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?