The lure of universalism

I was talking with a pastor colleague not long ago when he recounted a story about an unpopular funeral sermon. The gist of the story is that the funeral was for a man who was not a believer or member of a church and in the sermon he raised just a bit of doubt about than man’s eternal destiny.

As you might imagine, that did not go over well.

If you’ve been a pastor for any time at all, I expect you’ve met someone who is anxious about the salvation of someone they love. The question comes up as something like this: “My (cousin, brother, daughter, mother, etc.) does not believe in God or go to church. I’m afraid what will happen to them if they never come to faith. What do you think, pastor?”

Here is the answer I sense people want. “I’m sure they will be with you in heaven.”

There is great pressure for pastors — and other Christians — to go along with the comfortable universalism that pervades our culture. No one wants to tell a fried that Aunt Maude is bound for hell. Few church people want to contemplate a kingdom of God without the people they love.

And while I would never presume to declare the eternal destiny of any particular person — that is Jesus’ job not mine — I do find the pressure to adopt a de facto universalism serves to undermine most of the rest of my ministry. It reduces the point of what we do in the church to a kind of do-gooder society with covered dish meals. You can get a lot of praise and a fairly comfortable life leading a do-gooder society — and the covered dishes are often quite tasty — but it can be an uneasy life if you read the Bible much at all.

Do you ever sense this tension? How can pastors and lay members better resist the pressure toward universalism in the church?

No wonder preachers don’t like hell

In Part II of his “A Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion,” John Wesley challenges his fellow clergy to not be slack in their calling. He scolds the clergyman who sees no greater burden in his office than to preach once or twice a week and refuses the hard, continual work of shepherding the flock into spiritual growth and maturity.

He challenges them and us with a series of questions for clergy.

Have I not said, ‘Peace, peace, when there was no peace?’ How many are they also that do this? who do not study to speak what is true, especially to the rich and great, so much as what is pleasing? who flatter honourable sinners, instead of telling them plain, ‘How can ye escape the damnation of hell?’ O, what account have you to make, if there be a God that judgeth the earth? … How great will your damnation be, who destroy souls instead of saving them!

Reading these lines from Wesley, I understand the appeal of those forms of theology that do away with the idea of eternal judgment and hell. Such theologies are soothing to people but even more are they soothing to pastors who no longer must carry the burden of risking their own souls if they neglect their work or turn aside when they see sinners rejoicing in their sins.

Wesley’s words certainly sting me today as I read them and consider my own answers.

Will Willimon still causing me trouble

As I enter into the struggles of my people, I have considerably more to offer than myself. I have the witness of the saints, the faith of the church, the wisdom of the ages. A pastor must therefore be prejudiced toward the faith of the church.

— Will Willimon, Pastor

Will Willimon has caused me no end of problems as a United Methodist pastor. His writings were among the first I read when entering into the ministry, and statements like the one above have dug down deep like chiggers.

The problem created by statements like the one above lies hidden in that whole “faith of the church” bit at the end.

You see, when I was in the process of becoming a local pastor, I set out on a search for the faith of the United Methodist Church. I read my Book of Discipline. I read a whole bunch of John Wesley. I started writing on this blog and asking questions about what we as a church believe and teach.

And this is where I started running into trouble.

It turns out that the faith of the United Methodist Church is hard to nail down. In the early days of my blogging, when my readership was more diverse than it is now, I would post a quote from John Wesley and ask why we don’t seem to teach or preach this any more. I’d often get answers about how Wesley is not our Pope or how we can’t be tied down to his 18th century theology. This happened enough to make me realize that at least a portion of our clergy don’t view Wesley as particularly central to the faith of our church. This was disorienting for someone who took Willimon’s counsel to heart and believed that their must be thing called “the faith of the church.” After all, he was telling me to be prejudiced in favor of it. How could I be prejudiced toward something that does not exist?

I can point to our official documents, of course. But when asked what makes Methodism unique, I would have a hard time formulating a doctrinal answer that would reliably mark out the faith as actually preached across the connection. Even if we think in terms of centered sets rather than bounded sets, it is hard to define a center when looking at actual practice.

For many United Methodists this not a bug but a feature. It is not a problem, but one of the things that makes us great. For me and my desire to be, in Willimon’s words, a bearer of the church’s faith and not merely my own, it is a problem. How can you bear what you cannot identify?

What I have done is attempt to teach, preach, and bear a faith under the influence of our Articles and Confession with a heavy dose of Wesleyan free grace Arminianism. I hope this is faithful to my call and certification as a minister in the UMC. I hope that is faithful to my call and certification in the UMC.