One faith, different understandings
A United Methodist thinks
Ed. Note: This is a revision of the article published in the May-June 2017 print issue of Interpreter.
Study 12.5-plus million United Methodists and you will learn:
- Some grew up in congested cities and others in isolated rural villages in at least 120 countries, experiencing different languages and cultures.
- Some don’t give a thought to having water and electricity; others can’t imagine their easy availability.
- They read and hear Scripture from a myriad of translations and paraphrases.
- Some are “cradle” United Methodists; others are partners in marriages looking for a bridge between their differing childhood faith traditions; some decided to try church for the first time and found a home.
- Some experience Christ in the homeless person with whom they are sharing a meal; others feel closest to God when in prayer as the day begins or ends.
With those five factors alone, is it any wonder that United Methodists who adhere to the core tenets of the Christian faith also differ in their understandings of particular Scripture passages and teachings? Do those differences have to be sources of division?
Diverse thinking – strength or weakness?
The Rev. Tamara Lewis, assistant professor of Christian history at Perkins School of Theology, sees the multiple views of United Methodists as ground zero for missional creativity, theological strength and social justice influence. “The core of United Methodism even going back to Wesley is unity in diversity.”
In recent years, what they hold in common has brought “very different Methodists together,” says Lewis. Such groups share the hope that “within United Methodism and Pan-Methodism is a realization of our fundamental unity and doctrine in the Wesleyan spirit,” Lewis said.
On the other hand, the Rev. Kevin Watson, assistant professor of Wesleyan and Methodist studies at Candler School of Theology, believes “our theological diversity has led to profound theological incoherence and is a major liability, not a source of strength. Every denomination connected to John Wesley and Methodism is represented in the United Methodist denomination,” he says. United Methodist Christians are rooted in mainline Protestantism, the Holiness Movement and everything in between.
“Diversity is an honorable word, but I think Christians have more engaging words, like love, like compassion, like go into all the world,” says Bishop William Willimon, now teaching at Duke Divinity School.
“I am an historian,” says Morris Davis of Drew University School of Theology. “As I understand and have written about unity among Methodists, there has always been – in every era – a quest for unity.”
“Plenty of historical artifacts unite Methodists,” Davis says. “All United Methodists claim John Wesley and his writings. They claim the common music. They claim the Articles of Religion.”
Who are United Methodists?
So how might one describe United Methodist Christians?
“First we are Christians in the deep catholic sense,” says Watson. “We believe things that Christians have believed for 2,000 years.”
While known for their openness doctrinally, Lewis says, United Methodists do agree with “the core teachings of the Christian faith with regard to the Trinity, the divinity of Christ, to our basic understanding of sacraments – baptism and the Eucharist – and the particular Methodist understanding of the role of grace in the way of salvation."
“Wesley was able to sit down at the table with Calvinists, with Eastern Orthodox leaders – who clearly had a different understanding of church life – but those core understandings of the way of salvation, the oneness of God, these things that all make us core Christians – were there,” she continues.
Watson says, “The Methodist movement is a gift to the body of Christ, oriented around the idea that growth and faith happen in community, especially in small groups. We are people who gather to watch over one another in love.
“The second part of it is our basically wanting to spread the emphasis on entire sanctification. It’s radical optimism that complete transformation by God is possible in this life.”
“Wesley affirmed the catholic spirit which was unity in regard to the essentials and the agreement to disagree with regard to nonessentials,” Lewis says. “In other words, the differences in particular aspects of theology, aspects of certain worship differences and practices and a narrow understanding of the faith do not break that essential unity.”
Lewis believes theological differences on questions of homosexual leadership in the church or other interpretations and understandings of Scripture “do not have to divide Methodism as in splitting the church institutionally. I don’t think these questions have to make or break us if we follow Wesley’s lead.”
Soon after the 1968 union creating The United Methodist Church, theologian Albert Outler and others began likening the denomination to a “big tent” – an image some church leaders are again offering in the midst of controversy.
Watson finds the image problematic. “We keep moving the tent poles as wide as we have to make sure that anyone who is part of it or wants to be part of it can be,” he says. He finds that “neither a source of strength nor faithful to our Wesleyan heritage. I believe that for Wesley unity was the product of a firm commitment to a particular set of beliefs and practice (doctrines and discipline). Wesley would not, and we should not, put institutional unity above a particular understanding of ‘holiness of heart and life.’”
Watson adds, “A lack of agreement on core unifying doctrines leads to an emphasis on unity that is shallow and superficial, emphasizing niceness and institutional preservation, even though there is no concrete way to make progress on the areas where there is theological disagreement.”
While Willimon would agree The United Methodist Church is diverse, he says, it’s not as diverse as “Jesus orders us to be. We flunk in reference to the Gospel. I think a lot of our current debate could be improved if we were more obedient to Jesus and reaching out to all.”
At the same time Davis sees an on-going quest for unity in the church, he also finds historical precedent for the today’s disagreements.
“(United) Methodists now are stuck in a battle over the fundamental nature of Scripture and our fundamental differences (over) how to interpret it, and therefore the nature of Christianity,” Davis says. “It’s not all unlike the fundamentalist-modernist differences of 100 years ago.”
An approach to helping United Methodists interpret Scripture and think through tough questions of life theologically came in the mid-1960s when Outler introduced “The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” While earlier systems typically relied on Scripture, tradition and reason, Outler added experience to the factors.
“Outler intended the quadrilateral to be a means of providing a kind of unity,” says Watson. “There has been kind of a sense that Methodists chose to use this as a common method of theological reflection.
So what role does the quadrilateral play today in United Methodist life and debate on difficult topics including homosexuality in the United States and polygamy in some African countries?
Watson’s critique “of the quadrilateral is it has become a way of saying, ‘We’re saying this because we’re using the quadrilateral so we are right.’ We’re united because we’re using the same process, but we’re coming up with different answers.”
“I’m with those who say the notion of the quadrilateral may be questionable,” Willimon says. Of greater value “is to try to search the Scriptures and argue about the meaning of them. As (United) Methodists, I would stress more Wesley’s practical theology.”
United Methodists who worry over the impact of social change and cultural influences on church life disturb Willimon. “Cultural differences are really powerful. In practice, they are probably more powerful than our theologies or biblical interpretations. But for Christians that’s not the end of the story,” he says.
“Individual Christians need to get ready to have their opinions challenged. Being from South Carolina, I say I’m really glad that the Gospel challenged my culture.”
“A belief is only really interesting as it is put into practice by believers. For Wesleyans, it should not be so much that we come up with a unified position but that we practice love with one another, holy listening, being willing to be changed in the conversation, being able to see things through our fellow Christians’ eyes,” Willimon says.
So, who are United Methodists today? We are a community of Christians who are different from one another in some significant ways – including how we approach and understand Scripture, how we think theologically. That reality offers opportunities and presents obstacles as we look to the future; that reality calls us to prayer and trust that whatever the future of United Methodism, Christ goes before us.
Veteran religion writer Cecile S. Holmes teaches at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications.