Scott Jones in his book United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center argues that the beating heart of UM doctrine is salvation. Our doctrine has as its purpose the salvation of the world.
But what is salvation?
John Wesley put it this way:
What is salvation? The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. It is not the soul’s going to paradise, termed by our Lord, “Abraham’s bosom.” It is not a blessing which lies on the other side death; or, as we usually speak, in the other world. The very words of the text itself put this beyond all question: “Ye are saved.” It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing; a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. Nay, the words may be rendered, and that with equal propriety, “Ye have been saved”: so that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul, till it is consummated in glory.
That consummation in glory also goes by the name perfection in Wesleyan theology.
It is thus that we wait for entire sanctification; for a full salvation from all our sins, –from pride, self-will, anger, unbelief; or, as the Apostle expresses it, “go unto perfection.” But what is perfection? The word has various senses: here it means perfect love. It is love excluding sin; love filling the heart, taking up the whole capacity of the soul. It is love “rejoicing evermore, praying without ceasing, in everything giving thanks.”
This Wesleyan understanding of salvation is much more personal and individual than much of our doctrine — as Jones describes it — would have you believe. Wesley’s saw the transformation of the world — which he termed spreading scriptural holiness — as arising out of the conversion of individual sinners.
United Methodist doctrine reflects Wesley’s views in much of what Jones calls the Constitutional Standards of doctrine. The Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the General Rules, and Wesley’s Sermons and Notes reflect very much Wesley’s view of salvation as the conversion and sanctification of individual sinners, which gives rise to the reformation of society.
It is in our Contemporary Statements of doctrine that United Methodist doctrine becomes more oriented toward social and political reformation. It is here that we find statements about tobacco, gambling, labor laws, energy policy, racism, environmentalism, sexual ethics, and many other topics. Our Social Principles and Book of Resolutions are the exemplars of this kind of doctrine, which is marked by the fact that any General Conference can change or rewrite it, although much of it has remained fairly consistent over time. The Constitutional Standards are not so easily changed.
So, the bedrock of United Methodist doctrine is the Wesleyan conception of and focus on the salvation of individuals. The purpose of doctrine is to help people move on to perfection in love, as described above. It is also, but secondarily, about the contemporary concerns with social and political issues that we might call the salvation of the world.
There is certainly tension between these two expressions of doctrine in the way Christians have historically envisioned the meaning of salvation and the work of the church. You can describe some of the divides in our church based on where they put their most focus — the Constitutional Standards or the Contemporary Statements, at least a subset of them.
For me, it is difficult to conceive of United Methodist doctrine that is not grounded first and foremost on those bedrock Constitutional Standards. I know my views on this are not shared universally, but it would be good for us to talk more carefully and explicitly about what we teach and the sources of those teachings.