The Reconstitution of The United Methodist Church
An Evangelical Mission Statement for the First Decade of the 21st Century
by James A. Gibson
Evangelical United Methodists come out of General Conference 2000 with their hand strengthened considerably, both politically and logistically. But the face of United Methodism has not changed in the least bit. We still must contend with apostate bishops, rebel pastors and a laity which remains largely apathetic.
As evangelicals, we must not be so presumptuous as to think we can bring about a denominational transformation by following the same plan we have followed for over a generation. Renewal will not come through legislation; neither will it come through "enforcement" of Disciplinary proscriptions. True, some changes can only be brought about via legislative enactment. But that will be made much easier within the context of a church that is experiencing genuine revival.
In the past, evangelicals have responded to the results of one General Conference by gearing up for another. Instead of building on our successes, we have adopted a defensive strategy in order to prevent the next General Conference from undoing what the previous one wrote into The Book of Discipline.
As a result of having adopted this defensive posture, we have neglected our responsibility as citizens of God's kingdom to be salt and light to the world. Like the church in Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7), we have lost our first love. Defending and upholding "United Methodist doctrinal standards" has become our rallying cry. Not that this is an unworthy goal in and of itself, but our rationale for doing so is a painful reminder of the state of our denomination's spiritual health.
A healthy church will naturally have doctrinal standards which set the boundaries for the community's life in Christ. But, like the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21), the church's gates will never be shut because no one can enter without being transformed by the presence and the power of God.
A sick church, however, will have doctrinal standards because of necessity. Having allowed itself to be infiltrated by outsiders, it is forced to draw lines which have already been crossed. When a spiritually dead people enter the gates of a spiritually dead church, the spiritual death of both becomes all too apparent. Doctrinal standards then become a means of institutional preservation, not an expression of obedience to Christ. It is precisely this mentality that is pervasive among evangelical United Methodists today. We are being guided not by the Holy Spirit, but by a carnal desire to preserve an institution wholly devoid of spiritual life. It is going to take something more than a few General Conference victories to breathe new life into these dry, dead bones.
The overarching goal for evangelicals during the first decade of the twenty-first century should be summed up in the following mission statement:
We must be humble and confess that we are wholly inadequate to accomplish such a goal through our own wisdom and political savvy.
When reading from John Wesley's numerous works, one cannot escape the fact that, from its very beginning, Methodism has been synonymous with "Scriptural Christianity," what Wesley often described as the "Primitive Church," the church under the spiritual direction of the Apostles, before the infiltration of human designs. Methodism, then, in its purest form, is synonymous with pure Christianity, "the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). It is nothing more, nothing less and nothing else than the purest of religion, fixed as the sun on the essential doctrines of the faith, bound by the authority of Scripture as the Word of God, and led by the Holy Spirit into all truth as revealed by God in Christ, who is Lord of all.
Wesley considered the liberty enjoyed by American Methodism following the Revolutionary War to be a blessing. "They are now at full liberty," he wrote in a letter to his American brethren, "simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive church." Wesley must have envied the freedom the Americans had, believing that they were now free to pursue his genuine vision for the movement, "to spread Scriptural holiness throughout the earth."
For over a century, American Methodism was a mighty movement of God, preaching holiness, saving sinners, building churches and advancing the kingdom. But those days are long gone. What was once a Spirit-empowered movement has become a spiritually dead institution, vainly seeking to define itself through resolutions, constitutional amendments and Disciplinary prohibitions. As long as we rely on these legislative idols, we will continue to be a lifeless denomination, buried beneath an avalanche of bloated bureaucracies and cumbersome human structures meticulously designed to quench the life-giving Spirit.
Only through the Holy Spirit's inspiration and guidance can a genuine vision for the reconstitution of The United Methodist Church as a spiritually vibrant community be implemented--a vision based not on "what has worked in the past," but on what God wants to do through the people called Methodists in the present and the future.
Already, the river is springing up in the desert. The choice before the people called Methodists is whether to jump in and be revived by the cleansing waters of God's grace or to sit back and be swept away by the raging waters of God's wrath.
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