Looking Back/Moving Forward
posted on December 01
This article was first published in the December 2022 issue of the First UMC (Salisbury) newsletter, Ecclesia. It is offered here, as will follow up articles, for the edification of others across the Uwharrie District. Rev. Jordan is a retired Elder, former District Superintendent, and adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary.
Christmas is a season of gift giving and receiving. One of the best gifts we have already received are the Articles of Religion found in paragraph 104 of The Book of Discipline. Forming the solid core of English Protestant theology, they were originally composed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First. John Wesley edited them to fit America’s culture. They have remained virtually unchanged for over 200 years.
These articles define our faith in a triune God, the divinity of Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit. They outline the biblical books we consider holy scripture, the doctrine of free will, and the meaning of church. They speak of justification, the sacraments, and sanctification. In short, they identify Methodism’s theological unity with most other Protestant denominations.
These Articles of Religion fall under what our Methodist constitution calls “restrictive rules.” They can only be changed by a 75% vote of the General Conference followed by the ratification of 75% of the aggregate delegates to all annual conferences. That means any change in our theology must receive overwhelming approval by the annual conference delegates. Half are clergy and half are laity.
Vote tabulation occurs this way. When all annual conference delegates all over the world cast their ballots, their votes are collected and counted at a single location. It takes a three quarters super majority to change any of our Articles of Religion. I have never seen that many Methodists agree on anything. Our core beliefs are secure.
Some splinter groups have recently charged that The United Methodist Church is changing its theology. THAT IS SIMPLY NOT TRUE. If anyone says differently, they are misinformed.
The Articles of Religion outline the essentials of John Wesley’s faith. He also followed a time-tested approach to theology: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” Methodists must have unity in the core doctrines, but we have liberty to understand those core doctrines in different ways. Even when we disagree, we do it in love.
For example, Methodists believe in God, but our individual understanding of God can and should change as we grow in grace. Methodists can believe in God and be a fundamentalist, a traditionalist, a moderate, a liberal, or a progressive. We each have that theological freedom. What we are not free to do is reject a belief in God. An atheist or an agnostic, might be a good person deserving our love, but they are not a Methodist.
What is an essential and a non-essential doctrine is not the same for everyone. Opinions differ. Individual Christians draw the line at different places. That is why we need the Articles of Religion. They clearly define the starting point of Christian faith. They establish a common theological core. You may read that document in Part III of our Book of Discipline. It is the faith you professed when you joined the Methodist church and reaffirm each time you repeat The Apostles’ Creed. It is what it means to be a United Methodist.
Written by: Rev. N. Fred Jordan, Jr., First UMC (Salisbury) Church Historian