Methodism Means Connectionalism

I take it for granted that the UMC will begin a formal division after the 2020 General Conference. We no longer practice a common polity, and thus we cannot hold together as an institution.

As the Academic Dean of a seminary, I have lots of conversations with pastors. Most understand the reality we now face in the aftermath of GC 2019. When I ask them what their plans are moving forward, one common answer is, “We’ll probably just go independent.” Given all the denominational woes we have endured, this answer is understandable.  We should bear in mind, however, that to “go independent” as a long-term strategy is deeply un-Methodist.

Churches that “go independent” may of course retain certain Weslesyan emphases, such as preventing grace, the freedom to accept or reject Christ, and entire sanctification. What they will lose, however, will be connectionalism, and without connectionalism, there is no Methodism. (And yes, I know that some people like the British spelling, “connexionalism,” but I’m from Texas, and we’re just not that sophisticated.)

When Wesley said that there is no holiness but social, he meant that holiness is something we receive in community with each other. When we pray together, worship together, encourage one another, and confess our sins to each other, we grow in holiness. In short, Wesley felt that “watching over one another in love” was essential to our formation as Christlike people.

This principle applies not simply to individuals, but to communities. Baptists affirm the “autonomy of the local church.” It is a core element of Baptist polity. Methodists do not. We affirm connectionalism. We believe that churches, just like individuals, may become more Christlike through connection, hence our episcopal polity and system of conferences. The fact that our polity has broken down does not meant that connectionalism itself is flawed. It simply means we have not lived connectionally.

Connectionalism also means that we share in mission. For example, as we engage in ministries to help the poor and provide education, we are much more effective through an organized, shared connection than we would be as individual churches. Despite the brokenness of our denomination, it is true that we can do more collectively than we can by ourselves.

Unfortunately, we’ve made some critical mistakes in our implementation of connectionalism along the way. In 1939 the Methodist Church in the United States formed the Central Jurisdiction as a way of segregating African-American Methodists. I doubt that any reader of this post will disagree that this decision goes into the World Series of Bad Ideas. At its formation in 1968 The United Methodist Church eliminated the Central Jurisdiction, opting instead for geographical jurisdictions.* These geographical jurisdictions, however, have no real accountability built into them. As we have seen, if a jurisdiction decides to reject the decisions of the General Conference, there is really nothing to be done about it. In this sense, jurisdictionalism has undermined connectionalism. (H/T to Scott Kisker for this insight.)

In the Next Methodism(s), I hope that we will learn from our past mistakes. The connectionalism of the UMC had a broken link from the get-go. Broken connectionalism, however, doesn’t mean that connectionalism is bad. It just means that we made a critical mistake in the past that we should avoid in the future.

I still believe in conferences–charge conferences, annual conferences, and general conferences. I still believe in bishops–the episkopoi, or “overseers,” commended to us in the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers. (The office of bishop, as we have conceived it in the UMC, needs serious conceptual revision, but it will be nonetheless crucial to our life together moving forward.) I believe local churches need accountability, as do clergy, as do laity. At every level of the church, we need cooperation, mutual prayer and support, and accountability. We need to watch over one another in love. That is an essential part of what it means to be Methodist.

So whatever happens denominationally, if you decide that your future is as a freestanding, independent congregation, you may still be a very fine church, but you will not be Methodist. To be Methodist is to be connectional.

* Correction: When the UMC was formed in ’68, we retained regional jurisdictionalism implemented in ’39, rather than implementing regional jurisdictions for the first time.

16 thoughts on “Methodism Means Connectionalism

  1. You know, David, that I already agree with you on this point, in principle. I’m curious to know how you would keep the connexionalism (I’m so sophisticated!), yet avoid some of the problems in our current polity. For example, how do we strengthen the teaching/pastoral office of the episkopos centralizing too much power there? (Maybe that balance is not possible.)

  2. David, this article is a very interesting and educational read for me. If I had had to come up with a word for Methodist “connectionalism” [I am an ex-Jewish primitive as you probably remember], I would have tried “hierarchicalism” on for size. It has remained interesting to me how the New Testament clearly describes a formal hierarchal setup which has been progressively failing for many, many centuries. And then we have the Lord chastising the Twelve for rebuking people of Christ who were not obeying them. I have seen no evidence that full autonomy — anticonnexionalism, shall we invent — yields better results; and increasingly I have noticed that good and solid connectionalism has simply gone informal, rather than institutional, for many. I shall pray for more good connectionalism of both kinds, for the Church.

  3. Connectionalism began breaking down when we started forcing others by a vote of GC to interpret scripture as the majority said it should be interpreted, instead of utilizing the quadrilateral for our own pastoral context. Early in my 75+ years as a Methodist, 1st as a PK and later as a pastor, we use to be able to mutually support one another’s ministries without forcing them to accept our own Biblical Interpretation or accepting that individuals created in God’s image sexual orientation could be less acceptable than another for all areas of ministry within the UMC. The covenantal role was to help bring clarity to our theological journey, not to force one another to carry another’s beliefs. This sense of connection was a wonderful gift of Methodism for so many years. Sadly losing this lack of respect for one another’s faithful response using our Methodist way of developing our theology is destroying my beloved UM church family. Lord have mercy on all of us!

    • The mishmash of theological plurality that currently occupies The American United Methodist Church is not representative of historical Methodism. At the outset, what defined Methodist connexialism was people who decided to connect to John Wesley and his specific understandings and theology. Our polity has failed because people have developed different, conflicting and outright outright contradictory understandings of what it means to be a Christian of the United Methodist persuasion.

      As a lifelong Methodist/United Methodist laity, my experience with the theological plurality of the American denomination left me spending much of my life confused and frustrated. Ultimately, the UMC left me so broken, confused and lost I was forced to wander off in search of a better and clearer understanding of Christianity and the Christian life. And to my surprise I discovered that it is not the rocket science I always thought it was due to the church’s ambiguity–it is simply unfathomable.

    • “individuals created in God’s image sexual orientation”

      You state as a given the issue at the heart of the contention. If I condemned you for forcing me to treat polygamists as less acceptable you would rightly correct me. The breakdown in our polity is because our Book of Discipline and most of our members do not accept your given as true. God has never created anyone to be gay any more than he has created anyone to have an affair. Instead, he created humans who should be strong enough to resist attractions that may exist or repent if they aren’t. I understand you don’t believe that, but progressives do not seem to understand that I do. Instead of trying to help people live more holy lives, those who believe as I do are seen as somehow trying to harm them.

      I would love to remain as a connectional group, but even cleaning up after a hurricane next to a “fellow Methodist” who believes I have evil motives is going to be difficult.

      • Your reply saddens me because you can’t seem to see the difference between being born with an homosexual orientation (not a choice but the way God made them) and choosing how many spouses one might have. I’m also sad that you believe that I or anyone else that doesn’t believe the same way as you has evil motives. While I believe you are wrong, I don’t believe you have evil motives even though your stance does hurt others who faithfully live out their Christian ministry despite being told who they are and who they love makes them “less perfect Christians”.

Comments are closed.