In a post on First Things, Stephen Webb writes about the nature of theologizing today. He asks where we locate authority in an age in which belief in the self-interpretation of Scripture and the brilliance of bishops no longer holds. He asks what are “the necessary conditions for the Church’s ability to embody Christianity in the midst of the erosions of a spiritual marketplace”?
In his post, Webb nods toward Rome but also holds out hope for a diffuse church with many points of authority.
In our current United Methodist debates, we are dealing with some of the same questions.
- What is the church?
- What is the basis of its authority?
- What is necessary for it to “embody Christianity” in today’s world?
- How can it maintain its integrity or defend its boundaries?
- How can it also creatively engage changing conditions in the world?
Our conversations and announcements do not usually explicitly engage these questions, of course. What we often talk about instead are the rules in our Book of Discipline, the dysfunction of various bodies, the bad faith of rival groups, and the lines our own consciences will not allow us to cross.
I’ve read before that part of our mushy ecclesiology in United Methodism comes from a combination of John Wesley’s desire never to see his movement exist as an independent church and our own aping of the institutions and values of the new American republic when we put together our own constitution.
That may all be so. Nonetheless, I wanted to see what John Wesley’s sermon “Of the Church” might tell me about our own answers to some of these questions.
Wesley starts by distinguishing between the building and the people.
How much do we almost continually hear about the Church! With many it is matter of daily conversation. And yet how few understand what they talk of! How few know what the term means! A more ambiguous word than this, the Church, is scarce to be found in the English language. It is sometimes taken for a building, set apart for public worship: sometimes for a congregation, or body of people, united together in the service of God. It is only in the latter sense that it is taken in the ensuing discourse.
Wesley works through his understanding of the church from the top down. Leaning on Ephesians, he first defines the church universal by the marks laid out by Paul.
The catholic or universal Church is, all the persons in the universe whom God hath so called out of the world … as to be “one body,” united by “one spirit;” having “one faith, one hope, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in them all.”
Those members of that universal church gathered in a single country, form a national church. Those in a single city the church of that city. In addition, following Scripture, Wesley writes that we may think of a church within a single household or even as a church constituted by the gathering of two or three in the name of our Lord.
In other words, Wesley’s conception of “the church” does not fit very well into our denominational boxes.
Wesley goes on to consider the definition of the church laid out in the Articles of Religion of the Church of England. He expresses disagreement with the Article’s requirement — that I believe derives from Reformed theology — that the “pure word of God” be preached and the sacraments be “duly administered.” In his text, Wesley displays both his anti-Roman Catholic sentiments and his catholic spirit.
I will not undertake to defend the accuracy of this definition. I dare not exclude from the Church catholic all those congregations in which any unscriptural doctrines, which cannot be affirmed to be “the pure word of God,” are sometimes, yea, frequently preached; neither all those congregations, in which the sacraments are not “duly administered.” Certainly if these things are so, the Church of Rome is not so much as a part of the catholic Church; seeing therein neither is “the pure word of God” preached, nor the sacraments “duly administered.” Whoever they are that have “one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one God and Father of all,” I can easily bear with their holding wrong opinions, yea, and superstitious modes of worship: Nor would I, on these accounts, scruple still to include them within the pale of the catholic Church; neither would I have any objection to receive them, if they desired it, as members of the Church of England.
And so, to see what the church truly is — according to Wesley — we must look to a closer definition of those marks, which he lays out for us.
The church catholic are those who have
One spirit — Some understand hereby the Holy Spirit himself, the Fountain of all spiritual life; and it is certain, “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” Others understand it of those spiritual gifts and holy dispositions which are afterwards mentioned.
One hope – a hope full of immortality. They know, to die is not to be lost: Their prospect extends beyond the grave.
One Lord — who has now dominion over them, who has set up his kingdom in their hearts, and reigns over all those that are partakers of this hope. To obey him, to run the way of his commandments, is their glory and joy. And while they are doing this with a willing mind they, as it were, “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.”
One faith — This is not barely the faith of a Heathen; Namely, a belief that “there is a God,” and that he is gracious and just, and, consequently, “a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Neither is it barely the faith of a devil; though this goes much farther than the former. For the devil believes, and cannot but believe, all that is written both in the Old and New Testament to be true. But it is the faith of St. Thomas, teaching him to say with holy boldness, “My Lord, and my God!” It is the faith which enables every true Christian believer to testify with St. Paul, “The life which I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”
One baptism — which is the outward sign our one Lord has been pleased to appoint, of all that inward and spiritual grace which he is continually bestowing upon his Church. It is likewise a precious means, whereby this faith and hope are given to those that diligently seek him.
One God and Father of all — that have the Spirit of adoption, which “crieth in their hearts, Abba, Father;” which “witnesseth” continually “with their spirits,” that they are the children of God: “Who is above all,” — the Most High, the Creator, the Sustainer, the Governor of the whole universe: “And through all,” — pervading all space; filling heaven and earth
Here Wesley offers not only a definition of the church that breaks the boundaries of denominational lines — giving preference to geographical ones — but also evicts from the church catholic huge numbers of people now at worship in most congregations. This point he brings home with particular force near the end of the sermon.
The Church is called holy, because it is holy, because every member thereof is holy, though in different degrees, as He that called them is holy. How clear is this! If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers, no man that is not a Christian believer can be a member of it. If this whole body be animated by one spirit, and endued with one faith, and one hope of their calling; then he who has not that spirit, and faith, and hope, is no member of this body. It follows, that not only no common swearer, no Sabbath-breaker, no drunkard, no whoremonger, no thief, no liar, none that lives in any outward sin, but none that is under the power of anger or pride, no lover of the world, in a word, none that is dead to God, can be a member of his Church.
Wesley’s purpose in this sermon was not merely to offer a definition of the church, of course. It was a polemical sermon aimed at critics of his movement who objected to him harming the Church of England. And yet, his definition does give us the opportunity and the responsibility to reflect as United Methodists on the nature of the church.
I have a few thoughts. I am not sure I can or would defend these are final thoughts, but they are provisional ones suggested to me by reading Wesley’s sermon, and that alone.
First, the church is both universal and local, but it is not denominational. Denominations exist — to repurpose language from our Book of Discipline — for the maintenance of worship and edification of believers. Denominations are human superstructures that support the universal church gathered in particular places. Our devotion and zeal, however, is owed more to the church universal in our city or neighborhood — whatever denominations might provide its material support — rather than merely to those who depend upon the same superstructure.
Second, we have a lot of people who claim to be part of the church but simply are not. They have their name on the books at the denomination, but not in the book kept by our Lord. I cannot tell you that I know who is who. Wesley believed that was fairly simple to work out with simple questions, ones we do not ask very much these days. What standing such people should have in the denomination is difficult to discern.
Third, I find in Wesley’s formulations a challenge to the via media proposals and the recent statement of our Council of Bishops that want to ground “the church” in merely the sharing of creedal orthodoxy (the devil believes as much and is a devil still) or a unity based on a denominational mission statement. These may be strategies for holding together a denominational superstructure, but they do not strike me as representing a robust view of the identity of the church catholic.
I don’t imagine these thoughts of mine will solve any of the problems facing the United Methodist Church today. I do find them stimulating me to think in some different ways about the UMC and my local congregations, though.