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Meet: John Wesley

Wesley- Needs to be Re-Introduced

– by Filomena Saxton

john-wesley-registerIf anyone needs to be reintroduced to the 21st Century’s minds and hearts, it is John Wesley. When my son got interested in Wesleyan faith practices and doctrines, I realized how little I knew of the man or the thinking behind him. I was surprised considering I help run a Christian inter-denominational mission where I come across many students with many faith practices such as Baptist, Presbyterian, Catholic, Pentecostalism, Lutheran and others. Not only that but we witness to atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, and the general seeker. So when I tried to think through the many shades to my son’s new found controversial dogma- – I realized I needed to do my research.

Even though his name is not mention much, at least in my circles, “John Wesley is one of the major figures of Christian history” (Noble, 2010). Today, seventy million people regard themselves as standing in the ‘Wesleyan’ tradition. In his day, John Wesley proved to be an effective evangelists who viewed his movement as not one to usurp the Church of England, a church where he was ordained and served, but wanted it to act as a renewal. His many converts were organized into societies. At John Wesley’s death in 1791 his followers numbered 79,000 in England and 40,000 in America, but by 1957 there were 40 million Methodists world-wide. Wesley wrote numerous theological works and edited 35 volumes of Christian literature for the edification of the societies. Influenced leaders like William Wilberforce and Charles Finney and His revivals was accredited by bringing about transformation not only in the individual but in society at large.

HolyClubOxfordLife Overview and Accomplishments

Born 1703, the 15th child to Samuel and Susanna, Wesley’s parents were devout and taught religion and morals faithfully to her nineteen children. Many believe that John got his faith practices, “methods” form his mother who provided strict discipline to her children. At 16, John attended Oxford and soon was then ordained an Anglican Minister. In 1733, his brother Charles started a group called the Holy Club- a group John and George Whitfield were dedicated members. Members had to take vows and promise to lead holy lives, take communion once a week, pray daily and visit prisons regularly. This newly formed group spent three hours every afternoon studying the Bible and other devotional material. They would hold each other accountable by asking each other questions, 22 in total, to facilitate self-examination and accountability to holy living. Some of the questions …

Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am?

Am I honest in all my acts or words or do I exaggerate?

Do I confidentially pass on to another what was told in confidence?

Can I be trusted? [i] (See endnote for more)

wesley_preach_470x352This internal piety and outward discipline was starting to have an effect on these band of brothers. Shortly after, Wesley loans Whitfield a book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal, which as Whitfield states “showed me that I must be born again, or be damned!” In 1735, George Whitefield started to preach and was having remarkable success, especially in the industrial city of Bristol. In 1737, Whitfield’s preaching electrifies Bristol and London with thousands packing churches to hear him. Publishes six sermons, while opponents publish against him. His preaching was so successful and the need was so great he asked Wesley to help him preach- hesitantly John accepted.   Hundreds of working-class poor, oppressed by industrializing England and neglected by the church, were experiencing emotional conversions under his fiery preaching of John Wesley!

Wesley: A Man for His Time

During the time of Wesley, British society began to decay from the top which reaches full bloom by the end of Wesley’s life. To understand the effect the Great awakening had on British Society and the challenges for its converts a look at Eric Metaxas description of the age is informative.

1997-7059_HOR_F_3120“It was a society of cruelty, vulgarity, and hopelessness, and prostitution. A society where decay came from the top. King George III read the bible to his kids but his sons were a symbol of depravity. As Metaxas states, “There was an almost sublime bestiality to George’s sons, a cadre of pleasure-choked buffoons who set the behavioral bar so low for the rest of society that one suspects they had perhaps thrown it into the basement. His son, the Prince of Wales, bedded seven thousand women, incurred heavy debts from gambling. In parliament alcoholism was epidemic- and fashionable. Leading political statesman were regularly drunk during in the House of Commons. Alcoholism from the elite to the poor was pervasive and abundant.

“Prostitution was rampant, 25% of all unmarried women in London were prostitutes. Brothels that exclusively provided services with girls 14 and under. Public executions were a popular form of entertainment and when no hangings presented themselves…they resorted to animal cruelty.

“The British aristocracy at the end of the eighteenth century was, among other things, exquisitely selfish and gave no more thought to the conditions of those below them It simply wasn’t fashionable to do so. The English nobility took its cues from its Gallic counterparts across the Channel and had been doing so for almost a century. The fabled excesses and decadence of the wealthy and noble classes of prerevolutionary France were mirrored expertly by their English counterparts.” [1]

jwHorsebackIt was this society that Wesley, and his Holy Club’s brothers, tried to reform. The preaching of the gospel led to a revival all over England. It was so controversial to be a Methodist convert, a Wesleyan or Whitefield, follower since it was so against the ethos of the time that it placed oneself in line for public ridicule and scorn. Still people like William Wilberforce in England and Charles Finney in the America’s were not only being saved but using their political power and social influence to bring about transformative social reforms such as the end of slavery and programs for the poor.

Wesley’s Place in History- An Enigma?

True, Wesley was a man for his time and his legacy and impact has lasted generations. There are not many notable theologians in Christian history that can boast of their evangelist work like John Wesley nor many who can unite the “theoria and praxis” as he did for his followers.

chperfectBut the questions many are asking “was he a significant theologian?” [2] As many scholars have pointed out such as Noble, “the eighteenth century is not well-known for front-rank theologians”.[3] When one tries to make sense of his doctrine one sees his Arminianism which one can reject or accept it. But it is his less known doctrine that have us all- dismissing him. Christian Perfectionism is the main one that is the most controversial. Reading and studying his statements and writings on it, as well as writings from his disciple Charles Finney, one is really left with, at least I did, that there are precious nuggets that the Reformed tradition can learn from. Many of Wesley’s, even Arminian thinking, seems to me to be a reaction to Reformed Theology that has lost its salt and has moved to a place where John Calvin himself would reject.

(This summer, The Evangelical Orphan will feature several postings from my students at Phoenix Seminary. They have be encouraged to meet long-lost relatives from our ecclesiastical family, and introduce them to us all – in class, and through this blog. We’re hoping these offerings will serve as a whet for your ongoing appetite to learn more about our history. Enjoy! -bh)

[1] Metaxas, Eric (2009-10-13). Amazing Grace (Kindle Locations 1411-1416). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[2] Noble, T. A. (2010). John Wesley as a theologian: an introduction. Evangelical Review Of Theology, 34(3), 238-257.

[3] Noble, T. A. (2010). John Wesley as a theologian: an introduction. Evangelical Review Of Theology, 34(3), 238-257

[i] Am I a slave to dress, friends, work or habits? Am I self-conscious, self-pitying, or self-justifying? Did the Bible live in me today? Do I give it time to speak to me everyday? Am I enjoying prayer? When did I last speak to someone else of my faith? Do I pray about the money I spend? Do I get to bed on time and get up on time? Do I disobey God in anything? Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy? Am I defeated in any part of my life? How do I spend my spare time? Am I proud? Am I jealous, impure, critical, irritable, touchy or distrustful? Do I thank God that I am not as other people, especially as the Pharisees who despised the publican? Is there anyone I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold a resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I doing about it? Do I grumble or complain constantly? Is Christ real to me?

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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Church History

 

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Lutherans, Pastors, Authority

Hosanna LutheranI worshiped with the local Lutherans today (LCMS). It was a very nice morning. The liturgy was rich, the hymnody stimulating, the preaching thoughtful, and the people seemingly very friendly. Though I don’t know it well, I was blessed to share the morning with this part of my family tree.

As a career pastor, I was struck by the wardrobe adorned by the leadership. The white robes, green sashes, crosses around the neck – it was clear who the consecrated ministers were. And there were several men adorned this way…which made me wonder about how leadership is chosen in this tradition.

what about pastorsSo, as I headed out, I picked up a publication in the foyer entitled “What About…Pastors.” In it, an explanation is given for what pastors are, what they do, how they are ordained, and how they should be treated. That’s when I stumbled on this quote from Luther’s Small Catechism:

Book-MartinLuthersCatechism-1868-Fair“When the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command…this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

Wow.

I’ve been a leader in the church for a quarter century. Not only have I never been treated like this by the people I’ve led, but I have never expected this kind of response. Rather, I have always thought that no right-minded person would have the audacity to equate the validity of his or her leadership to being as valid as Christ’s. To do so would be an over-reach of one’s appropriate role, correct?

In this month’s edition of Christianity Today (Oct. 2013), there is a thoughtful article by Andy Crouch about the role of power in the church. In speaking about “power distance,” he juxtaposes those who create distance between themselves and those they lead through visible expressions of power (high distance), and those who try to look less powerful than they really are (low distance). He then remarks that, “America, today, is about as low power distance as it has ever been – and so is the American Church.”

pastor authorityI get this, and feel it. I remember from the days of my youth the bumper stickers on many hippie-driven cars and microbuses in Southern California that called us to “Question Authority.” That cultural ethos, coupled with some colossal leadership failures in the public world (Nixon, Bakker, Swaggert, Clinton, Edwards, Haggard, Weiner), have left us with little honor for, and therefore little allegiance to, our leaders. So, we’re uneasy when any leaders claim or flaunt their authority. (As an example…the image to the left is the first one that appears when I did an internet search for “pastor authority.” I think it represents our stereotypes well.)

Still, the Bible tells us that authority is both God-given, and very important. Peter tells us to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” This is for our protection, and our advantage, because they are sent by God “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14). But not only do we miss a blessing if we are out from under authority, we are also in incredible danger. Peter tells us elsewhere that “the Lord knows how…to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgement, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” (2 Peter 2:9-10). Despising authority is an especially grievous offence to God – and it is standard practice in our 21st century western culture.

Francis ObedienceMy ancient and medieval brothers and sisters had an understanding of the value of obedience to authorities. The standard vow made by vocational monks and nuns was always to lives of poverty, chastity, and obedienceFrom the day they were received into the monastery, it was expected that they would give unquestioned obedience to their abbot or abbess – as a sign of their consecration to God Himself. We see that as strange today, don’t we? Do you think they would see our aversion of authority as even more troubling?

So…as I try to reconnect myself to the fullness of my Christian lineage, I do find myself longing to be under Biblcial, God-ordained authorities. I know there is blessing for me there. But where do I find it? Who truly has it, and might even expect it? Who exercises it well? And, if they do, whose expression of “power distance” is high enough that I can recognize it?

Lord, forgive me for despising authority. Teach me godly submission. May your church experience your provision of authority in increasingly healthy ways. For your honor’s sake, and for the blessings that are promised.

-EO

 
 

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