In a recent post, John Meunier has asked whether United Methodism’s efforts to reclaim the Wesleyan tradition are misplaced. Meunier argues that United Methodists narrowly focus on doctrine, when Wesley’s genius comes from his willingness to innovate and create in order to help Christian’s in their efforts to become deeply committed disciples of Jesus Christ.
After leaving a comment on Meunier’s blog, I have continued to think about his post. Meunier does argue that the root of Methodism is not Wesleyan doctrine, but Wesleyan practice. However, he also argues that the point is not to reclaim specific practices. He writes:
But – and this is where I probably go way off the path – recapturing Wesleyan practice is not about adopting his innovations. It is not about going back to field preaching or societies and band meetings. Those were well tuned to his setting. Our settings are not his.
We might end up in some of the same places that Wesley did, but we should not start there.
Thus, for Meunier, the root that contemporary United Methodism should seek to graft itself onto (to use Meunier’s imagery) is Wesley’s “spirit and zeal.”
My point from here on is not to start an argument with Meunier. (I enjoyed reading his post and it has stuck with me enough to cause me to post for the first time in a week!) But his post has caused me to wonder, are there Wesleyan basics that are worth reclaiming?
While I am all for spirit and zeal, it seems to me that we need something more substantial if Wesley has anything to offer which is worth reclaiming today. There are, after all, plenty of examples of spirited and zealous people whose steps we would not want to walk in. Thus, it seems that we rightly judge someone’s spirit and zeal by its content. In other words, what was Wesley zealous about?
This question could quickly distract me from what I want to get to in this post, so I am going to briefly say a few things to set the table: First, Wesley was passionate about the good news of Jesus Christ. He wanted to help as many people as possible come to know and trust in Jesus Christ and what he has done for them. This, as Meunier rightly points out, does not make Wesley distinct, other than being distinctly Christian. I also agree with Meunier that it is worth looking more carefully at Wesley’s approach to living out the Christian life. In other words, instead of just asking: What did Wesley believe? We should also ask: What did Wesley do? Or, how did Wesley practice his beliefs?
So, what was the distinctly “Wesleyan” content of Wesley’s passion?
Here are two Wesleyan distinctives that immediately came to mind for me. Interestingly, one involves practice and one involves doctrine.
1. The Doctrine of Christian Perfection or Entire Sanctification. Wesley stubbornly defended this throughout his life. He believed that it was possible, by God’s grace, to be made perfect in love in this life. He believed that because it was by grace Christians should expect it as they are and without delay. This is a doctrine that has entirely gone out of favor in United Methodism, and is only formally preserved in a few places, such as the historic questions for ordination. It is fairly scandalous to realize that every United Methodist elder has said that they do expect to be made perfect in love in this life, by the grace of God. But how many of them have ever preached or taught or defended the Christian perfection? The laughter that is far too common when this question is asked testifies to our lack of integrity when we answer this question. Yet, it seems to me that Wesley’s understanding of entire sanctification is the driving force behind much of his practice. He believed that it is possible to make progress in the Christian life to the point of loving God and neighbor entirely. It might not be an exaggeration to say that if we disconnect ourselves from the doctrine of entire sanctification, we disconnect ourselves from Methodism, at least in any form that Wesley would have endorsed.
2. The Practice of Watching Over One Another in Love. Wesley believed that Christians grow in grace when they watch over one another, when they hold each other accountable for doing the things that help them receive God’s grace and for not doing the things that cause them to move away from God. And, indeed, early Methodism bears witness that this was the case.
While I agree with Meunier that reclaiming the exact forms of Wesley’s practice is not the point, I am all for creativity and innovation when it is motivated by the desire to see people renewed in the image of God. But I also have to admit that as I continue to think about this I also wonder if we have come up with anything better? Part of Wesley’s genius, it seems to me, is that the Methodist method is focused specifically on its purpose and is not loaded down with contemporary practices that are tied to the times. Take the class meeting. The class meeting largely involved two things: 1) giving an account of whether you had kept the General Rules of the United Societies (do no harm, do all the good that you can, and attend upon the ordinances of God – i.e., practice the means of grace), and 2) answering some form of the question: How is it with your soul?
Do we really want to argue that either of these is not important? The renewed interest in the General Rules suggests that, at some level, we do think the General Rules are helpful for Christian discipleship. And it seems to me that it would be difficult to make the argument that we should not be interested in whether people are paying attention to how God is working within them.
It seems to me that in order for their to be a tradition worth reclaiming, there have to be some basics that can be reclaimed. If Methodists value their Wesleyan heritage, they should start by reclaiming the doctrine of entire sanctification and the practice of watching over one another in love that helped this doctrine to become reality.
What are your thoughts? Do you agree that there are Wesleyan basics that are worth reclaiming? If so, are there other basics that you would add?
Pingback: What should we be zealous for? « John Meunier’s Blog
Steve Manskar said:
This is an excellent response to John’s post. I too was pleased with his post. But he lost me when he wrote that we should not try to reclaim or adapt the historic Wesleyan practices for today. I appreciate your thoughtful response.
Of course y’all all know that I am an advocate for the recovery of the General Rules and some form of the class meeting. However, after years working to help congregations do this work I’ve come to the conclusion that congregations are not the appropriate settings for these expressions of Methodist discipline. This may be where John is going in his thinking.
We may be barking up the wrong tree when we try to implement Wesleyan discipline in congregations because Wesleyan discipline was never meant for congregations. It was developed for the societies, which were para-church structures which could, by their nature, require more demanding discipline than can a congregation.
Congregations are by design for everyone. The way they have evolved over the past two centuries precludes the imposition of any kind of rigorous discipline like that of the Wesleyan society.
The Society, on the other hand, was intentionally exclusive and, to some degree, elitist. Continuing membership was based upon living, and giving regular accountability for, the General Rules. The goal was holiness of heart and life for the individual members, for the society and for the church as members participated in its life and worship.
All this is to say that perhaps John is right that trying to reclaim and adapt Wesleyan discipline in the typical United Methodist Church is the wrong strategy. Perhaps a more appropriate strategy is to develop a Wesleyan revival along side the UMC with those Christians who are ready for a more disciplined form of discipleship. Such a movement would be truly Wesleyan in form and function.
Brian Russell said:
Well done and compelling essay. I particularly resonate with your advocacy of the Christian Perfection piece. Other traditions are beginning to awaken to the need for holiness of heart and life. I was in a nondenominational church recently and they sang a contemporary arrangement of “I want a principle within.” I had never heard this hymn in any U.M. church in my 39 years of worship.
As we seek to (re)engage the Western world with the Gospel we need to rediscover the missional holiness which the Wesley’s ardently advocated during their lives.
Steve – thank you for your comment. I’m in 100% agreement that small groups cannot be forced on local congregations but also that they can have very positive effects when they are voluntary, disciplined, and running in parallel.
Kevin – one distinctively Methodist doctrine I personally think is important is Arminianism. Here in the UK, I see the influence of hard-form 5-point Calvinism in resurgent conservative Anglicanism; many of these people are quite keen on reclaiming the concept of ‘the wrath of God’. I’d not want to emphasise this debate where people were not aware of it, but I’d not want Methodists caught broad-sided either.
David Player said:
Another relevant and thoughtful response to a crucial struggle in Christianity and especially in the UMC. I think John is discerning in his emphasis on zeal or what I’d call godliness. From an awakened heart, kindled daily with the fire of God’s love and Scripture, comes the vision and desire for holiness, evangelism, and community. I think these are essential and desperately needed in the UMC and among para-church groups. Wesley distilled and forged the General Rules and the accountable communities to implement, develop, and maintain these practical steps to holiness and missional effectiveness. I have seen few alternatives that produce the personal piety and social holiness that Wesley was able to lead the people called Methodists into realizing.
Deeply committed and struggling to attain perfect love for God and neighbor,
John Meunier said:
Good discussion here.
I agree with Steve’s point about congregations. If this were Wesley’s day, all our churches and pastors would be the Anglican backdrop in which he did his work.
Wesley never reached a majority of Christians in his day. He recognized this himself later in his ministry, if I read his sermon “The More Excellent Way” properly.
I have nothing against small group accountability. I just don’t think we should start with what Wesley did, try to cram it down on our congregations, and say we’re being Wesleyan.
Wesley started by preaching. When his preaching awakened something in the people, he had to start creating structures and methods to deal with it all. But he did not start – at least this is my reading – with a plan and a blueprint. (Maybe I’m one step to far. Maybe it is better to say he started with the Holy Club.)
Absent the zeal and the fire in the hearts of the people, his structures were hollow. The society and bands did not create the zeal, they directed and disciplined it.
Andrew Conard said:
All I have to add is thank you.
Kevin Watson said:
(After replying to your thought-provoking comments, I was embarrassed to realize how wordy I was. I would like to preface these comments by saying that I do not have all of this worked out. One of the reasons I am so long winded in these comments is because I am trying to think my way through these issues… I hope and pray that they are received in the spirit in which they are intended. And I realize that there is more than one way of looking at these questions.)
Steve – Thank you for your thoughtful response.
I am not sure I follow your comment, though, about congregations being the wrong place for some for of “watching over one another in love.” Do you mean that insisting that everyone in a congregation do this is misguided, or are you suggesting that this should in no way be connected to the local church?
I agree with you entirely that the best approach to renewal is to pour ourselves into those who are responding to the promptings of the Spirit. I guess, though, I am not sure why this couldn’t – or shouldn’t – happen in a congregation. If we say that congregations are for everyone but class meetings are not, we seem to be saying that growth in grace is not for everyone. At this point, I am unable to articulate an ecclesiology that has tepid, uncommitted Christianity as a viable option. I don’t think I see this in Scripture either.
I still have a lot of thinking to do about this, but I also think there is a historical mistake that may sometimes be made in talking about this. The idea that congregations are for everyone, and therefore something like a class meeting can’t be a requirement for membership seems to forget that American Methodism was a church almost from the very beginning. American Methodism did not have the long history of being a para-church movement that British Methodism did. So the idea of having a church that had a small group requirement as part of what it understood to be constitutive of membership in the church does not seem to me to be as alien to American Methodism as it is often seen to be.
Brian – Thanks for your comment. We can certainly never have too much missional holiness!
Pam – Thanks for raising the importance of Arminianism. My sense is that you are pointing to a contextual difference between Britain and the States… though it may be that I am just not in the right circles here.
David – Thanks for stopping by and thanks for taking the time to comment.
I in no way intended to suggest that zeal and passion are not important. They are important. I was simply trying to point out that some people (Hitler, David Koresh, etc.) are passionate about things that I would not want to endorse. Perhaps I could clarify what I am trying to get at by saying that all Christians ought to be zealous and passionate about their faith, but all people who are passionate and zealous are not Christians. (I also want to be clear that I am not trying to put these words into Meunier’s mouth in his original post… I do not think that he was suggesting this.)
John – Glad to have the spur for this discussion stop by! Thanks for taking the time to comment.
You are, of course, correct to point out that Wesley was an Anglican till death. However, as I mentioned in response to Steve, this does not simply transpose to American Methodism. The Anglican Church was never the backdrop for American Methodists. American Methodists were largely disorganized renegades doing their own thing for their first 20 years or so and then, with Wesley’s blessing, they were formed into a church – the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784.
I think you and I are actually on the same page when it comes to small group accountability. I am not advocating that the best way to revive a dying congregation is to swoop in and say, “If you all would just meet in a class meeting, everything would be fine.” (Although, I must admit I don’t think it could hurt.)
You are exactly right, as you mentioned in the post you wrote tonight (April 15), Wesley began by proclaiming the gospel, not by creating a structure, or putting people in groups.
I am not sure if you are suggesting this (please correct me if I am misunderstanding you), but if you are suggesting that some sort of small group structure is incidental to Wesleyan identity – in that case, I strongly disagree. I agree that Wesley did not start with a plan or a blueprint, but he realized that when there was no plan for helping people to grow in their new-found faith, instead of growing in their faith, they typically fell away from it. (To me a useful illustration of this is something like a Billy Graham revival where many people respond to the gospel but where too often those who respond fall away because there is nothing after the revival to help them figure out what the next steps are.) In early Methodism George Whitefield was by all counts a better preacher, but there are Wesleyans today and not Whitefieldians because Whitefield did not gather those who responded to the message together. He proclaimed the gospel and moved on. Wesley proclaimed the gospel and then helped those who responded grow in their new-found faith.
John, it may be that I am just misunderstanding you through the imperfect medium of the blogosphere… because again I mostly agree with your last statement (although I remember my professor in UM History and Doctrine saying that more people were actually converted in the class meeting than in the society meetings… i.e. field preaching brought awakening, but people often found faith and comfort in Christ through the soul searching that happened in the class meeting.)
As I understand it, the most important function of the early Methodist structure was to maintain and increase the zeal and fire in the hearts of Methodists. My question is if it is determined that the class meeting or something like it is outdated and irrelevant today, what is the alternative? What do you think would do a better job of fanning these flames? Because you are right, I think it would be unWesleyan to insist on resurrecting the class meeting no matter what… but I think it is essentially Wesleyan to insist that we take the task of helping Methodists to grow in holiness with utmost seriousness.
Kevin Watson said:
I checked my thoughts about the beginnings of American Methodism with my advisor (Ted Campbell) today, and I think I overstated my case. Dr. Campbell disagreed with me, arguing that there was a connection between American Methodism and the Anglican Church prior to the War of Independence. Though the Anglican Church did not have the presence in the colonies that it had in Britain, it was the source of the sacramental life for at least some American Methodists before 1784.
I am looking forward to following this up and learning more about this. Burt for now… mea culpa.
John Meunier said:
I apologize for my continued lack of clarity.
I agree 100% that as a matter of practice some form of group support/accountability will be involved in seeking to live with holiness of heart and life.We cannot do without the loving watchfulness of other Christians.
My only point – and it may seem like I’m arguing over silly things here – is that we cannot fall into the trap of confusing the form of godliness (to use a Wesleyan phrase) for the actual power of it.
Wesley – from what I read in the journals and general rules – was quite a stickler for culling from the classes and bands people who were not showing true zeal and earnest attempts to grow into greater holiness. There was a level of passion for God that he expected even as a condition of entry. He did not just dump a bunch of nominal Christian pew sitters into his societies, stir, and shoot out Methodists.
So, as much as we may not like to admit it, many people who attend and have membership in your typical church (Methodist or otherwise) would not be good candidates for Wesleyan socieites or bands of whatever style.
The center of Wesley’s project was doing whatever it took to support and cajole nominal Christians into a true Christian faith – often described as loving God with all heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving neighbor as self. That was the pole to which his compass was attuned and all he did was aimed at this.
If we capture that conviction and spirit, I have little doubt we will end up creating something like the bands and classes. But we might end up doing many things that never occured or arose in Wesley’s scheme.
If we attend to the forms that Wesley used – rather than the ends he sought – we may fool ourselves into thinking we have recaptured something essential when in fact all we have done is set up empty forms with no power.
Thank you for putting up with my ramblings.
John Meunier said:
One other historical note: I know the American Methodist church lost many of unique “Wesleyan” trappings in the 19th century. And in many places there is little knowledge of or interest in those roots.
The little country church I serve had scarcely heard of John and Charles Wesley when I started preaching there and knew none of Charles Wesley’s hymns.
And one confession: Despite all my big talk here and on my blog, the truth is I have had little success stirring up my congregation to zeal for a Wesleyan faith. Holiness of heart and life clashes quite a bit with American culture. So far, I have been a weak instrument in God’s hands for drawing people from the grip of that culture.
Kevin Watson said:
Thank you for your graciousness and for clarifying your position.
There is nothing in your last two comments that I disagree with. I agree with you entirely that the important thing is to spur people from nominal Christianity on towards the depths of discipleship. I also agree that this is a tremendous challenge in our context.
I also identify with the feeling of being a weak instrument in God’s hands for drawing people away from American culture and towards the depths and riches of God’s amazing grace.
My guess, and my prayer, is that God has used you to this end more than you realize, and will continue to do so.
May God continue to use you to draw others to holiness of heart and life.
I’d add the importance of assurance through the inner witness of the Spirit. Doctrinally, it’s only second in emphasis to Christian Perfection.
I think its possible to have the form and appearance of going on to perfection in love that lacks any serious commitment to Jesus; I know a few really loving atheists. The inner witness, however, sets the doctrine of perfection in love apart from any functionally-atheistic practice of virtues by marking the Christian life with an experiential aspect of the Holy Spirit.
Pingback: Speedlinking - April 21, 2009 « Thoughts of Resurrection