A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Is Exile Necessary for Scriptural Holiness?

One of my favorite Methobloggers, John Meunier, wrote a wonderful post a couple of days ago entitled, "I want to be a Methodist." Among other things he writes,

What troubles me about Kisker’s book [Mainline or Methodist?] is the same thing that troubles me when I read Wesley. To really stand where Wesley stood and do as he did, I do not see how the United Methodist Church could survive such a revival.

To preach holiness, sanctification, justification by faith, and new birth would empty our sanctuaries even more quickly than the grim reaper has been doing for 50 years.

To treat the General Rules like an actual rule of life would melt the phone lines between the homes of the congregation and the bishop’s office.

To act as if the gospel is not something we have to slip into people’s bags while they are not looking – so they take it home along with the stuff they actually came for – would offend.

I do not know how the institutional church could possibly take as its mission the original mission of the Methodist movement. Spreading scriptural holiness is much too demanding, and it is too easy to tell when we fail.
It is not surprising that John's spot on post has received much attention. But let me state that I am highly doubtful that United Methodism in its current shape, form, and worldview can capture its vitality once again as a rivival movement. It is true that Wesley's scriptural holiness is too demanding for our current bourgeois state as Mainline Methodists, but it is too demanding not only because we want and think we can actually have discipleship as easily as microwave instant mashed potatoes, but also because we have embraced a worldview that in no uncertain terms has fallen in love with the spirit of the age.

We have Methodists on the left who desire to change centuries of church teaching on doctrine and social concern in certain areas which water down the rigors of Christian discipleship all in the name of being relevant. They warn that if we do not change our views on some things we will lose the younger generations, as if the views of today's children carry a weightier authority than centuries of carefully thought-through and received tradition. Such Methodists sound less Christian and more like Democrats. But Methodists on the right do not offer a radical alternative. They too have fallen in love with the spirit of the age in their embrace of Protestant evangelicalism which also has its complicity problems. They desire to maintain certain convictions and positions that are not historic nearly as much as they are modern. Such Methodists sound less Christian and more like Republicans. Both sides embark on the unfortunate task identified years ago by Hauerwas and Willimon-- that the gospel needs to be made credible to the contemporary world instead of situating themselves, as the Bible assumes, to make the contemporary world credible to the gospel.

What is often missing, when the recovery of scriptural holiness is discussed, is the impediment of Christendom that permeates... saturates the church and Methodists on the left and on the right... otherwise they wouldn't be left or right. Now I know that John Wesley himself was up to his Anglican armpits in Christendom, but I submit that is why Methodism as a vital movement could not be sustained over the long haul. Such vital Christian movements actually kick against civil religion in some fashion, even if they do not know it nor if they intend to do so. But once established, they eventually wrestle with their identity and what it means to be the church because they have assumed Christendom is the norm and they cannot, therefore, understand what it means to be a true alternative to the world. They end up becoming the very thing they have rejected with no idea they have been so co-opted.

Scriptural holiness requires an ecclesial identity that is an alternative to left and right, conservative and progressive-- because such polar opposites are simply two sides of the same Christendom coin. There is nothing radical in taking modern conservatism and modern progressivism and simply applying a thin veneer of Christian terminology and constructing an unconvincing argument that refuses to admit, but strongly implies, that if the Old Testament prophets were here today they would be Democrats, and if Jesus were here today he would be a Republican.

If Methodism is to embody in its life and witness true scriptural holiness, it must experience exile... and perhaps that is what our "decline" truly is. How interesting it is that when the people of Israel were in exile, whether in Babylon or in their own homeland under Roman rule, questions of identity, the "Who are we?" question was front and center for them. There's currently a Methoblog load of identity questions being asked in the UMC today. Is that a coincidence? And while no one wants to lose numbers, perhaps such exile is necessary for there to emerge out the other side a faithful remnant that will be totally committed and uncompromising in spreading such scriptural holiness. But if that faithful remnant continues to embrace the presumptions of Christendom and civil religion as do Methodists both on the left and the right, it will not be able to sustain such scriptural holiness as it settles down as an institution. And the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of that remnant will be asking the very same questions we are currently asking and wondering how Methodism can become a movement of scriptural holiness once again.


Betty Newman said...

One other thought: the idea begins with if pastors actually preached as Wesley taught there would be a revolt from the congregation. From my viewpoint, when there are congregations who WANT this type of teaching, it is the DSs and the Bishops who quash the movement. "We" as a congregation have no say in what is taught to us. We can't start new churches; we can't do anything without the "pastor in charge's" consent. Oh, there will be an exhile alright. It's only a matter of when. (Anyone else besides me expect it to be 2012?) Perhaps we should (like a cartoon I saw) print the new Discipline in a loose-leaf notebook.

Unknown said...

I think the two "poles" you identify are far too simplistic. Perhaps we need to get away from dualistic thinking and an "us/them" mentality to truly reclaim what is good and eternal that characterized early Methodism?

Allan R. Bevere said...

Betty, this problem is indeed an issue for all of us.

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi, Matt:

I disagree that the two "poles" are simplistically drawn. While I do not go into detail about them in this post, I have elsewhere and so have more than a few others. James Hunter's book, To Change the World is one of the best treatments and goes into great detail on them.

I would also say that only those who embrace the presumptions of Christendom can conclude that I am suggesting an us/them mentality. Indeed, it's just the opposite: the perspective I am suggesting argues that the church is not against the world, but for it... and it can only be for it if it understands that it is an alternative to it. For only the church's alternative witness can show the world what God wants for it.

If you want to really see an us/them mentality just listen to Christians who have are on the left or the right. Just think how Christians on the left and right and have chosen up sides and what they are accusing the other side of in reference to the situation in Wisconsin. The "poles" I am opposing encourages an us/them mentality.

By the way, I am enjoying your series on your experiences in Israel.

Mirche Tanchev said...

Thanks for the great topic. If biblical Exile is Necessary for Scriptural Holiness, what kind of Exile are we (or was John Wesley) preaching?

What kind of Exile is ap. Paul calling the Corinthians to, when he is calling for »a recompense of the same kind«? (2. Cor. 6, 13-18!)

If it was not enough for the Prophet Moses to call only attention to himself, then what is to be done to inspire or urge someone like the Pharaoh to let God's people go, that they may obey the only true God?

Our Lord JESUS Christ is speaking ones about the key of the knowledge saying: »Wo to you, the lawyers, because ye took away the key of the knowledge; yourselves ye did not enter; and those coming in, ye did hinder.« (Luk. 11, 52) I think John Wesley knows how to use this key and indeed if we treat the General Rules like an actual rule of life, it would melt the phone lines between the homes of the congregation and the bishop’s office!

Unknown said...

Good stuff Allan! Never thought about this time as exile. hmmm...

I do like your take on the two sides of Christianity/Methodism. Wesley was not an either/or kind of guy. He was more about both/and. He was content to wrestle with issues and allow the tension to keeping us from going to far one way or the other. I think that the two sides may only represent a minority in United Methodism, albeit a vocal minority.

Those of us in the middle need to claim our identity as evangelical, socially conscious, believers in the power of Jesus Christ to redeem the world in all of its failings. After nearly 20 years as a pastor I still cling to my idealistic dream/vision that this can happen.

John Meunier said...

Thanks for the link and the engagement with the issue, Allan.

I think Wesley struggled with the "exilic" implications of scriptural holiness as well. You can see him writing and exhorting throughout his ministry to uproot cultural notions. I was just reading this morning his sermon "The Single Eye" in which he was trying to convince Methodist parents that it is better to marry off your children to a poor but Christian man than a rich heathen.

Your point about his Anglicanism is well taken and you see how it played out in America during the Revolution.