United Methodist Polity: A Question


Stephen Rankin

By Stephen Rankin*

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:

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.
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.

*The Rev. Dr. Stephen Rankin is the Chaplain and Minister to Southern Methodist University, located in Dallas, TX. Steve’s passion is helping students, professors and campus ministers engage in thoughtful practices that integrate faith and learning. He regularly blogs at http://steverankin.wordpress.com

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Chris Terrill
Chris Terrill

Thanks for writing this. Your analysis resonates with me. Keeping in mind that I am just an ordinary UM layman who is pretty much just a spectator in this debate … so to your first question: “The first order of business, then, is to answer the question: do we United Methodists still share a vision?” I believe the answer to this question is a resounding “No!” (I believe this circumstance has been the case to varying degrees for the better part of a century.) Your second question then: “If we don’t [share vision], then … Do we agree, for example,… Read more »


Excellent insights…and very accurate.


The operative words are “shared vision”….indeed, the modern UMC has long been undergoing a process of internal division owing to conflicting visions. On the one hand we have the vision of a liberalized, social gospel, with all of its attendant doctrines reflecting cultural accomodation and political activism in the quest for an ill-defined, malleable view of justice. On the other hand we have the vision of orthodoxy with its emphasis on timeless truths and the primacy of historic Christian teaching as undergirded by traditional Biblical understandings. The two visions cannot continue to coexist. One vision will necessarily have to take… Read more »

Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

I’m frustrated by the continual whining of people who freely joined an organization which has black letter law and then don’t want that law enforced. I’m angry with the continual disregard of black letter law not being enforced by the freely elected authorities of that organization. When I hear “pastoral” I get sick. Too often “pastoral” means “I/we are going to disregard and disrespect the rule of law because of fear of those in power or the protection of those whom are the favorites of the powerful.” When these two things happen chaos and anarchy provide for decline and demise.… Read more »


Excellent comment. I do believe that you are exactly right that, for that great majority of the laity, they are simply tied to their local church. They don’t concern themselves with the denomination itself that much, don’t care to investigate the debates currently taking place, and simply are of a mind that, if their local church changes in a way they don’t like, they will simply find another church more to their liking. There’s always some other church that one can find that is a better fit for the person theologically if the current church doesn’t measure up. The only… Read more »

Dave Nuckols
Dave Nuckols

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.

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