‘Those who follow the Discipline are called Methodists’

Former bishop of my conference Woodie White writes a fascinating peek into Methodist (pre-UM) history and the lesson he learned about the power of Methodist polity. Yes, polity.

Here is the grabbing paragraph near the beginning for white guys like me who were born as the great battles of the Civil Rights era were being won.

White writes of a 1963 meeting with a pastor of a segregationist Methodist church.

The pastor’s congregation, sadly, like a number of Methodist congregations at the time, had voted that no black people would be welcomed or admitted to public worship.

White recounts the exchange in which he read from the Social Creed of the Methodist Episcopal Church and part of the Book of Resolutions. The white pastor announced that he was not compelled to follow those because they are not church law. White asked whether he would follow such pronouncements if they were the law of the church. The pastor said he would.

White reflects:

The conversation with a pastor who would be willing (however reluctantly) to change a way of life, traditions and long-held views because the Methodist Church through its polity commanded that he go another way, was compelling to me. I began to see the power and potential of using polity for good, and silently vowed to employ it to encourage what I considered a true expression of the gospel, consistent with the message and ministry of Jesus.

Our United Methodist polity has been much under discussion and debate in the last several months, as a result of General Conference actions and Judicial Council decisions. To be sure, as from the early days of the church, Christians often differ as to what is in fact consistent with Christ’s teachings in the Gospels.

But United Methodism has a self-correcting polity. Every four years we open the Book of Discipline and seek to express in it what we believe is the best and clearest expression of Christ in contemporary society.

Sometimes we get it right. And sometimes, many believe, we get it wrong. I pray that as United Methodism continues to engage in the quest to find a “better way,” we remember that what “connects our Connection” is our polity, through the Book of Discipline.

One might say: Those who follow Jesus are called Christians, those who follow Wesley are called Wesleyans, and those who follow the Discipline are called Methodists.


5 thoughts on “‘Those who follow the Discipline are called Methodists’

  1. Thanks for sharing this John. However, I must say I’m very puzzled by the last sentence. It seems to imply that following the Book of Discipline is more important to Methodists than following Jesus. My hope is that one cannot follow the Discipline without following Jesus; the two should be synonymous. Frankly, given some of what the Discipline says, I’d much rather follow Jesus.

  2. Polity?
    White is right when he says, “sometimes we get it wrong”..

    “Methodist churches around the country promoted the American Eugenics Society “Fitter Family Contests” wherein the fittest families were invariably fair skinned and well off. Methodist bishops endorsed one of the first books circulated to the US churches promoting eugenics”

    “The liberal Rev. Harry F. Ward, professor of Christian ethics and a founder of the Methodist Federation for Social Service, writing in Eugenics, the magazine of the American Eugenic Society, said that Christianity and Eugenics were compatible because both pursued the “challenge of removing the causes that produce the weak.”

    “Thirty-three US States eventually passed laws authorizing sterilization of criminals, the mentally ill, the “feeble minded”, Sterilization of the allegedly mentally ill continued into the 1970s in several states, by which time about 60,000 Americans had been involuntarily sterilized.”


  3. It is a shame on all Methodists that some, especially in leadership positions, receiving pay or pensions, advocate defiance of the discipline. If they believe that their faith leads them to be un-disciplined, then they should renounce their vows and not expect United Methodists to contribute to their support.

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