What Do United Methodists Believe? (Part I)

By Tom Lambrecht –

A previous “Perspective” blog called attention to a survey conducted by United Methodist Communications that 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.

This finding runs counter to the narrative that the “vast majority” of American United Methodists are moving in a more progressive direction, particularly on issues like marriage and sexual ethics. While the survey did not include questions specifically related to the denomination’s current controversy, the results pointed to a substantially conservative theological foundation for United Methodism in the U.S. Even when there is a clear difference between conservatives and liberals, a majority of liberals often affirm a traditional theological perspective. (Of course, one wonders if people might be using the same words, yet defining them differently based on different doctrinal perspectives.)

The online survey was aimed at laity who were members or regular attendees of United Methodist churches in the United States, but who do not serve as local church leaders. As such, the survey attempted to reach the ultimate “grass roots” of the church in order to gauge their beliefs on a number of theological points. Previous surveys have found that the farther up the “ladder” from the grass roots membership into the leadership of the church one ascends, the more theologically liberal are the beliefs people hold.

Who Is Jesus?

The most important aspect of the Christian faith is Jesus Christ. Orthodox Christian doctrine answers the questions Who is Jesus and What did Jesus do? Over 92 percent of United Methodists of all theological stripes believe that “Jesus was a real person who actually lived.”

When asked if Jesus was “the son of God?” 98 percent of conservatives believed so, compared to 82 percent of liberals (moderates were at 92 percent). At the same time, nine percent of both conservatives and moderates said “Jesus was only human and not the son of God.” (The numbers do not add up properly here, so the results may not have been accurately reported. Alternatively, some may have answered both “yes” and “no” to the son of God question.) Notably, 16 percent of progressives asserted that Jesus was only human. This is a small percentage and reflects a relatively high view of Jesus Christ even among United Methodist progressives.

More than 35 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was only a religious or spiritual leader.” While 21 percent of conservatives and 23 percent of moderates agreed, 25 percent of liberals thought “Jesus was a great man and teacher but not divine,” compared with 20 percent of moderates and 15 percent of traditionalists. These answers do not fit well with the answers to the previous question “Was Jesus the son of God.” One can only assume that many members have only a fuzzy idea of what it means to call Jesus “the son of God.”

Strikingly, 48 percent of progressives thought “Jesus committed sins like other people.” One-third of conservatives and 38 percent of moderates agreed.

Fully 82 percent of conservatives believe “Jesus will return to earth someday.” Only 66 percent of liberals agreed, as well as 76 percent of moderates.

Finally, 94 percent of conservatives believe Jesus was conceived by a virgin. Only 68 percent of liberals agree, along with 82 percent of moderates.

The inconsistent answers to these questions about Jesus indicate we may not have done a very good job as a church of teaching our doctrines. Our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith teach that Jesus was indeed the son of God, that he is divine, conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and that he will return again to earth. And the Bible clearly states that Jesus did not sin (II Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, I Peter 2:22).

What did Jesus do?

Nearly all (98 percent) conservatives believe that “Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God,” while 96 percent of moderates agreed. By contrast, 84 percent of progressives affirmed that statement. The overwhelming majority of conservatives (95 percent) affirmed that “Jesus died so we could have eternal life” – 90 percent of moderates agreed, while 82 percent of liberals agreed. Disappointingly, 18 percent of liberals affirmed, “Jesus’ death has no impact on my eternal life.”

Not surprisingly, 86 percent of traditionalists believe “the only way to salvation is through a relationship with Jesus.” Only 64 percent of moderates and 54 percent of liberals agreed. More than 35 percent of moderates and 46 percent of liberals believe “there are ways to salvation that do not involve Jesus.”

In accordance with an orthodox perspective, 98 percent of conservatives “believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead.” Meanwhile, 90 percent of moderates and 81 percent of progressives believe in Jesus’ bodily resurrection.

Here again, the official teachings of our church affirm that Jesus died on the cross to reconcile us with God, so that we could have eternal life. Our teachings hold that Jesus bodily rose from the dead, and that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. The divergence indicated by the survey answers pinpoints a need for clearer teaching of the main essentials of our faith.

The fact that so many moderates and progressives believe in multiple ways of salvation is a key factor in the decline of evangelism in the church. Why focus so much on Jesus if he is not essential to our salvation?

Conclusion

There is nothing more at the heart of our Christian faith than our understanding of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. It is encouraging that super-majorities of United Methodists hold to orthodox, traditional theological understandings.

Still, significant minorities of our members believe that Jesus is not God, calling into question the Trinitarian heart of our faith. This includes a significant number of progressives denying the virgin birth of Christ (one of the articles of the Apostles’ Creed). Large numbers think that Jesus committed sins, just like the rest of humanity. And significant percentages do not believe Jesus will return to earth someday (another article of the Apostles’ Creed).

Next week, we will look at other beliefs of grass-roots United Methodists.

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

Comments

  1. Dianne Humphrey says

    Why don’t these people read the Bible! It clearly says Jesus is the Son of God!

  2. David Barbaree says

    This begs the question of when and what are we going to to do about the progressive members and pastors within our denomination. Should there be a movement to hold them accountable, perhaps to bar them from ordination, or restrict what can or can’t be taught in our progressive-leaning seminaries? Will this be the IRD and Good News new calling? If not, then what can be done about them?

    • You probably should consider opening Traditionalist seminaries, or taking over a couple of them. I believe most seminaries are not UMC-exclusive currently, but if you want to have a specific dogmatic view then you probably should have UMC-exclusive seminaries.

      • Actually, there are traditionalist seminaries available. Asbury Seminary educates more MDiv students than the top two UM seminaries combined. United Seminary is hospitable to a traditionalist viewpoint on doctrine. Some other evangelical seminaries have been removed from the “approved” list by the UMC University Senate. This is something that should be corrected.

        The real issue is that annual conference boards of ordained ministry are not exercising good discernment when it comes to UM doctrine. They sometimes turn away traditionalist candidates (in more progressive conferences) and admit candidates whose theological views do not line up with UM doctrinal standards. The ordination of heterodox clergy then plays out in the confused teaching and preaching seen in many UM churches, leaving laity at a loss what to believe. Traditionalist students can come from any seminary (including UM ones). It is up to boards of ordained ministry to be more discerning about doctrinal compatibility.

        • I appreciate the info.

          I find it hard to consider, even as a progressive, turning down a candidate for ministry – I know a few who have been more conservative than I prefer, but that’s part of the itinerancy thing and would really mean that a Bishop/Super would need to be considerate of that when finding a placement (matching a preacher to a congregation). It seems to me that is an important (possibly the MOST important) part of the job.

          That’s assuming these candidates are not extremists (in either direction).

          I realize that the traditionalists want the reins held a little tighter than I do. 🙂

          Regardless, I think it goes back to – if the UMC wants to only allow strongly conservative candidates, then they ought to have only conservative-based seminaries. There’s a lot of fallout from that, if you follow the path to it’s logical conclusion.

        • Can anyone recommend an advanced course of study in the Southeast/East that espouses a traditional attitude. Emory is shutting theirs down and I not thrilled with the prospect of Duke. I don’t believe Asbury has one.

        • “The ordination of heterodox clergy then plays out in the confused teaching and preaching seen in many UM churches, leaving laity at a loss what to believe. ”

          As a rank and file laity who grew up in the Methodist/united Methodist Church and spent 20 years as an adult in a single local UMC, I can attest to the accuracy of this statement. The best I ever received from the church was a confused and random understanding. It finally took the Heidelberg Catechism and three modern books about it to blow out all the fog and make sense of all the random pieces of knowledge I possessed. The reason I landed on the Heidelberg was because there was nothing comparable to be had within the UMC. It was an amazing experience to finally engage teaching that actually engaged my intellect. Up until then Christianity felt more like rocket science than something I would ever be able to understand.

          Later I started spending time cruising the internet, listening to every voice I could find within the American UMC; I was stunned at the variations in understandings. It is no wonder, that for the rank and file United Methodist, Christianity of the Methodist/Wesleyan persuasion has become nothing more than a never-ending debate.

  3. “Many moderates and progressives believe in MULTIPLE WAYS OF SALVATION”. So, this is the actual SCHISM in our denomination. Traditionalists could NEVER accept this in that there is NO Biblical support for at all. It is an abject rejection of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is the outright rejection of the very essence of Christianity. If this became the doctrine of the church, there would be no reason for the church to exist as Paul told the congregation at Corinth. In fact, this is abhorrent and reprehensible. This is obviously way more than some sort of vaguely perceived theological disagreement. It is a unbridgeable chasm.

  4. Here is the main problem with this survey and the article hinted at this early on. High church officials unfortunately espouse and hold to liberal/heterodox interpretations of key theological doctrines and biblical passages. Not surprisingly these church officials push their agenda and interpretation onto the masses in our churches.

    Clear theological teaching and adherence is in order and our seminaries and boards of ordained ministry need to do better jobs in the examination of those seeking pastoral leadership in our denomination.

    • Maybe you should volunteer and go to Seminary.

      I’m not being sarcastic here. If you feel that a strong traditionalist view is necessary, and that the seminaries and BOMs are dropping the ball – which I assume you feel leads to substandard ordinations – shouldn’t you step up and answer the call?

      • Been there and done that! One of the few traditional/evangelical students when I attended and graduated from seminary. I already have and know from first-hand experience the heterodox beliefs among other UM clergy. It is both alarming and pathetic at the same time!

        • Interesting. Why do you think it is that few of traditionalist mindset go into seminary vs progressive (from UMC – I imagine other denominations have different splits)?

          • JR, 40% of our clergy graduate from Asbury United Seminary. It is our largest producer of probationary elders in the United States. Asbury is noted for its very conservative and scriptural stance. It is also the #1 producer of clergy for our mega churches. You can find surveys on line that show where the pastors of our large churches went to seminary. I believe it was published on this website. The overwhelming number of local pastors are conservative also, reflecting that conservatives in the pews make up the single largest group.

          • Hi Scott,

            I doubt it’s 40%, what I found had (for 2013 class) was about 15%: https://juicyecumenism.com/2014/12/19/new-umc-ministers-go-seminary/

            Maybe across multiple years, that 40% number could be accurate? Just thinking aloud here.

            At a quick glance, Asbury seemed cheaper than other seminaries that I skimmed. I’m sure that’s a pretty significant draw.

          • Few traditionalists attend seminary for theological, financial and other cultural reasons. The largest hurdle for many traditional UM Christians is the blatant opposition taught by seminary professors towards orthodox Christian doctrine. Some individuals are not up for the battle that will ensue during their seminary education. Some are naive and unaware of the theological train wreck coming their way and others are acutely aware of the opposition they will face for holding orthodox doctrine.

            Too many liberal pastors and Christians are unaware of the accommodation their theological views represent when it comes to contemporary American society against historic, orthodox Christian doctrine. There is little difference between liberal Protestant beliefs and secular western culture.

        • Heterodox clergy and beliefs. This is so disturbing. Many have said all along that the marriage and the homosexual debates are just symptoms of a sickness in our church. That is indeed the alarming and disturbing case. However, Gary Bebop, for example on here, says, “we are in the early stages of a recovery of Wesleyan essentials”. The 2019 Special General Conference will be looked back on as that early stage. Yes, one way or the other — traditional Wesleyan Methodism will be preserved and reformed. That is our hope and prayer.

  5. I’d label myself as a progressive.

    Many of those questions I find to be oddly pushing conservative angles. If I have to answer many of them as a or b, yet I think that it might be somewhere in between (or all of the above), the questions themselves are limiting.

    If I’m asked ‘what does the Bible say’, the answer is easy. But because I’m not a literalist, that doesn’t really give you my opinion of the issue.

    Here’s an example: Does the Bible say Jesus is without sin? Yes. Did he not curse a fig tree that had no fruit, which was likely because the locals ate all the fruit – and his actions then denied them fruit going forward? I’d call that a sin (love thy neighbor, and all that) where Jesus’ human frailty was overcome by the emotion of frustration. So in that question alone, there’s two answers depending on the exact phrasing. So if the question is “Is Jesus without sin?” my answer would be “Inconclusive”, or if that’s not an option, I’d say no. But if the question is “Does the Bible say Jesus is without sin?”, I’d say yes – as I know it was mentioned by Paul and Peter (and of which Peter was the better authority on the matter, having traveled with Jesus).

    Now all of that should be accounted for in the general numbers of the survey; Considering that the article notes “UMCom has clergy staff members, representing a range of views themselves, who helped frame the questions…” I’d hope that those staff members were advised or well versed in the forced bias of survey questions.

    Conclusion: I think there’s certainly something to this, but I’m concerned it’s being overvalued.

  6. Gary Bebop says

    For all its muddled thinking and divagations into modern novelty and “schtick,” Methodism remains a steadfast Wesleyan denomination, where the teaching of the Wesleys, including scriptural holiness, is normative. We aren’t a postmodern religious potluck where every contradictory, divergent, experimental, toxic and phony confection is welcome. We are in the early stages of a recovery of Wesleyan essentials. Asbury and United are leading the way.

  7. Ric Michael says

    After reading the results of the survey, it is no wonder we are at odds with one another in the UMC. We can’t even agree on the truth. My question is who broke the church? Since there is such a long process to become ordained in the UMC so we are sure of their calling and theology, how is it that so few are preaching the Biblical truths. How can we call ourselves Christians if we don’t even understand the basis
    of our faith and beliefs? Sounds like we need to get back to the basics and quit leaning on our own understanding or interpretation!

  8. John Loper says

    I graduated from from Asbury Theological Seminary earning an M Div in 2017, and while they are indeed “hospitable to a traditionalist viewpoint on doctrine”, even they advocate for a progressive globalist application of the faith that is more influenced by the modernist cultural worldview than by Christian orthodoxy. You can read my further observations on this subject in the paper I submitted to you last year.

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