What’s Wesleyan About Leadership?

By Steve Manskar

We can get some good guidance for what Wesleyan leadership looks like with a review of the historic questions each bishop asks candidates for ordination at every annual conference session (see ¶ 303.5.d in The Book of Discipline-2008). When Methodism in America became a separate church in 1784 these questions were reserved for persons about to be ordained as deacons and elders. We continue this practice today.

However, when we read the Works of John Wesley we discover that many of these questions were originally used with the people Wesley called “Helpers.” Nearly all of the “Helpers” were lay men and women who Wesley gave responsibility for leadership in the Methodist societies. They were class leaders, stewards, local preachers and travelling preachers. The questions addressed topics Wesley believed to be essential for persons responsible for leading others in discipleship and mission in the world.

Of the nineteen historic questions we use today, I am going to focus on the first seven. I think the church would benefit if all persons accepting the responsibility for leadership at any level could answer each of these questions in the affirmative:

  1. Have you faith in Christ?
  2. Are you going on to perfection?
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
  4. Are you earnestly striving after perfection in love?
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and God’s work?
  6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
  7. Will you keep the General Rules of our Church?

I’ll begin with the first question: “Have you faith in Christ.” Christian leadership emerges as a fruit of faith in Christ.

The faith required of leaders is faith in Christ. Wesley is very clear that faith in Christ is much more than mere belief or agreement with statements about Christ. Faith in Christ is a relationship with the crucified and risen Lord of life. Faith in Christ is life devoted to following him and his way of love and justice. It is Christ living in and through you every moment of every day.

Wesley believed there are degrees of faith. He used the terms “faith of a servant” and “faith of a child” to help his followers understand what he meant. The “faith of a servant” is characterized by belief and good works. It is where most people begin their faith journey. It is also where many people remain. I crude way of describing the “faith of a servant” is a person who fears but does not love God. In other words, they do their best to obey the commandments of God, participate in worship, and give of the time, skills and money to do good works. The “servants of God” do not love God because the Spirit of God is not alive in their heart. Their heart and character are not changed. Wesley describes the “faith of a servant” in Sermon 117: “The Discoveries of Faith”:

“The faith of a servant implies a divine evidence of the invisible and the eternal world; yea, and an evidence of the spiritual world, so far as it can exist without living experience. Whoever has attained this, the faith of a servant, ‘fears God and eschews evil’; or, as it is expressed by St. Peter, ‘fears God and does righteousness’. In consequence of which he is in a degree (as the Apostle observes), ‘accepted with him’. Elsewhere he is described in those words, ‘He that fears God, and keeps his commandments’. Even one who has gone thus far in religion, who obeys God out of fear, is not in any wise to be despised, seeing ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.’ Nevertheless he should be exhorted not to stop there; not to rest till he attains the adoption of sons; till he obeys out of love, which is the privilege of all the children of God.”

The goal for Wesley is for Christians to grow and mature into what he called the “faith of a child”. This is the faith of the “warmed heart”. It is faith born of the new birth (John 3:3). It is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart to heal the damage done by sin and restoring it to wholeness. Wesley describes the “faith of a child” in Sermon 106: “On Faith”:

“Thus the faith of a child is properly and directly a divine conviction whereby every child of God is enabled to testify, ‘The life that I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.’ And whosoever hath this, ‘the Spirit of God witnesses with his spirit that he is a child of God.’ So the Apostle writes to the Galatians, ‘You are the sons of God by faith.’ ‘And because ye are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father’; that is, giving you a childlike confidence in him, together with a kind affection toward him. This then it is that (if St. Paul was taught of God, and wrote as he was moved by the Holy Ghost) properly constitutes the difference between a servant of God and a child of God. ‘He that believes’, as a child of God, ‘hath the witness in himself.’ This the servant has not. Yet let no man discourage him; rather, lovingly exhort him to expect it every moment!”

The faith of a child is loving God with all the heart, soul, mind and strength. It is love that seeks to become like The Beloved just like a child who wants to grow up to become just like his or her mother or father. The child obeys and follows the parent because he or she loves and trusts the parent.

Finally, Wesley knew that faith is, first of all, a gift from God. Because it is a gift, Wesley believed that persons with the “faith of a servant” and those who have the “faith of a child” are accepted and loved by God. Both are saved by grace through faith. By grace the servants of God may become children of God (see John 1:12-13).

In the Wesleyan tradition leaders are persons who have the “faith of a child.”

What do you think? Are you familiar with Wesley’s teaching about degrees of faith? Do you agree or disagree that leaders are persons who have the “faith of a child”?

Finally, I hope you will join me on the Wesley Pilgrimage in England (May 11-21, 2010). It’s time to register and make your travel plans. Go to http://www.gbod.org/wesleypilgrimage for details and costs. To register, please call toll free 877-899-2780, ext. 7075.