Thursday, December 02, 2010

What's in a Denomination? 3

The two beginning posts in this series are here first and here second.
So what is distinctive about the Wesleyan tradition and the Wesleyan Church?  It is admittedly a little awkward even to ask this question.  Is it not much more important for us to accentuate the things we hold in common with all Christians everywhere: "one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all" (Eph. 4:5-6)?

And indeed, we all do share most of our beliefs and practices in common with other Christians.  We believe in God the Father Almighty, who made heaven and earth from nothing.  We believe Jesus was God come to earth as a human like the rest of us, except without sin.  We believe he rose bodily from the dead and that we will too.  These are common Christian beliefs, the faith of the church universal.  We believe that if we truly love God and love our fellow human, we have met all God's expectations.

Nevertheless, despite how much we have in common, identity is most clearly defined in what is different, in our distinctives.  What is distinctive about the Wesleyan tradition, especially at this point in history?  These may not be completely unique among Christians, but a particular mix of convictions and emphases that helps you know our flavor, what might be different about us from some other places you might worship or train.

The following pages lay out a few areas where the Wesleyan tradition has a flavor that differs from some other traditions.  First, we tend to be a "pietist" tradition, which means that we are more concerned about a person's   devotion to God in heart and life than whether you have all your ideas straight.  Ideas matter, but we do not think they are God's first order of business.  We are thus primarily oriented around a person's intentions and how they play out in your life and living.

Secondly, our heritage is "Arminian."  Basically, we do not believe that God forces anyone to accept or reject him and that potentially anyone might be saved.  By the same token, God's grace to us requires faithfulness, such that those who turn their backs on God--even if they genuinely served him at one point--cannot ultimately be part of God's kingdom.  In this age, we thus see God's love as a more dominant characteristic than his justice or judgment.

Thirdly, the impact of John Wesley in particular on our identity is quite optimistic about the extent to which God wants to transform both us as individuals and the world in general.  We believe God can so thoroughly redeem an individual's heart that you can not only consistently make the right choices but that you can do it with delight.  We also do not believe that, in most contexts today, we need wait until the kingdom of God to see society change.  We believe in bringing good news to the poor and oppressed, what is often called "social justice" today.  Our particular brand of Wesleyanism was formed as an abolitionist movement against slavery. We have ordained women since the late 1800s and believe a woman can take any role of leadership in the church.

Lastly, our particular brand of Wesleyanism received its most distinctive identity from the "revivalist" movements of the late 1800s and early 1900s.  It thus shares with Pentecostal traditions an experiential emphasis on the Holy Spirit and his direction.  Our parentage in revivalism gives us an openness to hearing the Bible beyond its original meaning and to a spontaneity in mission and worship.  Like Wesley and so many revivalists, we are oriented around getting to the goal rather than on proper form or working out all the theoretical details.  The Spirit is with us on the journey to provide guidance and course correction...  


Rick said...

In regards to Wesley and Arminianism, Keith Drury wrote years ago:

"Wesley disagrees with contemporary Wesleyans on two intertwined and important matters as well: the basic nature of prevenient grace and when a person can be saved.
Contemporary Wesleyan-Arminian evangelicalism either implies or explicitly teaches that faith is an inherent power within human beings as a result of the prevenient grace given to all of humanity."

Where would you say Wesleyans, as a denomination, stand today?
And do you agree with that stance?

Ken Schenck said...

I would say that most Wesleyans are inadvertent Pelagians. I think Wesley's theology here has more integrity, although I think many of these distinctions are less significant in practice than they are when we are tidying up our systems.

Rick said...

"I would say that most Wesleyans are inadvertent Pelagians."

Would you contribute that, partially, to the influence of Finney?

"I think many of these distinctions are less significant in practice than they are when we are tidying up our systems."

To a degree I agree with you, although I do think it could impact how one walks with God. I do think that distinction could be helpful and calming in how many (not all) Calvinists view Wesleyans (Arminians).