What is a Methodist?

We Wesleyans are in conversation with a tradition of biblical interpretation and Christian living that found its first articulation in John and Charles Wesley. One of the great questions for those of us who wish to remain Wesleyans is how to disagree with the tradition without abandoning it.

For instance, I do not read the Bible the way John Wesley did. I do not believe Moses wrote the Torah. I am not a young earth creationist — although I am not troubled by people who are. I do think that if we find any error in Scripture at all that we should toss it all, which Wesley wrote once. So, as a Wesleyan, I have to work out what my differences with Wesley over the nature of Scripture means for my theology.

But this is not a new problem. The people called Methodist have never been in lock-step with Wesley on every point. This vexed Wesley to no end late into his life. He wrote time and again about the habit of Methodists to wear costly clothing. And he never figured out how to convince the Methodists to follow his teaching about money: earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.

In his sermon “Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity” he puts the issue in plain terms:

Many of your brethren, beloved of God, have not food to eat; they have not raiment to put on; they have not a place where to lay their head. And why are they thus distressed? Because you impiously, unjustly, and cruelly detain from them what your Master and theirs lodges in your hands on purpose to supply their wants! See that poor member of Christ, pinched with hunger, shivering with cold, half naked! Meantime you have plenty of this world’s goods, — of meat, drink, and apparel. In the name of God, what are you doing? Do you neither fear God, nor regard man?

How much more would Wesley be horrified by us than he was by them? In practical terms, Methodists abandoned the tradition with regard to the use of money before John Wesley was laid to his rest. And we’ve gone on abandoning him on this point ever since.

This gives me pause, this morning. It raises the question that stalked Wesley’s entire ministry: what does it mean to be a Christian?

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