What Wesley got wrong

John Wesley’s sermon “On Faith” — the first to two by that name — is an interesting look at Wesley’s reflection on his own preaching and on questions about how God will judge non-Christians.

Indeed, nearly fifty years ago, when the Preachers, commonly called Methodists, began to preach that grand scriptural doctrine, salvation by faith, they were not sufficiently apprized of the difference between a servant and a child of God. They did not clearly understand, that even one “who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him.” In consequence of this, they were apt to make sad the hearts of those whom God had not made sad. For they frequently asked those who feared God, “Do you know that your sins are forgiven?” And upon their answering, “No,” immediately replied, “Then you are a child of the devil.” No; this does not follow. It might have been said, (and it is all that can be said with propriety) “Hitherto you are only a servant, you are not a child of God. You have already great reason to praise God that he has called you to his honourable service. Fear not. Continue crying unto him, ‘and you shall see greater things than these.’ “

Both regarding Christians who have not yet seen the greater things of faith and non-Christians who still seek after God according to the light they have received, the older Wesley put much more emphasis on praising what work God had already done and urging or inviting people into deeper faith. The young Wesley was more inclined to scold. The older Wesley was more apt to encourage.

At its heart, Wesley’s Methodism is a call to higher and deeper spiritual life, but it is extremely generous with regard to those forms of faith and non-Christian religion that do not share Methodism’s vision of holiness of heart and life.

This spirit is difficult to maintain if our impulse is self-aggrandizing. If we seek the full Methodist vision of holiness because we want to feel spiritually superior to others, then not only have we missed the mark, but we are defiling the very name of Christ.

This is why John Wesley always emphasized humility as the very first and essential characteristic of the Christian life. Pride of any form is incompatible with Methodism.

What Wesley got wrong

Methodism as a spiritual order?

A Christian is defined as a follower of Jesus, and reflection upon the experience of following constitutes the central theme of any solid theology.

This is how Gustavo Gutierrez’s We Drink From Our Own Wells begins. I am still trying to figure out whether I agree with him.

Is theology what emerges when we reflect on the experience of following Jesus?

In Gutierrez’s book, he describes the various schools of the Spirit within the Roman Catholic Church — Dominicans, Franciscans, Ignatians, and so on — as arising out of particular experiences that become theologized. The experience comes before the theology.

Gutierrez argues that liberation theology is the theology that emerges when people seek both to be followers of Jesus and committed workers for liberation from material and political oppression. Liberation theology is what you get when you have the experience of following Jesus in the midst of the struggle.

If I am understanding his argument, then we might conceive of Methodism as the theology and practice that emerged as followers of Jesus sought after an experience of total sanctification — perfection in love — in the context of early industrial Britain. Although John Wesley would argue that Methodism represented true Christianity, Gutierrez would argue that it represents a way of being Christian.

Here is what I find appealing in this — assuming I am understanding Gutierrez at all.

First, it helps me think through the continuing ecclesiastical and vocational problems presented to United Methodist clergy by the fact that our church emerged as a holiness movement within the Church of England.

I can envision in this a bifurcated role in which the pastor is both leader of a church body committed to the broadly ecumenical and orthodox — the small ‘c’ church catholic if you will — expression of the faith and shepherd of distinct groups within the larger body of those who wish to delve into Methodist spirituality. (I see here something of the two kinds of Christian Wesley describes in “The More Excellent Way.”)

The United Methodist pastor would not have to be so troubled or defeated by the fact that so many in our congregations do not opt to pursue Methodist spirituality, so long as they do attend to the orthodox faith, but we would continue to provide and even view our role as being guardians of a Methodist spirituality that aims at a perfection in love, a holiness of heart and life, as the Holy Spirit’s promise to all who seek it.

Second, Gutierrez’s approach puts life in front of books. Theology is usually taught and presented as a collection of ideas and concepts knit together into elegant systems by brilliant thinkers. As a rather bookish guy myself, I don’t begrudge theologians any of this, but I do find that it can lead to theology that has no connection to life as lived and experienced by people.

I also find in my own life that theology only gets developed when it becomes the focal point of some lived problem or joy. The areas where I have thought through and wrestled theology to the ground the hardest are those places where experience makes those theological questions pressing.

Now, for all that, I am wary of making experience the touch stone of theology. I’ve seen first hand how we can use experience to justify anything we want to gut the witness of Scripture and the wisdom of tradition. And so, I’m wary of the prominence Gutierrez gives to experience as the crucible of theology. Perhaps this is why it is important that all these various spiritualities and ways of being Christian remain linked under the broader umbrella of the body of Christ.

Cautions noted, I do find myself coming back to this book again and again. I keep wondering if these words are not the best way to understand the nature of Methodism within the wider church:

Every great spirituality begins with the attainment of a certain level of experience. Then follows reflection on this experience, thus making it possible to propose it to the Christian community as a way of following Christ.

Methodism as a spiritual order?

Rules for a class meeting

I’m working on inviting people into discipleship groups based on the Methodist class meeting, although I’m looking for a name other than “class meeting.”

Here’s a reading of the “rules” of the meeting that would be included in every meeting — after prayer and a scripture reading.

The only condition of entry into these meetings is a desire to become a true follower of Jesus Christ.

We come together to watch over one another in love and to encourage each other in spiritual growth.

We are not here to judge each other, but should come ready to open our hearts.

We are not here to make small talk or gossip or do any business other than tending to the growth of our souls.

We are relying on and expecting the Holy Spirit to touch our hearts and strengthen us.

We are joined in this moment in a sacred trust. All that is said and shared here is to remain here and with God. We will not talk about what we hear in this place with anyone else.

As this fellowship depends upon the participation of each member, we come ready to answer the question: “How is your life with God?”

Rules for a class meeting

The Methodist way of preaching

By 1751, John Wesley had become concerned about a new kind of preaching that was taking hold in some Methodist societies. The men who were preaching this new way called themselves “gospel” preachers. The preached only the promises of Christ and none of the law. In Wesley’s account, indeed, they even mocked the original style of Methodist preaching that was careful to preach both law and gospel as warranted by the state of the hearers.

In his “Letter on Preaching Christ,” Wesley describes both the methods by which law and gospel were to be preached and decries the damaging effects of the gospel preaching. He points out that in several cities that once had thriving societies, the numbers had been seriously eroded by the gospel preachers. Without the starch of the law, Methodist zeal and discipline waned.

In contrast, Wesley highlighted the contrary example of a society in Yorkshire, which under the continued preaching of law and gospel had grown from 1,900 members to 3,000 even as other societies withered under pure gospel preaching.

Wesley described the Yorkshire preaching this way:

From the beginning they had been taught both the law and the gospel. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him. Christ died for you; therefore, die to sin. Christ is risen; therefore, rise in the image of God. Christ liveth evermore; therefore, live to God, till you live with him in glory. So we preached; and so you believed. This is the scriptural way, the Methodist way, the true way. God grant that we never turn therefrom, to the right hand or the left.

I notice that in each of these statements the good news comes first. “God loves you; therefore, love and obey him.” This is the way that Wesley said he would preach to established Christians, those who have already had an experience of conviction and justification. The law is preached here as a pattern for a life that bears the fruit of faith. To the unconverted, Wesley wrote earlier in the letter, he would counsel leading with law to break up the complacency of those who have not yet felt the true forgiveness of Christ.

As always, I’m struck in reading Wesley by how aware he was that the state of his audience should determine the shape of his preaching. This is not “felt needs” preaching. It is much more like a medical diagnosis. Wesley had a clear idea what spiritual health and wholeness looked like. He had strong opinions about the various maladies of the soul and the phases a person must pass through to be “cured.” His observations about the spiritual state of his hearers then shaped his approach in preaching and teaching.

The Methodist cure was not for everyone, of course. At the height of the Methodist movement, it accounted only for a small fraction of the population of England. Not even Wesley would have argued that non-Methodists were necessarily out of step with Christ. But for many people, the Methodist way was the true way to Christ.

The Methodist way of preaching

Does British Methodism have a point?

A look at the history and contemporary significance of Methodism in Britain.

A podcast from the BBC.

Part of the problem might be that the contemporary Methodist interviewed in the podcast reframes “you are saved” as “you count.”

Does British Methodism have a point?

Methodism as option 3

I’ve been reading William J. Abraham’s Dialogues: Amongst the People Called United Methodists.

People who read this book looking for a fair and balanced airing of various view points — expecting it to be a piece of journalism — will be shocked and disappointed. Those looking to see our current crisis through Abraham’s eyes, will find it an interesting read. (I suspect Steve Harper and Adam Hamilton may use words other than “interesting,” as will anyone who labels themselves a progressive.)

In the book Abraham touches on one proposal I find intriguing. The following proposal is offered by the character “Traditionalist,” but I have heard a version of it in the past from Abraham’s mouth, and I take Traditionalist to be the character in the book who most reflects Abraham’s views. This may be off base, but I don’t think it is far off base.

Traditionalist describes a taxonomy of three ways of being the church.

The first he call the “big C” Catholic and Orthodox option that puts an emphasis on “the historical episcopate, on baptismal regeneration, on an exclusionary account of the Eucharist, and on a clerical hierarchy with our without Rome.”

Traditionalist claims that Wesley started as an Anglican committed to this option up until it failed him spiritually.

The second option is Magisterial Protestantism, which Traditionalist says has as its core a commitment to “learn the original languages and finally figure out what to believe and do, not least what do do by way of church ministry and polity.”

Traditionalist argues this is a poor fit for Methodism because “we do not believe there is a normative church polity in scripture. We begin with the work of the Holy Spirit and effectively buy the slogan that where the Spirit is there is the church and the fullness of grace.”

Building on this thought, the third option offered by Traditionalist is Methodism as a Holy Spirit filled revival of the “Primitive Christianity that stretched beyond the New Testament era into the first centuries of the church’s life.”

Traditionalist argues that this option for Christianity coming forward from Wesley includes the Holiness movement, Pentecostalism, and much of the most vibrant expressions of Christianity now witnessed around the world.

I’m not sure how Traditionalist/Abraham fleshes out this notion of Methodism as a third way (based on the book, I’m pretty sure Abraham would not embrace calling it the third way) of Christianity. But the notion is interesting, and it speaks to some of the ways that Methodist evangelicalism often does not feel like the Reformed kind. It isn’t just about predestination, but about the robust embrace of the Holy Spirit. One of my professors calls it Metho-costalism.

Methodism as option 3