Wesleyan Wisdom: “Grace upon grace” and the stages of faith

Most Wesleyan scholars agree that our  most significant contribution to Christian thought is Wesley’s emphasis on perfecting grace.  Wesley did not use today’s popular term “plan of salvation.”  He used the Latin term “via salutis,” which means the “way of salvation.”  Salvation according to Wesley is a path, a journey, a prolonged experience of what he called “grace upon grace.”  We often call this “growing in grace.”

James Fowler, former professor at Candler School of Theology,  wrote a well researched and somewhat hard to read book that explores this spiritual journey titled Stages of Faith.  Scott Peck, in his book Further Along the Road Less Traveled, cites Fowler’s description of the six stages of faith, but then reduces them to four. Peck did this through the lens of his work as a psychiatrist, saying,  “I arrived at my own understanding of these stages, not  out of book learning, but through experience.”

In Peck’s psychiatric practice, he began to realize  that we are not all at  the same place spiritually.  Though he recognizes that God does not have neat little pigeon-holes for us with our varied DNA and life happenings,  he finds it helpful to look at what is happening in the church and in society today through these lenses of these stages.

As I look at the state of the church today, I (like Peck before me) believe that the stages that both Fowler and Peck offer need some tweaking. What follows are my own personal definitions and descriptions of the stages I experience as I look at the world around me.

People in Stage One fail to connect the dots between  personal decisions, morals, ethics, and  interpretations on the one hand;  and one’s Christian faith on the other hand. These persons can pretend to be loving when in fact they really are self-serving, even to the point of manipulation. At this stage we are governed not by a surrendered will, but rather by a determined self will.   These people often become addicts to substances, attitudes,  or habits that become self-destructive.  However Peck warns that some people in Stage  One work to discipline and shape their ambition to control to the point that they rise to positions of great prestige and power—like being a preacher or the president!

Stage Two may come as the result of a religious conversion,  a marriage,  the mentoring effect of some person, or the trauma of some life threatening experience.  This is the stage of the support group, be it a labor union, the military, an “A.A.” group,  a cult, or a corporation with a regimented culture.  However, Peck points out that the most common support group for persons seeking more order in their private lives is the church.

Denominations are the embodiment of  a Stage Two mentality.  They develop a culture within which one defines the Bible, Christian doctrine, personal morality and ethics, and societal issues.  But as the years go by, local church and denominations build “God boxes.”  Rituals, rules, regulations, and “the way we do things here” become more rigid and fixed. Most congregations develop boundaries for their members and most  “live a life that becomes the Gospel” as that congregation understands the Gospel.  United Methodists for whom Stage 2 becomes a passionate obsession use the Book of Discipline as a weapon.  (Some of these are laity, some are pastors, some are district superintendents, some are bishops, and some are in our general boards and agencies or on the Judicial Council!)

In the local church  Stage Two people fight over contemporary and traditional worship, societal conflicts about homosexuality,  and apportionments. In the culture of our cabinets, we see Stage Two thinking in appointment making, with itineracy becoming an obsession!  At General Conference we use caucuses and Robert’s Rules of Order rather than Jesus’ spirit of truth!  We saw this in the General Conference of 2012 and its aftermath in  the Judicial Council.  In Stage Two spirit is trumped by structure.

Stage Two people are often the majority in local churches and cabinets, and can even be elected to the episcopacy!  We are both products and proponents of our ecclesiastical culture.  We are deeply proud of our heritage, defensive of what we call “the connection,” and increasingly bewildered as to how we “serve this present age, God’s calling to fulfill.”

 Stage Three is the experiential grace experience of “blessed assurance…oh what a foretaste of glory divine.”  Many United Methodists, lay and clergy, have momentary experiences of this but slide back into institutional ruts.  We understand “experimental grace” to be profoundly Wesleyan, but representative of  either an old paradigm or an embarrassing emotionalism.   Like the childhood recess-time game of “put your right foot in and take your right foot out and give yourself a ‘shake, shake, shake’ and turn yourself about,” we have been uncomfortably hesitant to “put our whole self in.”

Scott Peck defines  Stage Three as “people who are ahead of people in “Stage Two” in their spirituality.  He labels it “mysticism” and says that “mystics are people who are very comfortable living in a world of mystery whereas people in Stage Two are most uncomfortable when things are not cut-and-dried.”  He also says that moving from Stage Two to Stage Three usually involves a conversion experience. That being true, we need to create more local church atmosphere for allowing the Holy Spirit to work creatively and redemptively with us.

From that point, I depart from Dr. Peck’s or Dr. Fowler’s psychiatric/academic  interpretations and reflect more my own insight as a pastor. To me we often use Stage Three language because that is the evangelical  ethos and the idiom of  our scripture and our hymnody.  However, we feel self-conscious in referring to our own “experience in Christ” and even less comfortable in “coaching people to their ‘victory in Jesus.’”  As a consequence, we are denominationally anemic when it comes to leading people to a conversion experience.

In our faith journey, we preach Stage Three spiritual dynamics, but as soon as worship is over we lapse into our vocabulary and behavior of institutional religion. In conversation, our comfort zone is to  talk  about  the Church or the “Jesus of history,” not the “Christ of experience.”   We also, in Scott Peck’s words, “bounce back and forth” between Stage Two and “Stage Three” in our faith journey.   When we are in a “Walk to Emmaus” or youth are sitting around a campfire or college students  in a candle lit room with a guitar strumming, we let our psychic guard down, open up our soul, and experience the presence of God.  But these times are not our spiritual norm.

Stage Four is defined by Scott Peck as “mystical-communal.” I think this is a psychiatric understanding of perfecting grace. He says this growth is gradual. Wesley called repentance the “porch of salvation,” conversion the “ threshold,” and sanctification as the “whole house” in which God takes us room by room and anoints our prejudices, our habits, our attitudes, our greed, and our cultural “isms” with sanctifying, perfecting grace.  The older holiness movement made the grave mistake of insisting from the pulpit that teenagers could be “saved” one night and “sanctified” the next.  We were too immature and  too naïve to even understand all the dimensions of our sinfulness, especially the impact of systemic evil on our thinking.  What white Southerner in 1950 understood perfecting grace in the context of racial segregation? Even the most liberal authors were insensitive to male gender language well into the 1970’s and used the terms “man” or “mankind” for all God’s children.

So Stage Four in our faith life is a gradual unpacking of our cultural sin as well as our personal sins.  We have very few occasions or vehicles in United Methodism for opening people’s hearts to the work of the Holy Spirit in purging from us the tribal sins and the addicted behaviors of thought, word, and deed.  Dr. Peck reminds us in his book that gambling and sex and greed  are as addictive as alcohol and other behavior-altering drugs.

In this paradigm of seeing faith as “stages” for our journey and seeing any given congregation as either growing or stagnated in those respective stages, let us look at United Methodism.  To me, we are imprisoned by our structure which locks us into Stage Two—institutionalized faith.  Yes many clergy and laity  have been influenced by coaches like  Evelyn Underhill, Reuben Job, Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr,  and Elton Trueblood, but most of us have practiced “church-ianity,” not “Christ-ianity.”  Millions are fixated in Stage Two religion and their disenchantment level is fragile.   Far too many still define their faith as church attendance  and their absence as “getting out of the habit.”

The sad consequence is that most  seekers today and the children of loyal denominational families are not attracted to the church as an institution.  They do not aspire to be on the Finance Committee or go from a “day in the office” to a Staff Parish Relations Committee meeting!  Len Sweet repeatedly reminds his audiences that if we lift up the church, people have a whole quiver of arrows to shoot at it.  But if we lift up Jesus, we will see his prophecy fulfilled: “And I, if I am lifted up, will draw all people to myself.  Walk in the light…so the darkness will not overtake you…believe in the light so that you may become children of light.”(John 12:32ff)   That is our denominational challenge!  Unless we meet it, we face a slippery slope of decline.

UMR Columnist Dr. Donald W. Haynes is a retired pastor, an adjunct instructor at  Hood  Theological Seminary, a Church staff “visitor,” and a follower of Jesus. He is also the author of “On the Threshold of Grace — Methodist Fundamentals.”

Donald W. Haynes, UMR Columnist

Donald Haynes

Dr. Donald Haynes has been an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years and is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference. A recipient of the Harry Denman Evangelism Award, Dr. Haynes is the author of On the Threshold of Grace—Methodist Fundamentals; serves as an adjunct faculty member at Hood Theological Seminary; and is the Assistant to the Pastor in Evangelism at the First United Methodist Church of Asheboro, North Carolina. Dr. Haynes has written for The United Methodist Reporter since 2005.

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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