What unifies Methodism? This is a basic and crucial question in the current moment of Methodism, particularly The United Methodist Church. The importance of unity has often been asserted. However, denominational leaders who strongly emphasize unity have not always offered substantive theological reflection on what it is, exactly, that unifies us.
Historically, I would argue that holiness, particularly the corporate pursuit of holy living, was the key to the unity of the people called Methodists.
One of the key documents that gave identity to the people called Methodists from its beginnings was a short piece written as the Methodist movement was just getting underway, titled “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies,” which is commonly referred to as the “General Rules.” This document provided the basic framework for Methodists throughout Wesley’s lifetime. The “General Rules” were drafted as a means of quality control as the Methodist movement began to gain steam. The entire document is worth reading closely and with attention to detail. It can be found in its entirety here.
The “General Rules” have received quite a bit of attention in the past decade. This renewed attention has mostly been cause for celebration. One downside has been the tendency to create slogans that distort the content of the “General Rules” themselves. Catch-phrase familiarity can obscure that this document was a practical guide to holiness that contained a specific list of behaviors and practices to be rejected and to be embraced in the daily lives of Methodists.
Methodists were united by their common commitment to live the kind of life that the “General Rules” outlined as much as anything else. Wesley was fearlessly specific about what holy living did and did not look like in the “General Rules.” He wrote:
“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”
It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation,
First: By doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is most generally practiced, such as:
The taking of the name of God in vain.
The profaning the day of the Lord, either by doing ordinary work therein or by buying or selling.
Drunkeness: buying or selling spirituous liquors, or drinking them, unless in case of extreme necessity.
Slaveholding; buying or selling slaves.
Fighting, quarreling, brawling, brother going to law with brother; returning evil for evil, railing for railing; the using many words in buying or selling.
The buying or selling goods that have not paid the duty.
The giving or taking things on usury – i.e., unlawful interest.
Uncharitable or unprofitable conversation; particularly speaking evil of magistrates or of ministers.
Doing to others as we would not they should do unto us.
Doing what we know is not for the glory of God, as:
The putting on of gold and costly apparel.
The taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.
The singing those songs, or reading those books, which do not tend to the knowledge or love of God.
Softness and needless self-indulgence.
Laying up treasure upon earth.
Borrowing without a probability of paying; or taking up goods without a probability of paying for them.
After listing the “harm” that was to be avoided, the “General Rules” listed the concrete positive acts Methodists were expected to do (give food to the hungry, clothe the naked, visit or help them that are sick or in prison, and more) as well as the specific practices (public worship, the ministry of the Word, the Supper of the Lord, prayer, searching the Scriptures, and fasting) by which all Methodists pursued a deeper relationship with God.
And here is how this core document, which is still included as a part of United Methodist doctrine and is protected by the Restrictive Rules of the UM Constitution, concluded:
These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.
Wesley’s purpose in writing the “General Rules” was fleshing out what holy living looked like so that there could be sufficient clarity of mission to be unified in a meaningful sense. Throughout John Wesley’s life, and well beyond, Methodism was constituted by this kind of specificity. Methodists were deeply serious about what they did with their bodies, how they spoke, what they drank, how they used their money, how they treated others, and more.
A basic familiarity with Wesley’s writings makes it unimaginable that he would have advocated an agnostic posture by Methodists on the most controversial and contested issues of the day. Wesley was adamantly opposed to any form of “latitudinarianism,” (indifference in matters of belief or practice) which he referred to in the well-known sermon “Catholic Spirit” as “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being ‘driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine’, is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true Catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit has not now his religion to seek.”
Wesley spoke plainly to those who had this kind of unsettledness of thought: “Be convinced that you have quite missed your way: you know now where you are. You think you are got into the very spirit of Christ, when in truth you are nearer the spirit of antichrist.”
Read the list of concrete things that Methodists were required to avoid throughout Wesley’s lifetime again. Read the end of the “General Rules” again and remember that if people consistently violated this standard they were informed that they “hath no more place among us.”
The ways Methodists were required to avoid harm were not common sense. And they were not in step with the culture of 18th century Britain. The “General Rules” show that unity was, at a minimum, about a corporate commitment to pursue holy living. Holiness was the basis for early Methodist unity.
John Wesley did not believe Methodism could exist apart from clarity about what holy living looked like.
So, how have we gotten here? How can any United Methodist say with any credibility that the solution to the denominational crisis related to gay marriage is to agree to disagree, to do one thing in some places and the opposite in other places?
I wonder if one of the greatest threats to contemporary Methodism is the idea that we can have meaningful unity without agreement on holy living, that such incoherence and confusion is a kind of virtue, a form of tolerance and charity. The truth is that there can be no meaningful unity for the people called Methodists apart from a shared commitment to a specific vision for holy living, which inevitably includes sexual ethics.
An attempt to be unified as Methodists by intentionally rejecting the possibility of unity around holy living is at the same time an abandonment of Methodism itself.
Richard Heyduck said:
When would you say that American Methodism last had a shared understanding of what “holy living” looked like?
Bob Brooke said:
Our holy God is calling to a fallen creation, inviting and enabling a restored holiness – the very life for which our hearts cry out. The need for all churches is to re-emphasize the central significance of Christian holiness for all aspects of the lives of believers and for the life of the church as a whole. What would happen to the church if the Lord’s Prayer became a test for membership as thoroughly as the Creeds have been?
Pastor Glen Haworth said:
It is telling that Bishop Job reduced the third rule to “Stay in love with God” when it clearly should have been “reduced” to something akin to “Practice the disciplines of the spiritual life.”
ken j lauer said:
Please tell me how anyone can call themself a Christian or indeed Methodist, and not rebuke or tolerate the evils of our society, and participate in such acts as warfare and injustices of all types causing suffering around our world. I am tempted to say I look and see NO Christians.
ken j lauer said:
Many years ago , after reading Liberating the Church,= I called Howard and asked him to direct me to such a church as descibed in his book, anywhere not just locally. He could NOT! Really. That was 12 years ago.
Well said, Dr. Watson.
Kevin M. Watson said:
Great question, Richard. There were divisions related to what holy living looked like pretty early on in American Methodism, especially related to racism and slavery. I think a deep fragmentation happened in the second half of the 19th c. in the beginnings of the Holiness Movement. But as far as I know no one was arguing throughout these disputes that the issue itself should be set aside for the sake of unity. That would have been incomprehensible in any branch of American Methodism, probably until the 1939 merger that created the Methodist Church and the Central Jurisdiction.
Excellent post! Just last night a friend and I agreed that the one Church Model is intolerable–we each have a strong family heritage in Methodism.
Check out this pastor’s take on why the One Church Model is acceptable.
“If we allow the decision of how to include LGBTQIA+ persons to be spread through out the whole of the church then, paradoxically and mysteriously, the yeast retains its holiness. It seems clear to me that if the status quo remains or if there is a dramatic change in the current stance, then we move closer to being holy OR catholic.
This is one more reason why I believe the “One Church model” not only is in line with the creeds, but is in line with our historical and Wesleyan tradition of affirming the holy, catholic church.” http://um-insight.net/perspectives/one-church-model-as-yeast/
He is not the only clergy I have come across who confuses The United Methodist Church with the holy catholic/universal church–a Bishop has even done it.
Lane Bailey said:
I find it telling that the one topic that determines our unity of holiness is “sexual ethics* narrowly defined by an archaic and inaccurate understanding of gender, not fidelity. Wesley understood the evils of slavery and wove his objection to it into the fabric of Methodism. From where did he gain that insight? From Leviticus or Deuteronomy? Yet we tore the church in two over that very issue. We oppressed people because their skin was a different color than ours. We refused ordination to people based, not on their gifts or calling, but on their genitalia. We have oppressed millions, denying their right to marry, to follow their calling, or to even recognize their sexuality as a gift from God based, not on scientific knowledge or grace filled love, but upon a few obscure verses aimed at pagan fertility practices, acts of sexual violence designed to humiliate and subjugate, and pedophilia. Knowing from where Dr. Watson comes, as I came from there as well, it is not hard to read the underlying message, that to maintain a “holy” unity, we must guard the “sacred” prejudices of the past.
Kevin M. Watson said:
Lane, I cannot tell whether your comment is in agreement with the substance of the post or not. The tenor of the comment suggests fairly strong disagreement. However, you seem to have strong beliefs about a particular understanding of sexual ethics that you believe are important for holy living, which I would take as agreement with the main argument of the post.
My argument is that many key leaders in United Methodism are offering The UMC a vision for unity that sets aside agreement on what holy living looks like, which is a radical departure from what Methodism was for and how Methodists understood unity.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise that since I do not know who you are that I do not accept your presumption to “know from where I come” or agree with the words you put in my mouth.
I keep a copy of “The Character of a Methodist” on my cell phone. It is short and I like to read through it occasionally to remind myself of our Wesleyan roots. Near the end of this Wesley says, “And I beseech you, brethren, by the mercies of God, that we be in no wise divided among ourselves. Is thy heart right, as my heart is with thine? If it be, give me thy hand…” Some form of this quote is often used to put forth the notion that Wesley desired unity above all else. But reading this in context one is left to conclude that having laid out what he believed to be the character of a Methodist that Wesley is basing any notion of unity on the fact that one accepts his (Wesley’s) definition of what it means to be a Methodist. Reading through that brief treatise you find out quickly that Wesley has a very strict understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Within that understanding it is clear that Wesley will not deviate from what the Bible says about not just the love in our hearts (which we stress as a means to unity) but more importantly what it says about the ways in which we live our lives. He puts forth some fairly stringent rules for holy living. You cannot read this writing (or really any of Wesley’s writings) and conclude that on essential questions that he would just say, “As long as you have love in your heart, let’s agree to disagree…”