Because life is a series of edits

Learning from My Methodist Roots

In Church, Theologians on March 28, 2007 at 11:41 am

My Reformation and Modern Church History class readings took a somewhat familiar turn today, focusing on the person and teaching of John Wesley, founder of Methodism.

I grew up Methodist, but experienced few intentional and traditional characteristics of Methodism to really know what it was. The small town church of my youth was not (nor is) a church of denominational distinctives, which was both good and bad: doctrine was never a source of division in the church, but that was largely because of the general lack thereof. Coming out of this kind of theological vacuum, I suppose it’s no surprise I warmed to the tenets of Reformed theology in college, and now attend a Reformed seminary and church 15 years later.

That said, I confess there’s a part of me that really resonates with certain aspects of Methodism, and (especially) Wesley himself. Historically, the Methodist movement appealed to the middle- and lower-class folk, particularly those settlers whose uprooted population lacked traditional ecclesiastical links, and whom the older churches seldom reached. Wesley’s use of “connections” and “circuits” in an effort to provide and foster community was cutting edge for the time, and the Methodists’ passion for those on the new frontiers – combined with the administration and organization to support it – has always been something I’ve admired about early Methodism, as it appeals to both my zeal and my obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

While I don’t agree with all of Wesley’s theology (in particular his Arminian leanings), nor some of his overly-pragmatic practices of utilizing lay preachers beyond the need of the hour (though this was more his mother’s idea than his), the Reformed tradition could learn much from his perspective of ecumenism and fellowship across denominational lines. From The Works of John Wesley, pages 340-347:

“The distinguishing marks of a Methodist are not his opinions of any sort…as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.

I, and all who follow my judgment, do vehemently refuse to be distinguished from other men, by any but the common principles of Christianity – the plain, old Christianity that I teach, renouncing and detesting all other marks of distinction.

By these marks, by these fruits of a living faith, do we labor to distinguish ourselves from the unbelieving world, from all those whose minds or lives are not according to the Gospel of Christ. But from real Christians, of whatsoever denomination they be, we earnestly desire not to be distinguished at all, not from any who sincerely follow after what they know they have not yet attained.

Dost thou love and serve God? It is enough. I give thee the right hand of fellowship.”

Now there’s a message we Reformed folk could stand hearing a few (thousand) more times…

  1. Craig, on the heels of this you would find the introduction to J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God an interesting read. In it (at the very end, as I recollect), Packer addresses the disputes between Whitfield and Wesley, even quoting from a record of a coversation between them. That conversation may have been the pre-cursor to the above quote.

  2. Pulled my copy of Packer and checked it out. The conversation recorded was actually one between Wesley and Charles Simeon. In it, Simeon “interviews” Wesley as to his beliefs and Wesley comes off sounding pretty Calvinistic, which supports Packer’s thesis (I think) that, when we get right down to it, most people believe in a sovereign God even if they don’t claim to be Calvinists.

    Justo Gonzalez, in The Story of Christianity, says about Wesley with regard to Whitefield: “Both were Calvinists in most matters; but, on the issue of predestination and free will, Wesley departed from orthodox Calvinism, prefering the Arminian position. After several debates, the two friends decided that each would follow his own path, and that they would avoid controversies – an agreement that their followers did not always keep.”

    And from Readings in Christian Thought, edited by Hugh Kerr: “John Wesley belongs – theologically – within the Reformation movement, broadly defined…Mostly non-creedal and unsophisticated in doctrine as such, the Wesleyan revival drew its dynamic from the subjective, experiential side of faith. To talk too much of God’s predesintation of the elect seemed to Wesley a dangerous hindrance to to the call for repentance; to emphasize the bondage of the will might obscure human freedom; to be overly concerned with total depravity could prevent someone from ever trying to begin to live as a Christian.”

    There’s more, but all that to say, it seems Wesley kept his systematics in check where they might become a huge stumbling block to the Gospel.

  3. Good post.

    I served a Federated church (Methodist/Presbyterian) and came to appreciate Wesley’s passion for ministry (espcially reaching out beyond the church walls). Like you, I’m more comfortable with Reformed theology, but you’ve got to put the thoughts into actions.

  4. Thanks for your post, Pete. I confess I hadn’t heard of a Methodist/Presbyterian mix, but it sounds interesting.

    Not to beat a dead horse, I did want to share a comment from one of the papers I was just grading this morning for Covenant’s Pastoral Theology class. In the one page reflection paper, the student was responding to William Willimon (who is Methodist) and his book, Pastor, who (despite some doctrinal things – of course!) wrote a great book on the vocation. The student wrote:

    “I have been questioning whether or not the PCA is the denomination that I should be aligned with. I do not understand how a denomination with such good orthodoxy has such shitty orthopraxy.”

    I had to laugh at his choice of words, and left him a comment asking where I could find his phrase in Westminster. Funny. And sad. But funny.

  5. Craig, Interesting to read this, because I had almost the same thoughts. I must be in the other section of the same class. I too have Methodist roots, although from the time God changed my heart, I have always found my home within the PCA. But I discovered a renewed appreciation for Wesley reading for class last week. I used to think of him as a heretical subverter of truth (when I had shitty orthodoxy AND orthopraxy). Now I realize his motives and agenda were God honoring and hopeful.

    Another interesting point for me personally was that I have always known (because my aunt is a Mormon who has worked in the genealogy lab in Salt Lake), that my ancestors were Moravians who came over on the boat with Wesley. I had no idea until last week that they were instrumental in altering the course of his ministry. WOW!

    On another note, I would love to know who that student was that wrote the paper you mentioned, because I might want to hug them and tell them I understand, but I have hope that we are truly adjusting to a new world, taking our orthodoxy while we reform our orthopraxy.

  6. Thanks for the correction on the dialog. The thing that stood out to me from that was (I think) one of the closing lines from Simeon:
    “On our feet we may argue, but on our knees we are all agreed.”

    As with Jared and your paper-writing student (or Jerram’s), I can understand the frustration. My response (for what it is worth– not much, I know) would be encouragement to persevere, recognizing that the only way for the PCA to overcome her shitty orthopraxy is for men who recognize and understand it to labor for change. Another quote, this one from a contemporary thinker (Les Newsom, RUF Pastor at Old Miss), sums this up well– though Les was speaking in broader terms:

    “If Jesus loved His bride enough to die for her, we should love her enough to wait for her sanctification.”

    A final thought: I’ve rarely seen better orthopraxy elsewhere. We live in a fallen world, and serve a fallen church. Every congregation, presbytery, district, or denomination will suffer our fallenness.

  7. I wouldn’t disagree, Ed. Good thoughts…even for a “company man”. ;)

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