Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
August 3rd, 2015 by Joel Watts

Inclusion in the Unity of Christ

English: Icon of Jesus Christ

English: Icon of Jesus Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dr. David Watson, United Methodist Theologian and Academic Dean at United Theological Seminary, has written about unity in Christ.

I want to speak to one issue. He writes,

Today, for some Christians Jesus primarily represents radical inclusiveness, which, not surprisingly, is also the ethos of the cultural moment in which we find ourselves in the postmodern West.

As I was sitting this past Sunday (8/2) in worship, I focused on the lectionary passage, the topic of the sermon. The pastor read from John 6.24-35. The entire lectionary, as it usually does, adds to this. This thought was expanded as I listened to the liturgy of the Table. I was thinking about the invitation Jesus gives his disciples and to each of us, and how this invitation comes with strings attached.

As an Arminian, the invitation to follow Christ is one that is inclusive. It is given to all, regardless of race or creed, (Galatians) or economic station (James). Rather, Christ is earnest when he says “Come and dine” (John 21.12) and when he speaks of calling the entire world (John 12.32–33). I believe that this “world” is not merely those God the Father has foreordained to be Christ’s (John 17.9) but the entirety of the human race. Where there was once a wall between Jew and Gentile, the call of Christ has broken this (Ephesians 2). Indeed, I believe this call extends past his life and into the next via what the West calls purgatory and the East… well, it seems the East has no name for their own view, so I’ll just call it Hope.

But, this inclusive invitation relates to an exclusive acceptance.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus invites all but only accepts those who are willing to amend their ways. I think we have a difficult time believing that Jesus, the pure embodiment of God’s love, would require us to change to fit his particular ideal of what holiness looks like. But he does. We see this with the story of the rich man who Christ invited to follow Him, but gave stipulations (Mark 10.17–27). This is not the only time Jesus spoke about excluding people. He excluded those who would not bear fruit (Matthew 7.18-23; so did John Wesley, by the way); Jesus excluded those who denied him (Matthew 10.32–39; match this with 1 John 4.3 and the fuller definition of “antichrist”); Jesus excluded the blasphemers (Matthew 12.34–37); Jesus wasn’t happy about completely including those who were causing schism in the body, either (Matthew 18.5–17); and Jesus excluded those who refused to repent of their sins (John 8.23–26). You get the hint. And if you don’t, you can get a better list here — or read Revelation 2 and 3 about the threat of Jesus to exclude local congregations from the Church Universal.

The often quoted Galatians 3.28 is misused to suggest Jesus was inclusive but what they miss is that the Gentile was excluded (partially) from God’s covenant by God Himself. This wasn’t human will that did this, but God who did it (and I would argue, for a very important reason). Further, if you look at the exclusion of women you see that this was done in some ways through the Law of Moses and in other ways, through cultural norms. The (whole of the) Old Testament Canon, on the other hand, is roundly inclusive of women. The same can be said of the slave in regards to both the Law and the Culture. Yet, through Christ, those things God had seemingly excluded — Gentile, woman, slave — are now made one in Christ.

The one thing we miss (among many) when misquoting Galatians 3.28 and arguing that Jesus was inclusive is the role of covenant, itself a concept directly related to exclusion. The inclusive invitation to follow Christ has stipulations. We must become filial to God in Christ – and we do this by leaving our old identities behind (as St Paul said in Philippians 3), repenting (pick and chapter of a book of the New Testament), and refocusing our live on the works of the Kingdom.1 Jesus did not die for the modern pathological concern over inclusion. Indeed, his concern was not rooted in a destructive mindset, but in self-sacrifice (a form of exclusion) and love of God’s ultimate will.

Watson mentions the Creeds, as I have often done and will continue to do. The Creeds define orthodoxy and unite us in an ecumenical fashion with those who likewise confess them. But they, like Christianity, are exclusive. The “We believe” part tells us that we have marked a boundary for what is a proper belief. As we have seen in the Canon of Scripture and the Apostolic and Church Fathers, this boundary is inherent in our belief system and is traced to the Apostles (see the Didache, for instance). (As modern experts would tell you, a boundary is inherent in any belief system and should be included in relationships if their is a desire for healthiness.)

My concern as I survey the field before me is that I see many who believe we can transform our lives in Christ without Christ, as if there is some “Christ consciousness” awaiting us as we approach a higher level of mystical servanthood via this idea of “inclusion.”2 Or worse, that there is no need for this personal transformation contrary to the call that permeates Scripture. What we see is a focus on this “unity in Christ” as if Christ is the abstract, separated from us by myth, legend, and history so that we may never really know the Risen Lord, overturning millennia of Christian Tradition and Witness. Rather, the Christian (Scripture and Tradition) concept of “unity in Christ” is itself a concrete goal based upon our shared Tradition, one based on thought and deed.

Can we, The United Methodist Church, find unity in Christ, even if that means the inclusive invitation to follow Christ is understood as an invitation to be transformed from who we profess to be now to who God wants us to be?

As a side note, please don’t confuse “Christian” with “saved.” When I write Christian I mean those following the historic teachings of the Church Universal in matters of the Creed, whom follow Christ in thought and deed. Salvation is not tied to the Creed. Nor think when I say inclusion and exclusion I am focused on the proper alignment of genitalia. My focus here is a Creedal faith explored in a holiness tradition, all based on Christ.

  1. I know people struggle with this issue of identity, but if we are to be one in Christ, then we cannot have these things separating us. Rather, this submitting of identity in Christ must inform our equal standing before God and our fight for justice and reconciliation before the world
  2. To be sure, the Christian must be a mystic on some level. This informs us as to our understanding of the world(s) around us, above us, and below us.
Joel Watts
Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. He is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of the Free State, analyzing Paul’s model of atonement in Galatians, as well as seeking an MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014).

Comments

13 Responses to “Inclusion in the Unity of Christ”
  1. I appreciate the reflection and thoughts, and how deeply rooted they are in the biblical witness. With respect to David Watson’s point, though, is the unity in Christ you describe (inclusive/universal invitation contingent on a convenantal/exclusive commitment to Jesus) played out within the UMC? Can we attain such unity–not perfectly, of course, but sufficiently to stay together as one denomination? I’d like to think so; I think it’s possible. I find that I share much in common with fellow Methodists in this regard, irrespective of similarities/differences on particular issues (such as LGBT concerns). I just hope that enough people see such potential for unity in Christ that we can stay together; I get the gut feeling that Dr. Watson is slowly giving up hope in that regard.

  2. Thank you for your post.

    A few points for consideration.
    1. “Jesus did not die for the modern pathological concern over inclusion.” Pathology can sometimes be in the eyes of the beholder. Others would see an equally modern concern for not “overturning millennia of Christian Tradition and Witness” as pathological. There are times when, after many years of being accepted as established wisdom, a model needs to be rethought and perhaps overturned. In science and other disciplines, this idea has gained wide acceptance. In theology, it seems to be having a harder time catching on.

    I don’t think most people want to dump ways of thinking or being simply because they are old, but because they no longer make sense in light of present knowledge. I have the feeling from many who are deeply enmeshed in the church as institution that there is a deep and dark foreboding about even considering discarding pieces of the ‘faith once delivered’, as if once you start the process of examining ‘millennia of Christian tradition and witness’ that the doom of the faith is near. I don’t share their pessimism.

    “Can we…find unity in Christ, even if that means the inclusive invitation to follow Christ is understood as an invitation to be transformed from who we profess to be now to who God wants us to be?”

    I hope so, but isn’t the notion of “who God wants us to be” a deeply personal question in some respects, seeing that each person has a personal relationship with God? Certainly there are some easy answers, especially with respect to who God does not want us to be: a murderer, a cheat, a liar, etc. and there are corporate aspects to the question, but there are also deeply personal aspects that seem worthy of space and respect.

    • 1.) the pathological concern is for the “new” the “progressive” the “inclusion” rather than anything substantial. The hesitancy of over turning Christian tradition is not a pathological concern so much as it is part of the Tradition. We aren’t speaking about a model, now are we? Rather, we are speaking about ethics and thought rooted in Scripture and affirmed by Tradition. Even those of us affirming must take into account what we are seeking to rectify.

      I’m glad you have feelings, but I believe they are wrong. Many seek to overturn the “old” simply because they are old. If you don’t undersatnd this, spend some time with progressives on the FB forums.

      • “The hesitancy of over turning Christian tradition is not a pathological concern so much as it is part of the Tradition.”

        Just so I understand this statement correctly, this is saying that we can’t examine the Tradition because it’s part of the Tradition?

        I believe adherence to Tradition for the sake of Tradition is a model. It’s a model for thinking about the world. Following this model, I start with a Tradition and judge everything in the world according to the Tradition by using the lens of the Tradition.

        “I’m glad you have feelings, but I believe they are wrong.” The snark involved in this statement is quite surprising coming someone presenting themselves as affirming the Christian tradition.

        The ‘feeling’ that I noted in my original post referred to the feeling that people enmeshed in the institution of the church have foreboding about examining the tradition. I use the word ‘feeling’ to make it clear that I was talking about my anecdotal experience discussing the issues and not some scientific method of measuring ‘feelings of dread’ in traditionalists.

        I have to say I have never seen anyone say they want to overturn an ‘old’ tradition simply for being old. I have seen plenty of reasoned arguments about why a tradition once considered true or worthy of continuation at one time really is not true or worthy of continuation. Apparently our experiences are quite different in this regard. I’d be interested to see examples of such conversations or people challenging tradition simply for being ‘old’.

        • Wayne,

          It is clear you didn’t understand the statement. I never say that we cannot examine the Tradition — we are where we are exactly because we have. However, overturning is a different story. Overturning should be met with caution, as evidenced by the early days of the Protestant Reformation.

          I regret that you think Snark is out of the realm of Tradition. I suggest you start with Galatians and then move into the Gospels.

          “I have to say I have never seen anyone say they want to overturn an ‘old’ tradition simply for being old.”

          That’s great, but I wonder how many people you are actually seeing.

          • It’s always interesting to me to see which parts of a religious tradition different adherents of said tradition seem to think are worth venerating. Many Christians think that 2 Timothy 2:24 – 26 is venerable. “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” Or perhaps 1 Peter 3:15, ” but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect”

            It always seems to be the puffed up ones who want want to reserve their right to treat other with incivility and disrespect who point to Paul’s temper tantrum with the Judaizers or the portrayals of vicious verbal beat downs by Jesus in Matthew and John. Perhaps you’d like to follow that up by telling a few women to shut up in church or maybe referring to a few women as dogs or excoriating them for not growing their hair long. Maybe execute a few homosexuals or run over a few Sabbath breakers for good measure. All parts of the tradition.

            Joel, someone needs to be honest with you. You are simply a puffed up bully with a religious education. You have no more sense of what’s important in the Christian tradition or how to separate the wheat from the chaff in our tradition than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi knows how to interpret his tradition. Awaiting clever and snarky reply. Ready..fire..aim.

          • So… you come to insult me, throw some ad homs, herrings, and other silliness around… and then close by saying (and I’m paraphrasing) “if you insult me, then you prove my point.”

            All I can say is… “you poor thing…”

          • Yes. You do prove my point every time you type. The only “poor things” are the people who would take you seriously as a voice of faith in the Christian community. The fact that you really do think that Paul’s temper tantrums in Galatians are an example worthy of emulation is just one indicator. Honestly, do you really think that you are being of service to the Kingdom by being “God’s smart@ss” to people who visit your site? What do you really think you are doing in service to the Kingdom by your vile posts and riposte other than feeding your own puffed up “bigger, badder and smarter than the riff-raff” opinion of yourself?

          • Wayne, you seem to be upset that I don’t care what you think. Nor do I care about the tantrum you are throwing. Nor do I think St. Paul threw a tantrum. Perhaps you could quote my actual words rather than false quotes. And perhaps you could be more respectful to both Scripture and Tradition.

  3. Joel, I got the idea while reading your post that your analysis of inclusion-exclusion is just another version of works righteousness. You must believe x, y, and z to be included. If not, or if you believe x1, y2, and z3, then you are out. Or, as others have stated, Believe, Behave, then you can Belong.

    What about the work of the Spirit in people’s lives that shape their lives when they belong to a believing group? This idea, not original to me but I don’t remember where I read it or who first stated it, is Belong, Behave, Believe. In Belonging to a fellowship of Christ followers, the Spirit, working through the group will shape the behavior and bring belief. This is risky stuff because it has to potential to bring disruption to the established group. We must, however, trust the power of the Holy Spirit (previenent, justifying and sanctifying grace) to do God’s work.

    Any way, that just my two cents.

    • Gary,

      As we say in my neck of the woods… your two cents ain’t worth very much.

      As a methodist, don’t you think the use of the ad hom of work’s righteousness is a bit hypocritical? Not only does the use betray a misunderstanding of the concept, but you then go on to display exactly what you decry me for saying.

      Let me answer the questions you should have asked

      1.) “Should believe” is different than “must believe.” Orthodoxy is not a litmus test for salvation, which I delineated in my final paragraph. Orthodoxy is a guide, not only for the Church universal, but for the Christian. This is where we better understand the Spirit.

      2.) The “believing group,” under your understanding, is anything? Tell you what. Since we belong to a Christian denomination that at least pretends to uphold the creeds and believe in historic Christian doctrines, let’s call the “believing group” the Church. The Church, as it always has, has had some basic core beliefs. This is orthodoxy. Orthodoxy helps to mold and shape the group into a more cohesive group. As Christians, we believe that the Spirit is the force that shaped orthodoxy, which of course, then turns to shape the life of the individual.

      So, Gary, if you don’t mind, try to refute what I said rather than what you wanted me to say.

  4. Another thought: those that were excluded were not excluded by Jesus but were self-excluded. It was their choice not to follow.

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