– December 2011
No one possesses a faith that is self-made. Each of us are indebted to the whole body of Christ for our understanding of scripture and our view of Christian living. We have all benefited immensely from great spiritual truths that have been developed over the centuries, shaped by revival, purified by reformation and tested by experience. We stand on the shoulders of men and movements who have forged for us what we now know as our spiritual heritage. To unwittingly sever ourselves from these spiritual roots is tragic. To knowingly do so may well be treacherous. Yet many Christians sell their spiritual birthright as thoughtlessly as they sell their unwanted household junk.
What these yard sale saints can’t see is not hidden to historical scholars. They tell us that movements, religious or otherwise, can only maintain vitality and significance as long as they retain a clear understanding of their historical identity. A religious movement’s identity is determined by their dogma, doctrine, traditions, ideals, values, and culture – all of which have been developed over the centuries. These are the things that tell us who we are and answer the question of why we exist. Without them, no movement can affirm a clear mission or cast a uniting vision.
The Call to the Conservative Holiness Movement issued in the October Revivalist pleads for a commitment to historic roots and continuity in Article II. This involves both a renewed commitment to classical Christianity and a renewed understanding of our spiritual heritage as passed down to us through the Methodist Holiness Tradition. This call is not rooted in a sentimental hankering for the past. Nor is it some nostalgic desire to re-create methods and means that have long since served their usefulness –that’s what museums do! It is, however, recognition that we lose something vitally important for our future when we become disconnected from our past.
This appeal to the CHM is particularly urgent for two reasons. First, the CHM is going through a time of transition. Second, the CHM is too often afflicted with a form of historical amnesia – we have long term memory loss. Our memory only reaches back about 60 years to the days when we separated from our mother churches. What happened then is clearly a vital part of our heritage but it is far from all of it. Nor can that separation point be the sole place from which we draw our identity. If it is, then we lose the wealth of hundreds of years of rich holiness history. We also lose important “family traits” and “traditions” that may serve us well in our contemporary struggles. The CHM faces questions today and will certainly face more in the tomorrows that will not be adequately answered without drawing on the wisdom and life experiences of our fore-fathers. We need our heritage – all of it!
As the CHM seeks to develop a fuller understanding of its historical identity, it is helpful to examine the family tree. We are Christian, we are Reformation Protestants, we are Arminian, we are Arminian/Anglican, and we are Methodist. From there the branch divides into Wesleyan Methodist, Free Methodist, Pilgrim Holiness and Nazarene. From there the branches further divide into a dozen denominational groups and a host of independent churches that self-identify as the Conservative Holiness Movement.
The CHM is, for the most part, Wesleyan in its theological opinions, especially in its commitment to the doctrine of entire-sanctification. However, it can be quite diverse in many other ways. There is significant variation in views relating to the sacraments, lifestyle practices, social issues (e.g. divorce and remarriage) and church government. The CHM does find common ground in their opposition to: immodest worldly attire, short hair on women, and the wearing of jewelry. These common ground issues have become the “street level” means of identifying the movement. As important as these things may be, there are some other very important “family traits” that ought to be front and center when people think of the CHM. Identity markers that I would love to see become our ”street level” means of identity. Traits that can clearly be found in our spiritual roots – in particular our Methodist Holiness Heritage!
The early Methodists found their reason for existence and their vision for the future in Wesley’s call “to reform a Nation, and in particular the church; and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Responding to that call led them to reap a harvest of souls for God’s kingdom and ultimately altered the religious landscape of England and early America for almost a century. However, it must be noted that this breathtaking, forward looking, mission statement worked only in a context. And that context was the theological content and spiritual character of what Methodism truly was. You could call it their DNA or their family traits. Let’s examine five of those traits.
First, they were known for a distinctive theological understanding of God. One of the best ways to understand the impact of their theology is to look at how those early Methodists lived it out. Francis Asbury, the founder of American Methodism is a good example to observe. When Asbury arrived in America there were only a few hundred Methodists, but by 1860 one out of every three Americans was a Methodist. Asbury crossed the Allegheny Mountains on horseback 60 times, slept in 10,000 different cabins and homes, preached 60,500 sermons in 45 years (a little more than one a day), and became more recognizable than George Washington or Thomas Jefferson. By the end of the 18th century, Methodism had determined the nature of religious culture in America thus setting the stage for the next 100 years.
Why did he and countless hundreds of other Methodist circuit riders do what they did? It was their theology that motivated them! Their theology taught them that every man had infinite worth. They believed that God not only wanted to save every man but that every man could be saved! To better understand this you need to remember that Calvinism was the prevalent theology of the day and a core component of Calvinism was election. When the average Calvinist walked down the street he would think, “It is possible that I might even see one of God’s elect today.” When a Methodist walked down the street he would think, “Every man I see today is one of God’s elect and it is my job to tell him!”
Second, they were known for their optimism of grace. I am not sure if grace shaped their eschatology or their eschatology shaped their concept of grace but what I do know is that the early Methodists believed so powerfully in the transforming grace of God that they were convinced that they would transform the church, the nation and the world – ushering in the millennial reign! The optimism of grace drove Methodist circuit riders farther and faster than new invention could drive the feet of commerce.
Third, they were known for a distinctive view of spiritual experience. The early Methodists believed that every man could be saved, that every man could know they were saved and that every man could be saved to the uttermost! The doctrine of assurance gave new converts stability and peace. The doctrine of entire sanctification gave believers victory over sin and power to live a holy life. Methodism took people out of their “sinning religion” and taught them that they could walk in complete obedience to God! With such peace, hope and victory, it’s no wonder that the Methodist were known for their exuberant singing and loud shouting!
Fourth, they were known for their distinctive view of the Church and Evangelism. They were flexible and innovative. They didn’t need a proper church with stained glass windows and comfortable pews. They preached in the highways and byways, in fields and near mines, on the frontier and in the city ghettos. They introduced a new style of worship to accommodate the large numbers of unconverted people in their congregations. Worship scholars refer to it as “frontier worship”. It is now the primary worship style we still use today. They operated missions for the down and outer, cottages for the unwed mothers, orphanages for the destitute, camp meetings for the masses, class meetings for the newly converted and circuits for rural churches. They founded training schools, colleges and universities. No aspect of their society was left untouched by the gospel. Those early Methodist did whatever was necessary to obey the command to “preach the gospel to every creature”.
Fifth, they were known for their stewardship. The early Methodists looked right through the world that was around them and saw a Kingdom. It was to that Kingdom and ultimately to its King that they gave their solemn allegiance and perfect love. Many freely denied themselves the comforts of home, family and marriage to give their lives in His service. The rank and file who did build homes and raise up families were so well known for their rejection of this worlds values and ostentation that the very name Methodist was spoken in derision and scorn by those who loved to parade their fashion and display their wealth. It was not what could be gained in this world but what could be invested in the world to come that motivated these people called Methodists.
These are a few of the “family traits” of a people and a movement that history says “owned the 19th century”! I see some of these same traits being manifested today in the underground church in China where 20,000 people are converted every day. It has yet to be decided who will own the 21st century, but I believe it will be owned by the people who have looked long enough and deep enough into the past to see how God will work in the future. You can figure it out too but you will need to dig deep into your spiritual roots!