The Marks of a Methodist 5: Freedom
By Thomas Lambrecht
We have been examining the characteristics of Methodist Christianity in homage to John Wesley’s The Character of a Methodist, but based on the 1960 book by Bishop Gerald Kennedy, The Marks of a Methodist. We have seen that the marks of a Methodist include Experience (a personal experience of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ that transforms all of life) and the desire to Make a Difference in this world as an expression of God’s love. We noted the mark of Discipline, a focused and structured effort toward the goal of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In the previous article, we saw Methodism characterized by Mission, the outward focus of the church to proclaim the Gospel and minister to the needs of people.
The most controversial mark of a Methodist is perhaps the freedom given to its clergy and laity. We shall see that freedom is not absolute and has perhaps been taken further in current Methodism than Wesley or even Kennedy would have allowed.
Kennedy states, “We are a Church that makes no specific creedal demands and every Methodist can live in a very large room, theologically speaking.” The canard that “we are not a creedal church” thus dates back at least 60 years.
This, of course, ignores the fact that The United Methodist Church has doctrinal standards, including the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith, which are of the nature of a creed. While candidates for ordination may not be required to provide a written and signed statement of agreement with our doctrinal standards, ordinands are asked the historic questions that date back to early Methodism. They include, “Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?” (In other words, we do have specific doctrines.) “After full examination do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures? Will you support and maintain them?” (In other words, ordinands do commit to preach and teach the doctrines of our church.)
The difference is that United Methodist doctrines are the basic teachings of orthodox Christianity, with very little that is uniquely Wesleyan or Methodist in them. Christians from a wide variety of denominations could all assent to our doctrines without compromising. This is unlike some denominations that insist on particular interpretations of Scripture, such as predestination or a specific understanding of the end times of the world.
Kennedy describes it this way, “We are not a people marked by opinions, though our theology is biblical and orthodox. We are not to be distinguished by words or phrases nor by a peculiar mode of speaking. … We are not to be marked by ‘actions, customs, or usages of an indifferent nature.’ We are not food faddists nor people who wear special apparel. Nor do we single out some particular part of religion and act as if it were the whole of religion.”
The key here is distinguishing between doctrines and opinions. The official teachings of the church are expected to be upheld by all. Wesley himself broke from Moravians who believed in “quietism,” that the believer needn’t pursue holiness by using the means of grace, but merely wait upon God. He also broke with the Calvinists, who believed that God’s salvation in Christ was offered only to a select few, not to all people. These both went against essential elements of Methodist teaching.
Opinions, on the other hand, are disputed matters or, in Wesley’s words, matters of “indifference.” Whether to observe the liturgical calendar, whether the world was created in six 24-hour days, or whether Christians may drink alcohol are all opinions, upon which Methodist have the freedom to disagree without it disrupting the unity of our church.
Kennedy goes on to exhort, “This heritage must not be forgotten or minimized. Those among us who rise up to fasten some particular interpretation of doctrine on our preachers do not understand our Church. The groups who demand that a particular economic or political doctrine shall be regarded as orthodox have deserted the faith of their fathers and insult the memory of John Wesley.” We have the freedom to “think and let think” on many aspects of the faith, so long as we maintain unity around the core essentials.
Freedom of the Pulpit
Nowhere is this freedom more evident than in the ability of Methodist preachers to preach “without fear or favor.” Kennedy explains, “This is partly due to our system of appointing preachers rather than calling them. When a congregation has the power to enthrone or dismiss its minister, he [she] can hardly be entirely free. A comparatively small but determined minority can often have its way and silence a voice which does not please it. We appoint our preachers, and they have the status of being sent. They will not be removed at the whim of a few people, and their message is not expected to be adjusted to please one class or one group.”
The freedom of the pulpit, however, imposes a corresponding responsibility upon preachers. In Kennedy’s words, “They must not abuse it and they must know whereof they speak. The saddest figure in the pulpit is the well-meaning but uninformed prophet. We must respect the difference of opinion in the pews, and we must never assume that we cannot be wrong.” While unafraid to address a controversial moral issue from the pulpit, Kennedy maintained that preachers ought not “speak about it every Sunday. The [person] who honestly disagrees with a preacher on one issue, still ought to find much in his [or her] preaching to feed [their] soul.”
Kennedy cites the separation of Church and State as a primary belief of Methodism. This would, of course, have been a foreign idea to John Wesley. Anglicanism, the Church of England, was (and still is) the state church of the country. The monarch is nominally head of the church (a role Queen Elizabeth II took quite seriously and that guided her decisions). Kennedy elaborates the rationale for separation. “We believe that the Church must speak to all of society and the pulpit must be the prow of the ship of state to warn and guide. The Church must be free and the state must never be under the domination of a religious institution.”
Kennedy laments the tendency among Methodists to avoid controversy. “We seem to prefer peace at any price and many a Methodist seems to think that criticism is the worst possible thing that can happen to his Church. Let me tell you that it is much worse to be ignored. The Church that is free must often speak a word of judgment.”
Of course, we have had more than our share of controversy over the last few years, including the breakup of our denomination. Even so, many local churches and many clergy have been unwilling to even discuss the issues and options that are currently under debate, for fear of causing conflict in the congregation. That in itself manifests a tragic lack of freedom. If such discussions are carried out in a spirit of love and consideration and based on biblical principles, it can lead to a deepening of faith and commitment to obedience to one’s understanding of biblical truth, even where some form of separation results. Such faith and commitment lead to a stronger congregation that knows what it believes and how it will live out those beliefs.
Kennedy states, “If we have freedom in the pulpit, we also have freedom in the pew. Our scholars and teachers do not submit their writings for official approval. Our families do not find their private affairs made the business of an institution. Our members are at liberty to visit any church and worship in it. We may work together with all churches and with all non-Christian religions.”
While this freedom is real and to be guarded, there is also the corresponding responsibility that scholars and teachers do not undermine the doctrines of the church in their teaching and writing. There should be what Kennedy calls “the joy of free investigation,” but there are also guardrails around our faith in the form of our doctrinal standards. This balance or tension can be difficult to maintain.
We have a history of denominational freedom to participate with other Christian denominations and even work together with non-Christian religions on common goals and interests for the good of the society. Lately, however, animosity toward the Global Methodist Church and against congregations that have disaffiliated has spawned a form of institutional protectionism that has curtailed the freedom that clergy and members have in the past enjoyed. When retired clergy cannot participate in a disaffiliated congregation without being summarily removed from The United Methodist Church and losing their retiree health benefits, it is again an unfair and tragic loss of the freedom that has normally characterized Methodism.
Freedom from Sin and the World
Surprisingly, Kennedy points to freedom from the world as one of the distinguishing characteristics of Methodism. He notes that the poor and marginalized are the ones most likely to respond early to a great religious movement, since they have the least to lose. “When you possess only a little of the world’s goods, it is not too difficult to give up that little. But if you have a great stake in the world, the sacrifice is so considerable that many will never make it.”
Kennedy elaborates, “We need greatly to be set free from the world, and it will be more difficult for us today. For we have great possessions. John Wesley foresaw this and counseled his people to earn all they could, save all they could, and then give all they could. He urged that the Methodist preaching places be kept plain lest there should develop a growing dependence on rich [donors]. Institutions with huge investments and great buildings do not easily accept the counsels of St. Francis or of John Wesley. We depend more on influence and standing. We are too much impressed by the successful and the comfortable. We give too many hostages to the status quo, and we are timid lest we offend. Carried to far, we become slaves to custom and style.”
Kennedy goes on, “The problem with us is to use our possessions but not trust in them. Wealth is such a wonderful servant and such a ruthless taskmaster. Respectability destroys more dreamers and prophets than all the prisons and persecutions in the world.”
We have seen how this plays out in the disaffiliation process, as the primary reason for following that process is for the congregation to keep its building, property, and bank account. Obviously, where the congregation is fairly united, it would be better for the bulk of the congregation to keep and use the property as a tool for ministry. However, we have learned from traditionalists in other denominations, as well as some in our own, who have had to leave their buildings behind, that they experience a new freedom and enthusiasm for ministry, even when they have not a scrap of property to their name. Keeping the building is not always the ultimate or even best goal for a congregation. Leaving it behind where necessary can demonstrate the kind of freedom from the world that Kennedy advocates.
The whole purpose of our freedoms of various kinds is to provide the mechanism for achieving the greatest freedom of all: freedom from sin and release from despair. In Kennedy’s view, this happens not by arguing or reasoning people’s way into the Kingdom, but through the witness of personal experience. He quotes Lord Lindsay, onetime Master of Baliol College, Oxford: “Does this thing work? Then share it with the rest of us.” Kennedy explains, “Everything seems to lead us back to an Experience that sets us free from sin and inadequacy.” (Recall that the first mark of a Methodist is a personal experience of salvation from God through Jesus Christ.)
Kennedy eloquently gives his own witness to his experience of faith. “God gave me power to do what I could not do by myself. My own poor life is an example of salvation. How many crooked paths beckoned, and He led me on the straight way! He gave me a purpose and an assurance that there is an eternal plan for each man and for all the world. I am a part of something wonderful and grand. When I fell under the control of powerful habits which could have destroyed me, He helped me break them. I come to the close of every day with a great song of thanksgiving in my heart that God dwells with me and gives the spiritual gifts without limit. … The mark of a Methodist is to witness to the reality of freedom in Christ.”
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Photo by Brett Sayles (Pexels.com).