The mission behind our method

November 21st, 2014

The Wesleyan tradition and The United Methodist Church emerged from a missional imperative. This is distinctive for United Methodism, since other denominational traditions often trace their roots to disagreements regarding confessional or doctrinal matters. In the “Large” Minutes, John Wesley summarized his understanding of Methodism’s purpose: “What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design in raising up the Preachers called ‘Methodists’? A. To reform the nation, and in particular the Church, to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” This means United Methodism, and the Wesleyan tradition more broadly, affirms basic traditional Christian commitments proceeding from the Church of England of Wesley’s day, rather than pursuing a doctrinal distinctiveness from other Christian traditions. In addition to the importance of basic Christian doctrine, this commitment to foundational Christian beliefs deeply informed the practices of the early Methodist movement, leading to its impact of renewal.

Despite their considerable social status, privileged education, and theological formation, the Wesleys did not emphasize a sophisticated set of doctrines for the Methodist movement. Instead, John described a shared desire with his brother Charles in “A Plain Account of the People Called Methodists” to preach and “to convince those who would hear what true Christianity was and to persuade them to embrace it.” John Wesley urged early Methodists to follow “only common sense and Scripture” but added that in “looking back, [there was generally] something in Christian antiquity.” This commitment to basic Christian doctrines rooted in scripture and early Christian tradition, in their depth and focus, fed the vitality of the Methodist renewal movement.

The Wesleys “chiefly insisted upon” the following four points:

First, that orthodoxy, or right opinions, is at best but a very slender part of religion, if it can be allowed to be any part of it at all; that neither does religion consist in negatives, in bare harmlessness of any kind; nor merely in externals, in doing good, or using the means of grace, in works of piety (so called) or of charity: that it is nothing short of or different from the “mind that was in Christ”; the image of God stamped upon the heart; inward righteousness, attended with the peace of God and “joy in the Holy Ghost.”

Secondly, that the only way under heaven to this religion is to “repent and believe the gospel”; or (as the Apostle words it) “repentance towards God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Thirdly, that by this faith, “he that worketh not, but believeth on Him that justifieth the ungodly, is justified freely by His grace, through the redemption which is in Jesus Christ.”

And, lastly, that “being justified by faith,” we taste of the heaven to which we are going, we are holy and happy, we tread down sin and fear, and “sit in heavenly places with Christ Jesus.”

In this way, John Wesley, with Charles, emphasized basic Christian doctrinal foundations as mentioned above—all are made in the image of God and, if they choose to receive it, may have the mind of Christ, repentance, justification, and sanctification, respectively. These doctrines, as described by the Wesleys, resonated with a person’s spiritual journey. Similar to the Wesleys’ concern for their time and context, contemporary United Methodism would arguably also benefit from prioritizing a deep simplicity of belief accessible to all, rather than complex theological claims.

John Wesley reflects near the end of his ministry in his sermon “Causes of the Inefficacies of Christianity.” The sermon opens with the assertion that Christian communities worldwide had done so little good because they produced so few real Christians. The sermon continues by outlining three characteristics Christians often lacked: (1) a sufficient understanding of doctrine, (2) adequate discipline, and (3) self-denial. Thus, according to Wesley, an inadequate view of salvation that was confined only to forgiveness of sins, in an antinomian posture, led Christian communities to nurture few real Christians. Similar concerns for how we appropriate belief persist in the contemporary context. Our ability as United Methodist clergy and laity to comprehend and communicate salvation, integrating this understanding with our Christian practices, has a direct impact on our participation in God’s reign and the renewal of the church.

From this perspective, and with deep concern for the spiritual well-being of others, John Wesley drew from the standard doctrinal resources of the Church of England—the Book of Common Prayer, Catechism, Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, and the Book of Homilies. These materials also informed those he compiled for the Methodists in North America. In Wesley’s concern to share and shape doctrinal materials for Methodists in North America, later to become The Methodist Episcopal Church, the materials Wesley sent to America reflected, though with his revisions, the doctrinal materials of the Church of England. For example, Wesley sent the following with Thomas Coke in 1784: “The Sunday Service,” Hymnal, the Articles of Religion (revised), Catechism, the General Rules, and a selection of “John Wesley’s Sermons” as well as his “Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament.” These documents give a perspective on who we are as a Christian community of faith. Our doctrines provide the primary framework through which we appropriate scripture and the great texts of Christian tradition into a living faith as a church sent in mission to the world.

Our polity and organization undergird and facilitate our mission, providing a means within which to fulfill that mission. From doctrinal standards and ministry roles to conferences and councils, the aspects of our polity and organization benefit from biblical and theological frames grounded in the Wesleyan tradition in order to make sense of them and to live into their full purpose. How we understand these components informs our identity and purpose as a church—one that is already and not yet—as we seek to participate in the unfolding reign of God. Such an understanding of United Methodism is consistent with John and Charles Wesley’s vision for the early Methodist renewal movement within the Church of England.

While the Wesleys’ birthing of a renewal movement has resulted in a number of challenges when considering an ecclesiology for United Methodism, there is a profound simplicity in the early movement’s purpose. The Wesleys were less concerned with doctrinal disagreements than with an imperative to share and demonstrate the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is to say, difficulties of polity and organization, and availability of resources and leadership, will persist. However, our Wesleyan heritage offers helpful guidance for continued response to God’s calling and sending United Methodism to participate in God’s reign.

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