The United Methodist Church is going to split. No one knows the exact contours of the split, but everyone seems confident that it is coming. There is a gulf between traditionalists and progressives in the UMC regarding same-sex marriage, and that gulf is widening: several Methodist bishops have performed same-sex weddings, defying official UMC teaching; and Karen Oliveto was elected as the first Methodist bishop in a same-sex relationship. At the root of these divisions is the fact that the UMC has always been made up of believers with distinctly different theological trajectories. The UMC was formed as an experiment in “big tent” theological pluralism, eventually guided by the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral” formulated by Methodist scholar Albert Outler: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Over the years, much of the Wesleyan tradition that guided the early Methodists has been lost; the future of United Methodism depends upon recovering Wesleyan catholicity.
The division in the UMC over sexuality was the immediate occasion for the recent Next Methodism Summit. Last month, over sixty Wesleyan scholars met in Alexandria, Virginia, to discuss how to recover the Wesleyan tradition and shape the Methodist future. Under the direction of Ryan Danker and the John Wesley Institute, the attendees crafted a theological statement entitled “The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness.”
The statement “The Faith Once Delivered” upholds Wesleyan distinctives. It focuses on the image of God and how holiness is essential to its restoration. For John Wesley, to be holy means to have the mind of Christ, as expressed in and through the plan of God found in Scripture. It is “scriptural” holiness. Through this holiness the Christian can rightly order his loves; rightly ordered affections require the right order found in the natural law and in God’s story, expressed in the person and work of Christ and set forth in the Scriptures. Sanctification and growth in the Christian life is about ordering all interior movements toward God and neighbor by integrating God's moral law into the conscience. Genuine freedom is freedom ordered toward the truth about God and creation.
There can be no separation between scriptural holiness and love in the Christian life. Over time, however, holiness and love have begun to separate in United Methodism, which helps explain the increasing divisions over same-sex marriage; in the UMC, love has increasingly come to mean merely openness and acceptance, rather than rightly ordered affections shaped and guided by God's moral order. In the UMC, the Wesleyan framework for thinking about love and holiness eventually buckled under the weight of the new morality of situational ethics, a form of utilitarian consequentialism.
Joseph Fletcher, the father of situational ethics, argued that justice is love distributed and that love justifies the means. According to this theory, love never sets forth laws, but examines each situation and asks what is the most loving consequence. This approach to ethics entered the UMC through the Methodist ethicist Walter G. Muelder. It hovers behind recent Methodist slogans such as “open hearts, open minds, open doors.” Its long shadow looms over the UMC Council of Bishops’ recent statement on how the UMC can remain unified. The statement declares that love is the paramount attribute of the church, but disregards the holiness so crucial to early Methodism.
The liturgical declaration of the trisagion (“holy, holy, holy”) points toward holiness as the sum total of divine perfection, the fullness of God’s own life in which nothing is lacking. When Jesus proclaims “Be perfect for your Father in heaven is perfect,” he refers to the perfect order and beauty that defines God’s holiness. Expressed in both the natural law and the written law of Scripture, the divine moral law defines the parameters of holiness. Poured out by the Spirit, love moves toward holiness through the power of grace at work in the Christian life.
In the Scriptures, to ascribe glory to the Lord is to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness (Ps. 29:2) without which no one will see God (Heb. 12:14). By faith one first peers into the portals of glory, and love realizes the holiness that makes such a journey into glory possible. The pursuit of this “love divine, all loves excelling” transforms the believer from glory to glory.
The UMC was formed as an ecumenical experiment in pluralism, but its foundational documents anchored unity in the Wesleyan tradition. Unfortunately, as this Wesleyan catholicity decayed—particularly the notion of holiness—the UMC has become more divided. As discussed at the conference, the way forward for Methodism is to return to the early Wesleyan fusion of holiness and love and recover Wesleyan catholicity. As UMC Bishop Scott Jones noted in the final session of the conference, Methodism will thrive to the extent that it is faithful to its original calling. The hope of those who attended the conference is that “The Faith Once Delivered” (which will be published at the end of March) will guide the next stage of Methodism in recovering that calling.
Dale M. Coulter is professor of historical theology at Pentecostal Theological Seminary.
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