By Dr. Riley Case
Along with its many other inadequacies, theological liberalism never has had much of a doctrine of the Church. Not that there is an orthodox doctrine of the Church, but the various evangelical and catholic theologies at least hold in common that the people of God are gathered into the body of Christ which is called the Church, and distinctions are made between the saved and the lost, or between the redeemed and the unredeemed. Orthodox theologies hold in some form there is no salvation outside the Church.
But theological liberalism never has gone for ideas that emphasize redeemed as over against unredeemed, or which speak of heaven and hell, or saved and unsaved. Theological liberalism tends to deconstruct the whole idea of salvation so that it is interpreted basically as this-worldly and connected with ideas like wholeness and justice. And if the idea of salvation is deconstructed and redefined then the doctrine of the Church must be deconstructed and redefined as well.
Persons like Borden Parker Bowne (1847-1910) from Boston, who did as much as anyone to introduce modernism into Methodism scarcely spoke or wrote about such words as “redeemed” and “unredeemed.” For him the purpose of religion was to understand the nature of things (more like philosophy than theology) and to use spiritual forces to bring enlightenment and progress to the world. His battles were waged not against sin but against ignorance and superstition, and he believed that superstition was found in the Church as much as elsewhere (even among bishops). Consequently, neither Bowne nor other liberals and progressives wrote much about the Church except as an institution which was in the business of helping to bring about higher civilization and a new social order (called the Kingdom of God).
Fast forward to more recent progressive theology. Progressives today speak of the Church as being a truly inclusive community which models the kind of world God intends for all nations. In their view, the Church is not primarily about redemption but about acceptance and affirming all diversity. From this perspective the UM Church’s advertising slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” means the church does not ask embarrassing questions about whether a person has had a salvation experience, and believes the doctrines and teachings of the church, and intends to live a life consistent with the gospel. All who want to be members should be welcomed. There is no place for gatekeepers (such as pastors) in the progressive understanding of the Church. Open hearts and open minds and open doors means in the end there are no standards. Membership vows do not stand in the way because the prospective members can interpret them to mean whatever they want them to mean.
John Wesley, we submit, would not be amused. John and Charles Wesley, for sure, believed that the invitation to the gospel was for all (and in that sense is inclusive). In the seventeen-verse version of “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” (UM Hymnal, #58), a song about redemption, the altar call takes six verses. The appeal is made to the deaf, the dumb, the blind, the nations, harlots, publicans, and thieves, murderers and “all the hellish crew.” The appeal is not that persons understand they are acceptable as they are (the Wesleys invitations were addressed to “sinners’), but that they believe in the Savior and feel their sins forgiven and experience redeeming and life-changing love.
Perhaps John Wesley’s best statement on the Church is in the sermon, “Of the Church.” In this sermon he deals with Ephesians 4:1-4 and also with the statement in the Articles of Religion on the Church (which is similar to our own UM statement). The sermon is about the Church universal and Wesley is broad-minded enough to include Roman Catholics as part of the great church body.
But if Wesley is broad-minded about other denominations and groups (as in his sermon “The Catholic Spirit”), he is dogmatic about the necessity of living a redeemed life. His view of who should be members of the Church is hardly summarized by “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”
How clear is this! If the Church, as to the very essence of it, is a body of believers, no man that is not a Christian believer can be a member of it. If this whole body be animated by one spirit, and endued with one faith, and one hope of their calling; then he who has not that spirit, and faith, and hope, is no member of this body. It follows, that not only no common swearer, no Sabbath-breaker, no drunkard, no whoremonger, no thief, no liar, none that lives in any outward sin, but none that is under the power of anger or pride, no lover of the world, in a word, none that is dead to God, can be a member of his Church. (“Of the Church” #74)
It is a good thing Wesley is not a pastor today in The United Methodist Church in America. He would be considered exclusivistic, dogmatic, judgmental, and unloving. In some conferences, especially where the conference culture holds that the essence of United Methodism is inclusivism, and that a pastor is obligated to accept all persons regardless of beliefs or moral behavior, he would probably lose his pulpit (as pastor Ed Johnson did in Virginia).
To be a church member in The United Methodist Church should mean something. It has been that way historically, mainly because of a high view of the doctrine of the Church. But that view of the Church is under fire today. The General Conference of 2012 will deal with a number of petitions that would seek either to maintain a high view of the Church or to undermine it.
The Confessing Movement, for its part, stands with the Wesleys.
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