By Andrew Thompson-
The people called Methodists stand at a turning point in their history. It is time, once and for all, to determine whether we will “hold fast” to the “doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which [we] first set out,” or whether we will rather “only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power” (John Wesley, “Thoughts Upon Methodism.”).
This turning point is not a crisis point but rather an opportunity. And that means that we stand also at the cusp of a new frontier. It’s the frontier that the Church has always been called to cross into, yet rarely has had the courage. The land that lies beyond it is a land traversed solely by faith — for it is the land of faith, a true and wholehearted faith in God that does not rely on the crutch of surrounding culture.
To understand the frontier we are being called to venture into, a small amount of historical perspective is needed. This is the case for the history of the Methodist movement, but also perhaps for the history of the Church as a whole.
Constantinian fall. Before his crucifixion, Jesus warned his disciples about the kind of reception that awaited them in the world. He told them of the way they would be reviled, of the way they would be persecuted, and of the way they would be challenged. “I have said this to you,” Jesus says, “So that in me you may have peace.” Then he adds: “In the world you face persecution. But take courage. I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33).
This basic antagonism between Church and culture was assumed by early Christians to be the norm for those called to carry the gospel of life into a world that knew only death. The Church had the word of Christ through the teaching of the apostles. It had the guiding strength of the Holy Spirit. No matter what the wider world might throw at it, the Church knew it had enough.
Things began to change in the 4th century A.D., when the Emperor Constantine came to believe not only that the power of Christ had given him victory in war, but also that the Christian Church could serve as a vehicle for cultural and political unification throughout the Roman Empire. So Constantine began to favor the Church politically with patronage. With the endorsement of the Empire’s ruler, the Empire’s citizens began to convert to Christianity en masse.
This remarkable change in the Church’s fortunes has been interpreted in widely different ways throughout history. On the one hand, some have seen it as a remarkable act of providence — the Church, finally free from lethal persecution, could set about to evangelize the whole world more effectively. On the other hand, others have seen Constantine’s endorsement of the Christian faith much differently. For if “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (as Tertullian put it), then the end of all persecution, the lowering of moral standards in the church, and a sharp increase in the ease of conversion — all of which happened in the 4th century — could only mean that the Church’s faith would be greatly diluted and its zeal reduced from burning hot to nothing more than lukewarm.
From the late 1740s to the 1780s, Methodism’s founder John Wesley again and again stated his belief that Constantine’s endorsement of Christianity in the 4th century had disastrous consequences for the Church. As he puts it in the 1783 sermon, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” the “grand blow which was struck at the very root of that humble, gentle, patient love, which is the fulfilling of the Christian law, the whole essence of true religion, was struck in the fourth century by Constantine the Great, when he called himself a Christian, and poured in a flood of riches, honors, and power upon the Christians.”
Why the pointed indictment of Constantine? Because in bestowing the imperial blessing upon the Church, the Roman emperor set the train of events in motion that would subject the Church to a process of acculturation. Indeed, the period between the so-called conversion of Constantine until the fall of the Western Roman Empire is often called by historians that of the “Imperial Church.” And that title is fitting, in that the Church came to take on a status and role within the Empire that had previously been foreign to it. We would like to think that the culture became Christianized as a result of Constantine, but the reality is much more that the Church became acculturated.
So what do zealous Christians do in such a situation? For many such Christians during the period of the Imperial Church, the only viable option was the “white martyrdom” of monastic practice. Starting in Egypt and eventually spreading to the West, men and women alike retreated from what they saw as a corrupt society and corrupt Church so that they could live in small communities where prayer, the study of Scripture, and service were the hallmarks of daily life.
Protestants don’t often give this movement the credit it deserves; yet in the centuries following the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire, it was monastic communities that preserved learning, gave birth to great missionary efforts, and kept a vital expression of daily discipleship alive during some of Western Civilization’s most difficult times.
Wesley’s Struggle with Constantine. The story of acculturation, decline, and renewal hasn’t only happened once. It has been, to greater and lesser degrees, repeated time and again over the centuries. John Wesley’s own interest in Constantine was certainly more than just academic; he rather took the time to comment upon Constantine because he believed he was dealing with the consequences of that long-dead emperor’s actions in his own day.
Think about the connections: the Church of England in Wesley’s day was an “established” Church, meaning that it was officially an arm of the English government (with the reigning monarch as its head). Unless you tried very hard to join a dissenting group, you would automatically become a part of the Church of England by virtue of your birth within the kingdom and your baptism in your local parish church. Discipline was lax; faith was lukewarm. All these are features of church life that can be traced to changes begun under Constantine’s influence.
It was in the midst of the English Church’s own struggle with Constantinian Christianity that God raised up the people called Methodists — not exactly to the white martyrdom of the ancient monks, but instead to a deeply evangelical parachurch movement that aimed (in Wesley’s words) to “reform the nation, and in particular the Church, [and] to spread scriptural holiness over the land” (Large Minutes of 1763). When giving advice to the junior preachers of the movement, Wesley told them, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. Therefore spend and be spent in this work” (Large Minutes of 1763). There was a gospel of salvation to be preached! A life of holiness to be lived! There were lost sheep to be gathered, and a mission to be pursued in the world!
Wesley cared about Constantine because he knew he had to struggle against what Constantine represented in the Church’s life. The Church was not meant to adhere to the values of the world. The Church was not meant to be the handmaiden of the culture. The Church was rather called to be the “light of the world,” the “city built on the hill,” and the “lamp upon the lampstand” giving light to the darkness beyond (Matthew 5:14-15)!
Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would—in a process that had happened many times over the centuries—be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog. He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self. Indeed, he feared he was seeing that very process happening already in the 1780s, during the last decade of his life.
Learning from the Past. Although we are neither in Constantine’s 4th century nor Wesley’s 18th, we are not immune from the forces that shaped both those other eras. For one, it was early American Methodism under Bishop Francis Asbury and his successors that largely inherited the Wesleyan mission during the first half-century after the Methodist Episcopal Church was established in 1784. Yet the American Methodists — as they grew in number, in wealth, and in social stature — found that their engagement with culture, and their desire to transform culture, left them vulnerable to the same process of acculturation that previous movements had experienced. The historian John Wigger has described Methodism’s shift between the 1780s and the 1840s as moving from counterculture, to existing as a subculture, to becoming the predominant culture in American society.
The Methodists, who numbered about 58,000 in 1790, made up just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. Yet by 1850 they numbered over 1.2 million people — amounting to over 1,900 percent growth over that span. In Methodism and the Shaping of American Culture, the historian Nathan Hatch calls it a “virtual miracle of growth” and notes that by 1850 the Methodists were “far and away the largest religious body in the nation and the most extensive national institution other than the Federal government.”
This is the point where modern-day Methodists usually smile to themselves and think about the greatness of our spiritual forebearers. And to be fair, much of the growth during this period was the result of powerful preaching and powerful communities where men and women learned to live into the joy of holiness of heart and life. Yet there is an underside to this story as well, and it is seen in the way that — especially after about 1830 or so — increasingly lax membership standards, the decline of the class meeting, and the compromise on slavery were the fruits reaped by a Church that became fascinated, or even obsessed, with cultural acceptance and influence.
It’s a story that can be told in a thousand different ways, so let me tell it with just one simple illustration drawn from John Wigger’s Taking Heaven by Storm: The middle third of the 19th century was the great time of struggle for the soul of American Methodism. Old timers who came to be known as “croakers” advocated for a return to the old ways of Wesleyan simplicity and discipline — an approach to engaging culture that insisted that sinners must convert in order for society to be changed rather than thinking that overlaying a paper-thin Christian piety on a largely heathen culture would suffice.
George Cookman was a prominent Methodist who had no patience for the croakers who believed Methodism was becoming more worldly and more indulgent. Cookman wanted to see Methodism and Methodists as leaders of society. The last thing he wanted was to have to endure the old-timers who kept fighting for an out-of-date evangelical zeal and an uncouth dedication to living lives of holiness before God. Writing in the Christian Advocate and Journal in 1841, Cookman exclaimed, “I trust, sir, that Methodism will … keep pace with the spirit of the age.”
Well, what exactly is the spirit of the age? Forgive me, but that doesn’t sound like the same thing as the Holy Spirit. It sounds rather like something Constantine might approve of. And for Methodists to be committed to that as their standard seems to lead inevitably and inexorably to the kind of theological orientation that Christian ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr once described in The Kingdom of God in America as the ethos of liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
If your standard is the “spirit of the age,” then considerations like the sovereignty of God, or the moral law of Christ, or the atoning sacrifice of the cross — these are just embarrassing relics best swept under the rug in the name of “progress.” And when your engagement with culture has moved from decidedly countercultural to enthusiastically pro-culture — that is, when your Church’s life has so given in to culture that it takes its lead from culture rather than embracing that type of life not “conformed to the ways of this world” (Romans 12:2), then you are no longer engaging the culture at all. The culture is simply what you have become.
Into a New Day. As the Wesleyan Covenant Association takes shape over the months and years to come, one of the things it would behoove us to remember is that what it means to be “Wesleyan” and what it means to be “Methodist” are no longer the same thing. Once, indeed, they were, but that has not been the case for a long time.
“Wesleyan” as a label has the ability to retain its original sense because there is a personal history and a body of writing which we can apply to it. “Methodism,” though it was once the label embraced by those who practiced a Wesleyan spirituality and discipline, has evolved over almost three centuries to mean everything and nothing. So if we want to be Methodists as Methodists once were, we have a great deal of work to do in terms of reclaiming, renewing, and rebuilding that identity.
It won’t be easy work. But we can take heart in the sure knowledge that God will never abandon his Church. Whenever the Church becomes stagnant or self-absorbed, God works to bring about a new day. That is the direction of the gospel! It is truly good news for sinners such as ourselves. And if we will repent, then God will surely come to us anew with the transforming power of his grace. God will not allow his faithful children to remain in a place of despair.
He did not leave Joseph in the dungeon. He did not leave the Hebrews in slavery. He did not leave Jonah in the belly of the whale. He did not leave Daniel in the lion’s den. And God most certainly did not leave Jesus in the tomb.
We can therefore be sure that he will not leave us in the wilderness in which we find ourselves at present. Now is the time to join hands, and fall to our knees. With prayer and repentance let us seek his will for our lives. And with the boldness we can gain through our faith in Jesus Christ, let us march forward into the into the new day God is bringing us.
Andrew Thompson is senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. He also serves as the Wesley Scholar to the Arkansas Conference of The United Methodist Church. Prior to his current appointment, Dr. Thompson was on the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of The Means of Grace (Seedbed). This article is adapted from Dr. Thompson’s address at the Wesleyan Covenant Association gathering in Chicago on October 7, 2016.