I come to the third post on John Wesley’s “The Character of a Methodist.” At the beginning of the pamphlet, Wesley uses a common rhetorical approach for him. He starts with a list of negatives. He starts by saying what his subject is not before turning to what it is.
Nor do we desire to be distinguished by actions, customs, or usages, of an indifferent nature. Our religion does not lie in doing what God has not enjoined, or abstaining from what he hath not forbidden. It does not lie in the form of our apparel, in the posture of our body, or the covering of our heads; nor yet in abstaining from marriage, or from meats and drinks, which are all good if received with thanksgiving. Therefore, neither will any man, who knows whereof he affirms, fix the mark of a Methodist here, — in any actions or customs purely indifferent, undetermined by the word of God.
This point makes no sense if you do not, with Wesley, take the Bible as our guide in our conduct. Wesley taught that there were three categories of action. Some actions are commanded by God. Some are forbidden by God. And some are of an indifferent nature. God does not give us any specific guidance on this third category.
So, Wesley says that Methodists cannot be distinguished from others by what they wear (although Wesley would lament later in his life that he did not insist on plain clothing for Methodists) or how they stand or kneel or prostrate during prayer and worship. Scripture does not require specific actions in these areas, so neither do Methodists.
The unstated reverse of this, of course, is that Methodists do follow with great scruple what Scripture commands and forbids. Whatever Scripture commands, a Methodist does. Whatever Scripture forbids, he does not.
I am quite aware that such statements are seen as quaint or just plain naive by many today, but such formulas were at the heart of the famed Methodist discipline that made the movement dynamic and fostered its growth in early America.
I wonder what actions or behaviors we would consider commanded, forbidden, and indifferent to God. Or can we even think in those categories?