I have been working on this post for some time and I am still not quite sure it is going to come together like I want. However, given the events of the last couple of weeks from church shootings to supreme court rulings to even my own denomination’s fundamentalism controversy, I thought this might be a good time to post it.
While we have argued about these things, I have heard many quote Phineas Bresee (founder of the Church of the Nazarenes) and John Wesley (founder of the Methodists) who said things like:
“Though we do not think alike, may we not love alike.” John Wesley
“On the great fundamentals we are all agreed. Pertaining to things not essential to salvation, we have liberty.” Phineas Bresee
“In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things love.” Attributed to both but traces back to Augustine.
These are great slogans. As banners they really work. They all hinge on clever grammatical structure and roll off the tongue quite well.
And at their heart, they try to characterize this concept of the “via media” which is Latin for “middle road.”
The “via media” is more of an attitude than an idea that emerged in 18th century England. The 17th century had been horribly bloody and tumultuous as Prostestants and Catholics took turns killing each other. After 100 years of debates that almost always ended in bloodshed, an unsettling calm took over the country as people decided, “We are going to still disagree and we are going to keep arguing and debating but we are going to stop killing each other over this religious stuff.”
This was the environment in which John Wesley was born. For him the via media was not so much an agreement to live and let live. It was a commitment to engage in debates that were as committed to love as they were to finding truth. If you read any of Wesley’s sermons (including his titled “The Via Media”) you will find that Wesley had very strong opinions and spoke passionately and firmly on them. But he hoped that his strong arguments and firey rhetoric would not get in the way of his love. Simply put, Wesley seems to be more concerned that we debate the non essentials lovingly than that we simply ignore them all together.
I see different via medias at work in our church today.
On the one hand, we have a small but growing group of younger, non confrontational types who think the “via media” means we have to stop having strong opinions all together. It means we need to get rid of any concept of established truth and agree to live and let live. We need to stop our silly debates, get rid of our frivolous opinions and, in the words of Big and Rich, “take a ride on the love train.”
In these circles, once an opinion is challenged, like, “I don’t think it is really that hot today,” all conversation stops until someone casually responds, “well we all have different definitions of hot” and everybody sighs in relief. The problem is that this fear of confrontation creates a culture where we never understand each other because we never present our real selves. We hide our passions and our thoughts and biases to the point where we are a shadow of ourselves. We avoid intimacy and understanding and our love never gets past the surface. This is hardly the love the Bible advocates for.
But then there is this other “via media” going on where certain groups say, “I (or we) decide what is essential.” In these circles church documents are ignored and the historic creeds are not recognized. In their place is set a book or an author or a group of beloved leaders whose sayings and teachings are “fundamental.” Everyone else is expected to completely agree or, quite literally, go to hell.
Don’t get me wrong, these groups claim to have a list of non essentials too. They just tend to be shallower things, like worship preferences, stances on going to movies, what clothes to wear to church, etc. It is almost as if these groups are saying, “We are agreed in the essentials and we give liberty just as long as you agree with what we say is essential.” The existence of these types of people seriously makes me wonder if we really are all agreed upon the fundamentals.
Regardless, both the conflict adverse and the angry dogmatics are operating on misunderstandings of what the “via media” really is. And in my conversations with both types and many in between, it is becoming increasingly hard for me to even figure out what we mean when we say, “in essentials unity, in non essentials liberty.” Those in the Church of the Nazarene have very different ideas about what should be on each list.
One group quotes the slogan to say we have no essentials whatsoever. The other quotes it to get you to agree to their fabricated list.
And I don’t know how we move forward. The recent happenings at NNU and at MNU certainly don’t give me any hope. But as I have thought about it over the last months, I have come up with a few suggestions that might help point the way.
First, we must reclaim our articles of faith and the ancient creeds as our essentials. These are the guiding documents of our faith and of our denomination and we need to stop telling people they can make up their own essentials or borrow someone else’s. When we say “essentials” we mean stated doctrines, ratified by our members. For that reason, we might alter our slogan to, “On the articles of faith and creeds we are all agreed” but then the thing gets super clunky and not as easy to memorize. Still, the essentials are not what you want to make up. They are the documents we have put together and ratified.
Second, we must stop avoiding each other. We need to meet face to face. I know the world is getting more silo oriented, where you can avoid those who do not share your opinions. I fight this temptation daily. In turn, social media has made it even harder to have a face to face conversation with whom you disagree. Instead we either just ignore each other or we plant bombs in the form of angry comments structured by lousy logic and stray Bible verses to serve as “proof texts.”
To be sure, we can ignore each other or throw lousy logic and proof texts around in face to face conversations. But at least the setting usually forces us to continue to be part of the conversation. Online, we can set the bomb and run. On a side note, this is why I delete comments on my blog that take the form of “bombs.”
Third, we must not be afraid of passionate debate. The “in non essentials liberty” does not mean we get to make up whatever we want to believe, even in the non essentials. It means we give each other the freedom to present their findings, experiences, logic and opinions in a loving way. It also means we respect each other enough to do the same ourselves. When we have given ourselves that liberty, we then listen to each other in a way that seeks understanding and discovers truth. And if, when the sun begins to set, we find that we still do not agree, then, yes, we fall back on Wesley’s great sentiment that we join our hearts and hands and try to do the work of the kingdom together.
Simply put, we have a lot of work to do.