CORE STRATEGIES: Wesleyan Spirituality and Theology

My recent participation in the 13th Oxford Institute for Wesley Studies has given me much reason to pause and reflect on the importance of our Wesleyan essence. With this blog I am beginning a series of blogs on core strategies of the Central Texas Conference. These are the strategies designed to energize and equip local churches to carry out their mission, namely to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

John Wesley famously wrote: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism,” 1786). Wesley both assumed and argued for the essential importance of doctrine. His genius is the way doctrine is combined with spirit and discipline. Such a connection is a reflection of what early Methodists called “primitive Christianity.” They reached back to the first expression of the Christian faith found in the book of The Acts of the Apostles as well as the writings of Paul and the Gospels to grasp again at what was essential and central to the Christian movement. Among a number of distinctive elements the Methodist movement brought back to the fore was the embodiment of theology in spirit and discipline. Properly understood for Methodists was the notion that theology – core doctrine – was not an idle aside but a central expression of the faith to be lived out or embodied.

All of this seems fairly obvious at first glance; yet, the scene on the North American mission field has largely tried to divorce orthodoxy from orthopraxy; a vital set of core teachings, beliefs, and convictions has been separated from core practices. Wesley’s fear that we should exist as a “dead sect, having the form of religion without the power” has now largely become the case in the mission field called North America. We have held fast to neither the doctrine and spirit nor the discipline on which we first set out. Far from a casual academic exercise, recovery of a core orthodoxy at the heart of our teaching and preaching is central to any faithful future for the Methodist movement in North America. One shudders in recalling the casual comment of a church staff person to her pastor, “We’re Methodists; we can believe whatever we want, can’t we?” No, we can’t. We have to reclaim the past for the future if that future is to be faithful and in any sense enduring.

Yoked with a theologically core orthodoxy must be a deep spirituality. Here is a simple test. How much time have you spent in prayer and quiet with the Lord this day? How much time have you spent actively seeking the Lord’s will and guidance? Holiness of heart and life was and is at the essence, the essential core, of Methodism. Our understanding of holiness has always had both personal and social dimensions. It is anchored in the “still more excellent way” of I Corinthians 13, the way of love. It gains its impetus from time spent with the Lord of love and is lived out in justice and mercy for all humanity. All really means all! Biblically speaking, Wesleyan spirituality is an expression of the great commandment of Christ to love God and love our neighbor, every accessible human being we may reach!

I am convinced that reclaiming a vibrant and robust core orthodoxy for the United Methodist Church in North America is at the center of our currently theological agenda and crucial to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Likewise, so too is the embrace, the energizing, which comes from a deep Wesleyan spirituality built on the foundation of a daily walk with Christ. My essential claim is that we need to move back to the past in order to reclaim a faithful future as a Methodist movement for the greater Christian movement and the Church Universal. The witness of the original Wesleyan movement offers a vibrant guide today in its full orthodox enthusiasm. God through Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit is calling us to a new future anchored in that past.

 

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