A battle rages within The United Methodist Church! It’s ostensibly between “Traditionalists” and “Progressives” over homosexuality, authority of Scripture, and adherence of doctrine. But I propose that the conflict may expose an underlying, festering heresy: the severing of truth and love.
“Traditionalists” seek to preserve the truth of the Bible and doctrine as contained in historic creeds and the Articles of Religion, and they call for enforced adherence to established norms.
“Progressives” advocate for continuing divine revelation and the prioritizing of love as the core of Christian doctrine, and they call for expanding the circle of inclusion.
The stage is set for the apocalyptic showdown at General Conference in February 2019. The weapons of inflammatory rhetoric, proof-texting, political strategizing, and either/or dichotomies have been mobilized.
It’s either truth OR love, doctrinal faithfulness OR cultural accommodation, biblical authority OR philosophical relativism, traditional marriage OR sexual sin, my way OR the highway!
Let’s be reminded that dialects are integral to the gospel as viewed through the Wesleyan tradition
- faith AND works
- knowledge AND piety
- personal AND social
- justification AND sanctification
- doing no harm AND doing good
- sin as person AND systemic
- church as local AND Universal
- doctrinal standards AND theological exploration
- sound doctrine AND holy living
- discipleship as belief AND practice
- truth AND love
In the Bible and Christian tradition, truth and love are inseparable, integral to one another. They are conjoined twins, each giving life to the other. Either without the other is neither authentic truth nor Christian love. When they are severed, the gospel is truncated with calamitous consequences.
In the name of defending truth, people have been persecuted, jailed, banished, and killed; and countless people have been demonized, demeaned, marginalized, and ostracized.
In the name of love, people have engaged in all kinds of exploitative, degrading, dehumanizing behaviors and activities; and devastating personal and social evils have gone unchallenged.
Methodists have long struggled with the tension between maintaining sound doctrine and living Christlike love. John Wesley’s sermons, “On Schism” and “Catholic Spirit” document his own internal battle. He holds fast to the church’s doctrines grounded in Scripture and Tradition while giving priority to holiness as “the love of God shed abroad in our hearts.”
For Wesley, the truth of doctrine lies in the character produced in its adherents. Lives filled with the love of God and neighbor are the evidence of doctrinal truth, not biblical prooftexts or scholastic arguments. And the truthfulness of one’s love is how closely it resembles the self-emptying love (agape) of Christ.
“You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” is an often-used mantra in the academic world. The statement from John’s Gospel, however, has a condition attached to knowing the truth.
Here is the statement in context: “Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciple; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’”(8:31-32).
The truth that sets us free is not abstract formulation about Jesus. It is relationship with Jesus. In Jesus Christ, truth and love are perfectly and inextricably joined. Truth and love flow from relationship with the One in whom the two are one.
What does this mean for United Methodists searching for a way forward as a denomination. I certainly don’t have a definitive answer as to the best institutional configuration for the future.
But I am convinced that splitting into “traditional” and “progressive”, “conservative” and “liberal” is NOT the way to bear witness to the unity of truth and love. The dichotomy implied in those labels is false, a betrayal of the One who is Truth and Love. To form denominations around those labels would be to institutionalize heresy.
Truth and love are woefully lacking in our polarized, deceitful, and violent world. Untruth and hate are being normalized in the prevailing culture. Our social fabric is being ripped asunder. The common good is being trampled underfoot.
The witness of a community that embodies truth AND love is sorely needed. The church can’t be that witness by splitting asunder what God joined together in Jesus the Christ.
We need “a come to Jesus” meeting and declare to the world that Truth and Love are inseparable in Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, we can together find our way to truthfully love and love truthfully.