Learning from Precocious Methodists
Updated: Aug 1
Dr. Chuck Kelley recently advanced my education. While that is not a difficult task, I remain most grateful to him. In my late teens, I read a couple of books on preaching by the Methodist scholar, W.E. Sangster. Imagine my chagrin when the learned Dr. Kelley pointed out a Sangster volume about which I was unaware. He noted that in 1938 (at that time I was no more than a fleeting thought in my father’s mind) Sangster wrote a slim volume provocatively entitled Methodism Can Be Born Again. I was cognizant that people needed to be “born again,” but can that same phenomenon happen to denominations?
In 1995 another noble Methodist, Thomas C. Oden, now reminiscing with the Wesleys in heaven, penned the answer to what becomes of a denomination that does not experience the new birth. This slim but potent volume is called Requiem. Oden styles his delightful foray into Methodist theological education as A Lament in Three Movements. Every contemporary Baptist should read both, but Oden’s book becomes essential reading lest we continue following the Methodist journey toward the abandonment and eclipse of biblical Christianity. Though serious points of theology separated Methodists from Baptists, they found sufficient agreement to join arms in bringing Christ to the American frontier; but that was before 1938. Neo-Methodism has little resemblance to revival in Aldersgate.
In 1938, Sangster noted the undeniable:
Two hundred years have passed away since Wesley was converted in Aldersgate Street, and the fire that once glowed with a great white heat burns low. Recent statistics are as dismally impressive as past statistics were startling in their triumphs. One turns over the sad record of recent years and finds a fearful wastage at work.
Sangster understood well enough that every effort would be made to spin the truth into a dizzying morass. He observed:
Shallow optimists, no doubt, will mouth their bright platitudes, and rebuke us for our “pessimism.” They are not to be tolerated. Optimism has some superficial resemblance to Christian faith, but it has no root. It is an insufferable counterfeit: it ignores the realities of the situation: it is bland, and fiddles while Rome burns; it will even deny that there is a fire!
Sangster goes on to observe that, “Methodism has become a vast machine, far too cumbrous for her waning spirit to work.” He notes that loss of evangelism and loss of holiness are the most obvious areas of dissolution.
With painfully little exertion, one need only remove the word “Methodist” from the discussion and supply “Southern Baptist.” For seventeen successive years, baptisms (one of the few ways Baptists have of evaluating evangelistic effectiveness) have plummeted! Almost every category of vitality is diminished. Like Methodists before us, Baptists have watched the hegemony of social issues push into the background the evangelism that God so greatly blessed. Even the preaching, for which Baptists were so widely esteemed, has been eclipsed in some pulpits by social agenda.
To understand what all this means, a quick read of Requiem will provide many a laugh—through the valley of your tears. Oden observes concerning his book:
Deep in the soul of most of us is an undisclosed confession we would wish to disclose if only we had the courage to tell the truth. These pages contain such a disclosure, too long having lain fallow on my vexed conscience. They reveal an insider’s view of the acute predicament of liberated theological education and ecumenism.
Understanding the path that Oden followed out of Egypt is important to grasping the importance of this monograph. He describes himself as,
…a former convinced proponent of the radical demythologizing biblical criticism of Rudolf Bultmann (on whose work I wrote my doctoral dissertation). So for years I tried to read the New Testament without the premises of incarnation and resurrection.
Oden’s rediscovery of evangelical truth created greater productivity and superior leadership in this noble theologian. I had the privilege of accompanying him to North Africa to study the Church Fathers, who defended the faith in the Patristic period. Noting the sheer number of ornate immersionist baptistries from the first centuries in Tunisia and Algeria, I was almost able to make a Baptist out of my Methodist compatriot. After all, I reasoned, he would be far better off and much more at home. Now I have to wonder!
Oden was aware that the musings of a thoughtful evangelical would hardly produce an excited audience among some.
So in all the erratic, mercurial, unpredictable doctrinal winds of culturally accommodative, ideologically chic United Methodism, this classic Reformation confessional center remains defiantly intact and unchallengeable. It galls the neopagan feminists and permissive amoralists and quasi-Marxist liberators and justification-by-equality syncretists, that they cannot change the Restrictive Rule, which guarantees that the doctrinal core cannot be amended or “improved” upon.
But Oden knew that the union between evangelicalism and liberation theology had never been a salubrious marriage. The problem according to Oden is that “…the liberated have virtually no immune system against heresy, no defense whatever against perfidious teaching, no criteria for testing the legitimacy of counterfeit theological currency, it is time for laity to learn about theological education.”
Those who describe themselves as “liberated” mean,
ethically situationist, and, above all,
sexually lenient, permissive, uninhibited.
The result for Methodist seminaries is that “it seems worth noting that the liberated seminary at its zenith has finally achieved a condition that has never before prevailed in Christian history: Heresy simply does not exist.”
Thankfully, that is not true of Baptist seminaries—yet. But take a swift look at where most of our fifty-six colleges and universities ended up. When contemporary theologians begin haranguing about the naughty boys of the W.A. Criswell - Adrian Rogers generation who ostensibly used the term “inerrancy like a weapon,” Baptists are gaining on Methodists; and Chuck Kelley may yet prove correct in his assertion that “we have become the New Methodists!”
Oden is aware that the culture warriors of the new social theology have an argot of their own:
Be prepared to be called weird names unfamiliar to your previous self-understanding, from patriarchal to puritanical, from misogynist to medievalist. On good days you turn out to be merely a fundamentalist, a chauvinist pig, an Archie Bunker, a boy scout, an Uncle Tom, or a nerd. On worse days you may be pegged as a McCarthyite or on some lunatic fringe, and it may be insinuated that you are to some degree sexist, racist, fascist, or some other sort of rightwing religious extremist. If orthodox, you may be located with slave traders and oppressors because of the racial and social location of your great-great-great-grandparents, regardless of what your own views may be.
Thomas Oden seems justified in asking a legitimate question:
How many McGovernized egalitarians does it now take to screw in an ecumenical lightbulb? At least fourteen in order to gain the right brew of ethnicity and gender balance, and to be inclusive of all alienated complainants—at least half of them women (out of which only one is permitted to be a token traditionalist); the right kinds of males (compliant); inclusive of African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, persons with alternated sexual lifestyles, including homosexual, bisexual, and transsexual representatives; and persons with handicapping conditions. The inadvertent result has been a boon to power-play liberal ecclesial elites who have been able to exercise relatively more superintendency over liberated caucus groups than they could have exercised among freely elected representatives from the grassroots.”
The bottom line on all this is that observant Southern Baptists who long for the return of the “mourner’s bench,” an emphasis on bringing people to Christ, and a return to the panoply of God’s armour of righteousness and holiness could not do better than read two Methodist theologians, W.E. Sangster and Thomas C. Oden. Faced with the intractable woods at a late evening hour and needing to find a way home, two guides who know the trails will prove critically important. Did I say that one could do no better? Please forgive the oversight. Read Galatians 1:8 followed by the book of Romans.
Time is perilously limited. Satan has targeted Southern Baptists because he hates their love for Christ and for the lost. My fondest hope is the someone will not soon have to pen a book about the hope that Southern Baptists need to be born again, or worse still, prepare a Requiem to be sung with a heavy heart at the denominational cemetery.
See an earlier blog of mine where I discuss Oden’s book: https://www.paigepatterson.org/post/can-baptists-learn-anything-from-methodists
See Chuck Kelley’s blog series “The Dilemma of Decline: Southern Baptists Face a New Reality” at https://www.drchuckkelley.com/post/the-dilemma-of-decline-southern-baptists-face-a-new-reality-an-introduction. Thomas C. Oden, Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 13. Ibid., 15.
Ibid., 16-17. Ibid., 22. Ibid., 34. Ibid., 46. See Chuck Kelley’s six part blog series, “The New Methodists” at https://www.drchuckkelley.com/post/the-new-methodists-part-one. Oden, Requiem, 68-69. Ibid., 88-89.