United Methodist Convictions

In their book Convictions: Defusing Religious Relativism, James Wm. McClendon, Jr., and James M. Smith work from this definition:

“A conviction… means a persistent belief such that if X (a person or community) has a conviction it will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.”

The X I’m concerned with is the United Methodist Church. In this regard, I have a few questions:

  1. Can we accurately describe the United Methodist Church as a “convictional community?”
  2. If the answer to the first question is affirmative, what are those convictions?
  3. What is the connection, if any, between our “convictions” and our “doctrines?”
  4. To what degree and in what way are these convictions shared across denominational membership?
  5. What role, if any, do our convictions have in our actually being “United?”
  6. How have our communal convictions, if we have any, changed over the years?
  7. What forces lead to change in our communal convictions?
  8. Are there size limits on a convictional community?
  9. Are there temporal limits on a convictional community?

Let me take a stab at answering these.

First, as a pastor and teacher in the United Methodist Church, I take the church to be a convictional community. We have at least some persistent beliefs. Some of these beliefs have persisted since our origins in the work of the Wesleys and their co-laborers. Other beliefs have persisted since the movement came to America, or since their generation in various moments in the American experience.

This way of answering the question is appealing to a normative definition. What if we were instead to do a study of how United Methodists and their churches actually live? Would the lived convictions match the declared convictions? Before the 1988 Book of Discipline the United Methodist theological statement supported normative doctrinal pluralism. This is no longer the de jure position of the church, but for many it has remained (and for others it has become) the de facto position. In some cases it would sound like such persons are making a claim that a key communal conviction is that we do not have communal convictions.

This may sound like utter nonsense – how can it make sense to have a conviction that one does not have convictions? We could generously interpret the claim (more often implicit than explicit) not as primary conviction, but as a secondary conviction, that is, a conviction about convictions. Now, I don’t think United Methodism (or the Wesleyan tradition) – or Christianity for that matter – can work that way, but I don’t want to argue that yet. Jumping ahead to question 10, I simply want to acknowledge that whether the United Methodist Church ought to be a convictional community is a disputed question.

Second, if one were to ask an “official” United Methodist spokesperson (yes, only the General Conference can officially speak for the Church, but professional Methodists generally fit the bill for what I’m getting at here) today about our persistent beliefs, our convictions,  such an official would likely point to some elements easily recognized as “beliefs,” while others pertain more closely to “practices.” “Grace” would be at the top most lists of beliefs, while practices such as “episcopacy” and “connectionalism” would be prominent in lists of practices.

Third, it would be natural to think there is a close and deep connection between our convictions and our doctrine. If this were so, one could point at our official doctrine, found in the Articles of Religion, the Confession, and Wesley’s Sermons and Notes, as presenting our convictions.

Surely, to some degree, this equation probably works. Article III, for example, says, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature, wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.” Inasmuch as United Methodist Churches celebrate Easter, one would think they believe in the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., that this Article regarding his resurrection expresses one of our communal convictions.

McClendon and Smith, as we saw above, define a conviction as a belief that “persists,” that “will not easily be relinquished and it cannot be relinquished without making X a significantly different person (or community) than before.” If United Methodists stop believing Jesus was raised from the dead, then we would, in fact, become a “significantly different community” than we were before. Perhaps then, we are justified in saying that Article III, taken as a point of our official doctrine, is, in fact, also expressive of one of our communal convictions.

What about Article XIV? “The Romish doctrine regarding purgatory, pardon, worshiping, and adoration, as well of images as of relics, and also invocation of saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warrant of Scripture, but repugnant to the Word of God.” How different would the United Methodist Church be if we stopped disbelieving in Purgatory (picking one item from the Article)? Currently, belief in the resurrection of Jesus is central to who we are and what we do. Our Sunday worship is predicated on the fact of Jesus’ resurrection and current life and lordship. The way we do funerals and minister with the dying is rooted in our convictions regarding the resurrection of Jesus. Our life as Christians (not to mention United Methodists) would change dramatically if we set aside the belief in Jesus’ resurrection.

John Wesley was a life-long Anglican. The Anglican Church came into being through conflict/separation with the Roman Catholic Church. In that process it was important to declare ways in which Anglicans WERE NOT Roman Catholics. In Wesley’s day, differentiation from Roman Catholicism was still important enough that his editing of the 39 Articles retained this “Anti-Romish” doctrine. In our current social setting it is still true that United Methodists are not Roman Catholics. We can remain NOT Roman Catholics even while we step away from DEFINING ourselves as not Roman Catholic.

In my experience, United Methodists are barely aware we even have Articles of Religion. Insofar as our convictions match up with our official doctrine (as expressed in the Articles), that match is more due to pastoral appropriation of that official doctrine and presentation through preaching and teaching. We preach and teach on the resurrection much more often than we do on purgatory. I don’t recall ever hearing any preaching in line with Article XIV’s denial of purgatory at any time in my growing up years. If we change our official doctrine by dropping Article XIV – or even modify it by dropping denial of purgatory while retaining its other denials – that would not make us a “significantly different community.”

It would seem then, that at least some of our communal convictions find expression in our official doctrine, and at least some of our official doctrines express some of our communal convictions. We have seen, however, at at least some of our official doctrines are not expressive of our communal convictions.

Fully answering the fourth question would require a broad survey. I can say that in my experience, communal convictions can very from United Methodist to United Methodist and from congregation to congregation. Some, for instance, have a conviction that faith in Jesus is essential for eternal life. Others have a conviction that God’s love is so great that while faith in Jesus is a good thing, it is not essential for eternal life. Some of these will make comments like, ‘There are good people in all religions. In fact, I’ve known people who have no religion at all who are better than I am. Surely God will let them in.” Still others will affirm that because God loves allall will be accepted alike into eternity (since “all means all”). If a United Methodist has a conviction that personal faith in Jesus is essential, then particular practices and actions will ensue; if, on the other hand, one rejects the need for personal faith in Jesus, then other practices and actions will ensue.

United Methodists also, famously in our current period, differ on issues of “sexuality.” We seem to share, contrary to Wesley and people in his period, a belief that there is such a thing as sexuality. Beyond this shared conviction, we differ on many other aspects of the concept and practices related to it. Given that the church is on the point of dividing (whether we actually do or not, we are undeniably on the point of doing so). we have groups that differ in their communal convictions on this regard. Members of the Confessing Movement and members of Reconciling Ministries Network, for example, have substantially different convictions about sexuality. With the first, we might strategically claim that our convictions match up best with Christian beliefs through history and around the world. With the second, we might strategically claim that our convictions not only fit the current beliefs of most Americans, our ministry context, but also are truest to love and justice.

For my purposes here, the truth of these groups claims is irrelevant. What matters is that in our current context these convictions have become central to communal identity in these United Methodist subgroups but are not shared across the whole church. If the convictions of the Confessing Movement were to prevail over the church as a whole, those who are members of the Reconciling Ministries Network would be forced to become “significantly different.” Likewise, if the convictions of the Reconciling Ministries Network were to prevail over the whole church, those who are members of the Confessing Movement would be forced to become “significantly different.”

Turning to question 5, our shared convictions may be substantial. They may even be talked about more frequently. But our differing convictions are currently talked about more loudly. Perhaps we all know that we agree on things like the incarnation, the Trinity, and the resurrection. Since we have those things (things that are at the very core of the Christian faith) in common, we can safely take them for granted. As convictions, if we were to change them, we would surely become “significantly different.” But the time seems to have passed, at least in the general church (I could be wrong here), when these basics of the faith face substantial challenge within the church. (Thirty years ago I heard stories from friends who attended a denominational seminary that told of being openly mocked in class for believing that Jesus was literally raised from the dead. That it was the “rise of Easter faith in the disciples,” maybe, but we moderns, it was said, could not believe that a dead person would become alive again.)

My perception is that though we are united on fundamental Christian beliefs, they do not currently function to make us be united. Rather, we are united around institutions and relationships. In our congregations we are united around relationships with fellow congregants, lay and clergy, with our common worship and service in the community. We also also united locally in being this church and not those other particular churches, whether of our own or other denominations. We are united through our Annual Conferences and their institutions: the meetings we hold, the function of oversight from the bishop through the district superintendents, the seminaries we attend. These institutions and relationships tie us together more than our beliefs.

The purest reason we could contend for unity is that Jesus prays for it in John 17 and Paul commands us to “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” in Ephesians 4. For myself, these are good reasons, but if I’m honest, not primary. My primary reasons for wanting us to remain united are that it’s easier (fragmenting a denomination and figuring out what’s next sounds complex, expensive, and tiring) and I actually like many of the people who believe differently from me. We may have important convictions on which we differ, convictions that determine what we preach, how we lead our churches, and how we conceive of what we do, but I still like them. (Sure, it’d be more Christian to say I “love” them, since “love” is prominently commanded in scripture, while “like” is not. For that reason, however, it’s too easy for “love” to remain merely theoretical and not actually lived out.)

Question six, like so many of the others, is a large and complex question. Our communal convictions have changed other the years. In early Methodism, what we would call “small groups,” i.e., the society and band meetings, were the core of Methodism. They were built on the premise that life transformation, growing into likeness to Jesus, aka, holiness, was essential to the Christian faith and happened in a communal setting (“no holiness but social holiness,” as Wesley put it). American Methodism lost that conviction by the middle of the 19th century. Oh, we still have small groups, but not only are they incidental to what Methodism is these days (we commonly have many more in attendance at worship services than in small groups), but their purpose is entirely different. Whereas the Methodist societies and bands aimed at life transformation through mutual accountability and provocation, current small groups are built on information transfer. Judging by what we do, our communal conviction is that “discipleship” (a word that occurs only three times in the Jackson Edition of Wesley’s works) refers to gaining knowledge, not something like “learning to obey everything Jesus has commanded us.”

If we come at the question from the angle of our official doctrine and asked Methodist to do something like, “List the most important Christian convictions,” the lists might be quite similar through time. We might see things like the Trinity, the incarnation, the resurrection of the Jesus, the virginal conception of Jesus – things we confess in the Nicene and Apostles’ creeds.

I don’t think, however, that it is these basic Christian beliefs that drive our current conviction sets, however. In his definition of a tradition, Alasdair MacIntyre says that the fundamental agreements that make that tradition what it is are “defined and redefined” through conflicts. These include interpretive conflicts that are internal to the community that bears the tradition and conflicts with those outside the tradition to challenge the basic claims of the tradition. Traditions – and I count the United Methodist Church as a community that bears a tradition – necessarily have these internal and external debates. As the questions coming at us, whether from within or without, change, the convictions that we see as most necessary will change also. We might have the exact same conviction set (though this is unlikely), but the relative importance of each conviction in the set, and the role that each conviction plays in the life of the community will change over time. We United Methodists have given insufficient attention to this phenomenon. We are more prone to say, “Change is progress. Progress is good. Change is the work of the Holy Spirit.” Or, “Change is bad. We need to hold onto and maintain the truth as it is found in Jesus.”

I’m obviously already looking at the seventh question. Forces internal and external to our United Methodist community force change in our convictions. If we have a conviction that our churches are full of good people, and that good people make it into heaven, we will be hard-pressed to keep believing that good people who are not in our churches won’t make it into heaven. Our initial conviction changes as we experience the genuine goodness even of non-Christians. (Yes, the conviction that goodness is what gets us in with God IS antithetical to the gospel. Nonetheless, the conviction has been very common to Methodists I have known and pastored.)

John Wesley traveled incessantly to bring the gospel to people. Through preaching and organizing the awakened he set in motion the coming to faith of thousands. His conviction set told him that people needed Jesus. A similar passion, for a time, characterized American Methodism, suggesting a conviction set that echoed Wesley’s. Something changed in the conviction set of the Methodist community between that day and ours. First, perhaps, was a transition to the conviction that human goodness was the determining factor. As Methodism became more successful in bringing in second generation Methodists, we became less good at bringing in first generation Methodists. Second generation Methodists, that is, our children, were raised in the faith from infancy. They didn’t need a conversion the same way real sinners did, since being raised in a Christian home they were already (mostly) basically good. Absolute goodness was pretty rare, so that basic goodness seemed more realistic. The Methodist conviction regarding the nature, possibility, and pursuit of holiness fell by the wayside.

We could also look at doctrinal change with regard to sexuality, our current flashpoint. The sinfulness (or non-sinfulness) of homosexuality wasn’t a central conviction of Methodism in the beginning. If the matter came up, I’m sure Methodists from John Wesley on would most likely express a conviction in line with our current disciplinary prohibition. The change has been that what was not a live issue in the 18th century is now a live issue.

Consider, for example, our General Rules. Though sometimes abstracted into “Do no harm,” “Do good,” and “Stay in love with God,” Wesley’s presentation of them put more meat on the bones by providing numerous examples of each. Under “do no harm” – which Wesley strengthens into “avoiding evil of every kind,” I read that this includes “The ‘putting on of gold or costly apparel,’ particularly the wearing of calashes, high-heads, or enormous bonnets.” Apparently wearing something called a “high-head” was a live option in the 18th century – and it was a really bad thing! If Wesley were promulgating the General Rules today I doubt that particular illustration would make the cut; the “evil” (or is it a “harm?”) mentioned is not a live option today. But other actions and practices today are live options.

We live in a society where marital heterosexuality is no longer the norm. “Do what you want, as long as you have proper consent,” is the ethical standard upheld by American culture; the actual practice (what an updated version of the General Rules would inveigh against) would be something like “Do whatever you can get away with to maximize your pleasure.”

American Methodism, with not only its doctrine but its General Rules ossified in the 18th century (and that in the foreign culture of England!), has not had the institutional tools to deal with “live options” for sin and harm as they have evolved over the centuries. The lack of mechanisms for faithful change/adaptation, has been a major factor in paring down the General Rules to the “Three Simple Rules” to mere abstractions. As abstractions they give the feeling of being points of unity. “Surely we can all be unified around the ideas of ‘Doing good,’ ‘Avoid harm,’ and ‘Stay in love with God.'” Yes we can – but we get to put our own meaning into those terms, since they have been shorn of Wesley’s (admittedly culturally limited) examples and not replaced with new ones. If we use the same words, but use those words with different content, we are strained to remain a common convictional community.

I’ll take questions eight and nine together, since they deal with limits on convictional communities. Is there a size limit on convictional communities? Can a set of convictions function to define a community of unlimited size? My guess is that the strength of the convictions of a convictional community is inversely related to the size of the community. The larger the convictional community, the more diffuse it becomes in the society as a whole, the more likely the conviction set of members is to be diluted by convictions from outside the community in view. In our setting, American Methodists, spread out across the nation as a whole, take on convictions from the world around them. This is how southern Methodists in the 19th century could take on, vigorously defend, and go to war for the defense of slavery, an institutional inimical to primitive Methodism. This is how American Methodists, as the nation grows in wealth and prosperity, could take on acquisition and defense of that wealth as a positive good. This is how American Methodists, who came to understand themselves as Americans, could take up the nation’s causes when it came to war.

A deviant conviction set, i.e., a conviction set that deviates from broad cultural norms, is harder to maintain in the face of societal pressure. Strong ties in the convictional community are required to do so. The larger the convictional community, and the more diffuse that community (and Methodism is more diffuse since the demise of the class system), the weaker our ability to maintain the strong relationships that make deviant convictions possible.

Conviction sets are also difficult to maintain over time. This is especially true when the convictions in view deviate from cultural norms (which themselves change over time). Also, as our setting changes, some of our convictions that dealt with “live options” at one time, say the wearing of “high-heads,” those convictions no longer address live options. If we even know what a “high-head” is, the declining relevance casts a pall over that conviction; this pall can then extend to other neighboring convictions. While those convictions may remain beliefs, they no longer remain convictions in McClendon & Smith’s sense.

I realize this has been a rather roughly written composition. It’s largely my thinking “out loud.” I have more thinking to do on he subject, and will turn next to these questions:

  • Should the United Methodist Church seek to be a convictional community?
  • Can the United Methodist Church avoid being a convictional community?
  • If the United Methodist Church is a convictional community, what relations does it have with other convictional communities?
  • If the United Methodist Church is a convictional community, how are those convictions inculcated and reinforced?
  • Are there any convictions the holding of which entails the communal rejection of the “anti-conviction?”
  • How does the United Methodist Church deal with its constituents’ membership in other convictional communities?
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2 Responses to United Methodist Convictions

  1. sheyduck says:

    I am intrigued at your statement that “We seem to share, contrary to Wesley and people in his period, a belief that there is such a thing as sexuality.” Where can I read more about the development of a belief that there is such a thing as sexuality?

    • What I mean is that “sexuality” as an abstraction seems to be a fairly new thing. In the past (Wesley’s day, for example), there was a sense of being a man or a woman, and what men and women did toward procreation and physical pleasure (and exploitation). Now maybe I should read Foucault and I’d learn that the abstraction is older than I think…

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