Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Unity and the Modern Denomination

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

Unity has been much on the minds of United Methodists lately. There has been extensive discussion (including by me on this blog) of the theological and spiritual grounds of unity. There has not been as much attention paid to what unity looks like in functional, organizational terms.

First, it is important to note that unity need not be taken in a structural sense. It is possible to have spiritual unity with fellow Christians from other denominations, and that is real unity. Nevertheless, since the question at hand is the question of the unity of The United Methodist Church, a particular Christian denomination, it is worth thinking about what structural unity means for a denomination.

The question of what unity means functionally and organizationally for a denomination is actually a complicated one, given the complicated nature of modern denominations.

Many might assume that denominations are primarily about setting doctrinal standards. Here perhaps echoes of the recently observed 500th anniversary of the Reformation ring in people’s ears. The Reformation was about debates over beliefs, so denominations must be about belief, right? Yet while setting doctrine is (at least in many cases) one function of denominations, it is not the only one.

Another function of denominations is establishing systems of authority. The Reformation, especially the English Reformation, was as much about questioning the pope’s authority as it was about doctrine. Denominational structures indicate who has authority to make what decisions in the common life of a group of Christians. Those decisions may or may not be related to doctrine.

While it is easy to see the roots of denominations in the Reformation, the modern denomination as an organizational form was perfected in the United States. Here, denominations have taken on at least two additional functions.

First, denominations serve to credential clergy and connect clergy and congregations. They define a pool of Christians designated as clergy who are commissioned to perform sacraments. Denominations also provide some assistance to congregations in helping identify credentialed clergy to exert congregational leadership and perform sacraments in those congregations (though the extent and form of that assistance vary widely).

Second, denominations provide a means for congregations, clergy, and individual Christians to collaborate in joint ministry. This joint ministry can include everything from evangelistic campaigns to mission organizations to pension systems to publishing efforts to colleges. The list goes on. These joint ministries are in many ways the most visible part of the denomination, since they are the most numerous and link individual congregations on the most regular basis.

Hence, there are at least four components to denominations and thus denominational unity: theology, authority, clergy, and joint ministry.

What makes the question of unity in modern denominations complicated is that unity or disunity in one area does not necessary, but may, imply unity or disunity in another area. This observation holds both within and between denominations. For instance, the UMC’s full communion agreement with the ELCA recognizes unity in clergy and sacraments and some theological unity without implying any unity in authority or joint ministry or complete theological unity.

Thus, it is possible for a denomination to be simultaneously united and in a state of disunity. In the UMC, there has been long-standing disunity on theological understandings of homosexuality and related theological questions. In recent years, these have increasingly been translated into disunity regarding clergy (Can LGBTQ+ persons be ordained?) and authority (What authority do Boards of Ordained Ministry, bishops, and clergy have to make case-by-case decisions in disputes about ministry with and by LGBTQ+ persons?).

The situation in which the UMC currently finds itself is asking to what extent the existing theological, clergy, and authority disunity should be formalized and whether and to what extent these forms of disunity will cause disunity in the joint ministry of United Methodists. The answers to these questions are complicated not just because there are strongly held theological differences, but because it is unclear what this theological disunity should mean for other functions of a denomination and, furthermore, because the answer might be different for different functions.

Among the components of denominational unity, shared authority and clergy are the most basic. Shared authority and mutually recognized clergy are both necessary and sufficient for a group of Christians to function as a denomination. It is possible to do joint ministry through interdenominational (or nondenominational) means. Theological debates always exist within denominations, to some extent and on some issues, though they are often what motivate people to sunder the basic unity of shared authority and mutually recognized clergy.

Another way to ask the questions facing the UMC, then is to what extent theological disagreement necessitates ceasing to share common authority structures and mutually recognition of clergy, and if so, to what extent continued joint ministry in a newly interdenominational sense is possible.

Thus, there is a range of options for the UMC from complete separation (formalized disunity in all four areas) to confederated churches (formalized theological, authority, and clergy disunity, with continued unity in joint ministry and possibly some continued shared authority and clergy) to continued existence as a single denomination (with unity in authority, clergy, and joint ministry despite theological differences). At play here are not just individuals’ theological beliefs about sexuality but their understandings of the nature of unity and the nature of denominations. It makes for a complicated debate, but one that will be interesting to watch.


  1. Very helpful, David! Thanks for this analysis.

  2. Once Theological Unity breaks down, then unity of Clergy and Authority become difficult because clergy hold great influence over what theology is taught in churches, through preaching, but also curriculum and bible studies they led.
    Authority (denominational clergy and publishing houses also will influence the theological teaching of a church especially in the UMC because of who they approve and appoint as clergy to the churches and what teachings they publish for Sunday Schools especially for our children and youth.
    Joint ministry is also problematic when theology is unshared, because at least I worry which theological perspective will be taught to those who are influence to become Christian. Also, if we were to move forward as a theologically diverse denomination the theological diversity will make it difficult for any confederation of churches to be known for any type of beliefs other that the predominant view held by their sister churches in any area. In short I believe that theological disunity led to nothing less than confusion in the church in all areas.

  3. I am not a theologian so I might get flamed for these comments. Unfortunately I have seen many young Christians leave the church based upon the intolerance for homosexuals. The message they receive is that if you are homosexual there is no place in heaven or the UMC for you. This is unfortunate since my understanding is that Christ came and saved everyone unconditionally with his sacrifice on the cross. It breaks my heart to see people who want to know Christ be turned away. The attitude with many Christians is that people who do not suffer with the same sins that I suffer with are the bad ones. We are all sinners and God is the only one that should be passing judgement. Our job is to share the good news of Christ and to help people to get to know him. Having a clergy with the same diversity as the people God has made should demonstrate that the church is accepting of all people who want to know Christ.