I recently had a conversation with a faithful, active member of one of my congregations. He remarked that what attracted him to The United Methodist Church was its “soft sell.” When I asked him to elaborate, he talked about how the church doesn’t ask for too much commitment, and certainly doesn’t emphasize anything from the Bible that would make anyone uncomfortable. I’ve heard similar sentiments from family members (being the sole United Methodist- and clergy, no less – in a family of Baptists and non-denominationalists can make for some interesting conversation). My favorite quip was, “You Methodists use the Reader’s Digest Condensed version of the Bible.” Funny, yes; but, jokes often contain a kernel of truth. Perhaps that’s what makes them stick with us. And recently, while assisting with my jurisdiction’s local pastor licensing school, one student informed us – the teachers – along with the rest of the class that he absolutely didn’t believe in the deity of Jesus Christ. He then claimed that, since United Methodists value critical theological inquiry (and we do!), it was perfectly fine he hold to such a tenet. The lead teacher wisely informed him that she didn’t question his call to ministry, but, if he denied the deity of Jesus Christ, then The United Methodist Church wasn’t the place for him to live out that call.
A few years ago, while talking about the interfaith setting of Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show remarked that “Being a Methodist is easy. It’s like the University of Phoenix of religions: you just send them 50 bucks and click ‘I agree’ and you are saved.”
Well, that satirical bit from Stewart, funny as it may be, contains a lot of truth about the perception, both from outsiders AND from insiders, about “the people called Methodist.” Both Stephen Fife and David Watson, in their posts here, have talked a bit about what Billy Abraham, Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, has termed United Methodism’s “doctrinal amnesia,” or United Methodism’s loss of a robust doctrinal identity. How many United Methodists, lay and clergy, even know we have doctrinal standards, let alone what they say? (You can find them here). When I informed the local pastor student that Jesus Christ’s divinity is indeed a United Methodist doctrine, clearly elucidated in our doctrinal standards, his response was telling: “What doctrinal standards?” If our clergy don’t know our denomination’s doctrine, how can we expect them to faithfully lead and teach the flocks with whom they’ve been entrusted? Is it any wonder some of our laity think United Methodism is a “soft sell?” John Wesley himself wondered what would happen to the Methodist movement if doctrine, spirit, and discipline were lost (Kevin Watson has a marvelous treatment of that here. There are four parts; check out all of them).
So where does all of this leave those of us seeking a faithful Middle Way, a Via Media between the doctrinally-allergic and the rigid fundamentalists? The cartoon above tells, in my opinion, where many in our denomination are, and it begins to hint at the direction to which we are called. Far too much of United Methodism has been guilty of “Jesus is my friend” theology, the “soft sell” theology, the theology that makes us feel good. Yet, the natural conclusion of this theology is doctrinal vapidity and spiritual anemia. We must reclaim discipleship, along with its requisite discipline, which unites heart and head, social and personal holiness, “knowledge and vital piety”, as Charles Wesley termed it. Discipleship is imperative because it emphasizes both doctrine and ethics – or belief and behavior. What we believe about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, who we are, who our fellow human beings are, has a direct correlation to how we relate to God, ourselves, and those around us. It is impossible to separate doctrine and ethics, and to emphasize one over the other is to betray historic Wesleyanism. Orthodoxy – right belief – must meet orthopraxy – right practice. Otherwise, it’s all just so much noise. But I would argue that doctrine necessarily comes first. It is what keeps us anchored; it is what provides our identity; it is what connects us with the communion of saints, the “great cloud of witnesses,” the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”
So, as faithful United Methodists seek a way forward, perhaps we’d do well to first go back and rediscover who we are.