Holy Love: The Journey

​When I was asked to write ‘Holy Love,’ it included the hope that I would not only write from the Christian tradition but also from within the Wesleyan tradition.  To do this meant including the hermeneutic of experience.  I accepted that invitation because I have come to see that all theology, sooner or later, is autobiographical.  The Wesleyan concept of “living faith” means connecting the Story with our story in some way.  Otherwise, all we have is dead orthodoxy.

We must stand within the Message as participants, not apart from it as detached observers.  We are witnesses, not reporters.  Because this was particularly true for the development of my theology of human sexuality, it became the way I chose to begin and end the book—a kind of literary way of setting the theology within the frame of my living of it.  

Additionally, since I wrote ‘For the Sake of the Bride’ in 2014, one of the questions people asked me most was, “How did you change your mind?”  It was not only a question of general interest but more especially one of particular significance since my change of mind (and heart) necessitated a movement out of decades of a conservative theology regarding human sexuality and into one considered to be progressive.  It also meant moving away from the “Asbury world” in which I had lived and worked for so long into a new world made up of devoted disciples of Jesus who thought, spoke, and acted differently with respect to human sexuality.  Chapter One tells the story of that journey, and I need not repeat it here.

For the purposes of this post, I want to set my personal journey against the backdrop of a larger necessity in our spiritual formation—the inevitability of having to choose whether to remain in one’s group or move outside it in the exploration of truth.  Notice I did not say moving beyond community, for Christian community is always larger than one’s group—unless the group has become obsessed with itself and bestowed upon itself a “pure church” mindset that says, “Everything you need to know is in this group. You need not look elsewhere; indeed, you must not look elsewhere if you want to be in our group.”

Groupism and “group think” are deformative regardless of the topic being considered.  In the Kingdom of God there is no such thing as “one-stop shopping.”  And sooner or later, our journey will take us beyond a group, unless we make a U-Turn and revert to a view of reality no larger than that of the group.  E. Stanley Jones called this giving in to a “herd mentality,” and cautioned against falling prey to it. [1]

Jones rightly notes the difficulty of moving beyond the herd because we have a God-given instinct for belonging.  But he shows that “belonging” is a psychological urge, but “belonging to” is a sociological requirement.  He wrote, “When the herd becomes God and determines our conduct, then all human relations are thrown into confusion…. Sometimes the herd appeal is so strong that we blindly follow it to our doom. ” [2]

Maturation in the spiritual life eventually requires moving beyond a particular group and into a larger reality than can ever be communicated by or contained within a single group.  We see this movement in Jesus himself, both through his actions (e.g. choosing to eat and drink with “sinners”) and his teachings (i.e. “you have heard that it was said…but I say unto you”).  We can trace it also in people like the early Christian ammas and abbas, Francis and Clare, John Wesley, and Dorothy Day—to name a few.  In every case the decision to move beyond the herd brought down rejection upon them in some way.  Groups have no choice but to declare such folks personas non grata, for not to do so would be to ascribe some level of credibility to those who move beyond them and to the new groups with whom they affiliate. Exclusion by the herd is a natural result when someone chooses to think and act differently.

So, I had to write about this journey, not only to explain how it happened, but also to make clear that my new position did not come to pass without struggle and consequence.  No one’s ever does.  

But even this is not the main point of the first chapter.  The main point is that moving beyond the group is a journey into liberation.  It is one aspect of Paul’s conviction that “Christ has set us free for freedom” (Galatians 5:1).  In his letter that meant the Galatians moving beyond the Judaiser herd into the larger Christian life–away from a life based in law to one based in grace–what Paul called moving out of living in the flesh and moving into living in the Spirit, essentially moving away from legalism and into love.

The fact is, there is no way to see the limitations of the herd until you have moved beyond it.  This movement does not mean we deny whatever good there was in our past, it only means that we realize that making the past our only frame of reference turns it into a prison. Freedom affirms a wideness in God’s mercy—a wideness we can never recognize if we choose to remain in the herd.  Our experiences beyond the group are transformative.  The people we meet outside the group are precious.  And the life we discover is abundant.


(1) In what ways have you previously had to move beyond a group in order to be more alive and true to yourself?

(2) Are there places currently where you are sensing a need to explore beyond your current reality?  Are there voices outside your group that you feel you should listen to?

(3) Is your belief about human sexuality such a place?  Are new ways of looking at it such a voice?

[1] Jones writes about this in more than one place, but he wrote a weeklong series about the herd instinct in his book, ‘Growing Spiritually’ (Pierce & Washabough, 1953), Week 13.

[2] Ibid., Week 13, Tuesday.

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 42 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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