I can’t remember the year, sometime early on, but I was walking back and forth from a table to the reference shelf in the library. I had three or four books stacked up, a copy of the BDAG lexicon and a semantic domains lexicon opened, and another lexicon in my hand. I was carrying around a red, hardback notebook jotting down everything I could find on two words — soteria and sozo. These are the words most translated as salvation and save in the New Testament. For some reason, I had it in my head that there may be more to the words than that, a feeling, a premonition of the Spirit, something that said, “Keep digging.” Looking back at my notes, I can see where I wrote down several pages worth of lexical information and one very important note,
From Louw and Nida
Sozo (cf. sesoxa)
This little exercise taught me several things, but more than that, it started me down a road to a different understanding of theology. I have always been fascinated with words and the study of words in the original meaning and context even more so. This understanding of the word save, as meaning heal, changed my understanding of what salvation could and frankly, should be in my opinion. I centered in on the word heal and began to see salvation in a new light, not a rescue from a place, but a rescue from a state of being. I wasn’t being protected from eternal fire and torment, I was being restored by small bits and measures to the state God intended us to live in.
I eventually came up with the idea of wholeness theology (for lack of a better word) and this became the first of many doctrines and ideas I explored. Some I began to see differently, others I held onto. But I realized soon after that, my way of seeing things was likely never to be that of the parishioners I served. My journey was moving me away from where I had been, where many of them were, and toward something else, something personal and healing for me.
And this is a major problem in the United Methodist Church if not all churches: the theology of the clergy and the theology of parishioner usually isn’t the same. I will say my experience is limited in that the churches I have pastored over the past dozen years, have all been in rural or pseudo-suburban environments. Of course, if you understand the distribution of UMC congregations, you’ll know many if not most are in these environments. The theology in these churches was born from circuit riders and lay preachers, many of whom never had the opportunity for advanced study. This, I believe, led to a certain type of general evangelicalism or as some scholars call it, moral therapeutic deism. For years now, seminarians sent to these churches have a choice: preach what you know and learned, try to walk the tight rope between the things you have in common, or acquiesce and preach what the people want to hear. I have heard of pastors trying all three of these strategies and I spent years practicing the second one. But the cost for me was feeling as though I was always skirting the truth, telling people something they could stomach but knowing one day they would find I was one of those progressives or liberals. Every church where I had the chance to be in more than a couple of years, I found myself in trouble with some faction of the church somewhere in the second or third year over some theological or social point or another.
Now, I think it’s getting worse. People outside the church are doubling down on their ideology from the extremes. Both sides have espoused the one of us or one of them mindset and those who aren’t one of us are not true Americans or ignorant rednecks. Within the church, people are bringing a sort of quasi-religious politics and calling it religion. A church member told me the story the other day of a friend who had known them for years suddenly refusing to speak with them and claiming they were “no longer a good person” because they voted for President Biden.
My greater point is, amidst this backdrop of quasi-religious politics or quasi-political religion, pastors are being asked to step into churches where theological literacy is limited and teach people a truth they don’t want to hear. Most don’t want to know the bible came together over the course of about nine hundred years, not a coherent work but as pieces put together later by people who took years to find consensus on what should be part of it. Most don’t want to know that salvation isn’t a moment with a prayer and a ticket to heaven, but a journey taken to heal us from the brokenness of this existence. Most don’t want to know that the evidence for many of the social issues they argue against—abortion, homosexuality, human rights, immigrants, etc.—are either not in the bible in the form they think they are or are diametrically the opposite of their political beliefs. And so, pastors continue to be asked to learn theology most of their parishioners don’t want to hear. Seminary becomes a place of idealogues pontificating the minutiae of doctrines and dogmas that will never find their way into churches.
What do we do?
For good or ill, I have decided a loving, direct honesty is the best course. I no longer shy away from teaching or preaching the things I have learned on my journey. I no longer avoid recognizing the school of thought I have come to believe in nor the writers and theologians calling them home. I don’t denigrate the ideas of the parishioner, nor do I try to get them to change their minds. I simply share the journey I am on, where it has led me, where I think it might be going, and the things I have learned along the way. Will it work? Will the church accept it? Will I be run out of town on a rail as the old saying goes? I have no idea. I only know for me, it’s an issue of integrity and wholeness. To have those two things, I have to embrace fully the things I have learned and continue to learn or I become a broken person.