Review V: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Christians Are To Witness”

John Wesley split with the Moravians over the issue of quietism. He rightly saw that quietism advocates an unacceptable withdrawal from the world that is inimical to the witness and commands of the New Testament. While Wesley always remained indebted to Moravian pietism for his understanding of spirituality, he also believed that our spiritual experiences have deep implications for our daily lives.

“John Wesley set the tone for United Methodist social witness. He always believed that our spiritual commitments have strong implications for our daily lives… Wesley believed that those who did not use their money responsibly for God’s work ‘were not only robbing God, continually embezzling and wasting their Lord’s goods, but also robbing the poor, hungry, naked; wronging the widow and the fatherless; and making themselves accountable for all the want, affliction and the distress which they made, but do not remove.’ Strong words indeed, words from a man in whose day poverty was accepted as God’s will for the poor or a demonstration that the poor were lazy and did not want to work. When Wesley died, he died in virtual poverty, having given away all his wealth.” (Page 71)

John Wesley is perhaps only second to Saint Francis of Assisi in his generosity and identification with those who have nothing.

“When he was accosted by beggars on the streets of London, Wesley always raised his hat to them and willingly gave them alms.” (Page 71)

John Wesley didn’t just see the poor as objects that we should throw money at until the problem goes away. That is all-too-often the problem with modern attempts to alleviate poverty; the poor are made into the “other,” they are objects for us to act our mercy upon. Such a view is deeply un-Biblical and John Wesley was nothing if not an apt pupil of the Bible. Thus, John Wesley treated the poor with respect. They were equals, so he raised his hat to them. (Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks top hats really should make a comeback in our daily wardrobe?)

Like the Catholic Church, the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and other churches with a history of social advocacy, the United Methodist Church also engages in advocacy on a broad array of issues.

“If a person’s idea of a church is a safe haven, isolated from the tough questions of the day, an island in Never-Never Land where everything is discussed except what really matters in this life, then it’s a safe bet that person will not be happy among us United Methodists. While our church does not tell us what to think on every pressing social issue it does give us helpful guidance and encourages research, debate, and prayer over social and political questions.” (Pages 73-74)

Bishop Willimon relates a story where a potential member gets upset over the church’s stance on an issue. The individual asked: “Why should I join a church which says things that make me mad?” Bishop Willimon gave this individual a copy of our Social Principles. The man read them, came back and said that while he sometimes agreed and sometimes disagreed with what the church said, that wasn’t the point. “The point is that the church is taking a stand and pushing me to take a stand too, to think and act as a Christian. I want to be part of that kind of gutsy church.” (Page 74)

It’s entirely possible there is no denomination out there that agrees with all of my positions 100%. That’s really not surprising. If we insist on such a thing, then we’ll all quickly become a church of one (of course many people have taken this route.) The point is not to find a place that agrees with me completely, because faith is about sacrifice. It is about stepping outside of our own ego and admitting that we don’t have all the answers and that wiser heads than ours might be right even if we disagree with them.

Of course far too many of us have forgotten the necessity of humility. So when we disagree with the church, we instead leave for another one and keep shopping until it suits us. (This is not to criticize someone who may feel like they need to change denomination out of a theological necessity. There exists a whole spectrum of reasons why an individual may change churches and some reasons are perfectly legitimate. I’m rather cautioning that if one is considering such an action, it should be accompanied with prayer and study to make sure that we are not acting out of pride.)

So the United Methodist Church takes stands. They’re not always popular with members and non-members alike.

“Wesley took controversy and conflict for granted, as a necessary by-product of confronting people with the truth.” (Page 75)

Again, I should sound a cautionary note here. There’s a difference between conflict over truth, and conflict over egos. I was once told by an individual that Methodists don’t believe in God. I was too shocked to think of a response and the individual walked away certain that she had offended only because the truth can be offensive. As Jesus said, it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles us. So perhaps we all need to think twice before we speak what we think is truth. Once again, humility is a sadly forgotten part of the Christian life.

Bishop Willimon talks about John Wesley’s witness in writing books and education in the next part of this chapter. He  relates a story to illustrate John Wesley’s output that made me smile:

“Methodist preacher and popular historian Halford Luccock once said that, whereas Martin Luther claimed to have thrown his ink bottle at the devil, John Wesley hurled an entire printing press at him–writing 440 books, tracts, and pamphlets.” (Page 78)

John Wesley wanted to reach everyone, everywhere. He was truly consumed with the passion to see lives changed and people helped out however possible. He even wrote a tract about inexpensive folk medicines for those who did not have the money for proper medicine.

Aldersgate inflamed Wesley’s heart to spread the good news of Christ to everyone, everywhere, particularly to those who felt alienated from the ministrations of the established church. When that meant communicating the gospel in ‘plain words for plain people,’ Wesley gladly did so. When that meant developing new structures to bring help to the sick, the poor, the uneducated, and the addicted, Wesley creatively designed such structures.” (Page 80)

Of course, not everyone appreciated his efforts. The Duchess of Buckingham commented about the Methodists:

“Their doctrines are most repulsive and tinctured with impertinence and disrespect toward their superiors, perpetually endeavoring to level all ranks and doing away with all distinctions. It is monstrous to be told that you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl the earth. This is highly offensive and insulting.” (Page 82)

Of course Wesley wasn’t alone in coming up for derision. Methodists were an early and active part of the temperance movement, pointing out the evils of the alcoholic beverage industry. And the evils of the alcoholic industry haven’t vanished either. At one temperance meeting a man in the crowd shouted to Frances Willard, the speaker (a Methodist), that she should mind her own business. Frances responded: “I am minding my own business. Men, women, children are my business because they are God’s business.” Of course the temperance movement is now widely derided by many as government overreach and an attempt to “legislate morality.” Yet, alcohol continues to be one of the most abused substances in the world. Is temperance the answer? I don’t know, but Methodism’s actions in the temperance movement showed just how strongly we feel about people being exploited.

“Then, as now, it takes courage to be a witness. Powerful forces urge conformity to the status quo and adherence to conventional, merely socially approved standards of behavior. Yet wherever the gospel is preached or enacted, it has always produced a collision with conventional values. Thus we need a church so confident of its vision, so determined to be faithful to Christ at all cost, so equipped to put loyalty to the Good News above all other loyalties that ordinary people will be empowered to be anything but ordinary witnesses.” (Page 82)

Bishop Willimon ends this chapter with a story about one of our first bishops, Francis Asbury:

“When he ordained one of his deacons tough old Bishop Francis Asbury prayed, ‘O Lord grant that these brethren may never want to be like other people.’ At our best, that has been a typically United Methodist prayer, a prayer for the grace never to be just like everybody else.” (Page 83)

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~ by crossingthebosporus on September 1, 2012.

3 Responses to “Review V: Why I am a United Methodist – “Because Christians Are To Witness””

  1. How like an Apostle Wesley was. They, too, were considered controversial, and they, too, unsettled the comfortable. How right you are, if we want a church which agrees with us 100% we actually want a church which conforms to us – we lack the humility to conform to it.

    This is a really good series, and I am hugely enjoying it. It really makes me think about who is and is not a Christian and what ‘church’ means.

    • Yes, I have been pleasantly surprised by Bishop Willimon. The book is of increasing quality. As I said before, it was only my own ignorance and pride that has kept me from such great wisdom thus far. But thankfully we usually experience a humbling one way or another; I suppose this must be mine.

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