By Steve Manskar
16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?
These three questions conclude our exploration of the “Historic Examination” questions asked of all candidates for full membership in the annual conference as elders and deacons. The purpose of this exploration is to learn about the essential characteristics of Wesleyan leadership. One question that I raise every time I look at this “historic examination” is, Why do we reserve these questions for clergy when they were originally designed for all persons, lay and clergy, accepting leadership responsibility in the Methodist movement?
Perhaps one answer is that when American Methodism became a Church in 1784 we began the shift from movement to institution. With the transition toward institution came the professionalization of ministry that lead to the expectation that only the “professional ministers” are qualified to answer these historic qualifications for leadership.
This thinking has resulted in the current context once described by the Puerto Rican pastor and theologian Orlando Costas, as “a clergy-dominated church and a laity-dominated clergy, preaching a gospel without demands and making demands without gospel.” It also lead to the shift from the original mission “to reform the nation, particularly the Church; and to spread Scriptural holiness over the land” to the current concern eclipse of that mission in favor of institutional preservation.
Wesleyan leadership is essentially missional in character. Its beginning and end is the person, work, and mission of God revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is why the very first question in the historic examination is “Have you faith in Christ”. All of the subsequent questions make sense only when they are set in the context of a living faith in Jesus Christ. By faith, of course, I mean much more than mere belief or assent to the existence and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. By faith I mean belief that is lived in relationship with the crucified and risen Lord of Life who is very much alive and active in the world. Faith, therefore, is what those who believe in the risen Christ do to join him in his mission of preparing this world for the world that is coming; the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven.
One thing questions 16, 17, and 18 have in common is the freedom Christ gives when we “repent and believe in the good news” of the reign of God that is breaking into this world now and is coming (Mark 1:15). These questions remind us that “to know Christ is eternal life and to serve Christ is perfect freedom.” Because we are free in Christ we are able to fast, to devote ourselves completely to the work of God, and resist the slavery of indebtedness. Christ gives the grace needed to live into the freedom from self-centeredness and freedom for love God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength; and to love those whom God loves, as God loves them.
These three questions tell us that Christian discipleship encompasses all of life; heart, soul, mind, and body. Christ calls us to give our whole selves to him and to his mission. He will not be satisfied with belief in his existence or affirmation of his teachings. He will never be satisfied until we surrender our whole self to him. When we give ourselves, spirit, mind and body, to him he is able to fill us with the grace we need to join him in his mission of redeeming this world and preparing it for the coming reign of God.
Questions for discussion & reflection:
- How do you teach and practice fasting and abstinence?
- Why is fasting such a powerful means of grace?
- How do you devote all of your time to the work of God?
- What is the "work of God"? How do you participate in that work?
- How does your congregation devote all of its time to the "work of God"?
- We live in a culture and economy that is built upon debt. How do you live within your means and resist the temptation to take on more debt than you can manage?
- How does your congregation help its members to live within their means and to resist the temptation to take on debt?
- Do you agree that "to know Christ is eternal life and to serve Christ is perfect freedom"? Why? Why not?