By Rowland S. Buck
Do United Methodists believe that orthodoxy is optional? Is it a core value of ours, in spite of our clearly defined doctrinal standards, that it is okay to believe whatever you want or need to believe about the Bible, God, and living out the Christian faith?
I think with annual conferences in open schism against our Discipline, and our last General Conference brought to a standstill, and the constant debate about human sexuality, and the Council of Bishops endorsing the “One Church Plan,” we would have to say, at the very least, that we are willing to consider “multiple orthodoxies” as a viable alternative for moving forward. But is that really a path to unity?
Ephesians 4 speaks to the unity of the church that is found in Christ:
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 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. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:1-6 (NRSV)
Paul calls us to “make every effort maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We are to make this effort because the reality we experience since Christ is Lord is unity: there is one church (the Church that names Christ as Lord); there is one faith (the faith that believes Christ is Lord); there is one Spirit (the Spirit of the Lord Jesus). We maintain the unity of the Spirit by clinging to the reality of Jesus and the oneness He brings. This unity comes to us on His terms – He calls each of us to a singular hope in one God. So there are not multiple ways or standards to be in relationship to God – there is one, Christ. This is made clear later in the chapter:
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. Ephesians 4:11-13
Notice that the leadership God provides through the gifts Jesus gives is for equipping the saints for the work of ministry. The equipping of the saints and their subsequent work of ministry builds up the body of Christ for the end that we all share the same faith and knowledge. How do you measure that unity and knowledge? When is one mature? When the stature or the standard of Christ is met. In other words, the unity in which we participate is each of us measuring up to Christ as we are equipped and participate in ministry. Without Christ, there is no unity.
We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ… Ephesians 4:14-15
To participate in the unity of Christ, we must achieve a level of maturity that is rooted in truth, which is why the Church has doctrine in the first place. We do not come to Jesus on our own terms picking and choosing what we want to believe; or worse yet, choosing any new notion that might come along. We come to Jesus on His terms as expressed in the apostolic teaching of the church down through the ages. Believing and speaking the truth in love is how we grow up in every way into Christ. And as we grow up into Christ, we are unified by the Spirit of Christ.
The current crisis of the United Methodist Church is a crisis of faith in the orthodox doctrine of the church, a doctrine that has long helped us come to know Christ and grow into His likeness. We must reclaim the core doctrines of our church that define our faith and learn once again to speak the truth in love. The pain our denomination is experiencing is a failure to lovingly speak the truth of our faith, holding each other accountable to that truth so that we would each be equipped and grow to the measure of Christ. This is the process that leads to entire sanctification as we are filled with the Holy Spirit.
John Wesley felt that the people called Methodists were raised up to propagate the doctrine of entire sanctification. The beauty of the Wesleyan revival is the organizational genius of Wesley to gather people in societies and classes and bands to give structure to promote the work of grace in the lives of the Methodists. This common pursuit of holiness fueled the fires of the Methodist Revival up to the turn of the 20th century.
What would it look like if we recaptured this pursuit of holiness? What if we began to meet to hold each other accountable to God’s work in us? What if we used our gifts to assure each other of the power of the transforming power of Jesus Christ—that no sin is beyond forgiveness, no habit beyond the power of transformation, no life beyond reclamation. What if we didn’t settle for a redefinition of sin, but an unyielding dependence on God to deliver us from it?
I think the crisis of the United Methodist Church in the present moment is also a great opportunity for us to reclaim our orthodox and Wesleyan heritage and chart a new course into the future “to spread Scriptural holiness across the land.”
Rowland S. Buck is an ordained elder in the Scenic South District and an acting director of the Holston WCA.