From time to time various Methodists get very worked up about the idea that members of United Methodist congregations are using Beth Moore studies in their study groups and Sunday School classes. Via Facebook I encountered an older post regarding Methodists and Beth Moore. That article is actually quite restrained and gentle by comparison to some of the discussion I’ve heard. The author makes some good points, but I think, perhaps, not enough good points.
My first thought is that if you are a United Methodist pastor or church leader and your worst problem is that your members are spending too much time listening to Beth Moore, you should spend some serious time thanking the Lord for your blessings.
It’s not that I agree with everything Beth Moore says. In fact, I likely disagree with a good percentage. I really haven’t bothered to make a list. She’s probably more literal than I am, and we doubtless disagree on matters of biblical criticism. Besides, I don’t particularly like watching videos in a study group or class. I’d rather get together to actually study or listen to someone who is present. So my point is not to be an apologist or a critic — of Beth Moore, that is.
What I’m wondering is why so many people in the church, and particularly the United Methodist Church (since I’m a member), think they can or should control what people hear.
Oh, I know the arguments. We have a responsibility to teach good theology. We have a duty to teach sound biblical knowledge. We are Methodists (or whatever), after all, and that should mean something!
Should it really? I find denominations useful, sort of. They could be a great means of getting us to work together for missions that are bigger than local church congregations. Ideally, they can provide some sort of accountability. I happen to like the United Methodist doctrinal distinctives, which is why I joined a Methodist congregation.
Trouble is, I found out rather quickly that very few Methodists were aware of their doctrinal positions, if it’s proper to call these positions “theirs” if they don’t know what they are. Before I joined my first United Methodist congregation I asked for something that would tell me what Methodists believed, officially and clearly. The pastor gave me a copy of the United Methodist Discipline, clearly with serious misgivings. I loved it. Well, the first 100 pages or so. The rest is well nigh useless, and I’m convinced that most gospel work done by Methodists results from someone ignoring the rules.
After reading that first part of the Discipline, I decided I could get on board with this new church, and so I joined. Then I discovered that Methodists weren’t really acquainted with their own history. The orientation to the church, in which one speaker explained that John Wesley had been influenced by Karl Marx (perhaps with the intervention of Dr. Who, though he made no mention of it), was biblically, doctrinally, and historically ignorant.
The pastor invited me to teach a series on Sunday nights about the doctrine of Christian Perfection. I was interested to note that there are two full statements of this doctrine in the Discipline, and chose to start from that point. As I flashed up my overhead transparencies, I was disappointed to discover that nobody was interested in the fact that there were two statements (really a bit more complicated than that), because they hadn’t been aware that there was even one. I found that growing up Seventh-day Adventist, I had learned more about John Wesley and Wesleyan theology than I would find around the Methodist church.
This was not a matter of personal pride. I had these things drilled into me as a child. I really couldn’t have avoided knowing them if I wanted to. Further, I’d be unlikely to complain about the problem, except for a related tendency I found as time went on.
That related tendency was the idea that we needed to make sure to teach Methodists only Methodist doctrine, thus protecting them from all that other stuff that was flooding the world. If we could just keep them listening to only Methodist teachers, everything would be OK. Unfortunately, I suspect that most crazy ideas have a Methodist champion somewhere.
Now there are a number of non-Methodist doctrines I would love to protect Methodists from. I wouldn’t mind protecting everyone else as well. The whole Left Behind series and related “prophecy” material would be a start. I don’t like it and I don’t even like to have to take the time to respond to it. It’s that bad. In my opinion, of course.
But people are going to hear that point of view of the book of Revelation and other apocalyptic literature, and I’m going to have to respond. And despite any tendency to wish it would go away, I know I’m wrong to do so. The right response is to do better teaching on other views. If we get people studying for themselves and help them to learn to study well, they will find the flaws in these various trends on their own.
Or they might come up with the arguments that would make me realize I’ve been wrong. Regarding the whole futurist/dispensational view of prophecy, I doubt they will, but they could. The point is that they should have the opportunity to do so.
What’s more, with modern media and the internet, it’s ridiculous to think that you will protect your congregation from hearing things you’d rather they not hear. Telling people they can’t study certain things or hear certain speakers is likely to have the opposite effect.
And then there’s the question of whether you really have anything better to teach at all. I’ve heard this type of complaint from people who couldn’t construct a sound biblical argument in a room full of commentaries (even if they ignored the commentaries!). They simply wouldn’t know. But they can tell whether a teacher’s denominational credentials are in order.
I recall one church that had a young adult class that was growing and getting popular. There were young adults who didn’t even attend church who were coming to the class and enjoying the discussions. The church leadership, clearly dismayed at the success of this class, decided they needed to bring it under control. They were reading and discussing unapproved books. So they found a teacher who would follow the party line, and thus managed to reduce the membership of the class to zero in a mere four weeks.
Another Methodist church wanted Methodist materials, but in their absence was prepared to gut some Southern Baptist materials, removing reference to such dangerous doctrines as salvation, so people would, at least, not hear the gospel message from a Baptist perspective, even if no Methodist perspective was to be offered instead.
I’ve mentioned growing up in the Seventh-day Adventist Church. In the church I encountered censorship rather regularly. In order to keep apart from the world it was important to read SDA materials and to stick with the SDA agenda. I was watched when teaching to make sure I wasn’t leading people astray. I kind of expected that kind of censorship due to the nature of the denomination. Since other churches were leading people straight to the Mark of the Beast, we obviously shouldn’t be listening to anything they said, lest we too go whoring after the beast and his image.
I’ve heard both liberals and conservatives claim that all censorship is done by the other camp, but my observation is that both have a tendency to decide that they’re correct. That’s actually not a bad thing. Surely if one thinks one is wrong one will change one’s view. The problem is that certain people decide that they have to impose their rightness on others. Not persuade, impose. And that’s going to fail.
So my suggestion to a pastor who hears that a group in his church is using Beth Moore studies is to first rejoice that they care enough to study. Then if you object to some of the content you should first make sure you know what it is and what is being taught, and then teach what you believe is right. Do it vigorously, make it relevant, and show your love of scripture as you do so. One thing that came out clearly in the post I linked and in the comments is that people appreciate Beth Moore’s love of scripture. I know from experience that if you are teaching from your heart and you have paid the price in study and prayer time, people are going to listen when you teach.
Do you, as a pastor, exhibit that same love? Can your congregation tell that you’re seriously studying, doing your best to understand, and sharing what you have learned? Do they detect that you have spent time on your knees when your preach or teach? Or is your only real response to point them to a list of Methodist (or other denominational) doctrines?
There is a group in the Methodist church, as there was in the Adventist church in my youth (and friends tell me still is), and I suspect in every church, who consider “but it’s not Methodist!” a good argument. But there are less and less of these people. You need a better argument.
I believe that there are plenty of people in the United Methodist Church (I wonder why I keep typing “untied” for “united” and having to correct myself) who love scripture and love to learn more. There are plenty more who are hungry to hear and want to learn how to study. You’re not going to draw them away from one source without providing another.
But even more importantly, if they hear the scriptures taught in different ways, from different perspectives, by people who truly love to study God’s word, they’re going to be enriched by it. Even if they come to the conclusion that some of it is wrong.
Especially if they come to the conclusion that some of it is wrong.