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Cal/Nev Evangelicals Respond to Wolf's Anti-Evangelical Theology Recommended by Bishop



This is a response to the article by Rev. Dave Wolf entitled "Rather Than Separate – In The Wesleyan Spirit, Let Us Join Hands." In this article, Rev.Wolf brings forth some thoughtful concerns and interpretations concerning our Wesleyan heritage and the ability of evangelicals and liberals to live in unity. There are some areas for us to join hands in agreement, but many points on which we will have to "agree to disagree."

Rev. Wolf writes, "The conservatives among us have advocated a new orthodoxy and consequent legalistic requirements for the church." It is good for us to hear his perspective on what we are attempting to advocate. In our view, however, we have no desire to bring forth "a new orthodoxy." Our intent is to celebrate and share the plain old orthodoxy of the Bible, of historic Christianity, and of early Methodism. Our hope is to simply promote the Methodism of John Wesley, which he called, "the common principles of Christianity, - the plain old Christianity that I teach." This is how Evangelicals understand true Methodism. We have no desire to impose "legalistic requirements,"– but rather to affirm the Scriptural principles of John Wesley, Philip Otterbein and Jacob Albright.

Interestingly, Rev. Wolf states that the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship (ERF) complains that this Annual Conference is "tolerant and inclusive". We have no desire to be misunderstood in this important matter. The full sentence in the ERF document reads, "Evangelical theology is incompatible with the dominant values of tolerance and inclusion held by Conference leadership." The emphasis in this sentence is on "dominant values". Of course, all Christians should affirm the virtues of tolerance and inclusiveness as taught in the Bible. However, when these virtues become a dominant value, they supercede what we value the most: The authority of the Scripture and the Lordship of Christ. They then become ideological gods in and of themselves. We believe the Bible teaches tolerance and inclusion as values, but not as dominant values.

What we advocate is a respect for biblical authority and a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord of all. It seems that where liberals and evangelicals differ most is in our respective understandings of biblical authority. The recent dialogues in our denomination between "liberals" and "evangelical/traditionalists" confirm this. The participants in these round table discussions reached the conclusion that our differences stem from basic disagreements on the nature of revelation. The recent controversy over gay "holy unions" is illustrative. Evangelicals see in the biblical record that Christian marriage is only to be affirmed between a husband and wife. We further understand from the Scriptures that homosexual activity is "incompatible with Christian teaching" (1996, Book of Discipline) We cannot see Scriptural support for gay "holy unions."

Our desire is to promote the Bible as " the primary source and criterion for Christian doctrine" (1996 Book of Discipline). We believe this was Wesley’s desire as well. In Rev. Wolf’s article, he suggests that the doctrine of Justification by Faith was considered "an opinion" and "of little consequence" by Methodism’s founder. Our reading of Wesley’s numerous writings on this subject, especially his sermons on "Salvation by Faith", "Justification by Faith", "The Righteousness of Faith," and his tract "Principles of a Methodist", lead us to believe he considered it to be a central tenet of Christianity. Of particular interest is his sermon entitled, "True Christianity Defended". There, Wesley cautions his followers against those "who have endeavoured to sap the very foundation of our Church, by attacking its fundamental, and indeed, the fundamental doctrine of all Reformed Churches; justification by faith alone." More importantly, we see the Bible teaches this truth to be of paramount importance: "Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).

John Wesley cherished the core values of historic Christianity, and we believe he expected all Methodists to do the same. These central core values included the authority of the Bible as the Word of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ as the divine Son of God. Here is a famous quote from Wesley taken in its context: "We believe, indeed, that ‘all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God;’ and herein we are distinguished from Jews, Turks, and Infidels. We believe the written word of God to be the only and sufficient rule both of Christian faith and practice; and herein we are fundamentally distinguished from those of the Romish Church. We believe Christ to be the eternal supreme God; and herein we are distinguished from the Socinians and Arians. But to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think." Wesley did affirm "liberty of conscience," as do his evangelical followers today, but only in those things that "do not strike at the root of Christianity."

Rev. Wolf gave us all a challenge to consider: "We will be stronger as a church if we tolerate our differences…" This is a challenge because all United Methodists have limits to what we can tolerate in the name of Jesus. Can evangelicals tolerate gay "holy unions"? Can liberals tolerate the idea of an Evangelical Annual Conference? Rev. Wolf’s challenge stretches all of us. Here is another challenge we would like to bring to the table for consideration: Shouldn’t our unity in Christ be based on something greater than "tolerating our differences?" Shouldn’t our unity be based on shared core values, common goals, and cherished, heartfelt, compatible convictions?

At the May 20th meeting with the Bishop and Conference Staff, we presented several options for consideration, including a separate Evangelical District or Conference. We believe these options, especially the option of a separate conference, represent a healthy and wise course for us to follow. We propose a new paradigm for ministry in the twenty-first century, where we accept and affirm our differences, rather than merely tolerate them. This new paradigm would give each of us the right to minister freely without engaging in a seemingly never-ending conflict of values and principles. In separate Annual Conferences we can serve the Lord according to our Christian consciences. May God give us a vision to see our United Methodist Church in ways that can forge a new model for ministry, so we might better honor each other and honor Christ in the years to come.

Respectively submitted by John Christie and the ERF Leadership team.


Theological differences are at the heart of the Confessional group's inclination to separate from our annual conference, if not the denomination. Since the "Houston 50" expressed themselves at the 1988 General Conference, the most conservative among us have advocated a new orthodoxy and consequent legalistic requirements for the church. Now this contingent, under the guise of "Confessional" and "Evangelical" groups, is calling for the church to be more exclusive, narrow, and to have doctrinal tests to our theological purity. At the annual conference last year, the Bishop generously allowed for a petition to be made available which essentially said, Those who do not follow the Confessional Movement's way of thinking, are "secular." The recent statement from the group contains the complaint that we are "tolerant and inclusive."

Yet implicitly and explicitly, consistently and emphatically, Wesley sought to assure that Methodism would be both "tolerant and inclusive." From the earliest to the latest of his writings, Wesley insisted that Methodists did not have doctrinal tests for membership. Hear this. In 1742, just four years after Aldersgate, he said,

The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort. His assenting to this or that scheme of religion, his embracing any particular set of nations, are all quite wide of the point. Whosoever, therefore, imagines that a Methodist is a person of such and such an opinion is grossly ignorant of the whole affair, he mistakes the truth totally.

Wesley held that the root "essence," among others, of "primitive Christianity" was the love of God known and expressed. "Opinions" were the various ways believers understood the essences, and were of little consequence, "... a slender part of religion, if any part of it at all." He included "Justification by Faith" among opinions, defending Wm Law's Christian integrity, even though Law did not affirm the commonly held doctrine. Although Wesley personally found the concept of Trinity valuable, he indicated he would never make the expression a requirement for Methodists. (See, sermon "On the Trinity.")

Forty-six yew later, in 1788, when he was 95, he preached in Glasgow saying much the same thing, wanting us to concentrate on the essences, and not the doctrinal demons:

There is no other religious society under heaven, which requires nothing of (people) in order to allow their admission into it but a desire to save their souls ... The Methodist alone do not insist on one holding this or that opinion; but they think and let think. Neither do they impose any particular mode of worship...Now, I do not know of any other religious society, either ancient or modem wherein such liberty of consciences is now allowed, or has been since the age of the Apostles.

As long as people were going about the work of God, he cares little about their theology, although he insisted that believers know their faith and be grounded in it. In his sermon "A Caution Against Bigotry," he refers to the disciples complaining to Jesus about people who were not among the circle of followers who were casting out demons in his name. Jesus responded, "If they are not against us, they must be for us." Wesley goes on to say if he himself saw a Papist (Roman Catholic), an Arian, a Socician ... a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk (Muslim) "casting out devils" (a metaphor for doing God's work), he could not forbid him either directly or indirectly, lest he himself "be no better than a bigot." (See Section IV.4-6)

In discussion with a member of the Confessional Movement, having to do (1) with the charge that we inclusivists are "secularists and (2) with their positions on homosexual issues (one of the "front issues" for the theological separation), he fell back to their base argument that Wesley must have wanted us to have doctrinal test or he would not have sent the Articles of Religion (the General Rules) over to the founding conference of Methodism in America. Our church historians have pointed out over the years that the Articles were meant to be guidelines, and not perimeters of our faith. Umphrey Lee in his article "Freedom From Rigid Creed", found in the book Methodism: A summary of basic information concerning the Methodist Church (1947),, quotes Bishop Tigert's Constitutional History of American Methodism, where it is said,

"The 'General Rules' are the recognized terms of communion throughout Methodism. They are free from dogmatic definitions or requirements....When Wesley gave the Articles of Religion to the American Church, he did not make them a condition of membership. (Methodism, p.136)

This has been our conventional wisdom, as well as studied conclusion about Wesley’s intention for Methodism.

Early and late our founder wanted Methodists to turn to the ways of the "primitive" church, the community of Jesus' day, where love was the basis of belief and action. (See his sermon, "Foundation of the City Road Chapel," preached in 1777, when he was 74 years old.)

We have gloried in the fact that we are broad-minded theologically, but demanding when it comes to works which grow out of faith in Christ. The vast majority of Methodists, and now United Methodists, have appreciated the freedom, tolerance, and inclusiveness which has been a part of Methodism from the beginning. Hear Wesley again, saying emphatically, "...we require no unity of opinion, or in modes of worship, but barely that they 'fear God and work righteousness...' This is the glory of the Methodists, and of them alone. They are themselves no particular sect or party; but they receive those, of all parties, who endeavor 'to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with their God.’" See Sermon on Ministerial Office, 1789, two years before his death.)

A pertinent passage of that sermon says that historically there have been those within the Christian church who "...said to their neighbors. 'Stand by yourselves for we are holier than you!' As soon as ever they separated themselves, either they retired into deserts, or they built religious houses; or at least formed parties, into which none was admitted but such as subscribed both to their judgment and practice. But with the Methodist it is quite otherwise..." (He did not want Methodists to separate from the Church of England, any more than we would want those with variant beliefs to separate either within, or away from our conference, or the United Methodist Church.)

We will be stronger as a church if we tolerate our differences, and if we honor our earliest tradition. Quoting again from the "Sermon on Ministerial Office" (1789),

"Ye are a new phenomenon on the earth, - a body of people who, being of no sect or party, are friends to all parties, and endeavor to forward all in heart-religion, in the knowledge of love of God and man."

His plea to those who advocated exclusivism and who "quibbled' (his term) on theological issues was consistently stated - "Although we may not be of one mind, may we not be of one heart (sometimes he said "spirit"). If thy heart is with me, as my heart is with thee, give me thy hand."

No, let us have no separation but "...let our whole soul pant after a general revival of pure religion and undefiled, the restoration of the image of God, pure love, in every child of man .... Let us provoke all (people), not to enmity and contention, but to love and to good works; always remember those deep words, (God engrave them on all our hearts!) 'God is love: and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him!’" (Quoted from "Foundation of City Road Chapel.")

It was only when some persisted in their intrusive efforts to convert others to their own particular views, that Wesley objected. He felt such disruptions interfered with the work of the class meeting and the church. Then he "encouraged" their separation. (Reference to a Calvinist who felt he had the "true view" and tried to impose it on others.)

To all our brothers and sisters of United Methodism, let us all say, If thy hearts are as our hearts, give us thy hand!

Written by: M David Wolf

Letter from Bishop Talbert, Cal/Nev. Annual Conference

This dialogue began with a letter received from Bishop Melvin G. Talbert in response to the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship of California's request for a separate non-geographical evangelical District or Annual Conference.

August 1998

Dear Reader:

In the midst of our continuing discussion regarding the request of the Evangelical Renewal Fellowship to separate or to have a separate district or conference, I believe the full text of what Dave Wolf wrote is worthy of our reading. Dave gave me permission to share it with you.

Melvin G. Talbert

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