Unsettled Christianity

Gloria Dei homo vivens – St Irenaeus
June 1st, 2016 by Joel Watts

Social Holiness and Unity

There are two forms of unity that I hold for the Christian. One is that of the Church Universal. Those who worship the Triune God are united under Christ. The second are the communities united around core emphasises or distinctives. If The United Methodist Church divides, the two new denominations could still be united in Christ as part of the Church Universal even if our distinctives and focuses are now different.1

The first is mandated while the second is a privilege.

social holiness or pensions

So often the question is asked as to why the people in the UMC cannot be united. After all, unity is our goal and we have it in our name. There are more than a few who believe unity at all costs is the primary goal of The United Methodist Church. If we were congregationalists, or any other non-Wesleyan Protestants, unity in spite of major differences would be acceptable.

Ironically, The United Methodist Church is divided (informally) exactly because of the Wesleyan concept of social holiness.

John Wesley would famously write,

The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. “Faith working by love” is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. “This commandment have we from Christ, that he who loves God, love his brother also;” and that we manifest our love “by doing good unto all men; especially to them that are of the household of faith.” And in truth, whosoever loveth his brethren, not in word only, but as Christ loved him, cannot but be “zealous of good works.” He feels in his soul a burning, restless desire of spending and being spent for them. “My Father,” will he say, “worketh hitherto, and I work.” And at all possible opportunities he is, like his Master, “going about doing good.”2

Social holiness requires us to be zealous over those of the household of faith, those in the band-meetings and the class meetings and in the pews next to us. This is not legalism or setting neighbor above neighbor, but it is a requirement that as the community shapes us, we require it to be holy because it requires us to be holy.3

Social holiness operates on several levels, each with a biblical basis and a practical application. To be like their Lord, holiness Christians must have a heart for others, a zeal for social justice, and, ultimately, a sense of corporate holiness that transcends the personal holiness of individual believers.4

[bctt tweet=”The #UMC is divided because of social holiness #UMCGC ” username=”ejoelwatts”]

Substantive unity in The United Methodist Church is lacking because the sides view the issue as one of social holiness — and the views are diametrically opposed. Both sides are correct. This is an issue that is in the middle of social holiness. Our zealousness for our neighbors is about the very image of God in them — so that if we deny them this, then we are creating an unholy and dangerous community. This is the social aspect of social holiness, as demonstrated by Charles Wesley,

I read part of Mr. Law on Regeneration to our Society. How promising the beginning! how lame the conclusion! Sensi hominem! Christianity, he rightly tells us, is a recovery of the divine image; and a Christian is a fallen spirit restored, and reinstated in paradise; a living mirror of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. After this, he supposes it possible for him to be insensible of such a change; to be happy and holy, translated into Eden, renewed in the likeness of God, one with Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and yet not know it. Nay, we are not to expect, or bid others expect, any such consciousness, if we listen to one who too plainly demonstrates, by this wretched inconsistency, that his knowledge of the new birth is mostly in theory.5

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.

[bctt tweet=”Inclusion is a Social Holiness Issue #UMC #UMCGC ” username=”ejoelwatts”]

Would St. Paul be “unequally yoked” with an “evil doer?” Or John Wesley? The Minutes of 1789 even required expulsion from the society for those married to non-believers and “unawakened” Christians.

This is why compromise on this issue will not work. Inclusion is a social holiness issue. If inclusion is right, then it is wrong to allow the community to exclude whom God has included, acts and all. If inclusion is wrong, the it is wrong to include what God has deemed sin. As Dr. Kevin Watson notes,

As far as I can tell, the most accurate way of describing the current crisis of unity in United Methodism is precisely that people are convinced that God is not indifferent about these matters and they deeply and profoundly disagree about what faithfulness looks like.

Both sides on this issue argue from the perspective of social holiness and both sides are equally correct that division is necessary because of this.6 This is why meaningful unity is not possible related to this issue. Those who do not understand where this issue falls, and why this issue is divise, are more than likely non-Wesleyan at their core.

Wesley saw it as the mission of Methodist preachers to

To reform the nation, particularly the Church, and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.

Do we still see our mission as such? If so, how do current discussion about unity and inclusion play into that? If our vision of communion (or a reformed Church based on scriptural holiness) is wholly different than another’s vision, can we walk united?

  1. As John Fletcher, the first great Methodist theologian, remarked about the mystical unity, but earthly separation, “Thus the separation of true Christians, without producing any schism in the Church, frequently tends to the propagation of the Gospel.” John William Fletcher, The Works of the Reverend John Fletcher (vol. 3; New York: Carlton & Porter, 1833), 35–36.
  2.  John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley (vol. 14, Third Edition.; London: Wesleyan Methodist Book Room, 1872), 321–322.
  3. “We are shaped by the holy character of the community where we live and worship.” Richard K. Eckley, “Holiness in Other Christian Traditions,” in Be Holy: God’s Invitation to Understand, Declare, and Experience Holiness (ed. Joseph Coleson; Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2008), 97.
  4.  Robert Black, “Social Holiness,” in Be Holy: God’s Invitation to Understand, Declare, and Experience Holiness (ed. Joseph Coleson; Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2008), 152.
  5.  Charles Wesley, The Journal of the Rev. Charles Wesley (ed. Thomas Jackson; vol. 1; London: John Mason, 1849), 191.
  6. i.e., Does this mean schism? Or just allowing congregations to leave?
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).

Leave a Reply, Please!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: