Free Methodism’s Living Witness: Sesquicentennial Reflections

By Howard A. Snyder

Bishop L. R. Marston got it right when he named his 1960 centennial history “From Age to Age a Living Witness.” Free Methodism’s witness is still a living one, despite the amazing changes of the past one hundred fifty years. Our new age is the twenty-first century.

Today there are nineteen Free Methodist bishops throughout the world, and only four of them are North Americans. Worldwide Free Methodist growth has birthed a church where less than 10 percent of its approximately 900,000 members live in the United States and Canada (about 76,000 in the United States; 7,800 in Canada).

What would B. T. Roberts think? Certainly he would celebrate! This is what he would have wanted to see. Of course he would quickly ask: Is the church maintaining the Bible standard of Christianity? Is it preaching the gospel to the poor?

The growth of global Free Methodism truly is something to celebrate. Like most movements, Free Methodism is more dynamic at its growing edges than at its historic center. But signs of life are everywhere. Like a one-hundred-fifty-year-old tree, the FM Church grows mainly in its branches. Yet it still draws life from its roots and trunk, even as it is nourished by its branches. For continued health, the roots must grow ever deeper as the trunk grows sturdier.[1]

Free Methodism’s roots go deep and far. We trust they are still nourished by Scripture, in good gospel ground. We can trace our heritage over the two thousand years of church history.

As Free Methodism enters its Sesquicentennial Year, our heritage as Wesleyans and Free Methodists is worth reviewing, re-emphasizing, and reactivating. This essay looks at our Wesleyan roots, our particular calling or charism, and our new opportunities as Free Methodists.

Our Wesleyan Heritage: A Way of Seeing

Free Methodism is grounded in the church’s Great Tradition, reaching from the New Testament church, through the centuries and up to today. We are descendants especially of John and Charles Wesley and the Methodism movement.

We celebrate this heritage not as pedigree nor as traditionalists, but as a way of seeing. We have inherited a tradition of great breadth — unusual within the sweep of church history — that is as deeply needed today as it was when John Wesley had his heart-warming experience on May 24, 1738.

We have inherited a Wesleyan lens that is priceless precisely because it is biblical, historical, and non-sectarian. This helps us see the gospel and the world the way Wesley did, adjusting of course for the dramatic shift in context between eighteenth-century England and our twenty-first-century global connections.

The strength of the Wesleyan lens is its comprehensiveness, whatever its limitations. Wesley had his blind spots, but his large vision was remarkable. He had unique advantages: A well-informed Christian upbringing — especially a wise mother who helped him think deeply. A both/and rather than an either/or mind, both rational and poetic, fascinated by language, alert to metaphor and paradox, yet interested in logic and scientific discovery. A voracious reader with broad, eclectic tastes. A grounding in the Anglican via media of Scripture, reason, and tradition, giving him historical and theological ballast. An Oxford education at a time of rediscovery of early Christian sources.

Wesley lived at the height at the Age of Reason, but also at a time of awaking interest in human experience and emotion (“enthusiasm”). He read of the discoveries coming from science and from the “New World” and England’s far-flung empire. He experienced the Industrial Revolution and experimented with the newly-discovered force of electricity.[2] Through the influence of the Pietist Movement, particularly the Moravian Brethren, his heart was “strangely warmed” by God, igniting a deeper spirituality and a new passion for evangelism and church renewal. Finally, Wesley was physically vigorous and lived a long life (1703 to 1791), his mind alert, inquiring, and deeply devout to his last moments.

Remarkably, this unusual mix is found nowhere else in church history. Wesley saw it as God’s active providence, and it is our heritage as Free Methodists. These converging factors gave Wesley a wide-angle lens that helps clarify the church’s vision and mission today.

I highlight eight facets of this Wesleyan lens: Scripture, the image of God, the gospel for the poor, the wisdom of God in creation, salvation as the renewal of God’s image, audacious hope, a renewed church, and the restoration of creation.[3]

1. The Lens of Scripture

John Wesley was, famously, “a man of one book.” Of course he was a man of thousands of books, not to mention newspapers, journals, and pamphlets. But he was clear about biblical authority.

For Wesley, the Bible was the touchstone of authority for faith and practice. It was truly his lens for viewing reality — his worldview (as we would say today). The Bible was the revealed narrative of what God had accomplished, promised to accomplish, and surely would do. We misunderstand Wesley if we fail to grasp this. We may debate aspects of Wesley’s interpretation, but his conviction and intent were clear.

Wesley viewed Scripture in a particular way. The Bible is the authoritative narrative of salvation. It is not primarily a compendium of doctrine but the story of creation, sin, providence, and redemption through Jesus Christ.

Wesley said the Bible should be interpreted according to the “analogy of faith” (based on the Greek of Romans 12:6), comparing Scripture with Scripture. Here is Wesley’s key principle — “the agreement of every part of [Scripture] with every other,” as he put it.[4] Grasping this overall biblical “agreement” requires, of course, a master narrative — a storyline by which every passage is interpreted. Wesley was increasingly clear throughout his life as to that storyline: God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is reconciling the world to himself, restoring “all things.”

Wesley’s sermons illustrate this. His 151 published sermons generally don’t exposit Scripture systematically, but typically a third or more of a Wesley sermon is either paraphrase of or direct quotation from Scripture.

To be Wesleyan means seeing everything — our lives, the church, culture, and God’s kingdom plan — through the revealed lens of Scripture, interpreted in the light of God’s redemptive work in Jesus Christ.

2. Seeing the Image of God

To be Wesleyan also means seeing the image of God in every person. Every human being — man, woman, child — is God-imaged; a God-bearer.

Wesley saw how defaced the image of God had become in human beings and society because of sin. But for Wesley, sin has neither the first nor the last word. His sermons “On the Fall of Man” and “The Mystery of Iniquity” detail the disfiguring effects of sin. But Wesley believed also in “God’s Approbation of His Works” in creation, a “General Deliverance,” and “The New Creation” (to cite some key sermon titles).

So Wesleyans start with good news: A good God created good people in an ecosystem that God pronounced “very good.” The gospel story moves from the good news of creation in God’s image, to the bad news of sin and disease, to the even better news of redemption and new creation through Jesus by the Spirit.

This is not uniquely Wesleyan, of course; it is biblical and a common element of the Great Tradition. Wesleyans stress three crucial points, however.

First, creation in God’s image means that all people reflect God’s character and a certain capacity for goodness, wisdom, creativity, justice, and holy love. This is why bad people can sometimes do good things; why parents, though “evil, know how to give good gifts to [their] children” (Matthew 7:11). It is why there is good art in the world.

All humans bear something of the character of God. This is our glory; our potential; the inherent possibility that God’s grace grasps when we turn to Jesus and by the Spirit open ourselves to God’s transforming power.

Second, this is a social image. God is Trinity, and humankind is compatibly diverse, male and female, made for family and community. We don’t find our true identity as isolated “individuals” any more than Jesus Christ found his true identity separate from the Father and the Spirit. To be God-imaged is to be social, communal. God is Tri-Personal. Sociality and community define personhood — first in God, hence in humankind.

Third, Wesley saw that the image of God connects us to, rather than separates us from, the rest of creation.[5] Here the Wesleyan view clashes with much popular Christianity.

We must understand Wesley here, because the comprehensive Wesleyan view of salvation hinges upon it. Creation in the image of God means we are both like and unlike God, and it means we are both like and unlike the rest of creation. God is infinite; we are not, and we have been marred by sin. Like God’s other earthly creatures, we are finite beings in a space-time world, this good earth. Like other creatures, we require food, water, air, and earth. God made us this way: Interdependent, all sharing one earthly ecosystem.

Wesley intuited this deeply. That’s why he was so interested in gardens, all earth’s creatures, and in how we treat animals.

Humans reflect God’s image in a primary sense; yet all creation reflects him in a secondary sense, Wesley showed. People are unique because of our unique capacity to respond to God self-consciously, willingly, and responsibly. So we have a unique calling as stewards of all creation. Men and women are “capable of God” (as both Wesleys said) in ways the other earthly creatures are not. Yet the horse, the dog, the bird, the tree, the flower, even rocks of the field and pebbles of the seashore reflect God’s image in a more remote way. They depend upon God for their existence and preservation. Their design, order, intricacy, and interdependence all reveal something of God. All fits into the larger ecology, the divine “economy” (Ephesians 1:10) of God’s creative and redemptive work.[6] Through Jesus Christ, God will redeem the whole creation, not only the human part of it, because God has vested interest in the whole.

Wesleyans see every person and the whole creation as bearing, in appropriate degree, the image of God.

3. Seeing through the Eyes of the Poor

John Wesley wrote to an acquaintance, “I love the poor; in many of them I find pure, genuine grace, unmixed with paint, folly, and affectation.” He said, “If I might choose, I would still, as I have done hitherto, preach the Gospel to the poor.” Robert Southey in reporting this notes that John Wesley’s “course of life led him into a lower sphere of society than that wherein he would otherwise have moved; and he thought himself a gainer by the change.”[7]

Wesley found more openness and genuineness among the poor and what he called “middling people” than among the higher classes. He thought prioritizing ministry to and with the poor was God’s strategy. Commenting on Hebrews 9:11, “for they shall all know me, from the least even to the greatest,” Wesley remarked, “In this order the saving knowledge of God ever did and ever will proceed; not first to the greatest, and then to the least.” Wesley said preaching Good News to and among the poor was “the greatest miracle of all”– a miracle, because the church will never do this unless empowered by the Spirit and/or captivated by the character of Christ.[8] For a church to preach the gospel to the poor is more of a miracle than are physical healings. Of all “signs and wonders” in the church, this is the greatest.

Wesley made little distinction between material and spiritual poverty. Jesus in his Jubilee proclamation, recorded in Luke 4:18-20, is speaking of the poor both “literally and spiritually,” Wesley said.[9]

Wesley saw that the New Testament teaching on spiritual gifts (charismata) has special relevance for the poor. The gifts of the Spirit are good news particularly for the poor because they reveal that divine empowering doesn’t depend on status, wealth, education, or credentialing, but on mere openness to the Spirit. Seeing the world through the eyes of the poor, Wesleyans seek to incarnate the Good News among and with them.

4. Seeing God’s Wisdom in Creation

Wesley liked the phrase “the wisdom of God in creation” so much that he issued a multi-volume book on the subject, A Survey of the Wisdom of God in Creation (abridging the work of others). Seeing God in creation prompts us to worship and clarifies our stewardship. “Life subsisting in millions of different forms, shows the vast diffusion of [God’s] animating power, and death the infinite disproportion between him and every living thing. … Even the actions of animals are an eloquent and a pathetic language. … Thus it is, that every part of nature directs us to nature’s God.”[10]

“God is in all things,” Wesley said in one sermon; “we are to see the Creator in the glass of every creature; … we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism; but with a true magnificence of thought survey heaven and earth and all that is therein as contained by God in the hollow of his hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the soul of the universe.”[11]

God’s image in human beings, and more remotely in the whole creation, displays his wisdom in creation and so lays the basis for God’s wisdom in redemption and new creation. It is all of one piece, one story, for Wesley.

Seeing the wisdom God in creation moves us not only to praise but also to care for creation and to understand God’s intent and the breathtaking breadth of redemption. In keeping with the Great Tradition of Christian teaching, Wesley affirmed that what God had created, preserves, and cares for is being redeemed through Jesus Christ whom God has “appointed heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2). We become more Wesleyan as we see his wisdom in creation.

5. Seeing Salvation as God’s Image Restored

Jesus Christ is the perfect living, loving image of God, and salvation is that image restored in us. This is an insistent theme with Wesley. Through Jesus Christ Christians are “restored to the image of God.”[12]

Wesley described “true Christianity” as having the mind of Christ, being renewed after Christ’s image, and walking as Jesus walked. Real Christianity is practical Christlikeness enabled by the Holy Spirit. Wesley preached justification by faith and the necessity of the new birth, but the goal of salvation is more than justification. It is sanctification — thorough transformation into the image and mind of Christ.

So the new birth is entrance into a new, relational way of living. It establishes a new love relationship with God the Trinity; with the Christian family, the church; with our neighbors, near and far; and in fact with all creation. Growth in holiness is growth in Christlikeness, not only individually, but together in community as the whole church grows up into the “fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-16).

This is hugely practical. Wesley understood that believers can help each other come to know Jesus Christ deeply through the infilling of the Spirit and through life together in Christian community. This is the spring then for redemptive, Christ-like mission in the world. Wesley emphasized “all inward and outward holiness” — loving God with heart, strength, soul, and mind, and our neighbors (near and far) as ourselves.

Since the image of God is social and relational, salvation means the restoration of true community. Wesley called this “social Christianity” or “social holiness.” He meant not primarily social justice but rather that salvation itself is social. True faith is social because God is Trinity, because his image in humankind is social, and because God’s plan is the restoration of healthy community, shalom, throughout his whole creation.

The image of God — present uniquely in humankind but also more remotely in all creation — gives Wesley the theological basis for salvation as the “restitution” (KJV) or “restoration” of all things cf. Matthew 17:11, Acts 3:21). Salvation through the blood of Jesus Christ, and especially through his resurrection, means that God is creating new heavens and a new earth. God is bringing total restoration — a new creation that is more glorious and flourishing than the original prototype.

For Wesley, this is present reality and present mission, not just future expectation. Restorative salvation means that men and women can now, by the Spirit, fulfill their original call as stewards. In “The Good Steward” Wesley wrote, “no character more exactly agrees with the present state of man than that of a steward. … This appellation is exactly expressive of his situation in the present world, specifying what kind of servant he is to God, and what kind of service his divine master expects of him.”[13]

If salvation means “walking as Jesus walked,” this defines our discipleship. God’s people are not just the recipients of God’s restoration. Joined to Jesus by the Spirit in his body, we become agents of this restoration, God’s plan to “reconcile . . . all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:20). Christians are in this sense “co-workers [sunergoi] with God” (e.g., 1 Corinthians 3:9, 2 Corinthians 6:1).

6. Seeing with Audacious, Gracious Hope

John Wesley’s view of what God is doing in the world is audaciously optimistic. Wesley had a strong “optimism of grace,” as Albert Outler called it — an “unfaltering optimism … an optimism of grace rather than of nature,” reflected for example in his sermon “The New Creation.”[14]

Wesleyan theology is saturated with hope, expectancy — optimism of grace and the grace of optimism. This is based not on human intelligence or technique but on solid ground: Jesus’ resurrection, God’s promise, and the present work of the Spirit.

In Wesley’s view, God’s “economy” of salvation is rooted in the personal, loving character of God and in the correspondence between the divine nature, human nature, and the created order. In contrast to Augustine and Calvin, Wesley balanced the emphasis on original sin with a dynamic optimism about the possibilities of God’s loving grace in human experience and in society. This is why Wesley talked not only about converting and sanctifying grace but also about “prevenient” or preceding grace, the universal shedding abroad of his grace by his Spirit, countering evil and attracting people to salvation through Christ.[15]

Perhaps the frequent failure of the church to transform the world through the gospel is above all a failure of hope — in fact a failure of faith in God’s promises and thus a failure to act in hope so that God’s will may be done on earth as in heaven.

Romans 8:20-21 reminds us that “The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” If “the creation waits in eager expectation” (Romans 8:19), so should we. If Satan convinces us the world is hopeless, we become less hopeful in our witness and ministry. Or we un-biblically shrink hope, expecting only the salvation of souls for an earth-less eternity. We forget God’s plan through Jesus Christ “to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).

That divine plan defines our mission. And that mission is irrepressibly one of hope — the audacious, gracious hope springing not from self-confidence or technology or money but from God’s promises.

Here Wesleyan theology clashes sharply with North American Evangelicalism. Often optimism of grace gets undermined in two ways: By a segmented eschatology that makes too sharp a break between this age and the age to come (the kingdom of God in its fullness), and by a dualistic worldview. Many Christians see life on earth as lower, inferior, and view disembodied spiritual existence on a higher, totally other plane. They see no real link between the two except through prayer and occasional miracles (or perhaps through tongues-speaking, if one is charismatic).

This was not Wesley’s view, not is it biblical. “All things . . . in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:16), things present and things to come (Romans 8:38, 1 Corinthians 3:22), are part of the one world (and worldview) that the Bible reveals. This one God-created world is the stage upon which God is guiding the great drama of redemption and new creation.

If we don’t believe — don’t have audacious hope — that God’s will really can be done on earth as it is in heaven in all dimensions of life, society, and culture, we won’t act with the audacious hope that God uses in fulfilling Jesus’ prayer, “may your kingdom come” on earth now. And so we will fail to see, at least in our time and place, the visible realization of God’s “intent … that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenlies” (Ephesians 3:10). For lack of faith we fail effectively to be God’s mission in the world.

Seeing the world and acting in it as Wesleyans means living the audacious, gracious hope given us by the audacious resurrection of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:18-23).

7. Seeing a Renewed Church in Mission

Methodists trace their roots to John Wesley’s 1738 heart-warming experience. But long before that, Wesley yearned for church renewal. The question was how. Touched by God’s Spirit at Aldersgate, Wesley found the power, and then the vital means (“methods”), for the renewal he sought.

Wesley saw the depths into which his beloved Church of England had sunk. He longed to see it turn vital and missional (as we say today), a church that would transform England and then the world. Wesley’s intent was always church renewal for the sake of mission. He saw Methodism itself a renewal movement. The mission of Methodism was to be God’s instrument for returning the church to the vitality God intended — a rebirth of earliest Christianity.

This is why real Wesleyans have a vision for church renewal. They really expect to see a vital, missional church. For Wesleyans, virtually no church is beyond hope. God intends to renew his church — from the local congregation to denominations everywhere. The whole worldwide people of God, in fact.

Wesley believed a living church is more than a congregation where people have faith and live pious lives. A renewed church is marked by a potent mix of worship, evangelism, loving discipleship, and a witness of “justice, mercy, and truth” in the world. It is fed by the sacraments as true means of grace. It is nurtured by New Testament “one another” practices — building up, encouraging and equipping one another, and growing up into Jesus (Ephesians 4:11-16). It is a discipling community that by the Spirit exhibits and practices a range of spiritual gifts through which the church fulfills its global and local mission.

So Wesleyans never give up on the church. We know dry bones can live again; resurrection is possible; even the deadest-looking trunk may have life deep in its roots.

8. Seeing Creation Restored

Wesleyans are visionaries. They already see the New Creation that God is bringing through Jesus Christ by the Spirit.

God’s promise to “restore everything” was a key strand of John Wesley’s theology. Wesley’s hopeful certainty was based not on a few scattered biblical references but on the whole thrust of the biblical story, beginning to end. His sermons “The New Creation,” “The General Deliverance,” and “The General Spread of the Gospel” highlight key Scriptures: Romans 8:19-22 on the liberation of the whole creation from its “bondage to decay,” Isaiah 11:9 on the earth being full of the knowledge of the Lord, and Revelation 21:5, “Behold, I make all things new.” Another favorite text was 1 John 3:8, “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (NRSV) — see Sermon 62, “The End of Christ’s Coming.”

For Wesley, salvation was all about restoration. Salvation is healing from the disease of sin. God’s love in Christ is “the medicine of life, the never-failing remedy, for all the evils of a disordered world, for all [our] miseries and vices.”[16] The true “religion of Jesus Christ” is “God’s method of healing a soul” diseased by sin. “Hereby the great Physician of souls applies medicines to heal this sickness, to restore human nature, totally corrupted in all its faculties.”[7] This, Wesley said, “is the religion we long to see established in the world, a religion of love and joy and peace, having its seat in the heart, … but ever showing itself by its fruits, continually springing forth . . . in every kind of beneficence, in spreading virtue and happiness all around it.”[18] “According to Scripture,” Wesley said, “the Christian religion was designed ‘for the healing of the nations.’”[19] As he grew older, Wesley increasingly emphasized salvation as the healing of all creation.

Alert Wesleyans already see the New Creation now, through eyes of faith, based on Scripture, inspired by the Spirit. “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). By the eyes of faith, we see “a new heaven and a new earth.” We foresee the fulfillment of the promise, “God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelations 21:1-3). We have already received the Holy Spirit, the anticipatory present experience of the final new creation (Ephesians 1:13-14). When we come to know God through Jesus Christ, we taste the first fruits of that total restoration that Paul describes in Romans 8, that Isaiah pictures, and that the Book of Revelation shows so movingly.

Wesley knew that this restoration does not come without suffering, however. Romans 8:17-24 speaks of “groanings” and “sufferings,” for as we wait and work in hope we “share in [Jesus’] sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” In fact the whole creation, now in “bondage to decay,” is “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” We ourselves “groan inwardly” as we wait for the full liberation, waiting “in eager expectation” together with all creation for the eventual restoration of all things. We suffer, but like a mother in labor we suffer in hope. If we suffer for and with Jesus Christ in this hope, the suffering becomes part of the redemption.

Wesley saw suffering as a mystery — somehow necessary so God’s glory may be fully revealed. God wins the world’s redemption through suffering — the suffering of Jesus above all, but we become sharers, partakers, in Jesus’ sufferings. God weaves those (and eventually all suffering, Wesley believed) into his redemptive purposes.

Wesley said true Christianity involves “not only doing but suffering” — which is perfectly consistent with happiness. Rather than “preventing or lessening our happiness,” sufferings “greatly contribute thereto, and indeed constitute no [small] part of it.” Love itself brings suffering, for “the love of our neighbour will give rise to sympathizing sorrow: it will lead us to visit the fatherless and widow in their affliction, to be tenderly concerned for the distressed, and ‘to mix our pitying tear with those who weep.’”[20]

Wesley notes,

How innumerable are the benefits which God conveys to [us] through the channel of sufferings! So that it might well be said, “What are termed afflictions in the language of men are in the language of God styled blessings.” Indeed had there been no suffering in the world a considerable part of religion, yea, and in some respects the most excellent part, could have had no place therein. … It is by sufferings that our faith is tried, and therefore made more acceptable to God.[21]

Wesley saw suffering not just as private virtue, however, or simply as part of compassionate service. He frankly faced the suffering of all creation, viewing it within the larger framework of final restoration. In a remarkable passage he writes,

How many millions of creatures in the sea, in the air, and on every part of the earth, can now no otherwise preserve their own lives than by taking away the lives of others; by tearing in pieces and devouring their poor, innocent, unresisting fellow-creatures! Miserable lot of such innumerable multitudes, who, insignificant as they seem, are the offspring of one common Father, the creatures of the same God of love! … But it shall not always be so. He that sitteth upon the throne will soon change the face of all things, and give a demonstrative proof to all his creatures that “his mercy is over all his works.” The horrid state of things which at present obtains will soon be at an end. … “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb” (the words may be literally as well as figuratively understood) “and the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” “They shall not hurt or destroy” from the rising up of the sun to the going down of the same.[22]

Perhaps the most remarkable thing here (bypassing all the scientific questions) is that Wesley sees the new creation as literal and physical, not just spiritual. Passages such as Isaiah 11 are to be taken “literally as well as figuratively.”

Wesleyans live in hope of creation healed, knowing that present suffering somehow plays a key role in our own contribution to the full coming of God’s kingdom.

Our tradition as Wesleyans thus gives us an expansive, audacious vision. More than a worldview, it is a way of living out God’s grace, engaging in the mission of the one who said, “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

If We are Wesleyans …

So if we are Wesleyans, we will:

1. Seek to live and act always in the presence of God, embodying a well-ordered devout and holy life. We know this is possible only through being filled with and walking in the Spirit, trusting the Spirit is to help us live and act like Jesus Christ, filled with Jesus’ passion to glorify God and do good kingdom work.

2. Ground our lives in Scripture — daily reading and study, seeking to obey and not just hear the Word. We will understand Scripture through God’s revelation in Jesus Christ (and vice versa), knowing that the Bible is not a private devotional book but the book of the church, the Book of the Covenant, interpreted and practiced in community.

3. Practice an optimism of grace, born of God’s promises in Scripture, the resurrected Jesus Christ, and the promise of God’s reign.

4. Yearn for the renewal of the church locally, regionally, and globally, practicing that yearning through committed life in local Christian community and through using our spiritual gifts and other resources to advance the life and mission of the church worldwide.

5. Have a vision for God’s work in the world in all its dimensions — especially for proclaiming and demonstrating the Good News of Jesus Christ and his reign in all cities and among all earth’s peoples. We will see the image of God reflected in every person and culture, though obscured by sin. We will work to bring people to personal transforming faith in Jesus Christ. Our passion will be “God’s will done on earth as in heaven” in all parts of society and among all earth’s peoples.

And so each of us will be personally engaged in God’s mission according to our gifts, calling, and opportunities — witnessing by word and deed, building the church and our families, seeking to be Jesus’ salt and light within that part of society and culture that God has placed us.

6. Have passion for spreading Jesus’ Good News among the poor, building the church, learning from “the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the alien.” We will seek to end oppression and to provide for basic human needs everywhere, working for the just ordering of society locally and globally. We will watch out for “the danger of increasing riches,” not “laying up treasure on earth” beyond prudent personal stewardship so that we don’t become a burden to others. We will insist that government truly “secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy” (Psalm 140:12).

7. We will praise “the wisdom of God in creation.” We will worship God in awe and wonder as we consider all the works of his hands, the intricacies of earth’s ecosystems and God’s whole universal “sanctuary” (Psalm 150:1). We will study God’s intention for creation and how that interweaves with God’s plan of redemption and new creation. We will practice godly creation-care stewardship, not only out of obedience but because we see the link between human well-being and that of the earth, and because we live in certain hope that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21 TNIV).

Of course, this way of incarnating the gospel is not exclusively Wesleyan. It is biblical. Our goal is to follow Wesley as he followed Jesus. We seek to follow Jesus faithfully in our world, to center our lives in God and his reign (Matthew 6:33).

Free Methodism’s Gift and Calling

Free Methodism’s special gift is to be a fresh expression of the Wesleyan witness, with particular accent on “the Bible standard of Christianity” and “the Gospel to the poor.” B. T. Roberts intended that this new denomination be nothing more than mere biblical Christianity.

The Free Methodist Charism

So also now. If Free Methodism has its special gift, its particular “charism,” this is it. The Apostle Peter wrote, “Each of you should use whatever gift [charisma] you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace” (1 Peter 4:10-11 TNIV). Applying this to denominations as well as particular Christians suggests that we have a stewardship responsibility for the special way God’s Spirit has graced us.

B. T. Roberts and early Free Methodist Disciplines put it this way: Our “mission is twofold — to maintain the Bible standard of Christianity, and to preach the Gospel to the poor.” Encouragingly, I’ve heard that kind of language more in the last ten years than in the previous fifty.

Roberts’ particular formulation was profound. By “Bible standard” Roberts meant holiness, surely, but he meant it in a particular sense. For Roberts, Bible Christianity meant being like Jesus (living the mind of Christ) and doing what Jesus did — personally and as a people. Holiness is Christlikeness — nothing more, nothing less. That means action and mission. So Roberts throughout life kept pointing to what Jesus did in fulfilling his own mission. He kept pointing to the Jesus who said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring gospel to the poor” (Luke 4:18 NRSV).

In Roberts’ mind, biblical Christianity and the gospel for the poor are intertwined. They merge into one when we truly focus on Jesus Christ and live by his Spirit.

This way of putting mission is very Wesleyan in spirit. We are Wesleyan when we do what Wesley and B. T. Roberts sought to do: Be faithful to Jesus Christ and Scripture. Seek first, in actual practice, the kingdom of God and its justice now in the present, understanding that that’s where heaven and eternal life begin; where they overlap. Be a people and a movement that does this.

Like Methodism, Free Methodism started out as a movement. Over the past 150 years the denomination has passed through four main phases, as I see it: Movement (1860-1890), Sect (1890-1950), Denomination (1950-2000), and Network (since 2000, and continuing). The church’s ethos, self-understanding, institutions, leading personalities, and even statistics clearly evidence these phases.[23] Today the Free Methodist Church is increasingly a global network of witness, mission, nurture, and communication, overlapping and intersecting with other networks. One of its strengths — and a faithful embodiment of its original ethos — is the fact that the Free Methodist Church today is not a global hierarchy but really a multicultural network, due in great measure to the far-sighted leadership in the 1950s and ’60s of key figures such as Bishop L. R. Marston, General Missionary Secretary Byron S. Lamson, and Hugh A. White, the astute businessman who led the General Missionary Board for many years.

In these transitions, what has happened to Free Methodism’s special gift, its God-given charism? Today we see encouraging signs: Significant growth globally, if not in North America; new emphasis on our historic mission; ethnic church planting in the U.S. and elsewhere; the prospering of several FM general conferences around the world; the growth and dynamism of our educational institutions in the United States and increasingly elsewhere, such as Hope Africa University.

An especially prophetic development, historically speaking, is the growing number of women in leadership. If B. T. Roberts was right, this is a long-range key to renewal, for the “comparative failure of Christianity” to transform the world is that women “are not permitted to labor according to their ability, for the spread of the Gospel.” If women had “been given, since the days of the first Apostles, the same rights as men, this would be quite another world.”[24] Free Methodists are one of a very few conservative denominations that ordain women. We remain countercultural at this point.

The Free Methodist Synthesis

Like other Wesleyans, part of Free Methodist giftedness is that we don’t fit neatly into the categories where people want to place us. We are evangelicals, but only in some ways. We are charismatic in some senses but not in others. We have both Anabaptist (radical Protestant) roots through Pietism and Roman Catholic roots through Anglicanism.

Typically as Free Methodists we draw mostly on one or another of these four traditions. So our giftedness also looks like this:

Each of these four traditions has its concepts of worship, sacrament, evangelism, community, discipleship, and mission. Each views the church’s role in culture differently. The dynamics may vary also in different cultural contexts. (Liturgical sacramental worship was once “culture” in England and in medieval Europe; in many American Protestant churches it has become “counterculture.”) A focus on the gospel for the poor has almost always been countercultural.

The converging arrows above point to an unusual but hard-to-hold synthesis. The diverging corner arrows show what happens when one of the four traditions overcomes the others. Then the church (or member) moves away from the center to an exaggerated emphasis. For example, a disaffected Free Methodist becomes Anglican, Calvinist conservative, charismatic, or perhaps Mennonite or some a “radical disciple.” Perhaps FM history teaches that the closer we are to the center, the more fully biblical and Wesleyan we are.

Free Methodism at its best, being Wesleyan, is centered but broad. Some of us are “Catholics,” deeply appreciating tradition, sacrament, and liturgy. Others are really “Anabaptists,” embracing radical discipleship, social justice, and with the poor, caring little for on creed and sacrament. Some are “Charismatics,” celebrating the gifts and life of the Spirit. Many are generic “Evangelicals” (or Fundamentalists), mainly stressing conversion and biblical authority with little emphasis on discipleship, sacrament, or countercultural witness.

Is it not clear that Free Methodism at its best combines all these? Has this not always been true of Free Methodists at their best?

It was certainly true of John Wesley. Here in fact is the heart of the remarkable Wesleyan synthesis. Though with differing accents, this synthesis was the genius also of B. T. and Ellen Roberts.

From this angle, renewing Free Methodism means learning to grasp and to experience Free Methodism’s special grace-gifts.[25]

Deep Church, Deep Free Methodism

Recently Jim Belcher, a Presbyterian pastor who was closely involved with the rise of “emerging church” discussions, published a book entitled Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional. Belcher still affirms the “emerging church” critique of popular Evangelicalism, but decries the rootlessness and fuzziness of “emergent” Christianity. He calls for a “deep ecclesiology” based on Scripture, plus mission, plus the church’s Great Tradition.[26]

It’s a fine book. But missing is any sense of the Wesleyan tradition or Wesleyan sources — any sense that at its best, Wesleyanism has always embodied “deep church,” for that is its DNA.

If there is such a thing as “deep Free Methodism,” it is found in an enlivening of the Free Methodist synthesis, seeing the world in a Wesleyan way, faithfully serving Jesus Christ and his mission by being his grace-filled body for the sake of the world and the glory of God.

 


Endnotes

[1] The analogy from nature is instructive. Healthy plants develop roots below ground proportional to the growth above ground, and both must continue to be nourished. [Find My Place]

[2] Richard Holmes has written a fascinating account of the “second scientific revolution” that was occurring during Wesley’s day, which combined empirical science with romantic adventurism. See his The Age of Wonder (New York: Pantheon, 2008). See also Randy L. Maddox, “John Wesley’s Precedent for Theological Engagement with the Natural Sciences,” Wesleyan Theological Journal 44:1 (Spring 2009), 23-54. [Find My Place]

[3] Here I elaborate on my article, “Seeing the World through a Wesleyan Lens,” Mosaic 4:3 (Summer 2007), 5-6, 8. [Find My Place]

[4] Wesley, Sermon 62, “The End of Christ’s Coming,” III.5. For Wesley, the “analogy of faith” is essentially equivalent to the early Christian principle of the “rule of faith,” for example in Irenaeus and others. [Find My Place]

[5] This is clear from Wesley’s comments on “the wisdom of God in creation,” discussed below. [Find My Place]

[6] Like his contemporaries, Wesley used the ancient idea of a “great chain of being” descending in near-infinite gradations from God to the minutest particle in explaining this interconnectedness. But Wesley understood this “chain” more biblically than philosophically. See Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being: A Study in the History of Ideas (1936; reprint, Harper Torchbooks, 1960), and the discussion in Howard A. Snyder with Daniel V. Runyon, Decoding the Church: Mapping the DNA of Christ’s Body (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 109-12. [Find My Place]

[7] Robert Southey, The Life of Wesley; and Rise and Progress of Methodism, Second American Edition (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847), 1:390. [Find My Place]

[8] John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (London: Epworth Press, 1958), 832 (Hebrews 8:11); 227 (Luke 7:22). [Find My Place]

[9] Wesley, ENNT, 216 (Luke 4:18-20). In speaking of “the acceptable year of the Lord” Jesus is “Plainly alluding to the year of jubilee, when all, both debtors and servants, were set free.” Compare his comments on Mt. 5:3 and Lk. 6:20. [Find My Place]

[10] John Wesley, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy, Being a Survey of the Wisdom of God in the Creation, “A New Edition,” ed. Robert Mudie, 3 vols. (London: Thomas Tegg and Son, 1836), 2:370f. [Find My Place]

[11] Wesley, Sermon 23, “Upon our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, Discourse III,” I.11. [Find My Place]

[12] Wesley, Sermon 85, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation,” II.1. [Find My Place]

[13] Wesley, Sermon 51, “The Good Steward,” Par. 2. [Find My Place]

[14] Works of John Wesley (Bicentennial Ed.), 2:500. [Find My Place]

[15] See especially “John Wesley’s Doctrine of Prevenient Grace and Its Import for Christian Mission,” by Chris Payk (Th.M. Thesis, Tyndale Seminary, 2009) — a fine work by a young Free Methodist. [Find My Place]

[16] Wesley, An Earnest Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, in Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Ed., 11:45. [Find My Place]

[17] Wesley, Sermon 44, “Original Sin,” III.3. [Find My Place]

[18] Wesley, Earnest Appeal, in Works of John Wesley, Bicentennial Ed., 11:46. [Find My Place]

[19] Wesley, Sermon 61, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” Par. 31 (Revelation 22:2). [Find My Place]

[20] Wesley, Sermon 84, “The Important Question,” Par. 6. The quotation is from Alexander Pope. He also quotes Chrysostom: “The Christian has his sorrows as well as his joys; but his sorrow is sweeter than joy.” [Find My Place]

[21] Wesley, Sermon 59, “God’s Live to Fallen Man,” Par. 7. [Find My Place]

[22] Wesley, Sermon 64, “The New Creation,” Par. 17. [Find My Place]

[23] These phases are discussed in Chapter 10, “Seven Keys to Free Methodist Renewal,” in Gerald E. Bates and Howard A. Snyder, Soul-Searching the Church: Free Methodism at 150 Years (Light & Life Communications, 2007), 139-42. In the same book Nazarene Historian Stanley Ingersol interprets Free Methodist history within the larger North American cultural and religious context (pp. 27-42). [Find My Place]

[24] B. T. Roberts, Ordaining Women [1891; 2003 reprint, Light and Life Communications], 79-82. [Find My Place]

[25] Another model is to see Free Methodist identity as the interplay of four dynamics: doctrine, piety, liturgy, and ethics. See “Seven Keys to Free Methodist Renewal,” Soul-Searching the Church, 145-47. [Find My Place]

[26] Jim Belcher, Deep Church: A Third Way Beyond Emerging and Traditional (InterVarsity, 2009). Belcher draws a fairly comprehensive kingdom vision from John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper — not bad, but today’s church and world greatly need Wesley’s insights and sensitivities. [Find My Place]

,