A conversation from a few years back has been on my mind today. This conversation began on twitter a few years ago (hence the hashtag) when many Methodists began talking about a desire to see renewed interest in Wesleyan approaches to Christianity. The conversation has been mostly dormant for awhile.
The last post I wrote specifically contributing to the #andcanitbe conversation discussed my hopes for the conversation. I hoped:
- To see God show up in amazing ways, to see broken and hurting peoples’ lives changed by the amazing grace of God.
- To see an articulation of the gospel in a particularly Wesleyan accent with clarity and conviction for a broader audience.
- To have the conversation be focused on God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – not on ourselves.
- To see the Holy Spirit bring together a variety of voices from miraculously different backgrounds, who feel a common leading to articulate a message that is theologically in harmony and not cacophonous.
I am thinking about this conversation today, hoping to see new interest in it. I still desire a sustained conversation about a visible and coherent Wesleyan voice. Over the past few weeks, several posts were written exploring the ongoing value of the Creeds for those in the Wesleyan tradition. (Click here for my contribution, which has links to many posts written by others.)
One of the challenges that is raised when Methodists express an interest in doctrine and the Creeds is that they are inevitably exclusive. The concern is that once you set boundaries for things that people must believe, a boundary is drawn that can be used to force people out of the community. I think this is a legitimate concern. I do not, however, think that this has been the besetting sin of United Methodism. If the extremes regarding doctrine are doctrinal indifference or doctrinal rigidity, the UMC veers much farther towards doctrinal indifference in practice than it does toward a harsh and exclusive use of doctrine.
Moreover, doctrinal indifference is ultimately a greater threat to the Christian faith than is doctrinal rigidity. Unity (sharing a common faith) is literally impossible without doctrine. The gospel cannot be passed down from generation to generation without some basic agreement on who God is, what the gospel is, what the salvation is that is found in Jesus Christ, etc.
Another concern that is expressed when United Methodists are seen to be too passionate about doctrine is that doctrine distracts from the more important task of living our faith. This concern, it seems to me, is ultimately incoherent. What faith are we living out? How should we live it out? Questions like these are inevitably answered based on beliefs. The best understanding of the relationship between right thinking (orthodoxy) and right living (orthopraxy) is that they are related and dependent on each other. I cannot live the kind of life I am called to live as a follower of Jesus Christ without doctrine. And these very beliefs are not only intellectual ideas divorced from action, they are beliefs that compel the one who holds them to act.
Morally indifferent Christians don’t need to be freed from theology – they need better theology.
United Methodism is desperate for clarity about what we believe and how it informs the way we live. A very helpful initial step was the publication of Key United Methodist Beliefs. Unity for Methodists should be found in both doctrine and practice as both are essential for any people who take on the name Methodist.
One of the ways that United Methodists are united around doctrine is in our doctrinal standards. What if the UMC gave serious attention to our doctrinal standards, seeing them as helpful to formation and not to be feared? What if instead of keeping them at bay, we focused on what we can affirm and how we can be formed by them?
I still desire a sustained conversation about Methodist beliefs. What do you think would be the best way forward?
Drew McIntyre said:
It would seem to me that if we cannot start with God as Trinity – and ground our conversation about Methodist beliefs in classic Christian beliefs – then we know the Methodist conversation is already going to be fruitless. I’d start with who God is before delving into anything too specifically Wesleyan, because sadly – and based on a host of unpleasant conversations – I actually think this might be a fight.
John Meunier said:
I think I lean toward the incoherent position you worry about. Here is my issue. I’m interested primarily in the living faith of the men and women in the pews at the churches where I serve. When you are speaking of actual human beings, you get into issues of sequence and process and order.
So, when a person is coming to church for the first time and trying to figure out what all this means, I’m not going to club them with the Creed. What I want to do is to introduce them to Jesus. I’m a Pietist, so what I really want them to do is to have a heart warming encounter with Christ. Doctrine helps shape a person’s expectations and experiences, so it is important. As Wesley often noted, people cannot expect what they are not taught to expect. But if you asked me which I worried about more, I would say that I worry more about dead, external faith than I worry about people getting this or that doctrinal point wrong.
I don’t think doctrine is unimportant at any stage of faith, but I’m inclined to believe it is more helpful to the believer as he or she deepens in relationship with Christ. The risk is that doctrine comes to stand in for actual inward faith.
John, is there a right way and a wrong way to have a relationship with Christ? Is there is a wrong Jesus to have a relationship with?
Kevin Watson said:
I agree with the starting points of almost every part of your comment. But you lose me on the connection or applications you make. For example, I am completely with you in being very interested in the living faith of the men and women in the pews. It is because of this interest that I think doctrine matters. I think an inattention to sound doctrine and a suspicion of doctrine altogether by some, at least in part, explains why many lay United Methodists do not have a living faith.
I am also surprised to see you use the phrase “club them with the Creed.” It feels like you are attributing that to what I am trying to do. For what it is worth, I am not interested in clubbing anyone with the Creed, either literally or figuratively. I see the Creed as nourishing and sustaining to vital piety.
Put differently, I still have the same desire I had back when the #andcanitbe conversation started to, above all else, see people’s lives transformed by the amazing grace of God (as stated in #1 in the post above). We agree on the importance of people having a heart warming encounter with Christ. I am very concerned about dead external faith. It is a real problem in the church.
I suspect, however, that dead faith today is more often the product of beliefs about God that are incapable of producing living faith. In Wesley’s day, people very commonly affirmed the Creeds and the Articles of Religion without experiencing their truth, an affirmation that was a mental assent to propositional truth. I don’t find that to be the problem in contemporary United Methodism. Today, I think it is more common for people to think that what we believe about God doesn’t really matter all that much, and that it can actually be an impediment to faithful Christian living. To the extent that this is true, such beliefs mark an enormous point of departure not only from the early church and going forward, but from the pietist movement for which you profess affinity.
This is a long-winded way of saying that I don’t at all want to argue for an approach to doctrine that is a substitute for a personal experience of faith in the living God (the witness of the Spirit). But I think beliefs are important every step of the way. I’m not sure, for example, how the believer comes to faith in Jesus at all without doctrine.
Thanks for your engagement here!
Drew McIntyre said:
People can get a heart-warming experience from a puppy calendar or a Nicholas Sparks novel. I heard somewhere that piety and knowledge can actually work pretty well together.
And if we only do things in worship that don’t intimidate people, worship will end up being a culturally determined activity, looking like a TED Talk attached to a concert.
In terms of boundaries, maybe we could consider a centered set approach over against a bounded set approach.
John Meunier said:
Please forgive the phrase “club them over the head.” That was an excessive rhetorical flourish and unfair.
I don’t argue that United Methodists are beset with doctrinal difficulty, and in the tradition of Spener, Francke, Otterbein, and Wesley, I agree that orthodoxy matters.
But I am not persuaded that our problems are rooted primarily in a failure to tutor the head.
John, we cannot get to the body except to through the head. Where the mind goes, the body will.
John Meunier said:
That should have been “are not beset” – an object lesson in not using the double negative
John Meunier said:
Or – where the heart leads the mind will follow?
I don’t think we disagree, and I certainly don’t want to dispute the importance of doctrine, but I am worried about mere orthodoxy and sacramentalism becoming a rallying cry to the extent that what makes us distinctive from Episcopalians is lost or relegated to secondary status.
Perhaps no one here wants that, but it is a risk I worry about. If we succeeded in fostering robust Trinitarian orthodoxy in every United Methodist but failed to instill heart religion, then we will have missed the mark.
Again, I don’t suspect anyone here wants to do that, but I guess I feel the need to push that point because I think there are people who would settle for that.
I would suggest that a “fostering of robust Trinitarian orthodoxy” is successful only if it has become entrenched in the mind.
There are two forms of legalism — the intellectual, and the physical, or works. We are not Reformed, or Calvinist, because we refrain from the former by insisting that on works that enliven our faith/ Further, we are not latitudinarian because we insist works, ethics, are only profitable within the orthodox framework.
While the Aristotelian would object, perhaps overly so, that Christian orthodoxy is a virtue and a habit, I cannot help us see it in the light of the ethical master who said, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Orthodoxy helps train us. We do not simply do what is right because somehow we have the proper way within us.
Carol Hampton said:
I love the creeds and find them to very nourishing especially when I am having a difficult time staying focused on my living faith. I have begun using them in my prayer time. The creeds are one of the things I love about the Methodist tradition.
From a layman (non-pastor) perspective I think one of the problems we have today is that we have tried to make church so relaxed, simplistic and feel good and that is where we are falling down in reaching people. Sure people will come to see the latest way of doing church but will not always stay. I really think people are searching for something deeper and that is where the traditions of the church come in. Maybe we have to show that in fresh relevant ways. Anyone (no matter their age) serious about their faith journey doesn’t just want the surface stuff.
I always try to remember we are called to reach out into the world and make
disciples for Jesus Christ. In the Methodist church I think we have forgotten how to do that … however, I am sensing it coming back to life. We have at least one generation that has no real clue what this is or how to do it. Even in the baby boomer generation there are a lot of us who have no clue on how do it . I am excited to see people within our denomination who are trying so hard to revive the Wesleyan tradition.
I know my thoughts are not deep and intellectual but I just wanted to weigh in on it. It is very important discussion and I learn a lot when I read Kevin’s blog and the comments.
Dale Sigler said:
Like Carol, I am “simply” a layman. In our dying congregation our new leaders are looking for ways to reach out to others AND deepen our folks walk with Christ. To that end I am trying to develop a plan to energize and expand our small groups. Part of that an Will incorporated Kevn’ s book on the Class and “The Radical Wesley.” I also plan to use the creeds and other doctrinal documents. But the key will be Scripture and disciplines.
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Kevin Watson said:
Carol and Dale, thank you both for your comments. I very much appreciate hearing your perspectives as laity.
Very good post. The current ethos of United Methodism towards doctrine and its exclusive nature is in stark contrast to Wesley and early Methodism. From my understanding of the classes, a portion of Scripture or an article of religion would be taught by a class leader and then they would go on to expound how that doctrine or scripture passage connects to life and how it can/should be lived out.
Why would their be hostility towards properly defining what we believe? Well, I’m not going to play stupid. I know why. It boils down to the place of scripture, tradition, and doctrine in our lives. Some highly value these things and others don’t. In light of this reality, I would claim that some are following in the tradition of Methodism and others in the line of liberal main line religion. They are two radically different things with radically different values and, in the long run, radically different futures.
I have learned that the conversations that we are longing for will only happen among those who want to have them. This year I made it a priority to go to the New Room conference even though I have a lot of obligations to my school, church, and family. It’s time to start having these conversations with people who want them – who want to recover the power of early Methodism and see people and communities transformed through the gospel. Some people want this, some people don’t. You’ve got to throw yourself in with those who want it and let things play out. You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink from it.
One more view from the pew: Somewhere I have a quote from Wesley about people that walk a line between fully knowing God and embracing the world: it leaves them with enough knowledge to fear God but unable to find any comfort in the world or God. That describes the bulk of my life as a “good church-going Methodist” that developed a strong sense of God but yet had no clear head knowledge of who God is or who I am in relation. I would not wish that on anybody.
Two years ago I was so broken and confused I distanced myself from all things church and stumbled into the Heidelberg catechism and three modern books about it–nothing has been the same since. I was left wondering why nobody had never told me these things about God. In a space of days Christianity went from feeling like rocket science to being simply unfathomable. I finally had discovered a God worth worshiping. All the random pieces of the puzzle that was Christianity I had been collecting finally had a home. It was a journey that taught me what all I did not know about basic orthodox Christianity. I finally found myself in the wide open space of God’s amazing grace. And was dismayed that I had to get there at the hands of a Presbyterian pastor, a Reformed Church pastor and a Calvinist-leaning catechism! There was absolutely nothing comparable in the Wesleyan/Methodist camp.