Is Methodism a sheltered bird?

One of the purposes of doctrine is to divide — and there was nothing for the Church of England to divide itself from. England was insulated from the factors which made doctrine so significant a matter on the mainland of Europe in the Reformation and immediate post-Reformation periods.

This quote from Alister McGrath‘s highly readable and interesting book Reformation Thought: An Introduction offers his explanation for why doctrine and doctrinal disputes were never as important to the English Reformation as they were on the continent, where Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Reformed theologians found themselves locked in continuous doctrinal debate.

It may be part of the reason why we United Methodists find doctrine such a delicate subject. We spring from Anglican roots. Even the Lutheranism that has been grafted into us is a non-doctrinal Pietism. We did not arise as a movement seeking to change the church’s doctrine and theology. We do not relish tales of university professors hammering theological treatises to church doors. We do not celebrate the publication of massive tomes of systematic theology. We sing hymns and speak of heart warming experiences.

And this may be part of our challenge today.

We are not living in the sheltered world of Elizabethan England, where the crown eliminates the need for doctrinal clarity by forbidding rival religions and shunning public atheism. We are not on the frontier of America where doctrine does not matter as much as a good horse. We are not in mainline America where everyone is a Christian and the liquor stores all close on Sunday morning.

Is it possible that Methodism is by its nature a sheltered bird that struggles in the buffet and tumult of doctrinal storms?


12 thoughts on “Is Methodism a sheltered bird?

  1. Not Methodism by its nature, but too many of its “leaders” seem to think that they are in a protected greenhouse. So, we pursue ecumenicalism to the nth degree and weaken our ability to distinguish ourselves from other religions. We try to be everyone to everybody and too often don’t appeal to anybody. We certainly have something to say different than the Calvinists–grace being available to everybody if they accept it is appealing. We have something different than the Catholics–a polity that even at its worst gives laity more authority than most other religions. We do have a worldwide connection–we are the only denomination that is worldwide, does not have an absolute ruler and (mostly) agrees to be governed by a General Conference representative of the whole connection. But, if leaders continue to ignore the reasons for a lack of trust in the pews then not only will we fail to bring in new members but we will lose the older ones even faster than the Lord brings them Home.

  2. “We are not on the frontier of America where doctrine does not matter as much as a good horse.”

    What kind of doctrine matters? Of course doctrine matters and always has, but what kind? The phrase “sound doctrine” brandied about by every tom dick and heresy hunter comes from the pastorals, not Romans or Galatians, and this is extremely significant. What is sound doctrine? In 1st Timothy Paul says “The Law is good, if a man use it lawfully, knowing that the Law is not for righteous men but for sinners, for manstealers and murderers, fornicators, etc. and for anyone who commits anything else that is contrary to *sound doctrine*” — so what is sound doctrine then? The Trinity? Nope — its morality. Again in Titus, Paul charges Titus to teach “the things that are fitting for sound doctrine” and what are they things? “Teach the older men to be grave, he young men to be sober, etc.”

    Yes, doctrine matters, but moral doctrine matters more than convoluted dogmatics. That has always been and always will be the case.

    1. I don’t follow your argument. Are you saying that because Paul did not talk of the word doctrine in Romans that the letter tells us nothing about doctrine? Forgive me if I misunderstand your point. I’ve not heard what you are writing before.

      1. I’m saying “Sound doctrine” is solid moral teaching, not the metaphysics of the creed or the scatter-brained soteriology of Westminster. The church that focuses on morality is better than the one focusing on all that crap. But of course in order to be able to focus on morality you must first slay the Leviathan that is Calvinism. If its true the Methodist church is dying, and has rejected its own anti-Calvinist message, then that is very sad because it would spell a coming dark age of immorality, unless someone else picks up the slack. But I have confidence someone else will pick up the slack. There will be a remnant who cares to teach morality and free will and oppose the Calvinists and Gaydaists both with vigor.

        1. Thank you for helping me understand your point.

          It sounds like we differ a little here. I don’t see this as either/or. I think morality is necessary to holiness, but I don’t think that makes doctrine about the Trinity and salvation a load of crap. Indeed, to teach morality but not teach people how the Holy Spirit empowers us to actually be moral invites some deep problems.

        2. To say that we must be enabled by some magic zapping before we can live morally is Gnosticism. Jesus said “I came not to call the righteous [to repentance] but sinners to repentance,” not “I came to provide you a magic zapping that will enable you to repent.” So the reality, you’re just another Calvinist. No wonder the Methodist church is dying. Your rejection of Calvinism was never real to begin with.

  3. I’ve noticed two trends that reflect this unwillingness to reflect theologically:

    1) A few years ago our church held an effort to build “worship teams” of similar age/demographic members. We hosted a group at our house. None of the members who came had been “Methodist.” They all grew up or subscribed to other traditions, mainly Calvinist or evangelical, and had chosen our church because the location and service time were the most convenient for them in the area, and they “liked the preacher OK.” Respectfully, I’m not sure any of them were conversant with even the most basic tenets of Methodism and the church makes only the most modest effort to instruct them; the new member meetings are primarily about its ministries.

    2) I’m in a men’s bible study group that studies “popular” Christian books. It’s a mixed group of both Calvinist and Arminian denominations. I’ve volunteered to select the last two books and it’s difficult if not impossible to find books by Methodists in general circulation. So many of the books available or set up for study are by Calvinists or Baptists (or both) like MacArthur, Piper, Keller, Willard or the prosperity gospel group. Many of them are fine works, but it would appear that we have ceded significant “mindshare” of American Christians to other denominations.

    If doctrine doesn’t matter, then why do we have it? And why not teach it? If “convenient service time and location” is the most compelling thing we have to offer then we should close up shop now rather than endure a few more decades of steady decline and put our church out of its misery. If instead we stand for something then we should not be afraid of it, and not be afraid to talk to people about it.

    1. Good questions. Our at least ones that resonate with me. The old saying was you could be a Methodist and believe anything. Perhaps that spirit suppresses interest in popular works about doctrine.

      1. Are we really Unitarians then? I don’t think so.
        In a previous post John, you delineated many ways in which Methodism is distinctive – of course we should be joyful and aware of and taught these qualities. And Wesley was no ‘sheltered bird’. He weathered quite a few storms.
        But what did he say? – you featured it – “I love, strictly speaking, no opinion at all. I trample upon opinion, be it right or wrong. I want, I value, I preach, the love of God and man.”
        This does not sound like a man who relishes ideological or theological battle, which quite often is fueled by prideful ego alone.
        There is a charm and beauty to Methodist simplicity. A Bible and a good horse, hymns and heartwarming experiences. The love of God and man.

  4. As Txcon said above, respectfully, many Methodists don’t know a whole lot about Methodism. While I agree that the bigger issue should be a focus upon “the church universal” rather than ” the Methodist Church,” I also feel the lack of intentionality about choosing to be a Methodist. I grew up in the Southern Baptist Church, the son of a Southern Baptist pastor, but I very intentionally chose to become a United Methodist and pursue ministry in this denomination. There is this assumption, especially in small a southeastern towns, that “we went to the Baptist Church or the Methodist Church…they were across the street from each other and they are the same thing anyway.” No, they are not, respectfully. I hope it is possible to embrace all who come through our doors, but rediscover what makes us uniquely Methodist/Wesleyan.

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