[Theology/Ecclesiology] The Church: A Grace-filled Community

The following is part 2 of a paper that I presented to the Centre for Pentecostal Studies at the University of Birmingham. Part 2 provides a brief overview of the impact that John Wesley’s soteriology had upon his ecclesiology. To read part 1 of the paper, which briefly explores Wesley’s soteriology, please click here.

The Church: A Grace-filled Community

One of the striking aspects of Wesley’s ecclesiology is the manner in which the three, aforementioned, graces give shape to the life, ministry and practice of the Church. This should come as no surprise given Wesley’s belief­––drawing from the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the Christians at Ephesus (Eph. 4.1-6)––that each Christian is called, individually, to walk ‘with all lowliness’ and ‘endued with power from on high.’[1] Yet, the Christian life, in Wesley’s estimation, was by no means a solitary life. The Christian life was, and is, a life lived in community to others. Thus, it necessarily involved: ‘not injuring, hurting, or grieving each other…the bearing of one another’s burdens…and lessening them by ever means in our power.’[2] Furthermore, it was the charge of every Christian to strive ‘to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”’[3]

These beliefs were not merely ideals. Rather, Wesley believed that they should be some of the defining characteristics of the body of Christ. To this end, he suggested, that within the body of Christ there should be room for differences of opinion. All that truly mattered, according to Wesley, was whether a person’s heart was right. (By this, Wesley intended to suggest that what mattered was whether a person believed in Jesus Christ and was living with a ‘heart right toward [their] neighbour.’)[4] Therefore, rather than arguing and fighting over trivial matters, the Church should be a place where different and disparate individuals are united by a spirit of love.

One of the key reasons for this was Wesley’s belief in the prevenient (preventing) grace of God. Because he believed that God’s grace was freely available to all, he argued in favour of making allowance for those whose beliefs may be different from one’s own, but who, all the same, were growing in the grace and knowledge of God. Once again, however, this was not an abstract ideal that God’s people were to aspire to. Wesley envisioned concrete ways that the preventing love of God could characterize and give shape to the life and ministry of the Church. For instance, he believed that God’s grace could be experienced through ordinary channels: hearing and reading Scripture, receiving the Lord’s Supper, public and private prayer, fasting, baptism, etc. These ordinary channels––whether a sacrament, work of mercy or work of piety––could be real means of grace, whereby God conveys his grace to the hearts and souls of humanity.[5]

Undoubtedly, this helps to explain Wesley’s repeated encouragement to members of Methodist societies to observe the sacrament of communion as often as they could. As a ‘means of grace,’ Wesley believed that people could powerfully experience God’s love (and even God’s presence, with the aid of the Holy Spirit) as they ate of the bread and drank of the cup. Likewise, Wesley believed that the sacrament of baptism could serve as a means whereby a person could experience the grace of God in a profound way.

Wesley’s beliefs regarding prevenient grace led him to charge members of the Methodist societies to do a number of things that may appear to strange, and confounding, to modern readers. For instance, he encourages society members to remain a part of a parish even if the cleric was corrupt. Why would he suggest such a thing? Quite simply, he believed in the preventing grace of God so strongly that he could claim with confidence that God ‘can and doth send salvation to men [and women] even by those who will not accept of it themselves.’[6] In so doing, Wesley envisions the corporate worship of the Church, even when bankrupt or corrupt, to be a means by which God may convey grace to the hearts of men and women.

Another implication of Wesley’s soteriology was that God’s grace is manifest in and through the lives of ordinary men and women. What this meant, practically speaking, was that God could, and often did, work through ordinary people––just as God might extend grace to an individual through the sacraments, liturgy, homily, etc. A natural, but important, consequence of this line of thinking was that he commissioned untrained lay-people to be ambassadors and/or bearers of God’s grace. Some would receive the distinction of being commission to serve as a lay preacher for the Methodist societies.

In many respects, Wesley believed that an untrained, uneducated Methodist preacher was preferable to the educated, ordained clergy of the Church of England. He believed the Methodist preacher was particularly suited to the task, because their only qualification, and the one that mattered the most, was that they were supernaturally raised up by God to serve as extraordinary messengers.[7] Consequently, the message that these extraordinary messengers preached was: genuine and unmixed;[8] the pure and simple word of God;[9] spoken with ‘plainness and boldness’ without any attempt ‘to reconcile it to the tastes of men.’[10]

A further consequence of Wesley’s soteriology, which suggests that God employs a variety of means whereby the grace of God is conveyed to humanity, was that, in addition to such means of grace as the Eucharist and baptism, God’s grace can, and often is, conveyed through ‘works of mercy, as well as works of piety, which are real means of grace.’[11] Thus, in Sermon 98, which concerns the practice of visiting the sick, Wesley singles out two groups––the wealthy and woman––as particularly suited (gifted?) for the task of conveying God’s grace to the sick. While it was not surprising that Wesley envisages the rich as having an important part to play in the church, the part that he envisioned them playing was not the typical, expected role of financial benefactor. Instead, and this is where Wesley turned convention on its head, he taught that the rich were particularly suited for this task as they both have the means and the time to do so.[12]

Equally noteworthy was Wesley’s insistence that women have a part to play. He writes, ‘Undoubtedly they may; nay, they ought; it is meet, right, and their bounden duty.’[13] He goes on to call upon them to,

Let all you that have it in your power assert the right which the God of nature has given you. Yield not to that vile bondage any longer. You, as well as men, are rational creatures. You, like them, were made in the image of God; you are equally candidates for immortality; you too are called of God, as you have time, to do ‘unto all men.’ Be ‘not disobedient to the heavenly calling.’ Whenever you have opportunity, do all the good you can, particularly to your poor, sick neighbour.[14]

Wesley believed that women could bear the grace of God, were called of God, and could be used by God to minister to others––a belief was nothing short of revolutionary in his day. But a belief that was very much in step with, and informed by, his soteriology.

Footnotes

[1]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 6, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 398.

[2]. Wesley, Volume 6, 399.

[3]. Wesley, Volume 6, 399.

[4]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 5, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 497-8.

[5]. John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Volume 7, 3rd edition, 14 vol. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 117.

[6]. Wesley, Volume 7, 181.

[7]. Wesley, Volume 7, 277.

[8]. Wesley, Volume 7, 471.

[9]. Wesley, Volume 7, 472.

[10]. Wesley, Volume 7, 472.

[11]. Wesley, Volume 7, 117. Emphasis added.

[12]. Wesley, Volume 7, 117. The rich, he observes, are ‘not under a necessity of working for [their] bread; [they] have [their] time at [their] own disposal!’ Because of this, he believes they may ‘allot some part of it every day for this labour of love.’

[13]. Wesley, Volume 7, 125.

[14]. Wesley, Volume 7, 126. Emphasis added.

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