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Beyond Political Identity: Grounding Ourselves in the Word and Way of God ©

Next week, I will be on renewal leave for a time of study under Dr. Kenneth Collins, Professor of Historical Theology and Wesley Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. For some time, I have been concerned that for many American Christians (and especially Methodists/Wesleyans in the U.S.) our primary point of identity has been anchored in where we stand on the political spectrum from right to left and back again. Group identity around ethnicity is also often yoked with political identity in varying combinations. The Christian claim dramatically cuts across such common cultural assumptions. “Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2:14) Simply stated, my conviction is that cultural identity – whether driven by politics, ethnicity, or nationality – cannot claim primary allegiance and identity for Christians. Our primary point of identity should be in allegiance to Jesus Christ as Lord (faith biblically defined as trusting obedience).  I ask the reader to please note the qualifier “primary.” All of us have many point of allegiance – to our marriage, our families, our country, perhaps even to our alma mater, etc. The crucial faith issue lies in our primary point of identity. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony written by Duke Divinity School professors Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon (later Bishop) ricochet around the clergy culture of the United Methodist Church in 1989.  The understated opening sentence named the context with which the Church lives in this day in an accelerated manner: “Sometime between 1960 and 1980, an old, inadequately conceived world ended, and a fresh, new world began.” (Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Resident Aliens, p. 15) The days of casual Christianity are fast fading. This is a good thing, not something to be feared or fought. Painfully we are learning that the Christian faith cannot be subsumed under any political label. It is not something that adheres to the conservative wing of the Republican Party or the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. The challenge from the Master cuts across our conventions and finds its own identity in Christ and him alone towering above all pygmied pretenders (be they party, nationality, ethnicity, economic or anything else). I will spend my renewal leave studying this issue.  My objective is to examine and draft a tentative plan for helping a renewed Wesleyan movement embrace a faithful and fruitful future where …
  • the primary identity is formed on allegiance to Christ;
  • Orthodox Wesleyan theology is recovered, reclaimed and embedded in the heart of the movement;
  • evangelistic witness, engagement and disciple making becomes the center of the church’s life and mission;
  • holiness of heart and life once again becomes a way of living; and
  • the culture is engaged but not embraced (i.e. does not rule and reign).
James Davidson Hunter, in his deeply insightful book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, has insightfully noted that various Christian denominations and groups have steadily sacrificed doctrinal conviction for ever-decreasing cultural acceptance. The boundary line between church and culture among the so-called mainline denominations grows ever fainter. There is drift in cultural Christianity, like a ship caught in the current and losing headway, towards a vapid unitarianism salted with syncretic tendencies. The concept of “moral therapeutic deism” grapples with the very soul of the Church. It is important to recall that the Christian faith grew in major part because it never gave into the temptation to be syncretistic. My hope is to investigate and gain insight on the central theological and practical issues facing the United Methodist Church today. While hardly exhaustive, I desire to start with the following issues for investigation:
  1. To gain crucial lessons from the Wesleyan past when facing schism.
  2. Insights on culture vs Christ, i.e. how do we shape a build a church where the primary identity is on allegiance to Christ over cultural preferences?
  3. What does a path forward look like that begins a new/renewed Wesleyan denomination?
  4. What is the central task of a Bishop in our current context?
In advance I wish to express my appreciation to Dr. Kenneth Jones for his willingness to serve as a guide and teacher and my appreciation to Asbury Theological Seminary for their openness to my presence. This is my idea of a fun study project!