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Critique - Conservatives

by John Miles

| Defining Beliefs | Critique | Response |

Dear Friends,

Last week I promised I would conclude my discussion on the three factions of Methodism with a discussion on the conservative wing of our church.

Conservatives:  In many ways conservatives are true heirs of Wesley's revival. Their themes are very much Wesley's own. They preach an exalted Christ, a fallen humanity, an atoning death and a literal resurrection. Like Wesley, they are vitally interested in theological discussion and debate and feel that right beliefs profoundly influence right conduct. This denomination must continue to dialogue with this faction because they represent much of what Wesley stood for. However, in their attempts to maintain this evangelical heritage they are open to criticism.

First, perhaps the strongest critique of the conservative wing is that they are negative. One friend recently commented about this newsletter, "John finds a wound and pours salt in it." It would seem that conservatives spend most of their time looking for something wrong in the church. Frankly, most conservatives would say they do not have to look very hard, but that might be true even if the whole denomination were made up only of conservatives.

Second, conservatives by and large are quite principled. They reject the racism and sexism of the past. However, there are people within the conservative movement who are basically racist or sexists and they use the conservative movement to legitimate their biased views. It is imperative for the conservatives to clearly speak out against racism and bias against women. Being a conservative must never be a screen for prejudicial behavior.

Third, if tolerance run amuck leads to chaos, intolerance leads to civil war. I keep a replica of a mini-ball from the war between the states to remind me of what hate can do. In advocating for doctrinal integrity, we must never resort of hate or violent rhetoric. While rejecting tolerance as our highest goal we must none the less respect and honor those who differ with us. Being right is no excuse for incivility.

Finally, most conservatives believe with John Wesley that there is a core of doctrine summed up in the early creeds that is authoritative for the church. The famous Latin expression, quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum sum ("what has been believed always, everywhere, and by all") wonderfully expresses this ideal. We believe that there is truly a catholic faith that has always marked true Christianity. I believe that in many ways the United Methodist Church has neglected this living water and hewn out for itself broken cisterns of philosophy, and reason, and pop-psychology. To the degree that it has, we conservatives must bear our share of the blame. We have not been wise enough, loving enough, and committed enough to win our church. My own failure to articulate the universal Christian faith that seems so obvious to me is a case in point. All I want to do is call the church to this catholic faith and what I often end up doing is just making people angry.

In the end I am an optimist. I think the catholic faith represented by the conservative movement will profoundly shape this denomination in the years to come. The liberals will challenge us. The moderates will hold us together and the conservatives will remind us of our wonderful heritage of faith.

Your Brother,


John Miles is:

  • an Elder in the North Arkansas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church
  • is currently pastor of Heber Springs United Methodist Church
  • is a graduate of Hendrix College and Perkins School of Theology
  • is on the Board of the Confessing Movement of Arkansas and is active in Walk to Emmaus and Kairos Prison Ministry
  • In 1997 his church won the large church of the year award for the North Arkansas Annual Conference

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