A way to discover our doctrines

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.

6 thoughts on “A way to discover our doctrines

  1. It’s interesting the way you boil things down: “What will get you kicked out?” Is that the primary function of doctrine for you? I thought you were going to blog the lectionary over Lent.

    1. I was. Then I discovered that doing so was turning my Scripture study into public display. After three weeks, I found it counter-productive.

      As for the function of doctrine, if I follow Lindbeck, which this post is doing, its function is … well you can read the quotes above.

      The question “what will get you kicked out” may go too far, but it does provide a bright line for what is clearly a matter of essential shared possession to be a part of the communal activity known as United Methodism.

  2. The answer to the question, “What will get you kicked out of the United Methodist Church?” is, from a doctrinal perspective, nothing. After all, when a church practices open communion, it cannot excommunicate anyone. On the more important question of what would disqualify someone for spiritual leadership within the UMC, the empirical answer, from a doctrinal perspective, is “precious little”. As proof, I refer you to “Affirmations of a Dissenter” by Bishop Sprague, who retired in good standing. In fact, the only heresy that I know of that would probably disqualify someone for leadership in the UMC would be Republican party membership.

  3. I love Lindbeck. What he has to say is very important and gets to the heart of many of the problems in the UMC. I wrote the following as part of my paperwork during my ordination process. It’s a wonder I was ever ordained:

    George Lindbeck, in his important book, The Nature of Doctrine, defines “doctrine” as “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.” We in the United Methodist Church need to consider such a definition..

    Lindbeck makes an important point in stating that doctrine is “communally authoritative teachings.” The second part of this sentence is obvious – doctrines are “teachings regarding beliefs and practices.” Yet we need to understand they are “communally authoritative.” Another important point Lindbeck makes in this definition is that doctrine impacts both identity and practice of a community: “indicating what constitutes faithful adherence to a community.”

    In a culture which puts high value on individualism this is a problematic definition of doctrine. We, as individuals and as groups, have a difficult time agreeing upon and accepting this communal responsibility. We have been taught to prize our opinions (despite that fact that everyone has one) and autonomy. We do not respond well to hierarchy or authority. We, as humans, desire control, influence, and power. We don’t want someone else telling us “how it is” and “what is what.” Yet, for doctrine to be as effective as it is essential, submission to a communal understanding is crucial. This is part of the problem in the United Methodist Church, not that we lack good doctrine, but that we embrace individuals who refuse to hold them as communally authoritative.

    As a probationary elder in the UMC, in process for ordination, I am required to answer questions from our Book of Discipline about how I understand our doctrines. However, I refuse to answer by offering up “my opinion.” In the end, “my opinion” doesn’t really matter. What should be more important to those who decide my future as a pastor in this denomination is whether or not Chris Roberts, as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church, will uphold the communally authoritative teachings… essential to the identity and welfare of the United Methodist Church and our Wesleyan tradition. It should be the will of the Church at-large that I, as an ordained minister in the UMC, faithfully uphold that which “constitutes faithful adherence to the community.” I will teach and practice in the churches to which I am appointed less my opinions of various doctrines and more what our church holds as formally stated or informally operative doctrine. The good news is that “my opinions and beliefs” match the “doctrines” of the UMC (and if they don’t then I should not be permitted to continue in this ordination process).

    It confuses me that so many ordained clergy in our church have such strange opinions on matters of our doctrine. How they ever became ordained is beyond me… except that the people in charge also hold their personal opinions as more important than our doctrine. It is past time that the UMC review issues of doctrine and our clergy… all our clergy.

    1. Thank you for sharing that, Chris. Now that I am finally getting around to reading Lindbeck, I find him interesting as well.

      I am still working out the implications of his views, but by his definition our doctrine is quite tattered. When you have pastors who question the physical resurrection of Jesus, the meaning of the words “communally authoritative” become quite hard to define.

  4. This post and the comments sum up everything. I wish could add to it but I would be in over my head. This conversation needs to be had across TheUMC.

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