This afternoon an obscure subject came up in a small group discussion at church, whether or not the UMC is a creedal church. I use the word “obscure” because I think the vast majority of lay people do not hang their hat, so to speak, on determining once and for all a “yes” or “no” answer to this question. However, I think many people are concerned (and should be) about the issues entangled in addressing this question.
Creeds codify and inform our faith, but in the Methodist tradition we do not equate creeds with faith. Creed, of course, comes from the Latin credo, “I believe.” For example, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Whoever says ‘I believe’ says ‘I pledge myself to what we believe.’ Communion in faith needs a common language of faith, normative for all and uniting all in the same confession of faith.” In the UMC, as was established by a retired UMC pastor in our group, we affirm the Apostle’s Creed upon baptism and as part of the membership vows. He advocated the position that the UMC is a creedal church. The Apostle’s Creed, however, is not for the UMC “normative for all and uniting all in the same confession of faith.” The UMC teaches on its website: “While the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith are considered foundational documents, they are not legalistic or dogmatic creeds that do not allow for differing interpretations. They are guidelines that themselves require continuing reflection, interpretation and expansion in light of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.”
This snippet from Interpreter in 1999 explains well why we use the creeds. Rev. Peck wrote, “Unlike some churches that require affirmation of a strict list of beliefs as a condition of membership, The United Methodist Church is not a creedal church.” The 19th century German Reformed theologian, Philip Schaff, understood well that the Methodists were not creedal: “John Wesley … sought Christianity more in practical principles and sanctified affections than in orthodox formulas, and laid greater stress on the ecumenical consensus which unites than on the sectarian dissensus which divides the Christians. The General Rules, or recognized terms of membership, for the original Methodist ‘societies’ (not churches), are ethical and practical, and contain not a single article of doctrine. They require ‘a desire to flee the wrath to come and be saved from sin,’ and to avoid certain specific vices.”
Finally, John Wesley clearly considered the creeds and creedal assent as non-essential in Sermon 7, “The Way to the Kingdom:”
For neither does religion consist in Orthodoxy, or right opinions; which, although they are not properly outward things, are not in the heart, but the understanding. A man may be orthodox in every point; he may not only espouse right opinions, but zealously defend them against all opposers; he may think justly concerning the incarnation of our Lord, concerning the ever-blessed Trinity, and every other doctrine contained in the oracles of God; he may assent to all the three creeds, — that called the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian; and yet it is possible he may have no religion at all, no more than a Jew, Turk, or pagan. He may be almost as orthodox — as the devil, (though, indeed, not altogether; for every man errs in something; whereas we can’t well conceive him to hold any erroneous opinion,) and may, all the while be as great a stranger as he to the religion of the heart.
Does the UMC use historic creeds? Yes, clearly. Do the creeds inform Christian faith in important ways? Yes. Are the creeds, namely the Apostle’s Creed, integral to the membership vows of the UMC? Yes. All of these things and more are true, but they do not determine the UMC as a creedal church in the sense described in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example. I suppose, in the end, it depends on what meaning and theology one wants to pour into the word “creedal.” If we mean by the word creedal that “the UMC is a creedal church” in that creedal acts as an adjective to simply describe one facet of the UMC, that is that the UMC uses and highly values the creeds, then the answer is yes. On the flip side, if we assert that “the UMC is not a creedal church” for the reasons I have given here and to communicate and properly emphasize Christianity as a “religion of the heart,” as did Wesley, then the answer is no. This is why I assert the UMC is not a creedal church because I believe most people have some conception of the phrase “creedal church” along the lines of the Roman Catholic Church’s understanding.
Read this essay for a good explanation from a different point of view of why the creeds are important and how they function to maintain a local church community.