Methodists, particularly United Methodists, have a very bad habit of making sweeping statements about what makes the Methodist tradition distinct or unique. The main reason this is a bad habit is because when Methodists do this they are often claiming ownership of things that are basic to Christianity or that are at least at the heart of the values or beliefs of other parts of the Body of Christ. When Methodists do this, it makes us look oblivious at best, and obnoxious and arrogant at worst.
Since joining the faculty at SPU two years ago, I have had more interactions with Christians who are not United Methodists than I had previously. More than once, I have heard someone ask why Methodists claim something as a distinctive of their tradition when it is a basic Christian affirmation. Just yesterday, a colleague pointed out that Methodists do not have the market cornered on holiness.
I am trying to do a better job of being more humble and accurate in what I claim as a distinctive of my own branch of the Christian family tree. I have also become more sensitive to just how often Methodists make rather grandiose claims about the marvels of our own tradition.
Here are the three most common ways I have heard people describe Methodism’s distinctiveness that are not unique to Methodism.
1. Methodists believe in grace.
Asserting that grace is a distinct belief of Methodism would understandably be offensive to other Christians, because they believe in grace too! Ask your brother or sister in Christ from a non-Methodist tradition whether they believe in grace and let me know when you find someone who says no.
John Calvin talks extensively about grace in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Here is one example, that is particularly important for Methodists to read because it refers to the role of grace in both justification and sanctification:
Christ was given to us by God’s generosity, to be grasped and possessed by us in faith. By partaking of him, we principally receive a double grace: namely, that being reconciled to God through Christ’s blamelessness, we may have in heaven instead of a Judge a gracious Father; and secondly, that sanctified by Christ’s spirit we may cultivate blamelessness and purity of life. (Institutes, III.XI.1)
Grace is very important to Methodism because it is very important to Christianity. When Methodists claim that we are distinct because we talk so much about grace, we look foolish to other parts of the Body of Christ and damage our own commitment to having a “Catholic Spirit.”
2. Methodists allow you to use your brain.
This affirmation, when I hear it, seems to do two things at once. It is a way that Methodists congratulate themselves on being so educated, open-minded, and tolerant. At the same time, it indirectly insults people whose views are less sophisticated than we perceive ours to be.
While there are some parts of Christianity that don’t affirm the role of theological education to the degree that most Methodists do, every classic Christian theologian I can think of would insist on using your mind to love God.
Faith seeking understanding did not originate with Methodism!
The way that I sometimes hear Methodists talk about our being unafraid to use our minds smacks of a kind of elitism and arrogance that is disappointing, particularly when coming from members of my own ecclesial family. And it is all the more problematic (and ironic) because it is sometimes used as a way to dismiss someone else’s beliefs without actually using one’s brain to make a reasoned argument as to why something is wrong and something else is right.
3. Methodists are connectional.
The ideas behind this are more complicated, but this is basically an assertion that Methodists are distinct because we are a church that is connected to each other in a variety of different ways (conferences, itinerant preachers, general boards and agencies, etc.).
Intentionally or not, this affirmation implies that other denominations are not interested in working together or connecting with each other. Though the polities are not the same, I imagine that the Roman Catholic Church, or the Eastern Orthodox Church, or the Anglican Church (and others) would see themselves as a connectional church in a way quite similar to Methodists.
Could it be that a distinctive of Methodism is taking credit for things that belong to the legacy of the global church? I hope not. Maybe every tradition succumbs to this temptation. As a Methodist, I have found myself wrestling with the pretension of my own tradition over the last two years.
Have you noticed the tendency of Methodists to claim basic Christian beliefs, values, or practices as uniquely Methodist? What other claims of distinctiveness that aren’t actually distinctive of Methodism would you add?