“No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more constant than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living.” –UMC.org
Lately, Western Christians have been asking something that puzzled ‘Papa’ John Wesley long ago: Why are we so ineffective? Reflecting on Jeremiah’s grief in looking for “a balm in Gilead,” Wesley asks about the effectiveness of the church in his day in Sermon 116, “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity“:
“I would seriously inquire, Why has Christianity done so little good in the world? Is it not the balm, the outward means, which the great Physician has given to men, to restore their spiritual health? Why then is it not restored?”
“To bring the matter closer still. Is not scriptural Christianity [read: doctrine] preached and generally known among the people commonly called Methodists? Impartial persons allow it is. And have they not Christian discipline too, in all the essential branches of it, regularly and constantly exercised? Let those who think any essential part of it is wanting, point it out, and it shall not be wanting long. Why then are not these altogether Christians, who have both Christian doctrine and Christian discipline?”
This is a crucial point for two reasons. First, this helps to explain why the recovery of a humble and irrelevant church is likely a key to renewal, as Evan Rohrs-Dodge has suggested. Secondly, it shows the central position that Christian teaching (aka doctrine) had for John Wesley and the early Methodists.
To put it another way: we are beginning Annual Conference season in the United Methodist world. Across the denomination, clergy and lay representatives will gather to do the work of the church: to vote on budgets and ordain, to celebrate, to equip, to worship, and fellowship together. The first such Conference was held in 1744, and they determined to focus on three matters:
- What to teach
- How to teach
- How to regulate doctrine, discipline, and practice
“For two days they conversed on such vital doctrines as the Fall, the Work of Christ, Justification, Regeneration, Sanctification.”
It’s difficult to imagine a single Annual Conference session on doctrine these days, let alone one or two full days.
On my reading of John Wesley’s priorities, I find that difficult to defend.
At least in today’s UMC and most of the mainline (and I would add in most of Protestantism), the basics of Christian doctrine are little known and seldom taught. Most Methodists I know can’t even articulate grace as prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying. How can we neglect this? It’s easy to dismiss doctrine as something not relevant to people’s lives; preaching doctrine doesn’t have the pizazz of a marriage series or something about raising children. But how can we possibly know how to follow Jesus as a parent or spouse without knowing who Jesus is? How can we justify ignoring doctrine if we don’t know what justification is? I see little reason to pursue brain surgery if we have yet to master the anatomy chart.
I realize doctrine isn’t everything. Wesley didn’t think so, and neither do I. However, doctrine – basic Christian teaching on who God is and what salvation looks like – has been so ignored that we can no longer pronounce that arena is taken care of, as John Wesley did, or assume it is old news and thus irrelevant. In fact, to place the contemporary UMC in conversation with Sermon 116, we care little for doctrine, discipline is little more than a name on a book we sometimes read, and are so far from self-denial we are still clinging to the trappings of Christendom.
Doctrine is a necessary but not sufficient quality for any Wesleyan revival within the body called the United Methodist Church. Then as now, the need is for us to articulate and hold to these central questions: What do we teach? How do we teach it? And how do hold each other accountable to Wesleyan doctrine, discipline, and practice?
Without such recovery, we will become more and more the “dead sect” that John Wesley feared, more akin to the church that the early Methodists left behind than the doctrinally sound, practically concerned, and holistically (but rigorously) disciplined movement known as the Wesleyan Revival.