Faith in Action: Is doctrine making a comeback in Methodism?

Andrew Thompson

For a long time, the term “doctrine” has been perceived negatively in many United Methodist circles. It can seem to some people like one of those heavy-handed words, used by one group to coerce another.

The verb “to indoctrinate” certainly carries this connotation—almost akin to a process of brainwashing where people are brought into a rigid conformity to some standard. In the contemporary church the idea of doctrinal norms can seem to curtail freedom, as if adhering to some body of doctrine means ceasing to think for oneself.

On its face, this is an odd pattern of thinking for Methodists to have fallen into. We certainly see forms of indoctrination elsewhere in society that we endorse wholeheartedly. When we teach children to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag, or sing the national anthem, we are indoctrinating them into a form of patriotism. When youth join sports teams, they become indoctrinated into the rules and discipline of whatever sport they are pursuing. Learning math means learning the doctrine of an academic subject. And any 16-year old can tell you that she had to pass a test—which meant learning a certain body of doctrine—before she could get her driver’s license.

So the fact that doctrine in a religious context is seen as somehow negative is completely incongruous with the rest of social life. It’s also out of step with the Wesleyan roots of our tradition. John Wesley himself placed a high valuation on doctrine. Fundamental Christian doctrines having to do with salvation, such as justification and sanctification, were central to his preaching. He made doctrinal considerations a major part of the early annual conferences. And he prepared a body of doctrine (the Articles of Religion) for the American Methodists as they were preparing to establish their own church in 1784.

Happily, it may be the case that the understanding of doctrine is becoming more positive in Methodist culture today. That seems to be coming about because of the way in which scholars and pastors are explaining the term to the church at large.

I was speaking with a friend not long ago who commented to me on the way in which language can be rehabilitated in the church. He used the example of “accountability.”

A few years ago, your average Methodist would likely have balked at the suggestion that he needed accountability. It sounds on the surface like such a rigid word, almost legalistic in nature.

But a lot has changed. Interest in the Wesleyan tradition has spiked in recent decades. Part of that has included an examination of how the early Methodists practiced their discipleship. What has become clear is that one part of the effectiveness of early Methodism was the way in which the early Methodists understood themselves to be responsible to one another for how they went about their faith in daily life.

David Lowes Watson coined the term “mutual accountability” in the 1980s to characterize the kind of activity that once went on in Methodist class meetings and bands. He prefers to talk about “accountable discipleship” as the Wesleyan standard. It is a form of discipleship that is not carried out individually but rather in relationships that are nurtured in small group contexts.

The result of all this work around discipleship practices in the Wesleyan tradition has been that the word “accountability” itself sounds different to our ears today than it would have a few years ago. The actual experience of accountable discipleship is challenging, and many people still shy away from its demands. But most everyone agrees that accountability is a good and necessary aspect of an authentic faith.

I believe that the word “doctrine” is undergoing a similar rehabilitation. When people come to understand that the word itself simply means “teaching,” they tend to let their guard down a bit. And when it is explained that Christian doctrine at its best is nothing more than a summary of Scriptural interpretation on a particular point of belief or practice that has stood the test of time—well, then it starts to sound downright interesting.

Take the Apostles’ Creed, which is one of the more familiar doctrinal summaries to most Methodists. It is a statement about the doctrine of the Trinity that names who God is, drawn from Scriptural material and hammered out in the early centuries of the church. A teaching curriculum or sermon series based off of the creed can draw broad interest from a congregation: interest that is both spiritual and intellectual. I know, because I’ve tried it.

William J. Abraham has argued that a recovery of doctrine in Methodism can amount to a “fresh immersion in the faith.” I couldn’t agree more. The doctrine represented in the classical faith of the church is good news in just this way: It tells us that we don’t have to make up the Christian faith on our own. Instead, we have a body of teaching upon which we can rely. We ought rightly to receive doctrine as the gift of God and the church, bequeathed to us as an inheritance so that we might know the ways that make for life.

***

Columnist’s note: As this will be my final column, I want to take the opportunity to thank the staff of the Reporter and its parent company, UMR Communications.

I am profoundly grateful to the Reporter for the opportunity to write in this column space over the past eight years. I particularly want to express my gratitude to the editors I have had, all of whom have been wonderful to work with. They have always served to sharpen both my ideas and my writing, all the while giving me latitude to explore freely the intersection of church, culture and discipleship. A columnist couldn’t ask for more.

Dr. Thompson is an assistant professor of historical theology and Wesleyan studies at Memphis Theological Seminary. Reach him at www.andrewthompson.com. Follow him on Twitter, @andrew72450.

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4 Comments on "Faith in Action: Is doctrine making a comeback in Methodism?"

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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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atrinitarian
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Corrected comment Well, just as many Methodists may be returning to doctrine, a number in the Episcopal Church think that doctrine is old hat. And, oh yes, the phrase I prefer a “religion *of* Jesus than the religion *about* Jesus” is also becoming a catch-phrase among some in our denomination. Just why Jesus without Belief in His divinity merits “following” — whatever that may mean — no one says. . I have doubts about the Virgin Birth, but Jesus deserves our faith because he demonstrated by much more than his teachings that he is God’s Son (doctrine), who rose after… Read more »
earthling
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Orthodoxy comes first only if you don't believe that Holy Spirit is still speaking !!!!!!! I prefer to follow Jesus and Holy Spirit rather than 'solidified doctrine and creeds.' Doctrines and creeds were all man-make…just like the Book of Discipline——–man-made and full of error, narrow and limiting. Today we have access to lots of historical records that were not available when some of those doctrines and creeds were made, indeed, when Wesley was speaking. Who knows what he would say today if he could read all those discoveries??????????? I agree with those who say they follow Jesus rather than The… Read more »
roger wolsey
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Rather than more orthodoxy (right teachings/dogma), I'm praying for a renewed emphasis upon orthopraxy (right actions/living). In other words, I'm urging us to care far more about the religion *of* Jesus than the religion *about* Jesus.
Peace.

js79
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How can you have orthopraxy withou orthodoxy? The one comes before the other.

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