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Do I have to believe a certain way to belong?

‘Tuesdays at the Table’ is a series of discussions hosted by the Connectional Table that will help us better understand our faith, our church, ourselves. Learn more

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Through the centuries, the church has disagreed. From the councils of the first 500 years of the church, through the Reformation, and even to the labels and struggles of today, there have been differing understandings of our Christian faith. We have repeatedly separated and joined together.

Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff will share the role of our Christian tradition and how it continues to inform our thinking today.

Discussion Guide

Guest: Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff

Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History of The United Methodist Church. Photo courtesy Ashley Boggan Dreff.Dr. Ashley Boggan Dreff is the General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History. Dreff earned her PhD from Drew Theological School’s Graduate Division of Religion, specializing in both Methodist/Wesleyan Studies and Women’s/Gender Studies. Dreff is a lay member of the Arkansas Annual Conference and the daughter of two ordained United Methodist ministers. She is the author of Nevertheless: American Methodists and Women's Rights (2020) and Entangled: A History of American Methodism, Politics, and Sexuality (2018).

Host: Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj

Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference who has also served in Bombay and Illinois Great Rivers Conferences. Photo courtesy Connectional Table.Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj is a retired clergy member of the New York Annual Conference. He has also served in Bombay and Illinois Great Rivers Conferences.

Dharmaraj has lived in various cultural settings, has been involved in interfaith relations and is actively engaged in global mission. He has written over a dozen books and numerous articles in the areas of Christian mission and interfaith relations. He writes regularly commentary in The Vision, New York Annual Conference’s monthly news magazine. Dharmaraj has served the church-at-large in various capacities including teaching, lecturing, conducting workshops and has served as a consultant both in academic and church settings. He has traveled extensively and worked with both United Methodist Church and ecumenical partners from around the world. He is passionate about world Christianity at work through mutuality in mission engagement.

Dharmaraj holds a Ph.D. in Theology of Mission, an M.A. in Political Science and Public Administration. He has also earned an M.Div, S.T.M and Th.M. degrees in Biblical Languages and Mission Theology.


Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Welcome to Tuesday's The Table conversation. My name is Jacob Dharmaraj. I'm a member of The Connectional Table. The topic for today's discussion is, do I have to believe a certain way to belong? We are delighted to have Dr. Ashley Dreff, General Secretary of the General Commission on Archives and History as our guest. And as we begin our conversation, I'm going to ask Dr. Dreff to say a few words about herself. Dr. Dreff, please tell us a little about your background.

Dr. Dreff: Thank you so much, Jacob. It's wonderful to be with you all. So I was raised United Methodist. In fact, both of my parents are ordained clergy, serving in the Arkansas Annual Conference. My parents are quite progressive, and so I was raised with this understanding that United Methodism is open and affirming of all. It wasn't until after college that my privileged progressive view of United Methodism, was really opened up to some of the harm that's found in our tradition. And I went on both a faith journey and a scholarly journey to figure out how the United Methodism of my youth reconciled with some of the words in the Book of Discipline.

So as I dug into Methodist history, I only found myself more and more and more confused and intrigued by our past. For example, where did the shouting Methodists of the 19th century come from, and where did they go? How did Methodism go from this often satirized group that existed on the margins of society, that embraced plain speech, bodily expression, and challenged just about every single social norm that there was, to the rather main street mainstream Protestant denomination that we see today?

It was a big kind of historical and theological mystery to me. And I just had to know more. So, that's when I decided to dedicate my professional life to this quest, to figuring out everything that I could about United Methodist history, in order to figure out my own faith, my own relationship with God, and my own relationship with Methodism. And it was in graduate school that I first read the incompatibility clause, that dominates so much of our conversations today. My finding out so late in life, predominantly speaks to my privilege as a heterosexual cisgender woman.

And when reading those words, even though they didn't apply to me directly, I couldn't help but feel betrayed by my faith, by my past, and even by my parents. How could they not have told me that this was in there? How did I grow up believing United Methodism was so inclusive when it names people as incompatible? And so this...well, to me discovery, sent me on the path then of looking at specifically the history of sexuality within the United Methodist tradition. And how have Methodists talked about sexuality, debated about sexuality in our past, and how do those conversations inform where we are today? And so that's kind of how I got here and how I began to specialize in the things that I do.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Well, thank you. That is extremely helpful. When John Wesley speaks of tradition, he refers to the ancient church tradition, the writings of the great theologians, and church leaders, and the impact of the faithful witnesses and their wisdom. How would you define tradition as a historian and as a scholar?

Dr. Dreff: So, tradition is one of those words. It's kind of like the word religion, that it's so hard to define, because it changes according to context, culture, time, place, space, attitude. So many people think of tradition as the way that things have always been done. We can see this come up in a lot of different parts of our lives, from the pew that we sit in on Sunday mornings, because our grandmother sat in that pew, to the type of sweet potatoes that we serve at Thanksgiving meal, because that is the type of sweet potatoes that has always been served in our family. It is our tradition. But that kind of limits tradition to a set pattern. And really tradition from a Wesleyan perspective is more of an attitude, or of a certain approach to things. Wesley was very learned, very self-conscious, and a self-reflective person, who was constantly adjusting his views, challenging his own faith, and expanding his own actions according to his context.

So what we might say is at the heart of a Wesleyan tradition, is a willingness to evolve. And so as we look at John's life, largely through the... Largely through his journal writings, or even his sermons, we see his faith develop, and we get a sense of what he means by tradition, and how he's wrestling with the notion of tradition in his own context. So I kind of want to take a look at his context for a second. John Wesley was living in a very interesting time when it comes to religion. And I think it's so key to understanding how he talks about tradition and why he points to the early church. So 18th century England, during this period, was towards the end of centuries of religious disputes, largely between Catholic monarchs and Protestant monarchs. The monarchy was traded back and forth between these two Christian faiths and the rules changed drastically as to how you could worship, depending upon who was in the throne. Now Wesley's, John Wesley's father, Samuel Wesley, was an ordained clergy in The Church of England, which is the Protestant Church of England.

And John's mother, Susanna, was raised Puritan. Puritans sought to purify the Church of England of its Catholic tendencies. So if we think about Wesley in this context, he's raised by both a member of the institutional church, and a person who challenges the institutional church. And all of this religious turmoil, not only in society at large, but you can imagine in his own home, influences John's theology and his notion of tradition. And he largely gets fed up with it. He's so tired of the opinions of people and debating over the best way to worship, the best words to use in prayer, and instead he focuses on what he calls primitive Christianity. That first few centuries of Christianity, before it's institutionalized, back when it was still a movement of the spirit within people. He sees these early centuries as a simpler time. One where people spoke about God and about the ministry of Jesus in plainer words.

And for him this less complicated Christianity was more focused on God, than at the latter years, which in his eyes, focus more on the words of theologians than the Word of God. So thinking about tradition for John Wesley, it's complicated, and that he's really denying the complexity of religion in his own time and hearkening back to a simpler time. Now for us, when we think about tradition, we have to include not only Wesley's time, but Wesley's thoughts about tradition. And so tradition has this ever evolving aspect to it, where you're constantly adding layers of experience. So for us in 2021, Wesley's own denial of 18th century religion, and embrace of primitive Christianity, becomes part of our tradition. We have to understand what Wesley was doing, and why he was doing it, in order to understand why we do things a certain way, and believe a certain way.

So Wesley's embrace of primitive Christianity, meant that he was quick to critique the institutional church. He was annoyed that it was cut off from the world, concerned with only its members and not necessarily all of society, and more concerned with words in a text than the souls of your neighbor. So when I in 2021, think about tradition in Wesleyan terms, it's taking into account all of this history. A desire to embrace a form of Christianity that isn't limited by the walls of the church, or the words of a text, but one that is truly a movement of the spirit. That breaks down social barriers, and challenges us to walk in the footsteps of Christ, with a heart that's strangely warmed. So tradition for us is upholding this basic tenet of faith in this ever-changing world, and allowing our faith to evolve along the way.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Thank you. There are life-giving strands of tradition, plus stagnant components of tradition. So we Christians are often caught between the two at times. During challenging times, our rich tradition has become mere traditionalism. Jaroslav Pelikan, a former professor at the Yale University said, “Tradition is living practices of the dead. Traditionalism is, the dead practices of the living." Our theological tasks states that United Methodist understand tradition as both process and form. Can you elaborate a little more on what that process means and what authentic traditions form what United Methodist is?

Dr. Dreff: So, I'm not a theologian. So any theologians out there listening might cringe at my attempts to differentiate between process and form, but as a historian, here's kind of my take on it. And again, I'll stick to the life of John Wesley as my example. So, I think it's easier to start with tradition as form than as process. And so when I think about this Wesley perspective, I go immediately to God's greatest commandment: “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and neighbor as self.” This we can see as form tradition. Something that we can all point to at different parts of history, that largely has the same wording, it's consistent, it's formulaic. The process part comes into play with how that commandment gets lived out in different times, how it evolves.

So John Wesley doesn't look to primitive Christianity and attempt to apply concepts from 1700 years prior to his own context. He takes the overall attitude and ideas from that era and adapts them to his own time. So how we seek to love God, neighbor and self in the time of Jesus, might be different than how you do it at the time of John Wesley, which is different than how we do it in 2021. And so we have to constantly wrestle with some of the concrete values of Christianity for those forms of tradition, in order to live into the truth in our context. So for example, for John Wesley, this meant taking the word of God out of the church and into the coal mines, into the fields, to those who hadn't heard it yet. Now, if I were to do this today, to go to a street corner or a field and start preaching, I might get a crowd, but it might be for a different reason than John Wesley did.

Now, the point of John Wesley doing this was to spread the word of God to those who hadn't heard it before. The method of doing that today, might've shifted, but the process is still there. The form and the important thing, it's still there. Let me give a little bit of a different example. So as I said, I was raised by two United Methodist clergy. And growing up, like many kids do, I had tons of questions about God, religion, faith, everything. And my parents would never answer me. Instead, they'd flip the question right back around to me, and make me come up with my own answer. So when I asked, "What is God?" They'd respond with, "Well, what do you think God is?" And whatever answer I came up with, even if I was like, "God's a fish," they were like, "That's great."

I didn't know it at the time, but what they were imbuing in me is this Wesleyan spirit, of constantly engaging with oneself, reflecting on one's experience, and using one's rationale and then running all of this by scripture. So they encouraged me to wrestle with my own faith, to question everything, even to question my own answers. And even to the extent, to question their answers. And if we read the journals of Wesley, he does this, he constantly questions everything, especially himself. And this is the process of Wesleyan tradition. The ever-growing, ever-changing, ever wrestling, and evolving complexity of our own faith, but centered on the love of God and neighbor.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Thank you. A tradition may include the influences as the beliefs, values, and instructions received, just like you said, from family members, mentors, faith leaders. Also include various beliefs and values which one encounters. And which have an impact on one's understanding of the holy scriptures. My question is, what is the difference between theology and doctrine? Or what is the relationship between them in United Methodism? How might understanding the difference, impact our decisions about the future of the church?

Dr. Dreff: So my best differentiation between the two is that theology is our personal wrestling with scripture and with God. Doctrine might be better defined as a set of beliefs that a group has agreed to hold, or a set of texts that a group has agreed to adhere to. So as United Methodists, we've inherited certain doctrines from John Wesley. When the Methodist Episcopal Church is formed in 1784, and officially breaks off from the Church of England, and becomes this independent denomination, John Wesley sends over some documents that he believes will be foundational for the work in the United States. Included in this are his sermons on several occasions, his notes on the New Testament, a liturgical book for Sunday services, and 24 of the 39 Articles of Religion.

And it's crucial for Wesley's context in England, to keep the Methodist movement and its preachers, aligned with the 39 Articles of Religion and therefore in line with the Church of England. But the thing that made Methodism distinct and controversial in England was Wesley's theology. So, he upholds the doctrine of the Church of England, but his theology is what kind of gets him in trouble. It's the way that he interprets  the Word of God, particularly when it comes to the doctrines of assurance and Christian perfection. So it's these parts of his doctrine, this theological wrestling with scripture that forms the foundational distinction within the group of the people called Methodist. And we get these handed down to us, and United Methodism, through his sermons and his notes. So all of these things that we hold as our doctrine today, but just like Wesley did, we are allowed to wrestle with them.

We're allowed to think about how assurance works in our lives, to think about how we might strive for Christian perfection in our lives, and how Christian perfection or holiness might look different in our different contexts. And an important point too, I think when it comes to doctrine is, so many people when they think of doctrine, I think creeds are the thing that probably most often come to mind. The Nicene Creed, The Apostle's Creed, The Affirmation Creed, and when Wesley sent over the 39, or when he sent over the Articles of Religion, like I said, he reduced them from 39 to 24. And one of the things that he removes is the article on creeds. And so it's very interesting that Wesley intentionally makes us a non-creedal denomination. Why did he do this? Right? What's his end goal? And the best kind of understanding we can... We can take from it, is that he doesn't want us to be tied to certain modes of thinking, but to explore our faith on our own terms.

One more example. So if we look at the way that Wesley himself wrestled with not only texts, but people around him, even though Wesley claimed to hate the debating theology, he did it constantly with his, not only his preachers, but leaders in his movement. And his contemporary George Whitfield and him constantly debated theology. They predominantly discussed how the work of Christ affected people. So Wesley believed that the work of Christ saved all, and that it was up to us to awaken to the spirit of God and the grace of God in us, and realize and accept the work of Christ for us. Whitfield disagreed. He believes that Christ died only for a select few, and that God would awaken those persons to God's own work in their lives. So the way that we see theology at work within Methodism, and the fact that John Wesley, even though he held distinctive theological interpretations from George Whitfield, still embraced George Whitfield in his movement, sets the foundation for United Methodism.

When you look at United Methodist theology, today, we see representations of Black Liberation Theology, Womanist Theology, Feminist Theology, Queer Theology, and Fundamentalist Theology. So, what I often say is that the beauty and the bane of United Methodism is this vast theological expression that you can have. It is beautiful to be in one denomination with so many different theological expressions. It also makes it very difficult to enact in certain ways, particularly when some theology does harm. But we have to keep in mind that Wesley understood theology as a process. And we are all on our theological journey in some way, shape or form. And hopefully we're all striving for Christian perfection, whatever that may look like for us individually.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Thank you. Tradition must make sense in today's context. Tradition without the relevancy, if I may use a metaphor, is like beach-front property in an era of global warming. As much as we love the view, with live with the knowledge that some morning we will wake up and find it gone. What can we learn today from United Methodist history, and its tradition?

Dr. Dreff: I would say that the dominant thing that I always want my students to leave Methodist history class with, is this idea that Methodist history is vastly complex. I often say that there's no such thing as Methodist history. There's the histories of Methodisms.  And having those plurals is key to understanding the way that theology, and the theologies that have shaped the Methodisms, continue to influence us today. So, not only did you have John Wesley constantly changing his own views, and evolving in his faith, and writing openly about it, but you have people writing about Wesley doing the same thing, right? Holding out certain pieces of Wesley, certain portrayals of Wesley to make certain cases. And so we can...we can easily... you can as easily cherry-pick John Wesley, as you can scripture, right? You can make John Wesley to be a very radical person. You can make John Wesley to be a very conservative person. Both would be true, both would be untrue, because it's not the whole story.

And so I think Wesley is unafraid of change. And that's key for us to keep in mind when it comes to his tradition. He's unafraid of contradicting himself. And I think many times today, many of us are afraid of contradicting ourselves. And he's unafraid of growth, and growth through dialogue, growth through disagreement. We have to be in dialogue with each other to learn from each other's experiences. We have to be in dialogue with God to learn how God's at work in our lives.

And we have to be in dialogue with ourselves in order to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and to embody the love of God in us and through us, into the world. And this requires constant growth and change. And I think right now in 2021, our denomination is changing. And I don't think that's a bad thing. So many people get worried by rumors of splits and separations, but from a historical standpoint, Methodists in all honesty have been better at splitting than at coming together. From its inception in 1784, Methodism in America has had dozens of splits. In its first general conference in 1792, it had its first split. And in about the first 100 years it had nine splits and one major schism. This is not unusual within our past, and it's not unusual within our tradition. It's not unusual in John Wesley's life. He and his brother went head to head on many issues. He and George Whitfield went head to head, and then Wesley gave permission for the Methodist Episcopal Church to split off from his movement in Britain. So Methodists have been here before. We've been at this point of separation, and it probably won't be the last time that we're here, but it is part of our tradition. And I think that keeping that in mind, that tradition changes, theology changes, but out of it comes new growth, is key.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Thank you. Any closing thought over the debate that we are having as a denomination? Is it based on tradition, or traditionalism, or something else? In closing, would you have any observation that you would like to share with our listeners?

Dr. Dreff: I think it's always good to remind ourselves that when it came to John Wesley, he was more concerned with the actions of a person than with their belief. So his sermon on Catholic spirit, I think, is probably most often quoted when it comes to this. Where he says, “Although a difference in opinions or modes of worship can prevent an external union, need it prevent our union in affection. Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion.” And I think that just rings so true for today. Right now we are not of one opinion as United Methodists.

I am sure there are people out there listening to how I've talked about tradition and cringing at every single word. And I hope there's some that are thinking, “I'm not really sure”, but it just gets to the point of, we aren't of one opinion. And we disagree as to how worship should be conducted, particularly when it comes to those who are leading that worship. And this is preventing our external union, but what Wesley would want us to focus on, is that great Wesleyan tradition, the love of God in and through us. And as long as we can find ways to put the love of God and the love of neighbor at the forefront, then the heart of the Wesleyan tradition will continue. Maybe that's... Hopefully we'll find ways to do that.

Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj: Thank you, Dr. Dreff, and we really appreciate taking the time to be with us. We are really blessed. Thank you again, Dr. Dreff.

Dr. Dreff: Thank you, Jacob.  Good to be with you.