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The Scandal of the Wesleyan Memory

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post by Ken Schenck and Jeremy Summers
(filling out our Scandal of the Evangelical Memory series)

In a number of respects, the Wesleyan tradition is quite comfortable to be different from mainstream evangelicalism. Wesleyans believe God empowers us to make the crucial decision of faith, leading to justification. Wesleyans are at ease with the belief that God allows us to leave him after we have been justified. Wesleyans are quite comfortable to believe God’s grace can make us truly (and not just fictively) righteous.

At the same time, elements that are not indigenous to our tradition have made major inroads into the Wesleyan community because of our participation in the neo-evangelicalism that emerged in the late 1940s. One might easily get the impression from many Wesleyans that the only difference between us and mainstream evangelicals is that we have swapped out a few beliefs. We might not realize that to formulize our identity primarily in terms of beliefs already reflects a major shift for a revivalist tradition with strong Pietist elements in our roots.

Activism: For people, not just against sin

If you look at the activism that surrounded the origins of many Wesleyan traditions in America, it was an activism that was for people, not just against sin. The Wesleyan Methodist Church started in protest of slavery. The Free Methodist Church started in protest of economic privilege. Nazarenes, Wesleyans, and Free Methodists have a strong history of ordaining women, and Wesleyans strongly supported the women’s rights movement of the late 1800s. We are a strongly egalitarian tradition in our roots.

The Reversal

These were examples of an activism that was for people, not least the poor. In the twentieth century, however, as the rest of evangelicalism reacted against the social gospel, many grass roots Christians in the Wesleyan tradition found their intuitions turn against helping the needy, against helping immigrants, against anything associated with liberalism, including care for God’s creation. Many of us stood idly by in the civil rights movement, choosing to see protesters as law-breakers rather than standing by their side in the civil disobedience that was a hallmark of our beginnings. Our intuitions changed.

Although the official position of The Wesleyan tradition remains in favor of women in ministry, many in local Wesleyan churches are opposed. Regardless of what churches may say, they reveal their true opinions through their resistance to hire female pastors. And a significant minority in the Wesleyan tradition goes one step further expressing openly complementarian viewpoints.

In addition, our historical commitment to equip and engage the laity to make disciples who make disciples has been replaced by an expectation that the professional clergy should do the work of discipleship. This has naturally given rise to an increased focus on preaching and the worship service, and as a result, discipleship is primarily practiced through the pulpit, rather than in relationship via classes or groups. Authentic accountability and holistic growth have shifted away from character development to service attendance. We have essentially lost the method of our Methodist roots.

We probably see the impact of the neo-evangelical use of Scripture in some of these trends. In its early days, the Wesleyan tradition was both pre-modern and pneumatic in its approach to biblical texts. It had a spiritual common sense that focused intuitively on biblical principles. By contrast, the modernist biases of neo-evangelicalism atomize the biblical text and strongly resist the “law of love” filter that used to play itself out in theological interpretations.

Hope?

The jury is still out on the future of the Wesleyan tradition. Nevertheless, despite recent conflicts, the official positions—and arguably younger Wesleyans—remain true to our not quite forgotten memory.

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Ken Schenck: Dean of Wesley Seminary at Indiana Wesleyan University

Jeremy Summers: Director of Adult Spiritual Formation of The Wesleyan Denomination

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