Open Source Theology

Creativity is one of the most important means of keeping the church and ministry from stagnating.  Clergy and local churches need fresh, new ideas in order to foster and awareness of the ongoing possibilities of the gospel.  Pastors and church communities are urged to develop their own concepts and initiatives which might work well in their community.  Books and programs (ranging from Vacation Bible School to small group studies) worth millions of dollars are sold to congregations each year for this express purpose:  offer something new, different, and exciting.  Our churches can purchases “newness” by the box or kit.  New ideas, even ones that come prepackaged in shrink-wrap, are vital to church growth and survival.  However, our embrace of openness and newness only goes so far.

These kits, programs, and packages represent a type of “open source” thinking.  They are available to everyone but only those who are available to purchase them.  The creativity and inspiration sold by Cokesbury (and others) isn’t free or genuinely open source.  It’s open, but at a premium.

For something to be truly open source, such as software, the original source code must be freely available and open for distribution or modification.  Open source ideas aren’t bound by copyright rules.  You don’t worry about getting sued for photocopying music or mixing songs.  Open means open.  If something is open source, you can change, use, modify, the actual thing (not ideas or derivatives about a thing).  Open source innovators have immense creative ability to go in any direction.

How would “open source” theology look in contemporary United Methodism? It’s already here.  I argue that “open source” theology is at the heart of the major theological issues dividing United Methodism. I think it sounds like a great idea.  There’s a problem.  To go “open source” means openness.  It also means the powerful lose a measure of their control.

The idea of “open source” theology frightens many people on the theological, cultural, and political right in contemporary United Methodism.  Why?  They want to control the source code.  What is the source code?  In our context, the source code is the scripture and the creeds.  The source code is the part of the software that most people never see.  It’s written, maintained, and controlled by the developers. (That’s us:  the clergy, district superintendents, bishops, seminary trained elites, conference delegates.)  We guard the code.  We manipulate and change how the code works.  If it’s interpreted one way or another, the code comes through our hands. Our code, by the way, is over 2000 years old.  In the case of the Old Testament; the code is 6000 years old.  Some of our programmers refuse to issue bug fixes for a six thousand year old code which still advocates plural marriage, slavery, and the death penalty.  See what I mean?  Isn’t it time to open up this process to a wider, more collaborative audience?

Open source software is software that anyone can enhance, modify, or improve.  What would it look like to have a theology that was open to modifications and improvement from an entire denomination (at the local church level)?  What kind of creativity might this inspire?

To some extent, I’m talking about the Social Principles.  I’m also referring to the Creeds and parts of scripture.  What would this kind of “open source” theology do to the ability of some (in United Methodism) to exercise control over an entire denomination, if the doors to the Bible and the Creeds were wide open for everyone?  There should be nothing proprietary or closed source about being the body of Christ.  After all, who are we to decide anything on behalf of the creator of the cosmos?  It would make it much harder to divide and conquer the body of Christ on misreading of scripture.  The Bible is a gift that was never meant to be guarded in private, interpreted alone, or changed in secret. Hack our theology, leak it to the world.

Richard Lowell Bryant