Methodist Heritage: The Place of Evangelicals in the Methodist Church Today

Bishop Gerald Kennedy (1907-1980)
Good News, Winter 1967

The main difficulty in writing on this subject is finding a definition acceptable to the majority of Methodists. Finding two people who will agree precisely as to what “evangelical” means is difficult. I must therefore state in a broad way how I intend to use the term – but with the warning that it is impossible to be too precise and that any description must have uncertain borders.

What is it? Since the Reformation, the term “evangelical” has been applied to Protestant churches which based their teaching pre-eminently on the Gospel as defined in the Bible. There was usually a difference between these evangelical churches and the Calvinist bodies, although the precise difference was never very clear.

Within the broad framework of the Church of England, the evangelicals put their emphasis on personal conversion, the atoning death of Christ, and salvation by faith. They came to be a particular party within the Church of England in a day when the general condition of the clergy was low. Methodism, in the beginning, had very much in common with the evangelical group. John Fletcher of Madeley was one of the evangelical leaders and also one of Methodism’s early heroes. The evangelicals, for the most part, were marked with a deep seriousness. And sometimes they were regarded as being too religious. In the nineteenth century they took a leading part in social reform, and in missionary activity.

Theologically, evangelicals have commonly upheld the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures and have regarded the Bible as the sole authority of the Church. They have believed in preaching as of supreme importance and they have had a tendency to minimize liturgical worship. They have been suspicious of Roman Catholic and high church doctrines.

In our time, evangelicals would be regarded as more conservative in their theology than many Methodists. Very often they support a doctrine of the second coming, the virgin birth, and the conversion experience as an essential for every Christian. Some of them would shade off into the fundamentalist camp, I expect, and take a dim view of the critical study of the Bible. Their vocabulary is often archaic to some modern ears. And their insistence upon more precise definitions of the doctrines a Christian must believe to be truly a Christian, are stumbling blocks to many who have moved into the more liberal, modern atmosphere.

The Demands of the Church. But let us agree that an exact definition is impossible. I have met with some of these people who became Methodists via the Nazarene Church, and I have found them in such accredited seminaries as Fuller in Pasadena. Often they have a warmth of spirit and a conviction of belief that lifts up my heart. Sometimes their affirmations are not congenial to me now, and they take me back to my boyhood and to my father’s faith. It must be said that there is no question in my mind as to their being a legitimate part of the Methodist heritage. They are Wesleyan in their basic propositions. Their emphasis on conversion finds an echo on nearly every page of John Wesley’s Journal. The truth seems to me to be that The Methodist Church has been, broadly speaking, evangelical in its understanding and interpretation from the beginning.

In Los Angeles we have had two groups looking at each other suspiciously for a long time. One has been the evangelical churches and the other has been the so-called mainline denominations such as the Methodists, the Presbyterians, United Church of Christ, and the American Baptists. One of the reasons I was glad to become the chairman of the Billy Graham Campaign in 1963 was that it provided an opportunity to bring these two groups closer together. We never succeeded in eliminating all our differences, but we did make progress in talking to one another and trying to listen to each other with some appreciation. I was struck with the obstacle of vocabulary as well as with fundamental differences in our attitudes toward Biblical criticism, evolution, and the place of the Church in the world. But I was even more impressed with our broad base of commonly accepted doctrine. And I was hopeful for a continuing dialogue which, it seemed to me, would enrich both parties. That is the main reason I am glad to accept an invitation to write on the place of evangelicals in The Methodist Church.

For one thing, I must say that it is rather shocking that this question would be raised by anybody in The Methodist Church. It is even more shocking to observe that some of those who have been most outspoken in favor of the ecumenical movement seem to be most unsympathetic with anybody disagreeing with them in The Methodist Church. We might as well come to terms with the reality that no church is in any position to make an ecumenical contribution if it cannot find room within itself for honest men with differing beliefs.

The Right Spirit. I am convinced that the main obstacle which faces us is not our differences, but the spirit in which we hold them. I have known some fundamentalists so narrow and bitter that it was impossible to talk with them. It seemed to me that they were full of pride in their righteousness and they belonged with the Pharisees rather than with the Christians.

On the other hand, I have known any number of men whose theological positions seemed to me quite impossible, but who were my Christian brothers and dear friends. We could talk together and share with one another our convictions in a spirit of love and mutual respect.

It is true also, of course, that I have known liberals who were so dogmatic and unbending that they could put the fundamentalists to shame. Even when I agreed with most of what they had to say, I could not feel at ease with them because of this bitter, partisan spirit. It was either their interpretation or none. So I conclude that there will be room in The Methodist Church for men of very widely differing theological points of view only if their spirits are open and loving.

This, of course, is one of the most difficult things in the world to achieve. It is hard for a man with a great conviction to believe that a man who differs with him is honest. But this is one of the miracles which Christ works for us and we ought to pray that He will touch us with His grace. I know it can happen because it has transformed my relationships with other people more than once. A Christian experience goes straight to the heart. And then, although we do not find complete unity in our heads, it really does not matter too much. Methodism must remember that John Wesley said this very often. This is one of his principles upon which we stand or fall.

One of my friends is a theological professor who retired some years ago. His theological position seemed to me very far to the left and oftentimes appeared to me little more than humanism. On the other hand, my position seemed to him hopelessly far to the right. Sometimes in our conversations together I would say to him, “How in the world can such a nice fellow have such lousy theology?” His reply would be, “How can a fellow who is smart enough to fool the Church into electing him a bishop be so reactionary?” Through all these past years we have been close friends, and I would no more think of trying to put him out of the Church than I would think of attacking the saints. The greatness of Methodism has been its freedom and its discipline. My brother, if your heart is with my heart, give me your hand.

We Need Each Other. Let us look at this a little further. Instead of stopping here, let us move on to the affirmative truth which shines through this question. We need each other. Instead of merely putting up with somebody who is different than we are, let us thank God that He gives us an authentic witness from the other side of the hill. I am not very happy with some of the proposed new approaches of our day. Much of it sounds shallow, and I am sure in my own mind that much of it is of passing interest only. Yet I am on the side of any group who feel so strongly about the relevancy of the Church that they want to find ways to make it speak to the world. I will fight to the last ditch for their right to experiment. Even when they fail, their efforts have still been worthwhile, in my judgment. There is a fellow (not a Methodist) who has been putting on a night club act in San Francisco. He is trying to read from a book he wrote and bear a Christian witness. I wish him luck, although my own experience in trying to talk religion to people with four or five drinks under their belts has not been very encouraging. But I will take him any day over the Methodist preacher I dealt with some time ago who wanted to close his church and move out because there were saloons in the neighborhood.

On the other hand, I am strong for the brethren whose emphasis is on the unchanging and eternal verities of our faith. We should be in a bad way indeed if we become like the Athenians described in the Book of Acts as those who “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new” (Acts 17:21). I believe in the Bible and I believe in conversion. I believe that Methodism made a great difference in eighteenth century England, and I believe it ought to be making a great difference in twentieth century America. The evangelicals keep the unchangeables before us and it is something which we must not forget or consider unimportant.

I am convinced that The Methodist Church cannot afford to lose the evangelicals. It would be a sad day indeed if they should feel unwelcome and go somewhere else. They are just as legitimately Methodists as are any of these brethren who look down their noses at them and consider them outmoded.

A great deal of this modern spirit is a passing thing, and after we have changed our minds a hundred times in the future, the great and fundamental truths of our religion will shine forth with continuing brilliance. With all the modern talk about the Church having to keep up to date, it is great to have clear voices proclaiming that over against all the novelties there is the unchanging truth of what God has done for us through the Incarnation.

The Ecumenical Challenge. There is a new wind blowing in the mulberry trees in our time. I doubt if any single man or single party can interpret the meaning of it completely. We have seen a miracle take place in the world with the Second Vatican Council. We can talk with each other and we can learn from each other in a way that was not possible just a few years ago. What the outcome of this is to be I do not know – and I do not think anyone else does. However, one thing does seem rather clear to me: if the ecumenical spirit means anything, it must begin to work between conflicting points of view within a single church. I welcome our evangelical brethren within Methodism not because I want to be a nice fellow, but because I need them. As a Methodist, I do not think I have any other choice. If they will put up with me, I surely will put up with them. Not only that, but I will sit at their feet that together we may learn of a new devotion and a new commitment which is much more needed in Methodism than a new method.

This is going to take more grace than most of us possess at the present time. But if we pray for this gift from God, and if we are willing to receive it, the first step will have been taken in the renewal of the Church.

As I grow older I experience increasing doubts of my ability to grasp very much of the truth or Christ. I need as many different witnesses as possible to keep me aware of my own poverty and of the unsearchable riches of Christ.

Gerald Kennedy was the Bishop of the Los Angeles Area of the Methodist Church.


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