Having Your Cake and Eating it: Wesley and the “Third Way”

Strawberry cake, courtesy Wikimedia commons.

As we describe in the ‘About‘ section, part of our purpose here at Via Media Methodists is to offer the Church an alternative voice at a time when it seems we have never been more polarized.  This is not chiefly out of an Aristotelian conviction that “virtue lies in the middle,” though that may often be true.  Nor is an attempt to stand piously “above it all” as some have accused us.  Chiefly, it is an attempt to be true to our progenitor in the faith, John Wesley.

I recall vividly when Randy Maddox, in one of my classes on the history and theology of Methodism, said that Wesley “held things together that other Christians pushed apart.”  I am still floored by the degree to which this statement is true.  Wesley loved the Church Fathers and contemporary theologians of his day.  He was a loyal Anglican even though his efforts were often unsupported.  He appreciated the Book of Common Prayer and extemporaneous prayer.  He loved Scripture, but also recognized the need for community in spiritual formation.  Rev. Wesley also loved the sacraments, but was’t above preaching in a field or on top of a grave to reach the people he needed to reach.

In other words, Methodists at our core are “both-and” rather than “either-or” Christians.  We are naive enough to believe that we really should have our cake and eat it.  Paul Chilcote has, in this vein, described Wesley as a “conjunctive” theologian.  He brought things together from many different traditions in a unique and interesting synthesis.  Albert Outler, in a wonderful little book, expounds on how Wesley’s

…all-out advocacy of original sin and justification by faith alone had the effect of cutting him off from most of his Anglican contemporaries. His instinctive rejection of quietism wore out his earlier welcome with the Moravians… [and] the Dissenters wanted no part of his commitment to the Church of England as a comprehensive sacramental community. The resultant “third alternative” was an interesting – and original – anomaly (vis., a Protestant doctrine of original sin minus most of the other elements in classical Protestant soteriology, plus a catholic doctrine of perfection without its full panoply of priesthood and priestcraft.). Thus he stood exposed to charges of inconsistency from both sides.

In 18th century England, Wesley was doing what no one else was doing: he was an evangelical (which should have made him friendly with the Dissenters), but loyal to the Anglican Church.  At the same time, he was ardently opposed to the Calvinist wing of Church of England but (for his time) quite friendly with the Roman Catholic tradition.  This put Wesley into rarified air:

Even after justification by faith alone had become his central message, he retained the holy living tradition of his upbringing and he taught his people not only to go on toward perfection but to “expect to be made perfect in love in this life”! This caught him in a crossfire – a catholic who had become an evangelical and yet never ceased to be catholic: i.e., an evangelical-catholic!  (Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit [Nashville: Discipleship Resources 1975], 33-34, emphasis added.)

What I have noticed as I engage both sides of the church is that, at the extremes, United Methodists start to sound very un-Methodist.  They sound more Unitarian Universalist or UCC (all “social justice” and inclusion, with little piety or doctrine), or fundamentalist baptist (all personal holiness with little grace or social witness).  These are sadly diminished iterations of the tradition bequeathed to us by John and Charles, who refused such false choices.  Outler later says John’s ” driving passion was to find a third alternative to Pelagian optimism and Augustinian pessimism with respect to the human potential.” (36) And that is just one more example of Wesley refusing a dyad that others assumed.

At our best, Christians in the Wesleyan family have had the best of all of it: evangelical witness, progressive justice, catholic piety, charismatic spirituality, and Anglican sacramentality.  Our ideological battles in the UMC, and especially the struggle over human sexuality, have exposed a deeper fissure than just arguments over Scripture: we seem determined to pull apart the things that Papa Wesley put together.

I believe the search for a ‘Third’ or ‘Middle Way’ because I believe such an option will be more faithful to who we are, to the movement that transformed 18th century England and 19th century America.  I believe it is more true to the witness of the church universal, combining many of the strongest elements of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church in a way that could greatly impact our world for Christ.  People are hungry – whether they know it or not – for a way to follow Jesus that is at once ancient and contemporary, passionate and reflective, doctrinal and from the heart.  At our best, that is what the United Methodist Church has to offer as a community descended from Wesley.

This alternative way – this uniquely conjunctive faith – is, I believe, a gift worth giving.  But first it must be rediscovered.


18 thoughts on “Having Your Cake and Eating it: Wesley and the “Third Way”

  1. Thanks, will try to digest . . . after honey do list and company – Dave

    Sent from Windows Mail

  2. And what exactly would that “third way” look like? This sounds like “can’t we all just get along,” but that doesn’t acknowledge how deep the divisions really are between UM progressives and evangelicals. What’s the “third way” that will allow progressives the freedom to live out what they believe is their calling from God in the UMC under the current covenant? What’s the “third way” that will keep evangelicals in the UMC if we become an “American church” and the covenant changes for a progressive “win?”

    1. Jamie, I am not sentimental about this, nor am I under any illusion that it is easy. A couple of options: we could stop identifying with caucuses, which would help all of us get out of our own echo-chambers. We could have better systems in place to hold bishops accountable who violate the discipline. I think having a separate body in the US is fine but that is a hard sell to conservatives who already feel like the progressives have violated covenant consistently, so why empower them? I think we all need to strive to be Christian first, and then Wesleyan\Methodist, before we are conservatives or progressives. There’s the rub, I think. Thanks for your thoughtful questions.

  3. One thing that is more an addition than a disagreement: For Wesley, “Holiness” meant Love of God and Neighbor. So often I see “holiness” implicitly or explicitly defined as avoiding certain behaviors-often behaviors not that tempting to the person using the word.

  4. I think if we look at the “middle way” as compromise, we are missing Wesley’s point. I think he wanted to combine the social teachings of the Roman Catholic church with the best teachings of the Protestant Reformation, resulting in the Anglican church but with a very Wesleyan twist: Small groups of accountability, and a church that was open to all.

  5. Drew, the problem is that this does not address matters of sin. Your post rightly describes the ways in which Wesley (and others) agreed to disagree on matters of worship, and even on matters of doctrine, but they did not agree to disagree on what is and is not SIN. While nuanced views of predestination can certainly be wrangled over, the issue of sexual immorality is not something Wesley would “agree to disagree” about. If it is SIN we are talking about, then there is no “middle way.” It’s repent, or not. Can you cite any examples in scripture where sexual immorality is treated as a negotiable?

    1. Divorce. Some Scriptures give an utter “no” and others place conditions on it. Most Protestants now don’t even think twice about divorce at all, despite Scripture. That seems pretty negotiable to me. Moreover, the work of Darryl Stephens has shown that Methodists are having the exact same fights over LGBT matters now as we did with divorce decades ago: same conferences causing controversy, same sections of the Discipline, same arguments over Scriptural authority vs. grace and experience. What was once defined as sin is now hardly given a second thought – even by the far right.

      1. Drew, divorce is made negotiable because of what you already admitted: scripture gives some allowance for it. That is why we have come to the conclusions we have come to as a church on the matter. There are NO allowances made for same-sex sex. Can you point to one?

        And I disagree with you that “what was once defined as sin is not hardly given a second thought.” While this may be true in some circles it doesn’t make it right. Divorce is sin no matter what the cause, wouldn’t you agree? Divorce, just like homosexuality, is not God’s design or plan (nor is schism, I’m sure you would agree). It’s all sin. But the good news is we have a cure for sin

        And are you really comparing like things here? Do you believe both divorce and homosexuality are sin? If not sin, are they both pleasing to God? If not either one, then why bring divorce into the equation as they are not like things?

        I believe they are both sin. And we would rightly ordain a repentant divorcee and a repentant homosexual. Grace abounds, Drew. I don’t view the divorced person by their sin (this is Rev. Jones, a divorced man), any more than I would the person who struggles with same-sex attraction or the person who struggles with greed or pride or envy or any other sin. We are all sinners and, I presume, striving to be made holy, and we can all agree (or should!) on what is and is not sin – things which impede our relationship with God.

        Now, what happens if someone gets a divorce while pastoring a church? I would think the same thing that would happen to the pastor who falls to temptation with same-sex sex, or who does any number of other sins which violate God’s commands – they would be counseled to by a godly shepherd who could help them determine if they needed to take a break from their ministry for a period of time or determine that they are fit for service (presumably because they show godly sorrow and repentance).
        Again, grace abounds.

  6. Hi folks, haven’t had a chance to read all the comments yet, so I apologize if this is a reiteration of what someone has already said/asked. Isn’t it possible That are already in that ‘third way’? Methodist already hold two seemingly opposed positions in harmony in our polity currently: 1) that we are to be inclusive in baptism and membership (at the pastor’s discretion) to all people who are of sacred worth, i.e. the LGBT community, as well as celibate homosexuals being ordained…2) This is held in tension with the exclusion of practicing homosexuals from ordination and same-sex marriage.

    I am glad to see this sight, but I wonder if we are already as a church on that middle ground, and now the debate is if we leave it.

  7. As a Methodist Clergy, I think a “third way” is seen as simply another alternative. If Christ was not afraid to offend the Pharisees and the religious leaders of his time, why do we continue to dance around the issue?

    1. Note that this was written before a proposal by that name was submitted. This has nothing to do with particular legislation being offered right now. Thanks for reading, Camille.

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