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Methodism Is in the Details: Moving from Breadth Back to Depth

Posted by Kevin M. Watson in Uncategorized August 13, 2019

I suspect that one of the legacies of The United Methodist Church will be its stripping away of specificity and a detailed account of Methodist doctrine and discipline in favor of its attempt to erect a big-tent Methodist Church. It is hard to overstate this change.

Early Methodists were a people who were on a journey together. They knew that they were headed to the same place because they were united around a set of concrete and specific beliefs and practices. These were regularly preached and taught throughout Methodism.

From 1968 to the present, United Methodism seems to have pretty consistently favored breadth over depth. To be fair, I don’t think many United Methodist leaders would endorse such a statement explicitly. In fact, I suspect most would be offended even at the suggestion that Methodism cares more about gathering as many people as it can than in raising them up to be deeply committed Christians.

But are we producing deeply committed Christians?

United Methodism’s experiment in big-tent Methodism has resulted in a people whose theological diversity goes beyond the boundaries of mere Christianity. When confronted with this bewildering array of beliefs, the UMC has typically addressed our theological incoherence by moving farther and farther away from giving a specific and detailed account of the good life.

Over the past few years, I have noticed a sloganizing of our theological heritage. We lift up sayings that appear to carry the weight of tradition and a connection to our past, but in a way that strips away the detail and specificity that they included in their original context. Here are two examples:

Frustratingly persistent misuses of Wesley’s “Catholic Spirit.”

There are several favorite proof texts in Wesley’s sermon “Catholic Spirit” that are dragged out again and again to show that Wesley was above all open-minded and committed to letting people “think and let think.” Nevermind that Wesley referred to “being driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine” as “the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.”

Turning the “General Rules” into a cheap cliché.

The renewed interest in the “General Rules” quickly moved from a substantial consideration of the detailed way of life to which all Methodists agreed (as seen in the details of each rule) to a slogan.

I think this hit me the hardest when I noticed Annual Conference Cokesbury displays had decorative pieces of wood that condensed (and distorted) this document into “Do no harm. Do good. Stay in love with God.” [We will leave aside for now that “stay in love with God” is, at best, an extremely questionable way of rephrasing what the third rule actually says.] The United Methodist Publishing House has since further invested in the distortion of the “General Rules” by having it written on their walls (shown above).

Turning the “General Rules” into a slogan strips away the actual discipline found in the rules, which distorts the document itself and the understanding of Methodism found therein.

The slogan is alluring because it gives the impression that we all know what it means. “Do no harm.” “Do good.” “Stay in love with God.” Who wants to argue with “Do no harm”? But, what does it mean?

“Do no harm” is a meaningless pious platitude unless you define what harm is. Which, of course, is exactly what John Wesley and the first Methodists did in the “General Rules.”

I highly encourage you to read the original document for yourself. (It is about the same length as this post!) Notice that it is describing a common way of life that is defined in some detail and is not merely a list of vague aspirational statements. And it concludes by stating that those who do not abide by it will “have no more place among us.”

Methodism is in the details.

Wesley led Methodism by insisting on the importance of the details. Methodists were held accountable to the commitments that they had willingly and freely made. And if they would not, he removed them from membership in Methodism.

A common objection at this point is to note that Methodism was a renewal movement within the Church of England. It was not claiming to be a church. The problem with this argument, especially for United Methodists who make it, is that Wesley formed a church – our predecessor body, the Methodist Episcopal Church. And when Wesley formed the MEC, he did not strip away all of the accountability and the details of Methodism. On the contrary!

Methodists, in the denominational form of Methodism that was created by John Wesley, were required to attend a weekly class meeting and they were required to keep the “General Rules.” If they persistently neglected either, according to the polity of the church and its documented practice, they were expelled from the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Contemporary Methodism has emphasized breadth and unity beyond the breaking point. It is past time to recognize that Methodism is not a theological tradition built on generic aspirations to let people think whatever they want to think. It is not built on a vague commitment to do good, avoid harm, and stay in love with God.

Methodism is a theological tradition built on a specific and detailed account of the Christian life.

Methodism involves a determination to see people grow in holiness, to go deeper and deeper in their faith in Christ. Unity comes from a willingness to pursue that particular vision. This, quite literally, is the method that gave Methodism its name.

Kevin M. Watson is Assistant Professor of Wesleyan & Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Want to know more?

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