Jesus Christ Is Lord: A Response To Steve Manksar’s “Love Your Neighbor . . .”

N.B.: Not only is Rev. Steve Manskar the head of Covenenant Discipleship for the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship. He was a classmate of mine at Wesley Theological Seminary, and I do believe I have a picture of him at my wedding reception (although I may be wrong about that).  I have always had a great deal of respect for Steve, his work, and his faithfulness expressed in his yearly devotionals.  The criticisms I have here are rooted more in theological differences than anything personal.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:11-16

The United Methodist Church’s recent marketing tag line, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors: the People of The United Methodist Church” is a prime example. It implies that United Methodist congregations are open to all expressions of faith, all ideas, and all people. The slogan intentionally downplays the denomination’s historic identity in Jesus Christ and his mission. It deliberately sets Jesus aside in order to convince the world that openness and inclusiveness are the denomination’s most important values.

Every church should have open hearts, minds, and doors. Inclusiveness is an important attribute of the church. The doors of the church must be open to everyone. The hearts and minds of the people should be open to accept and love all people as they are. We need also to understand that true, universal inclusiveness and openness are possible only when Jesus Christ is Lord of the church. Such virtue is possible only when hearts are open to his grace and the power of the Holy Spirit to work through each life to make open hearts, minds, and doors a genuine reality. This means that the church must understand that true inclusiveness and openness are the fruit of a people who pursue holiness of heart and life.

As admirable as inclusiveness is, when it replaces holiness as the telos of the church we end up with a people who possess little or no understanding of basic Christian doctrine or discipline. – Rev. Steven Manskar, “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself”, wesleyeanleadership.com, December 17, 2014

For quite some time now, we United Methodists have been hearing and reading that ours is a denomination that has lost its way.  We are too liberal.  We try too hard to “fit in” to our current historical moment.  We have lost contact with our historic traditions.  Worst of all, we do now know our doctrinal roots, which ground our teaching, our liturgy, our mission, and most of all our sense of ourselves.  The call for some kind of renewal, a new Pentecost, a revival of our historic roots in the teaching, preaching, practice of ministry, and most of all that unique Wesleyan word discipline are variously offered as the key to getting ourselves back on track.  Manskar’s criticism of our claim of openness as expressed in our marketing slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” is neither new, nor in the end, all that original.  They are criticisms similar in spirit if not in content to those I’ve made myself many times right here on these pages.

That with which I take issue, however, is the same perspective with which I have criticized Rev. John Meunier, another of those to whom I refer as “Wesleyan Fundamentalists”.  They are folks who turn to Wesley for inspiration, for which they should be commended.  More of us need to read Wesley more often.  Yet, we must do so with discernment, with thoughtfulness, and most of all remembering John Wesley is not an early-21st century Christian, but a mid-18th century Christian.  It takes a whole lot of exegetical work, an honest historical criticism, and a hermeneutics of translation and reinterpretation to take the dead words from a long-dead man and make them live for us, here in our place and time.

Let us consider, specifically, Manskar’s emphasis upon “doctrine” as a cornerstone to strengthening our churches and – perhaps – helping spearhead a Methodist revival.  There is nothing wrong with doctrine.  It is, without a doubt, what helps shape the identity of the Christian Churches.  In particular our historic emphases, highlighted in our Book of Discipline make it clear how it is we United Methodists are different from other parts of the Body of Christ.  Yet, I continually wonder, is it necessary to lead with doctrine?  This, of course, begs the question of Manskar’s description of our churches as filled with those who are either ignorant or forgetful of our doctrine.  I would argue that is not only an insulting description of our congregations; it demeans the work of clergy and laity alike who keep the flame of proper teaching alive in times and places where it can look impossible.  That we do not act like or look like the classes and churches Wesley originally envisioned is not the fault of doctrinal forgetfulness.  It is the result of changes in time, historical context, socio-economic conditions, cultural shifts, and even theological and Biblical understanding that would make much of our world, including our churches unrecognizable to people from the 18th century.

To be faithful to Wesley means to be faithful to the spirit of Wesley.  Recognizing the need for a disciplined approach to the Christian life, Wesley first understood he had to evangelize a largely unChristian nation.  To do so, he had to take his message to the people, rather than expect them to come to him or the churches.  While repeatedly being denied pulpit time was one of the reasons for Wesley’s turn to preaching outdoors, it was also a missional approach to ministry that we United Methodists have not only lost, but I would argue we fear it.  Expecting people to approach our old, stodgy, mostly white churches, hearing the demands placed upon them for everything from proper speech through proper behavior while in worship to being quiet and listening rather than asking questions is the quickest way to continue to lose members.  Wesley stood at the openings of mines, with dirty, smelly, probably drunken miners walking in and out past him, preaching his message down the mine shafts, his words echoing off the walls to the deepest places the coal could be reached.  Wesley stood in village squares and started preaching.  People gathered.  Sometimes they were clean and neat; other times they weren’t.  Wesley didn’t tell the dirty, the drunkards, the hecklers to go home.  He just kept on preaching.

Wesley preached and ministered in the Spirit of Christ.  It is this, I would argue, that we must emulate and imitate, rather than focus so much attention of “doctrine” and “discipline”.  As Manskar made clear, Wesley knew that living the Christian life is a life-long process.  Yes, it calls for focus on proper teaching.  It most especially takes discipline.  Doing anything for a long period of time does so.  Yet, we must first open our doors to all those who might just want to hear our message, but cannot overcome the stumbling blocks we have set out for them.  Proper dress and behavior.  Proper language and decorum.  Not speaking so their stories are affirmed but listening because the only story that matters is the one we have to tell them.  If this is the path we take, insisting on placing doctrine and discipline ahead of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, then we shall surely fail, but ironically precisely because we no longer hold fast to our historic faith, preferring to place our trust in methods and teachings before the Living Head of the Body of Christ.

Yet, thank God for all of us, Wesleyan Fundamentalists and post-modernists alike, for older clergy and laity far too stuck in their ways to change and young people yearning for change, Jesus Christ is head of the Body whether or not we accept that reality or not.  The Spirit blows where it will.  It is up to us to follow the bending trees and rolling leaves back to their source, where we might just discover those outcast, forgotten, ignored, dirty, drunken and drug-addled, who yearn to hear the Word of Life.  They first, however, want their stories, their lives, affirmed by having someone listen and say, “Yes.  Even you are a beloved child of God.”  These are people who may well know the Good News.  What they have yet to hear from our mainline churches is that this is Good News for them, because we have spent far too much time worrying about sex and who’s in and who’s out and things like doctrine to hear the cries from so many just to listen.

I do not believe we have really lost our way, because Christ is still the Head of the Church, which is His Body.  I do not believe the Lordship of Christ is mitigated one bit by our confusion, our inability to see and hear the signs of the times, or our willingness to change to meet them.  I do not believe we are “enculturated” the least little bit; on the contrary, I believe we are so far outside current socio-cultural trends that we aren’t so much unrecognizable as irrelevant.  Indeed, we need to be more enculturated rather than less.  We need to speak the idiomatic slang of the day; we need to grow comfortable with what scholar Daniel White Hodge calls “the neo-secular sacred”, which often includes all the ugliness, profanity, and vulgarity that is our sinful world.  It is precisely that world to which we are sent by the Great Commission, as well as our own United Methodist Mission Statement.  It is precisely that world that God loves, that God acted to save, and for which God is patient, wishing to bring all to salvation.  Worrying overmuch about things like “doctrine” and “discipline” without remembering who’s in charge, and that these things only have their place once we learn how to listen and live in our much-changed reality, that’s the surest way not only to continuing to shrink, but worse – irrelevance.  Not that the Good News is irrelevant.  Rather that we, United Methodists, would be considered irrelevant precisely because we would rather others change to suit our needs before we do the work of looking and listening and venturing outside the comfortable walls of our old church buildings and seeing with the eyes of faith what is possible.

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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