Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church

Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church

by Thomas E. Frank

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"Commissioned by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for use in United Methodist doctrine/polity/history courses." This in-depth analysis of the connection between United Methodist polity and theology addresses ways in which historical developments have shaped--and continue to shape--the organization of the church.
This revised edition incorporates


"Commissioned by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for use in United Methodist doctrine/polity/history courses." This in-depth analysis of the connection between United Methodist polity and theology addresses ways in which historical developments have shaped--and continue to shape--the organization of the church.
This revised edition incorporates the actions of The United Methodist General Conference, 2004. The book discusses continuing reforms of the church's plan for baptism and church membership, as well as the emergence of deacon's orders and other changes to ordained ministry procedures. The text is now cross-referenced to the Book of Discipline, 2004, including the revised order of disciplinary chapters and paragraph numbering. Denominational statistics are updated, along with references to recent works on The United Methodist Church and American religious life.

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Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church

By Thomas Edward Frank

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-33531-2


Polity as Ecclesial Practice and Practical Discipline

Polity is not a commonly used word in American English. Few people know immediately what the term means, though it is widely applicable to any form of governance, secular or religious. To the extent people think about it at all, they often misunderstand polity in two basic ways.

First, the word polity itself sounds to many ears like a mispronunciation, as though the speaker surely meant to say "politics" or "political." Among church folk this may quickly lead to the old bromide that "politics has no place in the church." By this people may be thinking more in a pejorative sense of politics as "smoke-filled rooms," the down-and-dirty brawl of greed and competing interests. But politics in the sense of polity—means of governance, patterns of order, authority, participation, and decision making—not only has a place in the church; polity is essential to its life if it is to function effectively as a community of faith.

A second misconception is that polity is simply a euphemism for the established rules, regulations, offices, and authorities devised by past generations. These now comprise an iron cage that today's participants must subvert or ignore. Certainly for those who have been excluded in the past or otherwise treated unjustly, the church's system has seemed incorrigible.

At the same time, though, the basic character of polity as a political practice means that people who want change are always free to organize, advocate, and write legislation or resolutions for reform. It may take generations, but the collective mind and will of the church does change. Nineteenth-century Methodist bodies finally gathered themselves to oppose slavery. Twentieth-century Methodism eventually reached consensus for ordaining women as clergy.

Moreover, whatever may be written in books of church law, the people of the church are the ones who must live out the polity and in living it must continually adapt it to new situations and contexts. Those who practice polity have a wellspring of past wisdom on which to draw—some of which is written down, some borne by oral tradition—as well as their own creativity in responding to new challenges.

Most important, a healthy polity serves not the institution itself, but the institution's mission. In ecclesiological terms, ecclesial polity is the practice of creating, ordering, re-forming, and sustaining the church's witness and service of the Reign of God. As John Wesley put it most forcefully in 1746,

What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God, and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not, it is nothing worth.

Wesley was not claiming here that "anything goes" in church order. On the contrary, his words were a manifesto for preaching to people who were outside the established order. This preaching would demand its own discipline in the service of proclaiming the gospel.

Polity and politics are rooted in the same Greek word politeia—the government, constitution, and practices of citizenship in the polis, the city or state. Aristotle argued that politeia is fundamental to human life. "Man is by nature a political animal," he asserted, for no one can live—or live completely—outside human community. Therefore the central praxis of human life is politics. Only through politics and the polity that results can human beings reach "the greatest of goods," that is, the common good of the whole city, which is the telos or end of politics.

At the heart of political responsibility Aristotle placed participation in the ekklesia—literally a calling out (from kaleo) or calling together in assembly. In the Greece of his day the free, male, and property-owning citizens (polites) of the city would gather to consider issues affecting the whole community. In assembly they would work out the common good.

As the early Christians began to gather for worship and fellowship, they assumed the term ekklesia for their own meetings. Apparently they were drawing on its reference to a public assembly of people called together for a purpose. Now, though, the ekklesia was open to all—women as well as men, slave as well as free—and strove for an even broader ideal of common good, a community of shared life anticipating the Reign of God. The term itself later came over into Latin (ecclesiasticum), Spanish (iglesia), French (église), and English. But since the English "ecclesiastical" has developed such a connotation of institutionalism and hidebound tradition, many contemporary Christians have adopted the neologism "ecclesia" or "ecclesial" in an effort to capture the original dynamism of Christian community in formation.

Discourse about ecclesia, "ecclesiology," has always had a central place in Christian theology. Beginning with descriptions of life in Christian community in the New Testament, classical ecclesiology typically described a vision of the church perfected with all the saints under the headship of Christ. Ancient creeds named distinguishing marks of the true church: unity, holiness, catholicity (universality), and apostolicity. Sixteenth-century reformers defined the church as a congregation (which they took to be a literal translation of ekklesia) gathered for Word and sacrament. In all these distinct emphases, ecclesiology generally has specified a continuous ordered ministry through which Word and sacrament could be rightly preached and administered, and a ministry of oversight through which the whole laos, the people of God, could be inspired and held accountable to their calling.

In this century ecclesiology has been transformed by the dynamic sense of Christian ecclesial communities assembling for practices of worship, hospitality, education, and service. Leonardo Boff's term "ecclesiogenesis" captured this "church-in-the-making" power of basic Christian communities in Latin America. Many contemporary theologians view ecclesiology as a praxis, a continuous practice of action, reflection, and new action seeking faithful witness and service of God's Reign. They conceive of ecclesiology as a form of practical theology, which may be defined as critical and transformative reflection on the practices of Christian ecclesia. In this way ecclesiology is a task not only for scholars, church councils, or denominational governing bodies, but also centrally a practice of particular local church congregations as they organize their ministries, choose their leaders, and carry out their mission.

Ecclesiology in both traditional and contemporary forms by definition incorporates the practice of politics. Like any human community, the congregations, councils, and connectional bodies of the church have had to work out a polity—arrangements of authority and power that made ordered practices possible.

Most basically, "polity is the structure and form of governance of an organization or community, including its constitution, assignments and limitations of powers, offices, lines of authority and amenability, and procedures of membership, participation, and representation." Church polity embraces the disciplines of membership, the organization and work of local church congregations, the standards for preparing, ordaining, and placing its pastors, its organization for mission, and the by-laws for its cooperative or denominational agencies.

Polity is a living process because the church is a living, continuous, yet ever- changing community. One generation's verities are the next generation's straitjacket. In each era the church has to work out the political arrangements that will structure the people of God for effective witness to the gospel. Likewise the context within which polity is practiced is continually changing. Some elements of order may stay the same for generations because the church believes they are central to its continuity. Other elements may change often to enable the church to adapt its witness and ministry to a society in flux.

Through ordination the church sets apart persons in whom it discerns gifts of leadership. To them the church entrusts a particular concern for polity. In the case of United Methodism, elders are ordained to "Service, Word, Sacrament, and Order" (¶137). Much ink has been spilled about the first three terms, relatively little about the last.

Through ordination to "Order" the church sets apart certain persons to take special responsibility for the polity of the community of faith. A ministry of Order is grounded in the Word, to be sure, as congregations and other bodies seek to bear witness to the Reign of God of which scripture testifies. A ministry of Order is vitally linked with the sacramental life of the church as well, for the work of preparing and administering baptism and Holy Communion is designated to the ordained for the sake of the good order of the community. These are critical tasks, for through the sacraments God calls, reconciles, and nourishes a people for God's work of healing and justice.

But the practice of "Order" also goes beyond Word and Sacrament. The church sets apart persons to represent the community of faith in its definite political responsibilities. They are in biblical terms stewards (oikonomoi) of the household (oikos) of faith, entrusted with making sure that every member of the house is able to serve (or minister, diakonia) in the most effective way possible.

Leaders ordained to Order care for the common good of the whole body. They bring to focus the concern of the whole community of faith to organize for ministry in a way that will best enable it to witness to the Reign of God. These leaders hold the people to "the one hope of [their] calling," in the words of Ephesians. They help the people of God discern their vocation and use their gifts to fulfill their particular ministries. Through their own gifts of leadership, they "equip [the Greek katartismon is 'fit together' the gifts of] the saints for the work of ministry" in order to promote "the body's growth in building itself up (oikodome) in love." They "order the life of the Church for mission and ministry" in a way that holds people accountable, keeps them in community, and empowers them to do ministry (¶332).

Order is a practice that can only be learned in a continuous shared process of action, reflection, and new action. Like any essentially political practice, Order is refined in the crucible of joys, celebrations, conflicts, wounds, loyalties, and disaffections that comprise life together in a human community.

Yet at the same time the ministry of Order is grounded in the church's collective experience, much of which is contained in a book of canon law, order, or discipline. A book of order lays out a pattern for organization that bears the authority of broad consensus and shared wisdom. Those set apart as stewards of the body cannot lead without being immersed in the continuing conversation that is distilled in the book.

No book, of course, can explain to anyone ordained to "Order" how to apply its measures in every situation. For example, a book of order contains mechanisms for resolving conflict mainly in the most dire circumstances. It describes "limit situations" of how to start or how to close a congregation. But it does not detail the dailiness of Order in a living community of people with their own stories, ideas, commitments, and interests. It does not provide a method for building consensus or for persuading people that their gifts match a job that needs doing. In that sense, a book of order must be used in the context of the whole scope of pastoral care and administration. Order is inseparable from a vital and disciplined life of prayer and Christian experience.

Polity as Discipline

United Methodists have called their book of polity a "discipline" from the time predecessor bodies organized in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The term had roots well back in Christian traditions, particularly in Puritanism and Presbyterianism as evidenced by the Books of Discipline of the Reformed Church of Scotland in 1561 and 1581. But in the United Methodist heritage "discipline" was peculiarly related to the "methods" of Methodism—disciplines of growth in the Christian life and practices of love in Christian community.

John Wesley did not devise a distinct book of canon law for the Methodists, since to his death he clung to the illusion that he had not created a polity separate from the Church of England. Yet through the Methodist conferences he convened, Wesley built up a body of material entitled the "Large Minutes," which contained the order governing Methodist societies. Conference proceedings were an exercise in practical theology—critical examination and reflection on the practices of Methodist societies—encompassing both doctrine and the ways in which doctrine was being lived out in holiness of life.

The practice of critical self-examination was evident from the Minutes of the first conference of preachers that Wesley formally convened in 1744.

The design of our meeting was proposed; namely, to consider, 1. What to teach; 2. How to teach; and, 3. What to do; that is, how to regulate our doctrine, discipline, and practice.

The minutes were organized around a question and answer format much like a catechism—to select a few:

What was the rise of Methodism, so called?

What is faith?

What is it to be sanctified?

What is the office of a Helper?

What is the business of an Assistant?

How many circuits are there now?

How may we raise a general fund for carrying on the whole work of God?

Each sequentially numbered Question was followed by paragraphs of Answers.

For the Methodists, doctrine and discipline were inseparably bound up with each other in the practices of holiness. Doctrine without discipline degenerated into antinomianism, which Wesley decried as "liberty from obeying the commandments of God ... or to do good works." Wesley equally feared discipline without vital doctrine.

I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.

Thus in effect Wesley encouraged and taught Methodist people to be practical theologians. When the American Methodists organized their work as an independent church in 1784, they took over and revised the "Large Minutes." The title page of the first book of order in America (first published in 1785) read:

Minutes of several conversations between Coke, Asbury and others composing a form of Discipline for the ministers, preachers and other members of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America.

Beginning with the 1792 edition of the book the title became more formally "The Doctrines and Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America." Subsequent editions of the Methodist Episcopal (ME), African Methodist Episcopal (AME), African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ), Evangelical, and United Brethren books of order originating in the period from 1784 to 1820 were also titled "doctrines and discipline." At the same time, the early American Methodists moved many longer doctrinal tracts considered essential to Methodist teaching into a separate volume published in various editions throughout the nineteenth century, entitled A Collection of Interesting Tracts. This was issued at the request and under the guidance of the General Conference.

The combined "doctrine and discipline" name continued into the mid-twentieth century, disappearing at various times among the Methodist and EUB churches in favor of the simpler title "The Book of Discipline." The UMC adopted The Book of Discipline when the new denomination was formed in 1968. The books still contained basic doctrinal statements, to be sure, such as the EUB Confession of Faith or the Articles of Religion. But one could legitimately ask whether the change of title did not also indicate a weakened sense of the interdependence and inseparability of what the church teaches and what the church practices.

In the broadest sense, of course, in its ecclesiastical use the term "discipline" means

The system or method by which order is maintained in a church, and control exercised over the conduct of its members; the procedure by which this is carried out; the exercise of the power of censure, admonition, excommunication, or other penal measures, by a Christian church.


Excerpted from Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church by Thomas Edward Frank. Copyright © 2006 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Thomas Edward Frank isUniversity Professor at Wake Forest University.

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