Ethics and Community

Vision for Society

To describe the Methodist vision for society we must discuss two things: John Wesley's expectations for the end of time, and the goals of Methodists to improve society in the historical period until the second coming of Christ. For John Wesley, who clung to scripture as the revelation of God's truth necessary for humans, the vision for a perfect society began with his understanding of the end of time. Ultimately the fate and the state of the world lay in God's hands.

Wesley refrained from interpreting the Book of Revelation, which is the last book in the Christian Bible, for much of his life. Revelation describes the final chapters in the history of the world. It is heavily symbolic, and notoriously difficult to understand. Wesley finally found some guidance interpreting Revelation in the works of the German pietist Johann Albrecht Bengel (1684-1752). Wesley, unlike Bengel, generally avoided speculation about the exact date of the second coming of Christ, which Bengel expected in 1836.

Wesley, through his reading of Revelation, expected a bodily resurrection of the dead (their bodies perfected to the extent sin had been removed by Christ), a judgment before the throne of Christ at which the resurrected are sent either to heaven or hell, and then the inauguration of heaven and hell. Wesley does not speculate about the millennium as much as some other theologians. The millennium refers to a thousand-year period described opaquely in the Book of Revelation. Wesley briefly interprets this by suggesting that at some point in the unfolding of final events Satan will be bound for a thousand years and the saints (which, for Wesley, means saved Christians, among whom Methodists would be well represented) rule the earth. His vision for society, then, includes a period when the church flourishes and it is easier (in the absence of Satan) to live perfectly and institute a godly society.

As for Methodist efforts to build a better society before the second coming of Christ, and for the visions of society that point the way in those efforts, the differences in interpreting the Bible are key. Some Methodists, who tend to be more conservative, claim to read the Bible more literally, and focus on laws set down in scripture that require high standards of personal morality (for example, the Ten Commandments). Other Methodists, who tend to be more liberal, have argued that specific rules change with social settings, but the underlying principles of justice and mercy remain the core of the biblical message. So, while all Methodists have great incentive to try to bring about their vision of a more perfect society, there has not been agreement in Methodism on what that vision should be. Conservatives have tended to emphasize personal morality, liberals greater inclusivity and assistance for those on the margins of society. One can therefore find Methodists working equally hard on both sides of all of the issues of social policy that currently divide contemporary Christians (abortion, homosexuality, solutions to poverty, etc.).

With the caveat that the lines between these two camps have never been clean cut, and are in recent years blurrier than ever, it is nevertheless the case that both camps of Methodists have been unusually active. All Protestants believe that salvation is God's gift, not dependent on human works, and all Protestants expect those whose sins have been forgiven to freely serve God by helping their neighbors. But Wesley's doctrine that Christian perfection was possible in this life, that Christians should strive for it, and that any lack of effort in performing good works (including what he classed "works of mercy") would put your salvation at risk, has provided great incentive to all Methodists to work hard at helping their neighbors.

Study Questions:
     1.     How did Wesley form his understanding of the end of time? What were his expectations?
     2.     What was Wesley's ultimate vision for society?
     3.     How does biblical interpretation influence a Methodist's vision for society?
     4.     Why is it important for Methodists to engage in social action?

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