Unite the Two So Long Disjoined: Doctrine & #UMC Vitality

“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?”
From his perspective as leader of the Methodist movement, Wesley goes on to name three ways in which Christianity can self-destruct: First, a lack of doctrine, of basic Christian teaching; secondly, lack of discipline; finally, a lack of humility and self-denial.  For Wesley, if Christ is truly preached (doctrine), and the Christian life is ordered towards full salvation (discipline), the only hindrance to the church’s effectiveness is her refusal to take up the cross.  He is vexed at the state of his movement, for he believes they excel in the first two but have neglected the third:
“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:

  1. What to teach
  2. How to teach
  3. How to regulate doctrine, discipline, and practice
Christian proclamation – what Wesley referred to as “offering Christ” – is central to the work of the Wesleyan revival and intimately connected to the whole of Christian living.  We are even told that Wesley and his fellow preachers spent two days of the first conference discussing doctrine:
“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.


11 thoughts on “Unite the Two So Long Disjoined: Doctrine & #UMC Vitality

  1. Thank you Drew for an insightful and timely post.
    Wesley understood the problem to be that Christians, particularly Methodist, had doctrine and discipline but failed to take action. While that can be argued as truth today, I perceive the issue to be more involved. My personal experience the past 12 years has been that some churches are about action with out an undergirding of doctrine or discipline, performing good deeds without the Holy Spirit as catalyst. Other churches are great at teaching doctrine, but fail to instill or hold to discipline so that effective ministry can take place or they misinterpret discipline creating a barrier between the church and the world. Then we have doctrine warriors who are no longer able to burn people at the stake so they try to publicly denigrate and vilify opposing views. Jesus said Christians would be known by our love, our love of God and our love of people. “Doctrine, Discipline, and Deliverence are bound and sustained by love,” is how and old preacher shared it with me. The key is they must be bound together, inseparable from from one another.

  2. Great post, Drew! I agree 100%. I would advocate for your recipe for renewal, namely: doctrinal reinvigoration (teaching and preaching), discipline (small groups, accountability, spiritual practices), and humble ministry (living out of #1 and #2 in relation to the needs of the community).

  3. This article is on target and very applicable today in the area of church health where we are looking to everything, mainly family systems theory, for help but looking to theology and the Bible.

    In my article on the role of doctrine and church health, I quote a United Church of Christ author, Anthony B. Robison, who wrote in his book, What’s Theology Got to Do with it? : Convictions, Vitality, and the Church, ” “By and large, congregational health seemed, to judge by the literature, not to match much with either the core convictions of the Christian faith, theology or the Bible” (3).”

    I also quote Princeton Theological Seminary’s professor, Ellen Charry,”“I am increasingly realizing that a number of our ministerial students have no ecclesiology to speak of. For them the church is a voluntary no-for-profit organization run like a local franchise” (201).” from her chapter “Sacramental Ecclesiology,” in The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier.

    In contrast to the number of books about church health, there are only about 4 or 5 that approach church health from a theological/biblical perspective. And we, as United Methodists say we believe that Scripture is primary among, tradition, reason and experience?

    It is of interest to note that when the early church fathers wrote to various churches about their issues, like Clement of Rome writing to the Corinthians, that they quote the various apostles and in this case Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. That should tell us something from early Christian tradition.

    More from my article on the role of doctrine and church health can be found @ http://bachdevelopment.com/bach77.html.

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