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In Defense of United Methodism
For a number of years the evangelical renewal groups within United Methodism have sought to defend the Church. By the “Church” we do not necessarily mean the institutional church which presently seems to operate according to its own institutional culture and values, but the Church as the spiritual body that is United Methodism with its rich history, its Wesleyan heritage, its established doctrines, its stated mission, its individual expressions in local congregation, and its millions of faithful members.
Many of us are proud to be United Methodist. The very phrase “United Methodist” conjures up thoughts of Sunday school where we learned of Jesus, church camp where we accepted Christ as Savior, mission trips, pot-luck fellowship meals, Lenten services with cluster churches, prayer meetings, Bible studies, and Wesley hymns. In addition to Wesley hymns we remember the gospel hymns, most of which before 1920 were written by Methodists. Because of these experiences we have been renewed in spirit, committed to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, and stirred to action in reaching out to a world in need of healing.
It was in Methodist (or United Brethren or Evangelical Association) churches that we learned what made our tradition great: faithfulness to Wesley’s essential truths of the Gospel including the Incarnation, the Atonement, Original Sin, the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit, the New Birth, and Sanctification. To these we gladly committed ourselves. In these churches we learned about social justice, the importance of missions, and ministry to the least of God’s children. Some of us defended our doctrines against Calvinism, sacramentalism, creedalism, liberalism, New Age, and secularism. We rejoiced for the Church when it flourished and wept during its hard times.
Those of us who identify as evangelicals have often found ourselves under attack from two sides. On the one hand other evangelicals, some of whom were once United Methodist but have left the denomination, believe our church to be too cold, too formal, or too liberal. In response we have argued that God still has a purpose for The United Methodist Church. Our stated doctrine has not changed. Our stated General Rules have not changed. Our connectional system has not changed. United Methodist connectionalism offers a great support system. Most of the criticisms from those more conservative come from outside the denomination.
But we have also stood to defend our church before those who in response to modernity would too quickly give up our core values and practices and beliefs. Modernism was an ideology which believed that historic Methodism could not reach people in the present secular world. Therefore historic Wesleyanism needed to be re-constructed, compromised, and recast. When I was serving as a consultant with the Hymnal Revision Committee the hymn “Arise, My Soul Arise” was being discussed. Though it had been in every single Methodist hymnal since Wesley and was still being sung by a number of churches an argument was being given that it should be deleted. I commented that it was one of Wesley’s clearest statements on the substitutionary understanding of the Atonement to which the response was given, “That’s why it needed to be deleted; Wesley was simply wrong in his views on the atonement.” If the substitutionary understanding of the atonement is taken from Wesleyan theology the whole system falls apart. There is no New Birth, no redemption, no justifying grace, and no need for repentance. There is no Second Great Awakening, and no spectacular Methodist growth in the nineteenth century.
If there is no atonement what is left in the church is a lot of cheap grace which makes no distinction between the saved and the lost, between light and darkness, and between heaven and hell. Then–and this is what some would argue today–none are excluded. There is no need to save souls because all will be saved anyway. There are no standards; there is no judgment. Classical liberalism has always wanted freedom from the restraints of tradition and restrictive standards, including the Bible, the creeds, the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, and the General Rules. When the freedom from all boundaries is achieved, then, as one person said about the church: why bother.
Fortunately, those who would de-construct our doctrine and our Wesleyan heritage, even though in influential places, are a small minority of United Methodism. To put it another way, what is called progressive thought has never really won the hearts of ordinary United Methodists who continue to believe the Bible, confess the faith, and pray and witness and seek abide by the faith once delivered to the saints.
Now, however, the attack on the church from within the church, has been taken to a new level. After the General Conference upheld the historic teaching of the church on marriage and on sexual morality (faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness), retired bishop Melvin Talbert stated publicly to a supportive crowd: “The derogatory rules and restrictions in the Book of Discipline are immoral and unjust and no longer deserve our loyalty and obedience.” Talbert is not alone. Several annual conferences and two jurisdictions, the Western and the Northeastern, have expressed similar sentiments, as well as several caucus groups and some other retired and active bishops.
It is one thing to express disagreement with the Bible and with Wesley and with the way United Methodists seek to live out their faith. It is another thing to label the Discipline, the General Conference, the covenant we took when we joined The United Methodist Church and, for pastors, the vows we took at ordination, and the views of the overwhelming majority of church members, as immoral and unjust and no longer deserving of our obedience. This is like a father renouncing the family he once committed himself to.
What should the response be from faithful United Methodists still committed to the Discipline and Wesley and the Bible and the church?
1) We would like a show of support for the doctrines and discipline of the church. We would like for church leaders, including bishops, to declare not only that they will uphold the doctrines and discipline of the church, but that they personally are committed to those doctrines and discipline. Are there leaders out there who can say a good thing about The United Methodist Church?
2) Whether or not this happens (don’t hold your breath) the rest of us to need to recognize that there are groups who do believe and support our doctrines and discipline, like The Confessing Movement. Indeed, The Confessing Movement has as its stated purpose to make Jesus Christ known as Savior and Lord and to support the doctrines of the church.
3) The United Methodist Church is the only mainline denomination still growing. We have to factor in the churches outside the United States to make that claim but we do that and we do it gladly. Wesleyan theology is still relevant. Where it is proclaimed faithfully the church grows. Where it is compromised the church flounders.