The following is the introduction of a freshly released book, The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism. This collection represents an unprecedented collection of leaders and scholars in orthodox Methodism. These 35 essays address a broad spectrum of topics and issues that will be faced in the formation of a new denominational expression of Methodism. The book betrays a refreshing optimism—even excitement—about the possibilities of a renewed, global church and its potential to once again become a leading voice addressing the struggles of contemporary culture with the good news of Jesus Christ. Get it from our store here.
To go through time, to preserve a well-established identity and yet to be relevant to the current moment, is the challenge that all great movements face, and not all have succeeded. To be sure, the flow of history is a difficult gauntlet to traverse. The historical process itself, made up of numerous contingencies, unforeseen factors, and even outright setbacks and adversity, has marked the death knell for so many heretofore thriving movements that now line the ash heap of history. For example, the Holy Roman Empire, as great as it once was, is now simply a topic for the historians. And though the church itself will never and can never fade away, on the authority of no one less than Jesus Christ (Matthew 16:18), such an assurance is no guarantee that any particular theological tradition will survive the vagaries of history with its identity fully intact. The compromising and co-opting forces of culture over time can transform a theological tradition and thereby undermine its earlier, commonly celebrated identity.
An important way that a theological tradition such as Methodism can remain both a faithful witness in terms of its past heritage as well as relevant to the challenges of today is the frank recognition that this tradition has been called forth by God to participate in the broad, rich, and generous life of the church understood as both the church militant and the church triumphant. In other words, the calling and evoking God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, has raised up Methodism, through its many humble servants empowered by the Holy Spirit, to enjoy the fellowship of those saints from the past who are now reigning with Christ in glory and of those saints who are currently suffering with him on the earth. Such a call, such a vocation, means that the church is never simply about the present moment or about its current members, but that all of this is caught up in a much more grand vision of what the church actually is. In other words, the body of Christ has its life in both time and eternity, among those who have gone on before and among those now present. Simply put, the church is never only about us or the present moment. God’s call is far more generous and embracing than that.
Revelation and Proper Doctrine
The Methodist tradition has been blessed with a legacy of gifts that have been passed down the corridors of history by earlier faithful witnesses. Such gifts have come in the form of proper doctrine that celebrates the truth of revelation, as well as the church’s Spirit-enabled reflections upon it, and in the form of a proper life, one marked by the graces of Jesus Christ, especially holiness. Indeed, the preservation of correct doctrine over time, being theologically orthodox, is the challenge of any theological tradition that wants to maintain the integrity of its own witness and to do so within the context of the larger ecumenical church. Methodism has been especially well equipped to do this very thing in light of John Wesley’s own claim that this tradition holds forth before the universal church what is, in fact, none other than real, true, proper scriptural Christianity.
So vital to the life of the church is correct teaching that several chapters in this book explore Sacred Scripture as the Word of God, as revelation from on high, that not only forms the basis for proper doctrine about both God and humanity, but it also constitutes, to use John Wesley’s own idiom, the very “touchstone”1 of the faith. Beyond the authority of the Bible for ongoing illumination, correction, and empowerment, keeping the church ever focused on her high calling, the question of interpretation, of course, immediately arises. How should Methodists read the Bible today and to what end? One chapter in particular addresses this very issue and explores the basic interpretive approach that the Methodist faithful should take in reading Sacred Scripture. In short, will the Methodist church itself be the master of the Bible, sitting in judgment on the Word of God, offering the pretense that Scripture is ever in need of a contemporary correction, or will the Methodist church instead be mastered by Scripture in which revelation will be received as the gracious and remarkable gift that it is? In other words, how the Bible is read or approached remains a vital concern, especially in these difficult times. Proper interpretation demonstrates the importance of decentering both individualistic readings that are self-referential or communal readings that are baldly ethnocentric, even tribal, in which both the self and the community never go beyond themselves to hear the still, small voice of a transcendent and holy God that ever seeks to address them.
The Importance of the Great Tradition
A consideration of the proper way to read and interpret the Bible immediately raises the issue of the importance of tradition in the life of the church. Indeed, so many other faithful interpreters have already done this vital interpretive work with both competence and great care. The early church fathers, for example, such as Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory Nazianzus have blessed the universal church with their commentaries and observations on the Bible. In reflecting on Scripture, they have articulated the vital teachings of the Christian faith, especially along the lines of the person and work of Jesus Christ and in terms of the doctrine of the Trinity. This blessed heritage cannot be neglected by any Christian tradition.
Add to these interpretive labors the value of the early creeds of the church, the rule of faith, and other elements, and we have all the makings of what many in the church, both Methodists and others alike, have referred to as the Great Tradition. Indeed, Sacred Scripture, along with this Great Tradition, have continuously enabled all Christian communions to remain true to the faith that was once delivered to the saints (Jude v. 3). Put another way, these traditions that continue to be mindful of the gifts from the past empower believers to bear a faithful witness, evidencing an identity as a distinct people that endures through time. These believers then studiously avoid the siren calls of a host of disparate voices, many from surrounding cultures, that urge them to focus on themselves and their own vain imaginings and thereby to depart from the living, ever holy God, the one whose eyes are too pure to behold evil (Habakkuk 1:13).
Proper Life: Living Out the Obedience of Faith
Not only is proper doctrine so vital in preserving the truth and beauty of the revelation of God manifested in Jesus Christ, revealed through the Holy Spirit, but so also is proper life, that is, living in self-forgetful obedience in a community of believers committed to the very will of God. In other words, the church is neither a thing nor an institution, a common misunderstanding. Instead the church is nothing less than a living organism, the body of Christ in the world, that employs institutions and is fortified by the inheritance of proper governance and discipline in order to preserve her precious identity and witness from age to age. Moreover, the Methodist church of whatever stripe, as the body of Christ in the world, is privileged to enjoy the great reform of the church that took place in sixteenth-century England in which it was then taught (as later expressed in the Methodist Article XIII) that “the visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance.”2
The Pure Word of God Preached
In light of this precious heritage hailing from the sixteenth century, the Church of England and the later Methodism that arose within it both placed enormous emphasis on the vibrant proclamation of the Word of God as a suitable means of grace that would fortify the church. Indeed, historic Methodism took the call of preaching so seriously that its gifted preachers, John and Charles Wesley among them, were compelled by the living God not only to proclaim the glad tidings of salvation within the walls of the church but also outside them, that is, in the fields, on a neighbor’s farm, or in some town square. Such an urgency to declare the good news of Jesus Christ was driven by the frank recognition that the gospel they were entrusted to proclaim in a diversity of settings was nothing less than the greatest story ever told, a narrative unmatched in its beauty, power, and glory. Accordingly, a few chapters of this current work not only develop a theology of preaching that will help to sustain twenty-first-century Methodism, but they also demonstrate the necessity of proclamation both within the walls of the church and far beyond. Indeed, the Word of God is so great that no building can contain it. Preaching so easily flows into evangelism and evangelism into mission.
The Sacraments Duly Administered
The sixteenth-century heritage, taken up into Methodism, also understood the church in terms of its basic identity as the setting in which the sacraments are duly administered. Indeed, receiving the gift of baptism through the ministrations of the church marks one’s entrance into the body of Christ, a genuine before and after, while at the same time it heralds the grace of God in an extraordinary way, that is, in the washing of forgiveness and in the dying that leads to life. What’s more, baptism, as a sacrament of the church, celebrates one of the marks of the body of Christ, that is, its catholicity, its universal embrace. Put another way, all people are welcomed to receive the forgiveness of sins and the renewal of nature that are offered in baptism, a baptism that is recognized across Christian traditions.
If baptism marks the entrance into the church, then the Lord’s Supper offers food for the journey, a genuine eating of the body and blood of Christ, receiving his very life into ourselves. As embodied souls we take the bread and consume it; we take the wine and drink it, demonstrating in a physical and very tangible way the precious realities of grace, of Christ now in us, the hope of glory, interpenetrating our very being. Moreover, in this precious sacrament the Methodist tradition has reminded the broader church that its catholicity, one of its enduring marks, must shine forth here as well: believers from all Christian traditions, as well as those who are in a state of current repentance, are welcomed to this feast, to this table, in which food and drink for the soul are offered for the strengthening of the universal church. Indeed, to divide the table among professing Christian believers, of whatever theological tradition, to step away from the unity of love that the Supper embodies, is to mute the church’s witness to the world and to undermine its very catholicity. In this vein, consider the teaching of Jesus found in the Gospel of John: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:20–21). The way in which John Wesley himself celebrated the Lord’s Supper, underscoring its catholicity, was a reforming witness to the eighteenth-century church; it remains a vital and reforming witness today.
Proper Governance and Discipline
Though John Wesley was never ordained a bishop in the Church of England, he nevertheless functioned as a bishop among the Methodists both near and far. Indeed, in 1784 he sent both Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury as co-superintendents of the work in the United States. At the Christmas Conference of that same year, which marked the beginning of the Methodist Episcopal Church in America, Coke ordained Asbury as a bishop. After this historic event, Coke and Asbury together provided suitable structures of governance in the new world that placed a premium on both order and connection. Francis Asbury, for example, as a bishop of the newly founded church, appointed lay preachers to ever-widening circuits that advanced the mission of Methodism. These local labors, in turn, were gathered up in a network of loyalties and filial affections that found expression in timely conferences that became the decision-making body of Methodism.
In the eighteenth century, in a North American setting, the episcopacy and the emerging connectional system worked well together. This system of governance, however, broke down in the nineteenth century due to the issue of slavery, and in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries due to a revisioning of human sexuality. In each instance, then as now, key structures of governance, as well as some of the basic teachings of the gospel, were compromised and co-opted by strong cultural currents that undermined the raison d’être of Methodism; namely, “spreading scriptural holiness across the land.” To be sure, structures of governance that were put in place to maintain the integrity, harmony, and unity of Methodism as it focused on its mission broke down badly most recently as several United Methodist bishops chartered a wayward and aberrant course of self-referential will, championed in the broader North American culture, that rejected the prudent counsel of Scripture, ignored the precepts of the Book of Discipline, and flouted the will of the General Conference as well as that of the global community of Methodists that it represents.
No Christian theological tradition can survive with its identity intact in a house so divided in which the co-opting forces of a broader culture are given free play to displace the tradition itself in terms of both doctrine (especially pertaining to holiness) and proper governance (Scripture, Book of Discipline, and the General Conference). Given this unfortunate reality that is resulting in the breakup of the United Methodist Church in the near future, it is imperative that the leadership of those who are called “traditionalists” think long and hard about what suitable instruments of governance and discipline need to be put in place in order to prevent such a calamity from ever occurring again. Such an enterprise will require both wisdom and courage.
In the beginning of such a reforming effort, this leadership must face the painful reality in a frank, humble, and very honest way, that the governing and disciplining structures in place from the founding of the United Methodist Church in 1968 until today were and remain insufficient to prevent the kind of co-optation and division that has occurred of late. Accordingly, what structures are now in place need to be strengthened and augmented in new and insightful ways so that the basic ethos and mission of Methodism will endure through time. To fail in this labor, or not to take it seriously, in favor of other, more popular concerns is only to prepare the way for a future schism down the road, perhaps thirty or fifty years from now, in which other cultural currents and movements may slowly and subtly undermine the church.
An important step in this reforming direction is to ensure that disciplinary instruments are put in place from the ground up, so to speak. In other words, a reestablishment of the historic Methodist infrastructure in the form of class meetings, bands, and select societies will go a long way in establishing a climate that is conducive to raising up humble and obedient leaders in the church who will ensure that the precepts of Scripture as well as the Book of Discipline are taken up into practical Christian living from persons sitting in the pew on Sunday mornings to those occupying the episcopacy. One chapter in this book is specifically devoted to this grassroots and very practical reform, and another to the renewal of the episcopacy itself, an office that clearly has lost its way in the twenty-first century.
To these instruments of accountability, fleshed out in face-to-face relationships that make up the body of Christ, must be added an ongoing emphasis on education in the life of any future and renewed Methodism. From Sunday schools, whose leaders and materials will celebrate the good news of the gospel, to undergraduate education in which youth will be challenged to think in terms of both faith and reason, and on to seminary education, where every thought will be taken captive to Jesus Christ in a grand and prodigious worldview of both love and service, the educational challenge of a renewed and future Methodism is considerable. Naturally, several chapters of this book treat this crucial area and in a manner that bodes well for the future. Methodists must relearn the discipline, so wonderfully practiced by Susannah Wesley, of worshipping God not only with their hearts, of course, but with their minds as well.
The Methodist Church and the Missio Dei
Illuminated by Scripture, encouraged by the legacy of tradition, strengthened and guided by the disciplinary structures of the church, a humble and chastened Methodism in the days ahead will be prepared to be used by God greatly in reaching the world for Christ. Indeed, it is only a Methodism that is clear in terms of its own identity that can be so graciously employed. It is only a Methodism that has deep and rich integrity, in other words, one that lives in accordance with the Word of God and its own published documents, for conscience’s sake, that is able to be used by the Almighty in new, powerful, and engaging ways precisely in order to reach a world that hungers to hear genuine good news, that is, God’s love revealed in Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
This labor that takes the church beyond itself and into the world for genuine mission represents nothing less than a sacred vocation, a resounding call, given by God for the church to participate in the very life and work of the Most High. So understood, God is the principal actor here and the church is but a suitable instrument, one that is invited to participate in this redemptive work, in this mission, that in its first sense must be understood not as its own but of God. This is such a crucial point, though it is often missed, of who is the chief actor here as the church engages in mission. As one chapter in this book points out, a proper understanding of the church in mission has been an area in which the leadership of Methodism has failed most recently, especially in its North American context, simply because the mission was not viewed as transcendent, that is, as orchestrated by God, but one that in a very flat-footed way was judged merely as the leadership’s own. In other words, revisionist Methodists filled in the whole enterprise with themselves and with a narrative that was not actually the church’s own but that was drawn from a compromising and co-opting culture. Such narrative displacement once again resulted in increasing division and alienation, in which one group was pitted against another, instead of issuing in a participation in the very work of God, that is, in the sweet, uncanny, and beautiful paths of reconciliation that ever mark the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Methodism Is a Global Church
This failure of the leadership of North American Methodism in terms of the mission of the church was also aggravated by strong self-serving strains that failed to take into account the global context of the United Methodist Church and, as a consequence, discounted the contributions of Methodists from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere. This was not only a clear violation of Christian love, in which “other” Methodists (and even to consider them in this way is defeat) were repeatedly viewed in diminished ways, ever needing the proper direction and counsel of North American elites, but it was also evidence of an ingrained and stubborn attitude that smacked of paternalism on so many levels that, in the end, undermined the connectional nature of Methodism itself. The reforming corrective, then, taken up in several chapters in this book, is the clear, honest, and frank recognition that Methodism, given its very ethos and identity, is nothing less than a global church. The Methodism of the twenty-first century that will be vibrant will recognize that Christ and Christ alone is the head of the church, his body, and that Methodists throughout the world are members together, in equal partnership, of that same body in mission.
Within this worldwide community, local considerations, of course, will play out in each particular land as an indigenous leadership, fully competent for the task at hand, will embrace the promise of gospel-centered evangelism as well as the challenge of establishing new churches, with full-orbed ministries, especially in areas that will minister to the poor and downtrodden. Thinking globally, especially in affirming the catholicity of the Methodist witness, and acting locally in serving the needs, both material and spiritual, of those who have been left behind in the twenty-first century, will go a long way in bringing the “aroma of Christ,” genuine good news, to needy peoples (2 Cor. 2:15).
Reforming the Nation and the Church
Believers in each theological Christian tradition, whether it be Methodism or Lutheranism or Roman Catholicism, must in the end ask the pertinent question: “What’s it all about?” What’s the goal or purpose of each communion of faith? Why do we think, speak, and act in the ways that we do? For their part, Wesley and the members of the first Methodist conference in 1744 recorded their answer to this identity-revealing question by considering what God’s design was in raising up “the Preachers called Methodists”3 in the first place. More to the point, why were the Methodists in particular called when other theological traditions were already on the field, so to speak? The Large Minutes reveal the answer to this engaging question for all posterity to witness: “Not to form any new sect; but to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”4
That the first Methodist conference identified reforming both the nation and the church clearly reveals that the ministry of Methodism, from its very beginning, was ever meant to function on so many different levels, ones that correspond to the totality of human experience. As such, Methodism, in its stated purpose, was focused on the love of neighbor in all of those areas of life in which the neighbor could be found: family, society, church, and nation. Its public witness then, as well as its public theology, brought the good will of God well beyond the church to ensure that the dignity of all people, both in and outside the church, would be affirmed by laws that reflect that divine goodness. Peoples of any nation, as created in nothing less than the image and likeness of God, are owed nothing less. This is what the actualization of the love of neighbor, in part, looks like.
Methodism was not only called to reform the nation, protecting the common goods that belong to all people, but to reform the church as well. Since the word reform implies change (the past cannot simply be repeated), then this clearly indicates that historic Methodism believed that all was not well in the church, not even in the Church of England. To be sure, the Methodists were raised up by God to remind the church, both near and far, the Anglican church as well as the universal church, of the cruciality of scriptural holiness, one of the necessary and undisputed marks of the church so wonderfully affirmed along with three others (one, catholic and apostolic) at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381.
In some respects, eighteenth-century Methodism believed that the church, interestingly enough, had lost its way. It had forgotten that, in the end, it’s all about scriptural holiness—which is another way of underscoring both the love of God and neighbor. However, it was not just any love that the Methodists had in mind in their vaunted mission to both the church and nation. That’s a common mistake made by so many even today and it’s one of the reasons why Methodism is currently so badly divided as one chapter cogently argues. Instead, it was none other than the kind of distinct and uncanny love that was revealed at Golgotha, in the midst of torture, mocking, and shame, that the Methodists had in mind. In other words, it was holy love—humble, sacrificial love—not a self-indulgent or self-referential love, that was in the vision of the Methodists and that remained their high purpose not only as they faced the church but also as the interpreted Scripture, much like Augustine had done earlier.
Accordingly, this uncanny and distinct love, marking the holy presence of God in the warp and woof of life, should not only be the emblem of the church, attracting those beyond her walls, since holy love is so radiantly beautiful, but it should also be expressed in practical theologies, celebrated in the ministrations of the church, and lived out in serious Christian discipleship. Indeed, to pursue this emphasis on scriptural holiness, on holy love, unswervingly as the historic Methodists had done, is a reminder to both Methodists and to the universal church as well, especially today, that “without holiness no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). That’s hardly the favorite verse of the Bible for so many Christians, but it’s one that’s so very precious for, as Wesley, himself, had realized in his own day, this verse, which at times can seem as a splash of cold water in the face, is so wonderfully and powerfully truthful.
To be sure, the celebration of scriptural holiness is always the way forward in any age, given the high calling of the church. Eighteenth-century Methodists knew that truth so well, though a subsequent age simply forgot it because that age was distracted by a host of lesser and, at times, even countervailing concerns. So then, the remembrance of the very purpose of Methodism, its historical call by Almighty God, will go a long way in bringing fresh vigor and vitality back to a community of faith, a Christian tradition, that clearly needs to be both refocused and reformed. Such a course of action, though difficult at times, will keep the Methodist church honest. In the end, it will help this precious tradition to be faithful and true to its one Lord who is and remains ever above all.
This is an excerpt from The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed 2022). This book invites readers on a journey to discover the vitality, richness, and sheer goodness of the broader Wesleyan tradition. Get your copy from our store here.
- Church leaders
- Groups exploring church commitments
- Sunday school classes
- Individual study
This work will help you:
- Encounter a movement whose gospel of Jesus has wide-ranging, powerful effects on people and societies
- Discover the riches of an unapologetically orthodox, Scriptural tradition
- Renew your confidence in the intellectual foundation of a Methodism that will meet the needs of the day
1. Thomas Jackson, ed., The Works of John Wesley, 14 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1978), 6:451. In order that this work might be accessible to a diversity of peoples, I am citing from the popular and readily available version of this work.
2. John Wesley, John Wesley’s Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America (Nashville: Quarterly Review, 1984), 310.
3. Jackson, Works, 8:299.