Last week I began a series of posts which will be engaging with the vision statement of the Uniting Methodists movement. There is much that could be said about this group but my engagement in this and subsequent pieces will be limited to examining their theology. For these next few posts I am going to be focusing on the sections entitled “Mission Statement” and “Shared Commitment.” In this post, I want to focus on some of the ways in which the Uniting Methodists statement obscures the reality of our disagreements. I will do this by posing three questions, each one tied to a specific statement in these sections of the document. In my next few posts I intend to analyze the kind of spirituality proposed in these sections as well as their way of reading the Bible.
Question 1: Different ways of pursuing holiness or different ideas of holiness?
In the mission statement, Uniting Methodists asserts “We recognize that we sometimes disagree on how best to pursue holiness, and those differences can lead to conflict.” On the one hand this statement is unproblematic: there is great disagreement in United Methodism on how best to pursue holiness. On the other hand, however, it is a very insufficient description of the present state of the denomination. We are not just in disagreement about how to pursue holiness. We are in disagreement about what holiness is.
Take a few examples. Can you be holy if you do not advocate justice for the oppressed? Some United Methodists would assert that this misses the point about holiness, that the heart of holiness is a personal relationship with Christ. The transformation flowing from this relationship might take the shape of advocating for justice, but on the other hand it might not. Other United Methodists would assert that advocating for justice is the very heart of what it means to be biblically holy. Any personal relationship or other piety, in the absence of justice, is hypocritical and false.
Consider another question: can what we do in the body make us unholy? Some United Methodists would say no, that holiness is a purely spiritual affair and that what matters is whether your heart is right. Others would say (although rarely in exactly these words) that bodily actions can indeed defile you and make you unholy. For some United Methodists an example might be participating in kinds of commerce which are economically or environmentally exploitative: if you are destroying the earth as a petroleum engineer, you cannot be living a life of righteousness even if your intentions are pure. Some United Methodists might think of sexual sin in a similar way: there is no morally acceptable way to commit adultery or for a man to have sex with another man. The mere bodily fact of these actions (pillaging oil from the earth, illicit sex) means you are not righteous. This is one of many places where the fault line in our denomination does not lie between “progressives” and “conservatives.”
Finally, consider perhaps the most elemental disagreement: is our holiness affected by the way we live our lives or are we holy through God’s love and grace regardless of how we live? Many Methodists would tend toward the latter more Lutheran or Calvinist position. None of us are or can become actually holy. We are all so broken and sinful that in this life we cannot be actually holy or righteousness. Nevertheless God calls us beloved in spite of our faults and only in this sense are we holy. Others would hold the more traditionally Wesleyan position (which is the majority position in Christianity down through the ages). This position holds that, although sin indeed besets us all, through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit we can become actually holy in this life, even to the point of being utterly without sin. This holiness is not achieved solely by God’s action: we must receive the gift he offers us and work out our salvation in cooperation with Christ who works in us.
All of these disagreements are not merely over how to pursue holiness. United Methodists who agree that that advocating justice for the oppressed is an indispensable part of holiness might still disagree about how to pursue that holiness. They might disagree, for example, on the importance of traditional piety such as prayer and Bible study for pursuing justice or whether the Church should work within or outside of government structures (and if outside, whether the work should be conducted as a mild-mannered charity or a radical agitator). Furthermore, that not insignificant body of United Methodists who do not believe we can actually become holy in this life would likely take issue with the whole idea of “pursuing” holiness in the first place.
Question 2: In what sense “biblical”? In what sense “faithful”?
The first of Uniting Methodists’ four convictions states that “the current divide is based on differing perspectives that are biblical and faithful.” The sense in which these words are intended seems rather clear. All perspectives in the current debate are biblical, in that all parties will refer to the Bible as an authority and all parties have come to their current convictions through study of the scriptures. Likewise people of different views have come to these perspectives faithfully in the sense that they have come to them through earnestly seeking the will of God.
These, however, are not the only senses in which a given perspective may be said to be “biblical” or “faithful.” For many, to say that a perspective is biblical does not mean only that it was arrived at through study of the Bible, but that it is also in accord with the will and way of the God who inspires the Bible. Thus the antebellum embrace of slavery is “biblical” in the first sense, since it was arrived at through study of the Bible, but no United Methodists today would say that it is “biblical” in the second sense. Similarly, “faithfulness” might describe not a purity of intentions but a fidelity to the traditions we have received, as in the hymn: “Faith of our fathers! holy faith! We will be true to thee till death!”
These differing senses of “biblical” and “faithful” can be illustrated by a brief tour through the writing of Irenaeus of Lyons, one of the great theologians of the early Church. Irenaeus’ most substantial work was the Refutation and Overthrow of Knowledge Falsely So-Called, which is more often referred to by the shorter title it was given in Latin translation: Adversus Haereses or Against Heresies. Irenaeus was writing at a time when congregations all over the Mediterranean were riven with dissension and strife. The source of this strife was a dispute over a group of movements which scholars refer to as Gnosticism. You can read elsewhere about the various different beliefs which were held by the different kinds of Gnostics, but for our purposes the point is this: the Gnostics spent a lot of time reading, studying, and interpreting the Bible. In fact, so far as we can tell, the first person to write a commentary on one of the gospels was a man named Heracleon, a Valentinian Gnostic who wrote a commentary on the gospel of John.
In his attempt to bring peace to the churches by refuting the false teachings of the Gnostics Irenaeus acknowledged that they were energetic in interpreting the Bible. But he did not stop with that sense of “biblical.” He continued on to show the problems with Gnostic interpretation of scripture and offer superior alternatives. In doing so he employed several methods. Often he would appeal to the plain meaning of the text, since the Gnostics were fond of insisting that the text said something other than what it seemed to say. So, for example, when John the Baptist declares that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), Gnostics like Heracleon would say that “the world” means only God’s chosen elect (this heretical view, known as “limited atonement,” was taken up again centuries later by Calvinism). But Irenaeus and other orthodox Christians would say “No, the world actually means the world. That’s the plain sense of the text.”
At other times, however, Irenaeus would appeal to the tradition of the Church and the gospel as it had been proclaimed by the apostles and their successors. The apostles and their successors taught and handed down the “big picture” story of scripture, which Irenaeus called the “rule of faith.” So when Gnostics taught (based on their reading of the Bible) that there were two Gods, an evil, lower one who created the material world, and a good, higher one who was the Father of Jesus and sent him to save us, Irenaeus could appeal to the “rule of faith” and reply that there was only one God, who was both the creator of the world and the Father of Jesus Christ. Because the Gnostics did not hold to this received apostolic faith, their interpretation of the Bible went astray.
Irenaeus uses the example of a tile mosaic to illustrate his point. Suppose a mosaic of a king had become all jumbled up. Unless you knew what the king looked like, you could not put the mosaic back in order and, since the tiles could be put in any number of configurations, you might mistakenly create a picture very far from the truth. Like the mosaic, scripture can be interpreted in any number of ways but only through the teaching of the apostolic faith can it be interpreted correctly. Only those who have seen the face of the king and hold it continually before their mind’s eye can correctly assemble the jumbled picture.
That is a long digression but the point here is a simple one: earnest interpretation of the Bible is not necessarily correct interpretation of the Bible. Something which is “biblical” or “faithful” in the first sense is not necessarily “biblical” or “faithful” in the second sense. And this is where it is important to attend to the rhetoric of a statement like “our differing perspectives are biblical and faithful.” If you say that without clarifying what you mean, it serves to prevent people from objecting based on other definitions of the word. Someone holding to the second sense of “biblical” might say “I don’t think it’s biblical to exclude people based on who they love. The overarching, big picture story of the whole Bible is about God extending his grace to all people.” But then Uniting Methodists could say “But wouldn’t you agree that they have come to that conviction through wrestling with the scriptures? How can you say their view isn’t biblical?” In this way the use of the same words obscures a fundamental disagreement.
In this section I have assumed that Uniting Methodists intends to say our differing perspectives are “biblical” in the first sense and shown how this obscures real disagreement among those in our denomination who are interested in what is “biblical” in the second sense. Since our perspectives do differ in real ways (as we have seen above in the example of holiness), I have felt it safe to assume that Uniting Methodists does not intend to say they are all biblical in the second sense: this would amount to saying that God’s will is not one or consistent. There is, however, a third option: it could be that the framers of the document do not think there is a “biblical” perspective, in the second sense, on the matters that divide us. In other words, this would mean that they are matters on which God’s will and the teaching of the Church are not clear. Thus those who insist on “biblical” perspectives in the second sense are all in error, for they have gone beyond the limits of what scripture teaches. This brings us to our final point.
Question 3: Is division always tragic?
The second conviction of Uniting Methodists is this: “Sole adherence to one’s perspective leads to tragic division.” Here again I must parse words because there are several senses in which a division may be “tragic.” “Tragic” might suggest that is senseless and there is no reason for it to happen. It would thus suggest that it did not have to happen or even that it ought not to have happened. But “tragic” might also be meant in a less pregnant sense. It might simply mean that something is heartwrenching.
Even many of those who are currently advocating for further and more formal schism would agree that the division would be tragic in that second sense. Indeed, everyone, in their better moments would agree to this. It would truly be a heartless Christian, unkissed by the tender mildness of the Holy Spirit, who would greet the sundering of fellowship with stony apathy and feel no pain of remorse. And yet many would disagree that it would be tragic in the first sense, in the sense that it does not have to happen. Some would say “It makes me sad that people are turning away from God’s will for marriage and sexuality, but if they are going to turn away then they must depart.” And others will say “Is the suffering of our queer brothers and sisters really cause for indifference? Are their lives really not worth change in the church?”
Here again we are faced with a same obscuring of disagreement with the word “tragic,” as we noted with “biblical” above. But we are also faced with an opportunity: shall Uniting Methodists give a compelling account of why division ought not to happen? In my previous post I expressed excitement that this movement had taken a stab a providing such a theological vision, since previous efforts have been rather baldly pragmatic. As we delve deeper into their statement we will see what that account amounts to and ask how it might be compelling. But for now I have written more than enough.
Charles “Austin” Rivera is an elder in the Great Plains conference and a Ph.D. student in Ancient Christianity at Yale University. You can email him at email@example.com or tweet @MarEphremsVoice.
Image: August Noack, The Marburg Colloquy 1529, depicting an important debate on the Eucharist between Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli during the Reformation.