For the Bride: The Key Distinction

Hermeneutics enables us to claim the key distinction necessary for fellowship–the distinction between doctrine and opinion–between what is primary and what is secondary.  Until we are willing to do this, we have little hope for charitable discourse, or a fully Christian resolution to the human sexuality debate.

I am a Christian in the Wesleyan tradition–a tradition with roots in the Roman, Orthodox, Classical Protestant, and Anglican traditions.  All these traditions have affirmed (however difficult) the distinction between doctrine and opinion.  John Wesley spelled it out most clearly in his sermon, “Catholic Spirit.”

A careful reading of this sermon (which is not always done) clearly shows that Wesley was not a sentimental ecuminist advocating a lowest-common-denominator community.  Instead, he took his stand with the saints of the ages and claimed a heart-to-heart relationship with anyone who affirmed “the main branches of Christian doctrine.”

The main branches (while not named by Wesley in the sermon) can be seen in his Anglican tradition:  The Creeds.  Wesley extended his hand to anyone who affirmed these historic affirmations of faith (Apostle’s, Nicean, Chalcedonian, and Athanasian), and lived from the heart in relation to them.

Of course, there were what he called “opinions,” and he named some in his sermon.  Additionally, he viewed other documents as secondary: The Articles if Religion (which he felt free to alter for the American Methodists), the Catechism,  the Homilies, and The Sunday Service–to name a few.  He was personally drawn to these documents and lived in congruence with them.  But he never made any of them a pre-requisite for fellowship.

When we understand it is the Creeds which create doctrine and  hermeneutics (varying interpretations) which creates opinions, we will be in a position like Wesley (and so many others before and after him) to create community and to conduct conversation the way orthodox Christians have done (well, not always!) since the time of Christ.

Zeroing in on human sexuality, the Christian Church has never made a creedal/doctrinal statement about it.  Never.  This does not mean the subject does not matter; it only means that when we meet any person who affirms the Creeds and lives them out from the heart, we have the only basis the Church has ever established for community and Christian unity.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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