The Real United Methodist Divide is about


The apparently inevitable separation of the WCA from the United Methodist Church seems entirely appropriate. The Wesley Covenant Association is arguably Wesleyan. It is probably not United Methodist.

The distinction between Wesleyans and United Methodists was formed by over 200 years of cultural changes in the United States. These changes led Methodists and then United Methodists to adopt an understanding of the ordering of the church which has a different cultural basis than the ordering of the church by Wesley and his early pastors. 

John Wesley's movement consisted of a group of like-minded pastors who were accountable to one another and no one else but God. They served and were supported by like-minded laypersons who understood themselves to be part of disciplined movement for revival. 

Over a period of 200 years in the United States this changed. First, membership in the Methodist church became far more open. The laity were no longer a disciplined movement. Instead Methodism became another American denomination in which the children of members belonged by right and were ushered into church membership with only cursory efforts to enforce discipline with regard to either doctrine or behavior. 

Simultaneously, through a series of general conferences the United Methodist Church was reordered on a different basis than that of mutual accountability within a disciplined order. Instead Methodists the United Methodists became a democratic social group whose members, lay and clergy alike, were accountable to rules created by majority vote and enforced by denominational officials. And with democratization came entirely new assumptions about the way in which Christ's Spirit leads to church.

John Wesley and his followers understood the Church to be led by the Spirit of Christ active among clergy ordained in succession with the apostles and thus bound within the apostolic tradition of the church. Even when Wesley carried out irregular ordinations he regarded himself as a successor to the apostles according to scripture.

Neither Wesley nor his pastors imagined that lay persons with no theological training and subject to no discipline should have a voice in determining either the doctrine or the practice of the church. Nor would he have imagined Methodist pastors being trained to adopt enlightenment standards of rationality as a test for doctrine and practice that might well overthrow the traditions of the apostolic church. Yet both of these became important if contested aspects of United Methodist identity in the US.

This signaled the emergence of one distinctly American religious culture vying with earlier American religious cultures for its place, and in the 1960’s emerging triumphant, 

A key difference in this new religious culture was exactly it’s attitude toward culture. The emerging United Methodist religious culture had a strongly positive attitude toward American culture as it emerged in the 20th century. Within that culture, and indeed the emerging global culture it saw multiple signs of the manifestation of God‘s Reign. This is one reason its theological schools so readily adopted the Enlightenment cultural mores in training pastors. 

The social principles creed was another optimistic affirmation that engaging the society formed by this culture was a form of proclaiming the gospel and articulating the fundamental truths revealed in Christ. The Wesleyan call for social holiness became a social gospel for the sake of forming a holy society. 

Opposition came from an older Methodist culture, usually called evangelical or fundamentalist, that had grown more and more suspicious of the emerging American culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. This older Methodist culture viewed the wider America culture not as a realm in which God’s Reign was being manifest, but as a realm increasingly at war with God's Reign. 

Opposition to "modernism" among Methodists emerged in the 19th century. By the second half of the 20th century groups like Good News emerged determined to prevent United Methodism from being swallowed up by the larger modern culture, whether in its theology or its ethics. They were successful in using parts of the social principles creed to build a bulwark against what they saw as the worst perversions of the emerging American culture.

A subsidiary difference arising out of the understanding of the larger culture was also related to the way in which society was ordered. The United Methodists who saw in the enlightenment culture a positive manifestation of God's Reign quite naturally adopted the enlightenment view, inscribed in the US constitution, that God had ordained democratic principles for determining the social order. God had made humans not just stewards of an ordained order, but masters of the order in which they would live. God's intention was that citizens build toward God's reign according to the principles found inscribed in nature. Within this cultural framework it is hardly surprising that the church would be ordered democratically as well, looking for principles rather than rules in scripture to shape its future. 

But the opposition view, while affirming the value of democracy, believed that Christians were at least obliged to order their own lives, both socially and as a church in accordance with an order revealed clearly in scripture and intended by God to remain unchanging. The only possible changes (such as the ordination of women) were those that could be justified by showing their scriptural roots and how those had somehow been forgotten. For UM evangelicals an appeal to principles as opposed to a fixed order was inconsistent with the way in which scripture exercised its authority over the church or the way God related to the social world. 

And this is where we are today. Despite opposition over decades and the emergence of a growing non-modern United Methodist church outside the US the core UM ethos, inscribed in its institutions and decision making processes, is based on a positive acceptance of Enlightenment culture and its contemporary successors as the realm in which God's Reign is being increasingly manifest. 

This view is not Wesleyan in the sense that Wesley and his first followers could have imagined it, nor is it consonant with one wide stream of Methodist tradition and the inhabitants of that religious culture. Wesley marveled at progress in the physical sciences, but there is no indication in his writing of an enthusiasm for novelty in doctrine and practice. And differences, if tolerable between different manifestations of the church, were no more tolerable in a disciplined evangelical movement than they would be in an army or a cloister. 

In short the United Methodist church has a fundamentally different culture from that of Wesley's movement despite some (increasingly tenuous) formal similarities. 

And this is where the WCA position becomes clearer. Written into both the WCA bylaws and its draft discipline for a new denomination is a return to key features of Wesleyanism. In the by-laws we read that the WCA Council may expel a member of the WCA "either with or without cause," effectively eliminating what has come to be called "due process" in modern process oriented democracies and insuring that the Council has complete control over the membership as did Wesley his movement.

This said the draft discipline of the WCA guarantees members and clergy "right of trial and appeal" but doesn't specify either the process or what would constitute grounds for removal. If we take the current "Traditional Plan" supported by the WCA it seems likely that the grounds will be tightly related to obedience to a normative doctrinal and moral order overseen at a denominational level by a central power rather than by annual conferences or regional conferences. 

While the proposed discipline of the new movement actually widens the power of the laity it seems likely that laity will be held, as they are in the WCA bylaws, to narrowly defined standards of doctrine and behavior. 

(I should note an anomaly here that demonstrates the political realities within the WCA and its proposed successor: congregations and hence laity have a much more prominent and equal role in the deployment of clergy than Wesley would have recognized. Indeed one of the longest and most detailed segments of the proposed discipline describes a system in which a congregation effectively chooses its clergy leadership, both positively by playing a critical role in the selection process and negatively by having a veto over any proposed candidate. But one shouldn't mistake this for actual democracy or for that matter congregationalism. The process overall is still controlled by clergy, who alone provide the pool of candidates and who are the presiding elders and general superintendents also have veto power.) 

In saying this I'm not adopting a Wesleyan position. To the contrary, Wesley was a man of his time, and it is proper that his influence should diminish over time, as has the influence of every man since John the Baptist. No amount of brilliance bestows immortality, and the long exhale of even a truly inspirational figure is eventually exhausted. Contained within the confines of a church it simply grows stale.

What I'm saying is that the Wesleyan Covenant Association has taken a coherent position in no longer finding the UMC a congenial home, even when by vote they control it. They do not have a UM culture. And as has been aptly demonstrated, regardless of the votes they cannot bring UM culture under their control. And that culture they understandably cannot abide.


  1. Thank you for making this distinction so clear. As a retired UM pastor totally formed by the UMC of the 1972/1976 "Our Theological Task," during my entire 38 years of service in the conservative Texas Annual Conference, I always felt like a bit of an anomaly because I was not particularly Wesleyan in spirit or outlook. Now I can at least consider the possibility that it was not I who was the anomaly.

  2. I would also add that we have seen the dynamic of Pournelle's Law at work, named after the late, great sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle, who described it. Basically, he said that in any "bureacucratic organization" - which the UMC definitely is - there will come to be two types of members. The first group will be those devoted to and oriented on the founding mission of the organization and will work to realize its purposes in the larger sphere. The second group will be those who are primarily devoted to and oriented on the organization itself.

    Pournelle said that over time the second group will come to dominate and will write the rules and control the processes and determine who gets promoted or rewarded and who does not.

    I would point as evidence of this not only what you have written, but the GC that decided that the mission of the UMC is "to make disciples **for the transformation of the world.*** Stupid me, I thought that we are to make disciples and that's that, for how exactly is "Go and make disciples" incomplete or unclear? Now I understand that we are to make disciples for a reason that we ourselves determine. Which is to say, making disciples is done to serve our own ends and purposes, not the Lord's. Well, as Leonard Sweet said, churches make up mission statements when they do not like the one Jesus gave them.

    If you don't mind, I would like to recommend my relevant essay, "The Ground Beneath Our Feet," at


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