Wesleyanism, manifest today in Methodist and Holiness churches, is named for its founders, John and Charles Wesley. In 1736, these men traveled to the Georgia colony in America as missionaries for the Church of England; they left rather disheartened at what they saw. Both men then had “religious experiences”, especially John in 1738, being greatly influenced by the Pietist movement. They began to organize a movement within the Church of England to focus on personal faith and holiness, and they succeeded. John Wesley took the Reformation churches to task over the nature of sanctification, the process by which a believer is made to conform to the image of Christ, and in many ways restored the New Testament teachings regarding the work of God and the believer in sanctification. The movement did well within the Church of England in Britain, but when the movement crossed the ocean into America, it took on a form of its own, finally being established as the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1784. The Wesleyan churches are very similar to Anglicanism, yet have added a strong emphasis on personal faith and personal experience.
Sections on this Page
The Wesleyan movement began as a reform movement within the Church of England, and in many places, it remains as such. In some places, especially in America, the movement separated itself from its “mother church” and became known as the Methodist Episcopal Church. Many divisions occurred within the Methodist Episcopal Church in the nineteenth century, mostly over first the slavery question and later the inclusion of African-Americans. Some of these schisms healed in the early twentieth century, and many of the splinter Methodist groups came together to form The Methodist Church by 1939. In 1968, the Methodist Church joined with the Pietist Evangelical United Brethren Church to form The United Methodist Church, the largest Methodist church in America. Other groups include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Congregational Methodist Church, the Evangelical Church of North America, the Evangelical Congregational Church, the Evangelical Methodist Church, the Free Methodist Church of North America, and the Southern Methodist Church.
In the nineteenth century, a dissension arose over the nature of sanctification. Those who saw sanctification as a never completed progressive task, true to Wesley’s teachings, remained within the Methodist churches; others, however, having been influenced by revivalist Evangelicalism, believed in instantaneous sanctification that could be perfected. Those who followed this line of thought began the various Holiness churches, including the Church of Christ (Holiness) USA, Church of God (Holiness), the Churches of Christ in Christian Union, and the Wesleyan Church, which are present today. In the nineteenth century, there were many other Holiness groups; many of these groups became the foundation for the Pentecostal movement. Other Holiness groups that rejected the Pentecostal movement merged to form the Church of the Nazarene, perhaps the most prevalent Holiness denomination.
Observances Concerning the Lord’s Birth: Advent; Christmas
Observances Concerning the Lord’s Death: Ash Wednesday; Lent; Palm Sunday; Good Friday; Easter
Other Observances: Ascension-Pentecost; Epiphany
Positions of Authority: Who Is The Pastor?; A Hierarchy of Bishops; Female Deacons [Deaconesses]; Female Elders; Female Evangelists; Homosexual Evangelists [disputed]; Ordination; Synods, Councils, Conventions, and Other Meetings
The Church and Social Responsibility
The Wesleyan churches teach that the church has responsibilities in the society surrounding it, notably, that the gospel contains “relevant social concerns1,” and, specifically:
It is our conviction that the good news of the Kingdom must judge, redeem, and reform the sinful social structures of our time2.
Are these teachings in harmony with the Scriptures? In order to determine this, we must see whether or not the Christians in the apostolic era preached a gospel containing social concerns.
Paul speaks of the relationship of Christians to others in 1 Timothy 2:1-4:
I exhort therefore, first of all, that supplications, prayers, intercessions, thanksgivings, be made for all men; for kings and all that are in high place; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and gravity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; who would have all men to be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth.
Paul says that Christians do have the responsibility to pray to God concerning all those who are in the world; does he say that we have a responsibility to reform the social structures around us?
There are no Scriptures in the New Testament that teach that the Christian is to attempt to reform the social structures in which he lives. The Christian can surely assist those in distress (James 1:27), and is most certainly commissioned to preach the good news of Christ to all men (Matthew 28:18-20), yet no mention is made of the Christian changing society.
The Bible does have the following to say, however, about the Christian and the world, in Romans 12:1-2:
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
Thus, we see that we are not to conform to the world. Are we to expect the world to conform to us? Jesus spoke the following to His disciples about their relation to the world:
“And brother shall deliver up brother to death, and the father his child: and children shall rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake: but he that endureth to the end, the same shall be saved” (Matthew 10:21-22).
“Think not that I came to send peace on the earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law: and a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-36).
Are these the words of a man expecting to change society? By no means! Jesus warned His disciples that they would be persecuted for the sake of the Word, not accepted for it. If the message prepared was going to be seen as hostile, how could anyone expect it to change a society?
Perhaps we can learn by the example of Jesus Himself. We see the following in John 6:15:
Jesus therefore perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again into the mountain himself alone.
And further in John 18:36-37:
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.”
Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.”
Jesus never meant for His Kingdom to be an earthly kingdom. Had His desire been to reform society, what better capacity can there be to do so than the kingship? Yet He would not have it. His Kingdom is not of this earth; it is a spiritual kingdom, attempting to reform the heart of each individual member. It is in stark contrast with the kingdom of this world, as seen in 1 John 2:15-17:
Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the vain glory of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.
What, then, is the Christian’s relationship to his society?
We have already examined Romans 12:1-2, and we can see further from 1 Corinthians 5:12-13 that the judgment of those outside the church is left to God:
For what have I to do with judging them that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth. Put away the wicked man from among yourselves.
We are told to observe some rules of society, as seen in Romans 12:17-18:
Render to no man evil for evil. Take thought for things honorable in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as in you lieth, be at peace with all men.
Yet as Christians, we are asked to make a different kind of impact on the world. We are told concerning this in Matthew 5:13-16:
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost its savor, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a lamp, and put it under the bushel, but on the stand; and it shineth unto all that are in the house. Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”
The Christian’s example in living should reflect the love of Jesus within him and should shine to the world, beckoning all to come to Him. We should not suppose that we can judge, redeem, and reform our social structures; instead, by being examples of Christ, we may bring some in those social structures to be redeemed and reformed by Christ Jesus Himself.
The individual Christian, if he will live a life pleasing to God, must have concern for the poor, the disenfranchised, and other needy persons in society (Galatians 2:10, Galatians 6:10, James 1:27). Nevertheless, the only way of deliverance from sin and death is obedience to God (Romans 6:23), and the only hope that we have to reform society is for each individual to come to faith in Christ Jesus and act accordingly. We cannot establish the Kingdom by reforming society; we can only hope to reform society by promoting the Kingdom.
1: The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, 1996 ed., p. 47