Order, Chaos, and Broken Methodism

By Scott Kisker

The Uniting Conference of 1939 called for a more “Methodistically informed” church. Photo: United Methodist Communications.

I officially joined the United Methodist Church in 1980 when I was confirmed. I was 12 years old. It was not a major event in my life, secular or spiritual. I had been through confirmation, but the only thing I remember was John Wesley being saved from a fire and thinking he was called by God. At the end of the course I had only one question. “If I say ‘yes,’ to this, does that mean that I have to be part of this church forever?” And by church I meant my congregation. I clearly didn’t get what confirmation was supposed to be about.

The answer I got back was, “No, you don’t even have to stay in the denomination.” While that was true enough, what I remember thinking in my adolescent brain was, “Well, I guess this doesn’t really matter.” So I got confirmed. No real faith. No real understanding of the Church. No concept of salvation. No conviction of sin. No encounter with the risen Lord of heaven and earth. But I was a member. I was a Methodist.

Discipline, Doctrine, Spirit. I tell that story to say that the problems of our United Methodist Church are not of recent making, nor are they related, except tangentially, to human sexuality. What we see today, a laxity in doctrine and discipline and a concurrent breakdown of the connection, didn’t happen overnight.

I remind you of that famous quote by John Wesley: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist in either Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (“Thoughts Upon Methodism” in Wesley Works, 9:527, emphasis added).

The United Methodism I grew up in in the 1970s and 1980s had at best the “form of religion without the power.” It was no longer doctrinally clear, Spirit-led, or disciplined. We didn’t assume the goal for a Methodist was a radical encounter with the new creation and its Lord. We didn’t speak of a mission to “spread scriptural holiness across the lands.” No one ever accused us of Holy Spirit “enthusiasm.”

And this was not new to the late 20th century. I don’t think my mid-century parents knew any different form of Methodism. Methodists had been fudging what it meant to be Methodist, for the sake of popularity and cultural accommodation, for well over 80 years when I confirmed my baptism.

Historic Methodist Polity. I was asked recently whether United Methodism was a hierarchical or congregational polity. My answer, “Neither. We are connectional.” And while Methodists parrot platitudes about connectionalism all the time, most of us have no idea what actually constitutes the connection.

The Methodist connection was a series of connected accountable gatherings. This governance structure through gatherings is called conciliarism historically, or church government by council. We Methodists call these councils “conferences,” where we confer with each other to discern the leading of God.

Historically, the primary gathering, the base unit of “church” in Methodism, was the class meeting. These house groups of no more than 12 gathered weekly under the oversight of a lay class leader to watch over one another in love. Your membership was held in your class.

Those in good standing in a class gathered quarterly in a charge conference, what today we might call a church conference. These gatherings called and approved lay leadership and were overseen by an Elder – someone ordained, set apart, and sent for the oversight of word, sacrament, and order.

Representatives from charge conferences gathered yearly in annual conferences. Annual Conferences chose, ordained, and sent the elders to oversee charge conferences, and were likewise overseen by another Elder, a general overseer, whom we called a general superintendent or bishop.

The most authoritative and inclusive of these gatherings (including representatives from all other gatherings) was the General Conference. This catholic (or universal) gathering chose and sent the bishops to oversee the annual conferences. At General Conference, Methodists believed, God’s Spirit oversaw the general church as we conferred with one another, to ensure that catholic doctrine (universal across time and geography) and catholic discipline (universal across geography) were maintained for the sake of unity and witness in the world.

Class meetings gathered weekly to deal with personal matters. Class members gathered quarterly in a charge conference to deal with local matters. Charge conferences sent delegates yearly to annual conferences to deal with regional matters. Annual conferences sent delegates quadrennially to the General Conference to deal with general matters.

No conference could act in a way that violated the policies of the more inclusive conference of which it was a part, and to whom it was accountable. This was ensured by each gathering being watched over in love by someone chosen and sent from the more inclusive conference to which it belonged.

General Conference sent apostolic (or itinerant) bishops as officers of accountability to oversee annual conferences. Annual conferences sent apostolic (or itinerant) pastors as officers of accountability to oversee charges. Charge conferences approved class leaders.

General Conference sent apostolic (or itinerant) bishops as officers of accountability to oversee annual conferences. Annual conferences sent apostolic (or itinerant) pastors as officers of accountability to oversee charges. Charge conferences approved class leaders. Overseers were sent by and accountable to the conference who chose and sent them, class leaders to their charge conference, pastors to their annual conference, bishops to the general conference. Graphics: Firebrand.

Overseers were sent by and accountable to the conference who chose and sent them, class leaders to their charge conference, pastors to their annual conference, bishops to the general conference. This Apostolic oversight was at the heart of Methodist polity. “Watching over one another in love” and the “ministry of oversight” appeared at every gathering of Methodist people. This was “the connection.”

The Breakdown of Methodist Connection. This basic structure of Methodist gatherings with oversight remained in place until the early twentieth century, even as it came under increasing pressure from some Methodists who wanted a structure more like those of other more established churches or more congenial to early twentieth-century American culture.

The 1939 merger that formed The Methodist Church from the Methodist Episcopal Church, The Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the Methodist Protestant Church, however, made the sweeping changes that altered this structure. These changes were done under the banners of unity, contextuality, and cultural influence. Sound familiar?

The requirement for class membership was removed from the discipline, eliminating the primary sphere for individual discipleship. Membership was now to the church or charge (though that language was falling out of favor).

The Judicial Council was introduced. Suddenly bishops seemed like an executive branch and the General Conference a legislative branch, giving us three branches of governance, in line with the assumptions of American secular government. We were THE American Church, after all.

Finally, we established a new gathering, a new conference, between General and annual conferences. This was the jurisdictional conference. These jurisdictional conferences were instituted ostensibly for the sake of unity, and greater ability to contextualize the gospel. 

The southern church had put out all black members after the Civil War and did not want them back in their annual conferences. Nor did they want a northern bishop (unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to their context) sent to hold them accountable. Thus, to form a large, more contextual Methodist Church, black Methodists were segregated into a separate Central Jurisdiction. The whole church was then divided into jurisdictions.

Most significantly, there was no officer of accountability tying the new jurisdictional conferences to the General Conference and the general church’s decisions on doctrine and discipline. Bishops would no longer be chosen and sent forth from General conference to hold annual conferences accountable. Rather, they would be sent from contextualized jurisdictional conferences.

Methodist bishops were no longer “general superintendents” whose job was to watch over annual conferences for the General Conference. Methodist bishops were no longer catholic, in the sense of serving the whole church. Jurisdictional conferences were islands unto themselves, protected from interference from the General Conference, and so were bishops. They policed themselves within the isolated jurisdictions that elected them.

To accommodate American segregationism, Methodists severed the connection. What could go wrong?

30 Years Later. Skip forward to 1968 and 1972. With the merger of the Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church, United Methodists decided not only to compromise discipline (as we had in 1939), but doctrine as well. Both churches’ doctrinal statements were included in the discipline in 1968. This was well and good. Both were sound. However, in the 1972 Discipline, both the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith came to be referred to as “Landmark Documents,” whatever that meant. The statement titled “Doctrinal Guidelines in The United Methodist Church,” under “Our Theological Task” clarified this status (or lack of status):

“Since ‘our present existing and established standards of doctrine’ cited in the first two Restrictive Rules of the Constitution of The United Methodist Church are not to be construed literally and juridically, then by what methods can our doctrinal reflection and construction be most fruitful and fulfilling? The answer comes in terms of our free inquiry within the boundaries defined by four main sources and guidelines for Christian theology: Scripture, tradition, experience, reason. These four are interdependent; none can be defined unambiguously. They allow for, indeed, they positively encourage, variety in United Methodist theologizing. Jointly, they have provided a broad and stable context for reflection and formulation. Interpreted with appropriate flexibility and self-discipline, they may instruct us as we carry forward our never-ending tasks of theologizing in The United Methodist Church” (¶70, p. 75, emphasis added).

Doctrinal standards were “not to be construed literally and juridically.” The words needed not mean what they said, nor could anyone be held accountable to them. Although the doctrinal standards were still technically protected by the first Restrictive Rule, they were rendered impotent. Thus, the new UM Church subverted the purpose of the first Restrictive Rule, while technically leaving it intact.

Methodists were to engage in “free inquiry within the boundaries defined by … Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.” Yet those “boundaries” could not be “defined unambiguously” and were to be interpreted with appropriate “flexibility.” As my colleague Dr. David F. Watson has written, with those caveats, why use the word “boundaries” at all?

Four years from the birth of our denomination, along with the invention of the “Quadrilateral,” United Methodism adopted a vague unstable doctrinal position that drained the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith of any real meaning or authority.

Attempts at Reform. Attempts were made to address this at General Conference. In 1988, the section on “Our Theological Task” was changed, to read, “Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason.” It went on to state, “Scripture is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation’” (¶ 69, p. 80).

But none of it mattered. The genie of undisciplined, unaccountable, “flexible” “theologizing” was out of the bottle.  And thanks to the 1939 accommodation to segregation, there was no mechanism of accountability connecting bishops, annual conferences, or charge conferences to anything General Conference said or did.

Overseers no longer worked for the only body charged with discerning the Spirit for the whole Church. Bishops were only really accountable to the jurisdictions who chose and sent them. And jurisdictions were free to drift into sectarianism.

Episcopal oversight could be exercised according to a bishop’s conscience or the idiosyncrasies of his or her jurisdiction, with no fear of being called to heel by General Conference. And here we are.

Current Conditions. The week before the 2018 celebration of Trinity Sunday, a pastor who graduated from one of United Methodism’s more orthodox seminaries, posted a blog on the website UM Insight. In it he denied the nature of God, as preserved by the restrictive rule in our Discipline:

“We’ve made up elaborate theologies to help us describe how we think God relates to God’s self. The truth is this: our most complex Trinitarian theology and ideas are guesses. … The means in which we’re describing God’s relationships are not real.    Current Trinitarian explanations are just another box, limiting how [we] encounter God. Is it impossible for us to be honest:  We really have no idea how any of this works.”

While he may be correct that none of us knows how the inner life of the Trinity “works,” that cannot excuse repudiation of ordination vows to uphold the doctrine and discipline of The United Methodist Church.

And just to clarify, Christians did not “make up” the Trinity. God spoke to his people through the incarnation of his Word and outpouring of his Holy Spirit – both divine, both worshipped, both in relationship with the Father, and both not the Father. Believers experience separate relationships with all three, and yet with one God. To deny the Trinity is to deny the full divinity of Jesus, the logos of God, the incarnation, or all of the above. This UM pastor seems not only to have given up on tradition, and Scripture, and experience, but reason as well. As far I know no overseer has disciplined him for misleading the sheep.

More shocking (not because it directly violated the Discipline, but because I had never imagined one would need such a proscription) was an ad sent to me about a church fundraiser. I know the church. It is in a community that started out as a Methodist camp meeting ground. The ad read:

“Last call for tickets!! This Saturday, June 4, 7 pm, in the historic Tabernacle … Spiritual Medium Gina Marie DeLuca. (You know, ‘I see dead people’ stuff). $40. Majority of proceeds going toward the United Methodist Church’s … capital campaign (building refurbishment & improvements).”

The pastor concluded with these words: “Yes, this is a church-sponsored event. And for those of you who believe mediumship is not compatible with Christianity, please remember Jesus spoke to the dead during his transfiguration (see Matt 17; Mark 9, Luke 9). Besides, if a loved one of yours had a message for you, wouldn’t you want to hear it? Feel free to share and hope to see you there!”

This pastor was raised in the United Methodist Church, attended a United Methodist undergraduate college, and got her MDiv from one of the official thirteen United Methodist seminaries. So far as I know, again, no oversight was exercised.

Serious issues. The issues around sexuality are serious. They are serious because no reasonable reading of the prophetic material in canonical Scripture can successfully tease out God’s demands for sexuality from God’s demands for economic justice, treatment of the alien, or idolatry. They are of a piece. But even bracketing sex for the moment, order has become chaos. And the question that hangs is whether, without order (as without word or sacrament) there is even a church. 

When I was fifteen, a confirmed United Methodist wrestling with whether God was even real, I came to a sense of conviction about my desires and actions. Through the testimony of a youth leader and a couple of older boys I respected, Christians who witnessed to plain truth, I recognized an inflexible standard outside myself, a rule, against which I knew my flesh rebelled.  Then, at sixteen, four years after I was confirmed, I came to real saving faith.

One positive thing about realizing just how messed up our accommodated unaccountable 20th century structure has been, is that people rarely repent until they find ourselves, like the prodigal son, at the end of their attempts to achieve what they think they want. The 2019 General Conference certainly made pig slop look tasty.

If we as a people called Methodist can indeed “come to ourselves” as the prodigal did, we might attempt a return home. If we repent, through the discipline with which we “first set out,” including genuine accountable oversight at each gathering for discernment, we might recover the doctrine and spirit (which was the anointing of the Holy Spirit) with which we “first set out.” We might become a church again.

Scott Kisker is Professor of the History of Christianity at United Theological Seminary. This article first appeared at Firebrand, a new online magazine (www.firebrandmag.com) and is reprinted here by permission.

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