Archive: What John Wesley Might Say to the United Methodist Church

By Dr. Albert C. Outler

On Tuesday, April 23, 1968 The United Methodist Church was born, out of union between the Evangelical United Brethren and The Methodist Churches. Keynote address was delivered by Dr. Albert C. Outler, Professor of Theology at Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, Tex.

An expert on the theology of John Wesley, Dr. Outler told the editors of Good News that his sermon was an attempt to say what he thought the founder of Methodism would say to the new church. Space limitations prohibit publication of the entire sermon, but significant excerpts have been lifted from the body of Dr. Outler’s address titled “The Unfinished Business of an Unfinished Church” – Charles W. Keysor, Editor.

… Here we tum a new page in modem church history. And just as smugness is excluded from our celebration, so is cynicism …

We have much to be grateful for, nothing to be complacent about. Our joy this day is foretaste of a future that can be even more creative than we have yet dared to ask or think. This means that, as we tum from our ceremony of beginnings to the tasks that follow, our foremost need is for a vivid sense of the church we have been called to be.

By what norms shall we transform our covenant into genuine koinonia? By what principles are we willing to be guided in the agonies of growth that lie ahead?

One thing is for sure: what has served till now as our “status quo before” will simply not suffice for the upcoming future … The standing order is now too nearly preoccupied with self-maintenance and survival. The world is in furious and agonizing turmoil, incomprehensible and unmanageable. The church is in a radical crisis, and in the throes of a profound demoralization at every level: of faith and order, life and work. In such times, business as usual simply will not get the job done ….

The basic meaning of the word “catholic” is “whole,” “universal,” “open.” It reminds us that true unity not only allows for diversity, it requires it … It means … a community whose boundaries are set by the Christian essentials (the bare essentials at that) in which it is bad faith for anyone to deny full membership to any other, save by the canons of faith in Christ and the Christian discipline that derives from that confession.

This rules out all distinctions based on race, sex, class and culture – and so also all distinctions based on partisan emphasis on this doctrine or that, this form of worship or that, this pattern of polity or that. Here is the plain teaching of Wesley’s sermon on Catholic Spirit – a sermon we would do well to recall and to update in terms that might fit our own condition …

But catholicity by itself is not enough. The church is called to mission, and her mission is both her message and the demonstration of that message in her corporate life. Her message is not herself, either. It is her witness to the Christian Evangel: to the scandal and folly of Christ incarnate, Christ crucified, Christ resurrected, Christ transforming human life and culture, Christ in the world, Christ for the world; Christ in us, our hope of glory!

Thus, the church we are called to be must be “truly evangelical” – a church ablaze with a passion that God’s Gospel shall be preached and heard and responded to in faith and hope and love by all who can be reached and instructed and gathered into the fellowship of God’s covenanted people.

The fullness of the Gospel embraces all human concerns everywhere and always. But the heart of the Gospel is startlingly simple: that God loves you and me and all men with a very special love, and that Jesus Christ is sufficient proof of this love to any man who will receive and confess Him as Savior and Lord …

The word “evangelical” is concerned, above all, with the faith that receives the Gospel wholeheartedly and in trust. It means faith as a gift from God, faith as man’s response to God, faith as the mortal foe of human pride ….

The church evangelical is, therefore, radically Christ-centered. It is disengaged from any final dependence on her apparatus of whatever sort, save only as it ministers to her central mission: that men may receive God’s gift of saving grace in Christ, and learn to live in the world in true communion with the Holy Spirit and with one another.

The church evangelical is a proclaiming church – but it is also a teaching church. Wesley often pointed out that the difference between his movement and the others –equally zealous in proclamation- was his provision of societies in which converts came to learn the meaning of the Gospel in depth and in concrete life situations.

We Methodists and EUB’s alike … are grateful heirs of evangelical fathers and brethren. But we can scarcely boast of having fully claimed their legacy.

A church falling behind in the race with an exploding … population is not “truly evangelical,” despite its self-advertisements. A church that counts her evangelical harvest chiefly in terms of members added to the rolls is not truly evangelical. A church, the vast majority of whose members do not really understand the great issues entailed by “the Protestant principle” – God’s sovereignty, man’s justification by faith alone, the witness of the Spirit, the life of grace, the authority of the Scripture as the prime source of divine revelation, and so forth – such a church is not only not truly evangelical, she is, indeed, partaker in the greatest tragedy of modern Christianity: the abject failure of the teaching church.

Here we are – Christians by name and sign-organized to the teeth and involved in titanic labors of all sorts. And yet … our people do not really know what the Christian faith purports; do not really believe in their hearts and minds what they profess with their lips. And of those that do, there are few who can give a rational account of it to themselves and others ….


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