A Pastor’s Dilemma: When I Disagree With My Heroes

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John Wesley is my patron saint.  I have spent hours of my life reading his sermons, letters and journal entries.  Those hours double, maybe even triple, when you include the amount of things I have read about Wesley.  I am even reading a book now that is a collection of devotionals from Wesley’s writings.  Furthermore, I have written well over 20 papers about Wesley.  I have spoken about Wesley in several sermons, almost all of them and now I am even writing one more blog post about him.  I also sing John’s brother’s (Charles) hymns and spend hours searching the internet to find obscure Charles’ poems that help inform my understanding of Wesleyan theology.  To top it all off, I go to weekend conferences that are named after John Wesley!

I am proud to call myself Wesleyan/Arminian, with ultra emphasis on the Wesleyan.  I am a proud heir of his ministry and theology.

But I disagree with John Wesley.  First of all, I think he was kind of mean, maybe meaner than a Christian should be.  I had a seminary professor who said, “you would love to hear Wesley preach but don’t go out for coffee with him.”  The implication was that Wesley was not easy to get along with.

It was probably because of that meanness that John Wesley also had a lousy marriage.  Rumor has it he didn’t know his wife even died until months after the fact.  Lying behind that practice, or lack thereof, he had a pretty low view of marriage in general.  He wrote several letters to the betrothed, begging them not to go through with their weddings so that they can remain single and free for Jesus.  (Okay, I admit there are days when I do wonder if he has a point there.)

Wesley also said things about the use of Scripture that I am not sure I agree with and he also seemed to highly prioritize the penal substitution view of the atonement, which I highly de-emphasize.

Once in awhile people in my tradition will get into a theological or political debate and one person will pull out a Wesley quote that somehow pertains to the debate topic.  This person will do so with a smug satisfaction, as if by just mentioning Wesley they have won the debate.  When they do that, I always wonder if they are promoting Wesley’s words to the level of Scriptural infallibility, as if everything Wesley said was somehow divinely inspired and inerrant in every way.

And Christians don’t do this with just John Wesley.  Calvinists do it with Calvin.  Lutherans do it with Luther.  Some of us do it with Augustine (with whom I disagree on almost everything) or Irenaeus (whom I like a lot).  A lot of us do it with C.S. Lewis or A.W. Tozer.  We even do it with the living, people like Pope Francis, Timothy Keller, Scot McKnight, James Dobson, etc.  And, very disturbingly, a lot of Christians have begun doing it with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, even Ronald Reagan and the like.  We have this list of so called “authorities” and when we get into debates we name drop as if to say, “This person is God and they are right about everything and therefore you are wrong!”

I don’t think it works like that.  In fact, I wonder if what lies behind the “appeal to authority” is a misplaced faith.  Put another way, I wonder if we are promoting our heroes to the level of deities.  When we go further and use the very slippery adjective “biblical” to describe their works, I am wondering if we are trying to say that their writings were infallible and inerrant and should be added to the words of Scripture as a sort of 3rd or “Newer than New” testament.

For this reason I am always a bit relieved when I find something questionable written or said by my heroes.  Now that does not mean I am right and they are wrong.  Indeed they may be and probably are more accurate but the very fact I disagree with them means I am not worshiping them or elevating their works to the level of the Scriptures.

In fact, I might take one more step and argue that unless you do find something with which you disagree than you are, by de facto, claiming that this author is God and their works are sacred Scriptures.

And I am not sure we want to do that as faithful Christians.

That was just a thought for a January Monday morning.

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Sola Fides: A Wesleyan Pastor’s Return to Faith

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I grew up in what some people still call a faith tradition.  I was taught that it is by grace we have been saved (read Romans) and that grace is sort of activated through faith.  That is standard 4 year old Sunday School terminology in the Evangelical world.

It was reinforced in every grade and every age until I went to college where over time faith took a back seat to every Wesleyan’s favorite buzz word, “love.”  In college and seminary we talked a lot about love.  Love became that word that both began and ended all theological discussions and debates.

So now when I read Scripture my head just naturally bolds and underlines the word “love” in the text.  If love appears in any pericope, I know what my sermon is going to be about.  If it doesn’t appear, I try hard to make it appear, sometimes a bit too hard.

And I think our tradition is justified in that hermeneutic.  After all the great Apostle Paul himself said, “Now three things remain:  Faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love.”  Love is more important than faith, more important than grace, more important than doctrine and knowledge and data.  Love is the crowning virtue, the eternal truth, the reconciling doctrine.  See, just that one verse is enough to get me waxing poetic about love.  I guess you could say that I am in love with love.

And to my great frustration, it would seem the other half of evangelicalism, namely the Calvinist half, doesn’t agree with us Wesleyans on that.  Actually the Calvinists have become so numerous in Evangelical circles that they are not half of us.  They are 9/10s of the movement.

And this huge majority just likes faith better than love.  They talk about it more.  They bold and underline “faith” in the text.  if faith isn’t in the text they find a way to put it there.  And every one of their sermons quickly follow behind, adopting the mantra, “believe or be damned.”  Now, I know that is not a fair generalization but it does seem to at least describe the majority of their tradition.

Lately as I have been reading and studying Exodus, and through Exodus revisiting what Paul has to say about laws, works, circumcision, Abraham, Moses and the old covenant, I have rediscovered they may be onto something.  Faith has incredible value.  After all, “Abraham had faith in God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”

As I have studied that one verse and how Paul uses it, I have come to believe that faith didn’t allow God to overlook Abraham’s sins, but faith made Abraham stop sinning.  Faith is what makes us holy and righteous.  Faith is what makes us innocent, though we be guilty.  Simply put, as a good Arminian, this is imparted righteousness, not just imputed.

If I am right about this, that means faith is about holiness and holiness, in turn, is activated by faith.  If we want to express holy love, we must first trust God.  In fact, love without trust is not very loving.  You might say that faith without works is dead and love without faith is six feet under.

And therein lies one of the problems of the entire Evangelical tradition.  The great Reformers, Luther and Calvin and Zwingli, fully understood that faith meant trust.  But their heirs, gradually over many centuries, started defining faith as a mental assent to doctrine.  So now when we talk about faith, we are not preaching trust, we are instead claiming that “by correct doctrine you are saved, not works.”

As I have talked to people who preach this false faith, I have come to believe that they think the entrance room to heaven is going to be an SAT exam room.  You will be given a test with a bunch of true false and multiple choice questions and if you don’t pass it, you are going the other way.

But faith isn’t about doctrine.  It is about trust.  We trust God like we would trust any employer, any parent, hopefully any spouse.  We trust that God has our best and the best of the world in mind.  We trust that God created the cosmos and so can save said cosmos.  We trust God to provide for us when we are starving in a desert.  We trust God not to kill us for petty reasons.  We trust this God to heal us, if not in the present, than in eternity.  And, yes, we trust God to raise us from the dead after sin has claimed our mortal lives.

Faith is all about trust.  And when we trust God enough to enter into a loving relationship with God, we become holy.  God’s holy love emanates out to us and saturates us so that we become a people not defined by our hatreds or lusts but by a trusting obedience in the God who created us and everything else.

Correct doctrine will not save you.  The tongues of men and of angels will not save you.  Good works definitely won’t save you.  Only God will save you and only if you trust Him and out of that trust, obey.