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Living in the Tension

by Benjamin S. Sharpe, Jr.

Christian teaching exists in a tension between irenic theology and polemic theology.  To most of us this is a pretty arcane declaration, so let me define the terms.

Irenic theology builds bridges to the prevailing culture in order to offer those outside the Faith a means of crossing over into Christian discipleship. It is by nature inclusive.

Polemic theology delineates the boundaries of the Faith and is concerned with identifying what lies within the Faith and what is alien and outside Christian belief and practice.  It is by nature exclusive.

These two exist in tension and the Church is served best when it walks the narrow way between these two integral forms of classic God-talk.  When the tension breaks down and one side prevails the results are disastrous.  If polemic theology overwhelms its inclusive counterpart then the Church becomes exclusive and self-absorbed, ignoring the world which Christ loved and came to save.

If irenic theology prevails, the dividing line between the Church and world dissolves to the point that what is foundationally Christian and necessary for faith and practice are washed away by the inrushing torrent of secular thought, attitudes and actions.

From earliest times the Church has sought to preserve the struggle between these two forces.  The tension is obvious in the Scriptures of the New Testament.  Luke's Gospel is irenic in nature: it appealed to the Hellenistic world by emphasizing Christ's all-embracing love and acceptance.

The Revelation, on the other hand, is a supremely polemical work that rigidly defines the allegiance of the Church to Christ alone and presents the secular culture, and its political institutions, as demonically controlled.  The Revelator declares that there can be no intimate connection between the Christian believer and the godless culture.

The same tension was evident again with the approach taken by the Church Fathers.  Origen sought to use the most influential philosophy of his day, Neoplatonism, to offer the secular world a means of understanding the Christian Faith and for Christians to relate to the surrounding culture. Tertullian, on the other hand, was the arch-polemicist who constantly struggled to show the Church that it was fundamentally separate and distinct from the wicked and perverse generation in which it existed.

The Church has claimed both of these Fathers' approaches over the years in order to preserve the tension between the irenic and polemic. Yet it is a telling fact that neither Tertullian, nor Origen were elevated to sainthood by the early church.  Why?  Because they lived outside the tension at the extremes of their particular brands of theology.

Now all of this is relevant to where the United Methodist Church finds itself today.  Wesley understood the need to preserve theological tension.  He rejected the momentum to turn the Methodist movement into just another exclusive sect.  Yet he also refused to destroy the defining boundaries of the Faith: i.e. the ancient Creeds and Confessions of the Church.

In his tract, "The Character of a Methodist", Wesley overtly rejects sectarianism.  Here Wesley states: And so I beg you, let all true Christians remain united: let us not be divided among ourselves.  Is your heart right as my heart is with yours?  I ask no further question; give me your hand.  For the sake of mere opinions or terms, let us not destroy the work of God.

Yet in his sermon "The Catholic Spirit" Wesley resisted the temptation to remove the membrane of classical Christian doctrine that protects the integrity of the Faith.  According to the founder of Methodism the "catholic spirit", or in our terms, the inclusive spirit, '...is not an indifference to all opinions: this is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven.  This unsettledness of thought, this being "driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine," it is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism.   A man of truly catholic spirit...is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine....He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend them into one.'

How does this speak to us today?  I believe the United Methodist Church has lost the tension between the drive to embrace and relate to the world, and the impetus to define what is unique and necessary to Christian faith and practice.  We have wholly gone over to embrace the irenic branch of  Christian thought.  That's why, in an attempt to present themselves as "inclusive" and "accepting" fifteen bishops of the UMC, who are solemnly charged with the protection and transmission of the Faith once and for all delivered to the saints, can blithely ignore this historic Faith and reject the Church's teaching on Christian sexual ethics.  That's why so many people in our church view something like the Confessing Movement as a threat or insist that the United Methodist Church is not a confessional church.

When we refuse to live in the tension between the exclusive claims of Christ and His all-inclusive love we take the way of theological sloth.  We need influences such as the Confessing Movement to restore the theological tension to the church.  Within that tension the Holy Spirit creates a vibrant believing community that is faithful to the essential elements of Christian doctrine and yet is simultaneously driven to reach out beyond itself to bring wholeness to a broken world.


The Rev. Benjamin S. Sharpe Jr. is:

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