One of the most interesting concepts peculiar to Methodism is ‘connectionalism’, a neologism coined to describe how the Methodist Church is ordered and organised.
At the practical level, connectionalism refers to the ways in which Methodist churches support each other by sharing their resources – pastors, leaders, and financial support – so that they may fulfil their common mission to spread the Gospel. Seen in this light, this concept points to the symbiotic relationship between different local congregations.
Connectionalism, therefore, is the way in which the unity of the Methodist Church is made manifest. Some have described it as an aggregate model of unity where different groups – local conferences, Annual Conferences, ministry networks – are denominationally bound together in a network of relationships.
While this practical aspect of the concept is generally well understood, more attention must be directed at its theological foundations. As Methodist historian Russell Richey has rightly observed: “Seldom unpacked theologically, this practical and practiced ecclesiology can be an extraordinary resource for self-understanding and for Christian unity, but only if Methodists think about it seriously.” (emphasis added)
Connectionalism should not be seen merely as a pragmatic arrangement, an ecclesiastical polity that is practically appropriate but not in any way theologically grounded. Rather, it expresses what the Church in essence is, and what it should always strive to be. Put in slightly more technical terms, the concept points to the Church’s ontology, its very being.
The most important image of the Church in the New Testament that helps us to understand the essence of connectionalism is the Body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27). Once a believer puts his faith in Christ and is baptised, he becomes a member of what theologians like Augustine of Hippo call Christ’s mystical body (Latin: Mystici Corporis Christi).
The believer becomes a member of God’s universal (‘catholic’) Church by becoming a member of a particular church, for example Telok Ayer Chinese Methodist Church, through baptism. The believer’s vertical fellowship (Greek: koinonia) with God results in his horizontal fellowship with God’s people, the Church.
The body of Christ metaphor portrays the members’ communion with one another in a relationship of love, mutual responsibility, and interdependence, with Christ as their Head. Each member is equally important (1 Corinthians 12:14-20), and the relationship obtained by the power of the Holy Spirit is such that “if one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Now, the metaphor ‘the Body of Christ’ is used for the local church as well as the universal Church. This means that the local church should never be regarded simply as merely a part of the larger Body of Christ – the local church is the Body of Christ in the fullest sense, regardless of its numerical size.
Nowhere is this more clearly stated than in a paper titled ‘The Church: Local and Universal’ by a joint working group of Roman Catholics and Protestants. In paragraph 14, we read: “The local church is not an administrative or juridical sub-section or part of the universal Church. In the local church the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is truly present and active.”
However, although complete in itself, the local church also participates in God’s universal Church. Conversely, the universal Church (which stretches across space and time) may be said to be a communion of particular churches.
Here communion must be understood theologically and not simply from the standpoint of organisation or affiliations, formal or otherwise. This means that the universal Church must not be seen simply as a sum of particular churches, a web or federation of churches.
Thus when we speak of the universal Church as a communion of churches, we are pointing to its essential mystery.
As the Roman Catholic document on communio ecclesiology puts it: “…the particular Churches, insofar as they are ‘part of the one Church of Christ’, have a relationship of ‘mutual interiority’ with the whole, that is, with the universal Church, because in every particular Church ‘the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of Christ is truly present and active’.”
As a neologism, ‘connectionalism’ is at first blush admittedly clumsy and theologically unsuggestive. It gives the impression that it is only of practical – administrative, organisational, utilitarian – import.
But when the concept is unpacked theologically, connectionalism expresses the very essence of the Church, its mystery. It points to the Church’s organic unity.
Dr Roland Chia
is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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