Approving polity: Questions for United Methodists in a Pensive Season

(Following is an excerpt from The 19, published this year by Abingdon Press. The book addresses each of the nineteen questions asked of United Methodist ordinands since the days of John Wesley. This reflection is based on question #12: “Do you approve our Church government and polity?”)

Hannah Whitehall Smith says it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. And it is true, isn’t it? We always like our own ideas better than other people’s ideas. God knows this about us, so his way of working in us is to get possession of us so he can make his ideas our ideas. This is why Paul could say with confidence, “Christ in you is the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27, italics mine). Without the indwelling Christ, we are just another human being who knows the rules.

That difference between head-level rules and heart-level rules is the difference between life and death in ministry. Just as knowing the law but not owning it was death for the Israelites, so too it is death for us. We are designed for a “religion of the heart” (Wesley, Thoughts Upon Methodism). There is something to be said for signing on at the heart level, for embracing first our theology, then our polity, and allowing them to shape us from the inside out. We may not approve of every “jot and tittle,” but we can affirm the spirit of our tribe. In fact we should affirm this spirit, if we are going to be part of this connection.

Let’s be honest. No job is everything we love and nothing we don’t. Every job has its plusses and minuses. I didn’t come into United Methodist ministry because I fell in love with its discipline and polity. I came into the ministry because I love Jesus, and I sense that within the UMC’s system of connection and covenant I can serve him well. I complain with the best of them about Charge Conference and end-of-year reporting, but I manage to accomplish those tasks because they are part of a bigger ministry life I love dearly. I love healing prayer and preaching and the stunning miracle of seeing someone embrace Christ. I love seeing people get filled with the Holy Spirit. I love the countless hours spent listening and praying, and I love thinking strategically about how to extend this work as far as possible. At its best, United Methodist polity and discipline serves these other causes well. I am well aware that polity is not a matter of salvation, but I know that supporting and maintaining it is the only way our connection and covenant will function. If we all pick and choose which parts we like and which we don’t, it won’t work. Anarchy ensues.

Wesley’s practice of repetition in these [19] questions reveals his understanding of human nature. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he dealt often with ministers who were weak in the spiritual discipline of letting their yes be yes and their no be no. How much confusion is caused by well-meaning people who have not counted the cost before building the house, who have signed on without letting the spirit of our tribe sink into their bones? Can I say this with complete respect and love? You don’t get to decide what it means to be United Methodist. That has already been determined. Any decision to change that must go through proper channels, covered with massive amounts of prayer. Do you approve that? Can you approve the spirit of our discipline and polity while maintaining a generous heart?

Obviously, I made it out of seminary with a degree because here I am as a pastor. To my absolute surprise, I found myself back in school a few years ago completing a doctorate. In our first session together, my doctoral cohort tackled a ropes course. One of our challenges was a two-wire exercise. The wires, about three feet above ground, were stretched between two trees. As they traveled from one tree to the other, they gradually spread apart from each other. One person balanced on one wire and a partner balanced on the other wire. Our task was to lean into one another while we slowly scooted down the wires, even as they spread further and further apart. The trick was to lean equally on each other (remember that) as counter-weights to hold each other up. It won’t work if one leans and the other doesn’t, so we both had to lean in and surrender all our weight.

We discovered through trial and error that the best way for two people to scoot down the wire was to listen to each other. We would ask, “What do you need? What does this look like from your perspective? How can I help?” Without verbalizing it, it was hard to know the other person’s challenge in that moment. Our teammates on the ground were also there to tell us what we couldn’t see. They would say things like, “Straighten up! Push in!” And I’d think, “I AM pushing in!” when evidently I wasn’t. It was almost impossible when I was wobbling on that wire to know my own position. It took all of us working together to get two of us from one tree to the other.

The moral of the story, of course, is that we need each other. This is the point of our connectional system. It is designed for people who trust each other enough to lean in. But it only works if everyone leans in. It won’t work if one leans and another doesn’t. The key to the whole system is vulnerability. It is in keeping my heart soft toward the people God places in my path so that they become the priority rather than the institution. The clearest way I’ve seen to maintain vulnerability is to speak honestly out of my own experience — even my own brokenness. The guy who said, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” got a mention in the most-read book of all time (John 9:25). The guy who said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” is my favorite unnamed person in the Bible (Mark 9:24). Both displayed the heart of flesh necessary for spiritual connection to happen.

As you make your own personal inventory of what you believe about our polity and discipline, ask yourself if you are sufficiently healed and whole to lean in — to give yourself wholeheartedly to a connection of Christ-followers who are bent on spreading “scriptural holiness over the land” (Wesley, Large Minutes). This is the great need. It is for people ready to partner in both covenant and connection for the sake of a lost and hurting world.

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Are we connected? (Three non-negotiables for the United Methodist Church)

Sometimes conflict creates clarity.

This current season of debate within the United Methodist Church has caused us to talk a lot about what really connects us. What exactly is our connecting point? The Book of Discipline? The Articles of Religion? Social principles?

Or just the logo?

In the midst of conflicting ideas, we can clarify what matters most and recommit to the beliefs that keep our communities of faith firmly tethered to an orthodox Christian worldview.

Ours is a confessional tradition. There are essentials upon which our theological house is built. These essentials should help us navigate the debates before us and I am confident they can bring clarity to our conversations in the days ahead.

I consider these three foundational truths to be non-negotiables for a Wesleyan worldview:¹

The exclusive nature of Jesus Christ. We believe, as Christ himself taught, that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). Methodists are not universalists. We recognize that claiming the exclusive nature of Jesus’ messiahship creates a set of questions around salvation for those who live in other places and embrace other faiths. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we are confident in our call to preach the Gospel as truth whenever and wherever we’re given the opportunity.

Our covenant within the United Methodist Church is founded on its Articles of Religion, which profess an orthodox understanding of this gospel. They are grounded in Christ as the exclusive savior of the world. If we’re going to remain connected, we must insist on a relationship built on integrity and true accountability around those Articles of Religion.

The authority of the Bible. The Bible contains all things necessary for salvation. We trust it as it is written in the Old and New Testaments and believe it to be the Living Word of God. This value includes but is certainly not limited to an orthodox theology surrounding life, marriage and human sexuality. The Bible is the one book with power to hold a relevant conversation in any culture or time.

The global nature of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is sufficient for all people in all cultures. It doesn’t change. We trust that this gospel is the same gospel for all people everywhere in the world. Put another way, if he is not Christ for the whole world, can he be Christ for any of it?

Methodists are incarnational and global in our approach to evangelism. We seek partnership with those within the Wesleyan tradition around the globe, not just as people on the receiving end of mission activities but as fully invested members of this expression of faith. To entertain the notion of dividing the United Methodist church theologically by creating a central conference for North America or the U.S. is a blow to this core value. We must reject any revision of our structure that further separates our connection geographically. The world is our parish.

These essentials are the glue that hold our connection together. A rejection of any of these three core values is a rejection of our most basic DNA and without theological DNA to connect us, this isn’t a family any more. It is just another loosely governed non-profit.

May God be in every conversation at General Conference and make it holy by His presence.

 

¹ I am grateful to to Dr. Timothy Tennent who inspired the development of these essentials through an address delivered at Asbury Seminary in 2015. I am also grateful to Tom Lambrecht for his insights on three key issues facing General Conference 2016.

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