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WESLEYAN WISDOM: Is the nature of belief exclusive or inclusive? Donald W. Haynes, May 25, 2012
In the last column, I noted that the portal into any new “people group” is belonging. So many clergy tell me the nightmare of itineracy is that when their kids arrive in a new church, school and community, other Christian youth shun them as newcomers. Meanwhile, the peers who reach out to them are often those who are hooked on drugs. So instead of “Come, walk your Christian journey with us,” the preachers’ kids hear “Come, smoke a joint with us.”
When we were moved the summer one of our daughters finished the 10th grade, the girls in the United Methodist Youth group at our new and large church ostracized her and said, “If you take one of our boyfriends, you are dead.” They were not threatening physical murder; they were announcing that the door of belonging was shut. When school started, she had to find and form new friendships outside the youth of our church!
So many people experience this when they visit our churches—a nod, a smile, but no personal introduction and certainly no invitation, “Let’s do lunch.”
The church I now serve was founded in a rural community in 1884 and has always had strong, affluent “landed gentry” membership; but in 2010, the congregation began to receive the first new members in its history who were “not from around here.” This morning as I sat with a new member who moved to our community in North Carolina from western Maryland, I asked him how difficult the transition had been. His answer was, “Much easier because of the way we were accepted and welcomed at the church.” When he took his mother-in-law home after day surgery, one of the church members, Janie, brought an evening meal. At this church, belonging is the overriding priority.
However, as important as the priority of belonging is, we must ask with Wesley, “What shall we do with our Bible?” Shred it with academic criticism, worship it with bibliolatry, or study and adopt it as the stabilizer of our faith?
Len Sweet, who has taught me so much, distinguishes between “belief” and “faith.” One of his many wise statements is, “God did not send Jesus to deliver a proposition; God sent Jesus to deliver an invitation—‘Follow me.’” To those who did follow, Jesus did not give them a list of required beliefs. Indeed, in Jesus’ time, seekers after truth often sought a teacher who would indoctrinate them in his way of thinking. However, Jesus flipped that around when he said, “You did not choose me; I chose you.” No, this is not a proof text for Calvinism! Jesus did not say, “Follow this teaching, this liturgy, or this church structure.” Rather, he said, “Follow me.”
Jesus then said, “Learn of me,” and when he gave this commandment he was not speaking of law and doctrine but a relationship: “Love God and love your neighbor.” In Hebrew and Greek traditions the teacher imparted a teaching, and in Roman tradition the teacher enforced a law. Jesus offered himself. Thank you, Leonard Sweet, for these profoundly wise insights.
In his book What Matters Most: How We Got the Point but Missed the Person , Dr. Sweet notes that when Jesus offered his disciples the “secret of the kingdom of God,” it was a rational principle, not a system of doctrine or spiritual laws. “Learn of me,” Jesus said, “for I am gentle and lowly in heart; and you will find rest for your souls because my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) Then our goal will not be for material accumulation or career success or a “biblical marriage,” but for a cross to bear and the blessed assurance that whatever the agenda of life, God is with us, gracing us. Yes, let’s make “grace” a verb! When we are forgiven, we have been graced by God with a love that never, never lets us go.
The book of Genesis states clearly that we are made in God’s image (1:27), but our age-old temptation is to make God in our image. Therefore, much belief portrays God as a judge who sentences us in accordance with our disobedience and God’s justice. In most theological systems, God’s sense of justice trumps God’s heart of love.
Father John Powell, in his 1967 book Why Am I Afraid to Love?, wrote that “there is no human being who will not eventually respond to love if only he [or she] can realize that he [or she] is loved. On the other hand, if the life and world of a person is marked by the absence of love, the reality of God’s love will hardly evoke the response of his whole heart, soul and mind.” John the Elder wrote, “This is how we know love: Jesus laid down his life for us. . . . Let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God.”
Really? Then what happens to the codification of creeds and the hairsplitting nuances of doctrinal statements? Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to “love God and love neighbor,” but love is really not a commandment in the sense of “Thou shalt/Thou shalt not.” Love is a relationship. Again it is Len Sweet who helped me with this little diagram: God’s love → restoring grace → responsive faith → way of salvation (faith journey).
The word verlieben in German means “to love,” and sich verlieben means “to fall in love with.” Dr. Sweet notes that almost everywhere in the Torah we find the word “belief,” it means “trust.” Believing means trusting. Wesley struggled with what happens when we have doubts about our experience of God. He realized that experience can be affected (and infected) by moods, grief, anger, fear and doubt. Therefore, Wesley loved the term “trusting confidence.” In English, “right relationship” is a more accurate term than “right belief.”
Jesus said that devils believe. So if belief is intellectual assent, the devil is a believer! But if belief is a trusting confidence—not in our feelings, but in God’s love—then we are talking about a relationship, and the devil does not have a redemptive relationship with God. Both in literature and in many of our churches, we know people who hold all the “right beliefs,” but if you cross them you will get run through the sausage grinder!
Believing is not so much propositional as relational. That is why Jesus could bring into saving relationship Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, the Gerasene demoniac and the thief on the cross. None was given a list of beliefs to sign, but Jesus established a redemptive relationship with all of them. Relationships build bridges; resolutions and rigid righteousness burn bridges. Everyone we know has a hunger for healing. Will we be the healer or the inquisitor?
The former pastor of the church I serve did not “believe” in living together before marriage. That is a codified, rigid, doctrinal definition of sin, and for me it is not an option. To him belief meant excluding those who did not agree with his conscience; to me belief means “being in love.” How will the congregation be motivated to walk by faith if, as a preacher of the Word of God, I make God in my image? My highest priority is a relationships—the start of a journey for both pastor and parishioner in which the direction and destination are known only to God. Therefore I do marry people who are living together, because I want a relationship. I can teach them nothing and have no influence if I draw a circle and keep them out; I can sojourn with them on a pilgrim journey if I enlarge my circle and include them in.
The Achilles’ heel of the Protestant Reformation was that the new wine of being saved by grace through faith was poured into the old wineskins of codified doctrines. This led immediately to ecclesiastical splits. We “went rational” instead of going relational. In Romans 6:4 Paul says that through Christ we can “walk in newness of life.” Look at the word “walk”; it is not a word that connotes stagnation or cogitation, but journeying. Look at the word “newness”; every turn in our life journey is new—let’s walk it with Jesus! Look at the word “life”; It obviously is the opposite of death. A living body is constantly shedding dead cells and creating new ones. So is a living soul!
The major break between Wesley and the Moravians was that he would not surrender his Anglican insistence on “holy living.” A colleague said to me recently of a growing church, “Their only message is, ‘get saved.’” To do that the pastor asks seekers some cognitive questions about rational beliefs. If their answers are “yes, yes, and yes,” he takes their hand and says, “Now, sister, you are a Christian. Let’s schedule your baptism (or re-baptism) by immersion.” In contrast Wesley said, “Go to a class meeting.” That is, “Get into a relational group where the members are by God’s grace ‘walking in newness of life’ and celebrating being loved by our heavenly Father.”
If belief means a doctrinal statement or code or creed, we will be “cabining, cribbing, and confining” the love of God whose character and name is love! We will build boxes. If belief means being in love, then through our relationship with this God whose character and name is love, we will be changed. Indeed, we will be transformed.
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.