True Unity

What is the unity to which Christians are called?  Many believe it is the visible unity of an organization–usually the Roman Catholic Church or congregations in Restorationist denominations (Church of Christ, Christian Church, Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ)).

In fact, it’s a commonplace that non-Christians often fault the various denominations of Christianity for being “too divided.”  But is there any true unity in a church that broadly accepts and endorses conflicting doctrines?  Or does gathering people of widely divergent beliefs under one organizational umbrella put the lie to its claims of unity, a ‘united’ facade that hides the true reality of disparate doctrines and disparate allegiances?

It was the conviction of earlier Methodist leaders that true unity was less about glossing over differences as uniting around their risen Lord.  Thus, E. Stanley Jones wrote, “The saints belong to one another.  Christians do not have to seek for unity; you have it, in Christ.”  W.E. Sangster wrote similarly (though I can no longer find the exact wording), “The closer you are to Christ, the closer you are to one another; the hill is not so large as that, that you cannot touch one another as you touch the cross.”

So perhaps, even more than right doctrine, relationship to the Lord is the key to unity–and any doctrine or belief that would alter that relationship away from the Biblical standard thus becomes the greatest hindrance.  Holiness–right disposition, right thoughts, right actions–thus becomes the linchpin of unity.  And if you are attempting to redraw behavioral boundaries, you risk separating yourself both from those who are in fellowship with the Lord Jesus, and from the Lord himself–which makes sense, if you consider that “without holiness, no man shall see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14).

In the end, right dispositions and right actions cannot exist without the inner framework of right belief; but ultimately, holiness is at the heart of it all.  How we define holiness and who is characterized by it are thus ultimately the concerns of true religion.

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Behold the Perfect Man

“Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright, for the end of that man is peace” (Ps. 37:37).

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt. 5:8).

Dr. Kevin Watson’s blog post “Sin and the Christian Life: A Response to Rachel Held Evans” is a well thought-out articulation of the Christian’s relationship to sin.  The conversation that has followed is well worth reading, but I want to narrow in on one particular concern I see expressed in opposition to the doctrine variously called Christian perfection, entire sanctification or perfection in love.  Several posters have commented that they see people who claim to be entirely sanctified but they have never met anyone who was.

Disregarding how we can know another person’s motives and inmost thoughts (and perfection in love is largely a matter of purity of motive–it is not freedom from ignorance or mistake), it has rightly been pointed out as well that John Wesley always pointed toward Methodists in his care who had claimed to be entirely sanctified as further evidence of the truth of this long-neglected doctrine, men like John Fletcher of Madeley and Thomas Walsh, and women like Eliza Bennis.  We could even look farther into the future and find many figures within the Holiness and Pentecostal movements claiming to be entirely sanctified. Few seemed to live the truth of the claims more than Catherine Booth, the mother of the Salvation Army.

And then there are people, like George Muller of Bristol, less associated with Methodism and more with the similar “Higher Life,” “Deeper Life” and “Keswick” movements.

One might look at church history and see a great many examples of holy living, but not all used the language of perfection in love.  William Sangster’s The Pure In Heart is an excellent introduction to a number of Christians of heroic virtue (his definition of a saint) throughout all branches of the Holy Universal Church (Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox).  Similarly, Warren Wiersbe’s 50 People Every Christian Should Know provides a number of character sketches of various Christians (Dr. Sangster himself is one of the characters so sketched).  But neither is a character study exclusively of people who used Wesleyan language to describe their encounters with the Divine.

The question then becomes, does the means of expression and articulation of experience matter?  “Higher Life” articulations do not use quite the same language as Wesleyan articulations, but they both speak to a deeper change wrought in the heart.

Within Wesleyan Christianity, can we expect to see many with a testimony that they are entirely sanctified?  Dr. Sangster notes that many saints do not seem aware of their sanctity–can we expect that they would claim to be entirely sanctified if their vision is so God-filled that they hardly see themselves at all?

He writes,

The fact, and the permanence, and the importance of this, it would be impossible to exaggerate.  This, more than anything else, makes him a saint.  The fruit of the spirit only appears in him in perfection because the whole centre of his life has shifted from self to Christ.  He might hesitate to say with Paul: ‘I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless, I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’, but others would say it of him.  His old self has been crucified.  For him to live is Christ.

Occasionally the saint will speak of this secret death.  Normally, he does not speak much of himself, but, under the pressure of the Holy Spirit, and to aid a seeking soul, he will tell of it.  George Muller did.  As Dr. A.T. Pierson remarked of that God-engrossed man, his own Autobiography gives little idea of the power and, indeed, the charm of the man to whom God gave thousands of orphans and more than a million pounds.  But, hard-pressed on one occasion to tell his secret, George Muller said: ‘There was a day when I died, utterly died,’ and, as he spoke, he bent lower until he almost touched the floor.  Continuing, he added: ‘Died to George Muller, his opinions, his preferences, tastes and will; died to the world, its approval or censure; died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends and, since then, I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.’ (The Pure In Heart, p. 141)

And yet, there are those who claimed the experience of entire sanctification, using Wesleyan language, and whose lives evidenced it; men like Thomas Walsh and Fletcher of Madeley.  Sangster writes,

In the mixed character of Voltaire–nobility and cynicism strangely blended–there was much mockery of religion.  But a contented atheist he could not be.  Asked by a sceptical friend one day if he had ever met anyone like Jesus Christ, he lapsed into silence and then answered with awe-ful seriousness: ‘I once met Fletcher of Madeley.’ (p. 60)

The God-enraptured are not normally prone to speak of themselves; but perhaps it is as Sangster suggests and God prompts a few to do so, to encourage those who long to know the extent of what God can do with fallen man.  Perhaps there need to be more contemporary accounts of perfection in love publicized from within Wesleyan Christianity, but even so, we should not dismiss the accounts of those who have come before us.

Let us take the examples we have, whether they speak of it in a Wesleyan fashion or otherwise, and remember that every one of their lives points toward one goal.  As Sangster concludes The Pure In Heart, “Far above us, we see the saints moving on the snowy whiteness…and we follow after.  Any man may climb.”

The acceptable sin of divorce

Up until the last few decades, divorce was an unconscionable act of sin even in mainstream denominations such as the United Methodist Church.  Sadly, times have changed.  When divorce rates exploded in the mid-20th century, the United Methodist Church and its predecessors responded by adding language to the Book of Discipline that the church “decried divorce,” even as it committed to being “in ministry with divorced people.”

Even evangelicals have largely remained silent on the scandal of divorce, as Eric Metaxas of Breakpoint notes and accepted the practice via its silence.

The question, then, is how to seek the healing of divorced parties even while we denounce divorce.  Pope Francis recently made remarks about a more pastoral approach to divorce within the Roman Catholic church, and gave a parenthetical nod to the Orthodox practice.

As the article from the Catholic Free Press goes on to note,

“Unlike an annulment, which declares that a union was invalid from the beginning, the Orthodox decree does not question the initial validity of a sacramental marriage and unlike a civil divorce it does not dissolve a marriage. Rather, the Orthodox describe it as a recognition that a marriage has ended because of the failure or sin of one or both spouses.”

As such, the article quotes Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia as saying,

‘”Divorce is seen as an exceptional but necessary concession to human sin,” he wrote. “It is an act of ‘oikonomia’ (‘economy’ or dispensation) and of ‘philanthropia’ (loving kindness). Yet although assisting men and women to rise again after a fall, the Orthodox Church knows that a second alliance can never be the same as the first; and so in the service for a second marriage several of the joyful ceremonies are omitted, and replaced by penitential prayers.”’

Perhaps one way to be more visibly in balance between decrying divorce and allowing, as Jesus did, for the end of a marriage through sin would be to alter the marriage rite to reflect a similar penitential aspect to the post-divorce marriage ceremony.

Holiness and education

A comment a poster made in reply to John Meunier’s blog entry “Schools and souls in Sierra Leone” has me thinking.  John Wesley writes in his sermon “On Family Religion” to

“At all events, then, send your boys, if you have any concern for their souls, not to any of the large public schools, (for they are nurseries of all manner of wickedness) but private school, kept by some pious man, who endeavours to instruct a small number of children in religion and learning together.”

Stephen Rankin, the University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University has written a number of blog entries about how university educators are failing to provide a moral compass to the young adults in their charge.  At many United Methodist-affiliated institutions of higher education, there is very little attention paid to Christian doctrine; instead, our American Methodist higher-education institutions mimic the secular university.

So perhaps we need to revisit how we encourage our fellow United Methodists to pursue their education (Wesley certainly seems to be in favor of either homeschooling or small, private schools).  But to teach Christian doctrine and a Christian morality alongside other subjects, the church needs to have teachers who believe its doctrine teaching at its institutions…and sadly, many of the teachers at our institutions of higher education are not orthodox believers themselves.

William Sangster wrote in his book The Pure In Heart that there was some concern that saints (defined broadly as “a Christian of heroic faith and virtue”) could no longer be intellectual giants, because the modern worldview seemed to be so inherently skeptical that it made truly heart-felt, thorough faith much more difficult to hold.  How much more true this is when we do not offer any alternatives to the secularist’s vision of the world. 

Perhaps a start would be to require a certain number of courses on Christian doctrine as part of the core curriculum at any church-affiliated college or university.  Perhaps more of our churches should look at starting up private high schools under local control.  Perhaps we should encourage homeschooling.  Or perhaps it should be all of the above.

Particularism, or making absolute what God has left relative, Part 2

Os Guiness writes in his book The Call that the church needs to be careful not to “make absolute what God has left relative,” just as it must not “make relative what God has declared absolute.”  While we can say that a particular course of action is not Christian, we cannot say that there is, for example, only one Christian way to raise a family, write poetry, run an economy or be involved politically.

For those of us who are politically partisan, it is necessary to remember that much as politics should be influenced by our faith, we should not make absolute what God has left relative, just as we should not attempt to make relative what God has declared absolute.

It should also make us a bit concerned when we see someone declaring, as I quoted in my previous post,

Young people want nothing to do with The United Methodist Church because they see us for what we truly are: An outmoded religious body whose primary concern – how to perpetuate our own institution – is completely irrelevant to what young people need and want for spiritual nurture that aims to relieve the world’s suffering.

Have we reduced the Church to a social program that seeks to be “relevant,” to give young people what they “need and want for for spiritual nurture that aims to relieve the world’s suffering?”  If our aim is simply “to relieve the world’s suffering,” then perhaps the United Methodist Church is an “outmoded religious body”–after all, there are plenty of secular non-governmental organizations that purport to do the same, without all of that talk, so integral to the Christian faith, of “taking up our cross and following Him.”

But if there is more to life than simply the relief of physical suffering, then perhaps we still have something to offer that a secular NGO simply cannot–the living God, whose fellowship is found among those who claim to follow Christ in all aspects of life, and not simply the social-justice aspects.

Particularism, or making absolute what God has left relative

There has been a lot of visibility for Rachel Held Evans’ article “Why Millenials Are Leaving the Church.”  In it, the post-evangelical Evans argues that many of my generation are leaving the church because it doesn’t welcome gays and lesbians enough, doesn’t care enough about immigration reform, cares too much about sex in general, cares too much about abortion ; in short, because it is not politically liberal enough.  There have been a number of good critiques of the assumptions and conclusions of this article, and I do not want to rehash these.

UM Insight’s Cynthia Astle wrote an article in a similar vein entitled “Dear Bishops: Get Real!”  She writes in response to the bishops’ lament on the decline of member rolls and under-35 clergy that the reason for this is

Young people want nothing to do with The United Methodist Church because they see us for what we truly are: An outmoded religious body whose primary concern – how to perpetuate our own institution – is completely irrelevant to what young people need and want for spiritual nurture that aims to relieve the world’s suffering.

What follows is a four-point critique that the United Methodist Church is not doing enough on anthropogenic global warming or immigration reform, and that we are not doing enough to stop “economic injustice” and “community erosion.”  When several people replied to point out that what she has listed are simply liberal political causes (with the exception of “community erosion”), her reply is a variation on “take it up with God, because this is what he said we’re supposed to do.”

Ignoring the glaring omission of the gospel in her argument, and the assumptions of the exclusive validity of her four causes, it’s hard to deny that justice is God’s concern, and that God calls us to do justly.  But how does the Bible say that we should go about reforming society to be more just?  Does it say that we are to use the instruments of state to coerce compliance with a particular political agenda, or is the call for each one of us individually?  Do we enact social reform from the top down (i.e., from the organs of society to the individual) or from the bottom up (i.e., from the individual to society)?

Given that the Bible speaks to the church rather than society, proclaiming what the church is to do rather than what the world is to do, should we be so quick to push for the church to tie itself exclusively to one political ideology?

Following Jesus entails political commitments.  It means setting yourself under the authority of the Triune God who revealed himself in the Bible; it means doing, as an individual, what God has commanded.  But does it mean leveraging the tools of state to coerce behavior that is virtuous in the eyes of the leveraging party?

C.S. Lewis wrote in God in the Dock, “Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victim may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies.  The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated, but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”

At what point are we “doing what Jesus told us to do” and at what point do we become moral busybodies, intent on employing external persuasions to bring about virtuous behavior when what is needed is virtuous behavior coming from a changed heart and the internal conviction of the Holy Spirit?  For that matter, since God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7), is virtue any virtue if it’s only external?