Ethics and Community

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Methodism has had a strong moral emphasis from the very beginning. Perhaps the thing that most distinguishes the belief system of Methodism from that of other Protestant denominations is the belief in Christian perfection. John Wesley agreed with other Protestants like Martin Luther and John Calvin that no one could earn salvation. Rather, faith, which is confidence in the forgiveness of sins, was an unmerited gift given by God. But Wesley then parted ways from other Protestants. While they did expect a change in behavior following conversion, they also expected to remain a sinner (though a forgiven one). Christians would always fall short of the moral rules laid out in the Bible. John Wesley, however, taught that with additional outpourings of grace Christians should work toward and expect to achieve sinless perfection.

Such perfection had several qualifications. Perfection was never considered a permanent or ongoing state of life, but could be realized for periods of time, and it was always grounded in the love of God rather than personal achievement. A Christian dying immediately after the experience of faith would be saved with no further works. Christians could certainly be ignorant or wrong about factual matters, and no one was ever freed from temptation. But Wesley taught that Christians could discipline themselves never to consciously act on temptation. Thus, from the very beginning, Methodists struggled to hold themselves accountable for living out the moral vision contained in the Bible. Such an emphasis on works was suspect to other Protestants, for whom it seemed too close to Roman Catholic doctrines of sanctification that put (in their view) too much responsibility for your salvation in your own hands instead of God's.

John Wesley distinguished two kinds of works necessary for salvation after the experience of justifying grace: works of piety and works of mercy. Works of piety included prayer and participating in the sacraments. Works of mercy included following the moral commands of Jesus and of the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures (called by Methodists the Old Testament); to help the sick, poor, and oppressed; to visit prisons; and to work for justice. Methodists have built more colleges in the United States than any other group, and have built hospitals around the world. They have been prominent in many social movements, including (in the United States) temperance, prison reform, abolition, women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement.

Like all Christian groups, there is diversity among Methodists about what, precisely, the Bible requires, and therefore what a life of Christian perfection requires. The tensions have been particularly strained since the modernist controversies of the early 20th century. At this time the twin developments of Darwinian biology and historical criticism of the Bible (a movement coming largely from Germany that argued that the Bible is best understood as a historical collection of documents in which different authors are addressing particular audiences of their own contemporaries) led to rifts in most Christian denominations.

The requirement for Christian perfection has made Methodists equally active on both sides of the split. More conservative Methodists, including fundamentalists, argue that the Bible is literally true and inerrant, and that if certain passages condemn homosexuality, for instance, or forbid women from speaking in church, then that is divine law to be followed no matter how our own contemporary social context changes. These Methodists tend to be social conservatives.

More liberal Methodists argue that biblical authors mirrored the social mores of their own times, and so not all specific rules applied to us (they point to the patriarchs' practice of polygamy in the Hebrew scriptures, or the forbidding of charging interest, to name just two examples, as social practices that have not transcended their own historical context). What do transcend specific social contexts are the underlying principles of compassion and justice that take a very different form in our own context. So, for example, contemporary justice seems to require the equal treatment of women and men, and so liberal churches have begun to ordain women as preachers and bishops. Conservatives have argued in response that to follow supposed underlying principles rather than specific written requirements allows one to read whatever behavior one desires into the Bible, thus building a human rather than a divine moral code.

In the last decade there have been several shifts in the conservative/liberal split, and new issues have arisen that are difficult to fit into these categories, so it is becoming more difficult to predict where specific Methodists will come down on some issues. Some conservative churches have taken the lead in fighting poverty and AIDS in Africa and sex-trafficking around the world, issues which in a previous generation might seem to fall into a more progressive social justice camp than what one might stereotypically assume about social conservatives. Conservative churches are often more integrated racially than liberal ones. Conservatives are split on global warming, some beginning to argue that the biblical command for humans to act as responsible stewards of the earth requires we take action to ameliorate human causes. It is no longer clear if being "green" is liberal or conservative.

Study Questions:
     1.     How does Christian perfection distinguish Methodism's moral thought from other Protestant denominations?
     2.     Why could Methodism's focus on action be seen as controversial to other Christian traditions?
     3.     What were Wesley's two categories of “works”? Describe each.
     4.     How does one's affiliation with a conservative or liberal branch of Methodism influence their moral action?

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