Somewhere in one of his books, Methodist theologian, Stanley Hauerwas writes that when one is a Methodist, one's theological background is quite doubtful. There is some truth to that. While we Methodists have more than our fair share of excellent theologians, such helpful theological reflection has not seemed to trickle, let alone permeate, to the pastoral and lay leadership in our churches. The answer I usually hear from my colleagues as to what it means to be Wesleyan is a response that always includes the word "inclusive." And while it cannot be doubted that the Wesley brothers understood God's grace as being generously inclusive, it is my view that simply to equate Wesleyanism with inclusivism fails to get to the heart of what it means to be Wesleyan; for popular Methodist understandings of what it means to be inclusive are less Wesleyan and more a product of 20th and 21st century pop culture in which inclusivism is defined in ways that are too broad and too shallow.
So then, what does it mean to be Wesleyan? The question assumes, of course, that there is something distinctive about being a Wesleyan. Of course, we have much in common with other Christian traditions-- Wesley agreed quite often with Martin Luther and John Calvin et al. So in answering the question of being Wesleyan we are not interested in what we have in common with other Christian traditions, though we must affirm that we hold much in common with the church universal. If we did not, it would raise the serious question as to whether the Wesleyan tradition is Christian.
So, again, what does it mean to be Wesleyan? What is distinctive about the daughters and sons of John and Charles Wesley?
Let me suggest that what I am about to put forward is not a complete answer to the question, but rather I am offering a center around which other Wesleyan affirmations orbit. It is not a new or innovative answer, but it highlights what in some ways is distinctive. Moreover, the answer must entail a central focus of Wesley's practical divinity.
What it means to be Wesleyan is to focus our attention on holiness of heart and life. Every United Methodist ordinand answers Wesley's historic questions he asked of his preachers. One of those questions is, "Are you going on to perfection?" Wesley states that his use of the word "perfection" is to be understood synonymously with holiness. Wesley believed that the Christian life was one of progress, one of moving forward in and toward holiness of heart and life. Following Jesus was a movement toward being fashioned in the image of Jesus Christ who is in the image of God. John Wesley wholeheartedly embraced the Orthodox notion of theosis and Athanasius' claim, "God became man, so that men might become a god." This did not mean that human beings could become divine, but in Jesus God intends for women and men to, in the words of 2 Peter, "partake of the divine nature" (1:4).
Though Wesley less uses the terminology of theosis, nevertheless, the implications of his understanding of perfection are obviously connected. Thus, for Wesley, God's grace is transformative. Too many Protestant accounts of grace are unduly passive, where it is God who does all the giving and there is little to no response on our part. To be sure, for Wesley, like the other major Protestant thinkers, in grace it is God who takes the initiative. Salvation and sanctification are a work of God, but we must respond in willingness to move on toward perfection, toward holiness of heart and life.
It is important to note that it is holiness of both heart and life. To emphasize one at the exclusion of the other will not result in perfection. One's own spiritual disciplines of the heart (e.g. Bible study, prayer, fasting) are ineffective if they do not lead to holiness of life (e.g. works of service, feeding the poor, seeking justice). In the same way, works of service and seeking justice have no kingdom direction without the cruciform change of heart that accompanies such work and by its witness encourages others to seek both the holiness of heart and life.
John and Charles Wesley firmly believed that Jesus did not come to this earth to leave us unchanged. Unlike the modern theologian, Paul Tillich, who suggested in a famous sermon that the heart of the gospel was forgiveness, Wesley knew that forgiveness was one of the critical ingredients necessary in order to move us toward perfection. Jesus died not just to get us "off the hook," but to enlist us as his disciples who are being changed that God might bring change-- salvation-- to this world.
It is my hunch that such holiness of heart in life is not emphasized in more than a few Wesleyan circles because holiness has gotten a bad rap from those who think holiness is nothing more than a synonym for "sour Christians," believers walking around with their noses up in the air, carrying their Bibles with black covers, and looking as if they have been sucking on sour lemons. Moreover, I also think we have failed to place much importance on holiness of heart and life simply because it is not an easy road to walk. It requires discipline to be a disciple in such a fashion. And it may also be that we fail to speak much of holiness of heart and life because we are afraid to ask too much of other disciples in the fear that we will scare them away. On this we must heed the words of Bishop William Willimon who said (somewhere in one of his books) that during his ministry Jesus turned off as many people as he attracted.
So, what does it mean to be Wesleyan? Whatever else it may mean, it must mean striving toward being made perfect in love in this life. And whether or not we get there, we must travel on that road to perfection in this life.
To do anything less would not be very Wesleyan.