Choosing the Only Option: A Radical Inclusiveness

Reading Farris Blount’s essay was a sobering and soul-stirring experience. I am especially grateful to Farris for sharing his heart, in describing the inherent pain and frustration associated too often with being a black Christian.

I was born and raised in the southern states and consequently encountered racism and bigotry very early on in my life. I remember, for example, one occasion when our family drove from our home town (Baton Rouge) to New Orleans to spend time on the beach and at the amusement park. After several hours of rides and cotton candy and hot dogs, I realized that I needed to make my way to the nearest rest room just as quickly as I could. It was then that I witnessed what must have been all around me for years but which I suddenly saw and felt for the first time: signs that read “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored.” Only moments later I noticed two different water fountains: “Whites” and “Colored.” As a white kid who simply hadn’t paid much attention to my surroundings (I suppose I was six or seven years old at the time), my eyes were suddenly opened to a phenomenon that seemed to me at the time to be so very, very wrong. I asked myself, “Why?” I later asked my parents why there would be a separate rest room and a separate faucet for people with black skins. I certainly didn’t have an answer, and my parents’ answer was, as I recall, not very satisfying.

Segregation was a way of life in the small community where I grew up (about ten miles north of Baton Rouge). I don’t remember seeing one black student in the four years that I attended high school there, although I was very much aware that there were many African American families in our area. In fact, I had no idea where they attended school. When I was about fourteen years old, I remember Mom and Dad and I were coming home from a school activity one evening when I saw what I had never witnessed before—a large cross burning in the front yard of a family that lived only two blocks from our home. It frightened me and my mother, and I remember it angered my Dad; he was really upset. On inquiring what was going on, I learned that a black woman had worked for several years for a white family on that street. She and her husband had become very close friends with the white family and had become social acquaintances whose family members had begun to spend a great deal of time together. The Klan had simply let it be known that such was unacceptable in our community. The whole experience both scared and sickened me.

Mom and Dad were both raised in the Baton Rouge area, and both of them had been brought up by parents who were in so many ways wonderful, caring people, loving neighbors and contributing citizens, but whose negative attitudes and speech toward blacks bespoke an ingrained racism that had persisted through many generations. In looking back, I realize that my folks were much less prone to speak or act in racist or prejudicial ways than their parents had been. Somehow I concluded as a teenager that I would do everything in my power to escape speech, attitudes, and behavior that are not just un-Christian but anti-Christian in every way, so foreign to all that Jesus had taught and embodied.

By the time I was about seventeen years old (1963), racial tensions in our area were hot and heavy. I remember sitting in a meeting held after our main worship service composed of the men and boys in our congregation. The man conducting the meeting reminded us of the racial tension in the air and asked a most unusual question: “What do we do if some black men or women try to attend church in our building?” There was a long and very uncomfortable pause while those in attendance did some pondering on the matter (I have no idea why it took so long for someone to reply to the question). Thank heavens, one of the men, a middle-aged gentleman, responded simply: “Well, we welcome them in, don’t we? Isn’t that what Jesus would do?” I was so grateful to observe that most of the men there nodded in agreement, while I could see and sense that a few were uncomfortable with the idea.

The issue of race and religion has not been an easy one to deal with for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beginning in the 19th century, Brigham Young, second president of the Church, announced that from that time forward the priesthood (the authority to act in the name of God) would no longer be conferred on black members of the Church. Sadly, since it was the 1800’s there was not a great deal of negative reaction to that announcement on the part of Latter-day Saints, given that racist sentiments and actions were rife throughout the nation, particularly in the south. The members of our Church carried that onerous burden for a century and a half, until in June of 1978 the restriction of who could and who could not hold the priesthood was removed by the presidency of our Church.

In recent years, Church leaders have met with and sought to build stronger bridges between leaders of the NAACP and our Church. Russell M. Nelson, 17th President of the Church, stated at the October 2020 general conference: “Each of us has a divine potential because each is a child of God. Each is equal in His eyes. The implications of this truth are profound. Brothers and sisters, please listen carefully to what I am about to say. God does not love one race more than another. His doctrine on this matter is clear. He invites all to come unto Him, ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 26:33). I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and His commandments and not the color of your skin. I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice. Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”

In an essay written to address the Church’s current position on race, we read the following: “The structure and organization of the Church encourage racial integration. Latter-day Saints attend church services according to the geographical boundaries of their local ward, or congregation. By definition, this means that the racial, economic, and demographic composition of Latter-day Saint congregations generally mirrors that of the wider local community. . . . Church members of different races and ethnicities regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations. Such practices make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a thoroughly integrated faith. . . .

“Since [1978], the Church has looked to the future, as membership among Africans and others of African descent has continue to grow rapidly. While Church records for individual members do not indicate an individual’s race or ethnicity, the number of Church members of African descent is now in the hundreds of thousands.”

Many years ago, I read a book by Philip Yancey entitled The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan, 1995). As one who had taught university-level courses in New Testament for about twenty years at that point in time, reading the book was for me a transformative experience, one in which I came to see and understand Jesus of Nazareth in a more profound way. If I may paraphrase something that Yancey wrote, he asked: “What was it about Jesus that drew people to him, especially those on the outskirts and the margins of society—the shepherds, the publicans, the prostitutes, the ‘sinners,’ in general, the disenfranchised? And then he posed the following question, one that sent chills down my spine: “And why is it that those same kinds of people too often feel uncomfortable among us?” Yancey explained that he feared that as a Christian community we had created “a society of respectability,” one that is not as welcoming and loving as the circle that surrounded our Lord.

As Farris Blount stated: “I do not believe we can avoid the fact the Jesus was a social revolutionary if we look at the scriptures and His engagement in His world.” In that spirit, I have a strong desire to be a part of a counterculture that manifests the depth of the love, acceptance, and inclusion of the only perfect Person to ever walk the earth. And if I truly want to one day be where He is I must actively search for occasions to be as He was and act as He did toward all.

What Would it Take for Lutherans to Become Better Partners with the Black Church?

     Serving the Black church for three decades in its largest accredited seminary in the States, I’ve been asking this question of friends, colleagues, and students quite frequently.  And so on the basis of his thoughtful presentation, I now turn to Farris Blount to get his read on what the Lutheran tradition needs to do to become a better colleague for the African-American community in following Jesus and working for freedom and justice.  Of course my friends in the too-small segments of African-American Lutheranism largely do not think we need to abandon our core theological commitments, that what is needed is for the Church as a whole to become better Lutherans, to become more engaged with the Black community, and to get the word out among members and the public of Luther’s indebtedness to Augustine and other segments of African Christianity (Albert Pero and Ambrose Moyo, eds.,  Theology and the Black Experience; A. Trevor Sutton, “The Reformation’s African Roots,” Oct. 31, 2019, at www.thegospelcoaltion./org/article/reformation-african-roots/).  But since that is obviously what this son of Norwegian immigrants is only too happy to hear, I wanted to learn if from a different segment of the African-American church, Rev. Blount might see some things in Lutheranism that need to be reformed in order for its members to be helpful partners with the Black church.  A couple of these points I have previously raised with Rev. Blount in private correspondence, but perhaps it is useful to make these points more public here for the sake of our overall dialogue.   

     Of course justification by grace and freedom from the Law entailing the spontaneity of good works are the core commitments for Lutheranism (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IV.2-3; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.333-377).  I note that those themes were not noted in your comments on the Black way to follow Jesus, Rev. Blount.  Was that deliberate, or would you agree with Albert Raboteau’s characterization of early Black spirituality (at least through the 19th century) as freedom-loving to the point of objecting to preaching which is devoted to morality (Canaan Land, p.66)?  Or is your filure to mention these themes the result of a concern that too much emphasis on freedom from the Law leads to a faith only concerned about personal salvation?  Clearly sometimes in history, Lutherans have (erroneously) interpreted their heritage in that way.  But my concern on the other side is that teaching morality can readily lead to further oppression or feelings that your value is determined only by what you produce for the master.  (I like to think that the Lutheran sense of the spontaneity of good works when you are wrapped up in worship and in the stories of Jesus and the Bible is not unlike the spontaneity of response that happens in Black church worship.)  Or are those concerns and Raboteau’s analysis not relevant for the Black church today?       

     Another commitment that is precious to Lutherans who know their heritage is an appreciation that that Bible is not the sole legitimate source for the politics of freedom, that social policies need to be formulated through the use of reason and the natural law (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XV).  Such an approach allows for cooperation across religious lines like the Jewish-Christian congregational dialogue described  in the paper.  Yet I note no reference to these themes in the paper, but rather to a Christocentrism, with hints that perhaps only the Bible can give us insight about seeking justice.  In interests of justice and partnership with the Black church, should Lutherans side with this Christocentrism?  Is such a social ethic taking guidance from reason and the natural law deficient in our quest for a just society?   Am I reading Dr. King incorrectly when at several points in his career he seems to have endorsed an appeal to the natural law as a norm for the movement’s quest for justice (“Letter From a Birmingham Jail”), and Lutherans need to get over this hang-up? 

     Two or three other items characteristic of Lutheranism were not noted in the paper, and I wonder if this is a sign that they are    better de-emphasized in interests of Black-church-Lutheran cooperation.  Rev. Blount’s paper did not elaborate on the kind of economic justice we need in society and did not address how worship and the Sacraments facilitate following Jesus.  Both in European Lutherans  and the non-Americanized segments of Lutheranism in America Lutherans have a definite bias against capitalism (The Large Catechism, I.7; Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.159-194).  Is that not a commitment where Black church-Lutheran concerns overlap, or are the economic preferences of DuBois and Ransom no longer relevant for the Black church today?  As for Sacramental liturgical worship, are these Lutheran commitments better de-emphasized in favor of more Pietist styles?  Of course, I would want to point out how these emphases characterize the ancient African churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, to remind ourselves that liturgical worship is itself rooted in early North African Christianity (The Didache).  But is such Afri-centrism not as useful in ecumenical dialogue with the Black church as a sensitivity to the call-  response piety of many in the Black church?   

     One last point of contact between the Black church and large segments of Lutheranism is worth noting, because I fear that this is a characteristic which could divide us, and so I come seeking advice regarding how to avoid making this similarity a problem.  We are both largely ethnic churches.  American Lutherans with German and Scandinavian roots largely still (though less and less) identify with the cultures of the motherland.  It is this feature of the Black church that makes this Norwegian American feel so at home in the Black church.  The Black church historically has had such a wonderful way of maintaining these ethnic and cultural features while always welcoming white worshippers.  German and Scandinavian Lutheran congregations would profit from Black church advice regarding how we could celebrate these cultural links (too many of us have just submitted to a white version of “Americanization”) and still send the message of welcome to our sisters and brothers with ethnic roots to the South and Far East of us.  If Lutherans could learn to act on that advice from Black church quarters, we’d be a lot better partners.   

     Of course the Black church seems to have an advantage in celebrating its members’ ethnicity without that ethnicity becoming oppressive insofar as to celebrate Black culture in America is counter-cultural.  But Lutheranism’s character as an ethnic/immigrant church has made it counter-cultural in America too at least to some extent.  I wonder if the counter-culturalism of Luther’s Theology of the Cross, the awareness that faith goes against ordinary socio-cultural and philosophical expectations (The Heidelberg Disputation), could help Lutherans get a little less “white American” and more counter-cultural in the way the Black church has in nudging America away from all its unjust “isms.”  Are there other ways in which the Lutheran church in this country could join the Black church in counter-cultural protest to follow Jesus and seek justice?                                     

Black Christianity Has Saved the Credibility of the US Church

As I ponder Farris Blount’s thoughtful, fair-minded reflections, I respond as a repentant white Baptist of the South. I recall that when I wandered into that Southern Baptist congregation in summer 1978, and that William & Mary Baptist Student Union in 1980, and into Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1984 and again as a professor in 1993, and into the faculty of McAfee School of Theology in 2007, no one ever said this:

“You should know that the denomination which you are joining was founded in 1845 in a fight among white Baptists over whether enslaving another race of people was compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Southern Baptists voted yes, and the split with Northern Baptists and Black Baptists of the South was never repaired.”

Nor did they say: “Slaveholders played a key role in forming Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and many of the Baptist colleges and congregations of the South. Profits wrung from the labor of enslaved people built much of the South’s religious life.”

Nor did they say: “Southern Baptist congregations were segregated for generations, our people fully involved in every stage of American racism. We struggled mightily to accept federally mandate civil rights legislation, and for that matter, to get to the point of welcoming Black sisters and brothers in Christ into membership of our churches.”

Nor did they say: “When ‘fundamentalist-conservatives’ and ‘moderates’ in the Southern Baptist Convention split in the 1980s and early 1990s, the SBC’s history of supporting slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation was not the focus of the dispute and therefore did not fundamentally shape the ethos of the new post-SBC Baptist schools and agencies.”

Nor did they say this more radical thing which I believe now with all my heart: “Slaveholder- and slavery-complicit white Christianity was theologically and morally corrupted because it was necessary for white folks to concoct a version of Christianity that could bless systemic social evil while also enabling evildoers and bystanders to feel good about their supposed personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

In the light of all of the above, I would describe the resistant, prophetic, justice-demanding versions of Black Christianity to be among the few longstanding expressions of Jesus-religion in this country that retained any moral credibility. I try to study closely this resistant version of Black Christianity, and I see it in figures as diverse as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Howard Thurman, James Cone, Martin Luther King., Jr, Lisa Sharon Harper, Emilie Townes, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, William Barber, and scores of others. I see it even in more Christianity-ambivalent thinkers like James Baldwin, whose writings I find absolutely compelling.

I concede the existence of more otherworldly and privatistic versions of Black Christianity. I certainly do not believe any white Christian is in much of a position to critique them. Perhaps it was inevitable that over 400 years of systemic oppression in this country, some African Americans would develop versions of Christianity that turned private and otherworldly. After all, when you can do little to control what others do to you, maybe you focus on what you can do for yourself and what God will do for you now and in the life to come.

I would like to thank God for faithful Black Christians who have kept alive authentic Jesus-following in times and places when that was very hard to come by. I will always seek to learn from you.

Methodism and the Liberative Heart of a God Who is Love

If Pietists and Pentecostals are like cousins, then certainly Pentecostals and Methodists are even closer in family formation. After all, it was the revivalist Wesleyan movement, blended with a dose of Moravian Pietism, that gave birth to Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal forms of Christian faith and practice.  In the United States by the early 20th century, Methodism’s political influence and spiritual imprint were so prominent that some wags spoke of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the largest expression of American Methodism, as the nation’s unofficially established church.

For a small movement that arose in the 18th century as a religious society within the Church of England, Methodism’s mark on the global Protestant enterprise is immense. No wonder David Hempton has called Methodism a global “empire of the spirit,” driven by a deep missionary impulse and an Arminian Gospel that proclaimed salvation freely offered (if not always accepted) by all.

Despite the influence of Reformed traditions on Anglo-American Pentecostalism, it was Methodism’s musical passion, its theologies of holiness, and its emphasis on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit that became (and remain) central to global Pentecostal thought and practice:  Is entire sanctification possible in this life?  What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a second blessing? What expressive behaviors count as authentic expressions of the indwelling Spirit? Which ones aid the Enemy? These questions were asked and variously answered in Holiness and Pentecostal circles, in ways that probably would have surprised Father John Wesley.

Like Pentecostalism, the Wesleyan movement is riven with divisions and has been from the beginning. Its eponymous founder, labored to guard the society during his lifetime, but there were still schisms:  between Arminian and Calvinist Methodists, between those who wanted to leave the Church of England and those who wished to stay.  There were those Wesley smeared as “antinomians,” Methodists who possessed a radical understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work and those who, like John & Co., understood the Spirit’s power to overturn proper order.

Methodist divisions grew more potent over time. The fissures involve everything from arguments over theology (is entire sanctification possible in this lifetime?) and polity (do we need bishops to govern us?) to the scourge of racism, slavery, and American apartheid.  In the early 19th century an MEC preacher, Richard Allen, led his black flock out of the MEC. The push was white racism, and the pull was the promise of a church – the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) – where black folks would create an African expression of American Methodism.  Like so many other U.S. Protestant denominations, the MEC fractured again in the run-up to the Civil War, leading to northern and southern jurisdictions. Those sectarian wounds weren’t stitched up until 1939, but even then, racism was institutionalized within the Methodist Church through its racially segregated Central Jurisdiction.

So much for following Jesus.

I’ve placed the fractures of Methodism in the foreground of my remarks because these divergences invite us to the central question of this respectful conversation – what does it mean to follow Jesus? In our sacred conversation so far, I’ve often reflected on how different answers to that question are just as likely to be expressed within a given tradition as between traditions. Nothing better illustrates this than the forty-year war in the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful global Methodist institution, the United Methodist Church. The UMC is dramatically breaking apart.  Even in this very moment a large and well-funded “traditionalist” wing is leaving the UMC to start the Global Methodist Church, which comes into existence on May 1st of 2022. Some within a fractured left flank have either left the UMC, or stand suspended in an in-between space, like the Liberation Methodist Connexion.

I appreciate Dr. Sarah Lancaster’s words offering a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification: “a renewal of holiness brings with it the happiness for which we were made.”  Yet in an era when fault lines widened over gender and sexual justice, Methodist leaders generally have not lived into the happiness of holiness. Factions within the UMC have fomented a battle royale on how (or even whether) to live out the UMC’s unofficial motto: Open hearts, open minds, open doors.  This intramural war has led to great spiritual harm, as the testimony of queer Methodists and their families attests.  The infliction of spiritual harm violates the simplest expression of Wesleyan ethics – do no harm; do good; stay in love with God.  Surely, then, inflicting spiritual harm is exactly the opposite of what it means to follow Jesus.

Lancaster’s discussion of her tradition is a hope-filled reminder of the spiritual and theological resources that Wesleyan/Methodist traditions offer to people struggling to follow Jesus. Among those resources are rich theological ideas and practical expressions of holiness, sanctification, even love, the heart of Christian life.  Competing sides claim these central Methodist ideas differently, and often put them into practice in wildly divergent ways.

As Pentecostal kith and kin to Methodism, it’s obvious to me that the way of holiness, openness to the Holy Spirit, and the process of moving toward perfect love has all-too-often devolved into rigid holiness codes that have forbidden (at various times) novel reading, theater going, card playing, drinking alcohol, using makeup, television-watching, and dancing. Strict holiness codes are another “gift” to Pentecostal life, via the Holiness wing of Methodism – an ambiguous gift, since the gatekeepers of holiness codes have lost sight of what they were meant to inspire: alignment with the liberative heart of a God who is love.

Christ, Community, & Challenging Injustice

In Dr. Lancaster’s reflection about the Wesleyan tradition of following Jesus, I was most intrigued by what I consider to also be a fundamental aspect of following Jesus in the Black Church tradition – a commitment to an understanding of justification and sanctification as a communal process in which disciples of Jesus hold one another accountable. I appreciated her acknowledgment of what appears to be a critical aspect of the Wesleyan faith because I believe it can be a resource to help reimagine what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. However, I would be interested to hear more from Dr. Lancaster about different manifestations of Wesleyan expressions of love. More specifically, I wonder: what does it mean for Wesleyans to consider that following Jesus is something that can be expressed differently, even if there are certain tenets of the faith I believe are required, and not optional?

Dr. Lancaster offers a significant insight in her exploration of the Wesleyan communal commitment to justification and sanctification. When she writes that with justification comes a “new birth” in which we “may begin to model our lives after the one we follow, learning from Jesus how to love properly,” she inadvertently provides the rationale behind the need for followers of Jesus to be in community with other believers (even before she makes official mention of it in the subsequent paragraph of holiness being “social.”). If we consider this idea of a “new birth” of a believer who has chosen to follow Christ, then she must be in relationship with people who will instruct her on this Christian journey (as the old folks in my tradition would say). Just as no child can grow up into a well-adjusted and functioning adult without parental guidance and support, so too will no person, new or old, in the Christian faith fully mature in their understanding of their belief without a group of persons who are there to rejoice with them in times of joy, mourn with them in times of sadness, and provoke them to love and good works.

Such a perspective of the communal nature of the Christian faith is foundational to many people who identify as followers of Jesus in the Black Church tradition. Even though there continues to be an ever-increasing emphasis on the individual over the collective in the language, programming, and structure of churches (Black churches included), there are still many Black congregations that embody Dr. Lancaster’s words: “following Jesus to grow in holiness, then, was not finally individualistic and private, but rather took place in community.” Black mothers and fathers teach kids what it meant to live for God so that God could one day declare to them “well done, my good and faithful servant.” If Black people were struggling to make ends meet or with a vice that was harming their loved ones, other Black believers would (and still do) pray with them, asking what might be needed to assist them in their time of suffering.

In other words, the communal nature of following Jesus in the Black Church tradition is nothing new. However, Dr. Lancaster did reiterate the importance of small gatherings and groups as we work to be faithful witnesses to Christ in the world. I do not think it is a coincidence that Dr. Lancaster writes the movement to conceive of holiness as social “was organized in small groups for members to talk openly with each other about the state of their souls, to encourage and if necessary admonish one another to follow Jesus more faithfully.” More often than not, it is more feasible to develop a relationship with someone in a smaller rather than larger setting because of the increased chances for conversation and deeper engagement. A person cannot be on the hide-out in a more intimate congregational space; typically, she is not another number on a pew (as opposed to many people in megachurch settings) but rather someone that people will recognize week to week, creating more opportunities for she and them to engage more deeply. While it is no guarantee that people will participate in a smaller congregation, I believe Dr. Lancaster is highlighting the possibilities of the depth of interaction that can be found when people in small groups choose to be open and vulnerable. And in a day and age in which many followers of Jesus appear content to just attend worship services and leave, Dr. Lancaster suggests there is a better way forward for growing together as disciples of Jesus.

But upon investigating Dr. Lancaster’s piece further, I left wondering about the different manifestations of Wesleyan theology when it comes to expressing holiness as love. More specifically, Dr. Lancaster writes that people will seek holiness through various behaviors or actions, with one such behavior being a commitment to protesting injustice. I struggled somewhat with this perspective because to follow Jesus, in my opinion, means being concerned with the plight of those who are experiencing oppression or inequality – pursuing justice is not simply a choice a follower of Jesus selects depending on how she is feeling but central to what it means to be a Jesus-believer. Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4 echoes his commitment to upending systems that dehumanized those on the outskirts of society, and His earthly ministry reflected His desire to speak life into those whom so many others disregarded or rejected. So, being concerned with justice in the world is not an option for a follower of Jesus but a requirement.

I realize such a statement evokes a wide range of reactions, from agreement to outright rejection. I am not saying that everyone will have the same method of challenging injustice in the world, nor will we all embrace similar levels of commitment. We each have different risk tolerances that actively impact how we choose to show up in support of those who are discriminated against. However, Dr. Lancaster’s reflection reminded me that all followers of Jesus have a responsibility to speak out and fight against inequality wherever we may see it. This commitment is part of what it means to be holy – it is not optional. I then wonder: what would the Church look like if we fully lived into this Jesus that often goes missing from our sermons and teachings about what it means to follow Him?

Celebrating Wesleyan Treasures and Rooting for United Methodists to Continue Offering Them

Reading Sarah Lancaster’s insightful overview of Wesleyanism and keeping in mind its United Methodist denominational expressions took me back to when it was my responsibility to articulate overlaps between Mennonite and United Methodist teachings and values. The United Methodist University Senate oversees UM higher education, including in non-UM institutions it approves to teach UM students. To maintain the Eastern Mennonite Seminary UM Senate approval for further quadrennials, as seminary dean I needed to validate, on behalf of our students and faculty, that EMS adequately understood United Methodism and was prepared to teach and form UM students accordingly.

I was struck at the time, and now in reading Lancaster, that there are indeed significant commonalities. A key one is the overlap between the Anabaptist-Mennonite emphasis on discipleship and the Wesleyan emphasis on scriptural holiness along with the growth in holiness summarized through sanctification. There are variations in the details (particularly the Anabaptist grounding in believers baptism versus the Methodist affirmation of infant baptism), yet discipleship and sanctification both involve living faithfully for Jesus and not simply articulating doctrines or believing this or that.

This is communally expressed for both traditions. As Lancaster puts it, “Following Jesus to grow in holiness, then, was not finally individualistic and private, but rather took place in community.” And if holiness is not individualistic but public, this in turn leads to what Lancaster calls “social holiness.” In Wesley’s day as in ours, this can lead to opposing slavery, racism, oppression, alcohol production that leads to grain shortages for the poor, and so forth.

As I learned during my seminary dean days, it has also led to the “Social Principles” of the United Methodist Church. The fact that UM student numbers at EMS were second only to Mennonites made sense as I learned, for example, that both the United Methodists and Mennonites are committed to peacebuilding and principles of social justice. Both traditions take seriously the way of peace taught in the Sermon on the Mount by Jesus who stressed love of enemies.

As the UM 2016 version of the UM Book of Discipline affirms in relation to Social Principles: The World Community,

We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy. We oppose unilateral first/preemptive strike actions and strategies on the part of any government. As disciples of Christ, we are called to love our enemies, seek justice, and serve as reconcilers of conflict

Throughout my reading of the Social Principles, I’m struck that again and again Mennonites would say amen to the UM social principles related to the natural world, the nurturing community, the social community, the economic community, the political community, the world community. This includes resonating with the UM position on the separation of church and state, a principle dear to many Anabaptist-Mennonites, and affirming, with the UM Social Principle on the Political Community,  “the diversity of religious expressions and the freedom to worship God according to each person’s conscience.”

If amid occasional differences in details and emphasis, many Anabaptist-Mennonites will resonate with the UM Social Creed and its celebrations of God, Jesus Christ, Holy Spirit, natural world as God’s handiwork, the rights of all, the rights and duties of workers amid “elimination of economic and social distress,” and more. Affirmations in response to Lancaster and such principles could go on and on. If anything as a Mennonite I feel a hint of chastening as I encounter the sheer comprehensiveness with which United Methodists address social issues and UM faith commitments.

Yet that does not exhaust United Methodism. Lancaster also highlights effectively the suppleness of a Wesleyan ethos that can catalyze such significant social thought yet also encompass “seeking emotional experiences of God in prayer and worship.” She helps us integrate social principles with John Wesley’s famous and memorable journal testimony that as he was listening to a reading of Luther’s Preface to the epistle to the Romans,

About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins. . . .

This also overlaps with Christopher Gehrz’s thoughts on the Pietist influence across multiple traditions.

There was one area in which I wished for Lawrence’s fuller exploration. She does observe that “There have been divisions over various matters, such as race and slavery, lay rights, women’s ordination, etc. (and we face division now over LGBTQ+ issues), but none of these “various views” are distinctive to Wesleyans.

There she lets things rest, perhaps understandably and deliberately so. To wade into such matters is to find all too little rest and perhaps often to muddy core convictions. It can be a challenge indeed, for example, to maintain communal commitments as polarizations related to “LGBTQ+ issues” threaten to shred community, at least at the formal denominational level. And Lancaster is understandably aiming to speak not only for United Methodism but also more broadly for a Wesleyanism expressed in but not limited to the UM denominational manifestions.

Yet fragmentation is affecting so many of our traditions, very much including Anabaptist-Mennonite as I earlier touched on. In addition, the UM battles related to LGBTQ+ denominational positions seem to involve significant intertwining with Wesleyan emphases on holiness, perfection, social creeds. When such core teachings confront the acids of controversies in which alternative views of sin and right living are in play, how do they fare? It would be valuable to learn more about how Lancaster sees United Methodists continuing to offer the treasures of Wesleyanism while confronting intense denominational factionalisms.

During my days as seminary dean, such denominational dynamics were omnipresent for both Mennonites involved in Mennonite Church USA and for United Methodists. Several times UM leaders provided resources to the EMS community based on UM dynamics that were not identical to Mennonite ones, given polity variations, yet involved overlapping complexities and sufferings still working their way through both denominations.

Mennonite Church USA is in the final stages of preparing for a May 2022 special delegate session that could “retire” or embrace several resolutions affecting LGBTQ-related denominational positions.  And as of this spring, even such a general-audience, non-theological source as USA Today was stirred to report, for instance, that a new Global Methodist Church would split from the UM Church by May and that

The new denomination announced its plans on the same day the UMC postponed its General Conference for the third time, this time until 2024. Delegates were expected to vote on proposals regarding the creation of a new denomination at the General Conference on Aug. 29-Sept. 6 in Minneapolis.

I certainly don’t propose that such developments invalidate Lancaster’s overview. But as an Anabaptist-Mennonite who has experienced the challenges of maintaining communal commitments when divisions erode denominations’ ability to gather around core understandings and practices, I will continue to watch with interest and concern how the United Methodist Church navigates such shoals.

And I’ll be rooting, Sarah Lancaster, for the various wings of the United Methodist Church, whether still officially part of one “United” denomination or fragments of what once was, to continue to offer us what you summarize in your memorable conclusion:

In the Wesleyan tradition, following Jesus means being a child of God and living appropriately in that relationship. However differently holiness may be conceived, it is a common conviction that God empowers us to live in the power of the Holy Spirit so that we may work with God in God’s intention to restore the world to what God created us to be.

“Oh, now I understand…”

If Lutheranism is the parent of Pietism, then surely the Wesleyan Tradition is the closest cousin to my own. The most distinctive catalyst for the Methodist wing of the First Great Awakening was the encounter of John and Charles Wesley with Pietism, both the Moravian strain that famously led to their conversion experiences and the “churchly” Pietism associated with Philipp Spener (whose conventicles were adapted by early Methodists). In the 19th century, the influence ran the other direction: the Swedish Pietist revival to which I’ve referred in virtually every essay started with the efforts of a Methodist missionary named George Scott. 

And yet apart from my familiarity with those origin stories, most of my personal encounters with Wesleyanism have come through outgrowths of that tradition that weren’t central to Sarah Lancaster’s essay: friendships with CMA and Nazarene Christians whose version of Wesleyan holiness was touched on only briefly in this month’s lead essay; my experience talking about Pietism at a university with Free Methodist roots; some research into the history of United Brethren higher education.

When it comes to Methodism itself, I’m almost shocked how little I know of it. (Apart from attending a friend’s wedding, I’m not sure I’ve actually worshipped in a United Methodist church.)

And I might have wished to hear a bit more from Lancaster about contemporary Wesleyanism. But I can’t complain of being reminded of the origins of Wesleyan practice and belief: some of which I knew well; some of which I now understand far better.

“Hymns have deeply formed my own relationship with God,” she wrote in her response to my essay on Pietism. So let me start with my favorite legacy of early Methodism: its hymnody. (Here too, there’s a Pietist connection: John translated from German to English hymns by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Johann Anastasius Freylinghausen, and other Pietist writers.) The hymnal of my pietistic home denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church, features sixteen hymns by Charles Wesley, including “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” which opened the Maundy Thursday service last night at our neighborhood Lutheran church. Describing a Jesus whose name is “music in the sinner’s ears,” bringing “life and health and peace,” and who has the power to “[set] the pris’ner” free,” that hymn came to my mind as I read Lancaster describe sanctification as “growing in holiness-understood as perfect love,” both personal and social.

(Speaking of social… I also appreciate how the early Methodists emphasized congregational singing, perhaps one more way of working out Lancaster’s profound insight that “We grow in God’s love as we open ourselves to one another.”)

“Look and believe through faith alone,” Charles added, carefully placing the Wesleys in the Protestant mainstream, “be justified by grace.” But to understand what he means by “the triumphs of [God’s] grace,” I think we need to go back to Lancaster’s observation that, for the Wesleys, grace initiates and empowers salvation — understood as including “not only what happens after death but also what happens in this life.” For Wesleyans, like Pietists, grace doesn’t just impute righteousness but enables us to follow Jesus in this life, learning “again to love as God loves, thereby becoming more who God created us to be. We are really changed by following Jesus.”

Maybe because of their Lutheran parentage, most Pietists can’t follow (John) Wesley, let alone some of his 19th century spiritual descendants, to the point of expecting “Christian perfection” or “entire sanctification.” In his recent compendium of Philipp Spener’s theology, K. James Stein (a UMC theologian from the United Brethren tradition) emphasizes that the Pietist founder’s “belief that the new birth is only completed at death kept him from the understanding of a sanctification that is often equated with sinless perfection.” 

But apart from that hesitation, I came to the end of Lancaster’s winsome essay and felt almost like I could say, with her other students, “Oh, now I understand why I am a Methodist” — the overlap with Pietism is that close.


In fact, I’ve often heard something similar from college and adult students at the end of my classes: “I was a Pietist and didn’t know it.” So even Lancaster’s excursus sounded familiar, which prompts a brief tangent of my own…

It’s not just that she and I share the experience of providing theological language and historical context to people who “have been formed in certain ways of thinking even if not explicitly taught.” At the same time that Methodist scholars undertook their “effort to recognize [John Wesley’s] theological work and share it more broadly with people for their daily living,” mid-20th century Covenant, Brethren, and (Swedish) Baptist scholars were recovering the thought of Philipp Spener and other early Pietists. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. American Pietist ressourcement after 1950 often had to do with finding an alternative to the fundamentalist-modernist and conservative-liberal binaries of 20th century theology; I don’t know if the same dynamic animated Methodist historiography.

But even if it’s just a coincidence, that scholars from both traditions have rededicated themselves to retrieving their origins reiterates the importance of this conversation: it pushes us at once to dig deeper into our own stories, then to share them with others.

John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your informative contribution to our ongoing conversation.

You are probably aware of the fascinating ways John Wesley is linked with Eastern Orthodoxy, but some of our conversation partners may not be aware of these connections.

First of all, while John Wesley loved all the Church Fathers of the first four centuries, he clearly favored the Greek Fathers over their Latin counterparts.  As Randy Maddox observes (in his essay entitled “John Wesley and Eastern Orthodoxy: Influences, Convergences, and Differences” which appeared in The Asbury Theological Journal in 1990),

“It is generally recognized that the first four centuries of Christian tradition played a significant role in Wesley’s theology.  What is not as often noted is that he tended to value the Greek representatives over the Latin.  It was a preference he inherited from his father.  It deepened during his Oxford years as he studied newly-available editions of patristic writings with his fellow ‘methodist,’ John Clayton.

“As such, it is not surprising that Greek theologians predominate when Wesley gives lists of those he admires or recommends for study.  Frequently cited were Basil, Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, Clement of Rome, Ephraem Syrus, Ignatius, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Origen, Polycarp and (Pseudo-)Macarius.  By contrast, references to Augustine, Cyprian and Tertullian were relatively rare.”

Maddox further states,

“Perhaps the closest resemblance between Orthodoxy and Wesley lies in the articulation of their respective doctrines of deification and sanctification.  The Orthodox doctrine of deification has often been misunderstood by the West.  It is not an affirmation of pantheistic identity between God and humanity, but of a participation, through grace, in the divine life.  This participation renews humanity and progressively transfigures us into the image of Christ.

“Analogously, Wesley’s affirmation of entire sanctification is not a claim that humans can embody the faultless perfection of God in this life, but a confidence that God’s grace can progressively deliver us from the power of sin – if not from creatureliness.  For both Wesley and Orthodoxy, the transformation desired is more than external conformity to law.  It is a renewal of the heart in love – love of God, and love of others.  Moreover, they agree that such transformation is for all Christians, not merely a monastic or spiritual elite.

“What is most characteristic of and common between Wesley and Orthodoxy is their conviction that Christ-likeness is not simply infused in believers instantaneously.  It is developed progressively through a responsible appropriation of the grace which God provides.  Spiritual disciplines are essential to this process of growth.”

It’s also known that while on the ship on his way as a missionary-priest to the colony of Georgia in the New World in 1735, Wesley was reading the Fifty Spiritual Homilies of St. Makarios of Egypt.

And finally, there’s the very intriguing possibility that, at Wesley’s request, a Greek Orthodox bishop from Crete named Gerasimos (or Erasmus) ordained several of Wesley’s preachers to the priesthood, in 1763, while the bishop was visiting England, after having established an Orthodox church in Amsterdam.  Apparently Wesley could find no Anglican bishop to ordain his preachers, and more of his followers wanted to receive Communion than he could accommodate himself.  There is more than just a little evidence that these ordinations really did take place.

May these points of contact between the founder of Methodism and Eastern Orthodoxy help contribute to more fruitful dialogue between these two major streams of Christianity!

Yours, in Christ,

David Ford

 

 

 

 

How Do You Best Love Those Who Don’t Fulfill Expectations? Can Methodists Endorse the Lutheran Answer as Appropriate?

     I was tempted to sing the Paul Simon hit again about the mother and child reunion in response to this fine piece of Methodist theologizing.  After all it is well known that John Wesley had his famed Aldersgate Experience while reading the work of Martin Luther on justification by grace through faith (Journals, May 24, 1738).  But alas, it is not quite as simple.  Methodism has other  mothers like the Anglican heritage and the original Reformed theological home of Samuel Wesley (and could we even suggest the Eastern tradition through Gregory of Nyssa and Macarius the Egyptian).  Perhaps the Methodist-Lutheran relationship is more like that of a niece to one of her controversial, though beloved aunts who is often out of touch with the thinking of other extended family members.   

     Be that as it may, as you well know from your work in the dialogue, Sarah, our denominations see each other as family, in Full Communion.  Your paper makes me even more confident that our denominations have done the right thing.  Of course your comments on prevenient grace and forgiveness are music to this Lutheran’s ears (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IV.2-3).  And your comments about Methodists believing that love may be expressed in different forms is in line with the Lutheran openness to a Situational Ethic (Luther’s Works, Vol.5, p.150; Complete Sermons, Vol.3/1, p.61).  I also think that your way of describing Perfection as an expectation that believers may have also makes the concept even more palatable to Confessional Lutherans.  Add to all these Methodist overtures to Lutheranism the fact that the more characteristically Methodist themes of striving for holiness of heart and even synergism as well as striving for perfection are also embedded in the Lutheran heritage (esp. its Pietist segments) (The Large Catechism, II.3.57-58; Formula of Concord, SD IV.31-33; II; VII; Philip Spener, Pia Desideria, 2), and it is clear that each of us may legitimately endorse much of what the other deems precious.  And if you are a Methodist who construes the Sacraments as in an Anglican manner, then once again Lutherans are at home in Wesleyan contexts.  My only question in that connection, then, is what do we collectively make of Sacramental fellowship with some UMCs, AMEs, Zionites, and CMEs who teach a more symbolic view of these rites?           

      I have just a couple of further questions of clarification aimed either at helping clear away any suspicions remaining in our memberships about our ecumenical agreements, and also a final question (suggested in my title) about whether Methodism can in fact embrace as a viable catholic point of view, a commitment very basic in the Lutheran tradition.  Some of these are questions I raised last month to our Pietist colleague Christopher Gehrz.  You refer to the pursuit of the holiness of heart and life as an important dimension of Methodism.  My question is, who does the pursuing?  Do we do that task alone?  Of course with your Methodist commitment to prevenient grace, and what is written in Art 8 of your Articles of Religion you would give grace and the Holy Spirit credit for this pursuit.  But Lutherans worry that Methodists and other Pietists do not always and systematically make this clear (The Small Catechism, II.3.6).  This relates to your Methodist claim that our nature is marred by sin.  Lutherans prefer to speak of our concupiscence, to make clear that we are thoroughly sinful in all we do, not just partially damaged (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, II.24-26), because if just partially damaged it seems we can do at least some of the pursuing of holiness on our own.  Although not characteristic of Methodist thinking, can such an Augustinian way of talking about sin be considered a legitimate alternative from a Methodist point of view?  

     This brings me to the question raised in the title to this response.  I have already expressed my Lutheran resonance with your idea of perfection and entire sanctification as an expectation.  Confessional Lutheranism has expectations about what grace can accomplish.  Because Lutherans expect good works to follow justification, this is why Lutherans are not inclined like Methodism to direct or exhort Christian behavior, to opt for teaching spontaneous good works and seem not to have much so say about sanctification.  It is because we have expectations about what grace can accomplish (that it will lead to good works) (Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp367-378; Complete Sermons, Vol.1/2, p.316).  But what do Methodists do when their expectations are not met, when holiness or good works do not happen in the lives of the faithful?  How do you comfort someone in despair over that matter or over the quality of their faith?  Do you just keep urging them to do better in all cases, to keep striving?  Or can you instead offer solace, forget about exhorting works, tell them they are fee from the Law and that works take care of themselves, like Lutherans are inclined to proclaim?                               

    As noted above, Lutherans are open to sometimes urging the despairing to strive for more holiness.  You could validly preach that sometimes in a Lutheran congregation under our full communion agreement.  But if invited to your congregation, pledged to preach and teach in a manner that does not violate Methodist teaching and if advised in advance of my visit that you had a number of members struggling and uncertain in their faith, would I be legitimately able to proclaim a Word of freedom from the Law and the spontaneity of good works, as I have been advocating in our sessions?  Is it possible for Methodists to deem this Lutheran theme a legitimate Christian alternative?  If so, Methodists and Lutherans can indeed unequivocally follow Jesus together.                

 

The Quest for Holiness

 It seems that I have been fascinated with the concept of holiness for as long as I can remember. As a young person growing up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, I discovered that one of my cousins and his family were active participants in what they referred to as a “Pentecostal Holiness” movement. Many years later in my doctoral studies I focused on Religion in America and learned of the roots of Methodism and of its founders, John and Charles Wesley. I also found that many of Charles Wesley’s great hymns and anthems are contained in the Latter-day Saint hymnal.

Brigham Young, the second President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was a devoted and practicing Methodist before he was caught up in the spirit of Restorationism or Christian Primitivism in the northeastern United States. He once said of John Wesley: “I never passed John Wesley’s church in England without stopping to look at it. Was he a good man? Yes; I suppose him to have been, by all accounts, as good as ever walked on this earth. . . . Has he obtained a rest? Yes, and greater than ever entered his mind to expect.” Brigham added: “Did the Spirit of God rest upon him? Yes, and does, more or less, at times, upon all people.”

Six years ago I was approached by Mark Maddix, who is now the dean of Theology at Point Loma Nazarene University, near San Diego. He indicated that he was aware of a dialogue with Evangelical Christian scholars of which I had been a part for some fifteen years. He inquired whether some Latter-day Saint colleagues and I from Brigham Young University might be interested in beginning a similar academic dialogue with four professors of the Nazarene faith. At the time, I knew very little about the Nazarenes but, out of curiosity, I sensed that such could make for a worthwhile conversation. Before I could answer, however, Mark added: “I think you’ll discover that you have much more in common with Nazarenes than you do with Evangelicals.” The Nazarene-Latter-day Saint dialogue began six months later, and the group has met twice a year (when needed, by Zoom) for over five years.

In each gathering, we have read both Latter-day Saint and Nazarene perspectives on such topics as the Fall and the plight of fallen humanity, the Atonement of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and spiritual gifts, and Eschatology (which we just discussed four days ago). Quite frequently our Nazarene readings have consisted of sermons by John Wesley, their principal theologian. Very early on, I fell in love with Wesley. I have read several biographies and become absolutely taken with the man’s life. While I am not always in agreement with his doctrinal conclusions, his unmatched devotion to duty, as well as his teachings, speak to me (as do the hymns of his brother, Charles). Four years ago I was invited to spend a portion of the summer as a visiting scholar at Point Loma at the Wesley Center there on the university campus and to devote about five hours a day to Wesley’s teachings. Those were days never to be forgotten.

Dr. Lancaster’s comment that Wesley had chosen to “convey important theological ideas to ordinary people rather than to scholars” resonated with me. After about ten years of writing to academics in order to be promoted to Associate and then Full Professor and obtain continuing faculty status (BYU’s version of tenure), I found much greater satisfaction and feelings of accomplishment as I wrote, almost exclusively (with an academic article or book here and there) to what we often refer to as the informed non-specialist. And I for one am very grateful that John Wesley made that decision.

I was a bit confused about a matter in paragraph six. Sarah states that “In justification we truly and deeply learn through Jesus Christ that God loves us as dear children, we know we are forgiven, and we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness. Because new birth (used alongside the image of adoption, this metaphor stresses a real change in us and not just a change in status) accompanies justification, we may begin to model our lives after the one we follow, learning from Jesus how to love properly.” It is a beautiful expression, wonderfully stated. My question is this: Do Methodists believe in “imputed righteousness” (receiving the righteousness of Jesus), or do they believe that when we are changed by Christ and conformed to His image there is an actual spiritual change that takes place? I’m a little confused. In his 1765 sermon, “The Lord Our Righteousness,” he states: “I believe God implants righteousness in every one to whom he has imputed it. . . . They to whom the righteousness of Christ is imputed are made righteous by the spirit of Christ.” (Paragraph 12.) I suppose I am having trouble distinguishing between imputed righteousness and implanted righteousness.

In paragraph 11 Dr. Lancaster gets to the matter of “Christian perfection” or “entire sanctification,” meaning “perfect love in this life,” which John Wesley felt people should expect before their death. My questions are these: From Wesley’s perspective, when a person has perfect love or enjoys entire sanctification, is he or she completely free of sin? Will such a person, for the remainder of their life, never disobey God or be unkind or dishonest? Or is whatever they do that is wrong or inappropriate not counted or considered to be a sin? I ask that in light of my understanding that the Methodists, in contrast to the Reformed traditions, believe that one can fall from grace.

During the Second Great Awakening, an era when camp meetings and revivals were everywhere in the northeast, the Joseph Smith Sr. family was religiously mixed. Father Smith was a universalist, while Lucy Mack Smith (the mother) and three of the children joined the Presbyterian Church. Young Joseph Smith described his religious leanings as follows: “In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was. . . to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong.” Interestingly, in 1831, twenty-five year old Joseph Smith stated that “until we have perfect love we are liable to fall, and, when we have a testimony that our names are sealed in the Lamb’s book of life, we have perfect love, and then it is impossible for false Christs to deceive us.” Perhaps some of the Methodist teachings were still a part of his religious thinking and understanding.

 

I particularly appreciate Sarah’s last paragraph about our efforts to be a true child of God and live “appropriately in that relationship.” It reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s remarks in Mere Christianity. Lewis quotes Philippians 2:12, which seems to imply that the greater responsibility to become more Christlike rests with us (“work out your own salvation”). He then quotes verse 13 (“it is God which works in us”) and observes that such language seems to imply that the greater work toward our becoming more Christlike will be God’s. “You see, “he points out, “we are now trying to understand, and to separate into water-tight compartments, what exactly God does and what man does, when God and man are working together.”