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)

Negative Orthodoxy (A Word from Wesley)

The word “orthodox” is very popular right now among many Wesleyan Christians.  I have used this word myself in trying to illuminate the importance of both the divinity and humanity of Christ, and how being  over focused on one leads to a less than whole understanding of faith. The same can be said for the Trinity and how this grand understanding of God keeps us from defining what is “right” through the lens of more narrow agendas. I give thanks for the living tradition that has passed these orthodox doctrines down to us.

In some circles, however, the word ‘Orthodox” is used in a different way.  It is used as a label with an accompanied call to define and defend “right belief.” Seeing this development, I felt led to refresh my understanding of what John Wesley had to say on the topic. It is challenging, even shocking.  Ultimately, I believe it is inspiring to all who aspire to a more holistic faith.

In one instance, Wesley speaks of the “orthodox in opinions” who have “zeal for the constitution in Church and state.”  One might think that he is preparing to commend this zeal. Instead, Wesley calls this approach “a poor account of religion,” and even goes so far as to call it the “faith of the devil.”  This is strong stuff, and it is not isolated rhetoric. This theme is repeated often.  Wesley calls orthodoxy “an idol more dangerous than all the rest, a snare in which many have fallen.” For him, true faith is found in how we relate to one another — in “right tempers” and “holy virtues” more than “right opinions.”  Anytime we placed position over people we stray from faithfulness.

In another place, Wesley categorizes zeal for orthodoxy into the “negative branch” of forms of holiness.  Some with this zeal for orthodox may believe that they are doing good, but might find, at the great judgment, that “the love of God was not in them” and that their zeal had tempted them into a form of “salvation by works.” (When does our zeal for orthodoxy becomes a form of works-righteousness?)

Wesley warning is so strong.  It is possible for us to become, in our zeal for our opinions and positions, “miserable corrupters of the gospel of Christ” who “spread abroad” poison. That’s what happens when we start believing that it is our job to defend God rather than witness to God’s love for all and use the resources of faith to examine our own hearts rather than judge others. (Among many others, see the sermon: True Christianity)

 To be fair, Wesley would affirm doctrines and creeds as resources for much needed self-examination and for proclaiming the full faith, but to use these resources to create division or to center faith in “right belief” with a call to defend, is anti-Christ. He said this repeatedly so as to make sure the church doesn’t miss it, and yet, perhaps he underestimated how blinding our need to be “right” and to “win” over others can be.  Since Wesley rarely, if ever, used the term Orthodoxy in a positive way, it seems that this would be worthy of reflection for Wesleyans wanting to embrace this term.  I’m not sure one can claim to be both, except in a very soft way.

 (Tomorrow I will explore Wesley’s critique of the Orthodox and his “non-orthodox” word about how we are to treat others. It is so challenging!)

Crossroads or Crosspoint?


Is the United Methodist Church at a crossroads? This image is used often when people believe that a key decision or new direction is needed.  By making this claim a sense of urgency is cultivated.  An opportunity to take a stand is given.

This way of framing an issues has some merits, but some dangers as well. This paradigm leads to the creation of an either/or dichotomy between limited options instead of building relationships and looking for new solutions.  It naturally creates division and sometimes even values it. It can lead to the vilification of those on the other side.

With these concerns, I stand at this so-called crossroads and clearly see a temptation to a deep unfaithfulness. I find myself hoping, even praying, that there are many who may have strong affinities with one side or the other (on the issue at hand) are still hesitant to turn their backs on sisters and brothers who have a different view.  At this place, I stand with many (I hope) who wholeheartedly want to conference with one another in a way that glorifies God, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:1-3).

Perhaps an important step towards faithfulness and fruitfulness is to reflect on the crossroads paradigm itself.  The way we perceive the problem determines the range of possible solutions.  To put it another way, there is a direct connection between the diagnosis and the possible prescription.  If the prescription has too many negative side effects, then re-evaluation of the diagnosis is in order.

So what might be another option? WHAT IF we saw ourselves at a CROSSPOINT rather than a crossroads? At this crosspoint, the questions become: What is at the core or the center? What connects us, with all our honored diversity, together into one faith and one love? What light reflects outwards touching all sides?  Like the hub of a wheel connected to its power source, perhaps the Holy Spirit connects most fully when we are at the core or crosspoint, where we are willing to let our actions flow from the will of God.  At this place, we might begin to see that being connected in Christ is more than a matter of practicality; it is a core calling of our faith.

John Wesley (who will be at the center of many posts in this upcoming series) did not use the image of crossroads or crosspoint, but he did speak often of taking up our cross and bearing it daily.  Wesley says that we often find a cross in our way, offering a choice that is not “joyous but grievous.”  What do we do with this choice? We can either take up this cross and live in the cross, or turn aside from the way of God. That’s the choice. To live in and by the cross is to bear the virtues of humility, patience, and resignation, as Wesley says.  By the cross, we give ourselves to complete truth in God without pitting ourselves against one another and trying only to “win.” If we don’t engage in this daily discipline, our love will “wax cold” and the bond of peace “will no longer rule in our hearts.” (See the Sermon, “Self-Denial”)

So, in this light, I trust that God will honor the discernment of all willing to take a deep breath, open our hearts and minds, and then sit down together at the place that might be transformed from a crossroads to a crosspoint, a true center and life-giving witness.  The answers to true faithfulness and fruitfulness might be in connecting here more than in turning our backs on each other or drawing hard lines that force us into divorce.  Oh may we have the spiritual courage to engage with one another in a different way!