Narrow is the Way

Justus H. Hunter

Last fall Bishop Kenneth H. Carter, President of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church, published Embracing the Wideness: The Shared Convictions of The United Methodist Church. In recent months, Bishop Carter has emerged as a major proponent of the Commission on a Way Forward’s One Church Plan. Embracing the Wideness articulates the basic theological outlook which shapes and justifies his support of the One Church Plan.

Embracing the Wideness is a patchwork text. It moves in fits and starts, was evidently written here and there, for this and that occasion. Such writing befits the life of a Bishop. Though the text’s themes are occasionally underdeveloped and its organization at times untidy, Bishop Carter’s major commitments are clear enough.

The text has three general divisions. The first two chapters articulate, in various ways, Carter’s fundamental vision. In the first, he develops a “generous orthodoxy” which, the Bishop thinks, has the capacity to resolve all tensions confronting The United Methodist Church. The second chapter clarifies his vision by articulating several divisions generous orthodoxy could resolve. Five subsequent chapters gather resources from the Christian tradition and secular culture that shape Carter’s vision. Three chapters look to Scripture, one to Wesley, and another to Yuval Levin. Finally, Bishop Carter gives two practical implications of his fundamental vision. Chapter eight supports the local option, and chapter nine just resolution. All this is concluded in a pastoral reflection on bridges.

The heart of Bishop Carter’s thought aims at overcoming a problem. To put it theologically, Bishop Carter is worried the spirit of the world has invaded the church. More specifically, he worries the spirit of the world is dividing us from one another by pressing us toward opposed extremes, evident in America’s current political and cultural divisions. For Bishop Carter, the church, falling prey to specters like “the culture wars,” is threatened by a divisive world. And when the church falls into division, it fails to live as church.

Worry about division shapes the rhetorical barb, theological speculation, and practical suggestion of Embracing the Wideness. We need to learn the anatomy of peace, so we can resist our tendency to make war with one another. We need to seek a “third way,” lest we divide into two opposed camps. We need unity, lest we oppose covenant-keeping with justice-seeking. We need to retrieve the great Wesleyan “both-and” so we don’t fall for America’s “either-or.” We ought to pursue reconciliation through just resolution, rather than settle disputes through trials. We need to grant one another the freedom of the local option, not demand others conform to global standards. We need diversity and inclusion, not identity and division. The world offers plenty of the latter. We need to find our way to the former.

I found Embracing the Wideness utterly unconvincing. Bishop Carter’s readings of Scripture and tradition are forced. He is prone to characterize all our division as matters of emphasis. For example, in his early chapters he describes our disagreements as if they were simply competing emphases within one, single, coherent Methodist doctrine of grace. Progressives emphasize prevenient grace, conservatives justifying grace. Carter’s vision would hold all things together, in perfect balance. The claim is riddled with problems, both theoretical and practical. What we have is not a disagreement of emphasis within a singular, coherent doctrine of grace, but two finally opposed articulations of the way of salvation, and the doctrine of grace within it. There is no difference to be split here, no tensions to be brought to rest. Or if there is a path through, Bishop Carter has not articulated it for us. At the very points where we need precise, definitive articulations of doctrine, when we need arguments, we get increasingly abstract categories like “grace” and “love.” But concrete disagreements cannot be resolved by platitudes and abstractions, no matter how familiar they sound. The terms must be given substance, their capacity to resolve our tensions demonstrated, arguments and warrant supplied. Rather than taking up this work, Embracing the Wideness insists, repeatedly, that substantive disagreements aren’t real, if only we have eyes to see. Unfortunately, we are being asked to see what has not been shown.

Mainline Protestantism has always loved the division narrative. There is no better way to demonstrate one’s liberality of mind than to find putatively intractable divisions and resolving them. But we’ve been groomed for this narrative. We’ve been taught to think of ourselves as the great both-and, conjunctive, balanced thinkers of Christianity. We need to recognize the narrative for what it is, and what it costs. It is an affront to any of us who see that substantive disagreements exist. And no matter how much we wish it were otherwise, to go on as if it weren’t is to live in denial. As a result, we undermine all the peculiar beliefs and practices that constitute our tradition. Our traditions grow thin; they widen out until they crack.

Embracing the Wideness is not without good moments. The most compelling are Bishop Carter’s repeated insistence that bearing with one another in love is a means of grace. As Carter recognizes, formal division is always accompanied by loss. Notably, formal division costs us one opportunity to bear with the faults of the others, as they bear with our own. As early Methodists learned to bear with one another in classes and bands, if and when we reach the point of division we must work to form a community once again marked by the power of bearing with one another. The problem with Bishop Carter’s approach is that we will never become such a community by thinning out our tradition. To become a community that bears with one another, we need robust doctrine and immersive practice. We will not be remolded into those who bear one another faults on our own. We need a thick tradition.

This brings me to Bishop Carter’s attempt to rebrand orthodoxy. In Embracing the Wideness, his concept of orthodoxy is haunted by worry about the problem of division. Bishop Carter repeats his anxiety about what he calls “the dark side of orthodoxy.” Orthodoxy shows its dark side when it serves the spirit of division. Hence the need, not for orthodoxy plain and simple, but for a “generous orthodoxy.” As Carter puts it, “Generosity acknowledges a dark side to orthodoxy, one that draws too sharp a division and too strong a boundary.” And again, later: “the dark side of orthodoxy is the temptation to include some and to exclude others in the life of the church.” Boundaries and exclusion, hallmarks of worldly division, threaten the right teachings of the church. Orthodoxy has a dark side of division. Generous orthodoxy is a servant of unity.

What is this generous orthodoxy? Let’s be perfectly honest. It is the old Methodist pluralism clothed in traditional garb. It’s distinguishing mark is its ability think and let think. Orthodoxy unflinchingly preserves the mystery of the hypostatic union by insisting upon our total reliance upon grace, reminding us our hearts and minds are not to be trusted, holding out the possibility of sharing in God’s own holiness through sanctification. Alternatively, generous orthodoxy is chiefly characterized by its willingness not to make too much of these ideas, by its ability to think and let think. It is wide. It gives latitude to the many, the plurality.

Of course, The United Methodist Church has been a pluralist tradition since its founding in 1968. This is nowhere more evident than in “Our Theological Task,” which balks at the opportunity for establishing with clarity the binding confessions that shape and sustain a Methodist way of living and thinking. Too often, the only thing that makes United Methodist doctrine peculiar is its peculiar interest in loosening its own bonds.

But Wesley was no pluralist. Were he a proponent of pluralism, he wouldn’t have saddled us with a confession like the Articles of Religion. His catholic spirit in no way weakened his resolve for consistent teaching and distinctive doctrine. A truly Wesleyan theology should be a confessional theology. Of course, like all good Christians, we do not think ourselves the only body of Christians. Like all good Christians, this belief should not shake our resolve to maintain our peculiar teachings one iota. Protestantism’s think-and-let-think spirit coincides with its robust confessionalism. The recognition of Christ in those outside Methodism in no way vitiates the necessity for a robustly doctrinal, immersively practiced Methodism.

Orthodoxy doesn’t need to be rebranded as “generous.” Such rebranding belies our misunderstanding of what the church’s teachings are really about. It substitutes a cultural account of orthodoxy for a theological one. Of course, we should expect right teaching to produce people eager to extend grace to others. But it cannot be reduced to that. We need orthodoxy to teach us how it is that God makes us people eager to extend grace to others. We need orthodoxy to teach us what that grace is. We need orthodoxy on its own terms – orthodoxy, plain and simple.

Orthodoxy, plain and simple, is essentially generous. But its generosity does not hinge upon our ability to split the difference of cultural division. Its generosity must be articulated theologically. Orthodoxy is generous because it is a gift from God. The church’s teaching, preserved in our doctrinal standards, only exists because of the generosity of the God it teaches. Our teaching is the gift of the Son Himself, sent from the Father. That teaching is preserved by the Spirit, gift of the Father and Son. Indeed, to receive these teachings is to share in God. It is to have the mind of Christ in you, as St. Paul put it.

This theological account of orthodoxy underlies its two chief expressions in the Christian tradition. First, orthodoxy names the theological consensus of the early church. It names the theological vision that underlies the seven ecumenical councils – the vision of God and Christ which underlie Nicaea (I & II), Chalcedon, Ephesus, and the three councils of Constantinople. Orthodoxy is a commitment to that fundamental vision of Jesus Christ, fully divine and fully human, as radical and remaking an article for faith as one could imagine. Second, we speak of the great orthodoxies of the reformation period. We think of the church leaders and theologians who, like John Wesley and the Anglican divines who shaped his thought, held that pursuit of Christ requires submission to a robust confession. Pursuit of Christ requires a confession that not only touches on all theological topics and practical matters, as our Articles do, but provokes us to go on in pursuit of a life ordered by those confessions.

Both the conciliar and reformation expressions of orthodoxy share two essential features. First, they are receptive. They are oriented to the traditions of the past which find their source in the living Christ whose Spirit preserves within the church all things necessary for salvation. Orthodoxy, then, is always traditional. It is always oriented to the past. It trusts, defers to those who have gone before. Second, they are expansive. The teaching orthodoxy preserves is propulsive. Its enemies try to hold it back, insist it cannot speak to certain questions. But it would answer all the questions we face, as it would answer all the questions our children and grandchildren could face. The historic teachings of the church preserve the central mysteries of the faith that would remake all our thought. They would remake all of us. They long for it. But only by holding fast to the gift of orthodoxy does it become possible for us to be remade into the likeness of Christ, who bears our faults so that we might become faultless.

And there is the critical issue. The church does not exist to hold together the poles of cultural division. It does not need the two-way divisions of the world to make sense of itself. It is not reducible to a principle of moderation. Though we must find ways to bear with one another’s faults in this world, fault-bearing will always be provisional. Fault-bearing cannot be the church’s essence, otherwise the church could not exist in the life to come, when we will all live without fault. The church is not simply the fault-bearing community. It is the community whose destination is faultless. Fault-bearing is a means to that end, but it is not the end. The early Methodists met in bands, not just to bear with one another. They met in bands so they might become freed from the power of canceled sin. Bishop Carter is right to remind us that fault-bearing is a means of grace. But grace will make so much more of us.

If Methodism is to have a rich future, it needs to be bound by its confessions and immersed in its peculiar practices. It needs to leave off the disintegration of a thinned tradition, the fruit of so many years under the pluralist banner. It needs less wideness. It needs depth. We need to find a narrower way. “Narrow is the gate, and perilous the path,” Christ says. Not many find it. But it is the sure path to holiness, a life without fault.