Theology shapes who we are and how we organize to transform the world. Especially written for required United Methodist classes, this accessible book uses a Wesleyan theological frame—connection—to help readers understand United Methodism’s polity and organization as the interrelationship of our beliefs, mission, and practice. The book is organized into four parts—United Methodist beliefs, mission, practice, and organization. Polity and organization are primary embodiments of The United Methodist Church. Functional in nature, these aspects of the denomination facilitate our mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world. This book connects denominational governance and organization to our beliefs as well as our mission. A clear understanding of our identity—as Methodists with Wesleyan roots in connection—and our purpose—to make disciples for the transformation of the world—can help students of United Methodism navigate this treacherous landscape as present and future leaders. Warner also addresses the estrangement between theology and institutional structures and practice by framing governance practices and organizational structure within a Wesleyan theology of connection. This approach will assist current and future denominational leaders in understanding their practices of administration and participation in polity as a theological endeavor and key component of their ministries.
This textbook has been updated with changes from the 2016 General Conference.
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The Method of our Mission
United Methodist Polity & Organization
By Laceye C. Warner
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Nature and Mission of the Church
John and Charles Wesley did not intend the early Methodist renewal movement within the Church of England to become a separate ecclesial entity, which at times leads some to describe Methodist ecclesiology as deficient. However, at other times the emergence of Methodism in America is commended for its heritage as a renewal movement, particularly the claim that Methodism developed from a missional imperative rather than from doctrinal disputes similar to the origins of other Protestant denominations. As mentioned in the introduction, Methodism's evangelistic character and missional heritage contribute significantly to its identity as church, or ecclesiology. When considering the nature and mission of the church, this evangelistic and missional character also shapes United Methodism's distinctiveness. This chapter describes the heart of United Methodism's identity as church—its nature and mission—offering a constructive theological commentary for faithful ecclesial practices of disciple-making.
Nature of the Church
The nature of The United Methodist Church can at times seem elusive. According to Bishop Scott Jones, "One of the least well-defined areas of United Methodist doctrine is its ecclesiology." United Methodist ecclesiology exhibits tensions between our mixed heritage from Catholic and Protestant roots—namely its roots as a renewal movement and the emphasis placed on doctrine. Albert Outler's question mentioned in the introduction, "Do Methodists have a doctrine of the Church?" echoes and sometimes haunts conversations regarding Methodist ecclesiology. Outler offers an accurate, but ambiguous, response, "The answer 'yes' says too much; 'no' says too little. 'In a manner of speaking,' which is more nearly accurate than the other two, seems nevertheless equivocal." John Wesley's passion and commitment for church renewal as well as his imperative to "spread scriptural holiness" offer a complementing refrain, if not a direct response, to questions like Outler's. Jones explains this creative tension and characterizes United Methodist ecclesiology as a "means of grace": "United Methodist ecclesiology and understanding of the means of grace is practical. From a firm base in a traditional Anglican approach, the Church makes adaptations to enhance its mission."
Richard Heitzenrater also responds to Outler's question by describing the church as a means of grace in an effort to align the being of the church, or what it "is," and the practices of the church, or what it "does." The means of grace in Wesleyan tradition acknowledge the presence and accessibility of God's grace for those participating in individual or communal practices. The church is the primary location in which one lives out one's faith, as a participant in a community of faith and member of the body of Christ. Jones explains that the church may be best understood "as both a means of grace in itself and as the locus where God's grace is most consistently found." As Jones describes, the church is the place where, through worship, prayer and the sacraments, one's understanding of Christian doctrine and its embodiment is formed and challenged. From the proclamation of the gospel to its demonstration in words and actions with other members of the body of Christ and those outside the church God seeks to include in God's reign, the church at its best functions as a, though not the only, means of God's grace. The United Methodist Church's character as a means of grace includes much, if not all, of its organization and polity. While these may falter in specific circumstances, throughout history the formation of the denomination's structure has kept its missional purpose at the center. For example, the structure of annual conferences, the episcopacy, the itineracy, ordination, and general boards may be understood as prudential means of grace. As Jones points out, "No church is required to have any of these [structures]," yet these have largely served to facilitate United Methodism's, and its predecessors', participation in the reign of God.
For United Methodists, there are a number of doctrinal materials that lend texture and depth to our understanding of the nature of The United Methodist Church. Among The United Methodist Church's doctrinal standards are two historic documents in which the nature of the church is described—"The Articles of Religion" and "The Confession of Faith of The Evangelical United Brethren Church." These documents, both among United Methodism's constitutionally protected doctrinal standards, will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter. The specific descriptions of church from these documents and our doctrinal heritage demonstrate the tension referred to earlier by Jones: "The first place where this tension shows up is in the different senses of the word 'church' used in the constitutional standards." These references to the nature of the church provide a frame within which to consider biblical and practical theological components of the church's nature.
The earliest doctrinal resource describing the church for United Methodists, with the exception of scripture and the creeds of the early church, are "The Articles of Religion of The Methodist Church." "The Articles of Religion" date to medieval England during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and the establishment of the Church of England. In Article XIII, "Of the Church," the definition of church emphasizes the "visible" church.
Article XIII—Of the Church
The visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite of the same.
In addition to acknowledging the visible church as a means of grace, this description highlights three marks: (1) a body of faithful persons, (2) where the word of God is preached, and (3) the sacraments administered. As discussed earlier, these "marks" indicate ways in which the community of faith, or local church, functions as a means of grace through its gathering in worship to hear the scriptures preached and to participate in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.
The Evangelical United Brethren "Confession of Faith" dates to the early nineteenth century with the leadership of Jacob Albright (1759–1808) and George Miller of The Evangelical Association and Philip William Otterbein (1726–1813) as well as Christian Newcomer and Christopher Grosch of the United Brethren in Christ. In Article V, "The Church," similar themes occur to Article XIII above, but with additional components including the Nicene Creed's reference to the four marks of the church and the role of the Holy Spirit.
Article V—The Church
We believe the Christian Church is the community of all true believers under the Lordship of Christ. We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic. It is the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached by men divinely called, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ's own appointment. Under the discipline of the Holy Spirit the Church exists for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world.
This article from "The Confession of Faith" does not mention the qualification of "visible" in relation to the church. However, it does echo the marks of a community of believers, the importance of the preaching of the word of God, and the administration of the sacraments similar to Article XIII. The article from "The Confession of Faith" includes the four marks of the church from the Nicene Creed informed by the New Testament: "We believe it is one, holy, apostolic and catholic." This article also articulates the role of the Holy Spirit "for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers and the redemption of the world," demonstrating a distinctiveness of the Wesleyan and Evangelical United Brethren traditions of practical divinity or the integration of belief and practice.
Taken together, according to Jones, "Article XIII and Confession V are best understood to be speaking of the 'Church universal, which is one Body in Christ' of which the United Methodist Church understands itself to be a part." United Methodism declares a number of basic Christian affirmations in the Book of Discipline that link its identity as church in communion with other Christians. These include belief in the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as well as the biblical witness to God's activity and the church universal. The Discipline highlights the following affirmations:
"We hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ."
"We share the Christian belief that God's redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers."
"We understand ourselves to be part of Christ's universal church when by adoration, proclamation, and service we become conformed to Christ."
"With other Christians we recognize that the reign of God is both a present and future reality."
"We share with many Christian communions a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, the confession that our justification as sinners is by grace through faith, and the sober realization that the church is in need of continual reformation and renewal."
In both Article XIII and Article V the administration of the sacraments are mentioned as a constitutive part of the church's identity. Though discussing in detail the administration and theology of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper is not in the purview of this project, it is important to acknowledge their role in vital communities of faith. Among the means of grace, both sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. Indeed, the liturgies of the sacraments give voice to the missional themes of Wesley's early Methodist renewal movement within the Church of England. From The United Methodist Hymnal, we are commissioned into this missional imperative in the baptismal liturgies, "With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ."
United Methodist ecclesiology may initially seem elusive. However, it is deeply rooted in the soil of Christian doctrine and practice. A distinctive characteristic of United Methodism and its predecessors, Wesleyan traditions agilely hold together an integration of belief and practices that consistently reflects upon both in light of its identity and mission in the midst of a broken world longing for hope, which the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring. According to Jones, "with mission at the heart of its life, the United Methodist Church understands the church to be sent into the world to bear witness to the reign of God there."
Mission of the Church
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.
—2012 Discipline, ¶120
The mission of The UMC appears in the Discipline at the opening of part IV, "The Ministry of All Christians." Its mention of the local churches' role in the mission of the church offers an example of United Methodism's distinctive ecclesiology and implicitly acknowledges our connectional character. Similar to John Wesley's renewal movement within the Church of England, while thousands attended occasions for Methodist field preaching, the vast majority of those converted into Christian faith and discipleship participated in religious societies, or small groups called class and band meetings. The mission statement does not explicitly mention the place of local churches within the connectional structure of the denomination, though this too has been a distinctive characteristic of Wesleyan/Methodist traditions about which it may be argued, facilitates access to broader and deeper resources than a congregational polity.
In the following paragraph, a "Rationale for Our Mission" immediately follows "The Mission" providing a frame, with allusions to scripture, within which to better understand "The Mission." For example, the "Rationale for Our Mission" begins,
The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world by proclaiming the good news of God's grace and by exemplifying Jesus' command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God's reign and realm in the world.
This statement expands upon the scriptural reference from Matthew 28:16-20 in "The Mission," adding another reference to Matthew 22:37 and 39 as well as scriptural themes of God's grace and the fulfillment of God's reign. The following statement in the "Rationale" also includes a direct reference to scripture: "The fulfillment of God's reign and realm in the world is the vision Scripture holds before us." In the next several pages we will explore a few key themes from scripture found in "The Mission."
As mentioned previously, "The Mission" is most directly informed by the scripture text of Matthew 28:16-20, also known as the "The Great Commission":
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him, but some doubted. Jesus came near and spoke to them, "I've received all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I've commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age.
Though Matthew's commission text is the most well known of the gospel commissions, each of the four gospels, as well as Acts, includes a commission text. Each of these texts fulfills a similar purpose, to commission Jesus's disciples to continue the Christian mission and participate in God's reign, while featuring distinctive themes. A number of key themes appear in Matthew's commission including: (1) discipling, (2) the nations (or Gentiles), by (3) baptizing and teaching all Jesus commanded.
Discipling in Matthew 28
The language of discipling often seems to indicate the role current Christian disciples are called to play in discipling new Christians. This is not an inaccurate understanding of the term as it is often used. However, such an interpretation does sometimes overlook or misunderstand the role God plays in Christian discipling. Sarah Lancaster provides an insightful perspective on God's role in Christian discipling in her reflections upon John Wesley's commentary on Matthew 28:19 in his ExplanatoryNotes upon the New Testament. According to Lancaster, the Greek verb, matheteuein, which is often translated into English "to make disciples" or literally "to disciple," indicates an integrative practice performed by God with those responding to God's call. Those responding to God's call are invited by God to share the message of salvation in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit with God, the primary actor in salvation.
"Nations" or "Gentiles"?
A second theme from Matthew's commission echoes a concern articulated in the "Rationale for Our Mission": respectful ministry practices among those of other religious faiths. The "Rationale for Our Mission," quoted above, continues with the following statements: "The United Methodist Church affirms that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all. As we make disciples, we respect persons of all religious faiths and we defend religious freedom for all persons." Respect for persons of all religious faiths and no faith is an important component of our ministry practices. Indeed, even an unintentional lack of respect can undermine one's intended message and gestures of hospitality to the Christian faith. In the following paragraphs we will explore the implications of the language in Matthew 28:19a for faithful and respectful discipling practices.
Though the majority of exegetes translate the phrasepanta ta ethne as "all nations," there is no clear consensus on this point. A significant, and persuasive, minority translates the phrase as "all Gentiles." This seemingly slight shift leads to a number of interpretations, ranging from reading the commission in Matthew as a mandate to travel across geographic distances to evangelize nations and cultures different from our own, to signaling that the time for evangelizing Israel has past and the church's efforts must be to the Gentiles and no longer to the Jews. Though the current discussions lack unanimity, the depth of exegetical and theological reflection offers some helpful guidance to encourage discipling practices that respect persons from other religious faiths as described in the Discipline.
Excerpted from The Method of our Mission by Laceye C. Warner. Copyright © 2014 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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Table of Contents
"Part I: United Methodist Beliefs: Doctrinal and Theological Foundation",
"1. The Nature and Mission of the Church",
"2. Defining Documents: Doctrinal Standards",
"3. Contemporary Statements: Operational Doctrine",
"Part II: United Methodist Mission: Called and Formed for Ministry",
"4. Pastoral Roles and Ordained Ministry",
"6. The Local Church",
"Part III: United Methodist Practice: Conferencing and Governance",
"8. Councils and Agencies",
"Part IV. United Methodist Organization: Structure and Language",
"Conference Organization Chart",
"The United Methodist Church Organization Chart",
"Conclusion: Sent to the World",