Can Martin Luther Help Methodists Find Unity?

We United Methodists find ourselves deeply divided, on the surface, over issues of sexuality. However, as I argued in my last post I believe the division runs much wider and deeper, as many others have long argued as well. Ceaseless, however, are the calls for unity, especially from many of our top leaders. Vague, though, are those calls when it actually comes to how we may find ourselves united specifically.

From the stage of General Conference relentless were the calls to love, the implication that this is where we should find unity. Nonetheless, that would require agreement on how Christian love should actually be defined, and it was obvious that most of the calls to love were from progressives who believe that means fully accepting same-sex attraction and sexual relationships as good. Conservatives would obviously see this as affirmation without the gospel call to repentance for transformation for holy living.

Then there are those who seem to think that we can find unity in the mission of making disciples for Jesus, but this too is defined quite differently. What makes a disciple? What does a disciple of Jesus believe and how should they live? Conservatives and progressives would obviously answer these questions very differently.

Still others seem to believe that we can be united in doing all the good we can for as many as we can, such as helping the poor. I think we can work together in this regard, but only in terms of alleviating the symptoms by addressing immediate needs, because conservatives and progressives would probably find themselves deeply divided with regards to what they believe to be the root causes of those symptoms. We could work together to do good, but still work against each other when it comes to what we believe to be the underlying causes of the bad. For instance, does promoting gay marriage promote the good? What about abortion? Is it a blessing from God as some believe, or is it murder, as others of us believe? Does abortion promote societal good or is it an evil that leads to more societal ill? On another note, working together to do good in terms of providing immediate relief to those who suffer, such as providing mosquito nets to protect children in the third world from malaria laced mosquito bites, is a wonderful thing, but it doesn’t really require religious unity at all, as believers from various religions and non-believers alike can and do work together for such good things.

So where can we really find Christian unity in the bond of a deep and abiding peace and harmony withing the same household, so to speak? We can’t manufacture it through human ingenuity or cleverness; we can’t legislate it and magically make those who disagree agree. We must receive it as a gift, a gift of God, a gift of grace, by the Spirit of God, through faith. In other words, we can ultimately only find true unity in a common salvation.

Ephesians 2:8-10 says in a nutshell that we are saved BY grace, THROUGH faith, FOR good works. As hard as it has proven to be to not overemphasize one aspect of salvation at the expense of the others, we must hold these three aspects together. If we emphasize grace at the expense of faith and good works we may end up with a licentious universalism. If we thus overemphasize faith we may end up with what John Wesley called the faith of devils, a mere acknowledgment of God’s existence without obedience to his will. And an emphasis on works at the expense of grace and faith leads to self-righteous legalism and practical atheism. Salvation is first and foremost by God’s initiative and action in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Faith is the human response, itself a gift of God, which receives God’s grace, which in turn forgives our sins and transforms our hearts; and genuine faith manifests itself in good works, the byproduct or fruit of real faith.

In a sermon that turned into a small book, Martin Luther, in his “Treatise on Good Martin LutherWorks”, wrote about the importance of good works to correct those who took his teaching on justification by faith to mean that all good works were of no account or to be avoided. He also wrote to clarify just what the good works we are saved FOR are so as not to be confused with certain rituals of penance promoted by the medieval Catholic Church. In short, Luther taught that the good works FOR which we are saved BY grace, THROUGH faith are to be discerned in the Ten Commandments.

For Luther, faith exercised by grace, fulfills the first commandment, to worship no other gods other than God the Creator, revealed to Israel as Yahweh, the One who is Who He is. Obedience to the first commandment is the fruit of genuine faith in Christ and as such the first good work from which all other good works flow in obedience to the rest of the commandments. In fact, without genuine faith there is no genuine good works at all, because without faith doing what is in itself good is still sin, according to Luther. So doing good for our own glory rather than God’s, for instance, would be something along the lines of what he had in mind.

Now Luther obviously understood the Ten Commandments to be summary statements of the much broader moral law revealed elsewhere in Scripture. For example, he taught that the commandment to honor father and mother included obedience to all God-ordained authorities, such as church and government authorities. For a child to obey a teacher at school, for example, would be to keep that commandment as obeying mom and dad at home would be. Likewise he considered the commandment against adultery to include all sexual immorality as it was delineated in the rest of the Old Testament and recapitulated and more stringently specified in the New Testament in terms of God’s original intent in creation. So the commandment against adultery isn’t just about adultery, but all “unchastity”, as Luther expressed it.

Now the book of James, which Luther had to warm up to a bit after he discovered justification by faith, shows that the law, what we would call the moral law particularly, comes as a unified whole, to break one law is to break the law as a whole (James 2:8-13). In Jame’s case he is talking about showing partiality to the rich, which he says is a violation of the law to love your neighbor as yourself, which is itself a summary of what has been called the second table of the Ten Commandments dealing with relationships between people (The First table are the commandments that deal with our relationship with God). James goes on to show the unity of the law with the example of two of the Ten Commandments, name those against adultery and murder. The unity of the law comes from the fact that the same God gave each commandment as a reflection of his very own character, not as arbitrary rules that have no correspondence with reality, the reality of the Creator and the creation. To break one command is to break the law as whole, and to break the heart of the One whose heart it is a reflection of.

Likewise to reject one commandment is to reject the law as a whole, and to reject the law of God is to reject the God who gave the law. In other words, to reject the seventh commandment (the sixth according to Luther’s reckoning as he worked from a tradition that saw the prohibition against idolatry to be part of the first commandment), would be to also reject the first. We are not saved BY the law, but we are saved FOR the law, to live by it, in order to be holy as the One who saves us is holy. As Wesley reminded those so prone to antinomianism (lawlessness, about which the New Testament has nothing good to say, See Sermon 35), the apostle Paul taught that faith should not be construed in any way to make the law void, but that true faith establishes the law (Rom 3:31). Here is where we must find unity.

Last week I was discussing the state of the denomination and the results of the General Conference with some other United Methodist pastors. They all seemed to think that we could somehow still find unity even though we disagree over sexual ethics. When I probed a bit further, I asked whether we could really be “of the same mind, having the same love, being of full accord and of one mind” (Philp 2:2), as we are called to be, when some among us believe things like the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt. This is a belief expressed by ELCA pastor, Nadia Bolz-Weber, who is wildly popular among many of our younger clergy, but also among progressives in general, young or old. My colleague, who clearly views himself as a moderate, and clearly sees me as being on the extreme conservative side of things, said, without hesitation, yes we should be able to be unified with people like that.

I probed further, “so you think we can worship together and be in unified mission together as Christians with some who believe something like that and that we are all just worshiping the same God?” Again, my colleague who considers himself clearly within the moderate camp said, without hesitation, yes. He alluded to Paul’s preaching of the “unknown God” in Acts 17 as justification, which is really not even close to being a justification as Paul’s point was for the Athenians to stop practicing idolatry and trust in the Creator of all who will judge the world by Jesus, whom he raised from the dead.

Nonetheless, if the Wiccan goddess is Jesus’ aunt, then what does this say about the Trinity, and how can such faith be a fulfillment of the first commandment? Are all gods really the same God and are all gods worthy of worship? Was Elijah misguided to demand the Israelites choose between God and Baal, after all? Is this where we are to find unity? If so then we have to “reimagine” the first commandment to mean  something it obviously does not and cannot mean, or we must reject it altogether, which would really be what the former reimagining does anyway.

Obviously we are not united on the particulars of the seventh commandment; but when it comes right down to it, it doesn’t look like we are really even united on the particulars of the FIRST COMMANDMENT!

Luther said, one good work that fulfills the commandment to not take the name of the Lord in vain is “to oppose all false, seductive, and heretical teachings and any abuse of the clerical office and its power,” to stand against teachings that “use God’s name to contend with the holy name of God” (p.55). A syncretistic faith open to the worship of other gods along with Yahweh, is not “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3 ESV). For the Lord is God alone, and there is none other beside Him! (Isaiah 45:5)  He says, “Turn to me and be saved all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22). Here, and here alone, is where we can find genuine Christian unity born of the Spirit of the Living God in the bond of peace!

Some talk as if we are like a married couple, one of whom just can’t stand a night light (or a sleep mask), and the other who just can’t sleep without it, the night light that is. What if we really are more like a married couple, one of whom absolutely insists on an open marriage (Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors??), while the other insists on an absolutely exclusive relationship, forsaking all others, till death do them part? The former can stay married in the same house, even if they do have to sleep in separate rooms; the latter will need more than separate rooms, don’t you think? Unless one party converts to the other’s way of thinking.

The God revealed to and through Israel, and most fully in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, demands that we have no other gods before Him to bow down and serve them. Why? Because He is a jealous God, Who wants us for an exclusive relationship in worship of Him and Him alone, forsaking all others, and clinging only to Him through faith forever, and ever, and ever! Amen. From this faith will flow obedience to all of God’s good law and righteous requirements for a holy people. This is the obedience of faith to which we are called, and in which we will find unity.

“For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (I Cor 8:5-6).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s