Great Wesleyan Distinctives, Part IIApril 9th, 2019
In these challenging days, there is a part of us which wants to just throw in the towel and go and join some independent, Bible-believing church and put our pain in the rear view mirror. But the deeper impulse is to remember our heritage and to keep on faithfully preaching the gospel right where God as planted you. The early church did not have a “strategy” for transforming the pagan 1st Century Roman Empire—they simply kept winning more and more people to faith and that, over time, transformed the entire culture and society.
Last month I began a four-part series on rebuilding our Wesleyan heritage. The last segment focused on the Wesleyan view of grace. This month we will focus on the Wesleyan view of community. In the last two segments we will examine the Wesleyan view of holiness and the Wesleyan view of the world.
Wesley had the distinct advantage of living over 200 years after the Reformation. This allowed him to view the Reformation from a distance and to see not only the great strengths of the Reformation, but, frankly, the trajectories in certain areas which were not helpful—even revealing crucial areas the Reformation had neglected. So, just as he embraced the restoration of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith but saw that grace was far more expansive than that, we see a distinctive Wesleyan contribution regarding how we understand the cross. The Reformers rightfully positioned us as condemned sinners needing salvation through the cross of Jesus Christ. However, over time it became clear that even committed Christians were viewing the cross from the perspective of a solitary condemned sinner who needed to flee to the cross to be saved. Wesley saw that we must not only look forward to the cross as individual, condemned sinners, but we must also look back on the cross from the New Creation along with all the saints who have gone before us. To put it bluntly, the cross not only draws condemned sinners to justification, but it also empowers justified sinners into a corporate life of holiness as the church, the people of God. This not only gives Wesley a doctrine of assurance, but it is the basis for his whole understanding of ecclesial catechesis.
Wesley was committed to a form of community catechesis which is remarkably distinct. For Wesley, catechesis is not merely learning the correct answers to doctrinal questions, or saying “yes” to a particular Christian formula for salvation. For Wesley, catechesis was learning to echo the entire rhythms of the Christian life within the context of the church. Wesley learned this from the Patristic mystagogy model (this was catechesis after baptism, between Easter and Pentecost which brought you into the mystery of the church), but he united the idea with the community model of the early Celtic Christians.
Later Wesley developed the entire “class system” which put all believers into small discipleship bands. The leader would report to the pastor on the spiritual state of those under his or her care. They would meet and give an account of their week, sustain each other in prayer, and transparently confess their sins. Members in sin would be disciplined. They would also be instructed in the Apostolic faith. They would worship together and go forth to serve the poor (see The Class Meeting: Recovering a Forgotten and Essential Small Group Experience for an excellent contemporary treatment of the class meeting and how it can be adapted to our own time).
The community emphasis for Wesley is not a technique or program the way we understand such things today, but an insight into the very rhythms of faith and practice which re-orients us to the Triune God. Wesley never distanced himself from the Christocentric emphasis of the Reformation. However, he longed for us to see that salvation was the work of the Triune God! The ultimate community to which the church and family conforms and reflects is, of course, the blessed community of the Trinity. Remember, it was the Puritans who said “God in himself is a sweet society.” The Father creates us, calls us and send us; the Son translates God to us in human terms, redeems us, and embodies the mission of God in the world; the Spirit catechizes the church into the realities of the New Creation, sanctifies us, endows us with discernment and God’s wisdom, and empowers us for effective mission in the world.
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