Aldersgate as Invitation
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. – John Wesley, forever an Anglican priest, 24 May 1738.
John Wesley was a priest, had even been on a mission — had been a pastor – a writer – and so on… but never had faith that God had actually saved him.
I view Aldersgate in several ways, always one of assurance — but as God’s invitation to accept His faith in John. We should each have that moment, when God who has already saved us through Christ opens our eyes that we might see our vain struggles. When we do, then we are ready to experience God — His presence, His signs and wonders, His authority — in all the fullness thereof.
As with any spiritual discipline, there are pitfalls to be avoided, and Jesus Himself refers to them. He warns against practicing our piety before others, so He lays down some rules for the kind of fasting He wants His followers to do. Specifically, we are told to avoid doing anything that would draw attention to the fact that we are fasting. He sure knows how to take the fun out of it. In a sermon given on fasting, St. Augustine of Hippo writes, “For in this work also we must be on our guard, lest there should creep in a certain ostentation and hankering after the praise of man, which would make the heart double, and not allow it to be pure and single for apprehending God.” If our fasting is mixed with a certain secret desire for people to notice us, we really are not concentrating on God, and our fasting will not be for the purification of our souls. This means that when you fast, you should not express irritation about fasting or what you are or are not allowed to eat, or ask others what they are doing, or come into church for Lenten services staggering as if faint from hunger. All of that just feeds the ego, and the devil blesses the effort.
I think it is pride that causes us to loudly proclaim what we have done for Lent. Or pride that causes us to only consider giving up chocolate, as if that is a true spiritual discipline. Perhaps the best Lenten practices are those no one sees, is told to no one, and done quietly so that there is time only to hear the Voice of God.
moral judgment meant to make us think critically
Don’t worry, St. Symeon and St. John Damascene are still my favorites… but…
task of moral judgment is always to prompt the soul’s incensive power to engage in inner warfare and to make us self-critical. The task of wisdom is to prompt the intelligence to strict watchfulness, constancy, and spiritual contemplation. The task of righteousness is to direct the appetitive aspect of the soul toward holiness and toward God. Fortitude’s task is to govern the five senses and to keep them always under control, so that through them neither our inner self, the heart, nor our outer self, the body, is defiled. – ST. HESYCHIOS THE PRIEST I, ON WATCHFULNESS AND HOLINESS, SEC. 34
This got me to thinking, tho, that maybe the loss of logical discourse in this country, and in many segments of Protestantism, is that we refuse to exercise moral judgment and as such, our critical thinking skills become completely mundane.
The Gift of What?!?!?!?!
I have noticed a trend, especially here in America, that has been bothering me for quite some time. I am not sure where it began, or why, but it seems to be here in full force. That trend is facilitation. A lot of what is to follow is based on observation and conversation with others. It is not at all scientific and some of your experiences may be different.
Most churches that I have attended and been a part of, even in passing, have had some sort of adult education. All of that education shared one thing in common….facilitators. I would like to propose a definition of facilitator form good old uncle Webster. “one that helps to bring about an outcome (as learning, productivity, or communication) by providing indirect or unobtrusive assistance, guidance, or supervision”. I am familiar with the idea that by engaging in this activity the Holy Spirit has the ability to move and thus we are indeed taught. Let me ask though when was the last time that a group of people with a facilitator walked away from a Bible study with the same teaching? The Spirit is not going to lead us in divergent directions after all. Now facilitation can be a great thing as well, don’t get me wrong. For example, if discussing the consistent Biblical narrative of caring for the poor, a thing which we all agree is there, a facilitator can then help guide vastly divergent ideas and ways of accomplishing this. Where facilitation might be lacking however is if we are questioning if that is really the teaching of scripture in the first place.
I don’t see this as an either or type of scenario. There is a time and a place for everything. If a church has a Christianity 101 class for example, I speculate that requires a teacher. The purpose of the class is not to discuss what being a Christian is at a base level, it is to impart that knowledge. Same would be true of a confirmation class. That does not mean there is not questioning or some discussion, but it means that the primary purpose is to impart knowledge, not discuss knowledge already possessed. At the same time, if the church is having a class about the history of Christian development leading to the creeds, the same would be true. The primary purpose being to impart knowledge, not discuss knowledge already possessed. Likewise, if the church is having an advanced class on practical implementation of the teachings of the sermon on the mount, then, assuming all have read and are familiar with the teachings, a facilitator is in order so that the group can discern what is the best way to use the knowledge of the teachings is.
It seems to me that we have a desperate need for more who have the Spiritual Gift of teaching to be allowed to do so. Christian education in America is terrible in many areas. This is evident when you look at how few people know the theology of the church they belong to in general. It seems almost as if we are allowing facilitators to lead discussions about practical implementation of scriptural truth when we have not laid a groundwork of scriptural truth. There is certainly a need for both teaching and facilitating, it just seems like we, as Christians, are doing way too much of one and not nearly enough of the other.
This is meant to try and start a chat about this and see where it goes. As I said, these are my observations and as such are limited. Please, share yours and let’s have a chat.
The moral metaphor?
Fletcher was Wesley’s European successor, and designer of the program that eventually became the Methodist denomination(s). His essay on Evangelical Mysticism is a must, I think.
Our current crop of evangelicals, and those to the right, tend to think in plain sense terms — that is, that Scripture is so plain, that it is easily understood. Yet, 2000 years of Christian Tradition should teach us otherwise. This is why we have theologians and teachers, to expound Scripture. Further, given that all words are mere symbols for larger truths, we have to understand that it takes thinking to get to the deep things of God.
Add to this the need for oversimplification in modern Western Christianity. There is no mystical element, or rather, we are doing our best to remove the mystical elements of the words of our holy books.
The challenge is this: how do you illuminate Scripture to the minds today?
Think of it is this. The writer of Ephesians uses an allegory of marriage to represent Christ and the Church. This is deep, because we can invest in it all sorts of right things, coming to understand covenant, love, and even submission.
Throughout the Old Testament, each moral command is given to us in metaphor, so that we understand that “do not murder” is something behind the taking of a life. Relate it to Cain and Abel. Understand what it means that when one is murdered, the entire cosmos groans. How precious, then, is life to God?
I could go on, but I want to encourage those who are making moral demands, to remember the words of Fletcher. The metaphor explains the why.
Doctrine in Spiritual Growth
Spiritual growth, or sanctification, has suffered either feast or famine in many Wesleyan circles. In Wesley’s grandchildren, sanctification has suffered from a gluttonous feast, leaving no room for the intellectual holiness Wesley called for — while in more progressive circles, sanctification is arbitrarily cast aside or rebottled to become some form of forced control of mind but hedonism of the body. However, sanctification really is an important point of Wesleyanism — and it does in fact include doctrine, the topic of Rankin’s fifth chapter.
In his introduction, Rankin succinctly draws out the need for a sound Christology in the Christian’s life and how this contributes to proper ethics and spiritual growth; however, it is his fifth chapter I want to briefly highlight. Rankin writes,
Doctrine therefore teaches us what to care about. It influences us holistically, not just intellectually…For a variety of reasons, intellectual and social forces in modern culture have contributed to the unlinking of sound doctrine and the spiritual health to which Calvin’s comment above refers.
Rankin gives us two reasons for doctrine. The first is to teach us what to think about God. He’s right — right doctrine does matter in our relationship with God. Second, doctrine helps us to in group formation. To the chagrin of the Left and Right, Rankin is not in favor of doctrinal purity, rightly seeing this as against the actual purpose of doctrine. Remember, as Wesleyans, we stand in the line of those who believe in spiritual growth as a journey — growing, perfecting — which means we do not start as perfect, but grow towards a goal. Doctrine helps us to achieve that goal, because it states what the goal is, what it looks like when we get there, and even how to get there.
From here, Rankin goes on to help define terms such as dogmas, creed, and theology. This is a crucial process because often times, those who dismiss doctrine dogmatically do so as their own creedal statement. They simply do not understanding that they are teaching (doctrine) erroneous things and do so rather dogmatically. While many see doctrine as a form of thought police, Rankin contends that “sound….doctrine maintains and nourishes the deep connection between God’s nature and the purposes and the way we conduct our lives.” He qualifies “sound” with “true” and “life-giving.”
Thus far, we know what doctrine really is and why it matters, but why are people — specifically, Christians — opposed to it? Because, it “shine(s) the light on our true and deepest desires, which, in turn, become visible in our goals and behaviors.” Rankin spends the rest of the chapter generally speaking to this and to a point raised early in the book, about how such things affect our disposition. But, I want to reflect just a moment on that.
This is exactly right, in my opinion, which is why as I have come to know better (orthodox) Christian doctrine my views on other things have changed. Indeed, as my ecclesiology has been shaped by Orthodoxy and such Wesleyan scholars as ]], my expectations of The United Methodist Church have changed. As my views on social holiness have been enlightened by the likes of ]], my views on what is normally called social justice have changed. As my understanding of the Holy Trinity has come into full view — along with Bonhoeffer’s admonition that all doctrine has a social component — I better understand the need for a stricter adherence to the Trinity, to the Incarnation, and to a high Christology and this has changed the way I view my fellow traveler. Indeed, the more I study these ancient doctrines, the more I see the sad way we have treated each other — and the way we abuse logic, reason, and philosophy to do so. Finally, the more I study the ancient doctrines, the more I feel humbled by the myriad of voices in the Great Tradition’s even greater Cloud and realize that I belong to the Church, but the Church (and her teachings) do not belong to me.
I want to commend two things to you. The first is this book. The second is the study of doctrine and theology. By studying where we have come from, how we got there, we may actually be able to move on – or, you know, have some spiritual growth. And with this book, you’ll know why spiritual maturity is important and how to have spiritual growth.
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.
The first is mandated while the second is a privilege.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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?
Update: Frank Schaefer has some thoughts you should read.