George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine has me thinking about the challenge United Methodists face in articulating our doctrine. (For a good post about this problem, see Kevin Watson’s latest thoughts on the UMC.)
Here is how Lindbeck defines doctrine:
Church doctrines are communally authoritative teachings regarding beliefs and practices that are considered essential to the identity or welfare of the group in question. They may be formally stated or informally operative, but in any case they indicate what constitutes faithful adherence to a community. To disagree with Methodist, Quaker, or Roman Doctrine indicates that one is not a “good” Methodist, Quaker, or Roman Catholic.
Don’t shout “amen” or curse Lindbeck yet. What is important for those of us who want to understand United Methodist doctrine is the next part of Lindbeck’s analysis.
Someone who opposes pacificism, for example, will not be regarded as fully what a member of the Society of Friends should be. If this conclusions in not drawn, it is evident that the belief has ceased to be communally formative, and it is therefore no longer an operational doctrine even though it may continue to be a formal or official one.
Like many United Methodists, I encounter many official doctrines that seem have a doubtful existence as operational doctrines in the UMC. Upon discerning my call to ministry, for instance, I foolishly thought that reading up on the theological standards in the Book of Discipline and reading John Wesley’s sermons would help me understand UM doctrine. Instead, it has led me to wonder what it takes to get a person kicked out of the UMC. At least I have the comfort of knowing Lindbeck agrees that is a question that helps define the actual doctrines of a church.
Some people do not like defining doctrine in negative terms. Lindbeck argues it is unavoidable. Doctrines, he writes, are almost always understood more easily in terms of what they oppose because they tend to be formulated in the midst of controversy.
He also argues, continuing the last quotation above, that doctrine is necessary.
In any case, operative doctrines, even if not official ones, are necessary to communal identity. A religious body cannot exist as a recognizably distinct collectivity unless it has some beliefs and/or practices by which it can be identified.
To this I say, “Amen.”
In the face of United Methodist realities, though, I am left by my own “Amen” with the question that has dogged me for years now. What is United Methodist doctrine? Do we have any?
Or to revisit my question from above: What will get you kicked out of the denomination? If Lindbeck is right, the answer to that question will establish the content of actual, operational United Methodist doctrine.
This strikes me as an empirical question rather than a theoretical one. All we need to do is find out who has been kicked out of the UMC and/or who has been prevented from joining it and discover why. This will begin to give us a picture of what our doctrine actually is.