Have you ever stopped to ask, "What makes the Church the Church?" In other words, what makes the Church unique among the countless gatherings of humanity throughout all time and around the world?
It's not just that we talk about Jesus. Sunday school classes, universities, and seminaries do that. It's not just even that we worship Jesus. Some cults claim to do that. Throughout history, the attributes of communities have been observed, investigated, and tested to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox beliefs, between true and false worship, between true and false churches. Those attributes have been catalogued and generally agreed upon by the church in all times and places as descriptors of the essence of the Christian Church on earth.
According to Thomas Oden 1, a United Methodist theologian who is counted by many to be one of the most important American theologians (of any confession!) in the 20th and 21st centuries, "Classic Protestant teaching commonly cites three attributes or notes or outward signs by which one may discern whether a community of faith is truly a church" (Systematic Theology, Vol III). These three attributes are Word, Sacrament, and Discipline.
What does it mean to be defined by the Word and its preaching? Drawing on the thoughts on theologians from Clement of Alexandria to the Reformation, Oden writes, "The most crucial sign of the church in the Protestant tradition is the pure preaching of God’s Word...The surest mark of the true church is that in it one hears the pure gospel proclaimed...The church speaks truly in proportion as its proclamation is in harmony with apostolic teaching" (citations to other authors removed for clarity). In other words, a church is a church insofar as it proclaims the unchanged doctrine that has been passed down from the time of the Apostles. Truth cannot change across time and space, so just as the word of the Lord endures forever (Isaiah 40 / 1 Peter 1) the teachings of the true Church remain constant.
Oden argues that this criteria of the Word purely preached "is offended [ignored] if there is a substantial failure to hold duly ordained representative teachers accountable to the doctrinal standard of canonical scripture, or if those authorized to teach Christian doctrine publicly cherish heterodox opinion so as to lead astray the laity, who have a right to hear the gospel." While not writing these words directly to or about the current situation in the UMC, he certainly could have! The failures of both local pastors to believe and preach orthodoxy and the bishops who oversee them cannot be missed.
What about the sacraments? How do they define the Church? Let us look again to Oden. "A second attribute or note or visible sign by which one may discern whether a community of faith is truly a church, is that the church is present where the use of the sacraments is in accordance with their dominical institution [that is, established by Christ]...Jesus himself commanded his disciples to 'do this in remembrance of me' (Luke 22:19). Christ gave himself up for the church 'to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word' (Eph. 5:26). Because intentionally instituted by the Lord, there can be no church without a fitting sacramental life. From the outset, those who have confessed Jesus as the Christ and 'who accepted his message were baptized' and were immediately found devoting themselves to 'the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, the breaking of bread and to prayer' (Acts 2:41, 42). Where no one is baptized, there is no church. Where the farewell meal is uncelebrated, one has no right to expect the true church."
In my limited experience, I've never seen an issue with the right administration of the sacraments in the UMC. Various modes of baptism (immersion, sprinkling, etc.) are accepted, which is common practice across the universal Church. Some in other denominations are critical of the UMC's belief in "open communion" (the welcoming of all Christians to celebrate the sacrament), but the debate between open and closed communion has been an in-house debate for centuries. In general, I don't know of any widespread critiques / issues with the sacramental life of the UMC. In fact, many have rejoiced at the move to more frequent communion and return to more historic forms of the liturgy as marks of deliberately trying to more closely tied to the historic, universal Church.
The last mark of a true church is discipline. What does this mean and how does this work itself out in day-to-day life? Again, let us consult Oden. "The active practice of disciplined Christian life is a sign of the true church. Where no Christian behavior is beheld, there can be no ekklēsia [the Greek word for gathering, congregation, or church]. Where no attention is being given to daily walking the way of holiness, we have no right to expect the true church. Where the church is, there it is being authorized to order the life of discipleship and exercise discipline (by the use of the keys or ecclesiastical discipline), according to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18:18...'The exercise of church discipline to combat sin' remains today a 'sign of the true church,' which includes 'the pastoral care of the members of the Church; the preserving of the pure doctrine through the exercise of spiritual discipline and the opposing of false doctrines; the doing of works of mercy.'"
This third mark of the Church is clearly and unmistakably tied to the first two. Discipline in the right living of the Christian life is dependent upon and cannot be separated from right beliefs (the first mark) and right worship (the second mark). This is where the rubber meets the road outside of Sunday morning. As with the first mark, this mark is a problem within the UMC, especially among progressive/liberals who do not teach the historic, received teaching of the church and who do not expect or encourage believers to lead lives consistent with the historic, received ethics and morality of the Christian faith.
The big question remains--does the UMC retain the marks of a true Church? Before answering that, it is important to point out that NO church perfectly displays these marks all the time, because all churches and denominations are made up of sinners (thanks be to God for his mercy!). As the faithfulness of individual Christians ebbs and flows during their struggles with indwelling sin, so the faithfulness of individual congregations and entire denominations ebbs and flows. The New Testament churches at Corinth and Galatia clearly struggled with sin, but the Apostle Paul did not stop addressing them as churches because they had not given up struggling against the sin that corrupted them. When churches entirely capitulate on essential matters of faith and practice; however, it becomes clear that they are no longer functioning as churches. Bodies such as the Episcopal Church (ECUSA), the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) have all clearly (and admittedly) deviated from the historic Christian faith in their beliefs about Scripture, the authority of Scripture, human sexuality, and a number of other tenets of faith. As such, those who still believe these historic marks of the true Church consider them heterodox communions that are not functioning as true churches. That language may sound harsh to those whose delicate ears are conditioned by our current culture's aversion to criticism (unless, of course, that same culture is trying to cancel someone or some cause), but evaluating them against these marks leads to the unmistakable conclusion.
So what of the UMC? On paper, for now, the UMC holds to orthodox Christian beliefs (the first mark), though as Oden points out, in many local congregations and even many annual conferences the UMC fails to satisfy this criteria in practice. The same is true of the third mark, where in some congregations and annual conferences, there is no semblance of historic Christian discipline in the lives of the people. I suspect that at the next General Conference, when progressives/liberals have the majority of delegates, the UMC will change their views on paper also (i.e. the Book of Discipline) and then join the apostate bodies mentioned above as church bodies in name only but not by any objective, historic measure. At that point, the post-split UMC will no longer be united, nor any longer meaningfully Methodist, nor any longer truly a church in any historic sense.
I am going to quote Oden extensively throughout this article because of his reputation as an orthodox Methodist, Arminian, Evangelical theologian. There are certainly others that could be quoted here, but his reputation (even outside of Methodist circles) is unparalleled among recent theologians. ↩