A few days ago, I wrote about what scared me regarding the situation in the UMC. Feel free to read it of course, but the short version is that there has not been a serious theological discussion, in the Wesleyan tradition, regarding the plans that have been put forward, let alone the presenting issue of human sexuality that has prompted them. This will be a part of my attempt to rectify this situation. While I am a small voice in the large ocean of the United Methodist Church, my hope is that some of the big fish may encounter some of these things so that there is a very real, honest, and most importantly theological, discussion about the implications of the plans brought forward. I will begin today with the topic of moral law as Wesley understood it and do my very best to demonstrate why, with moral law as a basis, sexual ethics are indeed an essential and thus not subject to, as many claim, the often quoted “in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty” idea.
The Articles of Religion are one of the standards of faith of the UMC. Article 6 is of importance to set the stage for what is to come. “The Old Testament is not contrary to the New; for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard who feign that the old fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the law given from God by Moses as touching ceremonies and rites doth not bind Christians, nor ought the civil precepts thereof of necessity be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian whatsoever is free from the obedience of the commandments which are called moral.” The UMC articles were adapted from the Anglican Articles of Religion for use by the American Methodists. It has become the default position of many in the protestant world to reject the triparte division of the Mosaic law (civil, ceremonial, moral), much to our detriment. I blame the new perspective on Paul movement myself, but that is a different rabbit hole all together. The reality is that the standards of faith of the UMC still affirm the triparte division of the law, thus we must, if we are to have a Wesleyan theological discussion, understand that is the frame work that we have. While we are not bound to the civil and ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law, we are indeed still bound to the moral aspects of it. Establishing that we are bound to the moral law, we must then look to understand why that is a matter of concern in the current situation the UMC faces. To aid in this, let us look to what Wesley believed about the moral law of God and how that matters and applies to us.
Despite different terminology, Wesley and his thoughts on moral law mirror Aquinas and his thoughts on natural law in numerous ways. To understand what this means, we must go back to the beginning and briefly touch on creation, and the theology of creation. A Wesleyan understanding of creation says that just as God created that which is inanimate, as well as all manner of living things, He also wove into the fabric of the universe a moral order that can be seen through the tender, and sometimes not so tender, guidance of conscience, but also through the eyes of reason. In a Wesleyan understanding of faith, creation theology is the multivalent beginning to the proper understanding of faith. Consider these words from Wesley in sermon 34: “I shall, first, endeavour to show the original of the moral law, often called “the law,” by way of eminence. Now this is not, as some may have possibly imagined, of so late an institution as the time of Moses. Noah declared it to men long before that time, and Enoch before him. But we may trace its original higher still, even beyond the foundation of the world: to that period, unknown indeed to men, but doubtless enrolled in the annals of eternity, when “the morning stars” first “sang together,” being newly called into existence. It pleased the great Creator to make these, his first-born sons, intelligent beings, that they might know him that created them. For this end he endued them with understanding, to discern truth from falsehood, good from evil; and, as a necessary result of this, with liberty, — a capacity of choosing the one and refusing the other. By this they were, likewise, enabled to offer him a free and willing service; a service rewardable in itself, as well as most acceptable to their gracious Master.” The moral law then, for Wesley, was present before creation as a part of the essential nature of God. God then, to the angles, imparted this. Wesley would further elaborate: “In like manner, when God, in his appointed time, had created a new order of intelligent beings, when he had raised man form the dust of the earth, breathed into him the breath of life, and caused him to become a living soul, endued with power to choose good or evil; he gave to this free, intelligent creature the same law as to his first-born children, — not wrote, indeed, upon tables of stone, or any corruptible substance, but engraven on his heart by the finger of God; wrote in the inmost spirit both of men and of angels; to the intent it might never be far off, never hard to be understood, but always at hand, and always shining with clear light, even as the sun in the midst of heaven.” We are left then with the reality that for Wesley, and for the faithful in the Wesleyan tradition, God’s moral law is a part of the very fabric of creation itself woven into all that which God Himself proclaimed as “good”. Indeed, it is why God could make such a claim as creation must have been good, before the fall, because it was infused with a part of the very immutable nature of God in the form of the moral law. Our understanding then of the moral law reflects our understanding of the nature of God. Should we reject the moral law as the antinomians did, we then also reject a part of the nature of God. This is the reason that Wesley and other Methodists so harshly rebuked them.
Having now established that we are bound to the moral law by virtue of our standards of faith which express the doctrine of the UMC, and having established that the moral law, to the understanding of Wesleyan theology, is a part of the immutable nature of God and our understanding thereof, as well as being woven throughout creation itself, we are left with no other option than to conclude that the presenting issues of sexual ethics in the UMC are indeed an essential as they are a matter of the moral law of God woven into creation itself. As an essential then, any serious Wesleyan examination of the plans laid before the church for the way forward must take this into account. As Wesley is attributed as saying, “In essentials unity”.