The Ambiguous Purpose of the UMC Constitution

What is the end of all ecclesiastical order? Is it not to bring souls from the power of Satan to God; and to build them up in his fear and love? Order, then, is so far valuable, as it answers these ends; and if it answers them not, it is nothing worth. (John Wesley, Letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746)

A church with a constitution? This seems a little counter intuitive. Is not the constitution of the church the Body of Christ in all respects? Written constitutions seem to be a secular thing, meant for secular organizations.  In fact, the entire idea of a written constitution is a relatively new thing, springing from the Enlightenment.  Yet, since 1968, the Discipline of the UMC has included one.  Before that, the MEC had one with it’s beginnings in the early 20th Century.  What is it’s purpose?  How does it fit with the mission and ministry of the church?

In order to establish the purpose of the Constitution of the UMC, one must first establish a written definition and purpose for written constitutions in general.  Then, one must compare it to what historically has constituted the Christian Church.  In all of this, we should bear in mind that what Frank states in the outset of his chapter, “The church just is, after all, and not by human invention,” (2006, 115), must be held in tension with temporal needs and historic shifts in ecclesiology.

In his work, Frank cites the definition given by the historic commission creating the original Constitution, which highlights a physical “instrument,” principles of organization, powers, permissions, and limitations, all subject to some “original power.”  Yet, on the flip-side, he regularly discusses the elements that constitute the United Methodist Church, those chiefly being the conference and the episcopacy.  Therefore, we are left with a dual definition.  Is it a physical instrument or is it philosophical elements?  Furthermore, what is “the original power?”

Generally speaking, in ecclesiology, “power” is only God’s through the Holy Spirit.  That power, represented by “the keys,” has always been designated to the Apostles by Christ himself (Matt. 16:19 & 18:18).  Historically, this “power of the keys” has vacillated from the hands of the Body, as the priesthood of believers, to the hands of the specific apostolic succession.  Precisely, this is the power to mediate the New Covenant and its associated graces.  Over time, abuses of this power have created all manner of issues, many of which came to a head in the Protestant Reformation.  Therefore, the church has, in various contexts, used physical instruments (e.g. a written constitution) to regulate the divestiture of the power of the keys between the two elements of Body and Apostolate.

In practice, ecclesial bodies have developed certain methods for achieving this balance.  In the case of Methodism, we have an interesting, almost nebulous relationship between them.  Frank writes, “United Methodism is comprised of an unsettled, often unreflective, yet remarkably creative blending of two constitutive principles” (2006, 118).  Then citing Nuelsen, he speaks of a strangely fused presbyterian and episcopal form of governance (2006, 126).  In this fashion, the United Methodist Church seeks to mediate the power.

Why this fashion?  Various historical elements combined in such a way to create the interesting mix: Wesley’s vision of travelling preachers in connexion, American forms of representative government, racial segregation, etc.  Yet, it is also this nebulous character that Frank cites, which creates some beautiful dynamics to the ministry of the United Methodist Church.  Mentioning the living character that it creates, he points out that it draws people into connection in Christ (2006, 140).  This vibrancy speaks to the work of the Holy Spirit as He forms and constitutes the church, and drives it toward mission: the redemption of the world.

In this, we come to another aspect of constitution which Frank almost entirely ignores, but which our quote from Wesley addresses directly: mission.  A written constitution traditionally enumerates both the form of an institution, and its function.  Widely speaking, an organization exists to further some purpose, and in a constitution we find this usually established in the preamble.  For example, the US Constitution’s Preamble includes a long purpose statement, “in order to. . .”  The implication is that the body exists in this specific form in order to achieve that purpose.

Following, in the case of the United Methodist Church, it exists in this organic union of episcopacy and conference to achieve its mission, as the Preamble reads, “the church seeks to provide for the maintenance of worship, the edification of believers, and the redemption of the world. . . the church of Jesus Christ exists in and for the world. . .”  Also citing the historic notae ecclesiae, the Preamble ties the United Methodist Church to the church, catholic, apostolic and historic.  Wesley generally cites these two items in his quote when he enumerates the purpose of a church and its order.  Thus, the Preamble of the Constitution basically agrees with Wesley on both the form and function of church order.  Secondly, the “Therefore” statement adequately ties the mission to the constitution.  That being said, what follows in the constitution merely creates very secular looking mechanics with little mention of their divine purpose.

Outside of the mention and protections of the Articles of Religion, Confession of Faith, General Rules, doctrinal standards, and mention of very specific historical sins of racism, the Constitution, with slight adjustment, could be a document meant for the organization of a benevolent society such as the Lions Club.  While Frank does say that the church does not operate like a business, citing the volunteer labor and lack of a board of directors (2006, 140), much of the Lions Club or the Boy Scouts functions similarly.  What makes the church distinct and different in light of the definition given?

In answer, nothing in the Constitution pertains to either the specific redemption of the world or the notae.  Frank does point out that even the work of a Bishop does not mention sacrament (2006, 125).  There is no mention of the function of the local church; there is no provision for specific boards or groups for evangelism, nor is there anything about the edification of believers.  Instead, the themes that dominate are power structure, oversight, regulation and representative polity.  Now, one could postulate that because the Preamble says that the purposes of ¶1-61 are as stated, they must be so.  Nevertheless, the text of those paragraphs does not seem to comport.

Interestingly enough, a quick comparison with a sister Wesleyan denomination’s Discipline yields stark results.  The Evangelical Congregational Church, a small residual body of the original Evangelical Association, begins its Discipline not with a written constitution, but with a prayer, creedal statements, the sacramental rituals and a description of congregational ministry.  The organizational structure, so prominent in the UMC’s constitution comes much later.  Their emphasis seems to lie in the notae and purposes, to which the United Methodist Discipline merely gives lip service.  Their Discipline seems to put into practice Wesley’s sentiments.  Perhaps we should take note.


Frank, Thomas Edward. 2006. Polity, Practice, and the Mission of the United Methodist Church. 2006 ed. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.


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