It’s a scenario many in the church may have experienced. There is the question: “What makes United Methodism distinct?” And then there is the answer: “We can believe what we want!” It’s not exactly the answer we may have had in mind, but it’s become popular in some circles. It certainly doesn’t reflect what is best about our Wesleyan tradition.
It may be an overstatement, but somewhere along the line, we, as United Methodists seem to have lost contact with the treasures of our heritage. We seem to have forgotten what John Wesley (1703-1791), founder of the Methodist movement, said about an “altogether Christian” as over and against an “almost Christian.”
For Wesley, the “altogether Christian” is the person who desires to love God with their whole heart and mind and strength and their neighbor as themselves, and not just their neighbors but their enemies too. For Wesley, nothing could be worse than being an “almost Christian” or having a loveless faith.
One of Wesley’s worst fears, of course, was that “the people called Methodists” would become “almost Christians,” that is they would demonstrate the form but not the power of true religion, empty of the power of God’s transforming love.
In his famous tract on “The Character of a Methodist,” for example, Wesley stresses what makes “altogether” or “real” Christians is how God has changed their lives inwardly – people are able to trust in Christ alone for salvation and know their lives have been cleansed from sin; they are able to “give themselves as a loving sacrifice to God so that people around them may grow into the fullness of Christ.” The kind of life Wesley envisions is a life of loving obedience to God.
Throughout Wesley’s Sermons and Notes on the New Testament, we read how he describes the Christian life as a life lived in the power and presence of God’s grace. The pilgrimage upon which we embark in baptism becomes a visible expression of “faith working through love,” not only to be lived out as love of God but also as love of neighbor, as works of piety but also as works of mercy. As we grow in grace as “altogether Christians,” we grow in service to the world. We cannot separate “walking as Jesus walked and having the mind of Christ.” The two go hand-in-hand.
Among United Methodists, this may sound familiar. The Wesleyan mission to spread scriptural holiness set out to establish a dynamic pattern of living that focused on helping the whole person. The early Methodist programs established by Wesley – of medical clinics and interest-free loans, orphanages and schools, housing and meals for the poor, not to mention the network of bands, classes and societies – were all meant to increase among the fellowship of believers true love of God and neighbor. At its core, the Wesleyan form of discipleship was and is a very practical aspect of living in Christ.
One Wesleyan historian, Richard Heitzenrater of United Methodist-related Duke University, has stated that Methodism never really achieved large membership during Wesley’s lifetime because of the strict discipline that Wesley required of those who entered into covenant with the Methodists. That the Methodist movement continued after Wesley’s death is testimony to the power of the vision he cast for true Christian living. Conforming our lives to Christ is how we are to live as faithful disciples. What we do in Christ’s name is simply a sign of who we are as God’s children.
Sound easy? Somewhere in our DNA as United Methodists are the seeds of our own renewal. That’s why it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how we can fall into a mindset of “anything goes” or “believe what you want.” Rather, as United Methodists we can build upon the best our heritage has to offer. We can look, as John Wesley did, to Jesus Christ, the true pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the One who can make us altogether Christian (Hebrews 12:2).
Andrew Kinsey is senior pastor of Grace UMC in Franklin and serves on the Indiana Conference Leadership Table as the Wesleyan Theologian.
Conforming our lives to Christ is how we are to live as faithful disciples.