You cannot be a Methodist pastor without having a favorite John Wesley sermon.
Mine is Catholic Spirit. Based on 2 Kings 10:15, Wesley works through how Christians can worship and serve alongside someone they disagree with theologically. It is a beautiful sermon. It expresses how two Christians can be united together, even if they do not worship in the same manner.
Wesley says, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without doubt, we may. In this all the children of God may unite, even though they retain these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may help one another increase in love and in good works.”
What Wesley promotes is the concept of being connected and committed to one another regardless of what differences of opinion one may have with someone. So long as there is agreement on the primary doctrines of Christianity, Wesley argues that it should not deter someone from having a relationship or working with another group within the church if they differ on some matters of worship, government, or interpretation.
This idea of the Catholic Spirit is a practice that has lost its focus within the church. In an era of societal division and polarization, the church and its leaders have too often mirrored society. There is oftentimes a desire to seek connection only with churches and communities with whom we are in complete alignment on all theological and societal matters. What this fosters is not unity within the church but resentment and division within the body of Christ.
We fall in line with the same tribalistic approach to relationships and community in a time when the church should be leading the way on how to build connections within our differences.
There has to be a better way. It comes in recapturing the hope of the Catholic Spirit.
Recapturing unity in the church begins by reminding ourselves that there is room for theological differences within the church, so long as we maintain orthodox beliefs. The orthodox beliefs are what the church has said to be true about God throughout time. We find these beliefs in the Nicene and Apostle’s creeds. These creeds express the essential elements of the Christian faith and orthodox teaching. One can only be a faithful and orthodox Christian by maintaining the essence of Christian teaching.
There is room for differences of expression and theological opinion within orthodox faith. There is room, for instance, for acceptance of both the Just War theory and the way of non-violence. There is room for belief in transubstantiation and a symbolic expression of Christ within the communion elements. There is room, as well, for both an inspired and infallible understanding of the Bible.
Those theological conversations, and many others, are not grounds for breaking a relationship with another Christian or a church. What is worthy of ending a relationship with another church or Christian is, for instance, failure to believe in the divinity of Christ, an inability to recognize the universal nature of the church, the practice of re-baptism, or denial of the resurrection. Each of these positions expresses violations of the orthodox expressions of faith.
When we major in minors, for instance, and claim that a difference of opinion is worthy of separation, we do so out of our theological insecurity and desire to build a homogenous community. This is not the way of Christ, though it is the way of society and its us-versus-them mentality. It is a perspective that destroys the witness of faith and proclaims the self as the exemplar of Christian theology and expression.
Christ calls us to be in community with one another. It is messy and difficult. Yet, it is beautiful and powerful when people from various walks of life, with differences of opinion, can come together to worship God as one body.
The church must reclaim the Catholic Spirit and focus on the majors while having honest and welcoming dialogue about the places of disagreement with love and grace. We have to find a way to work with each other. We do not have to separate simply because we disagree.