Tensions in United Methodism Part iv

Boundaries of the “Big Tent”

Rev. Harold Wheat

One of the deepest tensions in the United Methodist Church today emerges from the simple question, What do we believe? From the beginning, John and Charles Wesley taught those who formed the Methodist movement to value loving relationships more highly than doctrinal uniformity. John Wesley’s sermon, “The Catholic Spirit,” first published in 1755 explores the theme, “Let all opinions alone on one side or the other. Only ‘give me thine hand” (Wesley, Outler, and Heitzenrater 1991, 305). But, to be fair to our founder, he assumed a certain level of shared doctrinal uniformity before he allowed for “liberty in the non-essentials” (St. Augustine).

“Dost thou believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘God over all, blessed forever’? Is he ‘revealed in’ thy soul? Dost thou ‘know Jesus Christ and him crucified’? …” (Wesley, 304)

These were just a few of the belief questions Wesley asked before recommending we ignore our differences and walk together in mission. The themes of relational diversity and the doctrinal uniformity can be found side by side in the same sermon.

In the later half of the 20th century, theological camps began to identify with the components of this Wesleyan paradox in such a way that we separated the both-and of paradox. We divided the paradox into competing theological communities. Now that Traditionalists are leaving the denomination the question for those of us who remain is, who takes responsibility for the boundaries of our belief structure? How far can we “think and let think” while still retaining a particular religious identity (Wesley, 299)? Progressives can be just as quick as Traditionalists to collapse the paradox at the heart of the Methodist movement.

In the opinion of this pastor, the key to maintaining the paradox is to follow Wesley’s advice to “run the race which is set before thee, in the royal way of universal love” (Wesley, 309). We can hold to the both-and of building relationship in the presence of our differences and clinging to a set of stated beliefs by focusing on and trusting in the transcendent experience of divine love.

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