Friday, April 27, 2007

United Methodist Distinctives.

I grew up Presbyterian/Episcopalian/Baptist and recently I've realized that I am now Methodist to the very bone. Which makes me think a lot about what makes a Methodist or a United Methodist distinctive – what exactly is it that makes us who we are?

I know that the Book of Discipline states it as our theology of grace: From the 2004 BOD:

Although Wesley shared with many other Christians a belief in grace, justification, assurance, and sanctification, he combined them in a powerful manner to create distinctive emphases for living the full Christian life. The Evangelical United Brethren tradition, particularly as expressed by Phillip William Otterbein from a Reformed background, gave similar distinctive emphases.

Grace pervades our understanding of Christian faith and life. By grace we mean the undeserved, unmerited, and loving action of God in human existence through the ever-present Holy Spirit. While the grace of God is undivided, it precedes salvation as "prevenient grace," continues in "justifying grace," and is brought to fruition in "sanctifying grace."

We assert that God's grace is manifest in all creation even though suffering, violence, and evil are everywhere present. The goodness of creation is fulfilled in human beings, who are called to covenant partnership with God. God has endowed us with dignity and freedom and has summoned us to responsibility for our lives and the life of the world.

In God's self-revelation, Jesus Christ, we see the splendor of our true humanity. Even our sin, with its destructive consequences for all creation, does not alter God's intention for us—holiness and happiness of heart. Nor does it diminish our accountability for the way we live.

Despite our brokenness, we remain creatures brought into being by a just and merciful God. The restoration of God's image in our lives requires divine grace to renew our fallen nature.


Grace: prevenient, justifying and sanctifying. Grace AND Responsibility. Works AND faith. Nurture AND mission. Justification AND regeneration. Worship AND service. (This is what Rex Matthews likes to call Methodist Conjunctivitis.) But also backsliding -- a falling from grace. A commitment to the Kingdom of God that is in this world, causing a particular form of Social Gospel that is held hand in hand with individual salvation.

John Cobb in his book Grace and Responsibility states he believes the Methodist distinctive is four fold:
1. There is a transformation of heart and life by God; it is God’s continual work in us, that is a continual process.
2. There are teachings about the work of God in our lives, some support the transformation of life and others block it. Those teachings that block transformation of life are forbidden. (Salvation by works alone, for example.)
3. Yet there are those doctrines and theologies with which we disagree, but that does not mean that they cannot be held by authentic believers (real Christians): for Wesley and most Methodists an example would be predestination.
4. There are many teachings which we subscribe to that do not make much difference with regard of how we live our life (for Wesley, one example would be the Trinity). These teachings are indifferent.

With all this in mind, I wonder if what makes us distinctive is first our seemingly single-minded and rather stubborn insistence on being united. In talking with Dr. Rex Matthews yesterday, he expressed the opinion that it is our willingness to live in the tensions between our theological extremes that makes us distinctive – or stated in the way I would view it, our inclusivity. I hold strongly in the belief that only where there is tension is there real and substantive growth. Holding our extremes together only can make us stronger. The large majority of us (as the GC2004 vote on unity would show) don’t mind the extremes existing together; it is those very extremes that make us fruitful and strong.

Secondly, I think it is our method (hence Methodist). The extreme inclusivity with which we welcome anyone and everyone to the table (my shorthand for all of church, btw) for this very table is a powerful means of grace; prevenient, justifying and sanctifying. We exclude NONE. All are welcome to worship and commune with us; even if they do not believe as we do, even if they do not live as we do, even if they have committed civil crimes or criminal crimes. All are welcome into the presence of the Living and Redeeming God. If God cannot redeem the forger, the murderer, the abuser then who can? We cannot (that’s Donatism). Only by God’s grace are any of us welcome at his table.

Of course, it the person were an embezzler, we wouldn’t let him near the money. If she were a child abuser, we wouldn’t let her near the children. Wary as serpents and innocents as doves. (Matthew 10:16). But they are welcome to worship with us. Nor would we want them to continue in their sin; but we will not consign them automatically to hell. We are to be as Christ to those who sin; to proclaim a gospel of repentance and redemption – and then to hold them accountable in real love -- Christian love, agape love -- for their response to this gospel. How can they hear this message if we exclude them from our very presence? Will their reputation "rub off" on us? Why would this matter to us?

This is really more of an ethic – an ethos. I’ve been in discussions at Candler recently that have made me realize this radical form of inclusivity is an important part of the Methodist distinctive and rather chafing against it, let us rejoice in it.

1 comment:

Cheri said...

This is awesome!