One of the questions that I have been the most interested in over the past decade has been: What makes Methodism distinct? This question intrigues me because if we cannot identify anything distinctive about Methodism in comparison to other Christian denominations, then its reason for being seems to be called into question.
I have also been interested in this question because I have noticed that the things that are often said about Methodist distinctiveness are not at all unique to Methodism. (I wrote about this six years ago in a bit more detail.) An article on umc.org “Who We Are as United Methodists,” for example offers a “brief list of some of the distinctive characteristics of our denomination.” The article consists of a list of eight distinctives:
- Grounded in Scripture
- Concerned about social justice
The word distinctive ordinarily means something like a trait or identifying marker that makes something different than other things. The phrasing “a brief list of some of the distinctive characteristics of our denomination” suggests that each item in the list is a distinct characteristic of United Methodism.
This article strikes me as a good representation of how conversations about Methodist distinctiveness typically go. There is a desire to be able to say something about United Methodist uniqueness in the landscape of Christianity. But what is said is usually not at all distinct.
In the list of eight items above, exactly none of them are distinctive of the UMC.
So, what is distinctive about Methodism?
This turns out to be a very difficult question. To answer this question with sufficient precision to say something that is actually distinctive about United Methodism would, I suspect, turn out to not be very helpful or compelling. United Methodism is not only one part of the Body of Christ, it is also only part of the expression of the broader Methodist (or Wesleyan, if you prefer, these are synonyms for me in this context) theological tradition.
I find it most helpful to think about what is most distinctive about the Methodist theological tradition, rather than United Methodism itself. In order to find distinctiveness, you need to look for specificity and detail. In other words, you have to narrow the focus rather than widening it.
We need one more clarification here. Distinctiveness is not the same thing as an essential. I would put many beliefs and practices in the category of essentials for Methodists that I do not list here because they are not distinct to Methodism. The sacraments of baptism and communion are essential but not distinctive to Methodism. The doctrine of justification by faith is essential but not distinctive to Methodism.
The best answer I can come up with for Methodist distinctiveness is a specific doctrine and a specific discipline (or, a specific belief and practice):
The doctrine of entire sanctification is distinctive of Methodism.
Belief in holiness or sanctification is not distinctive of Methodism. There are also a variety of other ways of talking about the goal of growth in holiness that are similar to the Methodist doctrine of entire sanctification, but I think there is sufficient difference for this to be a plausible claim to distinctiveness.
As I’ve written about recently here and here, I believe the doctrine of entire sanctification is deeply relevant for contemporary Methodism. In fact, I think retrieving this doctrine in our preaching and teaching is essential to Methodist renewal.
The discipline of meeting together to “watch over one another in love” in disciplined small groups is distinctive of Methodism.
There are, of course, many churches that have small groups. And there are many non-Methodist churches today that have more effective small group ministries than contemporary Methodism. However, the commitment to small groups focused on transformation and giving an account of one’s present relationship with God, in order to continually pursue growth in one’s faith is a distinctive of Methodism.
Readers of this blog are likely already familiar with the class meeting and the band meeting. These groups were the two key ways that Methodists practiced small group formation throughout John Wesley’s lifetime and the first generations of Methodism. If you want to know more about the class meeting, check out my book. It is designed not only to introduce you to what a class meeting was, but also to equip churches to actually reclaim this practice. If you want to know more about the band meeting, check out the book that Scott Kisker and I wrote together that explains why we believe bands are essential and seeks to help people form new band meetings.
The Methodist theological tradition is best thought of as a tradition that has a radical optimism of the potential for God’s grace to save to the uttermost at its core. A network of beliefs and practices (especially small group formation) come from this core belief. If you are seeking full salvation, you need a group of people to come along side of you. A group can help us keep track of our priorities and whether we are moving in the right direction or need to be redirected.
Methodists believe that Christianity is a team sport. We need each other in order to move all of our lives into God’s house and learn to dwell in God’s will and receive the blessings that come therein. We need a common vision for where we are headed. We need deep unity on where the places of reliable blessing, rest, and renewal are. And we need agreement on where the potholes and gutters are that we need to encourage each other to avoid, and to help each other when we fall into them.
Put differently, Methodism is distinct because of the particular method for living out the Christian life that gives it its name.
Kevin M. Watson is a professor at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. He teaches, writes, and preaches to empower community, discipleship, and stewardship of our heritage. Click here to get future posts emailed to you. Affiliate links used in this post.