Orthodoxy and Our Treatment of Others

In continuing the previous post, there is no doubt that Wesley was orthodox in the sense of affirming the Trinitarian faith.  The “rightness” of this doctrine is illuminated in the way it expands our understanding of God and keeps us from getting locked in our prejudices and narrow theological agendas. Likewise, Wesley affirmed the divinity and humanity of Christ. This full understanding of the nature of Christ keeps us from over-spiritualizing, on the one hand, or over-moralizing, on the other; it also has implications for the way we embrace grace and holiness, evangelism and social justice, knowledge and vital piety, among other blessed tensions within the faith – tensions which lead to wholeness.

What Wesley DID NOT like is the term “orthodoxy” itself. It would seem that too many in his day were using this term as a label to claim “right belief” over others. Too many were placing “right belief” at the core of faith.   Seeing this, Wesley says that orthodoxy or “right opinion” is “at best a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all.”  In even stronger statements, he equates those who claim to be orthodox as promoting a form of “salvation by works,” and even condemns it as the “faith of the devil.”  For Wesley, our life-giving faith grows through how we threat one another. It does not grow through our need to win or defend our version of “true faith.” In faith, God does not need defended in this way.  That stance leads to haughtiness, arrogance, divisiveness, anger, abuse, self-righteousness, and self-proclaimed faithfulness – the opposite of the life-giving witness manifested through the virtues of humility, patience, kindness, and love (a few of Wesley’s favorites as he describes true holiness).

Centering faith in “right opinion” rather than in relationship is more than misguided; it can be insidious, it can be violent; it can do great harm.  As we struggle through issues as the body of Christ, we need to be cautious about following those who are “drunk with the blood of the saints,” to use another image from Wesley.

So how might we approach someone whom we suspect believes “wrongly?” From a Wesleyan perspective, when we engage others our focus can never be on what they believe or don’t believe, or on any “externals,” as Wesley calls them, even on good works.  Our focus must be on “nothing short of ‘the mind that was in Christ,’ the image of God stamped upon the heart… attended with the peace of God and joy in the Holy Spirit.”  In other words, we focus on our heart and our desire to show pure love.  This approach opens a way for the Holy Spirit to do the work of building relationships and creating unity, not in opinion or even practice, but in love.

In this holy relationship, our hope is to see peace and joy, humility and love in the other, but what if we see no evidence of these virtues?  At this point, we look, not for some fault with them, but inward once again. We ask: Is there something in me that is blocking me from seeing these blessings in the other? Any questions about the character or actions of the other are a very distant second, if ever asked at all.  If it turns out that the blessings of peace and joy, faithfulness and fruitfulness, are not in the other, then our next response is not condemnation, judgement, or argument; our response is to actively stay engaged, show mercy, and to pray that we might be instruments that help produce these blessings. That’s the “right” way for the people called Methodists. (See “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists”). 

Oh, if only this could be our focus. If only this could be our hope for one another. If only this could be our witness in the world. Is this not worth being more than a dream?

(Up Next: Orthodoxy and the Pharisees, another word from Wesley)

Author: Michael Roberts

I am the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. I love this work! Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful children, all adults, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.min).

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