A recent blog post here titled “The Crisis of The United Methodist Church” brought some interesting responses. Most of the responses were positive in nature which leads me to believe the writers got my point. Other responses seemed to get my point and dismissed it. My point was simple. If the denomination divides, fellowship will be broken. The unity of which Jesus spoke in John 17 and St. Paul exhorts in Ephesians 4 will not only be broken but sinfully broken. Those people who argued that “doctrine” was more important than continued unity misunderstand what the “doctrine” of the Church is.
The doctrine of The United Methodist Church is not one’s own interpretation of Holy Scripture. Nor is our doctrine the product of a group of Bishops, or Pastors, or Lay Members interpretation of Holy Scripture. Doctrine is not the product of any body within The United Methodist Church. Doctrine is not the product of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. And therefore doctrine is not the Book of Discipline. However, the Book of Discipline discusses the doctrine of our denomination.
The “Basic Christian Affirmations” of Paragraph 102 gives the following statements as subheadings.
- We hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
- We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers.
- We understand ourselves to be part of Christ’s universal church when by adoration, proclamation, and service we become conformed to Christ.
- With other Christians we recognize the reign of God is both a present and future reality.
- We share with many Christian communions a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, the confession that our justification as sinners is by grace through faith, and the sober realization that the church is in need of continual reformation and renewal.
These basic affirmations are the product of the doctrinal heritage of the Church Universal. We are not a creedal church per se. We are one that recognizes a basic understanding of what Christian doctrine is. Our UM Hymnal approves the usage of both versions of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed in our worship.
The paragraph on Our Doctrinal Heritage tells us John Wesley’s theological work was in the area of practical theology. “He considered doctrinal matters primarily in terms of their significance for Christian discipleship…The distinctive shape of the Wesleyan theological heritage can be seen in a constellation of doctrinal emphases that display the creating, redeeming, and sanctifying activity of God.” The task John Wesley undertook was one of renewal and not a reinvention of church doctrine. The paragraph continues to describe those particular Wesleyan emphases regarding grace.
Here is where our confusion begins. Under the subheading of “Doctrine and Discipline in the Christian Life,” we read, “No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more constant than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Methodists have always been strictly enjoined to maintain the unity of faith and good works, through the means of grace…the coherence of faith with ministries of love forms the discipline of Wesleyan spirituality and Christian discipleship.” The spiritual principles of the General Rules (I have written about these in earlier posts) are derived from this understanding.
The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical and United Brethren contained in paragraph 104 are considered doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Article XXII of the Articles maintains the importance of openly rebuking a person that, “Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority…”
The United Methodist Church, according to our common heritage with other Christian bodies and our doctrinal standards, recognizes only two sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion – which are open to all people. There is no doctrine of marriage or sacrament of marriage in our doctrinal standards. There is no doctrine of ordination or sacrament of ordination contained in these doctrinal standards. It can be simply stated that we have no interpretation of Scripture regarding marriage or ordination.
What we have in The United Methodist Church are practices of marriage ceremonies and ordination standards and ceremonies. It is true that these practices are upheld by simple majority votes of the General Conferences. And here we see that the denomination is threatened with a split over these practices rather than doctrines. We can disagree over practices. The special called General Conference of 2019 violates the Wesleyan spirit of our doctrine and Christian living. The General Conference was called to discuss and vote on issues of practice and codified certain violations of practices as church law. It is a bad precedent. Because fellowship are often broken by “official acts” of churches. The papal bull that excommunicated Martin Luther broke the Western Church. Henry VIII feared to die without a male heir and leave England open to another series of civil wars. The Church of England was declared independent of Rome for that purpose. Later, under Elizabeth I that breach was solidified.
Some people advocate division of The United Methodist Church and cite potential growth as a result. It is doubtful that a new protestant division will result in church growth in the United States considering the present trends in religious identification within the U.S. A few others believe that their faithfulness is being tested in such a way that they cannot listen to other people’s point of view. Either way these people are advocating further sectarian division (the actual meaning of heresy) to avoid the hard work of reconciliation. The Wesleyan understanding of original sin means none of us are absolutely correct in our views. This is an important doctrinal point. If we cannot acknowledge the evil in ourselves and the good in others, than we have become something Jesus knew and experienced all too well.
A friend contacted me after I wrote the original post. He thanked me for what I said in it. He takes an opposite side from mine. I replied to him that for all of our differences God made us brothers and sisters. He replied, “Amen.” I fear, most of all, that we have lost the vision God has for the church. Another person told me that those who only see the “big picture” often miss those of us who live in the “little picture.” I agree with that statement too.