In recent years Methodist folk have seemed to have an ambiguous relationship with the idea of what it means for the church to embrace its doctrinal foundations. In popular writing, you’ll sometimes see comments that suggest that the United Methodist Church is not a doctrinal church. Or you’ll see people who equate doctrine with a theological construct like the so-called “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” (which is neither Wesleyan nor a quadrilateral, and which is certainly not an article of belief).
I wrote my current column in the United Methodist Reporter to address this very issue. And I wrote it to argue just the opposite – namely, that doctrine stands at the heart of what it means to be Methodist.
The most sophisticated example of the resistance to embracing a doctrinal foundation in the church can be found in Thomas Frank’s book, The Polity, Practice, and Mission of the United Methodist Church (Abingdon Press, 2006). Because Professor Frank argues his case rigorously, it is worth looking at more closely.
Frank argues that Methodists “have always had a predilection for narrative – explaining themselves historically more than doctrinally” (141). He states further that “United Methodists have traditionally done theology more by appealing to people to join in the challenge of a continuing mission than by setting up doctrinal criteria as the basis of consistent authority.” (143). For Frank, this means that Methodists tend to have “a fluid, pragmatic sense of authority that grows out of a continually changing theological practice and consensus” (ibid.).
The gist of this approach to doctrine is that there is nothing foundational about the church’s doctrine at this time or any other. When comparing the two major sections of Part II of the Book of Discipline – Doctrinal Standards and Our Theological Task (the latter of which commonly goes by the name of the Quadrilateral), Frank favors the approach of ongoing theological construction aiming at something like a ‘consensus of the present.’ He disagrees with the notion of doctrine serving as a criterion for admission to the church or as church law that can test the way we make decisions about belief, ministry, and mission (see 149).
As I argue in my column, I simply don’t see that this point of view has any basis in the historical foundations of Methodism. If it is a view that is held by some in the present, then that has more to do with current cultural standards than with the history of the church or the character of Wesleyan belief. We have a doctrinal framework that can be seen in any number of ways: our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, which serve as the doctrinal statements for what we believe about God, Jesus Christ, the church, the sacraments, sin, and any number of other core points of belief and practice. We have the historical witness of John Wesley and the early Methodists, who did believe telling their story through narrative was important, but who also grounded what they did in doctrinal commitments about grace, salvation, and the calling to mission. And our liturgy for membership in the church does, in fact, include questions of a doctrinal nature about God, Christian identity & witness, and the church.
To understand the deep importance of doctrine for the character of the church and Christian discipleship, we must understand that it has both normative and formative aspects. Normatively, it does serve as a juridical boundary that tells us what is and what is not within the limits of Christian belief. It does this not as a way to squelch discernment and conversation but rather as a witness to what the church catholic professes to be true across time and space.
Formatively, embracing doctrine in our teaching, ministry, and discipleship serves to promote the kind of character that we understand to be right and good for all Christian people. In that sense, doctrine is the backbone of the church. It is a foundation, from which we can grow knowing that we have built our houses on the rock and not the shifting sands of a culture that is ever wanting to bend to whatever winds happen to blowing in from the sea. Thus like the gospel out of which it is derived, doctrine is good news.
For further reading: If you’d like to read more in-depth about the doctrine of the United Methodist Church, I suggest the following two resources —
- William J. Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia: The Healing of Doctrine in the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995)
- Scott J. Jones, United Methodist Doctrine: The Extreme Center (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002).