Tomorrow I will be on a plane heading for home, anxious to see my wife and kids after 2 weeks away. It’s amazing how different the world looks from an airplane. If you have ever flown over a familiar place, you suddenly see how all the land connects together. You notice things you’ve driven past every day and had no idea where there because you can see things from the air that you could never see from the road.
If I learned anything from my time at the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, it was that to move forward faithfully we need to be able to look at our denomination from the sky not just the road. We need to be able to understand how all the diverse parts of our church fit together. We have to be able to see all the societal forces that place stresses and strains on our fellowship. And we must have a clear view of our place within the 200+ year old Wesleyan movement and our place within the 2000 year old Christian movement.
It has often been said that Christianity in the post-Christendom culture of the 21st century needs to be more like Christianity in the first 3 centuries rather than how it has been in the last 17 centuries. During our worship on Tuesday, this reality was articulated powerfully again by Bishop Ivan Abrahams of the World Methodist Council, which represents 80 million people in 80 different Methodist denominations throughout the world.
Bishop Abrahams explained how in the first 3 centuries Christianity was a loose confederation of churches united by the unparalleled power of Resurrection Faith. During these centuries, the church was debating which writings would be lifted up as scripture and which beliefs most clearly articulated the truth of the difference made by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The church did all this while being a small, politically marginalized, growing, often persecuted, primarily pacifist movement. Then in the early decades of the 300s AD, Emperor Constantine accepted Christianity and made it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Suddenly, political pressure to unite the Empire through one religion was placed upon the churches. Councils were called to officially codify the theological beliefs of the church and a movement was put in place to finalize the exact books that would make up the New Testament.
These councils and the creeds they produced articulated what I believe to be the most beautiful, truthful theology ever written (see Nicene Creed). However, shortly after the creeds were published those who dissented on any point of the creeds were labeled heretics. A little later blood began to be spilled over internal debates within Christian theology. Eventually, armies would do battle over rather small points of theology. All this in the name of unity and truth.How was it that those who could see the truth of God the most clearly could get the ethics so wrong? I am reminded of the same phenomenon which occurred during the creation of the United States of America. In those days, no one articulated the case for human freedom better than Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence in which he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Jefferson also owned slaves. How is it that the man whose writing paved the way for democracy and the abolition of slavery could not see how his words applied to his own life?
I wonder what United Methodists can learn about ministry in the 21st century from Christianity’s greatest theologians from the 4th Century and the United States’ Founding Fathers?
Is there a way we can step back and look at our daily way of living in such a way that allows us not to marginalize others even as we lift up the truth of a God who lifts up the marginalized? I believe there is.
What if the Nicene theologians had gone ahead and written the creed without excommunicating the loyal opposition? What if they had stood up to Constantine for their Christian brothers and sisters of other theological persuasions and told him “What God has joined together let no empire put asunder!” What if they had trusted that over time the truth would gradually win out in the end? What if they had declared that declaring another Christian a heretic is heretical? What if they had found a way to articulate a very orthodox faith while remaining in fellowship with unorthodox Christians.
Already in the first 3 centuries we see that the Christian community was moving towards a quite orthodox expression of faith. The churches were organically working together to question the authority of false Gospels written in the 2nd century and giving priority to the earliest Gospels written in the 1st century by those closest to Christ. By talking, working, and debating with one another, they were beginning to understand more about the Trinitarian nature of God, the divine and human nature of Christ, and the work of the Holy Spirit. Yet until Constantine got a hold of the church, the church did not see the need to kick out the losers of the debates.
In the 21st Century in which once again Christianity finds itself to no longer be the official religion of the land, we will need a looser confederation of churches that unites us in mission while allowing for increased diversity in local expression. One way or another, this will happen in the United Methodist Church. It will either happen by giving churches the ability to exhibit increased diversity of opinion within the same denomination or it will occur by the development of new Wesleyan denominations which remain united institutionally through joint participation in the World Methodist Council.
Either way, God will use us to share the truth and grace of Jesus Christ with the world. My hope, however, is that we take the more adventurous path of staying together. I believe it to be the path our spiritual ancestors in Nicaea articulated but failed to travel and the path our divided world desperately needs to see a church walk. Let’s trust that over the long run history is biased towards the truth. If our brothers or sisters on the other side of the aisle are wrong theologically or ethically, then history will gradually move them towards different understandings without us removing our fellowship from them. Let’s be like the church in the first 3 centuries. Let’s be a part of a Christian movement that 2,000 years later the world still looks at with amazement.