What's a Methodist? (part 3 of 4)

By Steve Manskar

wesleyan-leadership-method-of-methodismI began this series of posts by telling the story of a Wednesday night church dinner conversation with a young woman who asked, “What’s a Methodist?” In reply I said, “A Methodist is a Christian who loves God with all his or her heart, soul, and mind and loves his or her neighbor as himself for herself.” But after giving more thought to the question, long after parting company with the young woman, I realized a more correct response to her query is, “A Methodist is a Christian who is in training to love God with all his or her heart, soul, and mind, and love his or her neighbor as himself or herself.”

I then decided my definition needs some “unpacking.” I am doing so with a series of three posts. In the first post I argue a Christian is a person who follows and witnesses to Jesus Christ in the world and whose life is shaped by the Baptismal Covenant. In this post I’ll say more about how a Methodist is a Christian who is in training to love God with all his or her heart, soul, and mind.

Methodists are people who know that God gives us the ability to love. “We love because he fist loved us” (1 John 4:19). Love is a gift from God. It is grace. Wesley believed that love and grace are the same. Grace is love. Love is grace. We can love because God loved us first. We can love because God made us in God’s image. “God is love” (1 John 4:16b). Methodists know God is love, being created in God’s image, we love because God first loved us.

Love is at the very heart of Methodism. The way of love is the way of Jesus. Methodists, therefore, follow and obey Jesus’ teaching summarized in Matthew 22:37-40. The focus here is on the first commandment:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.”

Notice how many times the word “all” appears in this commandment. “The commend to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our mind is really an invitation to fall in love, to engage one-on-one in a personal sharing that is nothing less than a severe emotional stripping. And like any love affair, it will be ardent and arduous both” (Robin Maas, Crucified Love: The Practice of Christian Perfection, page 47). Loving in this way requires participation in the life of the beloved. Participation means learning and taking on practices that draw us closer and closer to our beloved. As love grows and matures over time we become more and more like the one we love.

God provides the practices we need to obey Jesus and to grow in loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. John Wesley named these practices “works of piety.” He also referred to them as the “ordinances of God.” He believed all Christians should habitually practice them because Christ commands us to do so in Scripture. They were part of Jesus’ life. He taught them to his disciples so they could learn his way and grow in loving God. The goal is to love God completely and unreservedly. Jesus commanded his disciples to love his way because he knew that humans become what we love.

Methodists are Christians who are training to love God with all their hearts, souls, and minds. Training implies discipline. Love requires discipline. Methodist discipline begins with the works of piety Wesley calls the “ordinances of God” in the Methodist rule of life known as “The General Rules”:

  • The public worship of God
  • The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded
  • The Supper of the Lord
  • Family and private prayer
  • Searching the Scriptures
  • Fasting or abstinence

These practices are the disciplines for loving God. We practice them, first, because Christ commands we do. Secondly, they are how Christians participate in the way of Jesus and the life of God. They direct our daily life toward God, keep us with him, help us to learn Christ (his person and his way of life), and conform our thinking, wants, and motivation to that of Christ. They help us attain toward the goal as described by the Apostle Paul, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). As these practices become habits we become more and more like Jesus in our behavior, thinking, and purpose.

When an athlete or musician is training he or she spends hours each day practicing the basics of his or her discipline. A musician practices scales and chord progressions over and over and over and over again. The purpose is to build mental and muscle memory so that the scales and progressions become second nature. They come as natural as breathing or walking. In the same way, Christians practice the works of piety every day and week, over and over and over and over again until they become holy habits.

Upon closer examination you notice that the first three of the works of piety are social. They are practices that Christians do together in community. The other three are personal. They are practiced when we are alone or with a small group who “watch over one another in love.” Wesley provides a healthy balance between the social and personal dimensions of loving God and growing in holiness of heart and life. This is the same way athletes and musicians train. They put in countless hours of personal practice, balanced with equally long hours of team or ensemble practice. Both contribute to the formation of habits and character. We grow more and more into the persons God created us to be and contribute to the life and mission of the community centered in the life and mission of Jesus Christ.