John Wesley & General Conference 2000
By Wesley Putnam
Tolerance has been a popular buzz-word for the past fifteen years. This has been particularly true in the United Methodist Church. Any time there has been a disagreement on a point of theology or morality, the response has invariably been, "Well, it's alright to have different views on this. After all, John Wesley said, 'If your heart is as my heart, give me your hand.'" There are some matters where this is really true. There can be differing preferences concerning styles of worship, modes of baptism, and methods of receiving communion. We can have different opinions regarding the meaning of some scripture passages or the timing of Christ's return. John Wesley affirmed, "As to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think."
But John Wesley was not advocating a sort of "Rodney King" philosophy that says, "Can't we all just get along?" In his sermon on the "Catholic Spirit," John Wesley says, "a catholic 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,' is a great curse, not a blessing; an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit, has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend them into one. Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of; who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together. Be convinced, that you have quite missed your way; you know not where you are. You think you are got into the very Spirit of Christ; when, in truth, you are nearer the spirit of Antichrist. Go, first, and learn the first elements of the gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.
What are some of the doctrines that are not negotiable? Foundational to our faith is the authority of scripture. This issue is at the heart of many of our struggles today. There are some who would say the Bible is no longer the standard for determining moral behavior or religious beliefs. They believe truth is determined by consensus. Their goal is that General Conference would have "discernment" sessions where delegates meet together to hear information gathered from various sources and then vote on what is truth. We are facing today a call from some in the church to tolerate what can not be tolerated, and to embrace and accept what cannot be embraced or accepted. There are places where we must stand strong and resist the temptation to compromise for the sake of peace.
Paul affirmed, "All scripture is God breathed...." The Bible is not a good book about God, it is God's Holy Word to us. We must not teach what it does not teach. We cannot condone what it condemns. To do so would "strike at the heart" of our faith.
Another area where we cannot compromise is our understanding of who Jesus is. Some biblical scholars have "decided" He was merely a good man who provided a good example to follow but clearly was not divine in any way. No! Jesus is the divine Son of God who came, not to point the way, but to be The Way. As Christians, we do not worship the memory of a dead teacher-we worship a risen, living Lord! Each of us must answer the question Jesus posed to Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" The answer upon which the church is built was, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God." Any other answer is simply not acceptable within the historical and biblical scope of Christianity.
Neither can we compromise on the mission of the Church. Jesus has called us to "Go into all the world making disciples of all nations...." We can't abandon that mission without abandoning our right to the name "Christian." Some would declare that all religions are equal. They tell us we are being narrow and intolerant when we preach that Jesus is the only way to God. Missions and evangelism for them has been redefined as social action and political activism minus an invitation to follow Christ. But, Jesus was the one who declared Himself to be "The Way, The Truth, and The Life." Just in case it was not clear, He added, "No one comes to the Father but through me." The message was also proclaimed in the book of Acts when the writer says, "There is salvation in no one else...." This message is our only message. Jesus Christ is Christianity. To abandon His message is to forfeit our faith.
For many, this may seem like a strange article. You might wonder, "Doesn't every Christian believe these things?" Sadly, the answer is there are many in our church who do not believe these foundational truths. There is not a single United Methodist seminary in America that teaches that Jesus is the only way to God. Many of our official boards and agencies base their ministries on the belief that all religions are equal. Nearly half of our clergy no longer believe that Jesus was physically raised from the dead, and many would reject the Bible as the sole means of determining moral behavior. As we move toward General Conference (to be held in Cleveland, OH, in May of 2000), there is a lot at stake. I, for one, cannot compromise. I want peace and unity in the United Methodist Church, but not at the expense of the essence of my Christian faith. We desperately need to intercede with prayer and fasting. God is the only one who can lead us out of such theological and moral confusion.
I know of at least three national ministries that are planning a prayer presence at General Conference. One ministry is gathering 2000 intercessors in Cleveland, one assigned to each delegate. Can you imagine what can happen in the midst of that kind of prayer? If you would like to participate in the prayer initiative for general conference, let us know, and we'll see to it that you get "plugged in."
I pray the United Methodist Church will reclaim her heritage and rediscover her mission. Will you join me in that prayer?
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