What Do Methodists Believe (Part II)

By Thomas Lambrecht –

A recent survey by United Methodist Communications indicated 44 percent of grassroots United Methodists consider themselves theologically conservative/traditional. At the same time, 28 percent identified as moderate/centrist and 20 percent as progressive/liberal.

In a previous blog, I examined the implications of this finding. Last week I delved more deeply into specific beliefs United Methodists hold about Jesus Christ, who is the center of our faith. Today, I want to look at some other Christian doctrines and what United Methodists believe about them.

The Bible

What do United Methodists believe about the Bible? The survey posed a number of statements about the Bible, from which respondents had to choose one. Three of the statements emphasized the divine origin of Scripture, with different levels of trust in the specifics:

  • “The Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally.”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God with no errors, some verses symbolic.”
  • “The Bible is the inspired word of God with some factual or historic errors.”

Traditionalists were nearly equally divided between these three statements (30, 28, and 30 percent). Moderates decisively preferred the third statement (47 percent), while 15 percent approved the first statement and 26 percent the second. Liberals also preferred the third statement (37 percent), while distancing themselves from the first statement (4 percent) and moderately supporting the second (22 percent).

Strikingly, 88 percent of both traditionalists and moderates affirmed the inspiration of Scripture (approving one of the above three statements), while only 63 percent of liberals did.

One-third (34 percent) of progressives supported the human origins of the Bible by affirming one of these two statements:

  • “The Bible is not inspired. It tells how writers understood the ways and principles of God.”
  • “The Bible is just another book of teachings written by men.”

Less than ten percent of moderates and conservatives agreed with either of these statements.

The significant minority of progressives holding a low view of Scripture’s inspiration fits with the finding that only six percent of progressives chose Scripture as their most authoritative source in personal theology.

Encouragingly, only one percent across the board of all United Methodists thought that “the Bible is an ancient book with little value today.”

What is salvation?

As expected, 89 percent of traditionalists believe that “salvation is being saved from the righteous judgment of God,” while 80 percent of moderates and only 69 percent of liberals agreed. Fully 31 percent of liberals (and 20 percent of moderates) believe that “all people will die saved.” This strain of universalism is not consistent with our Wesleyan theology and acts as another brake on evangelism. (If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency to proclaim the Gospel.)

Disturbingly, only 33 percent of conservatives and 15 percent of liberals believe that “salvation is through faith alone,” while 67 percent of conservatives and 85 percent of liberals believe “salvation is a combination of faith and what we do in this world.” Salvation by faith alone is a cardinal doctrine of the Reformation, of which we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary. As Protestants, we believe that good works follow from faith, but they do not contribute to our salvation. That depends upon faith in Jesus Christ alone, through his death and resurrection.

The influence of American evangelicalism on United Methodism is seen in the fact that 41 percent of conservatives believe that “once you are saved, you are always saved.” One-third of liberals and 37 percent of moderates agreed with this statement. One of the primary distinctives of Wesleyan theology (in contrast to today’s more common Calvinist theology) is that “a person can fall away and lose their salvation.” “Backsliders” (as they were once called) can return to faith through repentance and once again be in right standing with God. But it seems on this question many of our members are more Calvinist than Wesleyan.

Another cardinal Wesleyan doctrine is that “God’s grace is available to every person.” Our people have gotten that message, as it is affirmed by over 95 percent across the board. Mystifyingly, while 97 to 99 percent of moderates and conservatives believe in God as “creator of heaven and earth,” only 87 percent of progressives affirmed that statement.

Unsurprisingly, 91 percent of conservatives believe in a literal heaven, in contrast to 73 percent of progressives and 80 percent of moderates. At the same time, 82 percent of conservatives believe in a literal hell, in contrast to only 50 percent of progressives and 67 percent of moderates.

These beliefs about salvation do influence how effectively local churches proclaim and live out the Gospel. If everyone will be saved, there is no urgency or even any point in trying to get non-believers to believe in Jesus. The belief by supermajorities that “what we do in this world” impacts our salvation plays into the American emphasis on doing, rather than being, and upon the idea that we in some sense earn our own salvation. The prevalence of “once saved, always saved” thinking minimizes the need to authentically live out our faith and continue growing in our faith. Yet, even these three beliefs are contradictory, meaning that we have not helped our members think through a coherent and consistent theology of salvation.

Conclusion

The survey questions were not worded as carefully as I would have liked. Multiple interpretations of some of the questions could easily have somewhat distorted the results. However, taken together, I think the survey results show a clear theological difference between conservatives and liberals in general. Sometimes, moderates fall in the middle, but on many questions, moderates are closer to traditionalists in their views. It is this underlying theological difference that accounts for the depth of disagreement in our denomination. One might almost say that different groups in our church are operating according to different theological worldviews or different doctrinal systems. There are very few of the questions on which there is theological agreement.

Where there is much agreement and a small number of areas of disagreement, it is easier to preserve an overall unity and “agree to disagree” on those few issues of disagreement. However, where the disagreement seems clear and widespread over many issues, it is much more difficult to preserve unity. That is the situation that faces our church today.

The survey also makes it clear that systematic, clear teaching of United Methodist doctrine and theology is sorely needed in our churches. Perhaps we tend to focus so much on preaching and teaching that hits the “felt needs” of our people that we forget about the importance of laying the theological foundation on which the more practical teachings of the faith are based. And we have forgotten how practically relevant those foundational teachings really are. Our church’s ministry needs more theological depth.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. 

Comments

  1. Jim Wolfgang says

    Reading these statistics was both enlightening and disappointing as I thought it would be virtually unanimous among United Methodists, left/center/or right, that salvation was through Christ alone and by faith alone. I like to think the congregations I have served, and now serve hear that often in their sermons, and also that the Lord expects good fruit of justice, mercy, and faith in our following Him. We have eternal security only through abiding in Christ who is that security. In the years I have studied the Bible cover to cover and journaling observations I find there, I am convinced most definitely that the United Methodist Church is the most authentic model of the New Testament Church in the world today. Once we GRACIOUSLY work out our differences we will model that once again. “Disagree without being disagreeable” a wise lay woman I knew advised. In any case, “do not abandon that faith of yours, you know it brings a great reward”. Whatever is going on in the larger “connection”, your local congregation will meet this Sunday for worship and ministry as it always has. In that church family you will find fulfillment and joy in serving Christ.

    • A Retired U.M. Pastor says

      Jim, I am not sure where you have been serving, but I once thought as you did also. Then I began to pay attention to what was happening politically, and how it influenced the local congregation everywhere. When the Bishop follows your full-time Elder appointment with a pastor who proceeds to empty the church and within one year the church needs to receive a part-time lay pastor because “there are no other pastor’s available”, you begin to wake up. When the D.S. decides your church is going to close, even though it is growing in attendance, but there are too many other U.M.C.’s around, you begin to realize just how little control a local congregation has over their life. When you find out that pastors DO get punished by being sent to smaller and smaller appointments, because they are not “young and progressive”, you begin to wake up to the idea that just maybe something is not right with the “system”. So, while we “slept” on the local level, the leadership ran away to invent a new company and took away our possibility of voting. The results are in. The vote is showing that there is such a deep divide, that people are now running from the church that we once loved, and Humpty Dumpty cannot be put back together again. Sound negative? No, it is just the reality of what complacent church life has given to us. Realizing that “Jesus as Lord and Savior”, and “The Bible as the inspired Book of God” are being slowly removed from their central place in the definition of what Christianity is, has finally awoken the laity enough to begin to take back what they have almost lost.

      • Retired UM Pastor;
        I agree with you. I also find these things. Continuity of the Local Church is missing. When one pastor leaves and another comes in, the leaving Pastor destroys many things so the next Pastor has to start over. Minutes of meetings are not kept. Transparency / Decisions are kept to only a few favorites of the current Pastor.
        Sermons are from mainly the 4 Gospels and Paul’s letters mostly ignored. There are few Altar calls to join the Church. A Lifeway Poll recently said that all mainline Churches averaged one profession of faith per month. Biblical illiteracy is rampant.

        • You are absolutely correct. After rocking along pretty much undisturbed for the 20 years I was part of it, out of the blue the local church had a series of pastors who could not have been more different from each other in their theologies and view of the church. Early on, one pastor came in and completely reordered the church as he saw fit and every other pastor since has been dealing with the chaos. The theological plurality is not helping the local church nor is it beneficial to the person in the pew. I am now a member of a church I never joined and I am not sure that I ever would have. It has become a church operating on the personal preference of whoever wants to step up and “do something”. I basically show up on Sunday mornings to keep the peace with other long time members. I was hoping the denomination would resolve its problems but I am beginning to believe we will be lucky if something new is set in place by GC2024.

          Currently the UMC is being what it was designed to be: A self-perpetuating denomination immersed in theological plurality with absolutely no clear way to disengage. Its very structure in which accountability stops at the Jurisdictional level and having Bishops for life is its own worse enemy in resolving the conflict.

  2. Tony Benedetto says

    1. All those seeking to join a UMC church should be required to take a short “What it means to be a Methodist” course before becoming a full member.

    2. All existing members should be required to take the same course, or to take an online course with similar content. Insulting? Maybe to those few who know all of this. To all others, it should be enlightening if they’re serious about being a Methodist.

    • Biblical illiteracy plagues the UMC deeply. A Sunday School member recently commented, “the UMC is now run like a business”. As more aggressive and even bullying liberals took charge of the greater church, us lay people wanted to keep trusting, became obviously complacent and comfortable, didn’t want to be accused of rocking the boat by the hierarchy, and WROTE THE CHECKS. The chickens have now come home to roost. Decision time has now arrived.

  3. A concerned life-long Methodist says

    It is my opinion that the foundational doctrines of the United Methodist Church are not being preached because they are not being emphasized in the education of new clergy. The Apostles Creed is rarely part of services in my church and the emphasis is sermons the last several years is going out and making disciples for Christ with little concern for feeding the sheep already in the pews.

  4. Tom, another great article, and particularly the last paragraph regarding
    the need for clearly teaching United Methodist doctrine and theology in our churches. When that happens, empty pews will become full again.

  5. Linda Branch says

    I was surprised that so few traditionalists believed that salvation comes through faith alone. That is the cornerstone of the good news of the gospel. Maybe we need a good teaching of the Reformation.

  6. John Loper says

    The misunderstanding concerning salvation by faith alone has come about largely by the church’s substitution and consequent subtle assumption of the secular doctrine of human “goodness” for the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification. This “theology of the good people” is the benchmark doctrine of the progressive humanist social gospel that has shaped, guided and informed Christian philosophy (including Methodism) for the last century. You can read more about this apostasy in my paper, “Selling the Parsonage.”

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