The Madness of Building on Sand (Another Word on Wesleyan Orthodoxy)

It is madness, says Wesley, to hold to a set of “notions” and suppose that they are “more rational or scriptural than others,” as if we can be “right” or “orthodox” in this way, and as if this were at the heart of our witness. Wesley compared this zeal for orthodoxy to building our spiritual home on sand. In fact, Wesley says it is worse than that; it is more like building on the “froth of the sea.” (See “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse 13).

Wesley rarely (I believe I could say never) used the term orthodoxy in a positive way. At the same time, it is clear that he promoted key doctrines and core beliefs. Doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation, for example, expand our understanding of God and keep us from getting locked into narrow agendas.  They enhance faith…BUT only when in service to the call to love.  When they are used to set up “us and them” categories, or to promote positions over people, or to justify division in the body of Christ, or to lay claim to “faithfulness” for ourselves, they do great harm. When used in service to ourselves and our causes, these good doctrines are placed into the service of the devil, says Wesley. They promote a Pharisaic faith, as Wesley argues elsewhere.  They inspire building on sand.  Yes, Wesley used multiple metaphors to keep us from missing the message, and yet he still might have underestimated how alluring this mode of faith can be. We are prone to such madness!

It makes me wonder why so many Methodists are enamored with the notion of orthodoxy today. What does the word “Wesleyan” refer to in the phrase “Wesleyan Orthodoxy?” Is it simply a reference to our historic roots and a way to make a connection in order to promote a new theological agenda?  I wonder, what might happen if we actually engaged Wesley and let him, as our spiritual father, guide us through our current struggles.  Would that not be our better hope for a Wesleyan revival?

If we did this, I suspect that talk of splitting or schism would not even be on our radar.  I suspect that there would be a lot less labeling. I suspect that we would put a lot less energy into creating like-minded political camps.  Instead, we would distinguish ourselves not by doctrine or code words, but by the love in our hearts and our desire to glorify, not ourselves, but the One who is saving us – even us — by much needed grace.  Our focus would be on how we might “outdo one another” in showing this love.

From a Wesleyan perspective, that’s the way to build our spiritual home on a solid foundation, one with the strength to hold us together by something more than our opinions and positions.  What if we let the Holy Spirit do this work, of bringing us together upon the solid foundation of God’s peace which passes human understanding? What if we poured our energy into growing together in the holy virtues of meekness, patience, gentleness, and compassion, to name those on Wesley’s frequent list. That possibility moves me to joyful tears.

The word “orthodox” is not the only word being used to divide, and I dare say, to do harm. Others include evangelical, justice, rights, tradition, faithfulness, truth, and even love. While I do trust that God can use even our harm to do good, I also see that Wesley wants us to pay a lot more attention to the “woes” that are pronounced upon those who do the harm, especially when the harm is justified as righteousness. I wonder if we need to be a lot more fearful about that – of God taking an anointing away.  What if our focus was on our common “solid” foundation? What might it look like if we were all more Wesleyan in this way?  And thus less mad?

Up Next: Is it time to split? (Wesley had a lot to say about it).

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!)