Commentary: Democracy and the politics of grace

Delegates work at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Delegates work at the 2012 United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Fla.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

By Darryl Stephens*

In a recent commentary for UMNS, I took up the issue of fairness of representation, focusing whose voices get heard at General Conference. David W. Scott and others have also pointed to the issue of voice in relation to central conference delegates. An underlying theological issue, though, is the relation between democracy and grace. John Wesley understood Christian conferencing, not democracy, as a means of grace.

Representative Democracy

American Methodism has always exhibited a creative tension between grace and democracy. The institutional commitment to a democratic procedure, owing as much to Enlightenment political philosophy as to the idea of the priesthood of all believers, is an integral part of United Methodist practice and identity. However, majority rule is not necessarily a sound theological authority.

Noted Wesleyan scholar Albert Outler claimed, “There is something profoundly self-deceiving in the assumption that valid authority in disputed questions [of doctrine] can ever flow from the majority vote in the General Conferences. Such majorities weaken rather than strengthen a church’s real authority.”

The truth of Outler’s critique is evident on a practical level. Factional divisions within the church threaten institutional integrity with block-voting in order to carry a democratic majority at the expense of a minority who differ.

What must United Methodists do to be more attuned to the work of the Holy Spirit in their midst? How can United Methodists recover a sense of grace at General Conference?

Christian Conferencing as a Means of Grace

Methodist polity is grounded theologically on Christian conferencing, a structured way of nurturing the holy life, advocated by John Wesley as a means of grace. It is a holistic practice of seeking spiritual wisdom and holding fellow believers accountable within a faith community.

According to the new United Methodist study document, Wonder, Love, and Praise: Sharing a Vision of the Church, Christian conference “involves elements of prayerful, honest self-examination, of ‘speaking the truth in love’ to one another, of mutual accountability and support, and of careful deliberation as to how we are to conduct ourselves in the future.”

Conferencing provides communal accountability for the individual’s life of faith and a channel for new and deeper experiences of God’s presence through the Holy Spirit (that is, grace). Through hearing and sharing the experiences of others in Christian community, the believer can test his or her own experiences of grace.

The Value of Difference

Christian conferencing differs significantly from representative democracy by valuing difference. Different perspectives, not the leveraged power of a majority, enhance its force of authority. Wesley relied on Christian conference as an epistemological method for objectivity in the science of the religious affections.

As a means of grace, conferencing operates on the principle that persons with different perspectives offer a corrective to one’s own, naturally self-interested and sinful, perspective. In effect, conferencing turns Jesus’s parabolic dilemma of noticing the speck in the neighbor’s eye despite the log in one’s own eye (Mt 7:3–5) to epistemological advantage by honoring the critical vantage point of the neighbor for one’s own correction.

Thus, Christians need to maintain unity with persons whose opinions and perspectives differ, so that their own biases and preferences are not mistaken for God’s will. The very diversity that God gifts the church enables us to “gain some intellectual humility, and to cultivate some dispositions that would permit wisdom to grow,” according to Wonder, Love, and Praise. “When the church is confronted with a new situation and is pondering its best response, it is well to have a wide range of experiences and perspectives on hand.”

When Christian conferencing is the value determining delegate elections, the more diversity in the delegation, the better. Believers may rely on each other for mutual admonition even as they nurture each other in the faith. Yet, rather than mutual admonition, United Methodists often experience mutual antagonism.

Power Absent Grace

There are many ways that democratic procedures can be abused, particularly when divorced from attention to God’s grace.

For example, manipulation of delegate elections through block-voting to eliminate or reduce dissenting voices is perfectly legal in democratic practice. Jeremy Smith draws attention to this and other democratic abuses as he charts the current majority’s path to hegemony in the UMC.

Here is where an appeal to the value of representative democracy fails to serve the church. “Good democracy,” according to Norwegian delegate Audun Westad, “must be measured on the majority’s willingness to protect the minority.” Failure to do so is an abuse of power, a tyranny of the majority.

Even attempts at Christian conferencing can result in abuses when power is used over others. Reports of bullying during time for “holy conversations” at General Conference 2012 attest to the fact that the means minus the grace is no grace at all. Likewise, adopting the proposed “Rule 44” for General Conference 2016 would not guarantee genuine Christian conferencing.

The Politics of Grace

To recover a sense of Christian conferencing, the practices of General Conference must be done in a context of faithful upbuilding every day—not once a quadrennium—among United Methodists of differing beliefs and mindsets. This would require, as has been attempted in some annual conferences, “emending our life together” through years of respectful dialogue rather than attempting simply to amend the language of the Discipline through better legislation.

If the purpose of the church has something to do with unity in the Holy Spirit and communion with God and each other, “[p]erhaps,” as Wonder, Love, and Praise suggests, “we should not move too readily toward a democratic resolution of our deeper differences.” Can this church find a different form of politics?

General Conference—to the extent that its practices are intentionally commensurate with and supportive of discipleship formation, glorifying God, and love of neighbor—can be an expression of grace. Done well, the politics of grace in United Methodism can form disciples who will transform the world through their witness.



Darryl_Stephens*Darryl W. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and a clergy member of the Texas Annual Conference. Stephens based this article on his forthcoming book, Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press, April 2016).



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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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Sounds great when put this way. So what do you do when you have a group that is committed to “protest and disrupt local, national and global events”. How do you deal with that?
And when all is said and the votes are counted the majority view carries the day.

Sherrie Lynn Robertson
Sherrie Lynn Robertson

It was suggested by Ministers in the Churchill Tory Government in Great Britain that the response to Gandhi’s “protests and disruptions and national global events” seeking the end of British rule in India should be “selective massacres.” Do you think that would be good?


Having been a victim of Christian Conferencing , I believe the legalization of dueling would be more honest, and likely more productive. Lord help us.

Richard F Hicks
Richard F Hicks

Central Conference membership will soon be larger than stateside UMC Inc. I’m not so sure that the Central Conference delegates will be controllable once they realize that they are the majority. The UMC Inc has created a UN. Like at the UN UMC Inc is quickly becoming a shrinking permanent member of an the “unsecurity council.” Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC

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