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?

How would we answer his question?

A man walks into a United Methodist Church. He finds his way to the pastor’s office. By some providence of God, the pastor is there working on next Sunday’s sermon.

The man says he has only one question to ask: “What must I do to get to heaven?”

Based on United Methodist doctrine, what answer should the man expect from United Methodists?

(The question, by the way, is what John Wesley wrote he most wanted to know the answer to.)

While riding a horse

By this time next year, I might be commissioned as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church. This assumes I successfully demonstrate my fitness to the Board of Ordained Ministry, the conference has a place to appoint me, and the denomination does not disappear into a black hole during General Conference 2016.

I’m sure this time is anxiety inducing for all those who have walked on this path, but with the great flux in our denomination right now, figuring out what the UMC desires from me and what it will expect from me feels a bit like trans-warp beaming.

A word for Pietism

Stanley Hauerwas is an influential voice among United Methodist pastors. He is not shy about his dislike of Pietism, which is awkward for United Methodists since John Wesley was one of the most well-known advocates of the heart religion that is the hallmark of Pietism.

Since Hauerwas was influential in my early Christian intellectual formation and still tugs on my head-strings, I have always found his disdain for Pietism — I can still hear in my head his distinctive Texas twang’s mocking way of saying the word in some YouTube lecture I heard long ago — at odds with my understanding of what it means to be a United Methodist.

As a bookish man with a somewhat academic bent and a Midwestern introvert not given to emotionalism, I’ll admit that religion of the heart is not something I would have naturally been inclined to embrace. But, perhaps in good Methodist fashion, my experience tells me that the “heart warming” religion that so changed John Wesley’s life is still at work today.

I had a recent conversation with a man in which he discussed the jaw-dropping experience of discovering that all this church stuff was not just words jangling off his ears, but something that had gotten down in his heart. It was not just something in his head, but it was running through his whole life in an exciting and a little bit of a shocking way.

I know we need to be watchful for the ways Pietism can lead us off the narrow path of Jesus. We need to watch for hyper-individualism and mysticism and things that I’m not aware of, I’m sure. But this kind of deeply felt — yes “felt” — experience of faith seems to me to be one of the gifts of Methodism to the church catholic. It is part of what we exist to offer God’s world.

We won’t find many of our brothers and sisters in the Protestant world embracing Pietism. I’m sure there are orders and movements within the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions who speak this heart religion language.

It seems to me that we should be mining and preserving and passing on these forms of Christian spirituality. That is why God raised up our movement in the first place. Or, so it seems to me.

Watts: ‘I have nothing to hide’

Joel Watts shares his thoughts about human sexuality and the United Methodist Church.

Watts is a nominee for General Conference in the West Virginia Annual Conference. His answers to other questions can be found here.