Saturday, April 27, 2024

Musings on Going Back to the Future in the Evolution of Christianity

By Rudy Barnes, Jr., April 27, 2024

Religions provide institutional systems of faith, and most of us begin to doubt the certainty of religious doctrines as we age.  Our journey of faith is based on changing understandings of scripture, tradition, reason and experience; and the Wesleyan Quadrilateral describes that evolution of faith as our theological task.


Reason and experience should create doubt in exclusivist church doctrines that limit salvation to Christians.  The gospel accounts describe Jesus as a maverick Jewish rabbi who never promoted any religion, not even his own.  Jesus was a universalist who emphasized that our salvation was based on sharing God’s transforming love with others.  

The universalist teachings of Jesus are summarized in the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  That’s a common word of faith for Jews, Christians and Muslims that promotes religious reconciliation in a world of increasing religious diversity and competition.

In the 4th century Constantine institutionalized the church by making it part of the Roman Empire.  The altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus were subordinated to exclusivist Christian beliefs never taught by Jesus, but that became popular as a form of cheap grace that enabled Christianity to become the world’s most popular religion.

Since then the church has made belief in Jesus Christ as the Trinitarian alter ego of God the only means of salvation.  They knew that the altruistic teachings of Jesus on sacrificial love would never be popular, but that making exclusivist beliefs in the divinity of Jesus as the only means of salvation could be the foundation of the world’s most popular and powerful religion.

Martin Luther’s Reformation doctrine of sola fide (faith alone) affirmed the priority of faith over works of altruistic love, and modern Christian creeds continue to emphasize exclusivist man-made Christian doctrines.  Even so, the teachings of Jesus remained moral imperatives of Christianity until they were displaced by white evangelicals in the election of 2016.

In the 20th century most Christians believed that following the teachings of Jesus as the word of God was the first priority of Christian faith.  Today promoting exclusivist beliefs in Jesus as a surrogate Christian god is the first priority of the church.  I have kept faith in discipleship and reject exclusivist Christian beliefs, and have continued to grow in faith; and I’m not alone.

Today the  church is shrinking, with an increasing number of “nones” leaving a church that lacks a moral compass.  It’s past time for the church to abandon its exclusivist beliefs and to go back to the future by giving primacy to the teachings of Jesus as the universal word of God.  The alternative is for the church to be relegated to the dustbin of history.          



The four components of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral—scripture, tradition, experience and reason—are described in Our Theological Task in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 2012 (The United Methodist Publishing House, Nashville Tennessee) at pages 78-91. See  It should be noted that reason includes critical biblical scholarship that relates to interpretations of scripture that are part of tradition, illustrating how the four components are interrelated. 

Thomas Jefferson once opined that “the teachings of Jeus were the most sublime moral code ever designed by man,” and he detested exclusivist church doctrines.  In 1831 Alexis DeTocqueville toured America and  observed that its many Christian sects shared a “Christian morality” that produced common standards of legitimacy that defined what is right, and imbued American politics with its moral authority.  On the views of Thomas Jefferson and Alexis deTocqueville on the moral values of religion in American politics, see Religion, Moral Authority and Conflicting Concepts of Legitimacy (July 1, 2017) at See also Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Universal and Altruistic Jesus, August 19, 2023, at

Universalism can reconcile progressive Christians, Jews and Muslims.  While universalists are a minority among Jews, Christians and Muslims, they can be a reconciling voice promoting a common word of faith in those competing religions.  On universalism, see Universalism: A theology for the 21st century, by Forrest Church, November 5, 2001, at  

On the few remaining universalist Christians, see

Robin Meyers is the author of Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (HarperCollins Publishers, 2009), and the title of his book says it all.  Meyers spoke at the Barnes Symposium at the University of South Carolina on April 12, 2019 on From Galilean Sage to Supernatural Savior (or, How I Became a Heretic with Help from Jesus). While Meyers is critical of the church, he has been pastor of Mayflower Church, a large UCC congregation in Oklahoma City, for over 30 years.

On Musings of a Maverick Methodist on Losing Religion and Finding Faith, see

On why an increasing number of American “nones” don’t identify with a religion, a Pew Research Center survey found that 60% question religious teachings, and 49% oppose positions taken by churches on social and political issues.  See

On Losing Faith: Why South Carolina is abandoning its churches, see

On Back to the Future: A 21st Century Pentecost for the Church, see

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