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. 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.” 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.