I have been thinking a lot about some things I remember from my time at NBC lately – in particular some things we discussed in the Systematic Theology courses with Dr. Umbel related to Wesley’s approach towards theological disagreements. These discussions come to my mind from time to time, especially as the political climate gets warmer – oddly enough. It seems that I am finding myself constantly evaluating some tenets in my belief system. It seems that The Holy Spirit keeps checking me – tapping me on the shoulder as my mind reacts to things people do or say. Admittedly, I must repent often, but not for the reasons you might think. I am not repenting of my beliefs, but for the priority I may have placed on some of them.
I have often lauded a statement attributed to Phineas F. Bresee, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” It has become a very good “check” for my “dogmatic” tendencies, and it has, with The Holy Spirit’s formative power, mostly subdued those tendencies. I am increasingly more successful at dividing dogma from doctrine, and from opinion. I find myself more and more accepting of theological (and even political) diversity. Yet, I do not believe that I have compromised my beliefs – my core beliefs are intact. Admittedly, however, some opinions that I hold have been refined.
In a time such as we currently live, where polarization is normative, many of us align ourselves far from center in our belief systems – and that is absolutely acceptable. However, we allow these disparate viewpoints to also define the company we keep. That, is what I am having increasingly difficulty accepting. Certainly differences in opinion with salvific ramifications ought to be upheld as crucially important, and certainly worthy of defining our associations. But what about views on alcohol, mode and frequency of baptism, mode and frequency of communion, the position of the tribulation in relation to the second coming, the role of women in ministry, the use of tobacco, women in pants, co-ed swimming, the role of music in worship, the scope of sanctification, the role of philosophy, the literalness of Genesis, etc., etc., etc.? Are these truly worth division in God’s house?
Here is another quote from Phineas F. Bresee:
Pertaining to things not essential to salvation, we have liberty. To attempt to emphasize that which is not essential to salvation, and thus divide forces, would be a crime. An unwillingness for others to enjoy the liberty that we enjoy in reference to doctrines not vital to salvation, is bigotry, from which the spirit of holiness withdraws itself.
One of the things which I have appreciated about John Wesley is that even when he faced the most criticism for his views, he maintained a synergistic attitude. He insisted that while reform was necessary, the whole of Catholicism was not suspect. And while he did disagree with certain issues of the reformists, these disagreements are dwarfed by the bulk of agreement. Why was he not lauded for finally trying to bring a synergistic view of Christ’s church that would allow the common work of discipling the world under a common drive? Instead, he was criticized and ostracized for these few differences in opinion, which did not ultimately matter concerning salvation. Both he and Whitefield agreed that a life that does not look holy is not holy – they disagreed on whether or not someone was regenerate in the first place – and they agreed that either way, salvation was missing in a life that was not holy.
Besides totally agreeing with her on the articles of faith and the doctrine of holiness from the Wesleyan perspective, I also proudly joined the Church of the Nazarene because of her history of synergism. She is “one from many” – a convergence of many variations in methodology and theology under the essentials of faith and a common passion for a holy life, while allowing for freedom in all other things. The whole is richer because of the diversity. This is true of her at least in her intentions. Is it also true in her practices?
In the event that you might not appreciate “Nazrarendom”, John Wesley, or Phineas F. Bresee, then perhaps you could consider what John Calvin wrote to a colleague:
“Among Christians there ought to be so great a dislike of schism, as that they may always avoid it so fast as lies in their power. That there ought to prevail among them such a reverence for the ministry of the word and the sacraments that wherever they perceive these things to be, there they must consider the church to exist…nor need it be of any hindrance that some points of doctrine are not quite so pure, seeing that there is scarcely any church which has not retained some remnants of former ignorance.”
I wonder if Jesus considered how we might divide ourselves when he said this (John 17:20-23):
20“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: 23I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
If you’ve not read the story behind Matt Redman’s song, “Heart of Worship”, Google it (there are many versions of the story) – it’s worth the read for its strength of accountability to what we do to “church”. One phrase in that song has stuck with me for some time now – “I’m sorry Lord for the thing I’ve made it, when it’s all about you, all about you, Jesus.”
Another quote… this one from God’s Word (Isaiah 1:11-15):
11 “The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
While this passage is about the corruption of worship – can it teach us about the corruption of our faith? So many things get in the way of true community in God’s church (not just in individual congregations). When will we learn that synergy is not compromise? We do not have to sacrifice what we believe to come together. The essential things should be held firm. Even in the non-salvific things that we can’t let go of, why do we let them divide God’s people? Can we not disagree about these non-essentials, and still fellowship? Can we not disagree about these non-essentials, and still worship together? Can we not disagree about these non-essentials, and still share in the work of making disciples? Bresee thought so. Wesley thought so. Calvin thought so. And, I am pretty sure that God desires it.
Some reading this might think I am confusing “synergism” with “ecumenicalism”. I’m not. And I’m not suggesting we are ready for “one universal church”. I just wonder how much division there really would be if we approached our brothers and sisters of different theological traditions with a synergistic view. I wonder how our own theology might be enriched by the nuances of others’ theology, and the reverse as well. I wonder how fruitful we might be if we sought to unify our lines of thinking (synergy) rather than obsess about the differences.
I am still formulating how I interpret Bresee’s well-spoken idiom, and I do not know what journey this line of thinking will take me, or my church – nor am I not offering any particular paths. All I know is that when I gather with people who love Jesus, the last thing that I want to cross my mind is how I might disagree with them.