When United Methodists behave like Galatians

When United Methodists behave like Galatians May 20, 2016

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My fellow Patheos blogger Eric Smith has a provocative blog post pairing the May 29th lectionary epistle reading with all the Twitter drama from the United Methodist General Conference. The reading is Galatians 1:1-12, where Paul launches into a tirade against the Galatians.

Eric makes the gutsy move of saying that Paul is like a first-century version of the proverbial know-it-all United Methodist pastor trolls on the Twitter feed:

“But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!” Paul simply does not allow for the possibility of another version of Christianity. He thinks–he KNOWS–that he has the right belief, the right practice, the right orthodoxy and orthopraxy of Christianity, and anyone who disagrees with him is categorically wrong. When faced with a different form of Christianity, Paul simply cannot countenance the difference.

Eric then has the audacity to say that “the church survived and flourished not because of Paul’s absolutist position, but in spite of it.” Wow!

The church exists today because countless variations of Christianity, innumerable understandings of God’s calling and God’s truth, flourished alongside each other, sprung up within and outside of each other, and merged and divided over the years. Paul’s vision of orthodox purity did not win the day. Paul’s vision was an ecclesiastical dead end; we are here today in part because of our diversity. Monocultures are vulnerable; ecosystems are robust, and Christianity is and has been an ecosystem, with intertwining, interdependent parts.

Now it may be the case that I’m just too cowardly to say Paul was wrong about something. I still put myself inside the boundaries of evangelical orthodoxy no matter how many times I’ve been farewelled from that club. I just don’t think Eric is being fair to Paul. As a provocative blog post reading against the grain of the text, it’s cool and thought-provoking for sure. But I honestly don’t see Paul as a doctrinal purist in the sense that today’s fundamentalists are. Paul tells Timothy that the purpose of doctrine is ” love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). The way we get Paul wrong is when we try to systematize his words into a moral legalism. He didn’t sit down to write the meticulously rationalistic treatises on theology within which later interpreters like John Calvin would snap him into their grids. He wrote passionate, pastorally contextual letters to try to rescue his sheep from the wolves he saw manipulating them.

The irony is that many of Paul’s evangelical interpreters today are behaving analogously to the “circumcision faction” (Galatians 2:12) with which Paul quarrels in his letters. Paul insists that “a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). His quarrel is with those who seek to establish their credibility through “circumcisions” instead of putting their trust in Christ. He says to them, “You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (Galatians 5:4-6). Usually we think of “justification by works” as doing good deeds, but can’t it also be believing the right stuff?

I have observed that many evangelicals today seem to seek ideological “circumcisions” a.k.a. orthodoxies by which they can be justified, and in so doing, cut themselves off from Christ. Notice that when Paul says the Galatians have fallen away from grace, it’s not because of their disobedience to the law; it’s because they seek their justification in the law. That was quite a shocking discovery for me. When Christians today seek to justify ourselves through our “orthodoxies,” we’re being just like the Galatians. It’s not that orthodoxy is unimportant. The problem is self-justification. If the foundation of Christian orthodoxy is that only Jesus’ blood can justify me, then seeking my justification in any ideological orthodoxy reveals I am unorthodox on Christianity’s most basic point.

When we actually put our trust in Christ for our justification, then we stop needing to prove how correct we are and how wrong everyone else is. Doctrinal disagreements become patient, humble conversations in which we continuously discern when to offer insights and when to leave things alone. People don’t change their minds because we make them look stupid. People change their minds when they are able to come to conclusions on their own based on the grace that others show them.

Paul’s basic point in his letter to the Galatians is trust in God’s grace instead of your good deeds, right opinions, etc. For the past two weeks, I’ve been asking myself how anybody witnessing the tumult of our General Conference would ever guess that United Methodist theology is built upon an emphasis on grace. If you don’t show grace to others, it doesn’t matter how many John Wesley sermons you’ve memorized and how flawless your exegesis is — you’re not orthodox. The only thing that counts is faith working through love. Paul’s words, not mine.

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