Methodist preaching is orthodox

I’m told the first point I want to make about the faith a Methodist preaches is no longer controversial.

Ten or twenty years ago, I’m told, yes. But not now.

There was a time when you did not struggle to find a Methodist preacher — or a bishop — who openly questioned foundational doctrines of the Christian church. It was not infrequent to hear a sermon on Easter that quibbled with whether it really mattered in the end if Jesus really rose from the grave.

I’m told those days are over, that the generation of clergy who questioned the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the divinity of Jesus are no longer among us. That such preaching ever happened from our pulpits still staggers my imagination.

And yet, I can start no other place than to say clearly that Methodist preaching, the faith we preach, is orthodox. It holds to and affirms the creedal formulations laid down in the early centuries of the church. It preaches the Trinitarian God. It preaches the resurrection. It looks forward to the return of Christ and the present work of the Holy Spirit.

Let me outline a couple of particular things this entails.

First, Methodists preach that there is one God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Other descriptions of God can be well meaning, but they are mistaken. They may not be vicious or malicious in their error, but they are in error. To argue that there is no Son or that the Holy Spirit is not fully God is to be wrong about who God is. To put it plainly: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist, pagans of various stripes, and all who do not name God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are fundamentally in error about God. Methodist preaching can be gracious toward other religions, but it cannot say that all ways of talking about God are equally true.

Second, Methodists preach that our salvation is necessary, that sin must be forgiven, and that there is a judgment coming. I will write more about this when I turn to discuss the ways in which Methodist preaching is evangelical, but it should be recognized that the importance of salvation, the problem of sin, and reality of judgment were not ideas invented in the Protestant and evangelical revivals. It is all plainly affirmed in the Bible and the creeds.

While you may struggle to find Methodist clergy who deny the resurrection, or carefully avoid affirming it, you still can find quite a few who hold to some form of universalism — a belief that either there is no Hell or that it will be empty. You can still find Methodist preachers who speak dismissively or not at all about our sin and our need for forgiveness. Such preachers at times will proudly assert that they are not evangelicals. What is really at question is whether they are even orthodox.

There is much more that can be said about what orthodoxy entails and what it does not. Even these two points bear much more discussion than is suitable in a blog post. But this, at least, is a starting point. The faith we preach as Methodists is orthodox. It is in keeping with the grand and central doctrines of the church handed down through the centuries. When preaching ceases to be orthodox, it ceases to be Methodist.

The faith we preach

My previous post stated my desire and intention to preach the faith of the church. Let me share some of what I believe that means for a Methodist preacher. This is a short post since my days have been very full the last two weeks. I will try to develop each of these points more in the coming weeks.

The faith Methodist elders are called to preach is fed by several streams.

First, it is orthodox.

Second, it is evangelical.

Third, it is Arminian.

Fourth, it is Spirit-filled.

In the coming days and weeks, I will return to these four and sketch out in more detail what each means and which elements are crucial to being a faithful preacher in the Methodist tradition. I welcome your thoughts, questions, and comments until then.

Preaching the faith of the church

Early in the process of discerning my call to ministry, I came to the conviction that the call of a member of the clergy in the United Methodist Church was to preach the faith of the church.

This conviction is not an easy one to hold to in the UMC for a couple of reasons.

First, it is not easy to hold because a large number of fairly vocal clergy leaders in the UMC advocate something else. It is quite easy to find clergy arguing that the task of the preacher is to preach their own struggles, their own doubts, their own truth. Such advice is usually given the name of being “authentic.”

I understand the appeal. I was an English major in college. I have written and read poetry. I’ve written and read personal essays about doubt and struggle. I’ve read Hamlet. I can sing many pop songs. I once cried after watching Dead Poets Society.

I am not saying preachers never struggle or doubt, but I don’t think they are called to do that while leading worship on Sunday morning. I do not believe our ordination as elders authorizes us to read Scripture out loud from the lectern and then declare from the pulpit, “I’m not really sure if I agree with what the Bible says about God here.”

Again, please hear what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying the Bible is always easy to interpret. I’m not trying to deny the existence of differences of interpretation among various traditions within the church. I’m not saying there are no controversies within the church over the meaning of Scripture.

I am merely saying that while standing in the pulpit — or on the stage of a worship center — the task of the preacher is to preach the faith of the church. They are not there to present a lecture on the history of controversy over a passage. They are not there to give us a tour of their own emotional or intellectual struggles with Scripture. There are places to do both those things. Sunday morning is not that place. Elders are called and ordained by the church to preach the faith of the church.

Which brings me to the second problem.

An elder or local pastor who sets out in ministry with the intention of preaching the faith of the church quickly discovers in the UMC that it is difficult to identify what our faith is. I had this very problem as I was first discerning my call.

Early in my process of discernment, I turned to the Book of Discipline and found our doctrinal standards. As quickly as I read over the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, however, I noticed that a lot of things described there were openly questioned or dismissed by some of the preachers and leaders in the UMC.

In my search, I also began to read the sermons, journals, and letters of John Wesley. Doing so only deepened my sense of disconnect between what our Discipline claimed to be our doctrinal standards and what I heard preached and taught in United Methodist churches. When I spoke of this sense of disconnect with some elders, they made jokes about Wesley.

For better or worse, in my process of discernment of my call, I came to the conviction that if I were to be a Methodist preacher, I should preach Wesleyan Methodism. Conveniently for me, as I delved more deeply into Wesleyan theology, I found that I quite agreed with John Wesley that the movement the Holy Spirit stirred up around Wesley’s ministry was Scriptural Christianity. If I had come to the conclusion that Wesley was in error about the essentials of Christianity, I hope I would have had the integrity to say I am not called to be an elder in a church bearing the name Methodist.

Why do I share this?

I share this because being clear about my role as an elder in Methodism is the place where I can make a difference in the church in this age of struggle. As United Methodism goes through the wrenching process of division into two or more new churches, lots of decisions need to be made and will be made. Almost all of them will be made by people other than me.

I am not in those rooms or part of those conversations, nor do I expect to be. But I am in a pulpit. I’ve been given a yoke to do ministry. The best way I can contribute to the future vitality of this movement of the Holy Spirit called Methodism is to be a Methodist preacher. I see no other way to do that with integrity than to preach the faith of the church as set forth in our doctrinal standards. Yes, I will struggle and have questions, but on Sunday morning my job is to preach the faith as well as I can. May God give me the grace to never fail in this task.