Kevin Watson, a sharp young traditionalist United Methodist at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, has written insightfully for First Things about the denomination’s impending schism. His previously written books stress the importance of early Methodism’s small spiritual accountability groups and their application for today. His more recent book is Old or New School Methodism?: The Fragmentation of a Theological Tradition, which traces current divisions to the mid-19th century. I hope to review this book soon.
Here’s Watson’s conclusion in his First Things article:
The agonies of the United Methodist Church and their roots in Methodist history teach an important lesson. The dominant culture has little need for nominally Christian chaplains. Let the dead bury the dead, as Jesus teaches. We need an approach to cultural engagement and sexual ethics that is anchored by Methodism’s founding mission to “spread scriptural holiness,” rather than one that drifts along with and is determined by the prevailing cultural moment.
Watson recalls that early Methodism grew because it stressed personal holiness not social accommodation and political influence. By mid-19th century Methodism was so large that it had great societal impact often wielded for righteous causes, with Prohibition at the apex. But in this project to make America holy, Watson argues, Methodism was emasculated by becoming more culturally mainstream American.
The church itself became chameleonic, shifting hues based on contemporary preference. Even when fighting for social reforms, like anti-slavery, Watson asserts, mainstream Methodism was often late or reluctant in the game. Greater theological integrity and greater commitment to justice causes were often found with smaller denominations that broke from the main Methodist body, like the Wesleyan Church, which emerged in the 1840s. The same was true earlier for the Free Methodist Church, and much later for the holiness churches like the Nazarenes.
This history is instructive. But it’s important to recall that these breakaway Wesleyan denominations remained small compared to mainstream Methodism that eventually became The United Methodist Church. They retained conservative theology and distinctive evangelical subcultures. United Methodism, previously called The Methodist Church, was in contrast a great national denomination with millions of people. It was America’s largest Protestant communion until the 1960s when overtaken by the Southern Baptists. With greater size comes greater responsibilities.
It’s not unreasonable that mainstream Methodism, once paramount in USA Christianity, felt obliged to exert wider social leadership. John Wesley of course had himself always remained with Britain’s state church and from that vantage point fervently assumed a spiritually custodial stance towards the nation. His Methodist societies within the Church of England were Christian subcultures of spiritual renewal within church and society. But Wesley did not equate these societies with the church itself. The American Revolution forced him reluctantly to bless America’s Methodists as a distinct new denomination.
Unsurprisingly, the DNA of Wesley’s beloved Church of England, including this attitude of national stewardship, transferred into American Methodism, especially after its dramatic early decades of growth made it America’s biggest religious movement, not surpassed by Catholicism until later in the 19th century. A church that large cannot and should not evade the inevitable mantle of leadership and opportunity for societal influence. For 2000 years Christianity’s various branches, when they grew to prominence, assumed wider societal duties as they sought to incarnate Gospel teachings in various cultures.
Large church bodies with social leadership responsibilities of course inevitably face pressures to become respectable, to downplay their theological and ethical distinctives, to compromise. With size, influence, money and power come spiritual inertia and corruption. It’s the inevitable cycle of Christian and wider human life. Wesley in his own lifetime observed that Methodists as they gained respect and prosperity became more indifferent to the spiritual disciplines that brought them success. He himself, once viewed as subversive, became respectable and venerated, though he did not compromise his teachings. British culture, under redemptive revivalist influence, came to honor his mission.
Wesley constantly challenged inertia in the Methodist societies, often by expelling lax members. But he had no expectation of exerting such discipline throughout the Church of England. Wesley ultimately had to entrust this wider cosmic drama to Providence. The results were uneven, but Wesley’s disciplined exertions, always grounded in sound doctrine and ethics, overall renewed church and culture, with earthly and eternal consequences.
Wesley’s doctrinal and ethical discipline, with a wider universal spirit, must be an exemplar for the new global Methodism that will emerge from the coming schism. This new denomination won’t be a renewal society nor will it be a small sect. It will include millions of people in America and many more overseas. It will be numerically smaller than the old United Methodist Church but still among America’s largest religious bodies. It will rightly inherit Methodism’s historic expectation to care for and influence wider society. It should seek to be counter-cultural as every church should seek to resist worldly temptation.
But new global Methodism can’t and won’t be a subculture walled against the world. It will seek to reshape American culture, and other cultures globally, towards Gospel principles. Worldly culture and superficial respectability will inevitably seek to infiltrate the church. Resistance is an ongoing battle for every church in every place and time. The battle never goes away in this age. But we trust ultimately God will protect His church.
As Watson rightly warns, we must heed yesterday’s lessons. How was once great Methodism in America brought low by spiritual, cultural and moral compromise? Its century or more of theological retreat must never be forgotten. But the lessons are not all negative. What became United Methodism was in many ways a mighty force for Gospel influence, where genuinely godly leaders often sought to remain faithful to doctrine and to be responsible stewards of American culture, to the extent they were able. Millions were blessed by their exertions, despite their mistakes.
In the new global Methodism we will need established leaders to exert wider societal and cultural influence in America and other nations. And we will need prophetic voices to challenge their human temptation to prevaricate in pursuit of worldly acclaim. The church cannot be fully itself without both this public witness and simultaneous internal challenge to it.