Shared Values, Different Expressions
As someone who lives in Ohio, I am very grateful for the description of complexities in the Anabaptist heritage. I am also very grateful for the clear values expressed by Michael King. Wesleyan Methodists can find much to affirm in those values even though I also see some differences.
Value 1: Like Anabaptists, Methodists look to how Jesus is revealed in the New Testament as the foundation for Christian faith. John Wesley himself preached thirteen sermons on the Sermon on the Mount, and these thirteen were among the forty-four sermons (called standard sermons) Wesley chose from his writings to guide Methodist preachers. Wesley considered himself a “man of one book” even though he was widely read. He had taught Greek New Testament at Oxford, so he also translated and annotated the New Testament to share his learning with unlearned Methodists. The selected Sermons and the Notes Upon the New Testament established the core standard for how Methodist preachers should understand Jesus as revealed in the New Testament.
Value 2: Methodism arose within the Church of England, closely tied to the State with the monarch as Supreme Governor, a situation that fits King’s description of Christendom. As a priest in an established church, Wesley did not raise the kinds of questions Anabaptists did about “citizenship” allegiances. He tended to think of the kingdom of God as righteousness, peace, and joy attained by faith (“The Way to the Kingdom”). Even though this view stresses internal rather than social effects, for Wesley keeping focus on attaining this “kingdom” did allow for some critical assessment of social norms in England (for instance, the use of money).
Wesley recognized how Christian faith could be taken for granted in an established church. Methodism was a renewal movement in this context, intending to call people to deeper faith so they could be better Christians. Wesley did not challenge infant baptism, but he recognized that baptism alone did not guarantee growth in Christ. The “methods” of Methodism were intended to call people to follow Jesus more closely and seriously. As Methodism became a church apart from the Church of England, it has mostly retained infant baptism, but it sees the ongoing cultivation of spiritual life with Christ to be the obligation of the Church into which infants are baptized. We see infant baptism as a sign of God’s prevenient grace, that is, God working in our lives before we are able to make any decision. We are called and empowered by God’s work to respond.
Value 3: Even though it stresses response, The Wesleyan theology that undergirds Methodism is not simply based on human decision. Wesley describes faith in “The Scripture Way of Salvation” as light and sight, as evidence and conviction. This compound description shows how God works with us: God shines light so we are able to see, God shows evidence of love so we may trust in it. Whatever decision we may make to follow Jesus is supported and empowered by God’s grace. Wesleyan Methodism does take human response very seriously. We do not retain infant baptism as a simple and final step of making someone Christian, but rather as a sign of grace into which we are called to live. Part of what we see in that sign is that, like infants, no one truly and fully grasps the meaning and cost of following Jesus until they actually follow. Early Methodists faced ridicule more than actual threat of death, and I can see how the Anabaptist tradition has ample reason and example to take conscious decision seriously.
Value 4: I will speak about nonviolence mostly from the perspective of a United Methodist because UM documents show the complexity of the issue for a church that has not made the issue as central as Anabaptists have. The United Methodist Church (UMC) has a clear statement in its Social Principles that “war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.” There is a clear rejection of preemptive strikes and a call to peaceful resolutions of differences However, many Methodists have served honorably in the military (some as chaplains). Other Methodists have exercised conscientious objection. The UMC has recognized that its members have made different choices. Resolutions passed by the UMC address both a concern for safety standards for personnel involved in nuclear operations as well as criticism of looking for military solutions to social problems (such as the drug crisis). Military service has not been forbidden, nor has it been stigmatized. In fact it is often honored. The contradiction between following Jesus and (at least potentially) killing other people may not be seriously considered by many members. I am grateful to the Anabaptists for being a witness to call us to consider this contradiction more seriously.
Value 5: The concern for souls and bodies in wholistic mission is something we share. Wesley organized the early societies so they could care for each other’s bodily needs (collecting money from members that could provide assistance to other members who were in need) as well as spiritual needs. He also collected tested home remedies for illness and accident and published them affordably in his Primitive Physic. Methodist health and relief services are many. Churches and conferences also mobilize quickly to provide aid in local emergencies. We value the “connection” among our churches, so there is good communication and working together to get aid where it needs to be.
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