Why United Methodists should have a catechism

By Teddy Ray, Special Contributor…

William Abraham, of Perkins School of Theology, recounts a conversation at a United Methodist church between one of his friends and a couple who had transferred in from the Southern Baptist tradition. The former Baptists shared that where “before, as Southern Baptists, they had to accept a whole system of doctrine, they were now free, as United Methodists, to believe anything they liked.”

This conversation isn’t unusual. There is a pervasive view that United Methodists do not have particular doctrinal standards. Instead, the UMC is known more for its polity—episcopal structure and itinerant pastors—than its theology.

Teddy Ray

United Methodists do have defined doctrinal beliefs, though. As Dr. Abraham notes, “By appropriate legislation, our standards are clearly constituted by the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, Wesley’s Sermons, and Wesley’s Notes.” From the beginning we have claimed these standards of doctrine.

Though these standards have always been formally defined, they have not been communicated well across the Church. The most pressing problem for United Methodists is how to appropriately teach and preserve the doctrines we claim.

The United Methodist Church needs a catechism. We need to teach what we believe in a way that is clear and concise. We need to teach clearly enough that those doctrines most basic to Wesleyan theology will not be easily undermined or ignored.

Such a teaching effort will help to show our members that United Methodists do not “believe anything they like,” but that we have a robust and distinctive theology.

In a denomination that regularly changes pastoral appointments, a universally used catechism would provide a common, concise articulation of United Methodist beliefs.

Historical use

Though catechisms are rarely used in the UMC today, the use of catechisms is an important part of the Methodist tradition. John Wesley regarded all members as probationers and called them “catechumens.”

According to Frederick Norwood, “He considered that he was following apostolic precedent in separating from the body of ‘hearers’ those who were convinced, and organizing them into a society of ‘catechumens.’”

Wesley developed a children’s catechism, Instructions for Children, and named it as one of three books that should be supplied to every Methodist society and in every house. That book “was to serve as the chief textbook for the religious education of children in Methodist homes. Wesley urged his preachers to distribute it, study and teach it themselves, and encourage its diligent use by parents.”

Of course, the intent of Wesley’s instruction was not merely that the Methodists would become more knowledgeable in their doctrinal beliefs, but that they would grow in holiness of heart and life.

In the same way, the United Methodist Church should not undertake to teach people catechisms only so that more of its members may articulate a clear and concise understanding of the basics of faith, but that through their understanding, Methodists might grow in holiness of heart and life.

Renewal in the UMC

The United Methodist Church needs a catechism because of the possibility of renewal through a fresh focus on our beliefs. “It is seldom,” notes Dr. Abraham, “that we have explored the extent to which renewal is dependent on healing the doctrinal amnesia we have sought to cure by recovering a more adequate historical memory.”

The UMC has been responding to membership decline, aging congregations and coming financial crisis with businesslike solutions. We should again take note of history, though. Dr. Abraham describes the way that renewal came with Luther and Wesley, among others: “They took to immersion in the scriptures, to study of the tradition, to intentional participation in the sacramental life of the church, to prayer, and to extended conversation with their friends.”

If only these had been the primary focus of our recent General Conference!

A fresh immersion in the faith has the power for renewal. We must not discount how powerfully people can experience God’s grace as they come to more fully understand it and as they participate in Christian practices, both as individuals and within a community of believers.

There are many reasons that the United Methodist Church needs a catechism. We need a way to clearly and concisely teach our beliefs to our members. That teaching will help us avoid theological pluralism and avoid drifting from basic Wesleyan theology. As we look to our history, we will see a great precedent for this kind of Christian preparation and discipleship. As we look to our future, we may find great hope for renewal through a fresh immersion in the faith.

Mr. Ray is executive pastor at First UMC in Lexington, Ky., and a licensed local pastor in the UMC. This piece appeared originally at seedbed.com, a website of Asbury Theological Seminary.

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6 Comments on "Why United Methodists should have a catechism"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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clark_2012@comcast.n
Guest

What is an EXECUTIVE minister? Are we a church or a corporation? Think it is not that we don't have a catechism
that is our problem! I'm sure the Good news movement – or the Chuch and Society folks could come up with a wonderful catechism. However they would not agree on many points? Think and let think has been our strength –
and our weakness.

The Roman Catholic tradition does not seem to be held together with their catechism. It is our Faith, not our Belief's
that hold us together.

revjoeyreed
Guest

To study a common theology first and then to think and let think has been our strength. Our weakness has been to think and let think without delineating the bounds of truth and heresy.

js79
Guest

Last I saw the essentials of the UMC were No Gambling, No Drinking, No question Elders and DO pay your approtionments. Is there anything else?

To the world at large and most bottoms in the pews, the UMC stands for everything and nothing. It would be nice to see that change but given how every GC deadlocks on homosexuality and accomplishes nothing I doubt this is practical or even possible.

jpinsatx
Guest
Strongly Agree. A true Wesleyan catechism will provide common ground on the Essentials. Then as a church family we can finally Agree to Disagree on the NON-Essentials. "Of course, the intent of Wesley’s instruction was not merely that the Methodists would become more knowledgeable in their doctrinal beliefs, but that they would grow in holiness of heart and life." "There are many doctrines of a less essential nature… In these we may think and let think; we may 'agree to disagree.' These are the fundamental doctrines… summed up, as it were, in two words, — the new birth, and justification… Read more »
steve w
Guest

I believe conscientiously that Catechism and the Communion should reflect on an interfaith role with other denominations' participation, other Protestant faiths and the RC Church as well.

voels6
Guest

AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!

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