Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Does Anyone Read Wesley Anymore?

Does Anyone Read Wesley Anymore?
More to the point, do the Evangelical heirs to Wesley read Wesley anymore? If a Wesleyan (one who claims to be descended from him theologically, not just one who belongs to a Wesleyan denomination) sought what it is to be a Wesleyan in the twenty-first century, you would think that they would start by consulting Wesley's writings.

Christianity Today ( ) had an article on the Nazarene Church describing that denomination's search for its theological and spiritual identity ( ). (This link is no longer active. To access the article, link here: , and click on where you see "Read the whole article..."). To be sure, Christianity Today is a good magazine, however, its theological bent is Calvinistic, so I cannot with certainty vouch for its fairness when its writers cover other branches of the Church whose theology differs from its own. (Some Nazarenes did take issue with the content of the article.) If the Nazarenes interviewed for the article were quoted correctly, then I my only reaction to the article is puzzlement.

The gist of the article is that the Nazarenes are rethinking their heritage as Wesleyans, especially how they interpret and apply the Wesleyan doctrine of entire sanctification. (According to the article, this is the Nazarenes' definition of entire sanctification: "...act of God, subsequent to regeneration, by which believers are made free from original sin or depravity, and brought into a state of entire devotement to God, and the holy obedience of love made perfect.") They fear that they have become inward looking, that they have become so concerned with outward behavior that they have fallen into legalism ("We don't smoke, dance, drink, or chew, or go out with girls who do.") and neglected the needs of a hurting world. One Nazarene professor is quoted as saying " A lot of folks who have been around the church awhile thought of themselves as being characterized by things they don't do: You don't smoke, you don't drink, you don't go to dances, and in some parts of the denomination, you don't wear makeup or go to clubs or some parts of society...That kind of Christianity loses steam quickly. Its not something you can give your whole life to."

This person is right. This kind of religion loses its steam. I myself did not grow up in any Christian tradition so I was not exposed to much of the legalism that many of my fellow seminarians were raised in, therefore, I have not had the same struggles they have had since childhood. I am aware of the inward, "forget about the rest of the world" mentality within the Wesleyan world. Yet, is it necessarily legalistic to live one's Christian life acccording to the Wesleyan doctrine of Entire Sanctification? Of course not.

Yes, Wesley and his followers proscribed certain practices which today we might not have a problem with. But what about those Evangelicals who were Wesley's contemporaries that did not agree with Wesley's theology. Did they not do the same? Can we logically conclude that their theology and legalism are synonymous? No. Did the Church's greatest articulator of Entire Sanctification confuse sanctification and legalism? No. Where the Nazarenes, Wesleyans, Free Methodists, Pilgrim Holiness Churches, etc., went wrong is a matter of debate. Yet one cannot fault the doctrine of entire sanctification itself. Are the Nazarenes studying Wesley in determining where they got off track?

This same professor is quoted as saying that the Wesleyan tradition was more a movement for social justice than social conservatism. I was a social conservative before Christ entered my heart. Social conservatism and holiness are not one and the same. It does appear that many in the body of Christ, not just in the Wesleyan branch, have too closely mingled the two. It is my hope that when Jesus's followers discover their error, they don't jettison holiness from their theology. Unfortunately, this seems to be a growing trend in some Christian circles. I don't know if this was the thinking behind the professor's comments. Yet how thoroughly can anyone have read Wesley and believe that Wesley emphasized charitable deeds over personal holiness? If one would read Wesley's own sermons on "The Sermon on the Mount", one would see how Wesley rooted the practice of charity in personal holiness.

If the Weslyans truly want to rethink their theology and practice, I hope that the reading of scripture and prayer are their first steps. But I also hope they consult Wesley when they determine for themselves whether the doctrine of Entire Sanctification needs to be reinvented.

I hope any one reading this article does not think I am singling out the Nazarenes for criticism. Nor am I questioning any specific person's commitment to Entire Sanctification. I met many Nazarenes in seminary whose knowledge of and commitment to Wesley's doctrine of Entire Sanctification is solid. I am not a member of the Nazarenes and it is not my intention to characterize it in any negative way. I am simply reacting to the article in Christianity Today. I welcome any feedback from Nazarenes regarding what I have written. The concerns I have expressed in the article can be applied to the entire Wesleyan branch of the Church, not just to the Nazarenes.

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