Tuesday, November 17, 2015

I Am a Christian -- A Contemporary Wesleyan Definition from an Historical Perspective

John Wesley’s Letter to a Roman Catholic, July 18, 1749 was an attempt at articulating some of the misunderstandings and animosities of that era between Roman Catholics and Protestants.  In this letter, Mr. Wesley defined himself as a follower of Christ rather than by his affiliations with people who would claim a certain religious title as their strongest evidence of Christianity.  In considering the ecumenical spirit Mr. Wesley portrays in his writings, I ponder my own place in church history.  When I say I am a Christian, or even a Christian of the Wesleyan tradition, what do I mean?  My attempt to answer this question is as follows:   
I am a Christian.  My identity is found in the One, Christ Jesus, who gave His life so I could be forgiven of and cleansed from sin.  I am a Christian because my desire, my aim, my longing is to be Christ-like.  This is the definition of a true Christian.  When others see me, I want them to have a glimpse of Christ because I am a Christian.  I want to mirror Him in action and heart.  I am washed in the blood of the God-man who was raised on a cross two thousand years ago atop a hill called Golgotha.  I am a product of the hope and power that comes from the triumphant resurrection of this God-man from the dead.  I am a Christian; nothing else matters or makes sense.  I am a Christian because God has revealed Himself to me through His Son as related by the Church and the Scriptures through His Spirit.
While I desire nothing more than to be called a Christian, there are other descriptors by which I may be known.  For too long society, and even our Christian sector of it, has sought to label people as one extreme identity or another.  If you are left you cannot be right.  Holding certain beliefs must keep you from adopting others.  While this is true in part, a close examination of myself has led me to believe I am many things.  Some of these seem to be in tension with each other, but I have nonetheless found them all to be present within me.  The catalyst for each movement within Christendom has been an important point of truth, and while many denominations and churches have strayed from their founding tenets of faith, I find I identify with many different groups, at least in their original and pure forms.  I do not adhere to the statements of faith of many Christian denominations or churches, but as I study history and Scripture, I find many truly Christian ideas have been expressed at one time or another by organizations who now may seem far from me in theology and practice.  For this reason, while I am Christian, I can also be known in some capacity as the following:
I am catholic.  To be catholic is to believe in the universal and holy Church of our Lord Jesus Christ.  I desire to have fellowship with all those who rightly name His name.  Anyone who believes Christ is who He claimed to be and is willing to act accordingly is my sister or brother.  The Church is not bound to my fallible understandings or judgments of who should be allowed to participate.  Neither is it confined to those in my area, my state, my country, my world, or my time period.  Many Christians have preceded me and many will come after me.  I am catholic because I believe that by the sacrament of God’s grace given to us through the sacrifice of our Lord, all who know Him personally are my fellow Christians. I am catholic.
I am protestant.  With the protesters against complacency in the church I affirm we are to be everything the Scriptures have called us to be and nothing the Scriptures condemn.  I agree with the tenets of the faith so aptly described by men willing to call the Church from its superstitions and ignorant practices to an approach of theology based on the Bible.  While I have never had to risk my life by standing for correct teaching, I identify with the desire to have truth at any cost.  Official acceptance by the Church is only as good as the doctrines upon which that Church stands.  I am a protestant because I believe at times men and women of faith are called to be the voice of reason within the Body.  I am protestant.
I am orthodox.  I believe in the straight and narrow way.  I believe in orthodoxy: the correct way of interacting with God the Creator.  I accept the creeds of the Church and the implications they have in my life.  I believe in worshipping our holy God with every part of my being.  I desire to see accurate teaching passed from generation to generation throughout the history of the Church.  I believe there is more to the Church than our current understandings or culture.  In some ways the Church is to be above culture while interacting with it.  For this reason, congregations and their leaders must provide the correct blueprint for interacting with and understanding our divine Creator and Master.  This is orthodoxy, and I proudly claim it as my heritage.
I am evangelical.  I accept our Master’s call to go to the entire world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15).  To evangelize is one of the highest callings of the people of God.  It is the responsibility of His followers to share the truth of His death and resurrection with those who are lost.  Because I am experiencing a personal and life-altering relationship with Him, I know this is the key to changing our world.  God can transform lives, but people will not know unless they hear and they cannot hear without a preacher.  For this reason I believe we are all preachers in some capacity.  Our lives, in word and action, must be a constant testimony to those around us.  The call of Christ goes beyond making converts.  We are to develop disciples.  I am evangelical because I want to promote growth for all people within the context of a passionate relationship with the Master.  I want us to do more than go through the motions.  Yes, I am concerned with evangelism and discipleship.  I am evangelical.
I am Lutheran.  With Martin Luther I declare that by faith alone may we find our hope of eternal life.  There are no works by which we can earn our place in the Kingdom.  I believe there is a definite divide between the secular and the sacred and that, while the Church should never leave society to flounder in sin, we are set apart from it by our relationship with Christ.  Sola Scriptura must be our primary method of interpreting worldview, for by Scripture alone can we measure life with any accuracy.  I believe in the graciousness of our God and in His desire to show that grace actively at work in the lives of all people.  With Luther I also recognize that at times the wrong teachings of society or the Church may cause me to say, as he did at the Council of Worms in 1521, “…to go against conscience is neither honest nor safe.  Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen.”[i]
I am congregationalist.  I affirm that the people of God make up the Body.  The Church, with all of its leaders, is nothing without the sheep of the flock.  The congregation is the assembling of the followers of the one, true God and I believe in the authority and power of this assembly. Many laypeople are blessed with gifts that must be utilized within the context of the body.  It is dangerous to ignore gifts of ministry within the congregation so the clergyman can perform all duties of the church.  The government and life of the Church depend heavily upon each member of the congregation.
I am presbyterian.  I accept that within the body of Christ there are those set aside for leadership beyond that of other believers.  This is the presbytery.  While a pastor tends the flock in many ways, a group of elder spiritual leaders is necessary to provide well-rounded direction for the local church.  No one person will have all of the insights necessary for overseeing a group of believers.  Therefore the board, the council, or the elders must give their spiritual discernment for charting the course of the church.  Those within the congregation should respect such authority; not as some political position to be gained or lost by a congregational vote, but as a divinely appointed position of leadership within the church.  I am presbyterian.
I am episcopalian, for while I know the value of leadership within the congregation, I also know the necessity of it from without the local church walls.  I believe in the validity of an episcopalian church government, at least in part.  God has not left the direction of the Church to the whims and desires of each parish.  Instead, He has placed an authority structure that includes levels of qualified leaders for the Church at large, much the same as we see in Scripture as St. Paul interacts with Timothy and Titus and their churches.  There is no infallible leadership, but there is clear direction given to the churches through those in high places of authority as determined by our Lord.  For this reason pastors, elders, bishops, superintendents, cardinals, and general councils are vital to the local church.  We are not a dictatorship of church authority, but neither are we a democracy.  I am episcopalian because I want to submit myself to every appropriate authority structure put in place by our Father.
I am baptist.  The outward sign of God’s grace at work in a person who has been converted is shown through the washing of the body in water.  Death of the old man is transformed into the life of the new one.  Living in obedience to the Word of God, believers should be baptized as a symbol of their commitment, relationship, and conversion.  I believe in the symbolic and sacramental aspects of baptism as it was instituted by our Lord with His cousin John.  I am baptist. 
I am methodist.  I believe there is a discipline and structure necessary to our relationship with Christ.  There can be little hope for the believer who wishes to live his Christianity without purpose or determination.  I believe in the filling of the Holy Spirit as the Enabler in this devoted life.  There is a method to how we must live and so I am methodist.  Scripture, prayer, good works, the means of grace, and spiritual accountability are all necessary parts of a faith lived out. I am methodist because I believe in the interdependency of believers in our journey through life.  I am methodist because I know it is our responsibility to care for those in need and to transform the world in which we live through unconditional love for God and man.  There is no hopeless person or situation when true principles of methodical Christian living are applied.  I am methodist.
I am Wesleyan, for I claim the heritage of John and Charles as my own.  I know God does not only desire to see people converted, but to be purified.  Therefore I believe two works of grace are possible in this life: conversion and sanctification.  I believe in perfect love and Christian perfection.  I believe true Christianity is bound in the two greatest commandments: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.  On these hang all the law and the prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).  I believe in corporate and individual works of grace.  I believe it is possible to lose one’s salvation, but the committed believer need not worry over his security as long as he walks in daily communion with the Lord and quickly responds to any promptings of the Spirit.  I believe God’s grace is at work in each person, Christian or not, and the more we recognize our need for it, the more grace we receive.  I believe in using reason, logic, and experience to form theology based upon the teachings of Scripture.  I am Wesleyan. 
I am a proponent of holiness.  I do not merely adhere to a theological structure that espouses two works of grace, but I believe in separation from the mindset of the world and separation to the will of God.  I believe purity of heart and life is possible and should be sought.  I believe holiness is not a theology of a few denominations, but must be the pursuit of all believers.  I take seriously the call to be holy because God is holy.  We are to be like the One who made us, called us into relationship with Himself, died for us, and provides His Spirit for our conversion and purification.  I believe in holiness.    
I am pentecostal.  I believe in the filling of the Holy Spirit as it came on the Day of Pentecost.  Believers ought not be content with a conversion experience, but should expect more from the God who loves them.  He promised us the presence of the Comforter and Guide.  He showed us His power on the day of Pentecost.  When the Spirit comes we are empowered for ministry and evangelism and given gifts beyond our own capabilities.  The New Testament outlines how the Spirit works within followers of Christ to enable them to do the work of the Body.  The Church is built and encouraged, developed and expanded when the Spirit uses people within it to preach, teach, evangelize, give, help, and use many other spiritual gifts.  I believe the Spirit has the ability to meet us in ways we do not expect with results we may find surprising.  I am pentecostal.
I am charismatic.  I believe the gifts of God’s grace are active in the Church through the power of His Spirit.  I desire to be full of charisma, or the inspirational qualities that come from having the Spirit within.  I do not believe worship and a personal relationship with Christ will always follow an established plan.  While the Scriptural call is for all things to be done decently and in order, I expect a passionate love for Jesus will at times call believers to act out of the ordinary and to behave in ways that perhaps seem strange.  My worship to the Lord may at times overpower me as I consider the holiness of God.  The Spirit may so fill my heart that I cannot help but express it aloud to others.  For these reasons, I am charismatic.
I am independent.  I am not bound by any denomination or belief structure and yet I am bound by them all.  Anything shown to me through Scripture and my relationship with Christ becomes part of my creed, whether it is supported by a formal group or not.  For this reason I must stand outside a denomination when I believe it has strayed from Scripture and yet be willing to claim it for all points on which we agree.  To be independent is not to be free from authority but to think beyond the scope of what the authority says.  No person is infallible; no denomination is perfect.  I pledge my allegiance first to Christ and then to the Church.  While doing so, I still affirm that to be outside of the Church body is to be slipping away from Christ Himself.
I am a fundamentalist.  I believe some aspects of theology are the irreducible minimum.  I accept the fundamentals of faith as proposed in the creeds and experienced by generations of Christians.  To stand for everything is to stand for nothing, and so I believe there are lines drawn in the sands of culture that must not be crossed.  I believe in strong moral and ethical guidelines.  I believe in the trinity, faith, salvation, scripture, and eternal life.  I believe heaven and hell are real, that the world was created as the Bible says, and that it will end the way the Bible foretells.  I am a fundamentalist.
I am a progressive.  I am not bound only by what the Church has believed for centuries, but by what God is doing and wants to be doing in the Church now and in the future.  I cannot afford to hold only to those concepts I have known to be true, for the Lord is always illuminating new areas I have not yet examined.  For this reason some practices I thought foundational have been revealed to be only tradition.  Likewise, some methods being attempted in the Church today will likely not last beyond the present decade.  I cannot adhere to certain practices because they are old or because they are new, but only because they align themselves with the principles of Scripture.  I am open to new ideas and want to always be moving forward, not with the latest gadgets and ideas, but in exploring appropriate ways to be the Church we have been called to be.  I want ever to be progressing in my relationship with God and so I am a progressive.
I am an American Christian and a proud citizen of the United States of America.  I have been placed in the greatest country on earth and given countless opportunities to use the resources around me to further the work of Christ.  I pledge allegiance to my country and to the values on which it was founded.  While I shudder at many of the ills plaguing our nation, I am bound to it by birth and by identity.  I recognize many of my brothers and sisters around the world will never know the kind of life I have the joy of living.  I am an American, yet I cannot be defined by my country.  Primarily I am an alien and stranger in this land.  I am no more at home here than I would be in Africa.  My ultimate allegiance is to a country and King not of this world.  For this reason I stand outside the confines of my national identity at times and judge whether or not our nation honors God and if the Church in the United States is really being the Church.  I do not despise my patriotic status, for I am blessed to be an American.  However, I do not always take pride in my country because we – yes, all of us – have allowed the ease of life to make us lazy Christians.  I do not think because I live in the greatest land that I am always right or always know best.  I believe we have much to learn from those who suffer daily for their Lord.
By today’s standards I am a conservative.  I desire to conserve that which is good, wholesome, and pure.  I believe in moral responsibility, the sanctity of marriage, the right to life, and that our culture poses many evils to us.  I believe the family is the basis of society and that a man and a woman should remain married for life.  I abhor the evils of drugs, alcohol, violence, and abuse.  I disdain the immoral, promiscuous, and flesh crazed world in which we live.  What is more, I fear many of these wrongs we would attribute to those outside the Church have crept into our own houses and into the Church itself.  I am a conservative Christian because I think many basic values and principles have been long left by the wayside in the pursuit of comfort and pride.  Without a return to such conservative ideals, I fear there is little hope for our country or the portions of the Church that have slipped into lukewarm apathy.  We need to once again claim the truths of Scripture and live by its moral, financial, and cultural principles.
By another viewpoint, I might be considered a liberal.  I desire to liberate the oppressed and free the captive by caring for those less fortunate than myself, regardless of the circumstances they have experienced or the cost to my own wallet.  I believe in providing care to the sick and social support structures to the needy because it helps to liberate people from oppressiveness.  I know Christ would have the Church be the social service organization of the world.  I am certain one of the primary reasons the government has taken on these responsibilities is because the Church failed to.  I am concerned over the greed and selfishness that seem to have permeated corporate America.  I believe in spending freely and liberally to help others, provided the money is there to begin with and good judgment is used.  I think we should accept all people as they are, realizing God does not desire to leave any of us where He finds us.  To accept someone as he is does not mean to agree with what he believes, but to understand his problems and to believe God is capable of changing the worst of sinners into the purest of saints.  I believe Christ is the greatest liberal in its purest sense because He liberates all those who call on Him for freedom from the chains of sin.  I do not think a person should be judged by stereotypes.  I can believe all of this and not live in contradiction because I am a Christian first, not a conservative or liberal.
I am political.  I believe the responsibility of the Christian is to be active in the society in which he is placed.  For me, this must mean political involvement, but I cannot be defined by a political party.  In some ways I may seem Republican, in others Democratic, and in others independent of any major affiliation.  I agree with a strong moral code within the political realm, even if few politicians seem willing to abide by one.  I am called to be involved in politics as a Christian, because that is who I am.  I believe in some aspects of capitalism and some of socialism because I believe there are principles of each found in Scripture.  I believe that, taken to an extreme, any political or financial structure will show itself to be unbiblical, but that the truth often lies somewhere in the middle of many different systems.  I am not sure about the death penalty or wars started in the name of democracy and truth, but I am willing to wrestle with these ideas.  I desire to choose leaders to represent what seems to be the most accurate depiction of the truth of God’s word.  I am a political Christian.   
In some ways I am a moderate Christian.  While there are many issues I believe need to be radically changed in our culture, I am content to begin by taking small steps towards the truth.  Christ is always patient when working in my life, and I believe the Church must show the same attitude towards society.  We have often formed our political agendas around extreme hot topic issues while ignoring concerns that would take more care and precision in solving.  I am content in the middle of the road at times because I see my Master reaching out to both sides of a culture divided harshly in the middle.  While doing so I continue to proclaim there is only one way, one God, and one truth and to ignore it is certain eternal damnation.
Because I see so much of myself in many viewpoints and because I am loyal only to Christ and no organization in particular, I may take stances others feel are contradictory.  For example, I may support Christian schooling in contexts where it is the only form of good education and yet condemn Christian schools that have become exclusive private clubs to keep children from interacting with the very world they are called to influence.  I may abhor alcoholism and yet spend time befriending people who are drinking.  I can do so because my Lord seemed more interested in life-changing transformation than with only the immediate representation of a particular problem.  I may support the sanctity of life or marriage and yet disapprove of the tactics employed to promote these issues.  My faithfulness to Christ may make me what seems to be a walking contradiction, but that is what the Pharisees thought of Him and so I accept the title willingly. 
I am a Christian. I am a leader and a follower, a director and a servant, a teacher and student.  I am judgmental and yet tolerant, and I believe in many things that seem idealistic. I am an enigma because I support ideas that are Christian only in part and defy others that claim to be Christian to the core.  I am difficult to describe because many adjectives are tied to presuppositions and stereotypes.  I want all who do not know Christ to think He might resemble what they see in me, and I want every believer to know I reflect the image of our Lord. 
I am a Christian.  I can identify with all the major sectors of our faith and yet I can find fault with each of them, as well.  Because I stand for Jesus I cannot be claimed by any one group.  You see, to be Christian is to be like Jesus.  My allegiance is to Him, my desire is for Him, and my life is of Him.  I proudly call all that is Christian my own and willingly discard that which does not mirror His image.  I may be frowned on by many, misunderstood by the majority, and claimed by but a few.  But then, my Savior was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  And so for all that I am, I feel no need to be accepted by anyone but Him.
Do not think that because I would call many sectors of Christendom part of my heritage that I stand for nothing.  In fact, it is because of what I stand for I find my roots go so deep.  I am on my way to eternity with Jesus in the company of all the faithful followers of His name; I trust I will not know who all that may be until we have completed the journey together.  I am rigid and flexible.  I am harsh and yet forgiving.  I seem a contradiction, because that is what people thought of my Jesus.
I am a Christian.  My trust is in God, my actions are under His judgment, and my person is His property.  I am always compelled to examine what it means to be Christian today.  For this reason I cannot be forced to live within one set structure.  My faith is not a religion only but a personal relationship with God.  What I am is who He is; what He is not, I cannot be.
To be Christian is to see myself in comparison to Christ.  This shows me I have much to learn and far to grow even while I am walking in perfect love.  I am content to be where I am spiritually, but not willing to stay here long.  Jesus beckons me onward, to follow and sacrifice my very self.
When I have left this world, I suppose it is unlikely any of the descriptors I have listed above will be placed on my tombstone.  Perhaps it will read with my name and “Husband” or “Father”.  However, it is not the labels of this world with which I am concerned with.  Let my life bear record that when I have gone on to be with my Lord, the One I love more than anything, those left behind will say: “He was a Christian.  Perhaps not one easily defined or understood, but when we saw him we knew we saw a likeness of Christ.”   Yes, I am a Christian, nothing more or less.  I pray my life is a witness of all that He is and that others see it clearly in me.  May I be called Christian rather than anything else.  It is what I am.  I am a Christian, and that is enough for me.

[i] Shelley, Bruce Church History in Plain Language (Nashville, Tenessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995), 242.