United Methodist Polity: A Question

United Methodism’s current agonies uncover a deep problem related to our polity.   Maybe it’s a good time, then, to ask a basic question. What does it mean for us United Methodists to live with a specific polity? To get at that question, let me tell you a story.

I recently had a student unhappy with his performance on a paper ask about how he could make it better. I had assigned the class the task of reviewing the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian definition and then writing a brief reflection on whether they saw these three statements as making essentially the same claims or not. They were then to explain (give a reason) for their conclusions. In the process, this student had encountered the distinction between “created” and “begotten” in the Nicene Creed and understandably went to a dictionary to sort out the difference. Unfortunately, that definition stated that “begotten” includes “created.” Because it was not a theological dictionary that would have helped put these terms in their proper context for understanding the creeds, the student got the impression that “created” and “begotten” mean the same. From the Creed’s vantage point, then, he drew the false conclusion that the Son is both created and begotten.

Our understanding something properly depends on putting it in proper context. This well-known but easily forgotten observation helps us understand the problems we’re having with polity. Back to my question: what does it mean for United Methodists to live with a specific polity?   There are two ways of answering:

  1. Polity defines our United Methodist way of life, a communal life shaped by a shared vision of what we believe to be true and good with respect to our identity and mission. Polity helps us stay accountable – in vital contact with – our shared vision.
  2. Polity refers to organization and procedure and the distribution of power through the system.   In order to share power appropriately, goods and services are gauged according to certain categories, like race, gender, etc.

Of course, these definitions overlap, but the one to which we give pride of place makes a big difference to how our current debates go. The two definitions thus lean in opposite directions and, to quote Robert Frost from “The Road Not Taken,” the one we prefer makes all the difference.

Organization, structure and procedures stand in service to shared identity, vision, mission and values.  Polity is a means to an end. Our polity needs the “content,” then, of shared vision. If we lose sight of what we share, we slip into the same problem my student had, which is to impose a definition that does not do justice to the task in front of us. If as a denomination we have lost a shared vision, it will do no good to keep fussing with one another about structure, organization and procedure. Such arguments are as futile as two surgeons called upon to perform a heart transplant on a dying patient endlessly debating the best means to open the patient’s chest.

If we share vision, measures of accountability carefully designed make sense to us and seem appropriate. If we don’t share vision, those same measures look like abuses of power. The first order of business, then, is to answer the question: do we United Methodists still share a vision? If we don’t, then we need to back up yet another step and start asking again what unifies United Methodists. Do we agree, for example, on the basic contours of the Christian life? On the nature of salvation? On holy living? On what a sanctified life of discipleship means? If we do, then let’s say so openly and clearly and share it with a desperate world. If we don’t, then let’s work on the basic question.

The amped-up pragmatists among us have no patience for this kind of discussion. We will continue to slide toward oblivion if we don’t have it.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Becky Motley, Ph.D. says:

    Your perspective always makes me think, Steve. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for the interesting post. I’d suggest that our dilemma today is not so much prioritizing “vision” vs “structure.” Because both are necessary. Rather, seems to me, our dilemma turns on the choice of “somewhat looser” vs “somewhat tighter.” How we strike that balance hinges on our tolerance for difference and our desire for unity.

    • “Somewhat looser” vs “somewhat tighter” avoids the question of whether or not we have a shared vision.

      I once heard a presentation by a David Petraeus on basic principles of leadership:

      Rule 1: Get the big picture right.
      Rule 2: Develop best practices based upon the big picture.
      Rule 3: Evaluate and refine the best practices.

      When some churches would encourage continence and confession and others would bless and encourage those in bondage to sexual sin, I would say we have a vision problem.

      Jim Lung
      Greensboro

  3. Steve Schuller says:

    You pose a valid question, “what does it mean for United Methodists to live with a specific polity?” But I wonder whether your student was stumbling over a more fundamental theological question. Polity is indeed only the structure that Methodists would utilize for bringing themselves together for the discussion. Was Jesus created or “begotten?” That’s the fundamental question that derailed your student. Dictionaries only take us so far, as your student discovered. Polity as a human construct is necessarily dependent on language, but faith is dependent more upon understanding what we’ve learned from the language. We use language to take us as far as we can get via knowledge, but the heart takes us further, into the realm of faith, well beyond what the polity offers.

  4. Hello, I was at the recent discussion at Chapel Hill this past week during your talk about this topic. You mentioned that we need to begin to “do the hard work”. I would love some guidance from you, if you don’t mind. Could you point me in the direction to some respected thinkers, pastors, etc. in this area for me to learn more? I am looking to read more on the “conservative” or “traditional” stance. Could you help me? Thank you!!

  5. Thanks Jim. Allow me to respond to your comment.

    Our shared mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This UMC mission statement reflects the Great Commission. Our shared vision to accomplish this is the Wesleyan Way of our Methodist tradition which emphases discipleship, personal holiness, social holiness and works of justice, compassion and mercy. This is our shared “big picture.” My comment about “looser vs. tighter” structure relfects the sentiment “in essentials unity, in non-essentials tolerance, and in all things charity and love.”

    Your comment, Jim, is the first to mention sex. But to the extent one underlying tension in UMC today relates to same-sex marriage (attitudes, rules and enforcement etc) , let me suggest this: Marriage equality treats gay and straight alike according to civil law, and we Methodists can offer a robust discipleship path including the Christian sexual ethic of celibacy in singleness and faithfulness in marriage and applying that ethic equally to gay Christians and straight Christians.

    Peace,
    Dave Nuckols
    Minnetonka

  6. Thanks for your response and clarification.

    I would add the necessity of the new birth to your description of the Methodist distinctives, but find problematic your description of those emphases as our “vision.” I tend to agree with Steve that those practices have much to do with polity but have no content until we put them in the context of a worldview and a theology.

    I mentioned the elephant in the room to point out the obvious incoherence resulting from of our lack of shared vision. You look to our disintegrating culture to define marriage. I look to scripture and the Church to tell me what marriage looks like.

    Steve’s post suggests that a shared vision has to do with what be know to be true and good and whether or not ” . . . we agree, for example, on the basic contours of the Christian life? On the nature of salvation? On holy living? On what a sanctified life of discipleship means?”

    And to answer these questions, we have to understand the method we use to find answers.

    Blessings,

    JIm Lung

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: