Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
July 18th, 2017 by Joel Watts

#NextMethodism will have a clear understanding of social holiness

Social Holiness is the Wesleyan ideal. It has informed Methodists since the time of Wesley and while it has sometimes been confused for corrupting things — manifest destiny and social justice, for example — it still holds our imagination and it something that must be retrieved.

The Next Methodism must have a clear understanding of social holiness. This budding understanding is part of what is causing the impending separation of The United Methodist Church. If we can give each other a bit of grace, I will attempt to explain.

I previously wrote,

Imagine never teaching the members of the holy community about experiencing the assurance of Christ or if the community accepted something that was sinful. Or perhaps the community rejected something that was righteous and prevented the community from going on to perfection. Wouldn’t this destroy the community? We believe the Holy Spirit works in the life of the community and in doing so, leads us to righteousness, which is sometimes against unity. If the goal of (Wesleyan) communal holiness is the elevation of each member, then anything damaging to that holiness damages the community and we expect the Holy Spirit to lead, guide, and transform us and in this transformative process, unity with those things that damage us will not be tolerated.

As much as I find the anthropology of the progressives a dehumanizing precept, they are correct in this one aspect: to prevent human flourishing is indeed a sin. For the traditionalist perspective, they too are correct, that not all normal, common, or natural human behavior is healthy and aids human flourishing. Of course, we can differ on all sorts of understandings of these words — human flourishing, normal, and so on.

I am connecting human flourishing to social holiness. The reason is obvious.

Each side of this debate is correct, according to their perspective, but that means the other side is.

There are at the moment two competing — and a few meandering — visions and conversations of the form Methodism should take moving forward. There is the progressive “DreamUMC” (a Monday-night beacon of anti-conservative/orthodoxy/traditionalist tirades where progressives often tend to build for themselves a purity cult) and the one began by Dr. David Watson, or “Next Methodism,” that has been enlivened and broaden by invitation. Both are presenting a vision of social holiness, even if neither are well defined at this moment.

What I have observed is that one of the reasons there is a milquetoast, bland offering of “Methodism” is because we have too many understandings of social holiness, and so many different directions that the various sides are at constant war with one another. We cannot disciple if we do not know what to teach — and we cannot teach ethics and holiness if what we teach is undone by our co-religionists. Rather, having a clear understanding of social holiness (a mission statement, if you will), only strengthens the organization — and charts our course. What we have now is not merely nuanced understandings, but understandings and a myriad of implementations of those understandings.

The Next Methodism will see that end. There will be a well-defined view of social holiness, and one that does not require a judicial council to enforce or one easily hidden behind the veil of a “smaller covenant.” On one side, I suppose it may look something like the hallmarks of 19th century Methodism, that is, to proclaim the essentials of the Christian faith while another one may be to be the Democratic Party’s handmaiden.

I hope Next Methodism reclaims Wesley’s vision of social holiness, or it will simply find itself in another 40 years where The United Methodist Church sits today.

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).

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