One of the questions asked of UMC candidates for commissioning, ordination and recognition is,
Will you be loyal to The United Methodist Church,
accepting its order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline,
defending it against all doctrines contrary to God’s Holy Word,
and committing yourself to be accountable with those serving with you,
and to the bishop and those who are appointed to supervise your ministry? (p. 64)
The third line catches my eye. Showing my loyalty to the church by defending it against all doctrines contrary to God's Holy Word. I'm trying to imagine what such an action would look like today. We have the 18th-century example of John Wesley defending the Methodists from the doctrine of predestination. He did this by writing, preaching, and publishing. So there's three forms this defensive action took.
There is also the proactive action of requiring candidates to take a class that teaches them the UM doctrinal standards. This requirement could be interpreted as an attempt to defend against contrary doctrines by making sure our leaders are familiar with and accepting of our doctrines.
Judging by the historical record, I would say John Wesley took these types of defensive and proactive actions very seriously. In his opinion, the doctrine of predestination eroded people's faith in a loving and forgiving God. As someone on a mission to build up people's faith, it makes sense that Wesley would attack anything that subverted his mission.
I can't think of any current examples of someone showing their loyalty to the church by defending it against a contrary doctrine. Maybe that's because people's sense of mission is not grounded in a particular doctrine. Wesley was preaching justification by grace through faith so anything contrary to that doctrine had to be vigorously opposed. Today, people are preaching and teaching “you shall love your neighbor as yourself”. This mission is grounded in Scripture but not in doctrine.
There are doctrines that could be applied to this teaching, for example the doctrine of humanity and the doctrine of God as creator, however neither these doctrines nor any other are cited by the spokespeople of the love-your-neighbor mission. With no doctrinal basis for their mission, there is no doctrine contrary to their mission and consequently no need to defend the church against a contrary doctrine.
I study the writings of John Wesley because those writings inform the United Methodist doctrinal standards. By having a better understanding of John Wesley's theology, I have a better understanding of United Methodist doctrine. This training enables me to defend the church against contrary doctrine. My training has not shown me how to protect the church from a leader with a no-doctrine position.
My sense of the current state of the UMC is that few members are seeking to be protected from a doctrine-less leader. There are no doctrines out there that appear threatening to them nor are there any doctrines out there that seem appealing. Their leaders are doctrine-less because the members are also without doctrine.
Is the majority correct? Perhaps we have evolved in our faith to the point where we have risen above doctrinal controversies. Sadly, I do not think this is true. I do not think we are mature in our faith or have out-grown our need for doctrine.
So, how to defend the church from a doctrine-less leader? I realize that I’m doing this already every time I hear a love-your-neighbor sermon. As I’m sitting there listening and clenching my jaw in frustration because I’ve heard this type of message so many times that I’ve become bored with it, I eventually remember to supply the doctrines for myself. Specifically, I supply Wesley’s doctrinal order of repentance then faith then holiness.
While the preacher is exhorting me to boldly love society's outcasts, I am repenting. I am confessing my lack of tolerance for social misfits as well as my lack of patience with the preacher delivering a repeat of last Sunday's sermon. With enough repentance comes the insight that the sermon reflects an honest attempt to deliver a message reflecting the best of the preacher’s capabilities. The fact that the preacher’s best doesn’t meet my expectations is my problem, and I’m the one who must find a Christian way to cope when a situation brings out the worst side of my personality.
While the preacher is praising the inclusive ministry of Jesus, I am affirming my faith in Christ who saves me from my pettiness and pours divine grace into me, that living water, until my cup overflows and grace moves out towards other, carrying me along in its current. With enough faith comes the awareness that I am not the target audience of this sermon. The preacher is preaching past me and speaking to the listeners who are not ordained ministers.
While the preacher is describing the community that will come about when we all behave decently, I am reminding myself that this is one of the characteristics of holiness and that outward holiness is only possible when it is grounded in a God-given inward holiness nourished by spiritual disciplines that keep me connected to the divine source of holiness. With enough hungering and thirsting after holiness comes the desire to experimenting until I find the practices that satiate me.
So this is how I will honor my ordination vow. I will display my loyalty to the church by defending it against doctrine-less leaders. This defense will take the form of teaching you how to defend yourself. You can defend yourself by supplying the missing doctrinal order. Typically, repentance and faith are the missing doctrines that must be supplied. Holiness in a truncated form (i.e., morality) will be in there, and you will have to fill in the missing teaching-- primarily the teaching that such holiness is made possible by a steady infusion of grace.
In summary, defend the church, not by judging the doctrine-less, but by practicing and living out the church’s doctrine until it becomes an embodied truth and the guiding principle of your life.