Polity as basis for United Methodist unity?

This week’s contender for possible source of unity for The United Methodist Church (or other denominations, with the appropriate caveats made) is polity.  Polity means the rules and structures that define the formal organization of the church.  It includes things like membership vows, definitions of ordained ministry (and the rules for becoming and remaining an ordained minister), General Conference (the supreme legislative and executive body of The United Methodist Church), the General Boards and their relations to other parts of the church, Annual Conferences, ministerial pension funds, property ownership and oversight, pastor-parish relations committee, and a whole host of other organizational apparatuses.

On a first glance, polity is certainly part of what constitutes the unity of The United Methodist Church.  Historian Richard Heitzenrater (and others) argues that what it truly meant to be Methodist in the early days was to be in connection (or connexion, as the British would spell it) with John Wesley.  Similarly, to be United Methodist nowadays means to be a member, minister, or ministry of The United Methodist Church, a formal organization with its own set of laws and regulations governing how the church functions.  People can play with the boundaries of those laws or disobey those laws at times, but one isn’t United Methodist unless one buys into the organization to a certain extent.  If a church completely disregards the Book of Discipline, never sends delegates to an Annual Conference, doesn’t pay apportionments, and is in no way linked to the church hierarchy, it’s not United Methodist; it’s an independent, non-denominational church.

So polity is definitely part of what unites United Methodists.  In fact, polity is such an important uniting force that it also highlights the forces for disunity.  Methodists can argue with Presbyterians and feel that, as fellow Christians or even fellow Protestants, they have a stake in keeping those arguments going and not just walking out.  But, at the end of the day, there’s always the option that, if the argument gets too much to deal with, Methodists (or Presbyterians) can take their ball (or, rather, their pension fund) and go home.  Yes, that might be a defeat of Christian unity, but it’s not going to cause massive administrative problems in local churches.

United Methodists cannot, however, when arguing with each other, just take their pension fund and go home because it’s the same pension fund!  Because polity governs things like money and power but is also something that unites denominations in a fairly robust way, disagreements over other issues quickly get translated into disagreements over polity, and these disagreements matter because they affect things like who gets to be a minister, which ministries get money, and who can become a member of a church.  It affects the day-to-day operations of churches in real, tangible ways.  Sometimes polity is strong enough to survive these types of conflicts, and churches work through their differences; sometimes it’s not, and churches split.

This tendency for conflicts from other areas of the church to become conflicts about polity means, however, that polity cannot be the sole source of denominational unity.  If all we have in common is common pools of money and common structures of power, then all we will do is fight about money and power.  There’s already a good deal of that going on in the church (see the comment from a couple of posts ago about people fighting like weasels at General Conference), and we don’t need more of it.  Fighting about things like money and power means that the church is focused internally on itself and not focused externally and is focused on earthly things and not heavenly things.

When the church is not focused externally, then it can’t be in mission and ministry to the world, which is a good portion of the church’s reason for existence.  When the church is stuck thinking solely about earthly and not heavenly things, then it can’t be an effective worshiping community, which is most of the rest of the church’s reason for existence.  And if the church isn’t in mission and isn’t a worshiping community, then it has effectively stopped to be the church, no matter what the name on the incorporation papers say.

Therefore, to do ministry together and to worship communally, which are the reasons for the church’s existence, there must be something more holding the church together than just polity.  In the next two weeks, I’ll look at some ideas as to what else might provide that basis of unity.


renewable energy monitor posted on December 12, 2011 at 3:35 am

Under capitalism man exploits man under socialism the reverse is true.

Lynda posted on November 27, 2012 at 11:02 pm

thank u for speaking in PLAIN ENGLISH, and not the methodist jargon, which even though i am united methodist, i very often dont know WHAT is being said !

Roger posted on February 11, 2016 at 11:41 pm

If the word of God is Truth, why are we so governed by this Book of Discipline? As a new member of the United Methodist Church, coming out of a non-denominational church that teaches from the Word of God. I’m reading deeper into the Book of Discipline and a question continues to enter my mind. Why is this book so needed for uplifting the Kingdom of God? I mean, is not the Bible the infallible, according to 2Peter 1:19, word of God..? I ask this question to hopefully get a clear understanding…

David Scott posted on February 12, 2016 at 11:19 am

Thanks for question. United Methodists affirm both that “The Holy Scripture contains all things necessary to our salvation” and that the Bible is “the true rule and guide for faith and practice.” Official United Methodist teaching is that anything not in the Bible is not essential to salvation.
United Methodists would, however, I think make a distinction between those things that are necessary to salvation and those things necessary to structure the common life of a denominational organization. It’s not a matter of salvation what the standards for ordination are or how pensions should be administered or what committees should exist in a local church, but it is important to the functioning of churches as human organizations, both at the local level and especially at what United Methodists would call the connectional level – the larger groupings of local churches that make up the United Methodist Church as a whole.
That’s where the Book of Discipline comes in. It’s not intended to replace the Bible or to add additional requirements for salvation, but it is intended to help United Methodists live with one another in the structure of the church on our mutual path toward salvation.

Joan bland posted on April 11, 2017 at 3:22 pm

Thank you so very much for putting into words my very unspoken thoughts…through much turmoil I’ve struggled with the issues of our faith or do I leave an apostate church. Yet these last days most churches have strayed from
The pure faith of the word of God. Therefore we depend on The Holy Spirit and people like you to tell us like it is, God Bless You!

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