The last two weeks, I’ve written to raise the question of what the basis for Christian unity is. I’ve talked about it mainly on a broad level, looking at Christianity as a whole, though I’ve indicated that this is a question for individual denominations as well. Starting this week, and for the next several weeks, I’d like to look at the question of the basis of unity in my own denomination, The United Methodist Church. I hope my non-Methodist readers will bear with me. While some of what I say will be specific to Methodism, I hope that much of my reflections can be applied to other denominations as they also struggle to maintain unity. (I’m looking in particular at you, Episcopalians.)
I think for a lot of Christians, especially those from creedal traditions, assume that the basis for unity should be theology or belief. I don’t think this works for United Methodism, though, and I’m not sure how well it works for any non-creedal tradition (or creedal tradition, for that matter). Before I explain, let me make a disclaimer: I’m not saying in this post that theology doesn’t matter or that people should be able to believe anything they want and still call themselves a Christian or a United Methodist. I think theology does matter. I personally believe a number of things quite fervently and hope others do, too. I even think belief is something that’s worth arguing about at times. So I’m not saying in this post that belief is unimportant. I’m saying that theology can’t serve as a good basis for unity in The United Methodist Church.
The first reason why theology is an insufficient basis for unity is that, if we look at the church today, it is not a current source of unity. In fact, it’s often a source of division within the church. Liberals and conservatives fight like weasels (a phrase I once heard a United Methodist layperson use to describe General Conference) over theological issues. In order to go from where we are now to a place where theology is the basis for United Methodist unity, either someone would have to persuade a whole lot of people or kick a whole lot of people out of the church. The first seems unrealistic, the latter unacceptable.
Second, it’s not really clear what theological pieces we would set up as the basis for United Methodist unity, were we to try to go that route. Most of what either evangelical or liberal United Methodists would like to get everyone to believe isn’t distinctively United Methodist but is tied into larger theological currents in the U.S. that cut across denominations, so in many cases, neither side is really presenting a distinctively Methodist vision of theological unity.
We could, then, turn to the Book of Discipline (the United Methodist constitution, if you will) to see what it has to say about the doctrinal basis for Methodist unity. But it turns out the Book of Discipline is not very helpful in this regard. It states that the 25 Articles (John Wesley’s condensation/reduction of the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Faith) and John Wesley’s sermons shall be the standards of Methodist theology. But that’s such a large body of works that it’s not really useful in defining standards of United Methodist theology to serve as a basis for unity. It’s certainly no five point creed. There are many strands within the Sermons and Articles on which to draw. Plus, how many people are you going to get to read even the 25 Articles, let alone all of Wesley’s sermons (which even most Methodist seminarians don’t read in their entirety)?
If we can’t use these textual resources for unity, perhaps we could identify a couple of historically distinctive doctrines as the theological basis for United Methodist unity. Here, the two most distinctive Methodist doctrines have been an Arminian approach to salvation and the doctrine of sanctification. Arminianism states that God offers God’s grace freely to all, and humans must respond by accepting that grace. The doctrine of sanctification states that God is capable of making humans perfect in love while we are yet alive, and we should all be striving for that.
The problem with Arminianism, though, is that it’s been so widely successful as a theology in the United States that it’s no longer distinctively Methodist. The emphasis within a lot of Arminianism has shifted from free grace to free will, and almost everyone wants to believe in free will in this country. Even a lot of Calvinists or people from Calvinist traditions have become Arminians. Hence, saying that United Methodists are going to be known as the people who believe in free grace and free will Arminianism is like saying Burger King is going to be known as the fast food place that serves burgers. It’s true, but it’s not like there aren’t others making burgers, so it’s not really something that would set them apart.
Which leaves us with sanctification. The problem with trying to make sanctification the theological basis for United Methodist unity is that so few United Methodist actually know what the doctrine is and know that it’s a traditional Methodist doctrine. Of those who do, probably even a smaller number actually believe in the possibility of entire sanctification in this life. I think it’s sad, but nonetheless true, that Methodists have lost touch with the doctrine of sanctification. Given that that’s true, though, it seems like it would be a lot of work to try to reclaim sanctification as the basis of theological unity in the church.
Therefore, I don’t think theology works as the basis for unity in The United Methodist Church. That may make some upset or uneasy, but I don’t think that means there aren’t other possible bases for unity. Agreement on a set list of beliefs is not the basis of unity for families, the Army, knitting groups, or Phish fans, yet there is something which holds each of these groups together. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll continue to look at some of these other possible grounds for Methodist unity.