One Sunday morning in my first appointment, I was shaking hands and one of the members (who split his time between our little United Methodist church and a large Baptist church down the road) wondered if I had been raised in a Baptist church. I informed him that I was a life-long Methodist and wondered why he asked. He said, “you preach like a Baptist!” I joked about taking it outside, though I did reflect on the exchange in the following days.
In my admittedly limited experience, “Methodist preaching” has accrued certain unhelpful stereotypes over the years. There have been healthy doses of pop psychology, bad poetry recitations, and specious theological claims not necessarily backed up by Scripture. There have surely been a lot of excellent sermons, but many United Methodist and other mainline sermons might likely be summed up by a word that stings in the ears of a preacher: “safe”. And honestly, I preach my share of “safe” sermons, too often finding myself blunting the edge of the truth God is calling me to proclaim. I do however make an effort in my sermons to stay very closely tethered to the text. If I’m not careful, my sermons can easily take the form of a lecture on the morning’s passage, so I also work hard to craft a sermon and not a “lesson”. My hunch is that my Baptist/Methodist parishoner noticed how closely I hew to the text and associated that more with his experience with “Baptist preaching” as opposed to “Methodist preaching”. This is in no way to cast aspersion on Methodist preachers, but it did get me thinking about how we as Christians in the Wesleyan tradition view and “use” Scripture. This is not only a homiletical question, but touches on pretty much every area of Christian ministry and practice. It’s an important question.
As United Methodists continue to talk (or not talk) about various weighty and potentially schismatic issues, always in the background is the question of the nature, interpretation, and ‘deployment’ of Scripture. In the context of the denomination’s ongoing struggle with the “issue” of homosexuality, I have heard several people claim that it all boils down to how we understand Scripture. I absolutely agree with this, though I disagreed with some of the conclusions some of these people were drawing based on their interpretations. In my experience, there seems to be little agreement about the role of Scripture in the life of the church or in the life of individual disciples. On the one side of the divide in our church, there are those who hold to a view of Scripture that is indistinguishable from a fundamentalist conservative view: inerrant, infallible, and literal. This is not indicative of every person on the conservative side of the spectrum, but is certainly true for a sizable number of people. On the other side, there are those who appear to not take Scripture seriously at all or whose reading of Scripture is so defined by political and ideological considerations that other considerations (discipleship, spiritual formation, ecclesiological concerns) seem to be crowded out. These two groups disagree fundamentally about Scripture and its role in the life of faithful believers.
I would argue that many people in both camps fail to actually take Scripture seriously or seek to understand it critically.
If we as United Methodists disagree fundamentally about the authority and role of Scripture, it is very possible that we will fail to find a way to move forward that does not result in fractures, splinters, and perhaps schism. We need to do some work on finding some things that we might actually agree upon when it comes to Scripture. In my next post, I present four starting points for seeking common ground.
Rev. Wesley Smith is the co-pastor of Harrisburg United Methodist Church in Harrisburg, NC. His primary interests are spending as much time as possible with his wife and two children as well as being in ministry with the people of Harrisburg. His other interests are the study and teaching of Scripture, with special focus on the letters of Paul and a continuing interest in Wesleyan/Methodist eschatology. He is a graduate of the Candler School of Theology (M.Div.) and Duke Divinity School (Th.M. in New Testament Studies).