Scriptural Foundation for the One Church Plan
By Bishop Ken Carter
A few weeks ago the Florida Conference held a day of listening to our people in preparation for the General Conference in February. There was a wide spectrum of conviction expressed, as you might imagine. The day was really well-planned and organized. But as we left, a friend said to me, “we have to have a better Biblical hermeneutic!”
Which led me to think about some of this.
The great commandment of Jesus is found in Mark 12. 38-44, with parallels in Matthew 22 and Luke 10. Each links love of God (the Shema from Deuteronomy 6) with the command to love our neighbor (Leviticus 19). In Mark’s gospel, the teaching comes in the midst of many other encounters where Jesus is being tested by legalists (Mark 11. 27). In other words, his authority to teach or interpret scripture is questioned.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is also asked a question by a lawyer. After speaking of love of God and neighbor and quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, he adds a concluding statement: “On these two commandments hang all of the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22. 40).
Richard Hays comments, “these two commandments, in other words, are not merely the greatest or the most important, the ones at the top of the list; rather, they have a systemic, structural and hermeneutical role. All the other commandments in the Torah are suspended from these two pillars. It is a matter not just of priority but of weight-bearing. This claim is fully consistent with Matthew’s insistence that in Jesus’ teaching the law remains in force. Yet, at the same time, the passage inescapably proposes a particular hermeneutical reconfiguration of Torah, one in which love becomes the most determinative requirement. As the history of interpretation amply demonstrates, where such a hermeneutical reconfiguration takes place, the other commandments tend over time to recede in importance” (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 2016, p. 123).
In Luke, the great commandment of Jesus is set within the context of a legal question, which is asked and answered in a straightforward way (Luke 10. 25-28). But this becomes the window into a further question, who is my neighbor?, related to the second commandment, and Jesus responds with a parable (the Good Samaritan) and an answer in the form of a different question (which of the three in the story was a neighbor?). In the end, the one who demonstrated mercy.
In his Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Hays reflects on mercy in light of Matthew’s use of Hosea 6. 6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice”. He writes, “Matthew’s Jesus discerns within Scripture itself the hermeneutical principle that all the commandments are to be interpreted in such a way as to engender and promote the practice of mercy among God’s people”…and then, “for Matthew, the story of Israel is carried forward through a particular, prophetically shaped interpretation of Torah within a community called to embody the mercy of God” (127-128).
Why is all of this important?
- First, the church struggles with the relationship between law and love. We are people of One Book (the Bible), and yet we are called to see many books within the Book, to read deeply within the Scriptures, and allow the wholeness of the message to interpret the parts. We do harm when we take one verse (or half of one verse) of the law, and quote it without understanding how the rabbis and the apostles placed it within a context. It is clear that Jesus intended the law to be set upon the foundation of love, which bears the weight of the teaching. This is actually how the Ten Commandments rest upon God’s deliverance of his people from slavery (Exodus 20).
Eternal life begins, in each of the gospels, when our lives reflect a love for God and for our neighbor. We read scripture not to win a legal argument—but to become disciples of Jesus who practice mercy toward one another, and who live in trust and confidence that God offers that same mercy to us.
- And second, at the heart of our understanding of Christian perfection as Wesleyans is the great commandment: “Sanctifying grace draws us toward the gift of Christian perfection, which Wesley described as a heart ‘habitually filled with the love of God and neighbor’” (BOD, 102; see especially John Wesley, “The Character of a Methodist, 5).
I share this with you because I think one of our challenges is to provide a scriptural basis for the One Church Plan, and to have conversations with and as traditionalists that are based in scripture. At our best, we can be churches who differ in our interpretations of the law, but more fundamentally see the law being fulfilled in people who love each other, and show mercy toward each other, and have this orientation toward the world beyond us.
Have a blessed Lord’s Day.
The Peace of the Lord,
Resident Bishop, Florida Conference
President, Council of Bishops
The United Methodist Church