Have You Studied the Doctrines?

As I sat in the clergy executive session at Annual Conference, I heard the bishop ask these questions of those who were to be ordained:

8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?
(Para 336, 2012 Book of Discipline)

Everyone ordained in the United Methodist Church answers these questions affirmatively. All ordained clergy say that they know what the church teaches, that they believe the church’s teaching is Biblically correct, that they will propagate these teachings and that they will live in accordance with them.

What, I wondered, exactly did these ordinands think they were affirming? What do they think the church teaches and preaches?

Different parts of our church appear to be on very different paths.The church’s most visible seam is found in the issue of same-sex attraction and conduct. Far beyond the specific issue of sexual ethics, the question of United Methodist identity towers in significance. Our diversity is rapidly moving in the direction of disunity.

Not only do we disagree about some very important maters, we don’t even agree about how to deal with those differences. How does the Bible function in the church? What role do our historical standards and practices play? How do our institutional structures figure in this problem? Are we a church or a movement? What is essential and what is peripheral? Where is the church’s gravitational center and is it strong enough to hold these centrifugal forces in orbit? We are, in the words of the immortal Temptations, a “Ball of Confusion.”

In the highly contentious area of sexual ethics, however, the church has repeatedly made its intent clear over the past several decades. Did these ordinands really accept that the church’s teaching is in harmony with the holy sciptures? Would they in good concience enthusiastically preach an teach it. I didn’t know any of the ordinands personally and had absolutely no reason to doubt their integrity. Still, over the past several years the religious press has been filled with stories of ordained clergy who make me wonder what they were thinking when they took these vows. The church’s position on this matter is hardly a secret.

We expect that those who accept positions of leadership within our institutions are committed to living in accordance with the institution’s values. I used to take that for granted when it came to clergy. Trust, however, is a casualty of our church’s internal conflict. I pray that all whom we ordain to lead the church will have at least as much integrity as military officers whose oath includes these words:

I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion.

Finally, no individual and no institution ever remains the same. What happens when one’s own theology or ecclesiology evolves to a point where it differs significantly from what the church teaches? Or, what happens if the church changes its doctrine so that it no longer teaches what you affirm? How does one live out one’s duty to God, one’s loyalty to the institution and one’s personal integrity in either of those circumstances? Part of the answer, I think, lies in where the church finally comes out in terms of its ecclesiastical identity.

The presence of questions 8, 9 and 10 in the bishop’s formal inquiry reveals that the issue of clergy integrity is even older than the issues that consume the church today. And their presence implies that there was a time when the meaning of our doctrine was much clearer than it is now. The church expected integrity from those who were ordained. By asking these questions, the church attempted to insure that those who led the church accurately represented the church’s beliefs in their teaching and conduct. Making that kind of determination is much more difficult today.

Update Related: Scott Jones on United Methodist Doctrine

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4 thoughts on “Have You Studied the Doctrines?”

  1. The historical question cited refers to the doctrinal standards of the church. These are the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, John Wesley’s Standard Sermons and his Notes upon the New Testament. These are protected by Restrictive Rules and not easily changed.

    Many other issues not specified in the standards are open for ongoing discernment and change. Clergy and laity alike are expected to participate actively in the conversation and debate of these matters, while teaching the discernment of the current Discipline as the policy and intended practice of the church at this time.

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    1. Perhaps that is true as a matter of law, but my question is not primarily legalistic.

      The bishop’s question simply uses the word “doctrine.” Bishop Scott Jones has argued that there are three levels of doctrine, which include the Book of Discipline, the Resolutions, the Book of Worship and the Hymnals. http://bit.ly/12UHb52.

      The church’s doctrine is simply what it teaches. As a practical matter, I think there is a fourth level of doctrine: what do people think we are and what are we all about? It is a feeling or a holistic sense of what it means to be a United Methodist Christian that just sort of floats in the air. It is this intangible “sense” of our doctrine that seems to matter more and more. It is the lens through which we interpret all of the formal documents. It is out of this doctrine-as-a-holistic-worldview that most of our disagreements occur.

      Even sticking to the constitutionally protected documents, there are quite a few ways to envision how they fit together and function as a whole. A church’s doctrine is not atomistic (i.e., this article from the confession of faith, this sentence from Wesley’s notes, another sentence from a Sermon). I’m sure that I can find a phrase or two in the vast pile of material to legally justify just about anything. What matters to me, however, is our “doctrine” as a holistic component of the church’s ethos.

      And as you mentioned, many matters are legally open to discernment and change. That was how I closed my remarks. What happens, or should happen, when I personally grow in such a way that I discern something significantly differently than the church? Or what happens when the church changes, and the church to which I committed myself no longer exists?

      Thanks for joining in the conversation.

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  2. The tittering we hear as the questions are being asked surely reveals postmodern incredulity and embarrassment at being sucked up in a time-warp, but also flashes of anxiety about the state of the church’s message and its respect of the “ancient boundaries”…

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