God has done an amazing thing these last few hundred years in the world. We have witnessed the working of the love principle beyond the individual into the very fabric of society, into societal structures. In Western society, we have seen a leveling in which the least in society has risen to have a say in her destiny. We have seen the abolition of slavery and the empowerment of women to vote and set their own courses. From time to time the default inequalities reassert themselves in various ways. And these ideals have not yet penetrated to the entirety of the world. But they embody what we might call a "loving society" on a level that goes beyond the individual.
What we are looking at is a glimpse of the kingdom of God, in which there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, and there is not "male and female" (Gal. 3:28). Christianity was healthy for almost two millennia without making these changes. Indeed it thrived. God was content even in the New Testament to allow the earliest believers to continue owning slaves and to continue the subordination of wives to husbands. But in these last two hundred years, God has decided not only to move the church but the world closer to the kingdom of God.
There are some crucial points of insight here. In the early 1800s in the United States, the Bible was used heavily in support of slavery. For example, in Colossians 3:22-4:1, slaves are told to obey their masters. Colossians, Ephesians, 1 Peter all assume the institution of slavery. Even a careful reading of Philemon reveals that Paul does not mention setting the slave Onesimus free.
So the "fundamentalists" of the early 1800s argued from the letter of Scripture that slavery should not be abolished, only reformed, and they had the letter of the Bible on their side. What they did not have was the Spirit of Scripture. Those who caught the Spirit of Scripture were groups like the Quakers and the Wesleyan Methodists. In other words, it was those with a more Pietist approach that focuses on the heart.
We are in a better position today to describe what was going on. If we listen to what the books of the Bible say about themselves, they tell us they were written to God's people two and three thousand years ago. Its original meaning has everything to do with the situations and categories of people in the ancient world. The more we know about that world, the more we recognize how well the words of the Bible connected to that world so foreign to us.
Groups like the Quakers and the Wesleyans, because they focused on the big principle of loving your neighbor, were able to see beyond the ancient particulars of the Bible to the heart of the matter. Other groups, because they focused so much on the letter of the Bible, were not able to distinguish between the structures of "that time" and the trajectory of God's kingdom. So also today, the best of the Wesleyan tradition will continue to focus on changing the structures of the world following the principle of perfect love--love that extends to everyone equally.
So we are not surprised to find that the Wesleyan Methodist Church was born in 1843 over the issue of abolition. We are not surprised to find that the movement to give women the right to vote started in a Wesleyan Methodist Church in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. One of the founders of the Wesleyan Methodist Church preached the sermon at the first ordination of a woman minister in 1852. Long before it was trendy, the Wesleyan tradition--like the Quakers--had women pastors. They saw that the coming of the Spirit inaugurated an age when "sons and daughters will prophecy" (Acts 2:17).
The fundamental insight is this: "God shows no partiality" (Acts 10:34). He values people of all races and genders equally, and all people have equal access to the Spirit. The rest is simply playing out the principle. Wesleyans who were true to our tradition took the side of those who worked for equal rights for African-Americans in the civil rights era. Wesleyans today will recognize that God values the illegal immigrant just as much as he values me.
The spiritual insight works its way into all sorts of areas where a focus on the letter of the biblical text can cloud hearing the more basic Spiritual principle. For example, just as with slavery, the New Testament assumes the ancient social structure of the home, with the husband as authority and the wife as subordinate. We know it will not be that way in the kingdom. So what keeps us from enacting God's ideal now instead of waiting for the kingdom of God? The best of the Wesleyan tradition will follow the lead of its ancestors and see the wife as a true equal in the home.
Societal structures--often without any intent--also have a tendency to perpetuate inequalities of various kinds. Not just people, but structures can oppress. The privileged of society often to do realize that they do not face the obstacles others do. They do not know about the suspicious looks and demeaning assumptions others face simply by the way they look.
The Wesleyan tradition will be keen to level the playing field in all areas of life. Working out the details is always complicated, and there will almost always be room for debating the best strategy or for avoiding unintended consequences. But the principles are clear. When social or economic structures put women or men at a disadvantage, when they disadvantage one people over another, the best of the Wesleyan tradition will be there to work toward the kingdom principle that God loves all people equally.
True love of neighbor moves beyond the level of the individual to try to influence the structural. On this level, we face both impossibilities and uncertainties. We will not be able to change some things, and we will not always agree on how best to change things. But along with many other Christian traditions, the best of the Wesleyan tradition will try.