The United Methodist Church does not exist. Sure, there is a label of a network of clergy, laity, agencies, and churches and their relationships to each other that we label “the United Methodist Church.” But I can point to a fish and call it a “cow,” but that doesn’t mean the fish is what we would otherwise think of when we hear the word “cow.” Same with the phrase “United Methodist Church.” We can use it as a label for something we are familiar with, but if we consider the meaning of the words, there is no such thing that exists that is defined by the meaning of the combination of the words “United,” “Methodist,” and “Church.”
My issue here, however, isn’t with the words “United” and “Methodist.” These are words that were use to label the institution based upon specific historical traditions and events. The label has “United” because we are the union of two Wesleyan denominations in 1968: the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren. If we use “United” to refer to the way the institution was historically form, then this word is true, although, if we use it to refer to the present condition of the denomination, it depends on what the meaning of “unity” you are using.
Meanwhile, labels like “Methodist” and other theological labels are frequently used to describe streams of traditions more so than specific ways of practice. Most of us don’t call people “Christian” because we know people believed exactly as the earliest disciples did; we call people Christian because they identify with something that has come out from this tradition. While the usage of such terms may lose their meaningfulness in telling us much about the people who adhere to these labels, they are still pretty meaningful is connected to people’s identity in the stream of history.
My problem is with calling us a “Church.” That word I feel is entirely unfitting for us a denomination. As I am sure many of you are aware, the Biblical understanding of the Church was not a church building; it wasn’t even per se an institution, although the early Church did have the rudimentary aspects of what we would refer to as institutions. “Church,” or rather ἐκκλησία (ekklesia), is used to refer to the specific type of gatherings of believers in the New Testament. It was a term that in the singular could be used to refer to a gathering of believers in a specific location, such as in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 1.2), or could be used to refer to the universal designation of believers in general (see Gal. 1.13).1
The network labeled the United Methodist Church fits in neither label. It is neither the name of a local gathering of believers nor is it in reference to the universal church. 2 But to use it to refer to a specific collection of believers that are neither local nor make up the whole is to use it in a very novel way. This is a problem. Why?
When the NT uses the world ἐκκλησία and we use the word “church” in line with the NT, we are doing more than simply labeling and describing. We are legitimating and
If we use the term “church” with this same sense of normativity and legitimation when we use it to describe the United Methodist Church, we are doing something that we might not offhand consciously recognize: we are stating there are divinely given norms and legitimation for our own denomination as it is. We are locating the work and power of God to the institution
To be clear, I am not saying “denominations” are wrong or evil, as is a common trope you might hear. From the moment the early Church recognized that the apostles were to have their specific zones of influence and that one apostle was not to try to act as an apostle in another zone, but rather there were network of churches that were connected around a specific apostolic figure, like Paul among many of the
Thus, the networks that existed in between the local and the universal did exist and were not frowned upon. The arrangements were due to the realities of coordination around key teachers and leaders, which later become substituted with key teachings that should leaders should instruct the people in. However, they were not permanent arrangements intended to exist in perpetuity.
If we as United Methodists allow the New Testament to determine the right theological usage of the term “Church,” then we are not, rightly speaking, a church as a denomination. Never have been, never will be. It was always a wrong way of speaking that has had the consequences of treating our network as a network that must always and necessarily exist, leading to the attempts to try to control this network through the use of institutional processes by the proponents of various theological frameworks.
But the reality is that the present setup no longer coordinates our work around doing the work that God has given to the global Church, but rather we have tried to coordinate between the local churches and the mission the network of churches tries to determine. Consequently, we coordinate our work around maintaining what we label the “church” but was never rightly labeled such. We spend more time than we should try to protect the “connection” and less time than we should employing our connection for the specific purposes God calls us towards. In the end, we don’t even ultimately agree on what those specific purposes are and how to accomplish those purposes. Our denomination is united by language that describes our processes (such as some parts of the Book of Discipline) and rituals and habits that enact these processes within our connection (such as ordination, conferencing, etc), but when the rubber meets the road and we stop focusing on a unity of abstractions and habits to pay attention to the realities in our concrete actions and relations, we massively disagree with what should or should not be permissible.
We are a United Methodist connection, a dysfunctional one at that, but we are not a church or Church, and we have never been a church or a Church. We are a connection and the connection should be judged on the manner in which the connection accomplishes its purposes, not on how it preserves itself. Maybe our connection is salvageable for the purposes we think it should have, maybe it isn’t. But let’s no longer treat the label we have given to it as having any real theological authority or a divine legitimation to the specific shape and form of our connection.
- As an aside, I am of the opinion that the usage of ἐκκλησία in Matthew 16.18 refers to the fellowship of Jesus’ disciples and does not itself refer to the collection of all believers through all space and time. The passage might be applicable to the universal Church in some ways, but I don’t think Jesus was referring to Peter as the “pillar” of the universal Church, but only a “pillar” among the early disciples who would go on to be apostles. In other words, this is why I am not Catholic.
- That is, unless one thinks only United Methodist believers make up the universal church, but I know of no one would give this serious consideration.
- For evidence of this, see Paul’s language in Romans 15.20 for evidence of this limitation of apostolic authority; also note how Paul in 1 Corinthians 4.15 felt the Corinthians had a special relationship to him, even if they were familiar with other teachers like Cephas/Peter.