In part 1 I explained some of the ministry reasons that I’m transferring my membership and ordination to the United Methodist Church. In this post I will explain some of the doctrinal reasons. Though I must admit that the primary reasons that I’m transferring have nothing to do with theology or ministry.
My wife and I are ordained in two separate systems. As I explained in that previous post, the long ministry careers that we have before us will almost certainly go more smoothly if we are under the same method by which our calling is stewarded. That fact along with my increasing involvement with the UMC over the years made sense for this move to come now.
With that said, I am vocationally a theologian and that is a primary self-understanding whether my job is in pastoral ministry or in teaching or even as I am interacting with folks in social media. It’s who I am. I couldn’t join the UMC if I wasn’t satisfied that the theological tradition wasn’t one that could and should be embraced. So these are some of the reasons that I find that tradition worthy of embracing:
First, United Methodists embrace both a broad orthodoxy and a catholic spirit. The United Methodist Church is theologically committed to the historic doctrines of orthodoxy via the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, and the creeds and hymns of the United Methodist Hymnal. The central commitments of orthodox Christianity are at the heart of the Methodist doctrine of these statements. The Articles of Religion require adherence to the sufficiency of Scripture, Trinity, the divinity of Christ, his atoning death and bodily resurrection, and traditional notions of church and sacrament. To change the doctrine of the Articles and Confession would involve a very difficult constitutional amendment process. This is as it should be. The United Methodist claim to be an “apostolic” community entails a commitment to the faith handed down from the early church.
However, John Wesley famously said, “If your heart is as my heart, give me thine hand.” In that same sermon, “The Catholic Spirit,” Wesley suggested that to give another your hand did not mean a kind of passive acceptance but active love and spurring one another on toward the Gospel. Wesley thought this was possible even if we never agreed on all doctrinal issues. In his own words from that same sermon, “Keep you your opinion; I mine; and that as steadily as ever.” While Wesley had a distinctive theology and expected the same of Methodist preachers, he urged Methodists to embrace all people of good will. Disagreement did not mean disfellowship. Wesley seemed to suggest that the differences between two Christians may be the very point that would contribute to the sanctification of both. Difference was a positive for spiritual growth. All of this was made possible by the bond of mutual love. Charles Wesley celebrated just such a spirit in song:
Redeem’d by Thine almighty grace,
I taste my glorious liberty,
With open arms the world embrace,
But cleave to those who cleave to Thee (“Catholic Love”)
Second, United Methodists embrace both a sacramental theology and spirituality and an evangelical theology and spirituality. Just as United Methodists hold together competing forces to be both inclusively catholic and traditionally orthodox, Methodists hold other competing commitments in tension as well. For more than 400 years Christians have struggled to resolve a tension between the efficacy of the sacraments and the redeeming and vivifying work of an inner conversion. Traditional notions of Christian sacraments suggest that baptism and Eucharist are outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace. When these acts are performed, God acts upon the life of the participants. In the case of baptism, this is variously considered to be the washing away of original sin or the initiation of the new birth. In his sermon “The Means of Grace,” Wesley rhetorically asked of critics of the Eucharist,
Is not the eating of that bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means, whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost, which were purchased by the body of Christ once broken and the blood of Christ once shed for us?
For Methodists and other sacramental Christians, these physical acts of worship are the means by which God acts in the life of a believer.
But evangelical theologians in Wesley’s time and in ours are critical of this notion, insisting that only the inner conversion of the soul matters for one’s salvation. This evangelical conversion, an experience that Wesley described as having his “heart strangely warmed” at Aldersgate, was central to Wesley’s own understanding of the new birth. The early Methodist movement was, at its very core, an evangelical movement within a sacramental Anglican church. While the early Methodists were less prone than their contemporaries to discuss the specifics of sacramental theology, they nonetheless kept their sacramentalism as they moved toward evangelical notions of conversion. Charles Wesley’s “The Great Supper” exhibits such a high sacramentality:
Come, and partake the gospel feast,
Be saved from sin, in Jesus rest:
O taste the goodness of our God,
And eat His flesh, and drink his blood.
The truth of the evangelical conversion experience in my life and in the life of those that I have ministered to is undeniable. When I prayed a brief prayer of accepting Jesus at 17 years old, God did something miraculous in me. God had already saved my soul when I was finally baptized 8 months later. Neither can I deny the powerful ministry of the Spirit as others and I submit ourselves to the means of grace, and especially the sacraments. John Wesley warns Methodists not to “mistake the means for the end, and to place religion rather in doing those outward works, than in a heart renewed after the image of God” (“The Means of Grace”). But critiquing all sacramentality because some “abuse” the sacraments by partaking without a right heart draws upon a false dichotomy. Wesley and the people called Methodists are those that can upset this false dichotomy by insisting on a faithful participation in the sacraments with a heart fully turned toward God.
Third, United Methodists embrace both social holiness and personal holiness. While the dichotomy between sacrament and evangelical spirituality primarily arose during the Reformation critiques of the Roman Catholic church, another false dichotomy arose during the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: a tension between social holiness and personal holiness. Theological and social liberals of this period were strong advocates of theological arguments for social justice such as those advocated by Walter Rauschenbusch and others. At the same time, the holiness movements of this period championed individual devotion to God in prayer and exorcising of the demons of alcohol. Some Wesleyans, the Salvation Army being a good example, were able to hold personal holiness and social holiness as dual priorities in spite of the cultural posturing that was involved. But many during this period began to champion one or the other as if they were separable.
Wesley preceded any such dichotomy. When he called the Methodist people to lives of radical holiness, he imagined that educating prisoners and preaching to the poor were just as integral to this vision as regular fasting, prayer, and worship. Wesleyan ethics are summarized in the “General Rules” that Wesley proposed for the societies and are still observed by Methodists today.
He enjoined them to “do no harm,” by which he meant such personal holiness convictions such as profaning the day of the Lord or drunkenness. “Doing no harm” also called Methodists to fair and just business practices and not wasting money on jewelery and frivolities.
His call to “doing good” meant giving food to the hungry and clothing to the naked, while simultaneously loving fellow Christians as neighbors (General Rules, BOD ¶104). It should be no surprise that a man that encouraged daily reading of Scriptures would insist that it was an injustice that a black man could not testify against a white man under British law (“Letter to William Wilberforce”). He understood the Bible to give direction in practical wisdom, which made a mockery of this racist policy. Wesley knew that the image of God was found equally in every person and this called a person to love. Charles Wesley’s hymns also addressed themes of personal and social holiness. Songs such as “Jesus, Thine All-Victorious Love” invite God to “burn up the dross of base desire.” This notion that a person’s sinful will must be crucified so that he or she may be perfected in love is central to the doctrine of sanctification. Charles Wesley also invited lamentation of social ills:
Our earth we now lament to see
with floods of wickedness overflowed,
with violence, wrong, and cruelty,
on wide-extended field of blood,
where men like fiends each other tear
in all the hellish rage of war. (“Our Earth We Now Lament to See”)
Wesleyan spirituality consistently reveals the dichotomy of personal and social holiness to be a false one.
While I sometimes struggle with the rather eclectic nature of Wesley’s theology, his ability to draw upon multiple sources is precisely why he is able to overcome these false dichotomies. As I have explained, commitment to orthodoxy need not entail divisions in the Body of Christ. A strong sense for the need for evangelical conversion doesn’t require a lesser role for the sacraments. A commitment to making a more just society is not exclusive of holiness of heart and life. While I have not drawn these out above, Wesleyan thought has the ability to bridge other false dichotomies. Knowledge and vital piety are not competing virtues. An affirmation of the depravity of the human soul can acknowledge the power of prevenient grace. A focus on the sacrament of the Eucharist need not diminish the power of preaching. The authority of the episcopacy and the clergy need not stifle our hope and cultivation of an empowered and enthusiastic laity.
Wesleyan theology requires persons to live in tension. The discomfort of living this tension forms Methodist persons to be like Christ.
While I’m not opposed to the core theological concepts of A/G doctrine, the Assemblies of God and many other Christian traditions move too easily toward resolving these tensions that often exist in theology. As just one example, the Assemblies of God has a modest set of just 16 “fundamental truths” that form the core of their doctrinal commitments. But four of these statements evoke an elaborate and precise “end times” scenario, with each of these four components being debated among theologians as to the authorized interpretations of each.While I am not opposed to the implications of these statements, eschatology is a complex theological question that is much better left to broad statements.
In contrast, the United Methodist Confession of Faith says only, “We believe all [people] stand under the righteous judgment of Jesus Christ, both now and in the last day. We believe in the resurrection of the dead; the righteous to life eternal and the wicked to endless condemnation.” No order is provided. Very little specifics are given. Adherents and ministers are given space to read Scripture carefully and proclaim a vision compatible with this minimal doctrine. In an effort to provide clarity to the community, many have taken the route of simplifying complex ideas. The United Methodist Church provides the space to embrace the complexity and mystery of a fully biblical theology. I’m looking forward to serving in that environment.