Where did Bresee get his catchy phrase? And does it help?

Phineas F. Bresee

Phineas F. Bresee

Last week, a Preacher’s Conference convened at Nazarene Theological Seminary. Though I was unable to attend, I caught my mind wandering back through the halls of NTS. Hanging on a wall in one of those hallways is a pencil sketch of Phineas F. Bresse, next to a framed quotation. Bresee, a key force behind the union of holiness groups in 1908 to form the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, cautioned:

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; but in all things, love.”

I’m not sure why the administration chose to hang those wise words where everyone could see them. Maybe it was to prevent lively theological discussions from morphing into something toxic? Whatever the motivation, there is something I’ve since discovered: The words aren’t original with Bresee. In fact, a quick internet search shows lots of people past and present quoting them.

The original quotation was from Peter Meiderlin (1582-1651 CE), also known as Rupertus Meldenius, an obscure Germain theologian. Discussing whether the late divine Johann Arndt had been orthodox in his thinking, Meiderlin cautioned:

“In a word, were we to observe unity in essentials, liberty in incidentals, and in all things charity, our affairs would be certainly in a most happy situation.”

Apart from the origin of the phrase, it may be asked: Does it help?

As some have noted, it depends what parties to a conversation consider “essential” vs. “non-essential.” For example, some seem willing to fight to the death over whether God created the universe in 6 twenty-four hour days. Others are more flexible, allowing God whatever time frame necessary, even billions of years, as long as we affirm that God is the Creator. So, group 1 sees so-called “youth earth creationism” as essential to the whole structure of Christian faith, while group 2 decidedly does not.

Some light can be had when we look back through history to see what a group has judged to be “essential” vs. “non-essential.” In the Church of the Nazarene, we have never had a statement committing us one way or another on the timing of the return of Christ. Instead, we have always merely insisted that he will one day return. We’ve left the particulars up to individual conscience. On that issue, we have always embraced “wiggle room.” The onus then is on the group that wants to jettison history and change direction.

Though it makes the phrase less catchy, we might amend it to say:

“In what we’ve always thought essential, unity; in what we’ve always believed non-essential, liberty…”

When all is said and done, the best way to read Meiderlin’s phrase may be in reverse and with some modification: “In all things remember love, even as we discuss things some consider essential but others think are non-essential.” Our starting point is always love. Otherwise, tempers may flare and we may forget our first duty, to love our neighbor as ourselves. May love always be our watchword and song!

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Photo credit: Nazarene.org

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On grace, law, and spaghetti sauce

garden veg spag sauce in potAs believers, do we follow grace, or do we follow law? And the answer is…

YES.

John Wesley spoke as much as anyone about grace. On the other hand, he cautioned against “antinomianism” (lawlessness). He realized that the same Scripture that speaks of the grace that saves us through faith (Eph. 2:8) also extols the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25).

In the Bible and in Wesleyan thought, grace and law must kiss.

I’ve always loved “America the Beautiful.” The lyrics by Katharine Lee Bates portray this delicate balance. The rarely sung second verse appeals:

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

“Liberty” and “law” are not mutually exclusive, but complement each other.

Pastors are charged with the “cure of souls,” and for that cure to be successful, first a diagnosis must be made. Thirty years ago, I knew too many Nazarenes who for the sake of law, lost sight of grace. The early 20th century story (likely apocryphal) is told of the old woman who asked General Superintendent Phineas F. Bresee whether Nazarene women should wear makeup. His reply?

I’ve always said that if the barn needs painting, paint it!

That woman’s question betrays a graceless law, a piling up and keeping of rules as the be-all and end-all of faith. In such a context, an emphasis on grace was desperately needed, and eventually the corrective came.

But as Bob Dylan used to sing, the times, they are a changin’! Once heated discussions of whether we go to the movie theater, wear makeup or jewelry or participate in “mixed bathing” are relegated to cold and musty issues of the Herald of Holiness and Teens Today.  When Christian teens in 2013 show the same rates of sexual activity prior to marriage as those who claim no faith, when cheating on a test is winked at and often there seems to be no difference between the integrity of those attending church and those who never darken its doors, then clearly the issue for the Church is no longer graceless law. Rather, we have arguably careened into the ditch on the other side of the road, that of lawless grace, the antinomianism John Wesley warned us about and that Paul deplores in Romans 6:1 —

Shall we sin that grace may abound? God forbid! (NIV).

And here is where we come back to the pastor’s diagnosis. In a church where graceless law is the malady, more preaching on grace is a must. After all, you wouldn’t add more salt to a spaghetti sauce that is already too salty!

But for 90% of our churches, in the name of grace, I wonder: Are we stuck in the ditch of lawlessness? Lawless grace is every bit as dangerous, after all, as graceless law. In such a church, the pastor today in his or her preaching will speak often of Christian ethics, of the righteous standards to which God calls His people. When the spaghetti sauce is too bland, add a pinch of salt.

At the end of the day, neither graceless law nor lawless grace can satisfy God’s people. Grace and law must kiss. We need gracious law now more than ever.

God give us wisdom to live the delicate balance.

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Photo credit: A Kitchen Addiction