As the United Methodists prepares for a major split into two main denominations, what might happen with gifts of the Spirit and the charismatic movement in the next Methodism?
Unbeknownst to many United Methodists, the UMC has long had a strong, active charismatic renewal movement. Since the late 1970s, one major force has been what is now called Aldersgate Renewal Ministries. For years, the UMC has had an official statement, “Guidelines: The UMC and the Charismatic Movement,” which offers a generally helpful, thoughtful, nuanced welcome of charismatically inclined United Methodists along with appropriate precautions all around.
In recent years, one of our denomination’s official U.S. seminaries, United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, has enthusiastically embraced the charismatic movement. Around this time last year, I attended United’s yearly Holy Spirit Seminar. Back then, traveling to large, in-person gatherings was not unusual. But most of the rest of the conference was far from what you would expect at an American United Methodist seminary or annual conference.
Featured speaker Randy Clark had already become a major figure in Pentecostal and charismatic renewal circles long before earning his Doctor of Ministry from United in 2013. I appreciated the very explicit nuances and guardrails he offered, including encouraging attendees to not feel pressure to physically respond to the impending prayer service in the same way others were. But simply partnering with and learning from a Christian leader so far outside the bubble of mainline liberal Protestantism was huge step for any non-local United Methodist conference.
The sometimes-emotional prayer service that followed was unlike anything I have ever seen at a United Methodist annual conference. As I stood quietly waiting my turn to be prayed over, eventually people all around me were feeling moved to the point of ending up lying on the ground. Among other things, there was a particular focus on praying for the impartation and activation on gifts of the Holy Spirit, including supernatural gifts of healing or “words of knowledge,” in individual attendees. Clark opened the time welcoming the Holy Spirit as well as angels into our gathering. It was a stretch beyond my comfort zone, but I am glad I went.
Divided over the Supernatural
There are many United Methodists who resonate with the charismatic movement, with some even calling themselves “Metho-costals” (a combination of the words Methodist and Pentecostal). And there are more United Methodists who may not strongly identify with this movement, but are open to it (to varying degrees) or believe their own spiritual walk has at times been blessed by it.
Many other United Methodists find such things as speaking in tongues, testifying of miraculous healings, or actually performing exorcisms so embarrassing that they would rather people only do such things in other churches and denominations.
Much of the current divide in the UMC can be traced back to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. Mainline seminaries and clergy they trained treated miracles recorded in Scripture, including Jesus Christ’s virginal conception and bodily resurrection, as too unrealistic to expect “modern man” to believe. Such anti-supernatural biases leave little room for taking seriously the miraculous phenenomena that are prominent in the pan-denominational charismatic movement. Not all United Methodists influenced by such modernist thinking completely deny the existence of angels and demons, but their religious worldviews and practices often overlook recognizing and responding to their presence and activity.
A relatively recent, 23-page “Discovering Your Spiritual Gifts” booklet published by the UMC’s liberal-led Discipleship Ministries general agency discusses the spiritual gifts listed in Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and Ephesians 4. That publication is not all bad, and has such helpful features as encouraging humility as we remember “that all gifts come from God.” But the Nashville-based agency’s definitions of several of the spiritual gifts goes to remarkable lengths to present a rather “secularized” view that squeezes out the supernatural. They leave little to no room for believing that God continues to work the same sorts of miracles in the church today as He is recorded as doing in the New Testament.
Here is how some biblically listed spiritual gifts are defined by Discipleship Ministries (also known as the UMC General Board of Discipleship):
“Healing: Healers seek to be present with those who suffer.
They pray for those who suffer, visit those who are in the
hospital or who are sick, and do what they can to provide
“Miracles: Those with the gift of miracles do not perform
miracles but perceive the miracles of the power and presence
of God in creation. They can perceive the miraculous in the
ordinary. They see God in nature, in kindness, and in love;
and they help others perceive God in these ways.
“Prophecy: Prophets speak or interpret God’s word to others.
They do not predict the future, but offer insight on current
conditions and how things might happen if changes aren’t
made. Prophets understand things that others often do not,
and they require the courage to speak.
“Tongues: The gift of tongues allows people to speak foreign
languages and convey concepts they may never have formally
studied. People with this gift have the ability to communicate
across barriers of language, culture, age, or physical
limitation. Some people with the gift of tongues work with the
hard of hearing or visually impaired.
Thus the supernatural is neatly removed from this framework for understanding spiritual gifts.
Charismatically inclined United Methodists would likely find all four of the above definitions as wildly off the mark. Their jaws would drop at the underlined sentences above. They really believe that some Christians are supernaturally gifted to suddenly speak in tongues (which is very different from having a knack for learning foreign languages) and that sometimes God empowers some Christians to miraculously heal particular people of physical ailments.
To be fair, John Wesley’s own Explanatory Notes on the most directly relevant passages is not as strongly charismatic as some Metho-costals might like. I encourage consulting his Notes on the relevant passages yourself to get a fuller picture.
But Discipleship Ministries rather directly disagrees with John Wesley on the gift of prophecy, which the latter identified as “[f]oretelling things to come,” “testif[ying] of things to come,” or “an extraordinary gift … whereby heavenly mysteries are declared to men, or things to come foretold” (while in the case of Romans 12 somewhat weakly preferring an alternative meaning of “the ordinary gift of expounding scripture”). Wesley further taught that prophets were “extraordinary officers,” not just the same as “ordinary” pastors and teachers in the church. As for healing, Wesley’s Notes allow for this gift manifesting either through “healing diseases with a word or a touch” or “though in a lower degree” in situations “where natural remedies are applied,” making “some physicians more successful than others” thanks to this spiritual gift apart from any matter of “superior skill.” And in his Notes on 1 Corinthians 12:28, Wesley rather straightforwardly understood Christians who were given the gift of miracles as, contra Discipleship Ministries, “those that work miracles.”
Two Options for the Future
The cleaner the split is between our denomination’s two main theological factions, those who broadly regard such phenomena as speaking in tongues, faith healing, and exorcisms as all outdated, phony, laughable, socially unacceptable, or intolerably embarrassing are likely to not have to worry about having to make room for much of that within the liberalized post-separation UMC (psUMC). This more liberal of the two denominations emerging from the split will probably no longer feel much internal pressure to even pay lip service to openness and tolerance for any charismatic movement within its ranks. Some may find this very attractive and comforting.
I do not expect the church for theologically traditionalist United Methodists to be founded as what would qualify as a bona fide “Pentecostal denomination.” In all my years in the UMC renewal movement, I have never observed any renewal leader say anything like “all true Christians should speak in tongues.” (I don’t.) Those who strongly identify with the charismatic movement are one strand among several currently making up the coalition of traditionalist United Methodists.
But the emerging denomination for traditionalist United Methodists will clearly not adhere to the “cessationist” doctrine that such supernatural manifestations recorded in the New Testament church as healings and tongues all ceased hundreds of years ago. We can expect this denomination will take seriously the ongoing supernatural work of the Holy Spirit and the realities of spiritual warfare. We can expect there to remain a bit of a spectrum in the degree to which particular pastors, congregations, or members are charismatically inclined. There will clearly be a place for Metho-costals in this denomination.
This is likely to be another important area of difference between the emerging Methodists denominations as United Methodists prepare to choose between the two.
But then again, the differences on such matters may not end up being completely stark. The Holy Spirit has a way of surprising us and working wondrously in unexpected places.