Thing Needful:

Sin hath now effaced the image of God. He [humanity] is no longer nearly allied to angels. He is sunk lower than the very beasts of the field. His soul is not only earthly and sensual, but devilish. Thus is the mighty fallen! The glory is departed from him! His brightness is swallowed up in utter darkness! (Sermon 146, The Works of John Wesley, Vol. IV. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1987, p. 354)

"Sin hath now effaced the image of God." It is gone, wiped away without a trace, replaced with the "image of the devil." Truly, a dismal image. And, when looking at the evil which people daily do to one another, it is very tempting to accept such an interpretation of the radical fallenness of humanity.

On the other hand, I am not so sure that our radical dependence upon the grace of God for salvation and good works also demands understanding a radical "effacing" of the Image of God from the entire species. My ministry in the city, where I am periodically awakened at night by the sound of automatic weapons fire just a few streets away, continuously reminds me of the ability of people to engage in evil deeds. Of this there is no doubt. But even among such evil there is also much good. A huge percentage of the population in Cockrell Hill and west Oak Cliff is totally unchurched -- they don’t even qualify as Wesley’s "Almost Christians" -- and yet, everywhere you turn you encounter people who are willing to reach out to help the poor and lost, the injured and the sick. If the human soul is totally evil, without even a vestige of the image of God (even if it's a learned image), then why are there unchurched people who, at times, act more righteous than many Christians? It is a classic problem, and one which the dichotomies of city living bring home with sharp relief.

I have no doubt that we are totally dependent upon the grace of God, and that apart from this divine grace we would be truly lost. But, even so, deep within most people there appears to be a faint spark, a slight flicker, a vague reminder of what once was, when humanity lived in the garden. And the glorious truth of the Gospel is that, through the grace of Jesus Christ, the garden is opened again. We need not live in darkness, under the reign of evil "passions," but can, through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, move on toward perfection.

Question (3): What changes has the practice of ministry had on your understanding of (a) the Lordship of Jesus Christ and (b) the work of the Holy Spirit?

The Lordship of Jesus Christ

To put it simply, the last few years of ministry have seen my understanding of, and belief in, the Lordship of Jesus Christ deepened and strengthened beyond the theoretical into the realm of practical divinity. This is really not surprising to me since a high christology has always been central to my faith; the role of christocentrism in my ministry was never fully defined, however, until my CPE training. As I said in my answer to the first question, since CPE one of the central themes of my ministry has been that of the presence of God. Since God was revealed to the world in Jesus Christ, it makes sense that a high christology would find a home in a message of God’s presence.

The Lordship of Jesus is absolute, eternal, and universal. The second person of the Holy Trinity was the agency through whom God brought creation into existence, gave it its revelation of God, and redeemed it from its fall. It is in Jesus that the Church finds its authority for mission and ministry. It is in Jesus that we find our assurance for eternal life. And, it is in the authority of the name of Jesus that the Kingdom of God will be brought to completion. (Philippians 2:9-11)

Jesus is the source of authority for all Christian action. Baptism and the Eucharist, preaching, teaching, worship, social action -- our entire Christian calling is sustained and carried forward "in the Name of Jesus." This essential christocentrism is important to note because it is in the local church that the centrality of the Name of Jesus is fully played out.

I have been pleasantly surprised with the degree to which the local church focuses upon the life and teachings of Jesus. I expected, and share, their reverence for the message of our Lord’s death, resurrection, and ascension, but it never occurred to me that my congregations would take the life of Jesus so seriously -- more so, in fact, than almost any other part of the Biblical account. Indeed, such has been their bias in favor of the New Testament that I have had some congregations tell me that I was the first pastor they had had in years who preached from the Old Testament.

Jesus Christ is everything to the Church: his teachings and moral example, his self-giving sacrifice upon the cross, his promise of eternal presence. Jesus Christ is central and, in this basic centrality, we find his Lordship fully manifested.

The Work of the Holy Spirit

Just as the Lord Jesus Christ is central to the mission and ministry of the Church, and just as he revealed the God Who is Present to a broken and hurting world, so also the Holy Spirit is central in bringing the revealed presence of the Triune God into the lives of all believers. The EUB Confession of Faith, Article III, clearly states that the Holy Spirit:

. . . . convinces the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment. He [the Holy Spirit] leads men through a faithful response to the gospel into the fellowship of the Church. He comforts, sustains and empowers the faithful and guides them into all truth.

In other words, the Holy Spirit leads the believer in the walk toward Christian Holiness. As God’s active presence in the world, the Holy Spirit works in and through believers to reach the last, the least, and the lost, the rich, the famous, and the powerful, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In and through such guidance and support, the Holy Spirit serves to incorporate the individual believer into the Body of Christ, enabling the Church for mission and service in the world.

Over the last several years this empowering nature of the Holy Spirit has become important in my own pneumatalogy, and this has made my ministry at Cockrell Hill United Methodist Church that much easier. While Cockrell Hill holds to a high christology, a rather significant segment of the congregation also holds to an equally high pneumatology. And, while it would be incorrect to call the CHUMC of the early 1990s a charismatic church, there are definite echoes left over from the CHUMC of the mid-1960s which are clearly charismatic in nature. Essentially, the church is an evangelical/conservative congregation with a very high regard for the role of the Holy Spirit in everyday Christian life. Sermons and newsletter articles which have spoken about the nature of the Holy Spirit have been well received, and there is a clear interest in learning more. One of the things I am doing is taking it upon myself to do some teaching on basic pneumatology, ensuring that they receive a good, orthodox, foundation.

Being pastor of a Church which has a charismatic lean has been a challenge for me, and especially so when you consider my anglo-catholic theological background and "high church" tendencies. Still, the experience has, thus far, been a positive one for both myself and, I also believe, for the church. Indeed, as I have gone about my ministry I have taken a lesson from my pneumatology and have begun allowing the Holy Spirit to "empower" me to be in ministry to such a different people. It has been a growing experience and, I hope, one which will continue for some time to come. Back

Question (4): The United Methodist Church holds that Scripture, tradition, experience, and reason are sources and norms for belief and practice but that the Bible is primary among them. What is your understanding of this theological position of the Church?

By now it should be abundantly clear that I often turn to the Doctrinal Standards for guidance and support when formulating my own understanding and position on most theological issues. This is no more true than when it comes to my understanding of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, and the question of the authority of the Holy Scriptures.

The official position of The United Methodist Church on the authority of the Scriptures can be found in Article V and Confession Article IV:

The Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an Article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. . . .(Article V)

We believe that the Holy Bible, Old and New Testaments, reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for our salvation. It is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice. Whatever is not revealed in or established by the Holy Scriptures is not to be made an article of faith nor is it to be taught as essential to salvation.(Confession Article IV)

In these two articles of faith, each taken from the two main theological streams which form our denomination, we can see that The United Methodist Church believes in and looks to the Holy Scriptures as being authoritative for Christian life, faith, and practice. This is a fundamental point which must be understood before we can go any further. It is the official position of The United Methodist Church that the Scriptures are our primary source of authority. We know that they are primary because it is clearly stated in the Articles that anything not contained within them cannot be required for salvation. No other authority in the church can lay claim to this status; only the Scriptures are mandatory for the faith, and as such they must be understood as primary.

With the Scriptures so affirmed, it is now possible to properly understand the role of tradition, experience, and reason in our theological discourse. To put it simply, these three theological sources are tools to be used in interpreting the Bible for today. This understanding is in full accord with John Wesley’s use of the patristic tradition, as well as with the Discipline’s stated position in paragraph 68.4.

Tradition may also serve as an auxiliary source of authority, so long as it does not contradict Scripture. An excellent example of this can be seen in these answers to the theological questions for Elder’s Orders. I have consistently used The Articles of Religion and The EUB Confession of Faith as sources of authority and as guides for interpreting the Biblical witness. Both experience and reason are likewise linked with Scripture, thus asserting that the primary means of theological reflection is a thorough Scriptural exegesis. As the Discipline puts it:

The interaction of these sources and criteria in Wesley’s own theology furnishes a guide for our continuing theological task as United Methodists. In that task Scripture, as the constitutive witness to the wellsprings of our faith, occupies a place of primary authority among these theological sources. (1992 Book of Discipline, p. 77)

It should be stressed that this does not limit the use of Christian tradition, experience, or rational analysis in interpreting the Holy Scripture for modern times. Scripture does not always speak clearly to us across the centuries, nor do the Scriptures address every issue with which we are confronted today. The Bible is our primary source of authority, but tradition, experience, and reason and can also be authoritative so long as they are coherent with the Biblical witness.

With the Scriptures being understood as primary, and with tradition, experience, and reason all linked to Scripture as our tools for interpreting and articulating the biblical witness, my role as a pastor and teacher in the local church is made more clear. One of the ministerial tasks I most enjoy is teaching the Bible and leading Bible Studies, like the popular Disciple series. When teaching these classes it is common to hear people complain that they don’t know how to read or understand various parts of the Bible -- "it’s just too strange." With the above understanding of the role of tradition, experience, and reason it is easier to help almost anyone to study the Bible critically, while at the same time continuing to hold it as our primary authority for Christian life, faith, and practice.

Question (5): How do you understand the following traditional evangelical doctrines: (a) repentance; (b) justification; (c) regeneration; (d) sanctification? What are the marks of the Christian life?

Each of these doctrines must be understood relative to the others because, in their very essence, each is an aspect of Divine Grace as functionally expressed within the ordo salutis. Likewise, the outgrowth of each constitutes the "marks of the Christian life," all of which lead to a holiness of heart, mind, and action.

Repentance is an act (or a continuous series of actions) which we make in response to God’s gift of prevenient grace. Essentially, repentance entails our willingness to turn away from evil toward God. Since it is a response to God’s initial act of reaching out to us in Jesus Christ, it is an act which characterizes every human act which follows in the journey toward holiness and perfection.

Justification is what God does for us after our faithful act of repentance, imparting to us the Divine Presence in a further gift of grace beyond prevenient grace. Justification is best characterized as the forgiveness of our sins. As The Discipline says:

In justification we are, through faith, forgiven our sin and restored to God’s favor. This righting of relationships by God through Christ calls forth our faith and trust as we experience regeneration, by which we are made new creatures in Christ. (1992 Discipline, para. 65, pg. 45)

Fundamentally, justification is by faith alone, which is to say that it is by grace (since faith is a gift of grace), and it occurs in conjunction with regeneration.

Regeneration, or "the new birth," is essential for the Christian life. It is what God does in us as a result of what God does for us, and is manifested as an inward change from wickedness to goodness, or as John Wesley put it, "from the image of the devil to the image of God." This divine regeneration of the fallen nature of humankind, this "new birth," makes possible the walk of Sanctification.

Sanctification is what God does for us in which the Divine life enters into the life of the Christian to perfect it to the glory of God. This is the divine "completion" of the process which began with the gift of prevenient grace prior to our repentance. Following our response to God’s grace through repentance, God forgives, empowers, and then perfects us. To put it simply, God does not leave us to our own devices following justification but has imparted to all Christians the gift of the comforter, the Holy Spirit, who guides and empowers us in our living towards God and a life of perfection. This life is not something which humans can achieve by their own will or abilities. It is fully a work of God’s grace, continually working within the free will of the Christian to bring about a new mind, and new heart, and a new soul.

No simple diagram of the ordo salutis will suffice. While the gift of God’s grace is always the underlying force driving the entire process, and while we must make a free-will response to God’s gift, this is not a "once-for-all" procedure. Each and every Christian is in a continual process of moving through repentance, by justification and regeneration, into sanctification. Indeed, this is why it is called the "order of salvation;" fundamentally, salvation is not a completed act in the sense that it is done and never needs to be done again. Salvation is a way of Divine Life.

The "marks" of this life can be known in direct relation to this process, and can be found in many places throughout the scriptures. I prefer the description found in Romans 12:9-21, as well as that of the Beaditudes of St. Matthew 5.

Question (6): For the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world and the most effective witness to the Christian gospel, and in consideration of your influence as an ordained minister, are you willing to make a complete dedication of yourself to the highest ideals of the Christian life; and to this end will you agree to exercise responsible self-control by personal habits conducive to physical health, intentional intellectual development, fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness, social responsibility, and growth in grace and the knowledge and love of God?

I believe that as an ordained minister of The United Methodist Church I am called to live a life which, through the grace of God and the workings of the Holy Spirit, is continually striving for Holiness and Perfection. To this end, I am committed to exercising responsible self-control over personal habits and conduct relative to my physical, emotional, and mental health. It is my intention to continue my education through the completion of the Ph.D. at Trinity Graduate College within the next year. Regarding sexual relations, I have read and endorse The Discipline’s statement on Human Sexuality as found in para. 71.F. Since I am not married, I have dedicated myself to celibacy in singleness. If ever married, I cannot imagine that I will ever stray from fidelity in marriage.

Question (7): What is the meaning and significance of the Sacraments?

Since I am "high-church," "Wesleyan," and "anglo-catholic," in my liturgical preferences, theology, and spirituality, it should come as no surprise that I have a great appreciation and reverence for the Sacraments. My personal devotion to the Eucharist is clearly represented by the fact that I am working on my PhD in this field, and that I receive the Sacrament every week in a community that offers mid-week Communion services.

The Sacrament of Holy Communion is addressed in Article XVIII and Confession Article VI:

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another, but rather is a sacrament of our redemption by Christ’s death; insomuch that, to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith receive the same, the bread which we break is a partaking of the body of Christ; and likewise the cup of blessing is a partaking of the blood of Christ. . . . The body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten in the Supper, only after a heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith. (Article XVIII)

We believe the Lord’s Supper is a representation of our redemption, a memorial of the sufferings and death of Christ, and a token of love and union which Christians have with Christ and with one another. Those who rightly, worthily and in faith eat the broken bread and drink the blessed cup partake of the body and blood of Christ in a spiritual manner until he comes. (Confession Article VI)

The Holy Eucharist is a true and effectual means of grace; by this, I mean that when a believer eats the bread and drinks the wine in faith, the Holy Spirit conveys to the believer the grace of our Lord. Indeed, Holy Communion is so sure a means of grace that both John and Charles Wesley believed it could be a converting ordinance. This should be some indicator of the importance of this sacrament for Wesleyan theology, and for mine.

In addition to the nature of the Eucharist as a means of grace, I also affirm the statement of the real presence of our Lord’s body and blood as found in The Articles of Religion and The EUB Confession of Faith, and so beautifully articulated in one of Charles Wesley’s Communion hymn, where he writes:

Come and partake the Gospel feast,
Be saved from sin, in Jesus rest;
O taste the goodness of our God,
And eat his flesh and drink his blood. (Hymn No. 616, vs 3 )

At first, this sounds suspiciously like transubstantiation (which is also repudiated in Article XVIII), but upon closer examination it can be easily demonstrated to be anything but transubstantiation. At most it might be mistaken for consubstantiation, where the body and blood are received "under" or "with" the elements by the power of the Holy Spirit when the believer eats and drink with faith. Indeed, this understanding is fairly well supported by Article XVIII, and by one of Charles Wesley’s other famous Communion Hymns:

O the depth of love divine, the unfathomable grace!
Who shall say how bread and wine God into us conveys!
How the bread his flesh imparts, how the wine transmits his blood,
fills his faithful people’s heart with all the life of God. (Hymn No. 627, vs 1)

Again, the real presence of the Lord is manifested, in true mystery, through the power of the Holy Spirit when the believer eats with faith. If eaten without faith, the body and blood are not present. Further confirmation of this position can be found in Word and Table I , where the prayer of consecration has the celebrant call upon the Holy Spirit to:

Make them [the elements] be for us the body and blood Christ,
that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.

In addition to its nature as a means of grace, I understand Holy Communion to be of particular importance in its unitive role in the Church. It is that act of God, in the Church, which serves to unify the Body of Christ in worship. Some would say that it is the most significant moral act of the Church, and I am in general agreement with this sentiment.

In my opinion the Holy Eucharist is so important for the life of the Church that it should be celebrated at least monthly, and preferably on a weekly basis. Indeed, with John Wesley’s clear call for frequent observance of the Lord’s Supper in his sermon The Duty of Constant Communion, how can we do anything but strive toward a greater reverence for, and more frequent celebration of, the Eucharist? Having served churches in North Carolina and Texas which have low views of the Sacraments, I understand that weekly Communion will be something of a problem for many congregations and, at best, slow in coming back to our denomination. Still, the Eucharist is important to me, and will continue to be an important component of my ministry.

As for my understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, I agree with the wording of Article XVII and Confession Article VI:

Baptism is not only a sign of profession and mark of difference whereby Christians are distinguished from others that are not baptized; but it is also a sign of regeneration or the new birth. The baptism of young children is to be retained in the church. (Article XVII)

We believe Baptism signifies entrance into the household of faith, and is a symbol of repentance and inner cleansing from sin, a representation of the new birth in Christ Jesus and a mark of Christian discipleship. (Confession Article VI)

Firstly, it should be noted that these two doctrinal statements establish that Holy Baptism is more than just a symbolic act that Christians make when professing their faith; indeed, something is actually happening in the act, for it is "a sign of regeneration or the new birth." To use a bit of evangelical terminology, baptism is the normative sign of the "born again experience." In other words, all faithful, baptized and confirmed Christians have been "born from above." (John 3:1-10) Secondly, these two doctrinal statements tell us that Baptism is the normal means by which believers are made members of the Body of Christ.

Both of these points should make it clear, as was true with the Eucharist, that Holy Baptism is more than just an ordinance -- something we do because we are told to do it. Rather, Baptism is a sacrament -- something God does for us. Just as God is the primary actor in the Lord’s Supper, conveying Divine Grace to those who, with faith, receive it, so also God is the primary actor in Baptism. We come to the Sacrament because, in it, God’s presence is made known and active in our lives. It is a means of grace, through which the believer is not only made a member of the Church Universal, but is set upon the road of regeneration and sanctification to perfection through the active power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Both of the Sacraments are a means toward sanctification. Or, as Article XVI states, the Sacraments are:

. . . . certain signs of grace, and God’s good will toward us, by which he doth work invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken, but also strengthen and confirm, our faith in him. [emphasis added] (Article XVI)

This only serves to illustrate the nature of the Sacraments as God’s gift to the Church, and not anything that the Church may do of its own volition. They are not "ordinances," in the Zwinglian sense (ie, "acts" of the Church under the command of Christ). The Sacraments are worked by the grace of God, through the activity of the Holy Spirit, and are a sign of God’s presence with us in the world, and of God’s promise to be with us, eternally, in God’s Kingdom.

Question (8): Describe the nature and mission of the Church. What are its primary tasks today?

Our historical understanding of the Church, its nature and mission in the world, can be found in The Methodist Articles of Religion and The EUB Confession of Faith :

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. (Article XIII)

We believe the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic. It is the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by men divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world. (Confession Article V)

What is clearly implied in these two similar articles is that the Church is in no way limited to just The United Methodist Church. The Church is "one, holy, apostolic, and catholic" in nature, and therefore spans all Christian history and all Christian communions. We should, therefore, view the exclusionary divisions which have developed between the various communions of Christendom as being contrary to the will of God and a hindrance to our mission in the world.

To augment the doctrinal statements, I would say that the Church Universal is the Body of Christ -- the physical presence of God in and to the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. To quote the Prayer of St. Theresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now but yours; no hands, no feet on Earth but yours;
Yours are the eyes through which He looks compassion on this world;
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good;
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world;
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are His Body.
Christ has no body now on Earth but yours.
("The Prayer of St. Theresa" John Michael Talbot: Master Collection.)

The Church is the Body of Christ, manifesting the real presence of God through the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit, but not just for its own edification. We have been sent into the world with a mission, as is well defined in the Articles and in the Confessions. We have been sent to preach the Word of God and celebrate the Holy Sacraments, thereby communicating the presence of God to a lost world. And that is still our calling and mission today.

As was true in John Wesley’s time, so also today the Church is called to proclaim the saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to fallen humanity. It is the duty of all Christians, both lay and ordained, to be in ministry to the world. The world should not be understood, however, in a metaphorical sense. The world is made up of real people, living real lives, hurting and frightened of the darkness which is always about to engulf us. We are called to be in ministry to people. This means both spiritual and physical needs must be addressed. We are called to take both the Good News, and the life of the Good News, to those who are outside the Body of Christ. As the Church, we hear our Lord saying to us:

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (St. Matthew 25:35-36, NRSV)

And so, we give the Gospel message as we live the Gospel life. In this world, we await the coming Kingdom of God as we participate in the life of that Kingdom as co-creators with Almighty God. This is our identity, our calling, and our mission.

Question (9): What is your understanding of (a) the Kingdom of God; (b) the Resurrection; (c) Eternal life?

The Kingdom of God is present in the life of the Church of Jesus Christ and, at the same time, is awaiting its consummation when our Lord returns to "create all things new." In other words, we have a foretaste of the Kingdom of God in the Church Universal. The Kingdom is not something, however, which believers are responsible for creating. We take part in its life, of course, and will play our role in its creation, but it is God who shall wipe away every tear and establish the "new heavens and the new earth."

The essential question that all Christians should ask themselves is "of which Kingdom am I a citizen?" Are we citizens of the kingdoms of this world, or of the Kingdom of God? Of course, earthly authorities do exist, and we are under their temporal jurisdiction, but we also belong to a Kingdom which is not of this world. We belong to the Kingdom of God, having been bought by God through the precious blood of the lamb, shed upon the cross. And our promise of citizenship and eternal life is, of course, manifested in the Resurrection of our Lord.

Article III is quite straightforward as to the nature of the Resurrection of Christ:

Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day. (Article III)

At the risk of being labeled, I must affirm the above statement of the Church’s faith without reservation. Since its earliest days, this has been the essential proclamation of the Church: "He Is Risen!" By this we mean an actual resurrection -- not just a philosophically grounded, metaphysically diluted series of visions and dreams, but a real event in which God broke through the bounds of time and space to not only dwell with us, but also deliver us from the constraints of the created order. I am, of course, speaking of the entire Christ event from His incarnation to his death and resurrection. Christ defeated death; in and through Christ, we too have this hope of eternal life.

The promise of eternal life, revealed to us in the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, is both a future hope and a present reality. Not only do I believe that, in Christ, I shall never die (even though this body shall, one day, "see corruption"), so also I believe that eternal life has, indeed, already begun. The moment of regeneration begins the eternal life in Christ and, as such, it is a promise which is already fulfilled.


Question (1): How do you conceive your vocation as an ordained minister?

My vocation as an ordained minister is to "Word, Sacrament, and Order." For every-day discourse I like to think of myself, and prefer to be called, a pastor. This self-identity reflects my understanding of the ministry of an Elder in the Church as being one of a shepherd. When thinking about how the ministry of a shepherd is lived in the life of the church, I like to apply Cardinal Avery Dulles' Models for the Church, and specifically the offices of "Priest, Prophet, and King."

The Priestly Office in my vocation is manifested through the sacerdotal functions of sacramental celebration, worship and liturgical leadership, reconciliation, blessing, and the pastoral aspects of Christian counsel. These functions are very important to me, and hence make up a large portion of my ministerial character as a shepherd of the Lord's flock. This should have already been made self-evident in my high Sacramentology.

The Prophetic Office in my vocation can be seen functioning through my devotion to preaching and teaching the Word of God and the Faith of the Church. I believe that a minister's primary duty and responsibility, as a shepherd of the flock, is to rightly interpret the Holy Scriptures for faith and action. The Church is called to apply the Word of God in everyday life, faith, and mission, and as a minister I am called to lead the people of God in this calling.

The Kingly Office in my vocation can be seen in the calling of an Elder to servant-leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ. While all Christians are ministers of the Gospel, some are called to representative ministry and leadership. Through ordination and appointment I have been placed in positions of authority in the Church, and in these positions I have tried to lead as empowered and guided by grace that God has given me. Functionally, however, I tend to lead best through the other two offices. Through prophetic witness, I lead by exhortation and education. Through priestly presence, I lead through example in life and deed.

This being said, my vocation is clearly to the church pastorate. I do not, at this time, see myself practicing ministry beyond the local church as, for example, a seminary professor -- even though that was how I once saw myself practicing ministry. I am a teaching-pastor, and I thank God for this calling and the grace which so-empowers me.

The Practice of Ministry

Question (1): How has the practice of ordained ministry affected your understanding of the expectations and obligations of the itinerant system?

In the three years since my ordination as a transitional Deacon in the North Texas Conference I have been moved twice. I spent my first year out of seminary as pastor of the Celeste, Kingston, and White Rock charge in Hunt County. Since this appointment was far below minimum salary, I was informed that this would be a "temporary" appointment and that I could expect to be moved when a position opened in a church that could afford a full time ordained minister. This happened within a year when I was appointed to Cockrell Hill United Methodist Church in west Oak Cliff. Needless to say, I have itinerated. I have been moved to the country, and then to the city, and in each appointment I carried out my call to ministry. This is, essentially, my understanding of the expectations and obligations of the iternerant system. The Bishop and the cabinet know the needs of the annual conference and the local churches better than I could possibly hope to, and I trust (as I have already trusted) them to make appointments which will be advantageous to the Church and, where possible, to me.

This is especially true of my current appointment. I have been sent to a declining inner-city church which was in need of a new spark of life and a new vision, and I am currently working with them to develop this new vision and this new outlook on life. It is a good appointment, even though some tell me that they feel sorry I am in Oak Cliff. I, on the other hand, do not feel at all sorry. This is a good appointment for me and, I believe, for Cockrell Hill UMC.

Question (2): Do you offer yourself without reserve to be appointed and to serve as the appointive authority may determine?

I have and will continue to offer myself without reserve to be appointed and to serve as the Bishop and District Superintendents may determine.

Since this is a sensitive issue for many in our Conference, allow me to amplify my answer. If, following my ministry at Cockrell Hill UMC, I am appointed to another inner-city church, I will go. If I am appointed to a country church, I will go there. I have already moved from the country to the city, and I am willing to go back, if so called. I have and will itinerate.

It should be added that there are no restraining factors on my willingness and ability to itinerate. I am not married, nor do I have any children, and therefore I do not have to worry about those kinds of complications. If I do marry, it will have to be with the understanding that I may be moved, at any time, from Dallas to Wichita Falls, Sherman, Paris, or any of the many towns in between.

I have and will itinerate. After all, this was an obligation that I willfully took upon myself when I sought and was granted admittance to the North Texas Conference. I can do no less.

Question (3): Describe and evaluate your personal gifts for ministry. What would be your areas of strength and areas in which you need to be strengthened?

My personal gifts for ministry are especially located in exhortation, education, and the leading of public worship. God has graced me with a steady and clear voice, and with a good memory and an ability to both sing and read effectively. I am able to articulate my thoughts and ideas clearly through both the spoken and written word. I am able to teach and preach the Word with some degree of proficiency. Thanks to my training and personal inclination, I am strong in celebrating the Sacraments and in the other sacerdotal duties of ordained ministry. I am good at specific acts of pastoral care, like hospital visitation, prison ministry, and other forms of emergency ministry. I have been blessed with good organization skills, and have been encouraged in developing meaningful spiritual disciplines which feed and support me in my life and ministry.

I am in continual need of being strengthened in the articulation of feelings and other non-cognative concepts. I need to develop a greater willingness to be less structured (less regimental) in my life and ministry. I need to be strengthened in my appreciation for "lower" liturgical forms of worship, like revival-type services, and in other forms of innovative (non-traditional) forms of worship. I need strengthening in general pastoral care, like home visitation. I need to develop more patience for others, for myself, and especially when I make mistakes. I need to further broaden my preaching style. And, I need strengthening in caring for myself — especially regarding time off, diet, and habits of personal exercise.

Question (4): Are you willing to relate yourself to all persons without regard to race, color, national origin, or social status?

In my appointment to Cockrell Hill UMC I was sent to be in ministry, through this congregation, to the surrounding community of Cockrell Hill and west Oak Cliff. This area of Oak Cliff is predominately Hispanic in ethnic origin, and as such one might say that I am, indeed, relating myself to persons of other ethnic, national, and social groups. This was also true in my previous appointment to Celeste UMC; while the population was predominately European American, it was also very poor.

I was brought up by my parents to view all people, regardless of race, nationality, or social background, with the respect and dignity I expect to receive. I have tried to live my life in like-fashion, looking upon and treating all people, regardless of their ethnic background, as my sisters and brothers. Indeed, in my opinion Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the Christian ideal best when he said that all people should be judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." Dr. King’s words are in accord with St. Paul’s words to the Galatians:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of your are one in Christ Jesus? (Galatians 3:28. NRSV)

Indeed, perhaps it would be even better (for our day) if we were to add to Dr. King’s dream that "neither gender, nor cultural heritage should be used in judging the intrinsic worth of anyone." We have been called to be an inclusive Church, one that turns to all people for leadership and ministry on the grounds of their Christian character, faith, and devotion, regardless of their gender, ethnic, radical, or social background. As a Christian and a minister of Christ’s Church, it is my responsibility to live this life and this ideal as I participate in the present and the coming Kingdom of God.

Question (5): Will you regard all pastoral conversations of a confessional nature as a trust between the person concerned and God?

I will, indeed, regard all pastoral conversations of a confessional nature as a trust between the person concerned and God so long as the subject of the confession does not involve illegalities. If an individual is about to speak about matters that are of a criminal nature, I will inform them that if they do talk with me about criminal activity I will: 1) encourage them to turn themselves in, and 2) report the conversation to my superiors and to the proper legal authorities.

Apart from the issue of criminal confession, I have and will continue to keep all conversations of a pastoral nature in the strictest confidence.

Question (6): Provide evidence of experience in peace and justice ministries.

For years I have been actively involved in a number of peace and social justice ministries. I have taught remedial reading to the illiterate, worked in a homeless shelter, operated a food and clothing pantry, served in a soup kitchen, and assisted in the administration of a community relief fund. I have demonstrated and preached against racism, sexism, and other forms of violence, promoted responsible gun-control, and have been active in the immigration of Russian families to the United States.

Stacks Image p13_n9
The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.