Rev. Dr. Inderjit Bhogal
An Open Letter to the People Called Methodists in the United States
To all God’s beloved in the United States, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world” (Rom 1:8). For those who do not know me, I am one of the descendants of Korean Methodists who received the gospel from American missionaries.
The Korean Methodist Church has sent many missionaries to all over the world, only second in number to the United Methodist Church. I am in debt to you in this regard, and I am eager to share my gospel with you. “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16), first to you and also to us.
I am writing this letter as a result of a visit to the Susquehanna Annual Conference at the invitation of Bishop, Jeremiah Park, for whom I led the Bible study on Romans in June, 2019. There I told the very attentive members of the meeting to use their imagination, so that I, a “Paul” coming from the Far Eastern margin of the world, could share the Word of God with Christians in the United States which has become a contemporary Rome. So it is to you “Romans” that I address this letter.
Forgive my presumptuousness if I offend you, but that is not my intent. I am speaking to you on behalf of the World Methodist Council, composed of 80 Methodist, Wesleyan, and related Uniting and United Churches, representing over 80 million members in 138 countries. As a humble servant of Jesus Christ, I seek to be of value to you not because of something I am, but because of what I am not. The importance of my ministry of the divine Word only consists in my poverty, in my hopes and fears, and in the direction of my whole being towards what lies beyond my horizon and beyond my power. My desire is that the Holy Spirit grant us all grace through this servant, so that we will joyfully join our hands in knocking on the doors of the kingdom of God, which can open us all to another outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s pastoral purpose in writing his letter to the Romans was to counter divisions among the Christian house churches, particularly those caused by the danger of Gentile believers despising less liberated Jewish believers. And Paul’s call for acceptance in 14:1 needs to be understood as Gentile-Christian majority congregations welcoming individual Jewish Christians, who conservatively held to their traditional views on food and ritual feast days, into the church’s fellowship. In his letter, Paul argued to maintain the bond between the Jewish, covenant people and the Christian congregation, not for a divorce. “For in the gospel of Jesus Christ the righteousness of God is revealed from faithfulness unto faith: as it is written, ‘But the righteous shall live from my faithfulness’” (Karl Barth’s translation of Rom 1:17). The righteousness of God is God’s character manifested in God’s covenant-faithfulness, despite Israel’s unfaithfulness and consequent judgment. When Paul quotes “The righteous shall live from my faithfulness” (Hab. 2:4), he was conscious of the question of theodicy, namely, “Is God unjust if God abandons God’s promise to Israel?” However, God’s own answer to the question are God’s counter-questions: “What if some are unfaithful? Will their unfaithfulness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means!” (Rom 3:3-4a)
Original Sin and Scriptural Way of Salvation
The doctrine of original sin belongs to the core of Wesleyan doctrines which also includes the doctrines of justification and sanctification. The doctrine of original sin affirms the fundamental teaching that “there is no one who is righteous, not even one” (Rom 3:10). As the descendants of Adam and Eve, we all have fallen to the sin of idolatry, i.e., we “exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25). The central metaphor of marital infidelity in the prophetic discourse of the Scripture refers to the fundamental significance of marriage and human sexuality as both the gift and the calling of God for humans who bear the image of God. Nursing his own pride and desire instead of accepting God’s command, it is no wonder that the first descendant of Adam and Eve murdered his own brother out of envy. Our own evil and adulterous generation also belongs to the murderous descendants victimized by paternal uncertainty as well as by maternal unscrupulousness. Blindly following secularism, no one can and should justify their sin in terms of an evolutionary strategy to attempt to acquire the best genes for their offspring.
Paul’s focus in his challenge to the Gentile Christians is to remind them of the perennial temptation of the idolatry of desire: “Therefore, God gave them up in the desires of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves” (Rom 1:24). Paul’s apostolic proclamation against the idolatry of desire should not be interpreted as homophobic, because the idolatry of desire is prevalent across the complexities of human sexuality (1 Cor 6:9-10). Paul’s illustration of homosexuality, both lesbian and gay (Rom 1:26-27) demonstrates that “God’s wrath takes the form of letting human idolatry runs its own self-destructive course; homosexuality, then, is not a provocation of God’s ‘wrath’ (Rom 1:18); rather, it is a consequence of God’s decision to ‘give up’ rebellious creatures to follow their own futile thinking and desires” (Richard B. Hays). Paul is neither judgmental nor accusing of Gentile Christians. He is rather keenly aware of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, which were sins of Pharisaic Jews like himself and for which, perhaps he himself, had a certain propensity: “You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples?” (Rom 2:22).
The purpose of Paul’s straightforward exhortations to Gentile Christians has nothing to do with any repression of desires, let alone of human sexual desire. It is rather profoundly pastoral and pedagogical in the sense that Paul is trying to guide Gentile Christians as if they were immature adolescents in their Sturm und Drang. It is the way he says: “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations. For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Rom 6:19). In 1 Cor Paul also says: “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our Lord” (1 Cor 6:11).
Therefore, it is neither a matter of sexual repression nor of sexual libertinism but a matter of the implementation of genuine Christian faith and life. The prevenient, justifying, sanctifying and perfecting grace pervades our evanescent desire of creatures in our journey together towards the abundant and eternal life of love of Creator. The Holy Spirit transforms our immature desires into holy tempers for our love of God and of neighbors as well. Thus, the more you desire God, the more you can properly love your neighbor and your beloved. “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 6:22-23).
Justification and Assurance
The great blessing of Methodism, as well as its distinctive contribution, is a clear knowledge of the doctrine of “free, full, present justification, on the one hand, and of entire sanctification both of heart and life, on the other” (John Wesley). The Wesleyan emphasis upon practical divinity, unlike the juridical orthodoxy of Western Christianity, invites people to experience the justifying and sanctifying grace of God and encourages them to grow through Christian discipleship – faith and love put into practice. Therefore, our Wesleyan spirit can best serve as an ecumenical paradigm shift away from conflict and toward communion in the JDDJ (Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification) process, as it is fundamentally derived from a rediscovery of Pauline language of ‘pistis’ as both faith and faithfulness in the multilingual context of the Early Church.
“But now, apart from the law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, the righteousness of God through faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who believe” (Rom 3:21-22). Only by faith in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ the Son of God we can be saved, i.e., we can be adopted to become the children of God. This is the principle of sola gratia: “The filial is prior to the judicial” (McLeod Campbell). Indeed, justification is God’s declaration that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith,” as well as our assurance that we are children of God since “God has sent the spirit of the Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!” (Gal 4:6).
Paul’s report of a bilingual shout of joy, “Abba/Father!”, in and for the house churches of Rome is revolutionary as well as liberating. The symbol of the bilingual expression is fundamentally undergirded by the semiotic irruption of the divine energy only through and in which any binary opposition of discrimination and oppression will finally collapse. We are the people of Abba Father, who are on the pilgrimage of peace and justice, because we affirm that “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female”; there is no longer Easterner or Westerner, there is no longer conservative or progressive, there is no longer straight or gay; “for all of us are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). We are all the members of God’s family. No one is excluded and no one should be excluded, because all human-imposed identities have already been put to death by the crucified and risen Christ.
Sanctification and Perfection
Despite the centrality of the doctrine of justification and assurance we should never ignore the Wesleyan doctrine of sanctification and perfection. Otherwise, we will fall a victim to imagining that faith supersedes holiness, which is the marrow of antinomianism. In Johannine literature as well as in Pauline, there is the internal witness of the Holy Spirit that we are the children of God (1 John 5:10; Rom 8:16), which is always checked and balanced by the eschatological proviso of God’s judgement (John 18:31; Rom 14:10-12). In our times, far too long the eschatological reservation against an individualistic-spiritualistic understanding of salvation has been overlooked by the Wesleyan theology of the center, ignoring the urgent call for mission from the margins.
The blessed assurance by the witness of the Holy Spirit, which is the common privilege of the children of God, cannot be enjoyed unless the internal witness is thoroughly accompanied by the outward testimony of good works, which “is molded on the Passion of Christ, the testimony of suffering” (Paul Ricoeur). As the faithful community of Christ we have to encounter the suffering of being exposed to ridicule and persecution, which grows out of the fallen state of rebellion and sin in our contemporary age. We must be clear that this suffering may also lead us to the martyr’s path, which is indeed a reality for many sisters and brothers in Christ today. With assurance, we can and should say together, to fellow pilgrims who have traveled before us on the martyr’s path: “I was not there, but we were there.” In the last thematic plenary of the 2018 Arusha Mission Conference, entitled “Embracing the Cross”, Rev. Kathryn Mary Lohre, a Lutheran theologian from the United States, commented on our faithful response when our neighbors of another religion become targets of hatred and violence: “There is a unique role … for the churches to play. We are just beginning to understand that equipping disciples for mission and evangelism today must include not only religious literacy and interreligious competences but also the courage and humility to embrace the cross for the sake of our neighbors of other religions and worldviews, and to defend them against discrimination, bigotry, racism, and violence, regardless of its source”.
John Wesley sees love as the supreme goal of the process of sanctification, i.e., Christian perfection which is the most unique Wesleyan doctrine: “Love is the end (telos), the sole end, of every dispensation of God, from the beginning of the world to the consummation of all things. And it will endure when heaven and earth flee away, for love alone never fails.” When asked to summarize his doctrine of perfection, Wesley was content to quote Gal 5:6, and to say, “faith working by love” is the length and breadth and depth and height of Christian perfection. And this is deeply related to Macarius, an Eastern father’s description of the way God makes possible our participation in God’s “energy” through incorporating us into God’s life of the Spirit: “God has been pleased to make us partakers of the divine nature. The soul is God’s bride, made according to God’s image.”
The historically critical study of the concrete, communal context of the Pauline dispute over justification is crucial for reinvigorating the doctrine of justification as we approach the potentially fatal crossroads for the Church in our times: i.e., the crossroads between secularism and religious fundamentalism. It is worthy to note D. Bonhoeffer’s perceptive remark: “The Pauline question whether ‘peritome’ (circumcision) is a condition of justification seems to me in present-day terms to be whether religion is a condition of salvation.” Paul saw Peter along with the circumcision party of Jewish Christians in Antioch who “did not walk straight to the truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:14), because Peter, separating himself from Gentile Christians, denied the equality of the people of God, all of whom are justified by grace through faith. According to Paul, those who had cut themselves off from Christ had fallen away from grace; therefore, they had lost the freedom of the gospel by submitting again to a yoke of slavery. Once again appealing to the Great Assize, Paul reminded them that only through the Holy Spirit, by faith, can Christians “eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. … For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal 5:5-6, 6:15).
In his sermon “On the Wedding Garment” Wesley passionately opposes the Calvinist antinomian misinterpretation of the righteousness of God in relation to Matt 22:12 and Rev 19:8. Critically distinguishing between the righteousness of Christ and the righteousness or holiness of the saints, Wesley asserts, “Without the righteousness of Christ we could have no claim to glory; without holiness we could have no fitness for it. By the former we become members of Christ, children of God, and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the latter, we are ‘made meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light’ (Col 1:12).” We may add that the former, which is necessary for our “entitlement to heaven,” is based on the principle of sola gratia: the filial is prior to the judicial. The latter, which is necessary for our “qualification for heaven,” is based on the principle of “responsible grace” (Randy Maddox): holiness (the wedding garment for the marriage of the Lamb) is the telos of the filial.
We need to pay attention to Wesley’s analogy of the marriage covenant in his description of Christian perfection, not as a state of “perfected perfection” but as a telos of “perfecting perfection” in terms of love as the goal of the life of faith: “No marriage is perfect in the sense that there are no ups and downs, no alternations in mood, no moments in which communication is less than ideal. Nevertheless, the covenant can be steadfast and the parties to it sustained by the assurance that it will endure. In this sense it is perfect, as perfect as it can become under human conditions” (Theodore Runyon). In the recent Korean concert tour of U2, a famous Irish rock band, sang: “Now it’s all I got/ We’re one but we’re not the same/ We hurt each other then we do it again/ One love, one blood, one life/ You got to do what you should/ One life with each other/ sisters, brothers/ One life but we’re not the same/ We get to carry each other/ Carry each other, one.” At the end of his extraordinary performance Bono lead singer of the band appealed to South Koreans by saying “The most beautiful word is ‘united’, let’s pray for the people in North Korea.”
Dear brothers and sisters in the United Methodist Church! I have been praying for peace and reconciliation in your denomination and congregations that have been involved in the debates and conflicts over marriage and human sexuality for more than four decades. The decision made by the special session of the General Conference 2019 reaffirmed the tradition by which the Church through the ages as well as most of the majority-world today, rejects any accommodation to secular culture of the enlightened West. We always need a discernment given the fact that “Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living” (Jaroslav Pelikan). Furthermore, the theological and ethical questions concerning the hermeneutical role of human experience and reason as well as of tradition in the interpretation of the Scripture still remains unanswered, unless we dare to discern self-critically and prayerfully the leading of the Holy Spirit in terms of what it means faithfully to follow God’s highest law of love in the increasingly complex sphere of human sexuality.
“For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:38-39). “For the kingdom of God is neither food and drink,” nor marriage and sexuality “but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirt. … Do not, for the sake of either food” or sex, “destroy the work of God” (Rom 14:17,20). “Why do you pass judgement on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. … So then, each of us will be accountable to God” (Rom 14: 10,12). “(Let the reader understand!)” (Mark 13:14).
Dear people called Methodists in the United States! Remember that you are the descendants of the early Methodists who “desired … to flee from the wrath to come, which they saw continually hanging over their heads.” Watch and pray. Never lose the sense of urgency. Be united to watch over one another in love. Watch whether your personal holiness degenerates into self-righteousness, or your social holiness into institutional holiness. Let us confess together that we, the followers of Christ, the Prince of Peace, have failed to seek Christ’s peace by demonizing our sisters and brothers whom Christ calls us to forgive and love. We have often embodied the spirit of hostility rather than the spirit of hospitality. We repent and seek God’s transformative forgiveness that turns our failures into opportunities for grace and reconciliation.
“For it has been reported to me that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says,” I belong to Progressives, or I belong to Traditionalists, or I belong to Centrists, or I belong to Christ. “Has Christ been divided?” (1 Cor 1:11-13) “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!” (Gal 3:1). Don’t you read in Eph 2:14, “Christ is our peace.” Here, the peace of Christ is in a clear opposition to the peace of empire. The fundamental difference between the two lies in the fact that the peace of empire divides and rules while the peace of Christ unites and reconciles. The rest of Eph 2:14 so beautifully reads, “in his flesh Christ has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing walls, that is, the hostility between us.”
Therefore, don’t dare build another dividing wall among you and between you and the rest of us. “If tomorrow God would see us holding stones in our hands, like those who carried in former times, may they not be thrown at each other. May they not be used either to build walls of separation and exclusion. Rather, may God find us building bridges so that we can come closer to each other, houses where we can meet together, and tables where we can share bread and wine, the presence of Christ, who has never left us and who calls us to abide in him so that the world may believe” (Martin Junge, General Secretary of The Lutheran World Federation).
“I am speaking the truth in Christ – I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit – I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom 9:1-2). “For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh” (Rom 9:3). The year of 2020 is the 70th year of the Korean War. Please join me and the Korean people in both North and South to praise and to give thanks to God who has already begun comforting the 70 year, long-divided nation and separated families on the peninsula. The Spirit of God is tenderly speaking to the broken hearts of both Pyongyang and Seoul and is calling both of them to end their warfare. Thank God Almighty that the iniquity of the 70 million Koreans is pardoned at last! Indeed, Koreans have taken from God’s hand double for all their sins.
May we share in the prophet Isaiah’s vision by listening to a voice calling: “Prepare in the wilderness Yahweh’s way. Straighten in the Arabah a highway for our God.” (Isa 40:3-4) Where is wilderness in our times? And what is the Arabah in our context? The wilderness of the Arabah is the Demilitarized Zone between North Korea and South Korea. Yet, “lift up your eyes and look about you!” (Isa 60:4). Unfortunately, after the fall of the Berlin War it took the European Union only six years to create with the Schengen Agreement in 1995 a new division only 80km east of Berlin. Over the first two decades of the 21st century, we have witnessed that peace on earth has been dissipated by new wars and by new walls and barriers being raised.
We are living in the “Walled World” (TD Vrij Nederland) in which 73% of the world’s income is held by 14% of the world’s population in the global North, while 27% of the world’s income is held by 86% of the world’s population in the global South. The six prominent walls are DMZ-Korea, Australian Northern Approach, The United States-Mexico Wall, The Melilla Border Fence/The Ceuta Border Fence in Northern Africa, The Palestine Wall, and The Schengen Border in Europe. These walls represent a worldwide system that contains an exclusive society. The rise of a system of militarized global apartheid has created a racialized world order to provide security for the global North and foster violence in the global South and to gate the global North while imprisoning the global South.
Wesley’s critical diagnosis of his contemporary Methodism as well as of the entire history of the Church is crucial and instrumental for our own prophetic self-assessment of the three modes of World Christianity today: i.e., Church of the Empire, Church in Exile, and Church on the Move. Wesley lamented that the mystery of iniquity prevailed even in the earliest Christianity of New Testament: “How little time elapsed before the god of this world so far regained his empire that Christians in general were scarce distinguishable from heathens, save by their opinions and modes of worship.” Still the most serious danger to World Christianity is the temptation of idolatry – trying to serve two masters, namely, God and mammon. While having struggled within our own divisions whether they be of political ideology or of human sexuality, we have become the Church in Exile constantly tempted by the complacency of Church of the Empire. The Church in Exile is at the crossroads of the rise of migration and economic nationalism. If we move against the stream of the ever-increasing economic nationalism, which debases and abandons the most vulnerable children of God, immigrants and refugees, we will have to welcome the dawning of the Church on the Move, an alternative form of community with the establishment of networks between migrant and native communities that transcend national, cultural and political boundaries.
The Church on the Move seeks to be an alternative missional movement against the perception that mission can only be done by the powerful to the powerless, by the rich to the poor, or by the privileged to the marginalized: “’They shall all know me’, saith the Lord, not from the greatest to the least (this is that wisdom of the world which is foolishness with God) but ‘from the least to the greatest’, that the praise may not be of men, but of God” (John Wesley). Through participation in mission from the margins, we may envision with John Wesley the latter-day glory of God that “will silently increase wherever it is set up, and spread from heart to heart, from house to house, from town to town, from one kingdom to another.” Sympathizing with the prophet Isaiah’s messianic vision, Wesley aspired to see the coming of perpetual peace on earth as the opening of a new World Christianity: “At that time will be accomplished all those glorious promises made to the Christian churches, which will not then be confined to this or that nation, but will include all the inhabitants of the earth. ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain.’ Violence shall no more be heard in thy land, wasting nor destruction within thy borders; but thou shall call thy walls, Salvation, and thy gates, Praise.” But alas! Look at our world today! Aren’t the old walls still preserved and the new walls ready to be built that separate and divide heart from heart, house from house, town from town, nation from nation? Therefore, my dear sisters and brothers of the Church in Exile or on the Move, let us continue our journey of peacemaking ministry along with mission from the margins, yearning for the transformation of the dividing wall into ‘the Wall of Salvation,’ and for the change of the cursed checkpoint to ‘the Gate of Praise’!
Finally, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses in opposition to the teaching that you have learned. … The God of peace will shortly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom 16:17, 20). From now on I will fast in prayer at noon on every Friday until the next General Conference of the United Methodist Church in May, 2020. I want to be part of your holy conferencing even though I hope it will be not my first and last General Conference of the United Methodist Church to attend. If I cannot be there, I will still be with you in prayer. Don’t forget that the world will be watching you. Please pray for me so that “I may declare the mystery of the gospel boldly, as I must speak” (Eph 6:20).
“May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. Beloved, pray for us. Greet all the brothers and sisters with a holy kiss. I solemnly command you by the Lord that this letter be read to all of them. Amen. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-28).
Rev. Dr. J. C. Park, President of World Methodist Council
January 1, 2020