Moving Beyond the Imaginary Right-Left Divide in the CHM

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Holy Joys seeks to provide resources that are helpful for Christians from a wide variety of perspectives; however, we identify as “conservative Wesleyan” in our theological commitments, and many of our contributors are within the CHM. See also “A Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement.”

In a recent conversation, someone referred to “compromisers” and “the right-left divide in the Holiness Movement.” But as I began to ask several pointed questions, I realized that he had simply assumed such a divide exists. In fact, the longer we talked, the more it sounded like a conspiracy theory.

The Appeal of Simplistic Narratives 

It is easier than ever to believe that a right-left divide exists in the CHM. We are used to hearing that there is a right-left divide across every area of society. I just heard another commentator claim, “All of America’s current problems can be traced to….” These claims usually end with an accusation against “the other side.” Absolute left and right provide an all-encompassing, all-explaining, self-affirming worldview—almost exactly the definition of a conspiracy theory. It is easier to beat a straw man or pin our problems on an elusive group of people (e.g., “the compromisers”) than it is to provide mature analysis of complex problems and propose theologically-informed solutions for moving forward.

As humans, we easily latch onto simplistic narratives when we are fearful, anxious, and confused by cultural change. Afraid that we will lose what we love, we grasp for an explanation. “Conspiracy theories are contagious because they appeal to the human desire for understanding and control.” When leaders use their power and platform to advance these narratives, they almost always attract an audience, then use the “results” to justify their claims. Those who buy into the divisive rhetoric are celebrated as “the faithful” regardless of their maturity or understanding, while the resistance of others is seen as evidence that the divide really exists. Common ground is forgotten and tribalism ensues. Soon, an imaginary divide becomes a real one. This is one way in which the worldview is self-affirming.

It is easier to beat a straw man or pin our problems on an elusive group of people (e.g., “the compromisers”) than it is to provide mature analysis of complex problems and propose theologically-informed solutions for moving forward.

Within the CHM, the narrative goes something like this: When we had the “old fashioned way,” we had the glory; to get the glory back, we’ve got to get back to the old fashioned way; therefore, our job is to “purify” the movement of the “liberal compromisers.” This narrative is simplistic, polarizing, and harmful. Moreover, it betrays an anemic theology. This is not to say that no one within the CHM has ever compromised the movement’s core values or distinctives. Conspiracy theories are always built on a few crumbs of truth. But if “liberal” and “conservative” were neatly-defined concepts on a scale from 0 to 100, any real “divide” in the CHM would be between the “98s” and the “100s.” I recently heard someone called a “compromiser” who has written the only exegetical paper on 1 Corinthians 11 defending uncut hair for women. We need to let that sink in.

A Vicious Cycle

As a consequence, more and more issues are being politicized and used as shibboleths to identify, label, and cancel one another. This includes issues that have not divided us in the past. We denounce “cancel culture” while fueling it among our ranks. If unchecked, it becomes a kind of spiritual McCarthyism—blacklisting people who agree with us on almost everything, only to lose out on their valuable contribution to the body. It is a subtle (or in some cases not-so-subtle) way of saying to the hand, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21). It feeds a culture of fear and suspicion that paralyzes progress. “But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15). One of the godliest, quietest, and most respected pastors that I know recently confided in me, “I’m worried that things are moving back to the days when we nearly split apart.”

Breaking out of this mindset is difficult. False narratives die hard, especially when we have relied on them to make sense of the complex problems around us. I’m not exempt from this warning. It’s easy to grasp at whatever confirms our bias so that we can remain in a small and comfortable thought world. For example, if someone presses for answers to hard questions, but they are viewed with suspicion or silenced, they sometimes run. It’s a lonely place to live and an understandable impulse. But we can easily use this as an opportunity to say, “Look, we were right all along, they were the problem.” When we accept this simplistic explanation, it hardens our narrative and fuels a culture of suspicion. We begin wondering, “Who else is on a journey out of the Holiness way?” Or, “Who else in our denomination or Bible college is ‘hiding’ and needs to be exposed as a compromiser?” It’s a vicious cycle.

Moving Forward as a Body

The CHM can be a mighty force for scriptural holiness across these lands, but we must move beyond the imaginary right-left divide. We must love one another more than our agendas. Here are a few suggestions for moving forward as a body.

1. Listen patiently to the concerns being voiced by others. Those who are dismissed as compromising “the Holiness way” are often trying to express what they see as blind spots in our holiness. These concerns are important. Even if we disagree with proposed solutions, we need to ensure that our approach addresses the underlying concerns of our brothers. Sadly, these concerns are often ignored because we lack patient thinking.

Those who are dismissed as compromising “the Holiness way” are often trying to express what they see as blind spots in our holiness.

It is wrong, if not slanderous, to slap on the label of “compromiser” or “liberal” without giving serious consideration to what others have written or personally reaching out to them for clarification and dialogue. If we have legitimate concerns about a specific brother, we should reach out to him privately, not get on social media to cast shade and fuel suspicion. “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19). I’m still thinking about this excerpt from one of our first podcasts:

The very thing that James says we are not to be, we often are. We’re quick to speak, quick to wrath, and slow to hear. What Scripture calls to us in this particular time is the wisdom that slows down. The whole conversation’s pace must slow down so that we’re hearing one another, understanding one another, and fully exploring the alternative position before we offer critique. Most people lack the grace of patience, and because they’re impatient, they are unwise in their words. Wisdom is never impatient. That’s not to say that wisdom may not speak up and say some hard words. We see Jesus himself saying some very hard words. But that was the exception in the life of Christ, not the rule. It was particularly in cases where he recognized there was a hardened, wilful refusal to accept truth.

2. Do your part to lower the temperature by giving others more room to breathe and think. For some, “avoiding confusion” and “giving a clear sound” just means “avoiding hard questions” and “not questioning anything I believe.” When pressed, they are usually the most confused, fearful, and insecure of all. Christian clarity is clarity on the essentials, the matters of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). When it comes to Scripture, we must acknowledge with Peter, “There are some things in them that are hard to understand” (2 Pet. 3:16). Secondary and tertiary matters are important, and I’m no fan of mushy ecumenicalism. But we need to be honest about the level of certainty with which these truths can be known. Otherwise, we will rest in a smug sense of security, glorying in our blissful ignorance, while looking with suspicion and scrutiny upon everyone who dares to think.

It is easier to control or manipulate others than it is to defend one’s views with rigorous theological arguments.

It is easier to control or manipulate others than it is to defend one’s views with rigorous theological arguments. “True power,” however, “is not the ability to control. Controlling behavior is a sign of weakness and insecurity.” If our unity is grounded in Christ (Eph. 4:4–6), we will not feel as though our identity is being threatened whenever our positions are questioned. The air will be clear enough for us to have meaningful and informed dialogue.

3. Celebrate mature thinkers—not those who use forceful preaching as a cover-up for poorly nuanced teaching. Far too often we have excused preachers who are theologically careless and even spiritually abusive because they can stir up a crowd or line an altar of prayer. If we transcribed many of our favorite camp meeting sermons, they would amount to a big ball of theological fluff. We have preferred shouting over substance. We have preferred milk to solid food. This deserves the rebuke of Hebrews 5:11–14. Simplistic thinking hurts people.

We must expect more from our pastor-teachers. I urge every Christian to read the pastoral epistles and highlight everything that they say about the pastor’s duty to teach, instruct, and explain with complete patience. This is what church leaders are supposed to be focused on. Our churches are starving for theological answers. I regularly hear, “All of my life I have never understood x” or “Why has no one ever explained this to me before?” The classic Christian vision of a pastor is of one who is a pastor-theologian, devoted to the ministry of the word and prayer. We need reasonable, mature, theologically-informed voices.

4. Redefine the “old fashioned way” as the consensus of the last 2000 years, not an idealized picture of the last 100 years. If by “old fashioned way” we meant classic Christianity or even the best of classic Methodism, I would be first in line. My heart longs for a return to Methodist catholicity and sacramental piety. But this slogan draws on an idealized view of the last 100 years. In my experience, those who are most forceful about the OFW do not understand classic Christianity or the creeds, let alone classic Methodism. By “old books,” they usually mean books from the last two centuries, which are actually new books. If someone makes a forceful call to preserve practices from our short tradition, there is great enthusiasm. But if someone calls for the retrieval of practices in long Tradition, there is little interest, even suspicion. When 2000 years contradicts 100 years, which is the old fashioned way?

When 2000 years contradicts 100 years, which is the old fashioned way?

I recently talked with a pastor—a sincere and godly man—who was teaching a series on “Basic Bible Doctrines.” He included several of our distinctives but left out many creedal doctrines such as the resurrection of the body. This is alarming, and it’s not an isolated example. I recently learned of a Holiness institution that considered hiring a Unitarian because he shared our conservative dress standards. But Unitarians are not Christians! Again, we need to let that sink in. When we are weak on the essentials, it sucks the life out of the church in a thousand ways and weakens the foundation on which our distinctives stand, mutating them into something toxic and sub-Christian.

5. Avoid divisive people. “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). There is weighty wisdom in this verse. In the past, I have genuinely tried to build bridges with agenda-driven people, even finding quotes from their favorite holiness heroes to advocate for more careful exposition, more nuanced teaching, sacramental reform, and serious theological retrieval. But I have been dismissed on the simple basis that what we really need is revival and the old-fashioned way. Of course, we need revival. O Lord, by your own free grace, grant us the miracle of revival! But reducing our problems to this simplistic narrative is paralyzing our progress. If someone is too blinded by their agenda to join in a mature discussion that seeks theologically-informed solutions for our widespread crisis of membership and discipleship, do not spend your emotional energy. The church has been given its mission, and we must honor Christ as Lord of his church by getting busy with the hard work of making disciples (Mt. 28:19–20).

6. Have the courage and tenacity to ask hard questions and implement theologically-informed solutions to our problems. Some people are unwilling to change anything because they fear a quick liberal death, but I’m just as concerned about a slow, creaky death (or an unhealthy church that is crippled in its discipleship). Good, godly men of prayer who are committed to “the faith once for all delivered” (Jude 1:3) and clear on their shared theological distinctives should not be so paralyzed by fear that they cannot work out these issues.

Good, godly men of prayer who are committed to “the faith once for all delivered” (Jude 1:3) and clear on their shared theological distinctives should not be so paralyzed by fear that they cannot work out these issues.

If something needs to be addressed, be of good courage. Don’t do it quickly or rashly. Take time to pray, think, reflect, and study. But once you can provide clear and thorough analysis, have the conviction to lead. Don’t allow your voice to be silenced by zealotry. I meet more and more good, balanced pastors who have serious concerns but are afraid to speak up and be isolated from their “tribe.” Tribalism is devastating and deeply un-Christian.

My prayer is that the CHM will move beyond the imaginary right-left divide, unite around our shared commitment to holiness of heart and life, join hands to retrieve the best of our precious Methodist heritage, and move forward in the love of God. As Wesley asked in his much-needed sermon Catholic Spirit, “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 all doubt, we may.”

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.