4 Things United Methodists can learn from the Episcopal Church

Asbury Theological Seminary had the recent honor of hosting Archbishop Robert Duncan of the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).  He preached in historic Estes Chapel from the book of Esther and reminded us all that Haaman’s gallows are being built for all those who stand for righteousness, but we have been called to persevere and to be faithful for “such a time as this.”

For decades we all have witnessed the slow and demoralizing decline of the Episcopal church as it has followed that well trodden path from vibrant faithfulness which joyfully embraced historic Christianity to a place of increasing hostility towards historic doctrines such as the unique Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of Scriptures, the atoning power of the death of Christ and the historicity of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Those committed to orthodox faith watched in dismay as they increasingly heard statements from bishops and pastors and read decisions which were made by denominational bodies which revealed that many of their own leaders were no longer adhering to historic faith.   The tipping point came in 2003 when Gene Robinson from Fayette County, Kentucky became the first openly declared homosexual to be ordained bishop.  (He became the bishop of New Hampshire).  This became the presenting issue for decades of frustration with a church which had lost its way.

Tens of thousands of Episcopalians rose up and exercised what is known as Anglican realignment.  This is a process where a church recognizes that its bishop is no longer faithful to the gospel so the episcopal “seat” is recognized as being effectively empty.  The church then has to come under the authority of a new bishop.   What occurred was truly remarkable.  Thousands of Episcopalians gathered up the courage to leave their churches.  They were like sheep without a shepherd.  However, the African church saved the Episcopalian church in the USA.  Bishops from Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Nigeria, among others, began to extend episcopal oversight to new “mission” churches in the United States.  By 2009 this movement had grown enough so the Anglicans in North America could stand on their own.  In June of 2009 most of these mission churches were brought together under a single umbrella known as the Anglican Church of North America (ACNA).

When Robert Duncan was ordained as the archbishop of the newly formed ACNA he electrified the assembly by boldly challenging the church to plant 1,000 new churches in five years.  The ACNA is doing just that, and will easily surpass the goal which, at the time, seemed impossible.  All across America Episcopalians (who for generations had given millions of dollars to build some of the most beautiful worship spaces in America) have been forced to walk out and leave it all behind.  Entire congregations had to start all over again in schools, storefronts, homes, or renting space from other churches.  Within a single generation the ACNA will easily surpass the Episcopalian church in numbers.

Archbishop Duncan has effectively led this new movement by challenging his flock to be faithful to the gospel and to remember that the church is not about buildings, but about people and about reaching those who do not yet know Jesus Christ.  “Courage begets courage” is one of the most important words of advice from the Archbishop to his flock.  What he means by this is that if the people of God take a courageous stand, then it spreads and others are encouraged to take a stand.  The result is a new Reformation.  Because of their courage, Anglicanism in North America has been saved and is being transferred from one wineskin (Episcopalianism) to another wineskin (ACNA).  More importantly, they have also sparked a new reformation within the church as a whole and provided a pathway for others to follow.  What can United Methodists learn from the last ten years of turmoil within the Episcopalian church?

– First, those of us who are committed to historic Christianity must have the courage to speak out and unflinchingly take our stand with Jesus Christ and the gospel.  We simply cannot be silent when pastors, District Superintendents, Bishops or other denominational leaders make statements which are in variance with our own historic witness as a church.  We must do it in love, but we must do it.

– Second, we should not hold out hope that at some point those holding these so-called “enlightened” liberal views will pick up their stakes and leave the church and go start their own church and build their own seminaries, and so forth.   That is not going to happen.  History teaches us that Christians committed to historic faith build churches and Christian institutions.  Those who forsake the core teachings of the faith, generally speaking, do not build churches or Christian institutions.  Instead, they attach themselves to vibrant movements and then take over the structures which were built by the faithfulness and sacrifice of others.

– Third, we must earnestly pray that our denomination will re-discover its own past and be awakened to a new period of faithfulness, evangelism, church planting and societal witness.  The United Methodist church has millions of members who have kept the faith, so we should pray for our church and work earnestly for its renewal.

– Fourth, those of us committed to historic Christianity must deepen our ties to the global church.  While we hope and pray it does not happen, the day may come when we, too, might be forced to leave our beloved denomination and find episcopal oversight in Africa.  Many of our faithful brothers and sisters in New England and the Pacific Northwest may need to act sooner rather than later.

A university President recently commented to Archbishop Duncan that because of the determined faithfulness of the ACNA, his grandchildren will someday hear and believe the gospel.  This testimony is true.  We must recognize that we are fighting for the faith of our grandchildren.  May we have the kind of courage which befits the people of God.


What is the Book of Discipline?

One of the beautiful and cherished features of the Methodist tradition is the way in which the pastors are brought into a shared covenant with one another. The whole appointment system under an episcopal form of government (bishops and district superintendents) is made possible because of a shared covenant. We pledge to stand together. We all live as those under authority. If, in the wisdom of the bishop’s council, our services and ministry is needed in another location, we pledge to go – and do it with joy – because we believe in the shared covenant which undergirds the wonderful biblical principle that ministry is not about “us.” It is about building the church of Jesus Christ. A covenant, both in the biblical tradition, as well as in modern day United Methodism is not some vague notion, but it is rooted in specific agreements which, in our case, is outlined in the Book of Discipline. The Book of Discipline is what binds us together and provides the “grammar” of that covenant. This has served us well since 1784.

It is, therefore, with dismay that Bishop Mel Talbert has called upon United Methodist pastors to defy the Book of Discipline regarding homosexual practice as being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and, instead, begin to marry homosexual couples. Yet, to do this defies the very covenant we have all agreed to follow. For a bishop to openly declare his defiance against the Book of Discipline and to receive no rebuke from the Council of Bishops is truly startling.

I am not writing this to focus on the homosexual issue per se, though that is the presenting issue which Bishop Talbert has thrust upon us. It applies to pastors who raise doubts about the bodily resurrection of Christ, or the efficacy of the cross, or a whole host of other examples which also break with the Book of Discipline. Bishop Talbert’s open defiance of the Book of Discipline is particularly worth noting because he is a bishop of the church. If a bishop is allowed to openly defy our discipline, then our covenant is broken and no minister can be held accountable. When a bishop is consecrated they take a vow before God to “uphold the discipline and the order of the church.” If this covenant is broken, then the Methodist church becomes a sea of independent churches with no shared faith or doctrine or experience. I applaud the Asbury Seminary graduates who pastor some of the largest churches in the country who initiated the open letter to the bishops asking why Bishop Talbert has not been held accountable (see www.faithfulumc.com). We eagerly await a response from the Council of Bishops. I was not a part of the letter which these pastors wrote, but they must have felt almost ashamed to write it. It is like people from a small town gathering together and pleading with the duly elected sheriff of the town to please uphold the law.

What many in the church long for is a church which is faithful to historic Christianity. What we long for are pastors and episcopal leaders who once again share in a common covenant. What we long for is a growing confidence in the Word of God, the supremacy of Christ and the power of the preached gospel in our ranks. What we long for is a faithful church, even as we recall the words of John Wesley when he said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

How long, O Lord, must we wait? Have mercy upon us and deliver us in this hour of need.

General Conference and the Future of the United Methodist Church

In a matter of days delegates from all over the USA and the world will be arriving for the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. This gathering, occurring only once every four years, is intended to be a time of “holy conferencing” where the church focuses on theological, organizational, procedural and strategic matters so that the church might more faithfully serve Christ in the world. The last general conference which was characterized by a fresh wind of hope and optimism was the 1968 “uniting” conference held in Dallas, Texas which brought the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren to form the United Methodist Church.  The eleven general conferences since then (1972 until 2012) have been characterized by an increasing sense of despair and doom.  After all, 1968 was the last time the Methodist movement posted a net growth in membership.

We were once a powerful evangelistic movement.  Now, we are forever searching for new ways to manage our decline.  Endless studies and reports and commissions and re-structuring and new slogans (Open hearts, open minds, open doors) have ensued over the years.  None of these well intentioned initiatives have halted – or even really understood – the nature of this decline.  It will probably take a least three more cycles of general conferences before the following suggestions can be heard.  Nevertheless, here are a few suggestions to consider:

First, the University Senate of the United Methodist Church must insist that all United Methodist Seminaries (official and approved) embody a truly Wesleyan ethos and theology which is faithful to our history.  If you take time (as I have on many occasions) to talk to the pastors and lay people within the larger family of the Wesleyan tradition (e.g. United Methodist, Wesleyan church, Free Methodist, Nazarene, etc.) you will quickly discover that the United Methodist pastors and lay people are the least familiar with the core theological perspectives of John Wesley, including prevenient grace, sanctification, holiness, etc…  Most United Methodist Churches must reclaim what it means to be a Methodist church.  This begins in Seminary training and then must be reinforced in the life of the church.  Millions of dollars from the MEF fund goes to fund United Methodist Seminaries (Just for the record, not a penny goes to Asbury) without any concomitant insistence that the “product” of these seminaries is formed by a Wesleyan perspective.

Second, the bishops must certify that all pastors are historically orthodox.  It is essential that we remember that Methodism is a part of the great stream of historic Christian confession.  We resonate with Christians all over the world in our confession of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed.  We have permitted far too much doctrinal latitude within the church.  Men and women pastors who, for example, can no longer affirm the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the authority of Scripture, and so forth should not be permitted to continue as ordained clergy.   We shouldn’t forget that Church discipline is one of the three historic marks of the church.

Third, the Seminaries who train United Methodist clergy must reclaim biblical preaching.  We were once known for powerful, biblical preaching.  Today it is not uncommon to sit in a Methodist church and hear very weak sermons.  They are weak theologically, intellectually, biblically and homiletically.  They are often based on bland moralizing and a few cute stories, but not the kind of robust Christianity of the New Testament which is powerfully proclaimed, intellectually compelling, theologically sound and biblically rooted.  Having spent most of my life in theological education, I am convinced that students can be trained to preach and teach well.

Fourth, United Methodist churches across the nation must learn how to engage a post-Christian culture. The Millennial generation self identifies as approximately 7% Christian.  This is only 2% from being eligible to be classified as an unreached people-group.  This means that all churches in North America must regain their missional footing.  We are a people on a mission.  North America is the fastest growing mission field in the world.  This, of course, involves social action, healing, evangelism, apologetics, radical service and much, much more.   But, we can no longer assume that we are at the center of Western culture.  We are now on the margins prophetically helping this new generation imagine the even greater realities of the inbreaking kingdom.

Finally, we must be a people of prayer and repentance.  The true church is always characterized by prayer and a spirit of repentance.  We have not been faithful to God.  We need His grace in our midst.  I was in Costa Rica in December and had the privilege of preaching at a general conference of all the Methodist pastors, District Superintendents and the bishop (Bishop Palomo).  It was truly inspiring to see all these men and women on their faces before God weeping for the sins of their nation, asking God to have mercy on his church.  I witnessed Bishop Palomo moving from pastor to pastor, praying for them and anointing them for renewed ministry.  I felt like I was in the middle of a movement again – it was the 18th century all over again, but in Costa Rica.

Return to our roots, remember the gospel, re-engage the world and stay on our knees – that is the simplest advice for the delegates of the General Conference to remember as they engage in the “holy conferencing” in Tampa, Florida.  It may be a few more years before the wider church can hear this, but keep planting those seed!   Let’s prepare for renewal today.  I, for one, have not lost hope.  Let’s expect God to do, as He did in Ezekiel’s day, a great miracle by breathing His life into these dead bones again.

Aslan is on the Move

There is a well-known line in the Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan responds to Lucy after she gets into a “what if” mood.  I’m sure we can all relate.   “What if this had happened, or that had not happened, how would the situation be changed.”   Aslan wisely responds by saying, “Aslan does not tell what would have happened.”   The point is this, we must focus on what is, not what we wished would be.

I sometimes fall into a series of “what ifs.”  Lord, what if the 7th century Christians had translated the Bible into Arabic, rather than dismiss Arabia as a worthless desert, would Islam have still arisen?  What if the pope had not excommunicated the eastern Patriarchs in 1054, would the East and the West be united today?  Lord, what if Leo X had taken Martin Luther’s protests to heart rather than dismiss Luther as a “drunken monk who when sober will change his mind”?   Lord, what if the mainline seminaries in the United States had remained faithful to historic orthodoxy, what would the United Methodist church look like today?  My “what if” list is quite long, how about yours?  

Sometimes my “what ifs” are not so grandiose as wondering about great junctures in the history of the church.  Sometimes, they can get very personal.   What if I had prayed more about this or that situation?   What if I had been a better father?  What if I had taken more time to listen in this or that situation rather than jumping to conclusions or running my mouth?  My personal “what if” list is quite long, too.  Turning the clock back is not just an annual ritual at daylight savings time, but is something I rehearse in my mind when I get in a “what if” mood.  What if I could turn the clock back and re-live that situation.

The good news is that God does not want us to spend time weighing out all these possible contingencies, with the resulting guilt, or self-righteousness, or pity-parties, etc. that arise.  The key is to not focus on human actions or inaction, but on God’s action.  The gospel always trumps both our action and our inaction, even though the gospel will not unfold apart from us.  The amazing truth is that despite human failings, sins and rebellion, whether it be at great junctures in church history, or last night when a conversation with your wife or children when awry, God is on the move.  God can turn every possible scenario, even death on a cross, into an avenue of redemption and hope.  We must trust that God is at work in human history and in our lives. 

This is, at root, what it means to be an “eschatological people.”  This means that we are a people living in the present, but with an eye towards the future and the final consummation of the ages.  We know that all things will end with the vindication of God’s true church and the bending of every knee and the confessing of every mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord.  Admittedly, the plot is nuanced and, at times, our way seems convoluted. But, if we fix our eyes on Jesus and trust in Him, He will bring us to our final destination.  When we look back, even our darkest hour of regret will be yet another testimony to his faithfulness and his redemptive power.

Costa Rican Methodism

Julie and I just returned last night from Costa Rica where I had the joy of speaking at the Methodist Conference of Costa Rica. I also spoke at the graduation of the Evangelical Methodist Seminary, founded over thirty years ago by Bishop Luis Palomo, who is also a Trustee of Asbury Theological Seminary. The highlight of the trip was signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Asbury Theological Seminary and their Seminary. This relationship further extends the global network and reach of Asbury Theological Seminary.

The entire trip reminded me anew why I am so deeply committed to theological education. Nearly forty years ago Asbury Seminary partnered with a church in Peoria, Illinois to support the education of a young Costa Rican student and his wife, Luis and Zulay Palomo. On paper it seemed to be an investment in the tuition and living expenses of one young couple. However, from a Kingdom perspective, looking back over many decades, it is now clear that this investment has translated into an entire seminary (which Dr. Paloma returned to Costa Rica to start), hundreds of graduates from this seminary who are now pastoring churches all over Costa Rica, and countless new believers in Jesus Christ.  The investment in one man has ended up making an impact on an entire nation. Theological education is a ministry of multiplication likened to the order of the feeding of the five thousand. One “loaf” becomes thousands – one student gets multiplied into thousands. For every life we invest in, we see a return in decades of ministry. In some cases, as with Luis and Zulay Palomo, an entire nation is being changed by the investment. This is, in part, precisely what Jesus means by “make disciples of all nations.”

Conclusion to Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

Hillary of Poitier (300-368) was one of the great defenders of the faith in the early church. He is known as the “hammer of the Arians” because of his vigorous opposition to this Christological heresy which had spread so widely in his day. The Arians believed that Jesus Christ was not the eternal second person of the Triune God, but rather a created being before the foundation of the world. However, Bishop Hillary vigorously reminded the church that the position of Arius was not faithful to the Apostolic witness. In time, Arianism did not prevail, and the church re-emerged. In our own time, many of us have looked around and found that many expressions of Protestant Christianity have pushed beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy and begun to seriously erode the unity of Nicea. Many liberal Protestants – and a few daring Roman Catholics – finally came out in the open and, like Arius of old, denied the true Deity of Christ or the inseparable link between a truly Risen Christ and the Church. Christ, they argued, must be made more reasonable for modern men and women. Christ did not truly, bodily rise they insisted, but arose in the preaching of the Apostles. Some boldly claimed that the Enlightenment had finally delivered the crushing blow and called for the church to re-invent itself along lines more compatible with modernity, lest the church have no future in a secularized world. More recently, in some of the post-modern readings, we are called to all experience Christ in our own way and not be bothered by the confines of some ancient Apostolic proclamation. Post-modernism urges us to live as independent islands in a sea of meaninglessness. Your autonomous opinions, they argue, are just as meaningful and valid as those who deliberated at Nicea or who were first commissioned by the Risen Lord. A hermeneutic of proclamation and faith is replaced by a hermeneutic of suspicion and doubt and both called equally valid. According to this scheme, theology, it seems, is really – after all – only anthropology. The church is a human construct, not a divinely ordained community. Yet, in the face of all of this – though the tempest rages for a season, the church will, once again, be reconstituted into the truth.

With the emergence of global Christianity we are witnessing many new and faithful expressions of the church from other quarters, mainly in the non-western world and the great unanimity of the church throughout the ages marches on, because God is the one who preserves his church and its living witness to Jesus Christ. The church is constantly being reconstituted in the truth. Harvey Cox, in his book Fire from Heaven observes this phenomenon, calling it in the words of the Frenchman Gilles Kepel, “the revenge of God.”1  Indeed, every time the New Testament is opened and the Gospel is proclaimed it happens again and again throughout the world. The church, therefore, is called to persevere as the public witnesses of the apostolic message. We are a living community united to the Risen Christ. The word “saint” never appears in the singular a single time in the New Testament. The word for church, ekklesia denotes a public assembly, not a private cult.2  We are a community of witnesses and we cannot bear witness in isolation from our brothers and sisters in the faith around the world in space or the witness of the church through the ages in time. We are united to them both in worship and in witness in what the Apostles’ Creed calls the communion of the saints, the communio sanctorum. To forsake either that worship or that witness is to cross the boundaries and to cease to be the true Church.

Today, 2000 years into this great proclamation, after having weathered every storm from Gnosticism to Arianism to Protestant Liberalism to the current storm of post-modernism, I remain convinced that the true church will always re-emerge as the faithful witness. I say this because as I review the top eight reasons why I am a Methodist, I am painfully aware that many Methodist churches do not exhibit these great truths today. However, if we are all witnesses and stewards of a worship and a witness summoned forth by the Father, through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and heralded through the ages by countless millions, then our voice joins the great chorus of other faithful Christians throughout the world and back through time. In this respect, despite my deep love for Methodism, I still remain far more identified with the common evangelical witness of all true churches than any particular outpost. As I noted at the outset of this series, our particularity only has meaning if it is built on the great common doctrinal, experiential and historical truths, which unite all true churches together. For if we don’t have doctrinal stability, we cannot have ethical stability and if we don’t have ethical stability we don’t have stability of worship and if we don’t have stability of worship, we are no longer related vitally and necessarily to the headship of Jesus Christ.  Our historic boundaries would become lost in a post-modern sea of autonomous self-definitions.

What a contrast from the Apostle John, who gives that final testimony at the end of time which gives us the courage to know that in the Final Day the Church will be preserved out of every snare. For he hears this act of worship in heaven, testifying not to another gospel or something novel, but to the Apostolic proclamation: “You were slain and with your blood you purchased men for God from every tribe and language and people and nation…” and so “to him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power forever and ever” (Rev. 5:9,13).

1 Harvey Cox, Fire From Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the 21st Century, (Addison Wesley Longman, 1995) xvii.

2 Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 3, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965) 501-536 .

Centrality of Worship: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The ninth reason I am a Methodist is because of the great emphasis on worship. Methodists sing their theology! Wesley knew that it is not enough merely to believe and to confess the great truths of the faith. We must enter into the very presence of the Triune God in worship. Music was one of the main ways early Methodists passed on the faith.

Wesley lived at a time when the standard practice of the church in worship was to sing the Psalms, often with a brief Christian doxology at the end. However, just prior to the emergence of Wesley lived a man named Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts is sometimes known as the father of English hymnody because of his pioneer work in introducing new compositions of worship into the church which were not directly built around a Psalm or a specific scriptural paraphrase. This sparked a revival in worship which captured the life of Charles Wesley. Charles was a gifted poet and wrote thousands of new hymns to capture the great truths of the Christian faith and reinforce the grand meta-narrative of God’s redemptive story. Hymns such as Hark! The Herald Angels Sing (Christmas), And Can it Be? (Redemption), O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing (Pentecost), Christ the Lord is Risen Today (Easter), and Love Divine, All Loves Excelling (New Creation) are recognized all over the world as powerful hymns which capture the great themes of the Christian faith. Methodism is known for excellent singing and worship. Even today, every Methodist hymnal still reprints Wesley’s original instructions for congregational singing which includes such classic lines as, “Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”  Methodists have taken this to heart as well as almost any Christian group in the world.

Global Vision: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The eighth reason I am a Methodist is because of Wesley’s early appreciation for the possibility of what we know today as “global Christianity.” Few have given proper recognition that Wesley is one of the leading forerunners of conceptualizing the church in its full global, rather than sectarian, dimensions. In the post-Aldersgate period, Wesley’s preaching became so controversial that he was barred from preaching in the pulpits of the Church of England. Since he continued to preach in the open fields, he was charged with “trespassing” on the parishes of other ministers. He replied to this charge in a letter written in March of 1739 with what has become the most famous quote of Wesley, “the world is my parish.” In the letter he says, “I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right and my bounden duty to declare, unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation.”1

It is difficult for modern-day Christians to fully comprehend the radical nature of this statement. However, the territorial conceptions, as noted earlier, were so strong that it was considered heresy to preach the gospel to those outside your parish. These territorial conceptions were one of the biggest barriers to the emergence of the Protestant missionary movement. In contrast, Wesley was ahead of his time in first conceptualizing the church in its full global dimensions and only secondarily in its particularity as, for example, Methodist Christians. Wesley asked why he should not preach the gospel in “Europe, Asia, Africa or America” for, with the Apostle Paul, he declared, “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16-19). Wesley declared that he was prepared “to go to Abyssinia or China, or whithersoever it shall please God by this conviction to call me.”2  In today’s “post-parish” world we sometimes have a difficult time recognizing what a radical ecclesiology is embedded in this vision. Wesley seemed to understand that the church of Jesus Christ is indestructible, since Christ is the Lord of the Church and has promised to build his church. However, the indestructibility of the church is not tied to any particular institutional or geographic manifestation of it. With the dramatic rise of Christians from the Majority World, many of whom do not trace their history to the Reformation, there is a need to discover a deeper ecumenism which can unite all true Christians. Wesley anticipated the future multi-cultural diversity of the church and the common experience of rebirth from above, which unites all Christians of every age.

1  Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 616.

2 Ibid., 615.

Doctrinal Clarity – Catholic spirit: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The seventh reason I am a Methodist is due to the wonderful way Wesley combined doctrinal clarity with a generous, warm-hearted spirit towards other Christians. John Wesley’s reluctance to produce any precise doctrinal formulation for the “people called Methodist,” along with his “catholic spirit” have led many to wrongly conclude that Wesley was indifferent about the core doctrines of historic Christianity. It is not unusual to hear Wesley’s famous dictum taken from 2 Kings 10:15: “If thine heart is as my heart, give me thine hand” as a kind of theological blank check to endorse departures from historic Christianity as long as it is done with a warm heart. However, Wesley was fully orthodox and fully ecumenical in a way which should inspire us today. On the one hand, Wesley was able to embrace considerable diversity among Christians who held different convictions than his on various points. On the other hand, Wesley frequently found himself embroiled in various controversies with Roman Catholics, Anglican bishops, and Calvinist thinkers. He held strong theological convictions and firmly upheld all of the historic Christian confessions. Wesley would have been dismayed at the erosion of orthodoxy in mainline churches due to the increasing embrace of secular ideologies and a post-modern epistemology. Wesley was both ecumenical and orthodox; he held firm convictions and had an irenic spirit and warm heart towards those with whom he disagreed. How was Wesley able to embrace both of these so ably? The key is to understand how Wesley understood theological inquiry.

Wesley makes a firm distinction between the theological unity which is necessary to our identity as Christians while, at the same time, allowing for broad diversity in the non-essentials of the faith. Historically, this has been expressed through the terms kerygma and adiaphora. The word kerygma comes from the Greek word meaning “proclamation.” It refers to the core essentials of the Christian faith as expressed, for example, in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed as alluded to in the introduction to this series. Wesley stayed firmly committed to the historic core of Christian proclamation. The word adiaphora comes from the Greek word adiaforus, which, as used by the Stoics, meant “things indifferent.” Thus, the adiaphora refers to those differences held by Christians which “are not sufficiently central to warrant continuing division or dispute.”1  In Wesley’s day there was an understanding that Christian belief and practice should conform to the larger national identity. In other words, if someone lived in England, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of England (Anglican). If someone was born in Scotland, they should follow the faith and practice of the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian). This meant that Christians in a particular geographic region were compelled to reach agreement not only on the broad essentials of the Christian faith, i.e., the kerygma, but they also had to agree with all the diverse particulars (adiaphora) of whatever national church was in place. However, Wesley forcibly rejected this territorial understanding of Christian identity. In Wesley’s sermon, Catholic Spirit, he says,

I know it is commonly supposed, that the place of our birth fixes the Church to which we ought to belong…I was once a zealous maintainer of this; but I find many reasons to abate of this zeal. I fear it is attended with such difficulties as no reasonable man can get over: Not the least of which is, that if this rule had taken place, there could have been no Reformation from Popery; seeing it entirely destroys the right of private judgment, on which the whole Reformation stands.“2

Wesley goes on to argue that Christians should be able to dwell together in harmony even if they disagree about basic convictions such as the forms of church government, the modes of baptism, the administration of the Lord’s Supper, and so forth. However, Wesley makes an important distinction between “catholic spirit” and “latitudinarianism.” The latter refers to those who wish to engage in endless speculation about the essentials of the Gospel or wish to remain indifferent to holding a particular conviction. In contrast, Wesley argues that “a man of truly catholic spirit” does not have the right to set up his or her own form of religion. Rather, a Christian should be “as fixed as the sun in his [or her] judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine.”3  He calls on his hearers to “go, first, and learn the first elements of the Gospel of Christ, and then shall you learn to be of a truly catholic spirit.”4  Wesley’s ecumenism was built on the foundation of a shared theological orthodoxy concerning the historic essentials of the Christian faith. Nevertheless, Methodists seek to take Jesus’ prayer in John 17 very seriously when he prays that we “may be one” just as He and the Father are one (John 17:22).

1 John Westerdale Bowker, The Sacred Neuron (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2005), 120.

2 The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed., vol. 5, Catholic Spirit, 496.

3 Ibid., 502.

4 Ibid.

Missional Movement – Social Consciousness: Why I am a Methodist and an Evangelical

The sixth reason I am a Methodist lies in the fact that Methodism has managed to retain its DNA as a missional movement. Historically, Methodism was born as a renewal movement within the Anglican Church. Wesley carried this missional renewal emphasis right out into the streets of his day. He brought the Gospel to broken, hurting people who had been marginalized and forgotten by the church of his time. Wesley famously declared that “the world is my parish.”1

Throughout the history of the church there has been a healthy tension between the active and contemplative traditions. The earliest monastic traditions idealized desert hermits such as St. Antony (251-356) who is often cited as the founder of monasticism. They were the forerunners of the great contemplative stream. Our minds run quickly to the great masters of this tradition such as Bernard of Clairvaux, the Rhineland mystics (e.g., St. Hildegarde or Meister Eckhart), Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila or Thomas Merton. This broad contemplative tradition has given the church many gifts, such as the Rule of St. Benedict and the lectio divina. This remains a long and wonderful tradition.

However, there were others who understood spiritual formation to occur in the world. This is the great active tradition. The mendicant orders such as Dominicans and Franciscans also renounced the world and entered into the consecrated life. However, they lived out their formation actively in the world, preaching the gospel and serving the poor. St. Dominic founded the Dominicans as a preaching order. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscans as an order to serve the poor. Wesley loved both the contemplative and active traditions, but he was drawn more powerfully to the latter. Wesley formed his disciples in the context of actively serving in the world. Wesley understood, for example, that if you really want to be formed spiritually you should be eager to go out into a place of pain, roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty serving the poor. While Wesley remained deeply committed to prayer and contemplation, his vision of the church existed as profoundly missional. Wesley took his new preachers out to the brick yards and into the prisons. For Wesley, not only is the world his parish, the world is God’s greatest spiritual workshop. It is on the anvil of a suffering world that God shapes and forms his disciples to understand what it means to take up their cross and follow him. Thus, the Wesleyan tradition is an active tradition, i.e., we believe that spiritual formation occurs in the context of active service in the world.

1Frank Baker, ed., The Works of John Wesley, vol. 25, Letters I, 1721-1739 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 616. I quote this from the 1980 edition because I agree that this famous letter was more likely written to John Clayton on March 28, 1739, rather than to James Hervey on March 20, 1739.