The divided soul of Methodism

We have been reaping a lot of poisoned fruit in the division of the United Methodist Church.

John Wesley warned us this would happen.

In his sermon “On Schism,” he warned the Methodist societies of his day about the dangers of division within the church, which he argued was the true biblical meaning of the word “schism.” Such factions and parties, he wrote, bring forth evil fruit.

It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmisings, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethern; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to eternal hell.

To be clear, we were rent with division long before traditionalists started leaving the church. We fell into hostile camps long ago. When I write that schism is bearing evil fruit, I do not lay the blame at the feet of those currently disaffiliating. I lay the blame on all of us. I have no interest in parceling out blame or engaging in the sibling game of “he did it first.” I merely observe that the long division within the UMC, which is now leading to actual division from the UMC, has given birth to many of the things Wesley warned us about.

I have seen Methodists calling their brothers and sisters tools of Satan. We have spat venom at each other and given in to bitterness and malice so much that I fear it will indeed settle into a real hatred. We gather around the fires of our contempt and confuse the warmth we feel for the Holy Spirit’s flame. We who declare our tables open to all have, in too many cases, closed our hearts to each other. Not all of us, but far too many of us.

This began long before disaffiliation. We divided long before we started falling apart. The opportunity to stamp out this out when it was but an ember is long past. The trees like torches blaze with light.

We all need to be on our knees in prayer about this.

If we claim to be Wesleyan at all, we should heed Father John’s warning and work as diligently as we can to repent and repair the damage we have done to our own souls.

The problem remains the same

Some of my brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church have been posting an opinion piece by Will Willimon that appeared in The Christian Century. Those who are familiar with the former bishop’s writing, will recognize his signature sarcasm, sense of superiority, and skill with words. I have long read and profited from reading Willimon.

In the piece linked above, Willimon makes the same mistake that lots of my colleagues in the UMC make about those who are disaffiliating and departing the denomination. He does a poor job of using the “active listening” skills all we Methodist elders were taught in seminary. He does not really listen to what they are saying. Or if he is listening, he does a very poor job of repeating back what they are saying in a way that they would recognize as their own. This is a very common fault these days in Methodism.

But Willimon is correct about many things. The UMC will be weaker after losing so many churches and pastors. We will be more of an echo chamber. Division will not solve our problems. And we will still be faced with the central problem facing most Christians in the United States – how do we reach people for the gospel in a culture and among generations that are increasingly resistant to grace?

In many ways, our situation is little different from the one John Wesley describes in “An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion.”

We see, on every side, either men of no religion, or men of a lifeless, formal religion. We are greatly grieved at the sight; and should greatly rejoice, if by any means we might convince some that there is a better religion to be attained — a religion worthy of God that gave it.

We have a lot of grief in Methodism these days and lots of grievances, but I wonder what would happen if we were to grieve over what tugged at Wesley’s heart. Can we deny that our churches are surrounded and often filled with men, women, and children of no religion or a dull and lifeless one? What would it take for us to discover the means to change that, to convince them of a better way?

This is not one of those rhetorical questions we preachers sometimes slide into our sermons.

I’m really asking. What would it take for us to convince people of the gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we keep the main thing the main thing?

The hope of the new birth

I was reading John Wesley’s sermon “The Marks of the New Birth” recently. It is an excellent sermon worthy of consideration by any Methodist preacher.

The thing I noticed in it — which, despite being obvious, had evaded my previous readings — was how Wesley here is arguing for the doctrine of new birth as a doctrine of hope. One of the arguments he is working against in this sermon comes, I assume, from Anglican critics of the Methodist movement who say that once a person is baptized they have been “born again by water and the Spirit” and so all the Methodist talk about new birth or being born again is some sort of misleading enthusiasm.

Wesley’s response to that argument tells us a few key things about Methodism, which we also simply call Scriptural Christianity.

First, Wesley clearly has no time for an argument that our status with God is determined by some event in our personal history. He is quite explicit about this. While he does not dispute the value of baptism or the regeneration that it provides, he wants to see more than a baptism certificate when inquiring about the status of our salvation. The key issue is not “were you once baptized?” The key question is this: Does you inward and outward life right now provide evidence that your are born of God?

Here is how Wesley puts it:

Say not then in your heart, “I was once baptized, therefore I am now a child of God.” Alas, that consequence will by no means hold. How many are the baptized gluttons and drunkards, the baptized liars and common swearers, the baptized railers and evil-speakers, the baptized whoremongers, thieves, extortioners What think you? Are these now the children of God? Verily, I say unto you, whosoever you are, unto whom any one of the preceding characters belongs, “Ye are of your father the devil, and the works of your father ye do.” Unto you I call, in the name of Him whom you crucify afresh, and in his words to your circumcised predecessors, “Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell.”

It is not hard to see how such preaching would upset many Christians who had rested on the thought that since they were baptized and participated in the ordinances and sacraments of the church their salvation was secure. To them, Wesley says, show me the fruit of your salvation. Show me a holy heart and life, and then I will believe you are indeed born of God. For saying such things, many a congregation informed the Rev. Wesley he would not be invited back.

But this first point builds to his second, and the source of hope that can be found in the doctrine of the new birth.

Whether they would hear him preach or not, many Christians then — as today — struggle with the sense that something is not right in their faith. Yes, they were baptized. Yes, they came to the altar and accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord, but still they do not know the joy of the Holy Spirit that the Bible speaks about. They do not feel the power to overcome their sin. They do not know the blessed assurance of their salvation. Their Christian walk is a forced march not a dance of joy.

To such people, the doctrine of the new birth is a doctrine of hope.

The teaching that says baptism is the only new birth in the church, which Wesley appears to be arguing against, leaves Christians in a fairly desperate place if, like many, they do not presently find themselves experiencing the righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit that Paul writes about in Romans.

To such Christians, Wesley says, there is hope. There is more. There is a better way. If you look at your faith, if you examine your walk with Christ, and find it lacking, even absent, you can still be born again. You can still know the redemption that is in Jesus Christ. You can receive again the Spirit of that allows you to name God tenderly as Father.

This I find quite helpful, but what is its relevance to us today?

You will not find many in Methodist churches who argue that the only new birth is in baptism, but I do think you will find a great many Christians who are both struggling in their faith and relying too much on some version of baptism certificate salvation. A great many Christians have none of the joy and power of salvation, but cling to the thought that since they were baptized or saved once their salvation is solid. They trudge along to church every Sunday, finding there no real joy or peace with God, which makes them all the more insistent that following the rules and being a good church member will get them into heaven.

Methodists, starting with Wesley, have always said the Bible promises us more than this. You can know the joy and peace and power of salvation today. What’s more, if you do not know those things, your salvation itself may be at risk. Do not cling to your baptism certificate as proof that you are a child of God. Look to your heart. Look to your life. Do you bear the marks of someone who is born of God? Do you have the faith of one who has placed their whole trust in the redemption of Christ? Do you have the hope of eternal life that leads you to rejoicing? Do you have the love of God that wells up within you like a fountain and spills out as love of neighbor?

These are the marks of the new birth. If you do not see them in yourself, do not despair. Do not cling defensively to your baptism certificate, your church camp come-to-Jesus encounter, your church attendance record, or your ability to quote biblical verses. Cry out instead to God. Pray for the Holy Spirit to come again. Pray to be born anew. Do not cease praying and seeking until you can say, “I am a child of God, born of His Spirit. The old has passed away. The new creation is here.”

There is more. There is joy. There is peace. There is, in Jesus, new life.