By Rudy Barnes, Jr., August 13, 2022
Democracy is teetering. It will take the wisdom of God--an amalgam of faith, knowledge and experience--to reconcile tribal divisions of race, religion, and partisan politics that threaten American democracy. Thomas Jefferson was a deist who considered Jesus the world’s greatest wisdom teacher, and his teachings are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.
Jesus was a maverick Jewish rabbi in 1st century Palestine whose universal teachings angered Jewish religious leaders of his day; and John Wesley was a maverick Anglican priest in 18th century England. Neither intended to start a new religion, but they spawned new religions that ignored the wisdom of God taught by Jesus in order to gain popularity and power.
Jesus taught the wisdom of altruistic love and the primacy of love over law, while Wesley promoted revivals and organized his Methodists to conduct charitable acts of mercy to put heart into his stiff-necked 18th century Anglican Church. Unfortunately, both Christianity and Methodism have since sacrificed God’s wisdom for more popular religious doctrines of belief.
The 18th century Enlightenment transformed politics and religion with democracy based on popular sovereignty and advances in knowledge and reason. John Wesley did not advocate democracy. He emphasized a theological task based on Scripture, tradition, experience and reason, and promoted God’s wisdom over popularity in the United Methodist Church (UMC).
I have spent a lifetime seeking wisdom in the law, politics, the military and religion; but as I approach octogenarian status, I’m still a novice in the realm of wisdom. My experience as an attorney, an elected official, an Army officer and a pastor has converted me from an optimist to a maverick Methodist skeptical of the political and religious institutions that shape our lives.
Jesus was not a lawyer or a politician, but a teacher of universal wisdom. His teachings on discipleship were never popular, so the early church subordinated the teachings of Jesus to exclusivist beliefs never taught by him as the only means of salvation. It was a form of cheap grace, but it attracted enough converts to make Christianity the world’s most popular religion.
The Christian religion is over 2,000 years old. Methodism is much younger, but it is now facing division based on contentious issues related to human sexuality. The UMC has allowed church doctrines never taught by Jesus to preempt the timeless wisdom of altruistic love taught by Jesus, annotated with reason and experience. What would Jesus (and John Wesley) do?
More to the point, what will UMC members do? All indications are that they will go their separate ways, much as they do in partisan politics, and abandon both Jesus and John Wesley, leaving the UMC to wither and die of religious irrelevance. While the UMC will likely remain a popular social institution, it will forfeit its relevance as an instrument of God’s wisdom in politics.
Prominent historians recently warned President Biden that the future of democracy is “teetering.” See https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/08/10/biden-us-historians-democracy-threat/?utm.
Thomas Jefferson once described the teachings of Jesus as “the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.” On Jefferson’s views on the wisdom of Jesus and his disdain for the church of his day, see
The Discipline of the United Methodist Church provides our theological task is to distill God’s truth from ancient scripture by interpreting it based on experience and reason. It’s based on John Wesley’s quadrilateral, a methodology that relies on a mix of tradition, experience and reason to interpret scripture. Wesley’s enlightened way of understanding scripture can prevent believers from succumbing to the temptation of bibliolatry and its false sense of security in accepting the literal meaning of ancient scripture as God’s inerrant and infallible word. Our theological task requires each believer to shape his or her own beliefs independently of church doctrine and dogma. For a brief description of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral by Lovett H. Weems, Jr. and a chart of its four elements by George E. Koeler, including the danger of bibliolotry, see Weems, John Wesley’s Message Today, Abingdon Press, 1990, pages 11-13. Our Theological Task is provided in The Discipline of the United Methodist Church at pages 78-91 at
On love over law, see Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Love Over Law and Social Justice (7/27/19) at http://www.religionlegitimacyandpolitics.com/2019/07/musings-of-maverick-methodist-on-love.html.
“Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks' wares. Grace is represented as the Church's inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! Cheap grace is grace without discipleship.” See Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.
Discipleship is following Jesus, not worshiping him. James condemned faith without works: “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” (James 2:26).
“Some traditionalist leaders in the UMC have decided to create their own denomination (the Global Methodist Church). Leaders of that denomination and other unofficial advocacy groups, such as the Wesleyan Covenant Association, which created it, are encouraging like-minded United Methodist congregations and clergy to disaffiliate from The United Methodist Church and join their denomination instead. The requests for disaffiliations are coming largely from traditionalists.” See https://www.umc.org/en/content/ask-the-umc-is-the-umc-really-part-1.
There is much uncertainty in the Schism in the Body of the North Carolina United Methodist Church. See https://www.theassemblync.com/long-form/united-methodist-church-gay-marriage/?campaign_id=93&emc=edit_fb_20220811&instance_id=69029&nl=frank-bruni®i_id=2106926&segment_id=101084&te=1&user_id=3f3b08458434d25abbaebfa6286a5bb6.
Christianity’s postliberal critics predict a world after liberalism. Jeet Heer has speculated, “If Christian faith generates liberalism and socialism, what path remains open for the radical Right but a recasting of Christianity away from faith into a tribal identity marked by historical, rather than transcendental, allegiances? We see this Christian nationalism in its most vile form in the manifestos and actions of an Anders Breivik. But a more common version can be seen in the way many American Christians have formed an idolatrous cult around Donald Trump, surely the most profane and Biblically illiterate of all American presidents. Trump is the leader of the Religious Right you get when Christianity ceases to be a religious creed and instead becomes only a tribal identity.” See https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/christianitys-postliberal-critics?utm.