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?