Methodism and the Liberative Heart of a God Who is Love

If Pietists and Pentecostals are like cousins, then certainly Pentecostals and Methodists are even closer in family formation. After all, it was the revivalist Wesleyan movement, blended with a dose of Moravian Pietism, that gave birth to Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal forms of Christian faith and practice.  In the United States by the early 20th century, Methodism’s political influence and spiritual imprint were so prominent that some wags spoke of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the largest expression of American Methodism, as the nation’s unofficially established church.

For a small movement that arose in the 18th century as a religious society within the Church of England, Methodism’s mark on the global Protestant enterprise is immense. No wonder David Hempton has called Methodism a global “empire of the spirit,” driven by a deep missionary impulse and an Arminian Gospel that proclaimed salvation freely offered (if not always accepted) by all.

Despite the influence of Reformed traditions on Anglo-American Pentecostalism, it was Methodism’s musical passion, its theologies of holiness, and its emphasis on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit that became (and remain) central to global Pentecostal thought and practice:  Is entire sanctification possible in this life?  What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a second blessing? What expressive behaviors count as authentic expressions of the indwelling Spirit? Which ones aid the Enemy? These questions were asked and variously answered in Holiness and Pentecostal circles, in ways that probably would have surprised Father John Wesley.

Like Pentecostalism, the Wesleyan movement is riven with divisions and has been from the beginning. Its eponymous founder, labored to guard the society during his lifetime, but there were still schisms:  between Arminian and Calvinist Methodists, between those who wanted to leave the Church of England and those who wished to stay.  There were those Wesley smeared as “antinomians,” Methodists who possessed a radical understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work and those who, like John & Co., understood the Spirit’s power to overturn proper order.

Methodist divisions grew more potent over time. The fissures involve everything from arguments over theology (is entire sanctification possible in this lifetime?) and polity (do we need bishops to govern us?) to the scourge of racism, slavery, and American apartheid.  In the early 19th century an MEC preacher, Richard Allen, led his black flock out of the MEC. The push was white racism, and the pull was the promise of a church – the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) – where black folks would create an African expression of American Methodism.  Like so many other U.S. Protestant denominations, the MEC fractured again in the run-up to the Civil War, leading to northern and southern jurisdictions. Those sectarian wounds weren’t stitched up until 1939, but even then, racism was institutionalized within the Methodist Church through its racially segregated Central Jurisdiction.

So much for following Jesus.

I’ve placed the fractures of Methodism in the foreground of my remarks because these divergences invite us to the central question of this respectful conversation – what does it mean to follow Jesus? In our sacred conversation so far, I’ve often reflected on how different answers to that question are just as likely to be expressed within a given tradition as between traditions. Nothing better illustrates this than the forty-year war in the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful global Methodist institution, the United Methodist Church. The UMC is dramatically breaking apart.  Even in this very moment a large and well-funded “traditionalist” wing is leaving the UMC to start the Global Methodist Church, which comes into existence on May 1st of 2022. Some within a fractured left flank have either left the UMC, or stand suspended in an in-between space, like the Liberation Methodist Connexion.

I appreciate Dr. Sarah Lancaster’s words offering a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification: “a renewal of holiness brings with it the happiness for which we were made.”  Yet in an era when fault lines widened over gender and sexual justice, Methodist leaders generally have not lived into the happiness of holiness. Factions within the UMC have fomented a battle royale on how (or even whether) to live out the UMC’s unofficial motto: Open hearts, open minds, open doors.  This intramural war has led to great spiritual harm, as the testimony of queer Methodists and their families attests.  The infliction of spiritual harm violates the simplest expression of Wesleyan ethics – do no harm; do good; stay in love with God.  Surely, then, inflicting spiritual harm is exactly the opposite of what it means to follow Jesus.

Lancaster’s discussion of her tradition is a hope-filled reminder of the spiritual and theological resources that Wesleyan/Methodist traditions offer to people struggling to follow Jesus. Among those resources are rich theological ideas and practical expressions of holiness, sanctification, even love, the heart of Christian life.  Competing sides claim these central Methodist ideas differently, and often put them into practice in wildly divergent ways.

As Pentecostal kith and kin to Methodism, it’s obvious to me that the way of holiness, openness to the Holy Spirit, and the process of moving toward perfect love has all-too-often devolved into rigid holiness codes that have forbidden (at various times) novel reading, theater going, card playing, drinking alcohol, using makeup, television-watching, and dancing. Strict holiness codes are another “gift” to Pentecostal life, via the Holiness wing of Methodism – an ambiguous gift, since the gatekeepers of holiness codes have lost sight of what they were meant to inspire: alignment with the liberative heart of a God who is love.

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