Piety and Practice

My friend Nathan has spent a lifetime trying to understand and explain Methodist theology. There were the meeting houses where rich and poor study the scriptures together, the inclusion of social justice in the practice of Christian faith, the call to, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” You can see why this type of Christianity would be so attractive, grow so quickly, bring so many people together and do so much good in the world.

Some say that Methodism has lost some of that zeal. Nathan believes the evangelical passion for Christ needs to be as front and centre in Methodist discipleship as the social justice for the Spirit to be as dynamic and influential as it once was. That means feeding new believers with the presence of the Holy God and reminding them that God connects to us in a most powerful way when we connect to others.

But one aspect of the development of Methodist discipleship frustrates Nathan. He says that at a crucial period in history the Methodists began to turn inward and offer increasingly personal solutions to social challenges. Nathan calls this approach “piety” and he names it as the emphasis on virtues such as honesty, clean language, manners, and politeness. While anyone and everyone would prefer these virtues to the alternative they are a long way from the life that Jesus taught. History will record numerous leaders who practiced brutal oppression but always maintained a dignified interpersonal set of manners. Is it enough for the Christian faith to teach its believers to be “nice”? Is this really what it was all about? What in the world would sacrifice and resurrection have to do with piety?

I remain stunned how many Christians still believe that the essential ingredient and identity to being “good” is to never tell a lie, use clean language and always be polite. If ever there was an example of how the Christian faith has become domesticated this is it! Surely the narrative of Jesus’ life and teaching, that reaching out to the other will cause suffering, that carrying out God’s plan will result in hardship. This must mean that courage is a virtue we cannot ignore. As far as I can see piety hardly involves courage or reaching out beyond the familiar. It’s a good start to begin with kind words and a nice approach. But it is only a beginning. For this to be how Christians are identified makes me wonder what all those sermons were about years ago of if anyone was listening.

I was out at Halloween the other day with another father who did not know I was a Minister. He was upset about a conversation he overheard at a local restaurant. He heard a Minister swear, use blue language. This father was horrified. I asked him if this Minister cared about people, how this Minister demonstrated his faith in the community. The father conceded that this Minister reached out to others on a consistent basis. But the foul language was a deal-breaker. Piety has replaced practice in so many Christian lives. When Jesus turned the tables upside down I suspect there were more than a few pious types in the Temple who were offended. Jesus may not have been nice but he was faithful, faith-filled.