One of the concerns I have always had about my denomination, the Wesleyan Church, is that because we are not a very theologically reflective denomination, we have a tendency simply to absorb whatever is in the water of our bedfellows. In the late twentieth century, we were church growthies, mainly interested in growing ever larger churches. It was a time of what Webber called "pragmatic evangelicalism," multiplication without much on the brain other than multiplying numbers.
During that time, for those few Wesleyans who studied Bible or theology in any depth, it was a fairly innocuous time because no one really cared. The church emphasized growing numbers, leaving those at the Wesleyan colleges to do their thing. A good trend in one respect is going on right now, namely, that Wesleyan colleges, large churches, and church leadership are in greater contact than ever. These are arguably the three main centers of leadership in the denomination right now.
It is also a time when we are in greater contact with the broader evangelical world than ever before, and this has potential consequences, where theological options can accidentally go away or be inadvertently modified. For example, in a move designed to count something deeper than mere prayers for conversion, Wesleyan districts have moved to counting baptisms instead. The idea is that we are looking for more substantial commitments to Christ than the mere assent of words.
Here's the danger. The Wesleyan Church has in its history both Wesleyan Methodists who could baptize infants and Pilgrims who, like the Salvation Army and Quakers, did not baptize at all. To me, these elements of our history should stay on the books as options. Few Wesleyans today baptize infants. Few Wesleyans today will not be baptized at all. But both reflect a fundamental theology that says, "Baptism itself does not save you. It is an outward sign of an invisible grace, and the grace can exist without the sign."
I was thinking today about another idea that was previously quite acceptable at least in Pilgrim circles. I heard a story about a former Pilgrim general official who on his deathbed felt spiritually inadequate. The quote I heard was that "surely Seneca will get into the kingdom before me, given the light I've had." Seneca was a Roman moralist, a good man who tried to help Nero become a better person. Nero put him to death. As far as we know, Seneca never heard about Jesus, although there is an old tradition that he and Paul died at around the same time and met each other.
What this old Pilgrim was expressing was the Quaker idea that God judges us according to the light we have. Although Wesley didn't have this idea, it is an extension of his idea of prevenient grace, a grace that seeks us out long before we realize it. Chris Bounds once told me that although Wesley didn't have this idea, it was a natural implication of his theology. In short, it is more the Calvinist tradition that would consign those who have never had a chance to hear about Jesus to hell. It is in better keeping with the Wesleyan tradition to wonder if, on the basis of Christ, some will be saved because they have responded appropriately to the light they have, even though they have never heard of Jesus.
Flash forward to today. As Wesleyans make connections, we should be careful to recognize that while we have much in common with other evangelicals, we are not always exactly the same. For example, we may agree with the vast majority of, say, the Lausanne Conferences. But it would be regrettable if, not realizing our own history and the strengths of our tradition, we inadvertently lost some of its richness because we didn't know what we were doing.
Wesleyans, as long as they are Wesleyans, will always be somewhat uneasy partners with broader evangelicalism. We have our own history, and there has always been debate over whether we belong or don't belong. I suspect that if we get too comfortable with the title, we've changed without realizing it.