Liberty and the United Methodist Church

A while back I did a post that included a brief introduction to the concepts of positive and negative liberty. In that post I provided this illustration:

When I have negative liberty it means that there are no outward constraints on what I do. A government that gives its citizens negative liberty does not seek to control their actions. It leaves them free to decide what to do with their actions and their resources. Let’s use the imagery of driving. When I get in my car, there is usually not a level of government that tells me where I must go. I am free to drive to work, to retail outlets, to other cities.

Positive liberty is easily understood if we stay with this driving imagery. When we have positive liberty we have space opened up to do things we could not do on our own.  If I have a car – but no roads or highways – I will be limited in where I can go. When a level of government gives its citizens positive liberty, it makes it possible for them to do what they otherwise could not do.

Those who emphasize negative liberty to the exclusion of positive liberty (sometimes denying that there is such a thing) are those who look like radical individualists, or in political terms, libertarians. Those who emphasize positive liberty to the exclusion of negative liberty most commonly today tend toward what is called socialism or what looks like paternalism.

What bearing does this have on the United Methodist Church? My perception is that the United Methodist Church as institution has a strong tendency toward positive liberty which leads to a devaluation of negative liberty.

Churches that major on negative liberty are those that emphasize the life of the individual believer and the power of the local church to stand alone. Where congregationalism is a core commitment, where the church doesn’t want anyone else telling them what to do (in the least), there you see a manifestation of negative liberty.

As a recovering individualist, I understand this dimension of negative liberty in the church. I’m happy to take responsibility for my own spiritual growth and development. I am smart enough, however, to know two things. First, I know that I don’t have all the resources I need to live a Christian life. I need help from people around me. Second, I know that church is part of what salvation is all about. Let me expand on this just a bit.

There has been a buzz in the evangelical world of late, about Rob Bells’ latest book. Hearing about some of his claims people have reckoned him to be a universalist. Universalism, the notion that all will be saved, sounds pretty good (except when we stop and think of some of the people we’d really like to keep out). If universalism is true then we experience two direct benefits. First, we don’t have to worry about the people we love. Someone we love or care about wants nothing to do with God – or just isn’t a follower of Jesus? While that person may miss out on the joy of church life now (potlucks! committee meetings!), God’s love is great enough that God will ensure that she is included in the blessings of eternity. A second benefit is that when everyone goes to heaven no matter what, we don’t need to do anything to help them get there. No more embarrassing moments of trying to tell people about Jesus. No more awkward witnessing. We can even cut the evangelism budget.

But what if salvation is more than going to heaven when we die? Often when the topic of universalism comes up it sounds like that reduced version of salvation – going to heaven – is what’s in view. The biblical picture is much different. In the bible we see that being united to the body of Christ and living as a part of that body is not just some adjunct to salvation – an aid to getting to heaven eventually – but is part of the whole deal.

If I am a radical individualist, if I reduce salvation to that which pertains to me alone (going to heaven, enjoying God’s blessings), then I am missing out on this fuller dimension of salvation.  Because salvation necessarily entangles me with others – some I may like, others I may not – then there have to be limits on negative liberty.

Now there are important truths coming from the individualist side – perhaps the conviction that each person needs to come to faith and have faith is the most important. In this view, I need to believe for myself. I cannot say, “My family has believers – my mother and grandparents are believers – so that’s good enough for me.”

At the same time even this truth sometimes gets us into trouble, particularly when we get away from the cozy shelter of the church. When we go off to college or experience independence for ourselves – questions start coming. Even if we have made a “profession of faith” or “asked Jesus into our hearts” we might come to see that even that faith is not our own. We have, instead, merely made a personal appropriation of someone else’s faith. What we need, or so we’re told, is a personal appropriation of our own faith. We need the kind of enlightenment Kant preached, a learning to think for ourselves, instead of just believing what our parents or the church taught us. Not being a Kantian, however, I see that at least when it’s the Christian faith we’re talking about, this faith is a gift, something I receive. It’s not something I make up on my own.

But the United Methodist Church is not an institution in which we major on negative liberty. Instead, we go the other direction. Though it seems a majority of UMs today are universalists, our understanding of church tends in the direction of one reading of Cyprian’s Extra ecclesiam nulla salus – no salvation outside the church. The church is the place where you find grace, faith and mercy, the place to go if you want to be a Christian.

While I strongly affirm Cyprian’s dictum, I take it in a less common sense – the sense I mentioned above where I described being part of church as part of what salvation is all about. In this interpretation of “no salvation outside the church” I’m not saying what the church (especially the Catholic church) has tended to say, “If you want to be saved, you have to do it through us. We are the only place where grace and hope and life are available.”

Again, I think the United Methodist Church as an institution would be inclined to say this, though not at all in an exclusive way. Few would say church is the only place grace hope and life are available. But there is an inclination to think that these things are normally mediated through the church, and that hierarchically. Or think organizationally: Does the church have a vision, a mission? Where does that vision and mission come from? Does it have a way of organizing itself, a way of structuring its life? All of these are in terms of the hierarchy. In this sense, the church is organized in a to–down manner.

My argument here is that we can conceive this top-down hierarchical organization as an example of positive liberty. Just as building roads gives people a means by which they will then have the liberty to drive somewhere, the church (local) is structured by the church (general) so that it can fulfill its mission. If it is conceived as a creator of positive liberty, then the (general) church certainly has an important role to play.

So which is it- which do we want from the church? Do we want negative liberty or positive liberty? My assessment is that just as we need both in our national political culture, we need both in our ecclesial political culture. We find ourselves at a place of great tension, however, since many in our culture are trending toward negative liberty. People don’t want to be told what to do. Whether instruction comes from above in the area of what we do with our resources, our finances, our sexuality, our believings, we don’t want anyone else telling us what to do. Of course our feelings here are uneven. Some think control is needed from above in one area but not another.

My guess is that the United Methodist Church has too large a commitment to positive liberty, insofar as we have pastors, district superintendents, bishops, councils, offices in Nashville and New York seeking to structure every aspect of the life of Methodist Christians. It’s ok that Christians aren’t sitting around wringing their hands as they await instructions from their pastor as to what they ought to do next. Speaking as a pastor, I want my people to mature in Christ so there is a naturalness to how they follow him. In the same way, it’s ok that church leaders aren’t sitting around staring at each other waiting for someone in the ecclesiastical hierarchy to visit them, affirm them, and tell them what to do.

I’ll put it another way. We can see a passing on of the content of the faith in the Bible, the Hymnal, the Book of Worship, the Discipline, the works of Wesley, and the appointment of a Conference member as a pastor, there is enough positive liberty to enable churches to do the right thing, to have a rich framework in which they can live out their negative liberty. In this case, it is true that all churches will not be identical. But if they inhabit different contexts and are composed of different people, how could we expect otherwise? Can we trust that within this basic framework the Spirit can work to unite us in mission?

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