The writer of Ecclesiastes observed, in words later echoed by the rock band “The Byrds” (cue the music!), that everything has its time and there is a season for every activity under heaven: “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot…a time to tear down and a time to build” (3:2-3); and so on. The passage includes the lines “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace” (3:8).
Do any of these words describe the current state of The United Methodist Church? A case could be made for each phrase, among others, during these tenuous times. I believe that in this season of The UMC, perhaps now more than ever, this is a time to love.
Yet what is love? What does love require of us?
Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar of the New England Conference has encouraged churches, as part of the Praying Our Way Forward initiative on the future of The UMC, to use the following prayer in worship. The prayer focuses on love:
God help us!
to take the next faithful step forward
not based on…
doctrine, tradition, or theology;
judgments, fears, or convictions;
notions of who are the righteous and unrighteous.
God help us!
to take the next small faithful step forward
that is neither…
right or wrong;
good or bad;
for or against;
left or right;
pro or con.
God help us!
above all else,
to simply take the one next faithful step forward,
out of love,
can we know…
that the way forward is with you…
our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come.
can we know…
that our way forward is through you,
God, help us…
Help us as we take the small faithful next step forward…
to reflect your grace and glory,
to embody the Word made flesh,
to move freely by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We offer our prayer in the precious name of Christ Jesus.
I recognize the bishop’s plea as the language of prayer, and I want to respect the intended context of those words. At the same time, content matters; contextualization, in prayer as well as in practice, is no excuse for incoherence. Content cannot be divorced from the desire to promote love.
With respect to Bishop Devadhar, who along with other bishops remains in my prayers and the prayers of many others as we look to them for spiritual leadership, his words in this prayer illustrate the remarkable degree of confusion that currently besets The UMC. The prayer appeals to love as the way to faithfulness, which is surely a promising idea. Yet what is striking is the imprecise manner of that appeal. For example, the opening statements of negation call upon God to help us “take the next faithful step forward not based on…doctrine, tradition, or theology; judgments, fears, or convictions; notions of who are the righteous and unrighteous.” Admittedly, fears would hardly seem to be a legitimate basis for prayer and action, especially given the biblical teaching that “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). We are not called to fear; we are called to love. However, a faithful step forward not based on “doctrine,” as the prayer describes, is a contradiction in Wesleyan terms.
In The UMC, our doctrine (or official church teaching) is designed to function as a means of grace, disclosing divine truths and drawing us closer, in love, to their Source, the triune God. Doctrine is therefore an indispensable aid in discernment, not a barrier to it. Doctrine aims to promote faithfulness rather than hinder it. The operative understanding of both doctrine and faithfulness in this prayer appears notably shallow.
The prayer petitions divine assistance for “the next small faithful step forward that is neither…right or wrong; good or bad; for or against; left or right; pro or con.” I appreciate the desire expressed here to avoid categories that pit groups of people against one another. And yet, the core issue dividing The UMC can be summed up as a disagreement about what is “right” and what is “wrong” in matters of sexual ethics, moral discernment, and biblical authority and interpretation. Is there a way forward that is somehow neutral? Should our focus in prayer and action be to set aside questions of right and wrong, or to pursue such questions with integrity wherever they might lead? How do we recognize “forward” if there are no right or wrong ways?
Moreover, the appeal to a position of “no right or wrong” is itself an appeal from a standpoint believed to be right. Yet on what basis? This kind of language might have an initial ring of reasonableness. Upon analysis, though, it ends up sounding like nonsensical sentimentality that is actually corrosive since it proposes setting aside the difficult but necessary work of doctrinal and moral reflection in favor of an indefinable, artificial neutrality.
If a way forward is not to be found in doctrine or communal moral discernment, then how should we, or can we, proceed? The bishop’s prayer identifies love as the answer: “God help us! Help us…above all else, to simply take the one next faithful step forward, out of love, only love; nothing less, nothing more; just love; undiluted love.” The prayer suggests that such love is the key to knowledge: “Then…only then, can we know…that the way forward is with you…that our way forward is through you.” While I affirm the importance of love, we must be clear about what we mean by love.
Vague, flaccid platitudes will not help. Any notion of love devoid of doctrinal content is merely an empty shell. The substance of love is inescapably theological, and so doctrinal and moral, because God is love. As John tells us, we are to love one another
because love is from God….God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit….God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:7, 9-13, 16).
Those words of 1 John 4 provide a robust description of love, grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ and given to us by the Holy Spirit.
Our Wesleyan tradition confirms the central insight that love and truth (doctrinal and moral) go together. In my book God’s Love through the Spirit: The Holy Spirit in Thomas Aquinas and John Wesley, I offer this reflection on the relation of love and truth:
…in a largely therapeutic age such as the present, in which love is sometimes reduced to a matter of mere human feeling or simply meaning well, love can easily be misconstrued and even cheapened through a dumbing down or stripping away of its essential theological elements. One challenge for those seeking to retrieve and update Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection is precisely to avoid this tendency. If love is to be made perfect, which Wesley tirelessly propagated as a genuine possibility under grace, then the operative understanding of love must itself be sufficiently theological, or else it is by definition something other than love in its truly Christian sense. For this to be the case, love cannot be understood as somehow independent of knowledge and truth.
As Wesley helps us see, Jesus did not in any way set aside the doctrinal and moral dimensions of love. Rather, he came to bring us both. Jesus came to bring us God, and to show us our way to God in truth and love, or in a single word, in holiness.
In The UMC, and in our world today, this is a time to love. It is a time for the beauty and power of the love of God to be shown and shared in word and deed, and nothing less will do. To speak of love apart from doctrine or moral discernment is to strip it of that same beauty and power. Love is not a theologically empty concept. Paradoxically, true love empties itself in service and sacrifice as our Crucified and Risen Lord has done for us all (Philippians 2:1-11). In Jesus, almighty God intersected our time and redeemed it on the cross. The particular love that we have to offer is the love of Jesus, and that is precisely the love that makes all things new.
As we stand in desperate need of renewal and divine guidance as a denomination, amidst our division, turmoil, and uncertainty, we can be certain of this: now is the time to love. To be specific, now is the time to love in faithful response to the fullness of God’s love shown so extravagantly, even radically, in Jesus—the very love poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). This love is inherently doctrinal, rooted in God. It is intrinsically moral, calling us all to scriptural holiness. And this love—“pure, unbounded love” as Charles Wesley would have us sing—is freely given to us and our world in Jesus Christ, whom truly to know, love, and obey is perfect freedom. God help us, indeed.
About the Author:
Ken Loyer is pastor of Spry Church (United Methodist). He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, Texas and an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School. He is an assistant editor of Wesley and Methodist Studies and teaches Theology and Methodist Studies as an adjunct professor at United and Wesley Theological Seminaries. He lives in York, Pennsylvania.