21 November 2022
For many Methodists, John Wesley is a theologian of the Christian life par excellence. Wesley’s entire teaching and writing ministry may arguably be said to be focused on answering the question “What does it mean to be a Christian?” or, to put it differently, “What makes a ‘life’ Christian?”
What is often missed is the enormous contribution that Wesley has made to ecclesiology or the doctrine of the Church. For Wesley, the Christian life cannot be properly understood if it is not set within the context of the ecclesial community, the Church.
Wesley developed his understanding of the nature and mission of the Church throughout his adult life and ministry. As a number of scholars have noted, Wesley’s ecclesiology is rich and complex because it was shaped by a variety of theological and spiritual traditions.
The main source which informed Wesley’s conception of the Church is the Catholic tradition, but filtered and mediated through the Anglicanism of his day. In addition, there was the believers’ church tradition (typified by the con-conformist Christian communities)—especially in the way it was instantiated by the Moravian Brethren, whose influence on Wesley is undeniable.
Finally, Wesley’s concept of the Church, especially with respect to church order, was also profoundly shaped by the writings of the early fathers of the Church, of which he was a lifelong student.
Wesley’s clearest definitions of the Church are found in his Explanatory Notes on the New Testament, which he started in 1743 and completed in 1754. Commenting on relevant New Testament passages, Wesley described the Church variously as “the believers in Christ”, “the whole body of Christian believers”, “the whole body of true believers, whether on earth or in paradise”.
Wesley’s biblical conception of the Church is perfectly in line with the ecclesiology of the great ecumenical creeds such as the Nicene and Apostles Creeds. Wesley could therefore say that the Church—that is, the “whole body of Christian believers”—is by the grace of God at once one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
Wesley’s interpretation of these traditional marks of the Church reflects the influence of the diverse theological and spiritual traditions that have informed his ecclesiology. Albert Outler has provided this helpful summary:
- The unity of the Church is based upon Christian fellowship (koinonia) in the Holy Spirit.
- The holiness of the Church is grounded in the discipline of grace which guides the Christian and brings him to maturity from justifying faith to the fullness of sanctification.
- The catholicity of the Church is defined by the universal reach of God’s salvation and the essential community of all true believers.
- The apostolicity of the Church is determined by the succession of the teachings of the apostles in those who have been faithful to their witness.
Besides these traditional characterisations of the Church, there are several other distinguishing features in Wesley’s ecclesiology that deserve our attention.
For Wesley, the Church must be both evangelistic and prophetic. By “prophetic”, Wesley has in mind concrete displays of unconditional love (agape) for the neighbour, a profound concern for the common good.
Thus, the Church must not only proclaim the Gospel to the world. As part of her prophetic witness, she must also serve society by reaching out to its most vulnerable members and by standing fast against all injustices. For Wesley firmly believed that “the making of an open stand against all the ungodliness and unrighteousness which overspread our land as a flood, is one of the noblest ways of confessing Christ in the face of His enemies”.
Finally, for John Wesley, the Church of Jesus Christ is unequivocally a sacramental Church. Baptism and the Eucharist are integral to the life of the Church and that of the Christian because they are sacraments—the means by which the grace of God is made present, real and efficacious.
Theologian Robert Martin has helpfully pointed out that “Baptism and Eucharist, taken together, refer us beyond the Sunday ritual…to the much deeper sacramental movement of life. For it is a movement of abiding more deeply (Baptism) in the divine life (communion)”.
This is certainly the emphasis of John Wesley’s sacramental ecclesiology.
As the means of divine grace, the sacraments enable Christians to live the ecclesial life, which is established in Christ and energised by the Spirit—a life lived for the glory of God.