Theological diversity as a means of grace

July 19th, 2017

Theological and ethical diversity has been a characteristic of the UMC since its formation in 1968; this was also true to a lesser extent of some of its predecessor denominations. For some within the UMC, this “Big Tent” approach is a core element of the UMC’s self understanding. However, as the tensions between groups holding different theological positions have increased, the value of this diversity has been called into question. Others within the denomination argue that faithfulness to the Wesleyan heritage requires a clear commitment to a particular set of core doctrines; these doctrines define the Wesleyan identity of the UMC. These different viewpoints have been described in a recent article in Interpreter. There is, however, an alternative to both these approaches that is rooted deeply rooted in John Wesley’s theology.

In The Character of a Methodist, Wesley refused to define the distinguishing marks of Methodism theologically apart from referring to a few theological points held in common by most Protestants of his time. Rather, he argued that the identity of Methodism was constituted by the character of Methodists who had been transformed by the grace of God so that they loved God and neighbor. Methodism — as I argued in an earlier essay — is, at its core, a movement which embodies and proclaims the radical transforming grace of God which overcomes the power of sin and enables us to love God and neighbor. If this is the core of our identity as Methodists then the question becomes: How does theological and ethical diversity relate to the core?

Wesley described this. He argued that when the love of God dominated a person’s life, it gave rise to particular habitual and enduring character traits which he described as “tempers” and “affections.” Wesley provides a detailed exposition of these in his sermons on the Beatitudes; they include long-suffering, humility, temperance, gentleness, meekness, fidelity, goodness, trust, justice, benevolence, self-denial, peace-making, and sincerity. While Wesley argued that these tempers are the fruit of God’s transforming grace, he also argued that they did not grow automatically; they had to be cultivated through the use of the means of grace.

The means of grace aren't just a variety of practices we engage in — they are responses to God’s grace which God graciously uses to transform our character. After describing the transformed character of a Christian in his exposition of the Beatitudes, Wesley turns to Jesus’ image of salt and light to argue that genuine “religion” is always social religion. I have discussed the meaning of this much-debated phrase in more detail elsewhere.

In summary, what Wesley is arguing is that we can only develop loving tempers through dynamic interaction with people — Christian and non-Christian — which gives us the opportunity to concretely express love toward them. As we express love toward them, so God transforms our character, so we become more loving. Different contexts will provide new and diverse opportunities for expressing love to others. Hence the process of sanctification never ends even after a person experiences Christian perfection — there are always new opportunities and challenges that provide for new embodiments of love to God and others. These diverse opportunities for concrete interaction with others are a means of grace.

Participating in a theologically and ethically diverse community can be one way in which we can learn what it means to embody God’s love to others (what Wesley described as a catholic love) and thus our characters can be transformed. Such participation can be a means through which God transforms us so that we become more like Christ. Such transformation is not automatic. Wesley was well aware that theological disagreement often gave rise to bitterness, anger, pride, a spirit of denigration, suspicion, and other unholy tempers. Participation in a theologically diverse community can become a means of grace when approached as an opportunity to express deep love for those with whom we disagree. Such love includes the following:

  • Humility that recognizes one’s own theological and ethical views might be mistaken.
  • A willingness to learn from those with whom one disagrees.
  • A willingness to accept correction from others.
  • An approach that addresses issues and not people.
  • A commitment to thinking the best of those with whom one disagrees and to putting the best possible interpretation on their views and actions.
  • Defending the integrity, character and Christian commitment of those one disagrees with when they are attacked by others.
  • A commitment to the spiritual, physical and psychological well-being of those one disagrees with.
  • Regularly praying for those with whom one disagrees.
  • A clear stating and arguing for the position one holds to be true — not with the aim of winning the argument, but of promoting the good of the other.
  • Patience and long-suffering when others do not change their ideas and practices.

In this way, participating in a theologically and ethically diverse community can become a means for becoming more holy. Hence a theological diverse community is not a threat to the core of Methodist identity, but can become an expression of it to the extent that we actively use it as a means of growing in grace. Theological and ethical diversity is not a good in itself. It is only of value when the goal of participating in such a community is growth in love. This does not mean that all theological and ethical perspectives must be incorporated in a particular denomination — some are clear violations of the divine love revealed in Christ. Nor does it mean that we should treat theological differences as of no importance. On the contrary, it is because theological viewpoints are important that we need to expose ourselves to alternative view points and the criticism of others.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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