[Caveat: this post is somewhat for people of “my tribe” and it may not relate well to “your tribe.” Take it with that grain of salt, and perhaps consider these same issues for those you submit to in your tradition. Likewise, the below is my own opinion as one Wesleyan minister and I am not speaking for any other Wesleyan leaders–this is only the “David Drury Statement” on this issue–not “THE” Wesleyan Statement.]
Churches and Pastors are engaging very difficult matters and they are seeking real-world solutions. When someone reveals they have been hiding their sexual temptations toward the same sex, or that they are pregnant and considering abortion, or that they are studying the precepts of another religion it can be difficult for a pastor to know what to do or say. Our parishioners struggle with these or other issue that might even be more complex and stressful, or they find that their children or other close friends are struggling with them and they don’t know how to respond.
I am thinking about such pastoral concerns in light of being a Wesleyan Minister myself and working in our denominational headquarters. We do have our position statements–or “Wesleyan View” papers which guide us in these efforts. These are helpful, as they come from a distinctly Wesleyan hermeneutic and have been thoroughly vetted by scholars, practitioners, leaders, task-forces, and elected boards.
However, a broader question is asked related to these items: How do we, with a Wesleyan hermeneutic, stay true to our way of interpreting scripture, with all it’s benefits, and not follow the ‘slippery slope’ that others with a similar hermeneutic seem to sometimes follow?” This is how it’s often characterized.
I might ask it this way: How can Wesleyans retain a centrist conservative hermeneutic in the days to come?
This seems like a timely question. We don’t want to “switch-hermeneutics” to become Fundamentalist, Liberal, Postmodern, Anabaptist, Neo-Calvinist, Reformed, Pentecostal, etc. Additional apologies to my readers who come from those hermeneutical backgrounds. I simply say that this post is about “retaining what you have” and this might apply to you but in a different way.
I would suggest that the “slippery slope” always spoken of, for Wesleyans, is not one slide where gravity always pulls you in one direction, but instead is a kind of “slippery cone.” We stand in what we perceive as the center, and might slide in many different directions, and lose the Wesleyan Hermeneutic which so many of us have come to know and love and use in ways that affect our ministry among people.
There are biblical hermeneutic and theological answers to the question I ask. I am not the best one to comment on those and will leave them to the scholars in our tribe. I will also leave the critical question of “what is a Wesleyan Hermeneutic” to others as well. To my readers who don’t know what I’m talking about–you will need to pursue that question with scholars as well. Just google “Wesleyan Hermeneutics” and you’ll find starting points–I won’t force you to study those I’ve studied–I think the hermeneutic speaks for itself in convincing ways so if you study it you will be attracted to it, even if it is characterized by those outside of the tribe it has appeal, I think. I did all my graduate work among some beautifully passionate Calvinists, neo-reformers, Catholics, ultra-liberals, and even the Eastern Orthodox. I still came out the other side choosing up hermeneutical teams with the Wesleyans. I have confidence that if you’re looking for a way to interpret scripture in a relevant way that conserves biblical truth then you’ll love “our way.”
Suffice it to say that the Wesleyan Hermeneutic is a distinct way of interpreting scripture that is somewhat conservative in it’s biblical application, but is centrist in it’s application, and empowers some quite progressive activity in the world today. It explains why we Wesleyans were at the forefront of such things as abolition and the empowerment of women, while still being one of the most conservative movements in the West in other ways. We are an odd bunch–others point out to me at times. Why? Because of our hermeneutic, that’s why.
I think that the solution to the riddle I pose is largely a practical church leadership question, not just a theological and scholarly one. And church leadership is something I think I might comment on even if my scholarship is not up to snuff for the other questions. I think the answer I would give to my riddle is as follows:
CAN WESLEYANS RETAIN A CENTRIST CONSERVATIVE WESLEYAN HERMENEUTIC?
We can, if we…[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]1) Consistently preach from the Bible.[/highlight]
This may seem obvious, and I grant that it won’t solve the riddle on it’s own. But if we DON’T do this in our churches, if we think it’s okay to preach a sermon that is more opinion-based than scripture-based… if we get caught up in our own opening illustrations to the neglect of helping our people get into the Word. If that happens then we won’t stay in the center.[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]2) Engage our schools.[/highlight]
At the moment and throughout our history we have had a tight relationship with our schools. This is crucial. I’m thankful for that–and that the hermeneutic of the teaching at our schools remains reflective of this conservative center in the Wesleyan Hermeneutic.[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]3) Keep leaders accountable.[/highlight]
It is not the job of our leaders to do freelance theology and hermeneutical reinterpretation of scripture for the denomination at large. We pastors sometimes joke about Dr Lyon being the “Pope of the Wesleyans” but of course she is not. She provides vision, leadership, and direction for the leadership of the church, but no future General Church leader should try to circumvent the process of conferences where such things are done. We have safeguards in place to keep our leaders accountable (including me), and for that I’m thankful.[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]4) Coach our young ministers.[/highlight]
They are not only the future of the Church, they are presently preaching to people and shaping thinking. It is fine to come out of college and seminary and experiment a little with their preaching style. Shoot, I’m still doing that a bit at 39. But experimenting with their theology might end up in heresy, and it’s important for us to coach these young ministers, and provide forums for free discussion face-to-face of theological struggles, without exposing our congregations to an ever-shifting-preaching-content. Thankfully our District Board of Ministerial Development process exists for this purpose, and so we should never devalue that in the life of a District. It is one of the most important things we do.[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]5) Discuss challenges we face.[/highlight]
We shouldn’t shy away from discussions about tough topics mentioned above. They can happen, they should. We need to discuss without becoming shrill. We are all seeking to stay in the conservative center of the Wesleyan Hermeneutic, even if someone is a Wesleyan Pastor and they seem not to be, in EACH case my entire ministry I have found that eventually in conversation I discover that they are actually in that place, even if they wouldn’t use those words. So we should discuss.[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]6) Allow occasional dissent.[/highlight]
And from time to time someone might leave the camp. That starts, sometimes, with loud complaint. That’s okay. They should do it in the appropriate forums, and they should use official channels to try to change things. But I don’t think they will succeed. This will actually make the conservative center of the Wesleyan Hermeneutic stronger, and test our resolve, so we need not be afraid. In the end those with vitriolic dissent to our positions should leave with our blessing to pursue other tribes who see things differently. We know that will happen. We should be prepared for it and not condemn such to hell, but merely usher them to the left or right. They can slide down the slippery cone in one way or another–and we should let them go without much of a fight. Such people would say WE are the ones sliding down a slippery slope one way or another, of course. But our history is on the side of where we sit on the cone–and that is hard to argue with. You might disagree with where The Wesleyan Church has stood hermeneutically over time–but admit so and that is our starting point for discussion.[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]7) Cultivate conference unity.[/highlight]
The Wesleyan Church is phenomenally unified at the General Conference level, and even District Level. Other denominations are having WWE-style brawls every few years. We, in contrast, are VERY unified on doctrinal issues, and also ministry issues related to doctrine that are contentious in the culture. We should continue to cultivate this unity, while still allowing for the above. That unity may be challenged, someday in the future–but if we do the above I think we’ll be ready to deal with it in a Christlike manner and not lose our souls in the political processes of the Church.[highlight class=”highlight_yellow” style=””]8) Pray.[/highlight]
May God’s will be done in our denomination. His hand is upon us, and we are seeing the kingdom results that matter most. Let us not be distracted by debates too much. Instead, may we pray for and evangelize the homosexuals in our community more than we debate about them. May we serve pregnant teens more than we merely debate about abortion. May we pray for those of other religions and build relationships with them more than we debate about their beliefs and it’s bearing on ours.
I do feel that in the midst of this list of 8 strategies I suggest the first and last are most important: to be biblical and prayerful.
As a prayerful biblical people we will will find our way forward best. And may the conservative center of the Wesleyan hermeneutic be known mostly as that if nothing else: prayerful and biblical.