Do we ‘dare to believe’ with Wesley?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline could be more precise in its statements about the place of John Wesley’s sermons in our doctrinal panoply. In ¶103 it explains that the Plan of Union for the UMC understood Wesley’s sermons and notes to be established standards of doctrine for the church. In other places, however, the Discipline appears to treat Wesley as a model or example rather than as a measuring stick for our doctrine.

This is relevant to me because my conversion to Christianity was followed by immersion into the works of Wesley. Early in that process, I was continually struck by how far the United Methodist Church as I knew it strayed from the vision of Christian life and the church as I encountered in the works of Wesley. I found myself asking at times whether John Wesley could even get ordained among us if he were a candidate today. Our responses to him often are often more in keeping with his critics than his co-workers.

These thoughts arose again for me as I was reading John Wesley’s first sermon on the Sermon on the Mount, in which he introduces what will be a 13-sermon series on those three chapters in Matthew and considers the first two beatitudes. In discussing the blessedness that comes from being poor in spirit, tilts into what would later be called revival preaching.

He calls out for sinners to know themselves and wake up to their state.

Know and feel, that thou wert “shapen in wickedness,” and that “in sin did thy mother conceive thee;” and that thou thyself hast been heaping sin upon sin, ever since thou couldst discern good from evil! Sink under the mighty hand of God, as guilty of death eternal; and cast off, renounce, abhor, all imagination of ever being able to help thyself!

To those he calls to wake up, he offers Christ as the cure for their ailments, making no scruple at the mention of being washed in the blood. He then describes in three paragraphs the righteousness, peace, and joy that are offered to us as the inward kingdom of heaven.

Finally, he shifts to an exhortation worthy of any sawdust trail preaching of the century following Wesley’s death.

Thou art on the brink of heaven! Another step, and thou enterest into the kingdom of righteousness, and peace, and joy! Art thou all sin? “Behold the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sin of the world!” – all unholy? See thy “Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous!” – Art thou unable to atone for the least of thy sins? “He is the propitiation for” all thy “sins.” Now believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and all thy sins are blotted out! Art thou totally unclean in soul and body? Here is the “fountain for sin and uncleanliness!” “Arise and wash away thy sins!” Stagger no more at the promise through unbelief! Give glory to God! Dare to believe! Now cry out, from the ground of thy heart – “Yes, I yield, I yield at last, Listen to thy speaking blood; Me, with all my sins, I cast On my atoning God.” (This last is a quote from a Charles Wesley hymn.)

So the question I have is this: Are United Methodists called to treat such preaching by Wesley as mere “models of doctrinal exposition” or as standards by which we can judge our own interpretation and preaching of the Bible?

In other words, if what I preach is incongruous with what Wesley preached – or a direct contradiction of it – am I failing to uphold the doctrine of the United Methodist Church? If the answer to that question is “no,” then what place does Wesley’s preaching have among us and why is it mentioned as a standard of doctrine in our Discipline?

Do we have more than ‘my truth’?

The Preamble to the Social Principles in the United Methodist Book of Discipline speaks with some depth about how we should live with our differences within the church.

We acknowledge that, because it is a living body of believers, gathered together by God from many diverse segments of the human community, unanimity of belief, opinion, practice has never been characteristic of the Church from the beginning to this day. … Therefore, whenever significant differences of opinion among faithful Christians occur, some of which continue to divide the church deeply today, neither surprise nor dismay should be allowed to separate the members of the Body from one another; nor should those differences be covered over with false claims of consensus or unanimity.

The preamble goes on to encourage us to embrace conflict with courage and see it as a sign that God is still working with us and shaping us. It concludes with a call to “respectful dialogue” in a spirit of exploration, honor, and truthfulness.

To me, the key word in the passage above is “opinion.”

I wonder what the General Conference means when it refers to matters of opinion, over which we should embrace differences.

In Western philosophical history, the discussion of the difference between knowledge and opinion goes back to Plato or beyond. I’m not capable of explaining the thousands of years of history of thought about the nature of knowledge and opinion, but I think it is fair to say that a key distinction is that it is irrational to embrace or endorse the idea that there can be differences of knowledge. Matters of opinion admit differences, but matters of knowledge do not.

If the word “opinion” is used in this sense, then the preamble to the Social Principles appears to echo the thought of John Wesley, who said that we should allow differences of opinion that do not strike at the core of revealed Christianity.

The flip-side of this, however, is that there are matters of knowledge, which do not permit differences. For instance, Jesus Christ is Lord. To believe this is to have actual knowledge. Whether you or I believe it, however, does change the truth of this statement. To deny this is not merely to have a different opinion. It is to be wrong.

When writing the above paragraph, I had to keep editing myself. What I started to write was “For Christians, Jesus Christ is Lord.” To write it this way, however, is to treat the Lordship of Jesus as a matter of opinion. For Christians, he is Lord. For non-Christians, he is not.

This is why the word “opinion” stands out to me in the preamble of our Social Principles. I want to know what we mean when we speak of differences of opinion. More importantly, I want to know what we think is not a matter of opinion.

In this vein, it is interesting to note the contrast between the Articles of Religion and the Confession of Faith. The Confession is written as a credo. Each article begins with the words “We believe.” In our contemporary context, these statements of belief are easily read as statements of personal opinion, although is not how Creeds were historically understood by the Church. The Articles, in contrast, perhaps reflecting a greater confidence in the knowledge provided by revelation, do not have such a subjective construction. They are not couched as the things we believe but as the things that are.

Hence, Article I reads:

There is but one living and true God, everlasting without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

I understand that there are very good reasons why we find it hard to talk about knowledge and opinion in the ways that previous centuries did. But I can’t escape the thought that if we are going to go about arguing that differences of opinion should be embraced, it would be good to be clear what we mean by that term.

I suspect that most people today use the word the way nearly everyone does. When we say “opinion” we tend to mean whatever I happen to think or believe. We don’t actually believe in truth so much as “my truth.” And so, if everything is opinion and can never be more than that, then I can see why people feel like the church is wrong to ever establish boundaries of any kind.

If the things we believe, however, are matters about which it is possible to have knowledge — and not just opinions — then it would be irresponsible for the church not to have boundaries.

In the end — and let me apologize for the rambling nature of this post — I find myself wondering why we have Social Principles at all. If they really are just a list of carefully thought out opinions about various social issues, then what purpose is there in putting them in our Book of Discipline? Opinions — in either the classic or contemporary sense — are no basis for unity or uniformity. They are things over which we expect difference.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to found our unity and our discipline on truth?

No need of redemption?

Over at the United Methodist Scholars for Christian Orthodoxy blog — a long title on a blog worthy of attention — you can find a discussion of the meaning and significance of the UM doctrine regarding Jesus Christ.

It is a good post and a helpful summary that makes a point of getting down to the “so what?” questions.

One part of it, though, did get me thinking about some of our trials in the UMC.

Why is it important to believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human? Actually, our very salvation stands or falls on this question. If Jesus were not fully divine, could he redeem us (that is, would he still have the power to redeem us)? If he were not fully human, could he redeem us (that is, could his saving power be applied to us mere mortals)? As nothing less than true God in human flesh, Jesus identifies fully with us and is like us in every way except that he is without sin—precisely in order to save us from our sins.

Reading this, I am reminded that many of our brothers and sisters do not believe we need divine intervention to redeem us. They are not troubled by the problems that require God to be both fully human and fully divine. Whether it is the lingering effect of liberal Protestantism discarding of the supernatural or a latent Pelagianism, lots of people do not really believe in their bones that we are in need of a redeemer. A helper, yes. A role model, sure. An encourager and example, absolutely. But not a redeemer.

Many of us are not people who believe the verb redeem describes anything of which we are in need. Or we believe we are the ones who will do our own redeeming.

This is a fundamental problem. It makes Jesus Christ — as understood in our doctrine — unnecessary.

I’m not sure how to respond to that situation as a pastor. People who are not thirsty never seek out the source of living water, no matter how well it is packaged and sold.

Billy Abraham on doctrine

A place for the center to stand?

One of my problems with the centrist and via media proposals in the United Methodist Church is that they often don’t appear to have an actual positive statement to make about the very issues that are tearing the church apart. They tend to come down on some version of agree-to-disagree about the underlying doctrinal and theological differences.

I suppose this is a positive statement in a sense. It is saying that all this talk about sex and marriage and ordination is of minor importance to the true work of the church. It is all secondary or tertiary, perhaps even a matter of indifference.

I don’t remember reading it being put quite that directly, but it appears to me to be the attitude behind much of the agree-to-disagree talk.

I, personally, don’t find that a sustainable argument. You can’t do much pastoral work with people in America today without questions about sex and marriage boiling up to the surface. You can’t do the work of the church and be mute on these matters. At least, that has been my experience.

So what would a centrist or via media positive statement on homosexual sex and relationships look like?

Allow me to answer that by writing about a book I read recently.

(Disclaimer: I’m not persuaded by the argument I am about to sketch, but I am thankful for it.)

Someone suggested to me, not long ago, that James V. Brownson’s book Bible, Gender, Sexuality: Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships was a must read. Being blessed to work right across the street from one of the best university libraries in the world, I ran over and picked up a copy.

Brownson’s argument, in a nutshell, goes something like this.

  1. We cannot understand biblical morality if we don’t understand the reasons behind the commands of God.
  2. Traditionalists (Brownson’s term) believe the reason for prohibitions against homosexual sex has to do with gender complementarity. Male and female sex organs are made to go together and therefore that is natural and God-designed. When traditionalists talk about “one flesh,” they are thinking of how body parts fit together and how men and women complement each other in other ways.
  3. Brownson argues that the Bible does not support the “look at the plumbing” argument, but instead bases the notion of two becoming “one flesh” on ideas around kinship and intimacy. He argues that becoming one flesh is about a spiritual and emotional bond between individuals that is a kind of kinship.
  4. Therefore, he writes that biblical prohibitions are not against physical acts in all circumstances. Brownson argues that the biblical vision for sex is the transformation of the desire for self-gratification into a self-giving love. He calls this moving from longing into loving. Brownson argues that the Bible is against promiscuity rather than a certain combination of body parts.

I’m sure I have not done full justice to Brownson’s argument. His book is nearly 300 pages long. But I think this is a fair outline of some of his major points. His book is worth a closer read than I have given it. It is certainly worth your time if you care about these matters.

The biggest value I see in this book for our denominational debates is that it lays out a position that might be adopted by centrists. Here is that position stated positively: God’s intention for sex is that it occur within and foster between two people a loving, long-term, and intimate union of lives. Sex that occurs outside of such a relationship is against God’s will, sinful, and contrary to salvation.

I am not persuaded that this is this is correct doctrine. That is, I don’t think it says enough. I agree with what it says. I just don’t think it says everything God does. Nonetheless, I think it would be a good doctrine for someone in our denominational debates to take up and champion with energy. And by energy, I am thinking at a minimum of writing up a revision to the language in our Social Principles and Book of Discipline.

I think it would be useful for that to happen because it would focus our debates. It would also force everyone to acknowledge that there are many practices that, in fact, are contrary to God’s will, even when they happen between two consenting adults.

I suspect taking up such a position would get push back from some in the LGBT community who are already distressed by the efforts by the community to win acceptance in the culture by becoming more like straight people. And that push back would be helpful to us as a church because it would force us to clarify what we believe and why we teach it.

Such a position would also get push back from those who argue that the Bible is a musty, old book that does not have anything meaningful to say to 21st century people. One of Brownson’s primary concerns is to provide an argument that does not dissolve into that.

Such a position would also be criticized by evangelicals on exegetical and interpretive grounds.

In short, adopting this position would be a positive contribution to an ongoing debate. It would not settle anything, but it would help clarify some things. It would help us see where common ground might exist. And it would force those who reject Brownson to state clearly their full understanding of God’s will in these matters. For the most part, evangelicals have done so. I don’t have a very strong sense of the response to Brownson’s full argument from other groups, though.

Christ, doctrine, & holiness

Joel Watts writes that matters of sexuality are not about Christ or doctrine, but holiness.

For me, the via media focuses on Christ. As a subset of this, it focuses on orthodox doctrines of the Church. For most of us, the issue of homosexuality is not a doctrinal matter (i.e., Trinity, baptism, episcopal authority) but is a matter (in Wesleyan terms) of holiness. That is why I can focus on episcopal authority even while arguing for inclusion. I can focus on orthodoxy, hold to prima scripture, and attempt to be a part of the Great Tradition while arguing for inclusion.

The way his words flow here, it reads to me as if he is saying orthodox doctrine is “a subset” of a focus on Christ but that holiness is not. Perhaps he is merely saying holiness is a different subset of the focus on Christ. Or maybe he is saying holiness is a subset of doctrine. I’m not entirely sure.

In any event, he has me puzzling a bit about the relationship between doctrine and holiness. I’ve always taken holiness — which is another word for sanctification which for Wesley is another word for salvation — to be itself part of the doctrine of the Christian Church. Holiness is what it means to live out our baptismal vows. It is what it means to be saved.

I don’t see how we can disagree about what it means to be holy and say we agree on the doctrines of justification and sanctification, for instance. Furthermore, if pressed, I’d argue that holiness comes before doctrine.

First, we focus on Christ. In this focus, what we notice overwhelmingly is his holiness. It is only after this that we begin to develop the superstructure of doctrine that gives shape and stability to our beliefs and practices. The Church was the church when all it had before it was the holiness of Christ. It did not have to wait for Nicea to become the church. All we needed was Christ and his holiness.

This is why questions about food laws and circumcision were existential issues for the church. They cut to the meaning of holiness.

Which is all a way of saying that I find matters of holiness more important than doctrine when it comes to Christian unity. And I think Wesley would agree.

This has little to do with the main point that Watts was trying to make about United Methodism and schism and so on, but it his post got my gears moving.

When it comes to questions of doctrine vs. questions of holiness, which do you think is more crucial for the unity of the church and the life of the Christian?