The DNA of Methodist Discipleship

In this investigation I have two aims: Firstly to identify a few genes that help to constitute the DNA of Methodist discipleship and their origins in John Wesley and the early Methodist movement – as just one way of analysing the Wesleyan ‘genome’!

I believe these genes are:

~**Gene 1 – scriptural holiness: a biblical and spiritual vision of the life God calls us to in Christ through the Spirit*~~*Gene 2 – holistic discipleship: the means by which scriptural holiness is pursued and expressed in daily life*~~*Gene 3 – disciplined fellowship: the kind of community that cultivates this holistic discipleship*~~*Gene 4 – evangelistic mission: the goal of all discipleship and fellowship is to invite the world to participate in the way of holiness**~

Secondly I will examine a few ways in which those genes have been expressed in the tradition of British Methodism. Here I think that the DNA metaphor can prove to be useful. Genes can be variously expressed or embodied. Genes can be both dominant and recessive. Genes can be expressed and repressed.

1. The DNA of Methodism: The GenesL~

Gene 1 is Scriptural Holiness

This gene causes Methodists to ask the question, ‘What kind of vision is guiding our discipleship?’ or ‘What does the real Christian life look like?’

Read Wesley’s, ‘The Character of a Methodist’… According to Wesley’s account, can you consider yourself a Methodist?

~nnYes - as a scriptural account of the Christian life; n~~nNo - we fall far short of it as a picture of Christian perfection - Wesley’s subtitle was, ‘Not as though I had already attained [it]’nn~

A Methodist is not one who has attained the goal, but one who hungers and strives for it. This marked early Methodist preaching, hymnody and fellowship: holiness is the shape of life that pursues the goal of Christian perfection. Wesley was careful to say what perfection is not i.e. a divine or angelic state; and what perfection is i.e. the likeness of Christ capable of being reproduced in human life. It is all about what God can do.

Wesley’s vision of the holy life was informed by a number of spiritual traditions:

From the Pietists he learned that holiness was a matter of both heart and life – our inward intentions, habits, and dispositions need to be transformed.

From the Mystics he learned that holiness was the experience of constant communion with God. This led to an emphasis on God’s holy presence, on spiritual vision and on practical mysticism.

From the Moravians he learned holiness is a personal relationship with God – that the pursuit of holiness is by grace and faith alone and is founded upon the experience of forgiveness of sins and new birth, or ‘justification’ and ‘sanctification’.

Gene 2 is Holistic Discipleship

This gene causes Methodists to ask the question, ‘What is the shape of a life that pursues scriptural holiness?’ What are the means by which we grow in grace and faith to be like Christ? How is worldliness and sin overcome within us?

‘Means of grace’ are activities of the Christian life in and through which we experience the life-transforming presence and power of the Spirit - classically, they are works of piety, but for Methodists, they also include works of mercy.

Wesley thought that works of mercy were vitally necessary for maintaining the grace we have received! There is no division between evangelism and social action – both are works of mercy.

There is an inseparable connection between piety and mercy – prayer, scripture etc. inspire us for works of mercy and works of mercy drive us to prayer, etc.

Piety and mercy also reflect a commitment to love of God and neighbour. For Wesley, all of life becomes an arena for the pursuit of holiness - a life constituted by the means of grace - a life which is itself a means of grace.

Gene 3 is Disciplined Fellowship

This gene causes Methodists to ask the question, ‘What kind of Christian community is capable of forming a holy people?’

A community of worship - Methodist fellowship was marked by:

~**Evangelistic preaching - stressing the ‘four alls’ of Methodism*~~*Hymn singing - singing your way through the Christian life*~~*Love feasts - testifying to the life-transforming presence and power of God*~~*Covenant service – a means of embarking on, and renewing the life of holiness**~

A community of discipline - Methodist fellowship was marked by:

~**The Methodist society – the real meaning of ‘social holiness’ is that there is no such thing as a ‘solitary Christianity’ - we cannot be holy on our own!*~~*The General rule - combined works of piety and mercy - needed to be fleshed out in the context of daily life*~~*The Class meeting - holding one another accountable - praying, exhorting, watching over one another in love and advising, admonishing, speaking the truth to one another in love. Here was found the politics of confession, forgiveness and growth in grace and a context for mutual spiritual direction.**~

Gene 4 is Evangelistic Mission

This gene causes Methodists to ask the question, ‘How is the gospel of holiness spread throughout the world?’

Mission as the spread of scriptural holiness: holiness is understood as life under the rule and reign of God. Holiness is a Wesleyan way of speaking about the kingdom of God, an invitation to participate in the kingdom is to have a life filled, transformed and overflowing with holy love.

Salvation as the end of all ecclesiastical order: salvation is understood as participating in the whole way of holiness – entering and deepening our communion with God and the life of holy love.

Evangelism as a journey into God: the goal of proclamation was not merely conversion but incorporation into fellowship – conversation in which people were urged to see God’s work in their lives and to follow his leading from conversion to perfection.

Witness as living the gospel: Wesley claimed that the ‘grand stumbling block’ to the spread of the gospel was the lives of Christians.

World parish: transgressing territorial boundaries. From Thomas Coke in the late 18th Century onwards, Methodist missions have taken the gospel right around the world. Notwithstanding recent critiques of the missionary movement, Methodist mission was typically conducted from the best motives and often at great personal sacrifice.

2. The DNA of Methodism: The Genetic ExpressionsL~

Expression 1 is Revivalism

This expression asks the question, ‘How do we keep a passion for holiness alive?’

This is a response to the seeming inevitability of slipping into worldliness and sin, a problem which sneaks up on us by stealth if not design. Revival is a necessity - the only way to re-ignite the passion for holiness is through a fresh outpouring of the Spirit and a life changing encounter with God; it must be remembered that the 18th Century revival was the very soil out of which Methodism was born!

Spiritual renewal – this would come through protracted meetings, over several days, of intense preaching, prayer, singing, and commitment. Prayer meetings for revival inject new life into Christian fellowship and their goal is to have hearts open to the Spirit, a renewed hunger for God and a new devotion to the holy life. Primitive Methodists were famous for their camp meetings, beginning on Mow Cop with the ministry of Hugh Bourne, where such prayer was central.

The Renewal of society was also a goal of revivalism. The Holy Spirit would renew Christian values in society, principally through the work and witness of holy lives.

The Methodist Revival Fellowship was founded to promote the cause of revival in Methodism, a cause inherited by Headway and now Methodist Evangelicals Together.

Expression 2 is The Pursuit of Holiness

This expression asks the question, ‘What kind of holiness is going to turn the world upside down?’

The Holiness Movement interpreted the pursuit of holiness through the lens of Pentecost. They sought an experience of the Spirit in which the presence and power of sin is finally overcome in a heart overwhelmed by the holy love, the foundation for a life of radical love toward God and neighbour. Cliff College and Samuel Chadwick stand in this tradition. Cliff with its evangelistic campaigns, Franciscan-style trekking, and camp-style convention meetings, and principal Chadwick, who was a leader in the Pentecostal League of Prayer, yet steeped in the broad catholic traditions of spirituality.

The School of Fellowship interpreted the pursuit of holiness through the lens of the cross. This was in part a liberal reaction to the Holiness Movement, and emphasized the way God’s power is displayed through weakness and suffering service, the foundation for a life of radical discipleship capable of identifying with the poor and outcast in society. Leslie Weatherhead, Newton Flew and the Swanwick conferences were all associated with this approach.

The Fellowship of the Kingdom interpreted pursuit of holiness through the lens of Jesus’ life and real presence. As a response to the worldliness of the church there was a need to recover our calling as ordinary ‘saints’ - followers of Jesus who embody a way of life radically different from the world. This approach attracted William Sangster, minister at Westminster Central Hall and leader of the Home Mission Department during the 1950’s.

Three classic books on Christian Perfection typify these three approaches:

~**Chadwick’s The Call of Perfection is an appeal to the lived experience of this doctrine.*~~*Newton Flew’s, The Idea of Perfection – has a historical/theological emphasis on living moment by moment with God*~~*Sangster’s The Path to Perfection has an emphasis on growth in grace in ordinary life.**~

Expression 3 is Social Responsibility

This expression asks the question, ‘What kind of engagement with society should a holy people have?’ The answer is social responsibility harnessed to evangelical zeal!

Hugh Price Hughes
Embodiment of the nonconformist conscience, Price Hughes was committed to tackling social evils like alcoholism, gambling, violence and deepening the spiritual life of the churches as the missionary source and evangelistic goal of this work. He found a focus in his leadership of the National Council of Free Churches and in the Forward Movement in which missionary pragmatism about church structures led to the foundation of city centre missions or Central Halls. His famous slogan was ‘no sacrament without soup ladle’.

Donald Soper was one of the foremost exponents of what some have called social evangelism, a commitment to political action which holds government accountable to the claims of the gospel. Soper was a renowned socialist and Labourite notable for open air preaching at speakers corner. He was a founder of the Order of Christian Witness whose campaigns, calling people to the values of the gospel, concluded with communion.

3. THE DNA of METHODISM: Expressed Afresh?L~

In conclusion, the suggestion is that we might helpfully reflect on what it might mean for the ‘genes’ of Methodist discipleship to be expressed afresh in our time.

These expressions may be varied and emerging depending upon the context. The genome might present us with this circular set of questions (below) for reflection and action as we consider the contemporary nature of discipleship in the Wesleyan tradition.