For churches and denominations that are wrangling over important issues, it would help to at least have some agreement about the most important questions.
For this, what if we listen to some wise people who came before us? I’m going to use an 1824 letter from the American Methodist Bishops as guide.[1. This was in their quadrennial address to the General Conference] I don’t want to bog you down in its unfamiliar grammar, so I’ll comment on some short extracts here, then provide the full paragraph at bottom.
“Who ever supposed […] that our system was designed, in any of its parts, to secure the applause and popularity of the world, or a numerical increase of worldly or impenitent men?”
Questions we can’t start with:
- Will we lose members if we do this?
- Will we lose giving/funding if we do this?
- Will we lose [insert demographic segment] if we do this?
- Will this make us out of step with cultural currents?
- Will this be an unpopular decision?
- Could the media have a field day with this?
“Holiness is the main cord that binds us together” “The original design of Methodism […] was to raise up and preserve a holy people.”
Questions that must take center stage:
- What will help us be more holy?
- What will help us raise up a holy people?
- What will help us preserve a holy people?
We can only consider asking questions from that first list if we’ve already answered questions about holiness. And use caution. We’re quick to assume that many decisions are morally/theologically neutral. We often make a swift jump to strategy after giving ourselves a simplistic theological answer (e.g. “God wants us to reach people”). Our methods are as theologically significant as our goals.
“If Methodists lose sight of this doctrine [of entire sanctification], they will fall by their own weight. Their successes, in gaining numbers, will be the cause of their dissolution.”
Oh, by the way, even if you temporarily grow in number because of your strategies, if you neglect sanctification/holiness, it will be your undoing.
For all the discussion of unity in churches and denominations today, there is no real unity without holiness. Any supposed unity that loses sight of holiness is a superficial and worldly unity.
The full paragraph: “If Methodists give up the doctrine of entire sanctification, or suffer it to become a dead letter, we are a fallen people. It is this that lays the axe to the root of the Antinomian tree, in all its forms and degrees of growth––it is this that inflames zeal, diffuses life, rouses to action, prompts to perseverance, and urges the soul forward to every holy exercise, and every useful work. If Methodists lose sight of this doctrine, they will fall by their own weight. Their successes, in gaining numbers, will be the cause of their dissolution. Holiness is the main cord that binds us together. Relax this, and you loosen the whole system. This will appear more evident, if we call to mind the original design of Methodism. It was to raise up and preserve a holy people. This was the principal object which Mr. Wesley, who, under God, was the great founder of our order, had in view. To this end all the doctrines believed and preached by Methodists tend. And the rules of our Discipline, and the peculiar usages of our Church, were all instituted with the same design. Who ever supposed, or who that is acquainted with it can suppose, that our system was designed, in any of its parts, to secure the applause and popularity of the world, or a numerical increase of worldly or impenitent men?”
2 thoughts on “Unity and Holiness”
Church history indicates that the concerns expressed by the Bishops in their 1824 letter were quite valid. Not much later in the 19th Century, Methodists moved away from an emphasis on holiness (hence the formation of the Nazarene Church) and focused on being ‘respectable.” This was the beginning of the decline of Methodism in terms of “market share” (percentage of those affiliated with churches) in America. Our numerical decline followed when the number of people affiliated with churches began to decline. The whole sad tale is presented in detail in “The Churching of America, 1776-2005: Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy” by Finke and Stark. (http://www.amazon.com/Churching-America-1776-2005-Winners-Religious-ebook/dp/B000TBA0YG/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444755862&sr=1-1&keywords=churching+of+america) Your call to repentance from this tragic error is long (about a century and a half) overdue. I can only pray that our leadership will listen this time; before our lamp stand is completely removed from the temple.