Doing All to the Glory of God:

The Essence of The Wesleyan Church

 

1.    The Wesleyan Identity Crisis

It seems like a good deal of the Wesleyan Church is in an identity crisis.  To be sure, there are islands of identity within the Wesleyan Church.  There are districts like the Atlantic District that have a strong sense of identity.  All the Wesleyan colleges give some sense of identity to their particular regions and demographics.  But these identity markers are not denomination wide.  On a denominational level we hear repeatedly from many quarters a sense of uncertainty about exactly who we are as a denomination and why we even need to exist as something different from other churches.

 

So where might a renewed sense of identity come from.  Indeed, is it is even desirable? If I were at HQ, I think it would be a challenge to foster denomination wide identity. Is LDJ helping? I think it has some potential. But my impression is that it has not yet created what we are talking about here.

 

It seems like cultural factors are pushing churches away from looking to their headquarters as the sources of their identities. We hear significant voices telling us that the future of American churches may look more like the Willow Creek Association than the traditional denomination. I suppose there is a possible world where the Wesleyan Church doesn’t even have an HQ any more. I’m not on that band wagon. If something like that did happen, I would want some strong substitute for theological and “practitional” integrity.

 

Regular events like general conferences or (in the old days) camp meetings used to contribute to a sense of identity. Our Logos conferences do foster some identity with our youth. But I wonder if in our multi-tasking, cell-phone-in-one-hand, other-phone-in-the-other-while-text-messaging, blogging, and-emailing culture, 4 years is too far apart for identity forming. Maybe even once a year is too seldom.

 

With the next generation, I have a hunch identity will heavily involve this electronic domain. The loose association of Wesleyan blogs I think is just one symptom of that trend. I don’t know how extensive it is, but there is already an electronic Wesleyan community (with non-Wesleyans fully welcome) developing here.

 

I think for the last few years our larger churches have provided some sense of identity. We went through a phase where we idolized some of the larger church pastors. The identity focused on “trying to become like them.” This phase seems over as far as I can tell. So maybe now we can go back to remembering that Wesleyans believe in women in ministry, now that we’re no longer promoting mega-church pastors who boast about how they would never be caught dead with a woman on their staffs!

 

I believe that strong personalities and “flavor” personalities also provide identity to movements and denominations. Take Wesley—not perfect, but what a personality! They can be anywhere, whether at an HQ, church, college, or wherever. We need more of these. The humorist side of me thinks about Wesleyan trading cards, each with a super power on the back and super suit with their head in it on the front. The Drurinator? OK, maybe not.

 

Ideology can form identity when it becomes “our watchword and song.” I personally can’t think of any specific ideology that I think will do the job today. I don’t think the idea of holiness will unite the denomination. There are other denominations that hold that in common with us. Common stories are one of the strongest identity formers—but we’re almost ashamed of our stories, which often involve adventures in legalism.

 

And to me, the emergent Wesleyans seem to have more of an anti-ideology, anti-identity edge than an identity that could serve as a new core. In this phase they seem to be deconstructing rather than constructing identity. So we could become activists for the merger of pan-wesleyan denominations or become a collection of historically related independent churches. They may surprise us yet.

 

Educational institutions can have personalities and provide identity. I would say IWU could become an identity focus for a hefty portion of the Wesleyan church, particularly in the northern half of the U.S. But it might never serve that function for the SWU and Bartlesville crowds. And that might apply to an IWU-focused seminary as well. We could work more intentionally to focus regional Wesleyan identity around the respective colleges.

 

By the way, I think having fun with ourselves—with all our quirks—can build identity. Houghton’s our “smart” brother who knows he’s smart and tries not to let on we’re his brothers :) We have two economics professors here at IWU who both have very strong personalities and yet strongly disagree with each other. If I were IWU’s president, I would lasso them and put them on show like a circus, “Aren’t these guys great? Can you believe these guys!” I’m telling you, trading cards!

 

So should we work to consolidate a Wesleyan Church identity? If the answer is no, then we should try either to merge with other denominations with whom we might find one or move to become an association with some theological or practitional commonality.  If the answer is yes, then we should be intentional about fostering that. Identities form around stories, rituals, institutions, beliefs, etc.

 

We need to recast our story up to this point, telling it in a way that selects those parts of our identity that will launch us into our future. In the following pages I’ll recast a few bits of the Wesleyan story as a small episode in the story of Christianity and salvation history. We have some beliefs that have morphed somewhat over the years but potentially in a good way. I personally feel that holiness, long thought dead, has been reforming in a chrysalis and is beginning to reemerge with a new look.

 

Meanwhile, institutions like LDJ and our educational institutions are creating small sprouts of renewed identity. Enthusiasm for a seminary under construction might also rally the troops. Construct it somewhat publicly to get denominational buy-in. Get all the seminary outcomes in the open in the public domain. Get rumbles going: “Wow, I didn’t realize our church taught that?” or “Wow, why didn’t someone mention that when I was in seminary?” I think the founding of a Wesleyan seminary could be another identity shaping story.

 

But my task for the moment is to retell the story of who we are.  I wish to select from our history—from the good, the bad, and the ugly—our redeeming features.  And I do so in the light of the currents of Christianity at work all around us at this very moment—the good, the bad, and the ugly.  But what comes of it will depend on God and you, whoever you may be.

 

 

2.    Wesleyans are people of Spirit, a revivalist denomination.

Although we haven’t always wanted to admit it to ourselves, the parent denominations of the Wesleyan Church were as much or more products of the late nineteenth century holiness, revivalist movement as they were of John Wesley. True, Wesley stands there in the Methodist background and, true, the Wesleyan Methodist Connection was birthed in the abolitionist movement. These are all things I want to claim as very important parts of our background.

 

BUT, you could argue that the most “rational” Wesleyan Methodists went back into the Methodist Episcopal Church after the Civil War (including one founder). By the end of the 1800’s, the Wesleyan Methodist Church was as much a holiness denomination as any other.  That stretch of history had more in common with Phoebe Palmer’s experientially oriented “claim sanctification today” than with Wesley on his more pessimistic days, when he wondered just how many would actually reach Christian perfection in this life. Like it or not, Wesleyan Methodists must own up to that part of their identity.

 

As a Pilgrim, there’s no question that my background comes from holiness revivals at the turn of the twentieth century. My grandfather was one of many Quaker transplants to a snowballing collection of revivalists in the early 1920’s. And the Reformed Baptists of Canada were forced from their original denomination for exactly this same dynamic.

 

And Mel Dieter and Don Dayton may quibble over whether the Azuza street Pentecostal revivals were really offshoots of our blood or not. But there’s no denying the points of commonality. We may not speak in tongues, but the charismatic movement was birthed off the same air we were breathing. The similarity made our fathers and mothers so uncomfortable that they sometimes passed around urban legends about people speaking in tongues who were actually cursing in another language.

 

So it was with glee that I entertained my Methodist wife’s question at one of my more sectarian uncle’s funerals. “I didn’t know you’re uncle was Pentecostal,” she innocently said. I think he must have turned over in his casket. He was so conservative that he didn’t become a Wesleyan when the churches merged in ‘68. Headed for a one world religion, you know. But I knew what she meant—holy laughter behind us, running the aisles, people standing and shouting, hoopin’ and hollerin’.  The term “proto-Pentecostal” suits us well, even if it might make us a little uncomfortable.

 

None of this is to say that we cannot (and have not) critiqued some of the more “irrational” elements of our past. But it is a part of who we are. The Wesleyan Church historically is not a strongly rationalist denomination. It is a denomination of the Spirit. The fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early 1900’s—arguments about higher criticism, the virgin birth, evolution—these things were pretty far removed from us. We were looking for the “Pentecostal power” at the time, understood as entire sanctification rather than tongues. These debates of the broader culture had little overall affect on our tradition. A few of our academics paid notice, but the bulk did not.

 

What do I want to claim from this part of our story?

a.    We are more people of the heart than the head.

Here I am not claiming the anti-intellectualism that has sometimes plagued our church. I’ve heard stories about Wesleyan pastors in the vicinity of Asbury who preached against seminary education with Wesleyan professors from Asbury sitting in the congregation (well, not for long). I could name names of people that I actually like as people. But I’ll have no part of such ignorance and inferiority complexes. The pursuit of logical truth and knowledge is not our main priority, but we cannot be against it and be like God.

 

I hope we will always put people ahead of knowledge, meeting the concrete needs of others ahead of working out fine theological points. I do want a few people around who like to ask how many angels fit on the head of a pin too, but I hope that will never be our top priority. And I want a few people around who can parse Greek and Hebrew verbs too (pick me, pick me), but I hope we will always emphasize practical ministry over cognitive depth (without divorcing the two).


b. We can skip straight from pre-modern to post-modern.

I realize that postmodernism is a bad word to many, and we should oppose the extreme form of postmodernism that rejects truth altogether. But let’s simply say that we’re so late in catching up to modernism that we can effectively by pass its quirks and catch right up with where the flow of history is at the moment.

 

What were the quirks of modernism that we are in a perfect position to by pass? With regard to the Bible, fundamentalists and modernist evangelicals went crazy with scientific methods of exegeting and excavating the biblical text. The famed “EB” of Asbury and Traina’s “methodical Bible study” taught the student how to create detailed diagrams of textual observation and a self-contained set of terms like “recurring contrast with causation and generalization.” These are very valuable methods for arriving at the original meaning. I use them and don’t want to lose them.

 

But who said the original meaning was the “be all and end all” of Scriptural authority or that the original text is automatically more authoritative than the one God let the church use for over 1500 years? Modernism did. Meanwhile, our nineteenth century forebears blissfully (and quite naively) interpreted the biblical text with little sense of historical or literary context. Ask Steve Lennox, the Dean of the Chapel at IWU. He about went crazy studying the hermeneutical methods of the late nineteenth century holiness authors.

 

But as unaware of context as these holiness preachers were, they ironically read the Bible much as New Testament authors like Paul and Matthew read the Old Testament. The modernist evangelical claim that we should get our theology from the original meaning of the Bible alone deconstructs when we find that, in the original meaning of the Bible, the Bible does not interpret the Old Testament in terms of its original meaning.  With this paragraph, the extreme form of modernist evangelicalism deconstructs.

 

So our Spirit-filled forebears caught the Spirit on issues like slavery and women. They had a spiritual common sense that saw women as full participants in the Spirit.  They saw the spiritual forest so well that they didn’t get bogged down in the minute trees of problem passages. That’s the way Jesus and Paul used Scripture.

 

I am not advocating that we throw away the original meaning—especially now that a few Wesleyans are catching on to what it is. But I do think the fact that we slept through modernism puts us in a good position to move forward in a way those breathing the last breath of modernist evangelicalism can’t (can you say Wheaton, Trinity, Gordon-Conwell?). We can affirm both the way God inspired the original meaning and yet also acknowledge that God has and does speak through the words in ways the original authors might never have imagined. And He does this primarily through His church.


c. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

It may not have seemed like this was the motto of the Pilgrim Holiness Church, but it was. I believe we should have core doctrinal distinctives. But I like the liberty, the “generous orthodoxy” if you will, of our church on so many issues:

 

baptism: you can infant baptize, believer baptize, never baptize, immerse, sprinkle, or pour. You just can’t believe that baptism itself saves you. I like it.


end times: on this one I am grateful for the Wesleyan Methodists. If it had been up to the Pilgrims, all Wesleyans would have to be pre-millennial and believe in a pre-tribulation rapture. As it is, you just need to believe that Christ will literally come again. Beyond that you can be pre-mill, post-mill, a-mill, pre-trib, post-trib, mid-trib, no trib...


communion: We say, “the body of Christ” when you come forward at communion.  But in theory, the person coming forward could believe in transubstantiation. Mind you, I don’t know any Wesleyans that view communion this way.  But it would seem to be allowed and I like that.

 

Perhaps I am mutating the word a little bit, but it sounds like we have as much or more in common with pietist traditions as we do mainstream evangelical ones. Perhaps the word revivalist is even better.  And what other traditions might say as a put down (much as they did when they called Wesley an “enthusiast”), I take as a strength. Other traditions that have staked their identity so much in a modernist paradigm now find some of their fundamentals challenged by contemporary worldview developments. Meanwhile Wesley says, “If your heart is as my heart, then put your hand in mine.”

 

 

3. Wesleyans are people of the Bible.

Wesleyans are people of the book. The Bible is our playground, the air we breathe. As good Wesley-ans, we wisely recognize that there are always other factors in play, factors like Christian tradition and the experience of the Holy Spirit (think “Wesley’s Quadrilateral”). But we usually factor these things into our discussion as we look at biblical texts. And when we reach the end of the discussion, we usually express our conclusions in biblical terms.

 

From where we stand today looking back, we recognize that our fathers and mothers read the Bible much the way the New Testament authors and church fathers did. They joined their Spiritual common sense to an intimate knowledge of the biblical text. As they did this, they typically read the Bible as God’s Word to them, often without paying too much attention to the meaning God intended for its original audiences.

 

It is good for us now to pursue a deep understanding of the original meaning as well. But we are also in a good position now to recognize that the “Spiritual, church” approach of our forebears is what the Bible itself models, as indeed have the “community of saints” throughout the ages. When the Spirit speaks to the church through the words in this way, woe to the one who questions the message!

 

Yet in addition, many of our biblical scholars have also been classic evangelicals. Dr. Stephen Paine, president of Houghton, single handedly convinced the Wesleyan Methodist Church in the 1950’s to add the word inerrancy to its Discipline. And while the broader church may not have known much about the issues he was wrestling with, the Pilgrim Holiness Church agreed to include it in the Wesleyan Discipline in the 1968 merger as an affirmation of faith in the trustworthiness of the Bible.

 

But the Wesleyan Church has never defined exactly what the term inerrancy means, unlike the Southern Baptists. It is for us a strong affirmation of the truthfulness of the Bible in all its parts, that the Bible both in individual passages and as a whole is truthful in what it affirms. But inerrancy has never been a modernist straightjacket for us as it has been for some other churches of a more fundamentalist flavor. In contrast to them, our leaders and general conferences have consistently defined us as having more in common with evangelicals than with fundamentalists (although I would argue that our “spiritual” approach has more untapped potential than both!). This is a great advantage for us as a church, because it means our identity is not locked up with a passing phase of mid-twentieth century culture.

 

The dawning of the post-modern age has drawn our attention to a key issue that the Christians of our age must face. It is one thing to affirm the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Bible. But two people can affirm all these things and yet have widely different understandings of what the Bible is saying or affirming (see David Koresh!). Perhaps even more important than affirming that the Bible is authoritative is determining what meaning is the authoritative meaning!

 

Whether we like it or not, this inevitably pushes us back to the Spirit and the church, for it is here that we are forced to join the meanings of individual biblical texts to other individual biblical texts. James does not tell us how to join its teaching to Paul or visa versa—this is a task we are forced to do. And 1 Peter does not tell us exactly how to translate instructions to a disempowered and oppressed minority to a world where we elect our leaders and can change our laws. We are forced to do this, even if we wish the Bible did not require us to wrestle with such issues.

 

So who decides how to hear the Spirit directly in the words when we are reading the words as a direct Word to us, and thus are reading the words out of their original contexts? And when we are reading the words in context, and thus recognize that these words were not written directly to us, who decides how to connect the individual meanings of individual books with each other and then indirectly with us? Who decides how to process the Word to us from this starting point?

 

Here we return to where we began. Our fathers and mothers combined their Spiritual common sense with an intimate knowledge of the biblical text. And the results were a number of beliefs that formed their identity. Every group does this—they read the Bible and find themselves gravitating toward the Scriptures that best express their understanding of what God is saying to them. While a group may claim to get their beliefs from the Scriptures alone, in reality the use of the Bible is always a combination of 1) the text, 2) Christian tradition (both throughout the ages and the specific tradition of the interpreter), 3) human experience (including experience of the Spirit), and, yes, ultimately 4) human minds are forced to process and synthesize all these things.

 

So our denominational identity is best revealed not by our statement of faith in the Bible, but by the specific passages and interpretations that God has led us to focus on throughout our history!  Here I mention just a few that seem particularly important. 

 

1 Thessalonians 5:22-23 (KJV): “Abstain from all appearance of evil. And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly; and I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”


These two verses are perhaps the best single embodiment of Wesleyan identity for its first hundred years.  The first embodies well the sense that God must be Lord of every nook and cranny of our lives, that we are to “do all to the glory of God” (cf. 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17).  The second is a classic text on entire sanctification.  Along with other passages like Romans 12:1-2, it embodies our belief in “complete cleansing” from sin and “radical blamelessness.”

 

Acts 4:31: “And when they had prayed, the place where they were gathered was shaken and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke the word of God with boldness.”

 

We used to formulate our belief in radical victory over sin by way of the Spirit-fillings of Acts. I think these passages, especially this particular verse in Acts 4, can continue as strong launching pads for our particular understanding of Pentecostal power and our need for not just a little of the Spirit, but the “fullness” of the Spirit.  In terms of the original meaning of Acts, few of our Bible teachers today would connect the Spirit fillings of Acts with a second experience after conversion.  But I would argue that we can still use these texts to preach these things because of the spiritual common sense our forebears used: how can we truly say that a person is full of the Spirit if the Spirit does not have full control of his or her life?  The “fullness of the Spirit,” while not a phrase that actually appears in Acts, is a good description of what we are seeking when we are seeking to be set apart to God entirely and to be fully under the power of his Spirit.


1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has taken you that is not common to humanity. But God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will make along with the temptation also the way out so you are able to endure it.”

 

This verse is a good representation of our belief that willful sin is not an essential part of a Christian’s life. And I learned it as a child in Sunday School.  I guarantee you that Baptist children don’t learn it as one of their memory verses.  Our focus on verses like this one reveals one of the most distinctive elements in our identity.


Acts 2:17: “‘And it will happen in the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out from my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy and your young men will see dreams...”

 

We as a denomination are historically and prophetically committed to the full salvation of women, including from the sins of Eve. Women have the Spirit just as much as men, so a woman can lead spiritually in any role to which God calls her—from lay leader to General Superintendent.


Matthew 28:19-20: “As you go, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to keep all the things I have commanded you.”

 

I would say that for the last thirty years, this verse has been our primary theme. In this period, we balanced out the personal piety of our earlier history with the importance of the church’s mission to evangelize our communities and to plan for growth.  We had always been involved in missions, but we now focused on growing the local church.

 

What’s next? I hear the Spirit “bubbling up” verses like the following:

 

Luke 4:18 (Isaiah 61): “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, who—because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor—has sent me to preach release to the enslaved and restored sight to the blind, to send the broken on with forgiveness, to proclaim the appointed year of the Lord!”

 

So what should we take from our past into our future?

a.    The Bible is the playing field where we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

And that means we should strive for an intimate knowledge of the biblical text!

 

There are indeed Roman Catholics who believe the Bible is a “supreme and highest authority,” but they are more likely to work out their final thoughts and practices on the playing field of church decrees and pronouncements. We work out our thoughts and practices on the playing field of the Bible, even if we bring later developments into the discussion.

 

On the one hand, we recognize that it doesn’t simply end with the New Testament text—there’s much more to it than that, including some very crucial issues that God worked out in the course of later church history. We wouldn’t even have an authoritative collection of books called the New Testament if God had not worked through the church of the first, second, third, fourth and indeed, even fifth centuries to define its boundaries as they now stand. And the church fathers of the 300’s and 400’s had to look beyond the words of the New Testament to fend off false directions like that of Arius, who believed Jesus was the first thing God created. Arius argued his understandings from the biblical text.

 

So we should not point fingers at our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters with the belief that our disagreements are just some question of the Bible versus later Christian tradition. Whether they are willing to admit it or not, all Protestants are indebted on a fundamental level to Christian tradition beyond the Bible.

 

But the fact remains that we are a Protestant denomination, and while Christian tradition is always involved in our use of the Bible, we will by our very nature play out that tradition as we discuss the biblical text. Our disagreement with the Roman Catholics is how much they have built beyond the Bible, not with the fact that the Bible itself leaves us with many issues to work out (stem cell research, anyone?).

 

b. We affirm the basic principles of Wesley’s Quadrilateral.

But if we distinguish ourselves from the flavor of the Roman Catholic Church on that side, we are more than just another Protestant or even evangelical denomination. The Wesley part of us bids us recognize the unavoidable role that Christian tradition plays in our use of Scripture. Even if we find someone who can argue powerfully from the Bible that a rebellious son should be stoned or that we can only baptize in Jesus’ name (rather than the Trinity), the church of 2000 years has rejected these applications of the Bible. There is a “rule of faith” and a “law of love” that restrict all appropriation of Scripture, regardless of the original meaning of any one passage. And it is the church of the ages that has bequeathed us these boundaries.

 

And we are more “revivalist,” “pietist,” and “proto-Pentecostal” in our use of Scripture than fundamentalist and thus recognize the (even potentially “irrational”) role of Spiritual experience in using the Bible. We should value the original meaning, for that is the first moment of God’s revelation. But we do not use the word inerrancy the way the Baptists do. Was there one blind man or two, going in or coming out of Jericho... You’re missing the point, “Jesus can heal, even today!”

 

And we are now in a position to realize that reason is not just another factor in the equation. The nature of the Fall makes it such that reason is always involved when we wrestle with the meaning and appropriation of the Bible. The Bible is not on our hard drive already—it’s meaning has to be inputted into our system. And that can only happen through our human, fallible minds, even though we pray for the Spirit’s guidance in the process.  This last observation leads us to a final caveat:

 

c. We should “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.”

While we all have the privilege and should read the Bible as individuals, while God raises up individual prophets with correctives and redirection for His church, the Protestant history of the last 500 years has resulted in over 25,000 different Protestant churches who claim to get their beliefs and practices from “Scripture alone.” Clearly this implies a certain failure in Luther’s line of thought!

 

But we’re not Lutherans, we’re Wesleyan. The revivalist/pietist part of us is open to the Spirit. And the Wesley part of us is open to the church. If indeed “you (plural) are the temple of the Holy Spirit,” then it is together, as the church of the ages, that we best hear the Spirit’s voice speaking through the Scriptures. I believe we (and the rest of the church as well) will increasingly regain a sense that Scripture is meant to be read and appropriated corporately.

 

The task of appropriating the Bible for God’s church is bigger than any one person.

 

 

4. Wesleyans are Wesley-an.

The merging General Conference wouldn’t have called us this if it weren’t true.

 

I have argued thus far that the most basic flavor of our denomination is “revivalist” or proto-Pentecostal, of a somewhat pietist flavor. The Wesleyan Church is a church oriented around the Spirit, with much in common with Pentecostals in terms of how we look and operate. Our most formative decades emphasized personal holiness and a “second blessing” experience of the Holy Spirit.

 

The language of our “spiritual” identity was the Scriptures. While our fathers and mothers often did not read the Bible in context, they breathed the Scriptures as they preached and presented what they believed the Holy Spirit had to say. The last thirty years have seen some correctives to some excesses. In particular, we (over?) corrected the legalism into which a belief in “Christian perfection” can so easily slip. In some quarters, we replaced a “inward looking” orientation with an emphasis on evangelism, discipleship, church planting, and growing the church. To be fair, we had always had a huge emphasis on “classical” missions, even going so far as getting our children to commit 52 cents a year to missions.

 

We probably threw out some good with the excesses. We have used Scripture less, and we have lost our sense of personal holiness to some extent. Many Wesleyans today find themselves somewhat adrift with little sense of why we’re even here.

 

In all these comments, the question arises—if we are so much a denomination of heart and experience, do we also have a head? Is there a place in our church for the person God has gifted intellectually as well? Given our past, must we be anti-education? Many in our “neck of the woods” are. Some in our pulpits have not always been great friends of further education. Do we deemphasize cognition as much as, say, the Anabaptist tradition seems to?

 

Surely we can’t because of our very name—Wesley-an! I have a certain delight that Wesley was not the founder of our specific church, for then we can’t get bogged down in hero worship. Wesley provides the background, not the foreground, for our identity. This is a point many a Wesleyan seminarian should remember. In a sense we cannot “get back” to Wesley, for he predates our origins. He is prolegomena. We have inherited his DNA, but we have a mother too with her own genes.

 

But what important DNA! My intent is to set out some of the elements of our identity that show Wesley’s DNA in our genes. Wesley is the best place to start to discuss the “head” that’s guided by our heart. And I would argue Wesley is also the best place to start discussing the “feet” I hear young Wesleyans trying to get moving. And indeed, Wesley would have been a great one for the leaders of our “church growth phase” to reference as well. As it was, we more seemed to follow the lead of others in the contemporary American scene. It’s not too late to give some grounding to those correct impulses retroactively from our own tradition!


Wesley: Assurance of Salvation

These days everybody believes that you can know you are bound for heaven—even Baptists. But in Wesley’s day, this was a more unusual thing to believe. The Calvinists of Puritan New England, even John Bunyan in Pilgrim’s Progress—these did not believe you could know you were predestined until you got there. Wesley can apparently thus claim some role in the current Baptist belief of eternal security. Perseverance of the saints only becomes apparent after you have persevered. The current Calvinist sense that you can know now and thus will make it thereafter is a hybrid of classic Calvinism with Wesley’s belief in assurance in this life.

 

Wesleyans still believe you can know if you are on the way to heaven. And time forbids that I go on to speak of how profoundly the Arminian tradition can contribute to theology in the postmodern age. Calvinism will struggle in this age. Its arrogant claims to having God figured out turn out to be confessions of ignorance about a God whose literal ways are past finding out.  We know him by the analogies through which He has revealed himself. What a shame Wheaton—founded originally as a Wesleyan school—chose to leave us and take the path of modernist Calvinism!


Wesley: Full Salvation

When we think of Wesley today, we probably think more about his contribution of entire sanctification to theology than the idea of the assurance of salvation, since the latter is now widely held. Wesley taught that a person should be victorious over willful sin from the moment they become a Christian. But he also believed—sometimes more optimistically, sometimes less—that others would find themselves set free in this life from the “bent to sinning” as well—the tendency to sin, the sinful nature. He called this “Christian perfection.”

 

The belief in victory over sin in this world is not a very common belief in the church today. Yet it is the clear teaching of the entire Bible. I cannot think of a single verse in the entirety of the Bible that in any way advocates intentional sin as a normal or expected part of a Christian’s life. This remains one of the greatest strengths of our tradition and one in which almost all other Christian traditions remain in the dark.

 

Of course our version of entire sanctification came more directly through Phoebe Palmer and the holiness movement of the 1800’s. Palmer taught “the shorter way” and made it the expectation of all Christians to experience it today. I grew up with sermons on how we needed to take hold of the “angel” of entire sanctification and not let go until we received the blessing.  Further, from John Fletcher on, American Methodists increasingly identified the Spirit-fillings of Acts as experiences of entire sanctification.

 

Ten years ago, Keith Drury famously proclaimed the death of the holiness movement.  By this of course he did not mean the death of the doctrine as truth, only the death of the movement.  But some have wondered if what we have really witnessed is the ebb of Palmer type holiness, rather than a more Wesley-an formulation of the truth. A conference last year on salvation at Wesleyan Church HQ found strong support by Wesleyan educators of John Wesley’s understanding of Christian perfection. While it is arguably less Wesleyan in terms of our own history, it looks like this form of the doctrine has actually survived. It was in the heart of the tree that looked so dead, a life hidden inside to view but now sprouting and about to bloom on the tree again.

 

Wesleyans thus continue to believe in the necessity of victory over sin and the power of God to free all Christians from the power of sin.


Wesley: “No Holiness but Social Holiness”

In the early twentieth century, some conservatives became averse to phrases like “social holiness.” It sounds too much like “social gospel,” a theme propagated in the early twentieth century by Christians who had ceased to believe in the divinity of Christ but liked the “helping the poor” part of the gospel.

 

But those in our tradition who might have thrown out the social implications of the gospel threw the baby out with the bath water. This is an essential part of our DNA. Wesley is known for the saying, “There is no holiness but social holiness.” By it he implied that any sense of Christian holiness that does not lead to positive social action is no real holiness. It was this impulse that lead Wesley to preach to coal miners in the north of England and the reason why even today English Methodism is heavily composed of the everyday working class of England. Some think England was spared the bloody revolution of France in part for the actions of people like Wesley who gave hope to the disempowered.

 

So it was when Methodism entered America. The Midwest is a powerhouse in Methodism because this was the frontier when the gospel entered America. And while their children are now upper middle class, they were originally the salt of American earth.

 

Our more specific roots were founded in the abolitionist movement, as the Wesleyan Methodist Connection withdrew from the Methodist Episcopal Church for its refusal to take a stand against slavery. The women’s rights movement—something some modern Wesleyans are embarrassed about—is usually dated from a meeting in a Wesleyan Church in the late 1800’s in Seneca Falls, New York. And the sermon on that occasion was preached by none other than Luther Lee, cofounder of the Wesleyan Methodist Church.  I proudly celebrate that our fathers and mothers were fighting for women to be able to vote when other Christians were emphasizing that women should stay in their “place.”

 

And so I question the right of individuals to call themselves “Wesleyan” when they have questions about women in ministry or would place Pharisaic restrictions on what a woman can do in the home. Such a person has lost sight of the “head” of our tradition, and I don’t mean John Wesley.  This type person would have opposed women voting back when we were leading the way of the Spirit in the cause of “full salvation” for women as well as men. These were the Methodists whose Judaizing tendencies led you to keep quiet in the days of slavery or even oppose their emancipation. They would fit better in some other more impoverished tradition.

 

In the early 1900’s there was no stigma to a woman minister in our churches. It was only after WW2, when men came home from the war to find women empowered in the workplace and increasingly in society, that the numbers of women in ministry began to decline in our churches. They had lots of children in the baby boom, no doubt diverting many from ministry. Meanwhile, some men felt intimidated by the increasing power of women in society, and the result was a backlash among bigots and the insecure who hid behind the mask of the Bible. But now the disease has infected even the well-intentioned, people like Dobson who—with Nazarene roots—should know better.

 

This social dimension passed on into many of the Methodist offshoots of the late 1800’s. The Salvation Army is a perfect example of the spirit that was also a part of our forebears. It has survived at the grass roots level of the Wesleyan Church—what Wesleyan Church has not kept a food pantry for the homeless or needy who might come to the parsonage door? While many other conservatives oppose helping the needy as if it were actually unchristian in some way, many of our most conservative holiness churches—the ones we have sometimes disdained as legalistic—have continued to reach out to the poor and needy. The father of the president-elect of IWU spent his entire life humbly and without acclaim—practically unnoticed—faithfully ministering to the down and out of Frankfort, Indiana. That’s the stuff of our genes!


Wesley: Strong Sense of Mission

Wesley saw one of his tasks as “the spreading of Scriptural holiness throughout the land.” This man was not perfect. Indeed, one of his “sins” was that he did so much mission that he did not give appropriate attention to his marriage. This man circled England again and again and again preaching the good news to anyone who would hear. He was a church planter, an evangelist, a discipler whose class meetings set up incredible accountability for individual Christians. His writings are a treasure trove of resources for the next generation of Wesleyans to plunder.


What do I take from all this?

a.    Wesleyans believe in victory over sin and the fullness of the Spirit.

This is one of the greatest contributions our tradition can make to contemporary Christian theology. We believe that every person by God’s power can consistently defeat sin. And while the phrase “the fullness of the Spirit” is not strictly a biblical phrase, we can legitimately use it to push for a moment (a moment that must be affirmed every day that is called “today”) in which we surrender everything we know about in our lives at that moment to God and are thus able to be fully under the control of the Holy Spirit.


b. Wesleyans take the Great Commission seriously.

Go into all the world and make disciples. We’ve never stopped believing in our mission to the whole world. And the last thirty years have emphasized that we should never just settle for the status quo of our church, but be ever pushing to bring more in.


c. That commission involves a mission to the whole person.

We stand squarely behind the full personhood and spirituality of women without pigeonholing them into some rigid, legalistic preconception of what God can and cannot do through them. We continue to stand for the oppressed and disempowered both at home and abroad. I have a feeling that the emerging generation will play out this part of our heritage with a vengeance.

 

Wesley has left us countless other theological and practical seeds that the Spirit is just waiting to quicken to the next generation!  They’re there in our DNA.  Let’s plunder them for the benefit of the church.

 

 

4. The Future of The Wesleyan Church

Bud Bence has a question he often asks, a variation on Robert Frost’s well known statement that he had a “lover’s quarrel with the world.” “Do you,” Bence asks, “have a lover’s quarrel with your church?” I suppose many Wesleyans over the years have had various lover’s quarrels with our church. Several decades ago the boomers had a major quarrel with legalism. Then for the last few decades many have quarreled with what they saw as a “small church mentality.” Some who’ve gone to seminary have quarreled with what they saw as ignorance in the church. Emergents are currently quarreling with artificiality and failure to have impact on the world in areas other than just the soul.

 

But you can’t find lasting identity in a quarrel. To endure a group needs a positive identity and not just a negative one. In the last few posts I’ve selected parts of our Wesleyan past that I personally find attractive and worth further pursuit. I’ve not intentionally skewed our history, but it’s clear at the same time that our story could have been told much differently by someone with other priorities.

 

I’d like to recap some of the things that I am enthusiastic about in our tradition. In some cases I am trying to create self-fulfilling prophecies for the future, even if I believe my starting points are true to our tradition. I hope someone out there will embrace them too and work to “make it so.” In particular, a Wesleyan seminary could take on these kinds of values from its very inception, creating a focal point of Wesleyan identity among (hopefully) many other things. Here are some of the core points I think are apt for our future:


1. Wesleyans have a head, but our hearts and attention to the Spirit have always taken priority and have led the way. We would far rather your doctrine be a little off than your heart. Do you love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength? Are you serving Him according to the light you have? Does your life show that you “do all to the glory of God”?

 

For me this last comment is perhaps the very essence of our values and identity. When we are committed to doing all to the glory of God, then we are certainly not sinning intentionally (the systematic theologian here notes that it is only by God’s grace and the Spirit’s empowerment that any of this can take place).

 

And in our affirmation of the possibility to live above sin, we are expressing an optimism and hopefulness for individuals and the world that stands at the heart of who we are. No one and no area of any human’s life is beyond redemption. We are Arminians and thus believe that anyone can be saved. We are proto-Pentecostals who believe in healing and miracles. I think it would be possible to rewrite all the values I have tried to express here as the outworking of this one principle of doing all to the glory of God.

 

I know it might “technically” be wrong to approach such core matters from the human perspective... A systematic theologian—perhaps even Wesley himself—would begin with God or the Trinity or prevenient grace. But in some strange revivalist, pre-now-post-modern, quasi-pietist way, I think the flavor of our heritage starts with this basic dictum: “You must completely belong to God. You already do, for God is God. Are you willing, by the grace of God at work within you, to consent to that which is already true?” We might reflectively place a thousand pages of theological prolegomena to get us to this point, but the real beginning of my becoming is the first moment when I give the most limited consent to this question.

 

And since none of us does theology outside of our individual I, no individual’s theology can properly begin apart from the birth of this question in his or her life.


2. In the light of our heart orientation, we have a limited but significant “generous orthodoxy.” We allow for some breadth of understanding when it comes to things like baptism, end times, communion, and even in how we understand the particulars of inerrancy. Because our identity is centered in the heart toward God, we by-pass some of the thornier theological divides of history.


3. We are a Bible-focused church, but not in a modernist way. We value the original meaning but recognize that the biblical meaning that has always been authoritative has been a matter of a Spiritual common sense mediated through the church of the ages and the particular understandings to which God has led our tradition. Whether we like it our not, the Fall has made it such that particular interpretations are more determinative than ideological affirmations.


4. But we do have beliefs and they cohere with our hearts. Some stand in strong continuity with John Wesley. Thus we believe in the power of God to give victory over temptation, that a Christian does not, indeed must not, sin willfully. We believe further in the power of the Spirit to heal our “bent to sinning” in this life! We believe that the Lordship of Christ means Lordship over every part of our lives.


5. We believe in the Great Commission and the call to make disciples of every nation, including our own. We do not view the local church as a hide out or retreat for a few but as a place where communities are changed and the kingdom of God grows.


6. We affirm full salvation well beyond our souls. We believe that the Spirit can speak as authoritatively through a woman as through a man. We believe that God wants to change the world through the church now and not just in the judgment.

 

These are things that I am proud of about our tradition. They are the picture of a church with which I would have no need to quarrel. More significantly, they are to me the picture of a church that God can use powerfully to change the world we live in, the kind of church that the world sorely needs.