Free Methodism’s Living Witness: Sesquicentennial Reflections

Dec 20, 2016 | 2011 GC Report

Bishop L. R. Marston got it right when he named his 1960 centennial history “From Age to Age a Living Witness.” Free Methodism’s witness is still a living one, despite the amazing changes of the past one hundred fifty years. Our new age is the twenty-first century.

Today there are nineteen Free Methodist bishops throughout the world, and only four of them are North Americans. Worldwide Free Methodist growth has birthed a church where less than 10 percent of its approximately 900,000 members live in the United States and Canada (about 76,000 in the United States; 7,800 in Canada).

What would B. T. Roberts think? Certainly he would celebrate! This is what he would have wanted to see. Of course he would quickly ask: Is the church maintaining the Bible standard of Christianity? Is it preaching the gospel to the poor?

The growth of global Free Methodism truly is something to celebrate. Like most movements, Free Methodism is more dynamic at its growing edges than at its historic center. But signs of life are everywhere. Like a one-hundred-fifty-year-old tree, the FM Church grows mainly in its branches. Yet it still draws life from its roots and trunk, even as it is nourished by its branches. For continued health, the roots must grow ever deeper as the trunk grows sturdier.[1]

Free Methodism’s roots go deep and far. We trust they are still nourished by Scripture, in good gospel ground. We can trace our heritage over the two thousand years of church history.

As Free Methodism enters its Sesquicentennial Year, our heritage as Wesleyans and Free Methodists is worth reviewing, re-emphasizing, and reactivating. This essay looks at our Wesleyan roots, our particular calling or charism, and our new opportunities as Free Methodists.

Our Wesleyan Heritage: A Way of Seeing

Free Methodism is grounded in the church’s Great Tradition, reaching from the New Testament church, through the centuries and up to today. We are descendants especially of John and Charles Wesley and the Methodism movement.

We celebrate this heritage not as pedigree nor as traditionalists, but as a way of seeing. We have inherited a tradition of great breadth — unusual within the sweep of church history — that is as deeply needed today as it was when John Wesley had his heart-warming experience on May 24, 1738.

We have inherited a Wesleyan lens that is priceless precisely because it is biblical, historical, and non-sectarian. This helps us see the gospel and the world the way Wesley did, adjusting of course for the dramatic shift in context between eighteenth-century England and our twenty-first-century global connections.

The strength of the Wesleyan lens is its comprehensiveness, whatever its limitations. Wesley had his blind spots, but his large vision was remarkable. He had unique advantages: A well-informed Christian upbringing — especially a wise mother who helped him think deeply. A both/and rather than an either/or mind, both rational and poetic, fascinated by language, alert to metaphor and paradox, yet interested in logic and scientific discovery. A voracious reader with broad, eclectic tastes. A grounding in the Anglican via media of Scripture, reason, and tradition, giving him historical and theological ballast. An Oxford education at a time of rediscovery of early Christian sources.

Wesley lived at the height at the Age of Reason, but also at a time of awaking interest in human experience and emotion (“enthusiasm”). He read of the discoveries coming from science and from the “New World” and England’s far-flung empire. He experienced the Industrial Revolution and experimented with the newly-discovered force of electricity.[2] Through the influence of the Pietist Movement, particularly the Moravian Brethren, his heart was “strangely warmed” by God, igniting a deeper spirituality and a new passion for evangelism and church renewal. Finally, Wesley was physically vigorous and lived a long life (1703 to 1791), his mind alert, inquiring, and deeply devout to his last moments.

Remarkably, this unusual mix is found nowhere else in church history. Wesley saw it as God’s active providence, and it is our heritage as Free Methodists. These converging factors gave Wesley a wide-angle lens that helps clarify the church’s vision and mission today.

I highlight eight facets of this Wesleyan lens: Scripture, the image of God, the gospel for the poor, the wisdom of God in creation, salvation as the renewal of God’s image, audacious hope, a renewed church, and the restoration of creation.[3]

1. The Lens of Scripture

John Wesley was, famously, “a man of one book.” Of course he was a man of thousands of books, not to mention newspapers, journals, and pamphlets. But he was clear about biblical authority.

For Wesley, the Bible was the touchstone of authority for faith and practice. It was truly his lens for viewing reality — his worldview (as we would say today). The Bible was the revealed narrative of what God had accomplished, promised to accomplish, and surely would do. We misunderstand Wesley if we fail to grasp this. We may debate aspects of Wesley’s interpretation, but his conviction and intent were clear.

Wesley viewed Scripture in a particular way. The Bible is the authoritative narrative of salvation. It is not primarily a compendium of doctrine but the story of creation, sin, providence, and redemption through Jesus Christ.

Wesley said the Bible should be interpreted according to the “analogy of faith” (based on the Greek of Romans 12:6), comparing Scripture with Scripture. Here is Wesley’s key principle — “the agreement of every part of [Scripture] with every other,” as he put it.[4] Grasping this overall biblical “agreement” requires, of course, a master narrative — a storyline by which every passage is interpreted. Wesley was increasingly clear throughout his life as to that storyline: God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is reconciling the world to himself, restoring “all things.”

Wesley’s sermons illustrate this. His 151 published sermons generally don’t exposit Scripture systematically, but typically a third or more of a Wesley sermon is either paraphrase of or direct quotation from Scripture.

To be Wesleyan means seeing everything — our lives, the church, culture, and God’s kingdom plan — through the revealed lens of Scripture, interpreted in the light of God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ.

2. Seeing the Image of God

To be Wesleyan also means seeing the image of God in every person. Every human being — man, woman, child — is God-imaged; a God-bearer.

Wesley saw how defaced the image of God had become in human beings and society because of sin. But for Wesley, sin has neither the first nor the last word. His sermons “On the Fall of Man” and “The Mystery of Iniquity” detail the disfiguring effects of sin. But Wesley believed also in “God’s Approbation of His Works” in creation, a “General Deliverance,” and “The New Creation” (to cite some key sermon titles).

So Wesleyans start with good news: A good God created good people in an ecosystem that God pronounced “very good.” The gospel story moves from the good news of creation in God’s image, to the bad news of sin and disease, to the even better news of redemption and new creation through Jesus by the Spirit.

This is not uniquely Wesleyan, of course; it is biblical and a common element of the Great Tradition. Wesleyans stress three crucial points, however.

First, creation in God’s image means that all people reflect God’s character and a certain capacity for goodness, wisdom, creativity, justice, and holy love. This is why bad people can sometimes do good things; why parents, though “evil, know how to give good gifts to [their] children” (Matthew 7:11). It is why there is good art in the world.

All humans bear something of the character of God. This is our glory; our potential; the inherent possibility that God’s grace grasps when we turn to Jesus and by the Spirit open ourselves to God’s transforming power.

Second, this is a social image. God is Trinity, and humankind is compatibly diverse, male and female, made for family and community. We don’t find our true identity as isolated “individuals” any more than Jesus Christ found his true identity separate from the Father and the Spirit. To be God-imaged is to be social, communal. God is Tri-Personal. Sociality and community define personhood — first in God, hence in humankind.

Third, Wesley saw that the image of God connects us to, rather than separates us from, the rest of creation.[5] Here the Wesleyan view clashes with much popular Christianity.

We must understand Wesley here, because the comprehensive Wesleyan view of salvation hinges upon it. Creation in the image of God means we are both like and unlike God, and it means we are both like and unlike the rest of creation. God is infinite; we are not, and we have been marred by sin. Like God’s other earthly creatures, we are finite beings in a space-time world, this good earth. Like other creatures, we require food, water, air, and earth. God made us this way: Interdependent, all sharing one earthly ecosystem.

Wesley intuited this deeply. That’s why he was so interested in gardens, all earth’s creatures, and in how we treat animals.

Humans reflect God’s image in a primary sense; yet all creation reflects him in a secondary sense, Wesley showed. People are unique because of our unique capacity to respond to God self-consciously, willingly, and responsibly. So we have a unique calling as stewards of all creation. Men and women are “capable of God” (as both Wesleys said) in ways the other earthly creatures are not. Yet the horse, the dog, the bird, the tree, the flower, even rocks of the field and pebbles of the seashore reflect God’s image in a more remote way. They depend upon God for their existence and preservation. Their design, order, intricacy, and interdependence all reveal something of God. All fits into the larger ecology, the divine “economy” (Ephesians 1:10) of God’s creative and redemptive work.[6] Through Jesus Christ, God will redeem the whole creation, not only the human part of it, because God has vested interest in the whole.

Wesleyans see every person and the whole creation as bearing, in appropriate degree, the image of God.

3. Seeing through the Eyes of the Poor

John Wesley wrote to an acquaintance, “I love the poor; in many of them I find pure, genuine grace, unmixed with paint, folly, and affectation.” He said, “If I might choose, I would still, as I have done hitherto, preach the Gospel to the poor.” Robert Southey in reporting this notes that John Wesley’s “course of life led him into a lower sphere of society than that wherein he would otherwise have moved; and he thought himself a gainer by the change.”[7]

Wesley found more openness and genuineness among the poor and what he called “middling people” than among the higher classes. He thought prioritizing ministry to and with the poor was God’s strategy. Commenting on Hebrews 9:11, “for they shall all know me, from the least even to the greatest,” Wesley remarked, “In this order the saving knowledge of God ever did and ever will proceed; not first to the greatest, and then to the least.” Wesley said preaching Good News to and among the poor was “the greatest miracle of all”– a miracle, because the church will never do this unless empowered by the Spirit and/or captivated by the character of Christ.[8] For a church to preach the gospel to the poor is more of a miracle than are physical healings. Of all “signs and wonders” in the church, this is the greatest.

Wesley made little distinction between material and spiritual poverty. Jesus in his Jubilee proclamation, recorded in Luke 4:18-20, is speaking of the poor both “literally and spiritually,” Wesley said.[9]

Wesley saw that the New Testament teaching on spiritual gifts (charismata) has special relevance for the poor. The gifts of the Spirit are good news particularly for the poor because they reveal that divine empowering doesn’t depend on status, wealth, education, or credentialing, but on mere openness to the Spirit. Seeing the world through the eyes of the poor, Wesleyans seek to incarnate the Good News among and with them.

4. Seeing God’s Wisdom in Creation

Wesley liked the phrase “the wisdom of God in creation” so much that he issued a multi-volume book on the subject, A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation (abridging the work of others). Seeing God in creation prompts us to worship and clarifies our stewardship. “Life subsisting in millions of different forms, shows the vast diffusion of [God’s] animating power, and death the infinite disproportion between him and every living thing. … Even the actions of animals are an eloquent and a pathetic language. … Thus it is, that every part of nature directs us to nature’s God.”[10]

“God is in all things,” Wesley said in one sermon; “we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature; … we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism; but with a true magnificence of thought survey heaven and earth and all that is therein as contained by God in the hollow of his hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the soul of the universe.”[11]

God’s image in human beings, and more remotely in the whole creation, displays his wisdom in creation and so lays the basis for God’s wisdom in redemption and new creation. It is all of one piece, one story, for Wesley.

Seeing the wisdom God in creation moves us not only to praise but also to care for creation and to understand God’s intent and the breathtaking breadth of redemption. In keeping with the Great Tradition of Christian teaching, Wesley affirmed that what God had created, preserves, and cares for is being redeemed through Jesus Christ whom God has “appointed heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2). We become more Wesleyan as we see his wisdom in creation.

5. Seeing Salvation as God’s Image Restored

Jesus Christ is the perfect living, loving image of God, and salvation is that image restored in us. This is an insistent theme with Wesley. Through Jesus Christ Christians are “restored to the image of God.”[12]

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