The Fall of United Methodism from Grace to Legalism: A Response to William B. Lawrence

William J. Abraham

August 13, 2020

From the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Tampa, Florida. Photo by Steve Beard.

The following essay is a response to a 2020 essay in Methodist Review by the Rev. Dr. William J. Lawrence: “A Question of Doctrine: Whither The United Methodist Church?” (Methodist Review: A Journal of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies 12 [2020]: 1-59). This response was first submitted to Methodist Review but was not accepted for publication on the grounds that Methodist Review does not publish responses to articles.

Professor William B. Lawrence has written a remarkable essay laying out his views on the history of The United Methodist Church from 1968 to 2019. It will rightly receive extended discussion within and without academic circles. For one thing, Lawrence offers a fascinating etiology of the rise and fall of United Methodism that is novel and provocative. We badly need robust narratives of our recent past, and his narrative will certainly become grist for the mill of future historians. Second, Lawrence is the consummate insider who has served with distinction at every level of The United Methodist Church and brings to the table his training as a historian. He has had a front-row seat in the theatre. I would encourage you to log on to Methodist Review, register an account, and read his essay in its entirety.

In this paper my aims are relatively modest. I begin by seeking to articulate the central thesis that Lawrence advances. This is initially a challenge because he covers so much terrain that it is not always easy to discern exactly what is on offer. The ship has so much disparate cargo that it runs the risk of sinking to the bottom of the mind and resting there. However, we will do the best we can to be accurate on this score. Beyond that I want to raise some critical questions about his proposals, especially attending to the crucial historical and theological proposals buried in them. I shall not in this paper seek to provide an alternative narrative or complementary narrative of the recent history of United Methodism. That belongs in another venue. 

The Crucial Claim: From Grace to Law

The crucial claim advanced runs something like this: United Methodism over time moved from a theological method that worked off grace as its fundamental orientation and shifted to a theological method that used law to advance dubious if not otiose theological claims. Having developed an obsession with homosexuality, the church sought to resolve the problem “by rewriting its doctrine as if it were legislation. The church embraced ecclesial legalism as a functioning theology – in effect, a levitical Methodism – at least on matters linked to homosexuality” (4). He continues, “The church has moved from immersion in the mysteries and the means of grace to mastering legislative intrigue and power. The General Conference has turned points of doctrine into matters of legislation” (4). Thus the church abandoned its theological foundations.

We have already the beginnings of a historical narrative, so let’s dwell on that for a moment. The proposed narrative begins in the late sixties in a period of intense turmoil in Western culture. In fact, we can read the uniting of the Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Church in 1968 as one response to that turmoil. As an experiment in ecumenism it fit the aspirations for unity; and Christian unity was seen as vital for dealing with the challenges of the era. For Lawrence, the basic foundations that were in place were sound. Formally, the new church sorted out the identity of its doctrinal standards, insisted on grace as its orienting theme, and made the quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and experience constitutive of its theological methodology. So far, so good.

However, as Lawrence sees it, already in 1972, the train began to go off the rails when the famous phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” was added to the material on homosexuality in the Social Principles. Thus, homosexual practice was deemed to be incompatible with Christian teaching. This material became in time the premise for a raft of legislation that reached a climax in the General Conference of 2019, a final denouement in the shift from grace to legalism.  We see here most clearly the move to do theology or to exercise theological judgment by resort to legalistic action. This in itself has been a disaster; it is perhaps the “reason why our division over homosexuality is so deadly” (4). 

However, the addition of the unpopular phrase can also be faulted on other grounds, according to Lawrence. First, it violates the First Restrictive Rule that requires that doctrinal changes only be enacted by means of constitutional amendment; and this was never done. Indeed, it appears it cannot be done because we do not have a mechanism, a theological court or watchdog, for resolving disputes about what is or is not compatible with our Doctrinal Standards. Second, it goes against Article XXI in the Articles of Religion which “says that ministers are not ordered to be single or ‘to abstain from marriage’ but are free ‘to marry at their own discretion,’ as they shall judge the same to serve best to godliness’” (11). So the opposition to gay marriage is unconstitutional in the strongest sense possible because only the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith count as doctrinal standards in United Methodism. Third, it contradicts the Doctrinal Standards in an additional way as follows: it runs up against the claim that grace precedes any good will or good works in the Doctrinal Standards. Indeed “…these Doctrinal Standards put the new denomination on a foundation of grace because the merging partners made conscious choices to include them” (12). The United Methodist Church had a “theology based solely on grace” rather than a theology “linked largely to law” (3). To repeat the content of an earlier quotation: “In effect, the denomination shifted from being an evangelical church based on grace to a levitical church that emphasizes obedience to church law” (3). 

It is clear by now that Lawrence is deeply worried that United Methodism has lost its way in and around the doctrine of grace. This shift happens at two levels. First, we have shifted from grace to law as a matter of theological reasoning; this is a radical departure from the material doctrine of grace that served as the foundation of the teaching of The United Methodist Church. Second, the doctrine of grace has been replaced by an otiose vision of legalism that is morally unacceptable.

The latter is not quite as clear as the former, but I think it is a fair reading of Lawrence’s position. Thus, he concludes that “United Methodism has abandoned the liberty of grace for the rigidity of law. The denomination has moved from an evangelical theology of transforming grace to a levitical theology that uses legislation as the language of doctrine” (37). Given the new items of canon law introduced at the General Conference of 2019, “The grace of God’s boundless love can be placed in bondage by laws that use human power to restrict the blessings of holy power” (40). 

Additional Problems in the UMC

Problems of Church Law 

Consequently, Lawrence is deeply concerned if not appalled that we are open to “punishing persons who are deemed to be problems” (15). Given that “church doctrine on marriage is a matter of grace that honors individual ‘discretion’ and personal freedom” (16), we are eliminating discretion and freedom when it comes to marriage. We are also acting illegally from an ecclesiastical point of view, when we no longer allow Annual Conferences to make comprehensive and final decisions on fitness for ministry. Moreover, “the General Conference created its newly crafted doctrine with impunity and expanded its power to write legislation that alters the Doctrinal Standards” (17). We have imposed “legislative controls on the means of grace such as Christian conferencing about persons who may be divinely called to ministry” (18). We have “outlawed consideration of certain types of persons” (18). We have sentenced aspiring deacons to punishment. “Personal Identity and pastoral activity [thus] became ecclesiastically criminal” (28). The end result is that 

The United Methodist Church as a “body of Christ” emerged from the 2019 General Conference with sharper elbows, firmer fists, crankier spirits, and weaker hearts for the mission of Christ. Yet its spiritual sepsis has been developing for decades, and it has now reached toxic levels. The church is so wounded that it may lack the resources to exercise faithful discipleship effectively. Indeed, the denomination as an institution may be terminally ill (21).

In order to keep this paper within bounds, it is not possible to cover all the points that Lawrence has made in his paper. He provides, for example, exceptionally illuminating information on the workings of the Judicial Council and the Council of Bishops. His reading of Article XXI on marriage is fascinating. (I find his reading of the text bizarre in terms of the original meaning of the text. To put the issue provocatively, this use of the text is a lawyerly reading of the text if ever there was one.) He has helpful things to say about the different expressions of United Methodist teaching and the many sites of theological discernment that are in play in United Methodism. However, to round off my exposition, it is important to mention briefly three other elements in Lawrence’s deliberations.

First, Lawrence is very clear that the only way to resolve disputes about what is or is not compatible with our Doctrinal Standards is to identify a constitutional entity or entities that will assess theologically whether the acts of the General Conference in making theological statements or doctrinal declarations properly align with the Doctrinal Standards of the church. This is a kind of quiet refrain throughout his paper. It is also the warrant for his argument that the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” should be removed from The Book of Discipline and from any place where it is a premise for church law. I presume that this in turn means the removal of all the laws that Lawrence finds so otiose. 

Power-Hungry Conservatives 

Second, it is very clear who is to blame for this disastrous shift from grace to law within United Methodism. The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the various renewal groups that have sprung up within United Methodism since the 1960s. The leaders of these groups clearly set out “to seize control of the denomination” (45). The culprits at this point are obvious: The Good News Movement, The Confessing Movement, the Renew Women’s Network, UM Action, Lifewatch, and Transforming Congregations. The most recent bad actor, one suspects, is to be found in The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA). While The Confessing Movement “was in part inspired by tactics that right-wing Baptists had used to seize the Southern Baptist Convention” (45), Lawrence is more generous in his account of the WCA in that he allows for real ambiguities in describing its position on separation. 

The Church and the Changing Culture

Third, it is very clear where Lawrence stands in the underlying issue of the relation between church doctrine and cultural developments on sexuality. In a rhetorically powerful passage he identifies the “Stonewall Riots” of 1969 as “a defining moment for national and international perspectives on homosexuality” (43). He then notes that “United Methodist clergy and laity, who had become accustomed to a closeted system, soon discovered that things were changing in society and had to change in the church” (43). This is a telling remark, even though it does not get much attention in the paper as a whole.

Assessing Lawrence’s Historical and Theological Judgments

Initial Considerations

I am willing to offer this summary as a relatively fair rendering of a long and complex paper that seeks to provide an accurate narrative of the history of United Methodism to date. To be sure, Lawrence covers but one strand in the total history that will need to be told, but it is clearly the most important strand regarding the contemporary crisis we face. The plot line is straightforward. We started off well, but over time made a fatal mistake by seeking to do theology through the medium of church law. As a result, we made a calamitous shift from grace to law, driven by an obsession with homosexuality that created the conditions in which we acted unconstitutionally and bartered away over time our precious emphasis on grace. The culprits in this are the leaders of the various renewal networks who were determined to seize control of the denomination. The way ahead is to identify a watchdog to assess if our theological statements are in line with our Doctrinal Standards, sort out how to apply our Restrictive Rules, and in the meantime strike the offending phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” and (presumably) all church law that depends on it. 

In order to do justice to the argument presented, we need to attend to the historical and theological judgments that are the backbone of this narrative. As to areas of agreement, I am fully on board with the initial identification of The Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith as Doctrinal Standards. I further agree that the Wesleyan tradition has kept alive a robust doctrine of grace across the years. I also think that we are now on the brink of separation, as is made clear by the appearance of the Feinberg Protocols on January 3, 2020. We are now watching the unfolding of a tragedy that will take time to unravel over the next decades in the hands of historians. Part of this tragedy can be located in the toxic atmosphere that has become a marked feature of General Conferences and other venues, and part of it stems from serious mistakes that have been made across the years. 

While it is not strictly possible to keep our historical and theological judgments in separate compartments, let me do so for the sake of clarity. There are serious flaws on both counts. At the outset it is important to deal with the conceptual and historical issues that are in play when we make claims about theological method and doctrine in The United Methodist Church.

Consider a distinction between a norm or foundation as it relates to theological method and a specific theological proposal that emerges from rational deliberation or is based on a preferred foundation. The items that show up in discussions of theological norms are familiar over the history of United Methodism, namely, scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. These are technically epistemic concepts, that is, they help us sort out what is true from what is false, the rational from the irrational, the justified from the unjustified, the warranted from the unwarranted, and so on. Specific theological proposals are radically different in nature. Here are some examples: the doctrine of the Trinity, the claim that we are justified by grace rather than works, and the assertion that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, fully human and fully divine. Failure to attend to this crucial distinction between norms and specific doctrines is a besetting sin in United Methodist circles. Thus, we speak loosely of “doctrinal standards” or “guidelines” and we all too readily treat specific doctrines as standards, a claim which is strictly incoherent if we attend to ‘standard’ as a genuine norm in theological method. 

Let’s apply this distinction to claims about the content of the Doctrinal Standards of The United Methodist Church. Lawrence is in my view correct to identify the Doctrinal Standards in The United Methodist Church as the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. This has been and is disputed, but we need not take up that thorny issue here. Within those Standards, the actual norm deployed is in fact scripture in the case of the Articles of Religion (Article V) and divine revelation in the case of the Confession of Faith (Article IV). For the most part, the rest of the material consists of specific theological assertions about the Trinity, salvation, the church, justification, and so on. The latter can act as a ‘norm’ but only in the exceptionally weak sense of insisting that theological claims developed as United Methodist specimens of doctrine must be consistent with the specific doctrines promulgated in the Doctrinal Standards. They are not norms in the epistemic sense of providing foundations or criteria of rational assessment. 

We are now in a position to see what has gone wrong at the outset in the way that Lawrence frames his story of United Methodism. 

Historical Considerations

Lawrence’s proposals run together the material in the Doctrinal Standards with the declarations developed in the section called Our Theological Task. The problem with the material in Our Theological Task is that it eviscerates the normative standing of the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The latter are relativized to become landmarks rather than norms for assessing theological innovation or propriety. Indeed, the one actual norm given in the Articles of Religion (the one on scripture) is displaced by the adoption of the so-called Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, reason, and expe