Time to break up the UM Discipline?

One of my professors from seminary is now blogging...which scares me because I was completely disrespectful in his class and he may still want to tell the world about it.  Anyway, his post today is a doozy: let's break up the Discipline into more palatable parts for lay and clergy alike.

The United Methodist Discipline has grown from a small paperback to the 1.5 inch thick mind-numbing document that it is today...and yes, a substantial portion of it is important!  We have a large free-wheeling church and it is important that our diversity be exhibited.  But given the book's size, it does not tend itself to light reading and thus it has become less and less a part of the average UM lifestyle. To Wesleyan purists, this is a problem.

Boston University's Dr. Glen Messer rejects the notion that it is good to have a large tent book that people of most every persuasion can find themselves in its various and contradictory doctrines.
The Discipline began as a document about the essentials of how to be and live like a Methodist. I reject the notion that it should be the church equivalent of a fraternity house ‘garbage can drink’ into which we can pour whatever each of us brings to the party and then we all partake of the unpalatable (and spiritually toxic) concoction.
 To Messer, the Discipline is not an encyclopedia to turn to and see yourself. Rather, it is a tool for daily discipleship...and by tool, he doesn't mean a replacement leg to keep your bible bookshelf steady!  Its current incarnation is prohibitive to it being a part of our daily rhythm.

To push back against big-tent Methodism with a hands-off approach to the Discipline, Messer suggests we split it up into three different books:
Let us consider doing the following:
  1. Take the core historic doctrines and teachings of The United Methodist Church, a modernized (and doctrinally faithful) version of The General Rules, and a skeletal description of the basic ecclesiology of the denomination and collect them into a small volume to be renamed The Doctrines and Discipline of the United Methodist Church;
  2. Take the necessary extrapolations upon The Discipline, those that are more organic and subject to necessary, more frequent change, and gather those together with the assorted rules and procedures for the administrative and property concerns of the denomination. That book we can call The Order of The United Methodist Church, and;
  3. Take the miscellaneous teachings and declarations of the church (not included in the two other volumes) that are responses to contemporary issues and concerns and gather them together in a volume entitled The Teachings of the United Methodist Church.
[snip] Thus, we would build a written understanding of who we are as a church by providing a foundation, a frame, and then an outer structure.
Read his whole post...it is informative as well as evocative in its imagery (particularly how being UM these days is like Twister where we theologically twist ourselves around to stay in the game...ha!).

What do you think?

  • Ought we prioritize what it means to be United Methodist, clarify by different books what our essentials are and our contradictory non-essentials are and do serious soul searching...and buy a slimline copy of the Discipline for every church member to support Cokebury
  • Or is this another drift towards United Methodism that is more doctrinal than missional, one that places Doctrine as the essential part of the church (his proposed book one), rather than the heart for ministry exposed in different contemporary contexts (proposed book three)?



Lisa Beth May 27, 2010 at 9:19 AM  

"Far from wishing you to be ignorant of any of our doctrines, or any part of our discipline, we desire you to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the whole. You ought, next to the Word of God, to procure the articles and canons of the Church to which you belong." Note to the Members of the MEC, South, Book of Discipline, 1922

Stresspenguin May 27, 2010 at 10:29 AM  

I took a class last semester with William Abraham on our Articles of Religion and Confessions of Faith. I wrote a paper for the class about evangelism and Doctrine. What I found was that within the Methodist Church, Evangelical Church, the EUB, Methodist Episcopal Church, South, and the rest all had catechetical material that was produced by the publishing houses and approved by the bishops for the teaching of the Christian faith through the distinctive Wesleyan emphases. Catechism ceased to be produced in this way after the merger. Claim the Name and other Confirmation materials don't cover succinctly what these small books did. When the EUB and the MC joined to become the UMC, somehow it lost the tradition of catechism. These catechetical books had the soul purpose of doing what your professor suggests; they taught the basic tenants of what it means to be a Christian through a Wesleyan lens.

As to your second question, I think you have set up a false dichotomy of doctrine versus mission. You don't have to read much Wesley to find out that his doctrine was essential to his mission. Without doctrine, our mission can mean anything, and when mission can be anything, then it means nothing. On the flip side, doctrine without mission is faith without works, and faith without works is dead.

Doctrine, properly taught and as Lisa Beth quotes, "inwardly digest[ed]" naturally grows within the person a heart for ministry that is centered around a Holy Spirit-driven Christ-like love for others and for God.

Without doctrine, we're just people doing nice things.

cspogue May 27, 2010 at 10:46 AM  

A major first step would be to remove the Social Principles (since they are already in the Book of Resolutions and NOT church law) from the Book of Discipline. The second would be to take out all the "it is recommended" language. If it isn't a requirement, then it shouldn't be in there.

Carolyn May 27, 2010 at 7:56 PM  

Well, Pogue, the General Rules aren't law either. So should we just leave them out too? Or do you just have an ax to grind with social justice UMs?


Carolyn May 27, 2010 at 7:59 PM  

"is this another drift towards United Methodism that is more doctrinal than missional?"

Good question. Let's ask Dana Robert when she gets back from the world mission conference in Edinburgh.

Glen Messer May 28, 2010 at 12:00 PM  

Thanks, Jeremy, for picking this up and discussing the idea.

My desire to see us return to a focus upon Wesleyan doctrine and piety is driven precisely by the wish to see Christ Jesus's radical love lived out in both the personal and social contexts. The emphasis upon doctrine and piety in a Wesleyan contexts leads directly toward a commitment to social justice and mission. It is a fallacy to believe that doctrine and social action are in opposition to each other. To be true to Wesleyan doctrine and polity one must enact the radical commitment to the love of Jesus with works that match faith.

The perceived dichotomy between doctrine and social justice & mission is based in two basic problems . . . 1) some progressive Christians long ago surrendered the Bible and doctrine to their conservative sisters and brothers by allowing conservative interpretations to define both (with progressives often choosing to trim or reject the significance of both sources of authority in order to further their cause in the broader society and the church) - although I believe that the more conservative interpretations often had shaky claims to being Wesleyan in their orientation, and; 2) many conservative Wesleyans have allowed basically Calvinistic understandings of orthodoxy to serve as their lens for interpreting Wesleyan (john Wesley's) teachings - thus seeing Wesley through an essentially non-Wesleyan filter. In this case, the orientation has also been reactionary (as with the progressives above) with more conservative members of the tradition feeling they needed to dig in their heals on matters of doctrine. But in doing so they often appealed to scriptural interpretations that severed the link between personal and social holiness. Whether done by progressives or conservatives, any severing of the link between personal and social holiness places a person outside of a Wesleyan worldview and one slips into a needless estrangement from the core of Wesleyan identity.

Wherever one is on the spectrum of biblical and theological understanding, I think all United Methodists will find a reclaiming of Wesleyan doctrine and piety as helpful to the construction of effective dialogue - dialogue that could lead us towards genuine unity and meaningful fellowship. I believe their is plenty of room for diverse opinions and understandings in Methodism; but we should be knowingly and willfully engaging each other within the frame of shared tradition.

cspogue May 30, 2010 at 9:51 PM  

"Well, Carolyn"

John Wesley wrote the General Rules so most people would figure that they belong in the Book of Discipline.

It takes a high degree of delusion of grandeur to believe that the larger world (even that part within the United States or even most United Methodists) either knows or cares what is written in the Social Principles or the Book of Resolutions except for things that make little sense or that they disagree with. Believing that passing a new resolution at General Conference will make any impact on the least, the last or the lost is simply indulging in fantasy.

Carolyn June 2, 2010 at 7:54 PM  

@ Creed, Please see Messer's post directly above yours. He answers you most fully.

BTW, I don't care what the wider world thinks of the Social Principles. If you're a United Methodist, you should care about and follow them.

cspogue June 7, 2010 at 8:32 AM  


Messer does not agree with you at all.

It would be an inversion of reality to make the Social Principles mandatory while you want to make other parts of the Discipline "optional."

Why do we print the Social Principles twice even though they aren't church law? That makes no sense. We should remove the other "it is recommended" sections out of the Discipline as well.

Lance H June 10, 2010 at 11:18 AM  

As a layman ( and former clergy in another denomination), I can't say that this is a hot button for me. I attended my particular UMC for 15 years without joining because I DIDN'T want to be in leadership. Things changed a few years ago and made membership worthy and leadership desirable. So, I read the book. It's pretty amazing, but it certainly isn't user friendly. So, chopping it up sounds good to me so I can find stuff I need to find and ignore the stuff in which I have no game.

Clint,  July 24, 2010 at 12:44 PM  

Wow, I didn't know the Methodists have a Talmud. Who needs it?

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