V. The Church: The People of God Made Holy in Love

Section V: The Church: The People of God Made Holy in Love

As lifelong members and then priests of the Church of England, the Wesleys generally embraced an Anglican understanding of the nature and mission of the Church. The Church of England claimed direct continuity with the one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic Church—that is, founded by Jesus Christ with his mission and authority passed on through the apostles. Anglican theology also held that the Church of Jesus Christ is embodied in local parishes which were accountable to regional bishops and with worship centered in regular sacramental practice (especially the Lord’s Supper). Despite occasional conflict with certain priests or bishops, the Wesleys understood their work to be in fundamental harmony with the Church of England. 

The Wesleys’ central beliefs about the nature and mission of the Church remain important among Wesleyans today. They include evangelical catholicity, the priesthood of all believers, Methodism as a renewal movement within the Church, and the importance of extending the work of the Church to all people, especially the poor.

Evangelical Catholicity: The Wesleys affirmed an evangelical catholicity, according to which there are many manifestations of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, all of which proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and give witness to the Kingdom of God. The Wesleys came to embrace such a view in large part because of the influence of their Anglican background. As noted in our discussion of the via media, the Church of England has always sought to be “broad’ and to include within its communion a wide range of believers, including those with affinities for both Catholicism and Reformed Christianity. Anglicans also recognized that other churches (such as Lutheran and Catholic) maintained continuity with the one, true Church despite disagreement with those churches on certain doctrinal issues.

We find John Wesley’s understanding of evangelical catholicity outlined especially in his sermon “The Catholic Spirit.” In this sermon, John emphasizes the unity of the Church around the core essentials of Christian faith. He then distinguishes these essentials from the nonessentials, arguing that disagreement over the nonessentials should not hinder the unity of the Church. We may summarize his list of essentials as follows:

A right heart with God (including absolute trust in and devotion to God and commitment to orthodox belief in God and God’s perfections);

Right faith in Christ (including both complete trust in Christ as Savior and a commitment to orthodox beliefs about Christ); and

Right love for God and neighbor (including true affection and actions that appropriately express such affection).30

This spirit of evangelical catholicity has continued to characterize the Wesleyan movement as a whole throughout its history.31

The Priesthood of All Believers: This is the teaching that all believers in Christ have access to God and are called to and empowered for Christian ministry. In other words, God grants the gifts of the Spirit to all believers and calls them to serve as ministers of the gospel.32 From the beginning of the Wesleyan movement, lay (non-ordained) ministers have played an important role in the life of the Church. Lay preachers were responsible for much of the spread of Methodism in both Britain and America, and all Methodists were expected to participate in ministry to those in need.

While some Christian groups have limited official church ministry (especially preaching and administration of the sacraments) to men, the Wesleyan movement has always affirmed the calling and ministry of women. John and Charles Wesley recognized the Holy Spirit at work in the ministries of women and included them among their lay preachers. Wesleyan denominations were among the first to fully ordain women for both preaching and sacramental service.33 Likewise, the Church of the Nazarene has embraced women as ordained pastors, preachers, evangelists, and missionaries since its founding, and as a Wesleyan university, PLNU continues to seek to support both women and men as they seek to respond to God’s calling in their lives.

Methodism as a Renewal Movement: Methodism was not founded by the Wesleys to be a distinct denomination or to replace the Church of England, but instead to be a network of small groups functioning as a reform movement within the larger Church in pursuit of holiness. Only later, when Methodists began to break from the Church of England, did they see themselves as a denomination of the larger Church of Jesus Christ. Likewise, Wesleyan churches have understood themselves to be expressions of the one true Church, but with the special mission of calling all people to lives of holiness.34

Ministry to All, Especially the Poor: For Wesleyans the mission of the Church is to be the Body of Christ enfolding all people into God’s love. From the very beginning, Methodism was a movement that reached out to common people, many of whom were poor, and incorporated them into the life of the Church. If the call of the Christian is to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves, then loving God cannot be separated from loving and including everyone, especially those who are in physical, spiritual, or material need (Luke 10:29-37). As God’s love is expressed in the incarnation of Jesus who became one with us in order to redeem us, true followers of Jesus continually seek to love and care for those in need.

The early Methodists expressed their conviction that the love of God is for all people by taking the gospel out of the “sanctuary” and into the “streets.” This is especially illustrated in their commitment to “field preaching,” that is, to preaching the gospel to people wherever they gathered. The Wesleys regularly preached to people in town squares and to those on their way to work in the fields or the mines. There were times when the Wesleys and other itinerant Methodist preachers were criticized by Anglican leaders for encroaching on the territory of local parishes, to which John retorted, “All the world is my parish!” and claimed that they were simply taking the gospel to places and people not being reached by the Church of England. 

This same conviction was expressed through early Methodist acts of mercy. While Anglican charity was distributed largely through local parishes, the early Methodists were intent to visit and care for the poor wherever they might be found. We may speak of these practices as exhibiting a kind of “missional” movement for they marked a true broadening of the Church’s mission beyond the confines of the local parish or church building.35 In a similar fashion, throughout the history of the Wesleyan movement, Wesleyan churches have understood their mission to include living out the gospel among all people, and especially among the poor.

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30.  Cf. John Wesley, “The Catholic Spirit.” Wesley’s list is technically more extensive that the one provided here, but may be effectively summed up in these three points.
31.  PLNU founder Phineas F. Bresee often expressed this sentiment in one of his favorite maxims: “Unity in the essentials, diversity in the nonessentials, and charity in all things.” An irenic approach to dogma such as this proved to be especially important in the formation of the Church of the Nazarene, which was forged as a union of various regional American holiness groups. These groups shared a common commitment to historical Christian orthodoxy and a common mission to promote the doctrine and life of holy love, but otherwise differed on a several important doctrines and practices. A similar commitment to catholicity continues to exist within the Church of the Nazarene today. The Church of the Nazarene maintains its core commitment to the historic faith of the church and to the promotion of the gospel of holy love, but there is also allowance for loyal dissent and a certain amount of diversity on matters of belief and practice within our church. Moreover, like the Wesleys, Nazarenes gladly extend the hand of Christian fellowship to all those who call on the name of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, whether Protestant, Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox. We consider all to be our sisters and brothers in Christ even if we disagree with them on various not insignificant matters of doctrine and practice.
32.  Most churches in the Wesleyan tradition still withhold oversight of certain rites—such as baptism, communion, and marriage—to ministers who have been specially ordained for such oversight.
33.  Cf. Paul W. Chilocote, She Offered Them Christ: The Legacy of Women Preachers in Early Methodism (Wipf & Stock, 2001) and Rebecca Laird, Ordained Women in the Church of the Nazarene (Nazarene Publishing House, 1993).
34.  For the church, see the Foreword to the Manual: Church of the Nazarene, 2009-2013 (Nazarene Publishing House, 2009), 5; and the introductory statement for The Manual of the Church of the Nazarene (1898). For the university see Ron Kirkemo, For Zion’s Sake: A History of Pasadena/Point Loma College (Point Loma Press, 2008), 32-33.
35.  By “missional” we mean “God’s people participating in God’s redemptive mission in the world.”