Conjunction-Junction … What’s your Function?

In my first two posts in this series, I have been doing some denominational apologetics for those who wrongly assume that “institutions” and “denominations” are passe and irrelevant. To paraphrase Neuhaus in his book Freedom for Ministry: I have never understood those who want to be rid of the institutional church. There is no other church of spiritual or social significance.

In this post, I begin to do some constructive work on the subject of why I am United Methodist. Put simply, I agree with a column posted by Andrew Thompson where he wrote:

The conventional wisdom these days says that we need to downplay denominational identity in order to build up the church. I couldn’t disagree more. If we think the Methodist approach to the Christian faith still has anything positive to contribute to the universal Church, we should be emphasizing its distinctive witness. (from “What Does it Mean to be a Methodist?”)

So what is the “distinctive witness” that United Methodists have to offer the universal Church? I will begin by describing some of our theological emphases using what Dr. Paul Chilcote calls a Wesleyan “conjunctive theology.” The genius of Methodism has historically been its ability to live amidst theological and practical tensions; to be able to hold together ideas or themes that often elicit an either/or response. At our best, Methodists embody this practical divinity that calls the church away from false aternatives that tend to truncate a fuller expression of faith, worship, and service. Keep in mind, I am not suggesting that these emphases are not present in other denominations and communions; only that Methodists (again, at our best) have these as distinctive emphases that can serve the cause of renewal and transformation for the larger church.

Word AND Table
John Wesley considered himself a “man of one book.” It may seem odd for a lettered Oxford don, with such a penchant for reading, to so self-identify but it does demonstrate how seriously he took Holy Scripture. The Bible remains the primary source and criteria for Methodist theology and worship; one which deserves regular study, reflection, and reading – both in private devotion and in public worship.

In 2004, the United Methodist Church began to officially reclaim what has been a part of our tradition from the beginnings of the Wesleyan revival: The Table. This Holy Mystery: A United Methodist understanding of Holy Communion, is a study that states explicitly that weekly celebration of the Eucharist is normative and that every church should move toward weekly celebrations in their Lord’s Day worship. To the late John Wesley, who it is estimated communed an average of 3-4 times a week throughout his lifetime, that is good news.

Pick up a UM Hymnal and you will discover that our official “Basic Pattern of Worship” is now Word and Table, a distinctive emphasis that recovers our Wesleyan roots; roots that are firmly grounded in early church in the Church catholic.

Evangelical AND Sacramental
The Wesleyan revival was known for its evangelical fervor. At first, Wesley resisted breaks with ecclesial custom. Leaving the pulpit for “open air” preaching did not come easy to this Anglican priest. Yet Wesley would soon hit the streets, the prisons, the jails, and the distant townships with the Good News of Jesus. Many people experienced dramatic conversions and emotional responses to the word. Wesley believed and taught that one could have a personal relationship with Jesus – personal, but not private, which was clear from the early bands, classes, and societies that met together regularly to “watch over one another in love” and hold one another accountable.

Yet contrary to much evangelicalism today, Wesley simultaneously magnified the sacraments. He believed that baptism was a real moment of regeneration, though it was easy enough to sin it away. He also believed that the faithful Christian should maintain the “Duty of Constant Communion.” Believe it or not, Methodism insists that worship with Word and Table can be spirit-filled, alive, dynamic, and life-giving. Methodism asserts that being evangelical does not exclude a deep sacramental commitment to the means of grace.

Faith AND Works
Throughout Christian history, there have been some who favor St. James over the apostle Paul and others who favor Paul over James. The reformer, Martin Luther, once called Book of James an “epistle of straw.” Others have wanted to emphasize “faith without works is dead” so much that it seemed they might be implying “works without faith, ” though not ideal, is surely better than the former.

Leave it to Wesley to once again live within the tension. How else can one explain how he was accused of being antinomian (against the law) by some and legalistic and methodical in his discipleship by others (the term “methodist” was, after all, one of many pejorative labels attributed to him; it just happened to be the one to stick). His operative phrase for this synthesis was “faith working through love.”  Wesley firmly believed in the doctrine of sola fide or “faith alone” saves; but, like James, he believed that true faith will always bear fruit, the fruit of good works. In the end, Scripture affirms that James and Paul have to shake hands and make up, for they are not enemies but inseparable friends.

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