I’m a Wesleyan Christian. I find more value in John Wesley’s school of thought than I do any other reflections on the Christian life. I’m a cradle Methodist, and I’ve chosen the United Methodist Church to be my home as long it will have me.
That said, while reading a Wesley scholar’s book, I’ve hit onto a potentially critical difference between Wesley’s time and today, which may affect how we ought to apply his theology today.
Porch, Door, House
Rev. Dr. Kevin Watson is a United Methodist Elder in the Oklahoma Conference and Professor of Wesleyan and Methodist Studies at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. Dr. Watson’s 2013 book The Class Meeting is an extended argument for contemporary Wesleyanism to reclaim the class meeting, which fell out of practice in the early 20th century. I’m not addressing that specific topic today; rather, in Chapter 3 of that book, Watson articulates that the practice was meant to convey doctrine, specifically the salvation process.
Here’s John Wesley’s process:
“Our main doctrines, which include all the rest, are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.” (Wesley, “The Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained”)
Dr. Watson outlines what this doctrine looks like as an individual metaphorically approaches God’s house:
- The first step (the porch) is Repentance of Sin: we are addicted to sin and need salvation. The first step on the journey of faith is to recognize we cannot save ourselves and to desire to repent of our sin.
- The second step (the door) is Faith in God: to turn to God for salvation and believe in God through Jesus Christ. This leads to a completely different relationship than before: one of adopted children in a family. This is the “justification by faith” stage of faith.
- The third step (the house) is Religion itself: moving all of our life into God’s house and making our whole lives reflect God’s goodness. This is the “sanctification” stage of faith, which must be lived out in Christian community.
This is a truly helpful articulation of Wesleyan theology.
However, I cannot help but wonder if the process is backwards today.
Believe, Belong, Behave…
John Wesley was writing in a time when America was steeped in Christendom, meaning where Christianity was the dominant belief system. Even including the Native Americans who were evangelized (often by force) as a Pre-Christendom nation, Wesley lived and wrote in a Pre/Dominant Christian context. While actual religious adherence rates were similar to today, Wesley came to America right during the First Great Awakening and rode the explosion of Christian participation from that revival period.
To apply the above doctrine, then, individuals first believed in their need for salvation, belonged (affiliated) with the Christian tradition by justification of faith, and then behaved differently as they sought personal and social holiness.
This should be very familiar: it’s the basic evangelical process that we have today. People are asked “if you died today, would you go to heaven or hell?” to get to belief, they pray the sinner’s prayer to belong to the Christian tradition, and then they attend church/bible study/service projects to live out their newfound life. Variances abound in style, but the believe/belong/behave process is the same.
It makes sense and it continues to make sense…or does it?
…Or Behave, Belong, Believe?
In contrast to Wesley’s day, huge swaths of contemporary America are in Post-Christendom. The fastest-growing religious group in America is the non-religious. Even the strongly evangelical denominations are curbing their growth. We spent our political capital in the 90s/00s with the Moral Majority, and now we are neither. So, culturally, we are on the other side of the coin that Wesley had, and Christianity will potentially become a minority presence amidst a plurality of others.
In these Post-Christian cultures, church often looks different. Here’s a glimpse into the successful discipleship process that we have at my church in post-Christendom Portland (Oregon):
Discipleship starts with behaving. First UMC has significant ministries of outreach that connect with the hopes and core beliefs of many Portlandians. And the church’s commitment to outreach, wherever the members live in the region, has become the most effective “front porch” the church has…As church folks interact with the others in the community in all these ways, they develop relationships. Church and community members move from behaving together to feeling a sense of belonging together. And then, when the time is right, the Rev. Smith says, he finds ways to help them take the next step: to commit to Jesus Christ through First UMC, and so to believing together.
As you see, in Post-Christendom, the process is reversed. Rather than power-narratives or sinner’s prayers or overwhelmingly emotional worship services, the entry point for Post-Christian outreach often is through behaviors, not beliefs. Furthermore, there’s biblical precedent for this reversal of order, though it is slightly different than post-modern writings on this topic.
Does the Wesleyan model look different in a Post-Christian context? The graphic above outlines what I mean:
- In Wesley’s time and expressed theology of Christendom, the process was “believe, belong, behave.” In Pre-Christendom, people had (mostly) not heard of Christianity and thus belief mattered a great deal.
- In contemporary times in Post-Christendom, it seems like the process is “behave, belong, believe.” In Post-Christendom, Christianity has been tried, tested, and rejected–so behaviors matter a great deal to overcome the past preconceptions.
In Post-Christendom, we begin approaching God’s house by behaving, by making our lives reflect our prevenient grace as much as we are aware of it. By affiliating with companions on the journey, we reach justification, and then we fuse our actions with newfound beliefs in sanctification.
I believe the utter reliance on God is the same in both models: one emphasizes that we cannot save ourselves without Christ, and after we know that in our heart, our lives can be transformed. The other emphasizes that our behaviors can be transformative, but salvation is only through Christ, and our development of beliefs help us truly repent and live a sanctified life.
Joys and Concerns?
This isn’t a fully-formed systematic theology, but rather a lingering concern about how to reconcile Wesleyan theology with a context that Wesley did not experience. So here’s my own joys and concerns about the above.
- This fuses discipleship and evangelism. By showing how our behaviors matter both for our own discipleship and for evangelism, it makes our behaviors matter more than our beliefs or power-narratives.
- This reflects my own experience serving a church in the None Zone, the area of the country where Christianity is falling out of favor fast.
- Holiness is more than the practice: it is the intention behind it. While non-Christians can certainly participate in the same actions and even have the same benevolent motivations as Christians, they do not have the same intentions of sanctification that relies on God, not self-improvement.
- Roger Olson, an evangelical, writes persuasively about his concern that placing “believe” at the end of the chain leads to it being left off.
Your joys/concerns? Thanks for reading.