When one decides to follow God’s call into ministry in The United Methodist Church, one is inevitably confronted with a series of historic questions, including several about doctrine. Preserved in the denomination’s official Book of Discipline, these questions are part of the required curriculum often viewed by candidates as a hurdle on path to ordination.
Each of us who has been ordained in the UMC has encountered these historic questions. They form the basis for entering into a lifetime of well-grounded Christian faith, life, and theological discourse within the Wesleyan-Pietist heritage.
Two of these questions are:
“Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?”
“After full examination do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?” (Book of Discipline 2012, ¶330)
These questions shouldn’t surprise any who stand before a conference board of ordained ministry. This is because they purposely coincide with the required UM doctrine course that must be successfully completed by every candidate for ordination. By the time these questions are officially asked, one is normally well prepared to answer in the affirmative. Those who do not so reply have already begun to forge a doctrinal and theological path leading somewhere other than the UMC.
But what happens after the questions have been answered in the affirmative and this one hurdle is behind the ordinand? Are these questions one is meant to answer once and then move on? Are we like so many frustrated high school students who must learn information and pass tests on material never again to be needed? Or are these doctrinal queries more like the questions to a couple regarding their intent to abide by a marriage covenant “as long as they both shall live”?
Should basic doctrinal questions be likened to the laws of the road in which obedience to the rules of the road is intended as long as one possesses a driver’s license? Should the clergyperson-to-be be required to continue to adhere to and teach the same basic doctrinal commitments church members are expected to affirm when joining a congregation? Or should ordinands be expected to move on toward later and greater, possibly more rational convictions as they progress through seminary and through a career of ministry? Does “anything go” in the UMC? Who is to be the judge of this matter, if not the General Conference and the denomination’s Book of Discipline?
In the world of theological education students and their professors study and live within a community of doctrinal and theological diversity as wide as the human imagination. Students and professors are frequently exposed to a wide array of Christian and non-Christian beliefs and customs. Professors research, study, and teach far and wide beyond their own social contexts and personal religious commitments. Likewise, students are expected to venture out into new theological territories to gain an understanding of the complex religious and theological universe in which they will serve in ministry.
Given the ecumenical commitments of the UMC, even if one is a tried-and-true Wesleyan theologically, in seminary one will learn not only from persons in the Wesleyan traditions, but also from Calvinists and Catholics, from Presbyterians, Baptists, and others. Furthermore, in the historical material that must be mastered to earn the required degree, one must study and learn from both martyrs and heretics, from die-hard crusaders and activists, from ivory-tower professors and down-to-earth practitioners, from Christians from widely diverse political persuasions, and from persons representing cultures with ideas and practices both compatible and offensive to one’s own.
In the midst of all this, what ought to be the fate of one’s own doctrinal heritage?
In order to stay well-grounded, one must become crystal clear about the difference between core Christian doctrine and theological innovation; between the content of the essentially static but historic Christian creeds on the one hand and the more creative, ongoing, historically conditioned theological task of the church on the other.
Christians have often hammered out the content of their core doctrines and the historic creeds over against what the church defined as heresy, that is, beliefs contradicting the church’s doctrinal teachings. Interestingly, the same doctrinal heresies have reappeared repeatedly in the history of Christianity. They remain alive and well today because well-meaning people have thought what was deemed heresy made more sense than official orthodoxy. The main difference is that, today, heretics are generally not burned at the stake as punishment for their contradictions or errors.
The Christian church for all these years has defined its doctrines through creeds and other doctrinal statements (such as Articles of Religion and Confessions) that detractors would not assent to for what they deemed good reasons. Critics of Christianity have frequently judged its claims to a special, divinely revealed truth regarding the Holy Trinity through Jesus Christ of Nazareth to be fundamentally ridiculous, contradicting all human common sense and reason. Therefore it should not surprise us when contemporary detractors of the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Jesus Christ or various other Christian doctrines, whether inside or outside the church, argue against orthodox doctrine and propose alternatives more compelling in their own eyes.
The basic question for the Christian, however, is who we are and what we believe to be true. Doctrine and theology are matters of identity and integrity in any given religious body. Theological education should help the Christian to think doctrinally, theologically, critically, and biblically, but in the end it should strengthen one’s Christian faith, witness, and practice. Theological education should prepare aspiring church leaders to make the case passionately and persuasively for “the faith once delivered to the saints.” United Methodists should be prepared to do so in a Wesleyan-Pietist framework with a clear understanding of the importance of their role in spiritual succession to the Wesleys and Otterbeins of the faith.
In the wide sea of theological discourse and doctrinal drift that characterizes a declining denomination, a sturdy, robust commitment to learning and teaching the core doctrines of the Wesleyan-Pietist Christian faith is needed. Such as commitment will go a long way toward solidly anchoring candidates for ordained ministry in the revealed truth of Jesus Christ, restoring vitality to doctrinally washed-out congregations and bringing renewal to the UMC for the sake of the mission of Jesus Christ in the world.