As the United Methodist Church continually grows more inwardly polemical towards one another surrounding theological and political issues, there seems to be a rise in a false dichotomy that puts God’s two defining characteristics at odds with one another. In this ever increasing hostile climate is this idea that if you’re too holy then you can’t love your neighbor, and if you’re too focused on loving your neighbor then you can’t be holy. However, as the Church, the Body of Christ redeemed by His blood, we are called to be both holy and loving. Therefore, in the Next Methodism, it is my hope that the Christian who call themselves Methodist would take seriously the charges of God to be both holy and loving.
In Mark 12: 28-34, a scribe asks Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Now, Jesus had 613 commands from the Jewish law to pick from; however, there was one commandment that every faithful Jew repeated twice a day: “Hear, O Israel: YHWH our God, YHWH is one. You shall love YHWH with all your soul and with all you might.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Side note: the New Testament writers more often than not quote from the Greek Septuagint, which is why the Gospels say, “…heart…soul…mind…and strength.” This doesn’t change the meaning of the passage since both are meant to encapsulate that a person loves God with their entire being.) Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to remember who God is, to put him first, and to love Him completely. However, Jesus doesn’t stop at the Shema, He continues by adding Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” By answering in this way, Jesus commands and affirms that those who love God will love their neighbor. The God who is faithful in keeping His covenant asks the objects of his love to love Him and other human beings too.
However, it doesn’t end there: “And the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” There have been some who have taught that this means Jesus put relationships over rules every time. However, by picking two commandments, Jesus wasn’t dismissing the 611 other commandments. Rather, Jesus was summarizing the Law, including the Ten Commandments, into two categories. The Sacrificial Laws of the Old Testament kept us in the game until Christ came as the final and ultimate sacrifice. It is by the death and resurrection of Christ that we can be in right relationship with God. So we can’t just dismiss the Law as it no longer matters.
John Wesley taught that the Law was used in two ways in a believer’s life. First, the Law was used to convince and convicted us of sin. In doing so, the Law opens up our eyes to our need of grace and drives us to the Gospel, which is Jesus himself. Once we are put into right relationship with God through faith in the works of Christ, the Christian is then driven back to the Law. But this time, the believer doesn’t view the Law as something that must be kept to be saved; rather, the Law becomes like wedding vows that lead to the flourishing of a relationship. Or as David puts it in Psalm 119:103: How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! For the believer, the Law is no longer a way to earn one’s salvation, but it is how we remain in this right relationship with God, and in turn with our fellow brothers and sisters. The Law is how we learn how to love God and neighbor.
However, aforementioned, there is this ever increasing dichotomy that either you can be holy or you can be loving. Normally, Progressives/Liberals focus more on love at the cost of holiness, while Orthodox/Conservatives focus more on holiness and seem less loving. I’m not saying this is always true, but it seems to be the perceived norm in most situations. As the People of God, we should be marked by both holiness and love. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice the one for the other, but our holiness should drive us to be more loving, and our love should drive us to be more holy. So how are we to be holy and loving?
The overarching story of the bible is that God created humanity in his image, followed by our fall from grace due to the first sin. Wesley argues that because of sin we have now been born in the image of the devil. The rest of the Bible is about God’s work in redeeming and restoring us back into the Image of God. Therefore, those who are born again are born into the image of Christ. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” If we were created in the Image of God and redeemed into the Image of Christ, then we should be like God both holy and loving.
As many know, and as the Rev. Dr. David F Watson can attest, I toe the line of being both a Wesleyan and a Calvinist. Now, many would argue that it isn’t possible to hold to both systems at the same time, and I would disagree, but that’s not the point of this post. One thing we can learn from Calvinist is how we can hold both the Love of God and the Holiness of God in tandem. This point doesn’t really matter where you stand on predestination and reprobation, rather it is to prove that God is both holy and loving. Unless you’re a Universalist, you probably believe that God will save some and condemn others. Calvinism teaches that there is a point to the elect and the reprobate. The elect show the loving side of God to save us in spite of our sin and unrighteousness. The reprobate shows the holiness (or righteousness) of God by punishing sin. Together, the elect and the reprobate reveal the whole character of God that He is both loving and holy.
There is a growing belief in our culture that it is unloving and sometimes even hateful to disagree with someone. To tell them that they are wrong is a hateful act. Jesus himself wouldn’t have been politically correct in today’s culture. In Matthew 22, the Sadducees asked Jesus a ridiculous question about the Resurrection. They use this ridiculous example of 7 brothers marrying the same woman because the previous brothers died (in accordance with Jewish Law). First off, there no way if I was the third brother, let alone the seventh, that I would marry this woman. But Jesus answers: “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Jesus straight tells them they are wrong for what they believe, and they are wrong because they do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God. Therefore, if Jesus tells people they have the wrong belief, then it is loving to do so. If someone believes in something that destroys human flourishing and relationship with God, it is loving to tell them they are wrong. The more that we become like Jesus, the more we begin to love people and hate the sin that has enslaved them. Too often we conflate the one for the other. We begin to hate the person because of their sin, or we allow sin to continue in their life because we believe we are being loving.
The same issue arose in Corinth that led to Paul writing his first letter. In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul writes about a man in the church who is sleeping with his step-mom, and the Corinthians are tolerating it. Not only are they tolerating it, but they are also celebrating how tolerant and loving they are of the situation! Paul despises what they are doing. Paul first tells the Corinthians that God has set certain boundaries to mark out his people as his own. The Corinthians need to maintain these boundaries by disciplining a man in their church involved in incest. Now there is a need for church discipline. Discipline just means treating an unrepentant believer as a non-believer until they repent, which means that every conversation should revolve around the Gospel. What this situation teaches us is that to tolerant doesn’t equal loving, but rather it can sometimes be hateful and destructive.
I want to conclude with two passages of Scripture. The first is repeated throughout the Scriptures. God commands over and over again: Be holy, because I am holy! (Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 20:7, 26; 1 Peter 1:16). In this life, we as believers are called to resist the desires of sin; therefore, we are called to be obedient children, separated from evil in all that we do. We are to be holy because it aligns with the character of God, who is holy and has called believers to Himself.
Finally, in the John 13:34-35, Jesus tells his disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jesus inserts this phrase into the commandment from Lev 19:18. The new part of the commandment is that Jesus’ disciples are instructed to love other people the way Jesus loved them—serving them like a slave would, as He does in this scene, even to the point of laying down their lives for others. By this, everyone will know that we are Christians by the way that we love and treat others.
In conclusion, my hope for the #NextMethodism is that the Christians who are called Methodist will be known for both their love and holiness. My prayer is that we would become more like Jesus who embodied both holiness and love by loving people and hating the sin they were enslaved to, never conflating the two. Finally, I want to be Holy because YHWH is holy, and I want to love like Jesus loved because as Christians that is what we’re called to.
May the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you!