February 3, 2011

Should United Methodist Website Be Expected to Maintain Church's Doctrinal Standards?

Should commentary on the official website of the United Methodist Church be expected to uphold and adhere to the doctrinal standards of the denomination? If a recent piece titled "Every heart inclined to both good, evil" and written by Rev. Michael Williams is any indication, the answer is: evidently not. In the article, written for the United Methodist News Service and posted on the denominational website, Rev. Williams, senior pastor of West End United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, claims boldly that "good and evil are inclinations of every human heart." Williams argues that his position is properly drawn from John Wesley's own theology. Not only is this a poor reading of Wesley, it is a direct contradiction to the doctrinal standards of the United Methodist Church.

Article VII of our United Methodist Articles of Religion states that "man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually." This corruption of human nature is known as "original sin" and, according to the United Methodist Church, is naturally engendered in every human being. Rev. Williams' position that "good, like evil, is a capacity of every human heart" is clearly contradictory to United Methodist belief. Indeed, Article VIII indicates that no human being has naturally the power to do good works. In short, Williams' understanding of human nature is deficient when held against the doctrinal standards of our denomination.

Williams attempts to build his case on John Wesley's General Rules, the first two of which have been popularly abridged as "Do no harm" and "Do good." But such a reading of Wesley neglects key sources for his understanding of a person's natural capacities and inclinations. Two extended quotes will make the point. The first is from his sermon on "Original Sin," in which Wesley wrote:
"No man loves God by nature, any more than he does a stone, or the earth he treads upon. What we love we delight in; But no man has naturally any delight in God. In our natural state we cannot conceive how any one should delight in him. We take no pleasure in him at all; he is utterly tasteless to us. To love God! it is far above, out of our sight. We cannot, naturally, attain unto it" (Works, VI:59).
And in his sermon on "The New Birth":
"And in Adam all died, all human kind, all the children of men who were then in Adam's loins. The natural consequence of this is, that every one descended from him comes into the world spiritually dead, dead to God, wholly dead in sin; entirely void of the life of God; void of the image of God, of all that righteousness and holiness wherein Adam was created. Instead of this, every man born into the world now bears the image of the devil in pride and self-will; the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desires...While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up. He is in the same condition as if he had them not" (Works, VI:68, 70).
Wesley was no optimist when it came to natural human ability for good. Instead, he affirmed with historic Christianity that human beings are depraved and spiritually dead. We come into the world with no love for God and no capacity for good. Williams claims that "For Wesley, the possibility of doing good or harm resulted from the free will God gives us to choose to follow one inclination over another." But this is not so. For Wesley, human beings are in bondage to sin and not free at all. God in his great kindness and through his preventing grace mercifully frees us to act aright. The idea that human beings have some natural neutrality to choose either good or evil carries the stench of Pelagianism and has no basis in the theology of John Wesley.

The present problem is not merely that Rev. Williams, a minister in the United Methodist Church, has a profoundly non-Methodist anthropology. The larger and more severe problem is that the editors of the United Methodist News Service had the audacity to publish the article on the denomination's official website. Do not our doctrinal standards apply to material written there? Should opinions which contradict the established beliefs of our Church be published online for all to see? I could find no disclaimer stating that the views of the author are not necessarily the views of the United Methodist Church, and I lament that some unsuspecting reader might stumble across this article and be misled to believe that this is the common doctrine of the people called Methodists, for it certainly is not.

Let us return then to our original question: should commentary on the official website of the United Methodist Church be expected to uphold and adhere to the doctrinal standards of the denomination? My answer is a resounding yes. The only appropriate action for the editors is to retract this article and take care not to make such a grievous error again.

_____
*Thanks to Duke student Jonathan Andersen & Joseph at Methodist Thinker for drawing my attention to the article by Rev. Williams.

6 comments:

Scott said...

Most people, younger people at least, understand that blogs are someone's opinions. Yes, there probably should be a disclaimer. But we don't need to be locked into an 18th century understanding of human nature. The UMC is a diverse church and is a thinking church. Even John Wesley talked about "plundering the Egyptians" which was meant to say there is some good in others who are outside Christianity. UM scholars have also long argued about the meaning of "original sin" within Wesleyan/UM circles. We are not Calvinists.

So the folks who maintain the umc.org website should probably have a disclaimer for what it means to *post* articles and blogs, etc, but we should not be like the Catholics and have someone checking to make sure everything lines up with the Pope's teaching.

Jonathan Andersen said...

During the ordination service candidates are asked, "Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline,
committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you, and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry?"

The Articles of Faith which clearly articulate the doctrine of Original Sin are part of the Doctrinal Standards of the UMC. (http://archives.umc.org/interior.asp?mid=1647)

These Articles articulate the very basics of historic Christianity as it has been interpreted, taught, and clarified by the church throughout the ages.

Are you suggesting that people who commit their life to the ministry of the UMC be able to ignore Articles they find inconvenient to the modern mind?

Scott said...

Whether it agrees with the UMC or Wesley, it should agree with the BIBLE. A thinking church should still not proclaim heresy. Liberty on non-essentials only.

Matt O'Reilly said...

Thanks to all for your comments.

To the initial comment by Scott, I agree that most people understand blogs as opinions. However, the article in question was posted on the official denominational website and made specific claims about Wesley and doctrine. Those claims appear to be contradictory to what the UMC says it affirms doctrinally. It should be clear to all who may come across the article that the content doesn't represent the position of the UMC. And if it doesn't represent the position of the UMC, I question whether such content should be on the official site. Perhaps it should be reserved for a personal blog.

With regard to original sin, you don't have to be a Calvinist to hold the doctrine, as indicated by our UMC doctrinal standards. In fact, John Wesley held strongly to the doctrine of original sin and suggested in his sermon on the topic that if one did not believe in original sin, he is likely not a Christian. Wesley took original sin to be an essential part of Christian and Methodist doctrine.

Matt O'Reilly

Majac33 said...

this is a umc website paid for by umc dollars and should adhere to the doctrinal standards of the umc! if you want to post something contrary to those standards, pay for your own website or post them on some other most accomodating site...

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

It seems to me articles may present several points of view when discussing such issues, but they should make a point to have someone present the Wesleyan point of view (in terms of our doctrine).

Part of the problem with this particular issue is that, despite the frequent use of the word, our people (and pastors) do not understand "prevenient grace." The only reason we need this grace is precisely because our hearts are so deeply fallen. Any good that we do, or even want to do, before our justification is a gift via prevenient grace, not an indication of the character of our heart. Rev. Dr. Williams misses this point entirely.