One thing Bud Bence is known for in new faculty interviews--especially when we are interviewing a Wesleyan candidate--is to ask them in the words of Robert Frost, if they have a "lover's quarrel" with our denomination. It is always an interesting question. Presumably it is of some value to be a Wesleyan when you are applying for a position at a Wesleyan university, especially in its School of Theology and Ministry or seminary.
But critical thinking is also an incredibly important skill in an educator. No one thinks the Wesleyan Church is inerrant Indeed, it is not known for its history of profound thinkers, no matter how godly our forebears might have been. It puts the candidate in an interesting position between having some critique but presumably not so deconstructive as to say you don't belong.
Of course one issue with the Wesleyan Church presently is that it's not entirely clear who we are. There are some very attractive features of our denomination that are resulting in some transplant growth among our ministers. This is an interesting phenomenon. We have some of the benefits of a denominational fellowship--a network of people who get along, a pension plan that has survived the economic crisis well, a network that makes it a lot easier to find a church than some independent church.
Yet a local church really has a good deal of the feel of a Baptist church in terms of its structure and independence, and a large church can pretty much do whatever it wants (within reason). We have district superintendents, but they don't "lord it over" local churches. It is easy for a Baptist or a charismatic minister to come to the Wesleyans thinking--they're basically like me except they believe you can keep from sinning. And some Wesleyans don't even think that.
The result is what I might call "transfer drift," ministers who join our denomination because we are a friendly denomination that looks a lot like wherever they've come from. While the "weird bits" are easy to overlook because Wesleyans themselves don't seem to take them very seriously. So ex-Baptists, ex-Pentecostals, conservative Methodists, find themselves in our pulpits and we welcome them, as long as they don't teach eternal security, don't promote tongues, and the Methodists can tell all the jokes they want about how liberal their former denomination was.
On the one hand, I like that we are such a welcoming and inviting denomination. I consider it a strength and defend it as part of John Wesley's DNA--"If your heart is as my heart, put your hand in mine." But here are some things I hope are not lost in our mindless melange of ministers:
1. We believe in a God disposed to have mercy on all, not a God who saves on the basis of what you know or as a slave to the rules of justice. He disciplines to redeem, not to destroy because his honor is insulted.
2. Sin--understood primarily as doing wrong intentionally--is not normal for a Christian. God does not have an absolute standard for sin. His standards are attainable through the power of the Holy Spirit. To do wrong intentionally is a rejection of him, and he will let a person reject him (even a Christian) to the point of eternal separation from his goodness.
3. Ministry to the poor and dis-empowered is a central element and charge of the gospel. When we have the opportunity, we should challenge the structures of society that disadvantage others simply because of their race or gender. We fully affirm the potential of women to take leadership in all positions of the church and the home.
4. We should not be a fundamentalist denomination, not only because fundamentalist approaches to Scripture cannot be defended on the merits but because fundamentalist approaches skew the prophetic voice. The "fundamentalists" of the nineteenth century took the wrong position on slavery and women, and fundamentalism in the twentieth was short-sighted on poverty and civil rights. Fundamentalism is strong on the letter but impoverished in Spirit.
There are voices in my church that currently pull in different directions from the above. There are murmurs against women in ministry. There is resistance to social justice here and there. Our default is a kind of fundamentalist use of the Bible without any real awareness of it. There is a silent acceptance of popular definitions of sin and God's justice.
The generosity of our tradition in its focus on "getting people saved" allows many of these issues to be idle disputes in the background. But these issues are the ones that distinguish us, the torch-bearing issues. They are the ones where we have a potential contribution to make. They should not constitute a "new kind of Wesleyan" or an "emergent Wesleyan" because they are the best of what we have been already. But I invite the like-minded to rally around these identity markers going forward, even if I don't have a catchy name to offer.